Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Spuds and Duds: A tale of potatoes and politik


On Saturday morning we packed up the kids and headed to Gut Wulksfelde, a local family-owned farm about a half an hour out of town. The deal: dig up your own potatoes! We arrived with a few hundred other spud enthusiasts armed with gloves, my Mexican market bag, a small trowel and something akin to a clothes hanger and joined the masses in a march out to the fields where we dug for the buried treasures. It is a mad stroke of genius on the farmer's part: a bunch of city folk get to pretend they've gotten out into the country (actually, a city bus stop was across the street) and the farmers get free labor.

With our favorite Germano-Spanish couple Bianca and Edi and their daughter Carlotta, we unearthed a combined total of 20 kilos, about 45 pounds, of tubers. All that hard work (mainly that of trying to stop the kids from swallowing handfuls of dirt and sticking the pitchfork in their eyes) was rewarded with fried potatoes and pork goulash cooked on the farmer's front lawn. Local businesses were hawking their wares, kids were climbing all over bales of hay, Henry bbaaaaae-ed at the sheep and Amalia snorted at the pigs, and then...they both came down with bronchitis.

Slight segue: Sunday morning we headed to the children's hospital to see a doctor about Amalia's cough. Ingo tried to explain the problem to the receptionist. "Our daughter has this terrible cough. We're afraid it could be bronchitis. She really sounds awful, like Darth Vader you know?" The receptionist, an elder man who was taking insurance cards and reviewing the cases before passing them on to the medical staff, frowned. He didn't get it. "You know, like, hhuuuuhhhhhh, like Darth Vader, you know? Like Star Wars? Blank stare. " 'Luke. Luuuukkkke. I am your father, Luke.' " Not even the slightest twinkle of recognition in what I thought was a very convincing portrayal on my husband's part. Whether it helped or hindered us I will never know but we saw a doctor about 90 minutes later and got the diagnosis - bronchitis.

Back to the potatoes:
Sunday afternoon Ingo cast his ballot for his national and local representatives and we packed the kids up shortly before the polls closed and headed to Edi and Bianca's "Wahl Ergebnis Party", an election result-viewing party catered by Edi. We gobbled up his homemade tortillas, made from scratch with the 25 pounds of organic potatoes we had dug up the day before, as well as other delicious tapas - I mean what else should one eat when awaiting results of the German national elections? - fish croquettes, chorizo, and saffron squid washed down with a bit of cava and a few cervezas.

The onlookers were rather dissatisfied with the outcome of the election, however predictable it may have been: four more years of the same, this time a Christian Democratic coallition with the Free Market Party headed by a German named Guido, the new Minister of Foreign Affairs. More cava was distributed to numb their pain. While I am entitled to live and work in Germany, I am not allowed to vote and therefore the only outcome of the evening that I had a direct impact on was that of the tortilla. And I was more than satisfied with the results, especially when Edi shared his recipe, handed down from his mother, with slight modifications.

Edi's Tortilla (makes two tortillas)

About 1 kilo of potatoes
About 7-8 eggs
One small-medium size onion
A bit of oil for frying

Wash peel and thinly slice the potatoes. Sautee them briefly in a little bit of oil on the stove. Crack the 7-8 eggs into a bowl and briefly mix together. Add to the potatoes. The consistency should not be too fluid, the eggs should cover but not drown the potatoes. Sautee an onion and add it to the mixture. Add salt. Edi dipped a piece of bread into the mixture and tasted it to see if it needed more salt. If you are confident about the quality of your eggs, do this. If not, don't.

Heat oil in a deep thick pan about 8-10 inches in circumference. Add the potato egg mixture. Lower the heat a bit so as not to burn the bottom. Agitate occasionally. Use a spatula to peek under the bottom and when it looks like ist browned, slide it out onto a plate and then flip it and slide it back into the pan on the side that has not yet been face down. Leave on the heat til evenly browned and thoroughly cooked. Y vaya con Dios - there is your tortilla!

PS If anyone has ideas for the remaining 15 pounds of potatoes, I am all ears!

Amalia also unsure of what to make of the outcome...

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Postcard: San Francisco

It is a strange feeling being a tourist in a place you know as home. I lived in San Francisco and the Napa Valley for ten years right out of college, and I am not just visiting “the City by the Bay”, a beautiful place bursting with funky people, colorful neighborhoods and amazing cuisine, I am revisiting my favorite haunts and hot spots with a whole bunch of new in-between.

