Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Calamari Please Hold the Ketchup

In the last few weeks I’ve been hit with an overwhelming craving to eat calamari, aka “fried calamari in the typical fashion." To me that translates to breaded rings and tiny tentacles of squid that are deep-fried and served hot and crispy. When I refer to calamari I am never referring to grilled calamari on top of greens or that newish fad of calamari sticks—a stack of breaded calamari planks that when picked up flounce up and down like a rubber pencil. Nope, those latter types of calamari are just not for me.

Calamari is one of those proteins in which I suspend my disbelief about 80% regarding what I’m actually eating. What can I say, I could barely look into the famous and breathtakingly gorgeous jellyfish tank at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and while I know that jellyfish are not quite the same as squid, still, this type of creature is not what I like to imagine ingesting with full cognitive awareness. Calamari is squid after all, and personally I do not find squid attractive to look at or think about chewing. That said, the tiny tentacles pieces on a typical fried calamari plate is pretty much the squid sticking its tongue out at me proclaiming, "See, how could you NOT know you're eating me, the squid." Alas, how true, and that is likely why 20% of my brain always gets that eating delicious fried calamari equals eating pieces of a once squiggly, icky squid.

Could be why most savvy restaurateurs in these parts call the dish fried calamari instead of fried squid. In this food blogger's opinion, that move was a little dose of menu engineering magic on menu pages everywhere. This not-obvious word appearance on an appetizer list could even lead McNugget-eating youngsters to try some, even if in the end it doesn't quite taste like chicken.

A while ago I blogged about the best calamari ever, and that would be from Carmine’s in NYC. Their fried calamari isn't just a culinary delight; it's also a cultural one. As I wrote in 2009:

Carmine's, by www.foodspotting.com
 “The famous calamari appetizer arrives on a white platter measuring roughly a foot and a half long. The calamari on the platter is piled about 6 inches high, and this is why you shouldn’t be shocked that the ever-climbing price for the best calamari in the city is now topping out at $25.50 a plate. No one can finish this on their own, so the thing to do is order it, eat what you will, then pick a neighbor to your left and/or right to pass it down to when you’re through. That is what’s done, almost expected, and is all part of the homey feeling inherent in the place. The best is watching the shocked and pleased faces of newbie tourists crammed at the bar anxiously waiting for a table, when you start to pass down the calamari, look 'em in the eye and say 'Please, I’ve had enough. Enjoy.' Even when you've had your fill, the platter looks untouched! So it is a little confusing for sure. But by the time the tourists nervously utter “oh, um, that’s ok” the bartender has already moved the platter in front of them and insisted on your behalf, to which the tourists take a sigh of relief that New Yorkers are ok afterall while they start chowing down on their free calamari.”

It's also fun to enjoy calamari when it's co-starring in fritto misto. Then you get other treats beyond fried squid. My new favorite spot to get this dish is a local wine bar in the Los Feliz neighborhood of LA called Vinoteca. The dish there is called Frito Misto di Pesce, it costs $13 but during happy hour is only $7! This is a great deal considering the dish consists of perfectly prepared calamari, soft chucks of white fish, shrimp and spicy zucchini. I’ve had it about three times now, and two times ago I was halfway through eating it when I realized the shrimp were missing. I asked the server if the kitchen changed the recipe. She checked with the kitchen and came back to my table to shrug and say something refreshingly honest: “They just forgot to put the shrimp in this time.” That was good news on two fronts: 1) Turns out they make each batch fresh, and 2) The shrimp hadn't been removed from the dish. As I was leaving that night, the kitchen insisted they fry up some shrimp for me to take to go as a way to apologize. Not necessary, but a very nice touch.

The other place I just realized makes fine fried calamari is Dominick’s in Beverly Hills (it's the sister restaurant of Little Dom's in Los Feliz). I'm usually in that neighborhood Monday evenings, so a few weeks ago I stopped by and thought it was time I try something other than their famous rice ball. Dominick's calamari was straight-up what you would expect from a very good Italian place, and it did not disappoint. The dish also went especially well with a dirty Grey Goose martini.