Here are a few of my favorite things:

The San Francisco Ferry Building Marketplace a.k.a Heaven on Earth- My personal heaven most definitely is a long corridor of bright open specialty shops dedicated to caviar, oysters, salty pork snacks, exotic mushrooms, wine, Cowgirl Creamery, delectable Vietnamese food, boutique coffee, organic humanely-raised meat, chocolate, European-style larders, locally loved and grown produce and artisanal everything— this is the Ferry Building. On Saturdays and Tuesdays it outdoes itself by filling its surrounding plazas with a farmer's market. Basically, an environment bursting with and dedicated to pure ambrosia: food of the gods.

Bi-Rite Market- Secretly, I yearn to do a peaceful take-over of this tiny, but treasure filled neighborhood market. I would leave everything exactly as it is, but I would make it Mine all Mine! And while I am at it, I would also peacefully integrate the neighbors-- Bi-Rite Creamery, Delfina Restaurant, Delfina Pizzeria, and Tartine Bakery into my foodie empire. 3639 18th Street.

Tasty Salted Pig Parts- Years ago, my friend Teague introduced me to sushi, a few years later, abalone, so the opportunity to follow his bread crumb trail through the Ferry Building was a chance at the thrill of discovery not to be missed. When I saw him heading for a shop called Baccalone: Tasty Salted Pig Parts, I began to drool and picked up the pace. With a sly, knowing grin, he handed me a salami called Nduja, a soft, spreadable, spicy salami originating in Calabria, but made just over the bridge in Oakland. Think salami rillette. Teague did not let me down; it is heart palpitating pork slather. As I write this, Nduja and I are solidifying our life-long bond over crackers.

Napa Valley- I moved to Napa after finishing California Culinary School because I wanted to train near the soul of field-- where the food and wine was grown. Plunge back into seasons; dig into the roots of each product; revel in the preciousness of each element of a perfect bite. Living among the vines, I lived a life for three years that people only dream of.

Wine Shops- Specifically, wine shops dominated by California wines. Browsing the tight isles of a Castro wine store, I felt as though I was surrounded by all of my old friends. Winery owners, vineyard managers, or just people serious about their tasting were all smiling back at me as I surveyed the labels. Great memories of days and nights consuming bottles of grape juice goodness among barrels and vines were illuminated in the names of just about every bottle.

Hog Island Oysters- Everything good about the coastal area north of SF is reduced down to one briny succulent slurp of these oysters (and perhaps a piece of Red Hawk cheese from Cowgirl Creamery). Of course, there is no way to have just one. Drive 49 miles north up the coast with a bottle of wine and a Frisbee and spend the day shucking and sucking at the Hog Island Oyster Farm on Tomales Bay. Better yet, take a bus, 40 friends and some side dishes and drive up for the day, as I did for my 28th birthday.

Fog- Clearly, the fact that SF is surrounded by water on three sides and has a foundation prone to earthquakes, has a lot to do with its quaint population of 808,000. However, I also think the death grip of the bone-chilling fog keeps the masses from making this near-perfect city their home.

Blue Bottle Coffee- OK, this really isn’t a favorite of mine I just wanted a segue into, “HOLY CRAP! PEOPLE PAY 2.5 AMERICAN DOLLARS FOR A SMALL CUP OF DRIP COFFEE!” And they will wait in a line out of the building, around the corner and down the street to PAY 2.5 AMERICAN DOLLARS for it!

Friends Who Like Food As Much As I Do- The constant talk of gourmet clubs, new restaurants, foods I must try, or farm stands not to be missed, was pure delight. I miss you all so much! It was so great to see everybody.

If there is someone out there who would like to commission a more complete guide of “Smash and Sniff’s Favorite Things in San Francisco” or any city anywhere, our passports are up-to-date and we are currently accepting plane tickets, accommodation and research funds.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Hamburg Hamburg and not a hamburger in sight..

Hamburg, Germany

Dad's here! He's come all the way over from the States to see his grandchildren, his in-laws, and, to his presumed delight, to get the condensed cultural and culinary tour of the Hansestadt. I drove him from one end of the city to the other on his first morning, to put things in perspective. And because perspective makes one hungry, we stopped at my favorite spot downtown, Café Paris for lunch - mmmm pork neck braised in wheat beer and served with cabbage and pretzel dumplings - nothing Parisian about that! A hearty fall dish in gorgeous fall colors that says, "Herzlich Willkommen" to Germany in a deep throaty voice.

The Hamburg harbor, second only to Rotterdam in Europe, 7th largest in the world. Ships 900,000 tons of bananas through its waters annually. That's a lot of bananas. (Random factoid learned on today's harbor tour with Dad).

On my quest for the best fisch brotchen, the ubiquitous fish (either fried fillet or pickled herring) sandwiches found at every street fair, boardwalk and convenience store in northern Germany, I followed the ships to where they unload their fresh catches - a series of warehouses near the old fish market (now famous as the place to get your drink and dance on between 5am - 9am after a long night out in the red light district), a series of unassuming dock stalls serving three dozen different varieties of pickled herring, specifically, matjes, an acquired taste, and a northern Germany birthright - I think they are fed these slimy raw fish as infants, like baby seals. Because I have not yet acquired the taste, Dad and I stuck to the fried white fish.

Um, yes I realize that this fried fish is buried under 30,000 tons of remolaude and the potato salad is made with 400 gallons of mayonaise and no, we weren't in eastern Europe for lunch. Delicious backfisch, fried fish fillet (under the 30,000 tons of remolaude) and German potatoe salad (1 kilo potatoes, 400 gallons of mayo, a handful of chopped onions and gurkens.) Jealous?

The view of the "rathaus" or town hall and the Alster lake from the Nicolai kirche, St. Nicholas' Cathedral, bombed by the Brits in 1943 in one of the early raids on Hamburg; only the spire and parts of the foundation remain. It's now a memorial, dedicated to civilian victims of war and violence.
The St. Michael's (Michel) clocktower, dominating the skyline, symbol of the hanseatic city.

With still an artery or two left to clog for dinner, we go in for the kill. No babysitter? No problem! We ordered out from Hatari, Pfälsische stübe: reindeer antlers on the walls, food from the Pfalz, a 350 lb. linebacker-sized portion of käsespätzle and saurkraut...Though of course no where near as good as Swabian Frank's, a close second.

And a "German pizza" a flammkuchen - which literally translates as flaming cake - a thin matzo-like crust covered with créme fraische and sprinkled with onions and speck (pronounced schpeck - or German bacon cubes - well, that's my translation anyway. Bacon cubes! You like Germany just thaaaat much more now, don't you?) Eetz Fraaaanshhh! Nein! Deutsch! Eeeeetz Fraaansssshhh! Nein! Deutsch. Quick - what region? Ding ding ding - Alsace! Whether you call it flammkuchen or tarte flambée, eet eez tres bon! Nein! Sehr gut!

To add fuel to the fire of that debate, we washed it all down with a bottle of Cremant. Mmmm. Dad, what'd you think?

"I think I'll sleep well tonight."

Me too. Gutten Nacht!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Mazamitla and Helado de Cajeta

Mazamitla, Mexico

This weekend we headed out of town in search of that crisp fall feeling. Really, it does get tiresome living in a place with perfect weather all year-round, and from time to time we venture out to experience novelties like cold or foggy or tropical swelter. Mazamitla is where we headed: a picturesque mountain town about 2 ½ hours from Guadalajara. White stucco homes topped with Spanish tile roofs and hilly cobblestone streets draw weekenders from the city who are in search of a dip into country life. The small town boasts the required plaza with food vendors, a looming antiquated church, and Mexican cowboys in tall hats riding high on their horses strolling through town.

This was our second trip to Mazamitla, and I was drowning in a pool of my own drool on the drive there, thinking about the night food market where we ate on our previous trip and my highly anticipated pending excursion to the cajeta factory. Before we get to the point of this post, which is cajeta (or as it is know in parts of South America, dulce de leche), I have to mention THE FAT TACOS at the night market. Just do as I say: picture a sizzling hot metal sombrero with a moat of liquid pork fat bubbling in the brim, now take your preferred meat and cook it á la confit (in its own fat) in the sombrero, dip your corn tortilla in the fat for extra-tasty good measure, chop the freshly crispy meat and put it on your well seasoned tortilla, top with raw onions, cilantro, and salsa- and if you are Carter, eat NINE. If that is not your thing, I suggest you hit up one of the pozole ladies for a hot bowl of delicious hominy and pork soup. It is difficult to say if that meal topped our Saturday late lunch of rabbit braised in cerveza and tender lamb chops. Mexican mountain cuisine gets you ready for choppin’ wood!