From my experiences in this country, calamari is served 95% of the time with marinara sauce on the side. With the exception of Carmine’s, I almost never dip my fried calamari into that sauce. To me, it’s like dipping my food into thick fancy ketchup, which in my opinion hides the true taste of food. The only reason I may use some of that Carmine’s sauce is because there’s so much calamari on that plate, your palate needs a little something to break up the fried monotony (not to mention Carmine’s sauces are always amazing so it’s hard to deny them). Of course it is never my intension to ignore that little ramekin of red sauce and hurt the chef's feelings. It's simply that I prefer to eat calamari in the traditional Italian style: with a demure squeeze of lemon, from the slice that is always included on the plate. The acid in the lemon helps break up the fried monotony too, yet it doesn’t cloud any of the flavors; it only enhances them.

It should be noted that I completely respect the fact that most people wouldn't dare eat a plate of fried calamari without marinara sauce. These same people—most people—wouldn't eat a burger and fries without ketchup either. Live and let live! I just think some things taste great as they are. Of course there are degrees and levels to everything and to some people, I'm the nut in the first place for covering up the true taste of squid with breading and deep-frying it. Hmm, I can see their point. Well, the glories of fresh grilled squid is another topic for another day, but not on my blog.

Until we eat again,

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Salty & Sweet

Food and Wine's milk chocolate tart with pretzel crust

Now that this blog's grad school hiatus is officially over, I can tell you about one of my all-time favorite pleasures. It is the taste of salty and sweet on the palate, and here are just a few of the ways to enjoy this:
  • the Canadian tradition of dipping bacon into maple syrup
  • a cheese plate with wine and some salty & sweet accoutrements  
  • adding plain M&Ms to movie theater popcorn (some prefer M&M peanut)
  • the trend of adding salt to caramel and other desserts: 1) here is a recipe for a caramel sea salt tart from Saveur magazine in 2009; 2) you can buy bittersweet sea salt chocolate chip cookies online now from Saint Cupcake in Portland, and you should! One of the best cookies I ever tasted.

My favorite salty/sweet combo has got to be chocolate-covered pretzels. Chocolate paired with the salty crunch of a pretzel makes more sense than many things in this world. Their coming together is as relevant as the food marriages of bacon and eggs, steak and french fries, chocolate and peanut butter, and all those other popular flavor combinations we now can't live without. When people think of chocolate and pretzels, the result is often smiles and visions of old-time summer carnivals.

The combo has always been popular, and in 2004 it entered the mainstream when Hershey’s introduced its Take Five bar. This was seen by my chocolate-and-pretzel-loving family as a brilliant addition to our blasé national candy mix. Things don't change often in the candy aisle. Most "new" candies are simply adaptations of a Reese's or a Snicker's, since those are the top-selling candy bars in the country. The Take Five was refreshingly new, and it made this favorite flavor combination both accessible and reasonably priced. The addition of peanut butter and caramel fit like a glove, and people really liked the combination of silky and crunchy, salty and sweet.

So it makes perfect sense that in the last few years pretzels have become the new salt, and therefore the new darling of pastry chefs. Incorporating pretzels into desserts is the rage, and customers are as happy to find such desserts as they were in the '90s when restaurants started putting s’mores on menus. My initial exposure to pretzels in cuisine was in the '90s too, when I read about chef David Burke's unique new dishes like angry lobster and chicken with a pretzel crust. His creative use of "pretzel as menu ingredient" was definitely ahead of its time.