Ready for something sweet? Me too. Cajeta is a seductively toothsome Mexican treat, made by reducing goat’s or cow’s milk or a mixture of the two plus sugar; rum and other spices are sometimes added for more depth of flavor. The best way to describe what you are rewarded with, after hours of stirring the pot, waiting for it to reach a spoonable consistency, is a silky dense caramel pudding. Cajeta is the color of caramel and has a hint of caramelized flavor, but is soooo much more approachable in its pudding-like texture. I mean, who sits down with a spoon and a jar of caramel and goes to town? Not me, but I am sitting here doing just that with a jar of Mazamitla cajeta. Its flavor could also be described as condensed milk pudding and is incredibly versatile and irresistible. Use it in flan, ice cream, your favorite brownie recipe, mix it into chai tea, spread it on cookies, bread, crepes, dip apples or popcorn into it. As I sit here wondering how I just managed to suck down half of a jar of the delecatble goo, I am pretty certain a thick layer spread over an old leather shoe would make a mouth watering dessert.

I went to the cajeta factory hoping to learn the inside secrets to this time honored spreadable love, but was greeted by a very unenthusiastic chef who was less than forthcoming with information on the process and history – I can only assume she was experiencing an extreme sugar low. One thing I did uncover is that cajeta is different from dulce de leche in that it is traditionally made from goat’s milk, however, in Mazamitla, they set themselves apart from the Mexican way by making it from cow’s milk fresh from the utter. This is somewhat disappointing as I truly love the tang that the goat’s milk brings to the party. Also, cajeta means small box. Originally, the final product was packed in small oval-shaped wooden boxes, thus the name. I stood in the steaming vapor of leche, feeling like I was in a Turkish bath trying to extract some more cajeta lore, but alas the Señora was not having it and I’ll have to be satiated by spoonful after spoonful of the real thing.

After a great weekend eating, drinking and snuggling fall, I am back in sunny Guadalajara and thoughts of cajeta caramelized apples will have to wait because I am reaching straight for the ice cream maker to make one of my favorite flavors of ice cream – cajeta!

Helado de Cajeta

2 cups half-and-half or milk
5 medium egg yolks
1/3 cup sugar
¾ cup cajeta*

1. Prepare a large bowl or pan of ice water.

2. Heat the half-and-half over a double boiler until it begins to steam.

3. In a bowl, whisk the egg yolks until blended, then whisk in the sugar until it is well distributed.

4. Whisk half of the hot half-and-half into the yolk mixture SLOWLY, then pour the yolk mixture into the pan of half-and-half, whisking the entire time.

5. Cook while constantly stirring. The ice cream base is finished cooking when the mixture thickens and coats the back of a wooden or silicone spoon or spatula. Pull the spoon out of the ice cream base, draw your finger through the white coat of the ice cream base; if a line stays where you swiped your finger, the custard is done cooking. About 10 minutes.

6. Immediately place the custard in a clean bowl in the ice bath. Stir occasionally until it cools to room temp.

7. Whisk in the cream and cajeta. Loosely place a piece of Saran wrap over the top surface of the ice cream base, so a film does not form and put in the refrigerator until it is completely chilled, about 3 hours.

8. Freeze the custard in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Transfer to a container, cover and freeze until firm, about 2 hours.

Note: You can find cajeta in Mexican bodegas and in many supermarket chains. You can also easily make it. Try adding a vanilla bean, cinnamon or chopped nuts to your ice cream for different flavors!

Monday, September 7, 2009

A little cheese with my whine

I think most people who spend more than a few weeks in a culture other than their own will eventually take off the rose-colored glasses and develop a few minor grievances, pet peeves if you will - a few seemingly insignificant and usually random occurances that one takes issue with which unwittingly compound to become major gripes if left to fester. Or perhaps I am only speaking for myself.

This could be it's own series in the blog: Jiff's German pet peeves.

Pet Peeve Number 1: the %$&§ know-it-all German pedestrian.

I am going to tell you just one of many, many, oh so many stories that could be compiled and published in an epic novel where I, your heroine, arbiter of truth and justice on the bike path, am constantly attacked by self-rightous, over-aged, über-obnoxious German pedestrians.

Disclaimer: ok, fine, sure there may have been an incident or two where I was technically in the wrong, going the wrong way, but everyone does at some point because no one goes the "right" way i.e. with traffic, all the time. Right?

So the other day, on my bike on the way home from work, riding in the bike lane and in the right direction. I spy a fellow biker coming toward me i.e. riding in the "wrong" direction. I politely move out of the bike lane slightly to allow the biker pass by without having to ride through the bushes on her right. In order to give her space, I moved into the pedestrian lane which is when the one pedestrian, an older woman who had three free meters on either side of her and could have moved but chose to stay two centimeters from the bike lane, pushed me.

I have been yelled at, lectured, cursed but never before had I been PUSHED. Scrreeetttchhh. My bike grinding to a halt. I wheel around and padder back over to the woman who is going on about "damn bikers" and gather a few choices words. When one composes an emotional response, which is unfortunately the only type I could muster, one immediately resorts to their mother tongue. I quickly realized that maximum impact would require something in German and finally strung together, "Bist du total bescheuert!?!?" - "Are you totally insane!?!" Granted, my English retort would have been admittedly far more colorful but this would do.

So, how about a little cheese to go with my whine? A gruyère, mmm its nutty flavour goes well with the, “condescending German pedestrians drive me nuts!” whine.
A nice pungent eppoisses to accompany the "German pedestrians stink!" whine. Or a runny brie to go with the, "Next time I'll just run you over, then!" whine. I think I need a glass of wine...

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Happy Birthday Sniff! A Piñata Story

It wouldn’t be a party without a piñata! At least in Mexico. And since you are an ocean away in Germany, most likely this post is as close as you are going to get to your very own piñata– so let’s celebrate (by whacking your favorite superhero or TV star to a violent shredded death and spewing his or her cavity-inducing innards of various treats all over the floor for your closest friends to fight over)!

I was invited to a Spider-Man-themed surprise birthday party a few months ago, where among the Spider-Man plates, napkins, cake, blue and red spandex-clad father (weird) was, of course, a Spider-Man piñata. Upon not-too-close inspection, it was evident that this was not a Marvel Corporation sponsored event, but supported by one of the many back-alley pirates rolling in mountains of dough made via intellectual property rights violations. Judging by the blocks and blocks of market space taken up by vendors selling knockoff CDs, software, name-brand clothing and DVDs that haven’t even debuted in cinemas, Mexico is a world leader in ripping off el hombre. As it turns out, Spider-Man, SpongeBob SquarePants, Santa Claus and all their homies are being denied their rightful profits in the mass exploitation of their image. Well, news flash: Spider-Man Is Fighting Back!

My friend who put on the Spider-Man fiesta will remain anonymous, let’s call her…. Isa. Isa innocently went to Santa Tere, the obvious neighborhood in Guadalajara to purchase a piñata; walked into the first shop in a row of open-front stores that were bursting with colored crepe paper, and asked if they had an Hombre Araña piñata (Spidey’s Spanish alias) somewhere among the princesses, Batmans, and Dora the Explorers. A glare, mixed with suspicion and contempt, backed-up with pursed lips and a screeching shout, shot Isa back onto the pavement; the second shop owner waved a stick one might use to bust open one of his life-size paper maché creations. Por que?! Was Spidey the latest youth idol to stun the world and show his bare back on the cover of Vanity Fair? Couldn’t be, he wasn’t raised by Disney, he is a Marvel Man. So what gives?

After nearly inciting a mob of party supply store owners, Isa found what she was looking for – someone who was willing to talk. As it turns out, there was a recent crackdown on Spider-Man paraphernalia by the higher-ups at Marvel, and Sante Tere had been raided by the federales. Many piñata dealers selling Spider-Man look-alikes had been arrested and fined. After much pleading and begging and promises that she will boycott all Marvel products, Isa was led to the back of the store, up a set of stairs, and into a room that was packed with five-foot Spider-Man zombies, Spider-Man plates, napkins, party hats, etc. She chose the one that looked the most like Spider-Man. I mean, seriously, Marvel, you are going after these bandidos? A very confused, grateful and relieved Isa paid the man and promised she wouldn’t tell anyone where she bought it (unless, of course, they wanted to buy one too). Isa was given a large garbage bag to hide the contraband. She proceeded to put Spidey, prematurely, in his body bag; she backed out of the store, and ran down the street away from the web of deception she had just become a part of.

This is too much! So many questions: what about a crackdown on the Hulk? Iron Man? How much would I LOVE to see a windowless van smuggling a full load of illegal Spider-Man piñatas over the border? Perhaps immigration should get involved?

But I digress, really Sniff, I was just wanting to give you the gift of a piñata from Mexico. A fabulously fun tradition enjoyed by all ages, adaptable for all occasions. I have noticed that once you graduate from candy and fruit, your adult piñata will rain airplane size liqueur bottles and condoms. Here is an idea for your next bachelorette party: Why not have a five-foot cock and balls piñata made and have it spew sex toys and penis straws! No, really Sniff, Happy Birthday!!! Aiiiiieeeee-yiiii-yiiii!

End Note: I checked up on the Marvel Mexican Piñata Bust story, because, I must admit I found it slightly unbelievable, and did find proof that the absurdity is actually true: Check it out.