Sprinkles peanut butter pretzel chip
The first time I noticed pretzels in pastry was while leafing through a 2009 Food and Wine magazine in 2011. I came across a recipe for a milk chocolate tart with pretzel crust (see photo above). At first I experienced a kicking-of-self moment for not making this when I read of it two years earlier, and this was followed by relief—hey, I can make this now! Which is what I did at my friend Jen’s house. (Part of this was recorded in a short video clip.) It took awhile to make but it was worth it—what a tart! The only thing I noticed is that the pretzel pieces on top soon became soggy. That was also the case last Tuesday when I bought a delightfully chunky peanut butter pretzel chip cookie for $3 at the Sprinkles Ice Cream store in Beverly Hills. That’s right America, there is fattening food for sale in La La Land. People eat what they want and then go hiking is all. Or get lipo.

Mesa Grill's chocolate pretzel tart
So pretzels are appearing in magazine dessert recipes now. One could always buy or make chocolate-covered pretzels, and this was a welcome twist on the theme. I don’t think pretzel desserts are too far-spread yet, which is why I was thrilled in Las Vegas last month during dinner at Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill. An item from Clarisa Martino’s dessert menu was tattooed on my brain before the plane even landed in the desert, so I made it very clear to my party that this particular dessert would be my destiny that night: "chocolate pretzel tart with spicy peanut butter and chocolate swirl ice cream." Seriously, they had me at chocolate pretzel, and spicy peanut butter flirted with me too. Someone else at the table ordered the same, because the desserts seemed too small to share. The result was a dessert at the high-end of the chocolate/pretzel continuum: a chocolate brownie sitting in a buttery pretzel crust with a molten moat of chocolate sauce to soften the blow. Did I know where the spicy peanut butter part existed? Nope, and I didn't care. This was a humble yet spectacular dessert featuring various textures and temperatures, and complimentary flavors.

What I liked too about the Mesa Grill dessert is that there were pretzels in the crust, like the tart above, and the crust was crunchy. The crushed pieces of pretzel in the crust may not be crunchy as they were in their original form, but after being mixed with flour and butter and baked, the pretzel bits transform into a crust that one envisions as having the same crunch of a pretzel. Not so in the case of Sprinkles’ peanut butter pretzel chip cookie, which had a crunchy fabulousness when I ate the one half on day 1, yet on day 2 the second half lost most of its pretzel crunch! Lesson: always eat the whole cookie, heck especially if you live near mountains or plastic surgeons.

Marly's dipped pretzel cookies
After making the chocolate pretzel tart in 2011, the crust tasted so good I decided to experiment and make cookies out of it. (Let me know if you'd like the recipe.) And next time I venture into the kitchen to make cookies, I'm going to try to make a version of the Sprinkles peanut butter pretzel chip, with pretzel pieces, some peanut butter and chocolate chips too. But I don't want my pretzels to get soggy, since my willpower and desire to fit in clothes will not allow me to eat all the cookies in their pretzel-crunchy state in one day. So here's an idea: instead of pretzel pieces, I'll mix in pieces of chocolate-covered pretzel. This will protect the pretzels from getting soggy and allow me to enjoy the cookies days later with no less crunch.

Until we eat again,

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries...

“Cough," I said. "Cough cough.” It seemed natural enough to cough my lungs up at Rite Aid, where I arrived much in need of some cough syrup. Not even a week after the big spider bite (consensus says it was most likely a black widow), I had picked up my first case of bronchitis, and who knows if this was due to my body fighting off spider venom or because of several hours spent in the most crowded and poorly managed ER in Los Angeles County.

The coughs notwithstanding, at least I could still roll my eyes at the typical drug store scenario of each and every bottle of cough syrup being cherry flavored. Cherry flavored? How come the children's cough syrup is grape flavored? Adult cherry cough syrup is so vile that pharmaceutical companies must clearly only take pity on coughing children since they're the only ones given a less repulsive flavor option. As an asthmatic child, I was in need of cough syrup often and it was always cherry flavored and thankfully my parents usually bribed me to take it down with a YooHoo chaser.

I spent most of my life hating cherries by association. Which is ironic considering my sister and I spent our early years singing "Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries" at the Newark Y where my great-grandpa George ran the stage show. I remember loving that song, but the lyrics suggesting a positive association with cherries was lost on me. All I knew was that cherries equaled disgusting sick medicine, a fact I've been reminded of since as my mom's favorite throat lozenge is cherry and each time I visit she inadvertently puts a cherry lozenge in her mouth and its potent perfume leaves me no choice but to leave the room (thanks Mom :P).

One of life's pleasures is that not all foods become part of an eating repertoire at once, and that can lead to a fun discovery process over time. Chicken liver was a Jewish staple that I despised growing up, so the first time I had no choice but to try seared foie gras at a business dinner in 1999 (the client ordered a round of it for the table) I truly feared for my tastebuds. To my surprise, the dish was euphoric and despite any lingering duck guilt I try to enjoy it every couple of years.

The same goes with oysters. A plate of them were put before me for the first time at a Rockefeller Center tasting meeting with management and chefs in 2000. When I winced at the plate, my new boss suggested without words that I was a miscreant. Hoping to nip his assumption in the bud, I tried one. To my surprise, those fresh oysters were so incredible that now I'm a huge fan, especially when they're served with a good mignonette.

I remember the first time I tried dates, at a Brooklyn farmer’s stand around 2001. The stand's old hippie proprietor shoved a date-covered vine in my face and said, "Go ahead, try one." That first Medjool was a big slap in the face for all those years of self-inflicted date deprivation. Since then I've eaten them as a snack and made really good sticky toffee pudding with them. Which reminds me, I still need to try a local date shake in Indio, California.

Now the experience of trying fresh cherries for the first time was different than trying other new foods, only because I'd hated the idea of cherries for so long. It probably happened in New York City during a late 1990's summer at a farmer’s market, when the abundant bounty of summer fruit was everywhere along with samples. I gingerly bit into a Bing and to my amazement it was nothing at all like that horrid syrup from youth. It was just a delicious piece of fruit!

That became the summer of cherries. My friends were perplexed as to why I was obsessing about this ubiquitous fruit they’d known and loved all their lives. But it was new to me. At the market I bought dark and robust red Bings and sometimes the tart, pale yellow and pink-tinged Queen Annes to snack on or make pies with (frozen cherries work well for that too). But like most new toys, cherries eventually were taken for granted in my life. I still like them a lot, especially with all their antioxidant health qualities, but to be honest it's hard to eat a bowl of cherries for dessert when Ben & Jerry's is lurking in the freezer.

Last summer I took a day trip to the Villa del Sol cherry farm in the Leona Valley to reacquaint myself with these luscious berries. Only an hour and a half northeast of Los Angeles, having the ability to go to a cherry farm is one of the many benefits of living in Southern California. You basically just walk through the entrance, grab a bucket and start strolling the rows and rows of cherry trees and gently pluck away. I happily collected a 2/3 Bing and 1/3 Queen Anne mix. The idea was to get cherries and go home and make turnovers as if I were McDonald's. When my bucket was appropriately filled for my needs, I casually walked the rows back to the entrance. But then I saw a big tree branch hanging low due to so many ripe cherries on it, and those cherries looked different than the others I’d already picked.

The cherries on this tree had the color and shape of little hearts. I tasted one and fell in love with it (is that why it's shaped like a heart?). It had a more refined flavor than the other varieties, like a cherry plum. And the fact that it literally looked like a heart was just kinda cool. Too bad my bucket was already brimming with cherries, but wait! I had to make room for my new favorite, this mystery cherry I'd likely never see in a market, since I'd never seen it before. (Here it is, between the Queen Anne and the Bing in this photo.)

On the walk out of the farm I asked an employee what kind of cherry this was, and he said it was most likely a Brooks. Ok. The next day I made cherry turnovers using all three types of cherries. It was an important reminder that one should never judge a cherry by its incarnation as cough syrup.

Until we eat again,