July 8, 2011
A woman named Yolanda, who lives in Retiro, Colombia, a small town outside of Medellín, runs a roadside restaurant called “Mi Jardín,” or “My Garden,” that caters to local workers, tourists and anybody else who happens to be passing by. She learned what she knows from her mother and has been cooking for more than 30 years.
Yesterday, Yolanda was standing on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., teaching Americans how to make frijoles.
Colombia is one of three featured themes at this year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival (the others are the Peace Corps and rhythm and blues music), and volunteers are offering cooking demonstrations every day from 11:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (See our Around the Mall blog for full coverage of the festival and daily schedules.) I headed out in the blazing hot July sun yesterday to learn a little bit about traditional Colombian cuisine.
Frijoles, or red beans, are one of the most common foods in Colombia, and especially Antioquia, the department (the Colombian equivalent of a U.S. state) where Yolanda lives, in the coffee-growing region in the northwest of the country. People from this area eat frijoles nearly every day, she said, either blended into a soup, as a side dish, or as part of a larger main dish.
Antioquia used to be populated mainly by laborers who spent their days in the fields. They needed something cheap, filling and full of energy and protein to keep them going throughout the day. Hence, frijoles.
Today, there are endless variations on the dish, and each family has its own distinctive frijoles recipe. Yolanda’s mother made them with carrots and potatoes, so that’s what she does, too. Other ingredients include yucca and plantains, and most variations contain an adobo-like mixture composed of tomato, onion, garlic, pepper and oil. On a holiday, Yolanda said, she goes through about nine pounds of beans at her restaurant.
Speaking in Spanish, Yolanda also told me a little about other traditional dishes, including bandeja paisa, a large plate filled with a variety of foods, often including frijoles. At her restaurant, Yolanda adds rice, avocado, egg, sausage, salad, plantain and fried pork skin to the plate. Empanadas and arepas, a kind of cornmeal cake, are also popular.
Another traditional option is sancocho, a soup made with varying ingredients, but that Yolanda makes with broth, chicken, yucca and potatoes. It’s typical for Colombian families to make sancocho during a “paseo de olla”—literally, a walk with a pot. A paseo de olla is kind of a like an extended picnic, where a group of family and friends takes everything they need to make sancocho, from a hen to the pot itself, to a river. There, they spend the day swimming, cooking and enjoying one another’s company.
“You go with all your family and all your friends, you’re drinking all day, and at the end of the day you have the sancocho,” Yolanda said. “It’s beautiful.”
I’ll say so.
– written by Julie Mianecki
July 7, 2011
On a recent trip to Hanoi, Vietnam’s coffee-mad capital, a local friend exhorted me to seek out a cup of ca phe cut chon—what she cryptically referred to as “weasel coffee.”
Having happily consumed a variety of Vietnamese java at cafés across the city, including the sublime ca phe sua da, iced espresso blended with sweetened condensed milk, I was looking forward to another great-tasting experience. Then I Googled ca phe cut chon.
Cut chon is Vietnamese for civet cat dung.
The civet cat, not a cat but a relative of the mongoose, is native to Southeast Asia’s jungles. Sometime after French colonists introduced robusta coffee to Vietnam in the mid-19th century, coffee growers found that beans eaten and excreted by wild civets produced a richer, more mellow drink than those simply harvested from the fields. (The practice began, supposedly, when European colonists wouldn’t share coffee beans with natives, who wanted to try the drink and resourcefully picked the beans out of civet dung.)
Many coffee producers use captive civets today, but the process remains the same. Civets are fed robusta coffee cherries, the coffee plant’s fruit. The civet’s digestive enzymes partially ferment the fruit’s stones—coffee beans—and strip much of their harsh flavors. (Bitter-tasting robusta, arabica’s cheaper, faster-growing cousin, is ubiquitous in Vietnam. Which is why sweetened condensed milk is a constant companion to Vietnamese black coffee.) After a thorough washing, the “dung” beans are roasted and ready for brewing.
All of this sounded a bit unpleasant, but a friend and I mustered up the courage to taste ca phe cut chon one sweltering afternoon at Café Mai, a Hanoi institution famous for its version of the drink. Sitting on a balcony overlooking a motorbike-filled street, we ordered two coffees. Small white cups topped with piping hot metal drip coffee filters arrived at the table. When the coffee was ready, we removed the filters, examined the dark brew and took a sip.
I braced myself for pungent, earthy flavors. Instead, the coffee was smooth and rich, all salty caramel and bittersweet chocolate. The sharp bite that I had come to associate with Vietnamese coffee was nonexistent. “It tastes like 99% cacao,” my friend said excitedly.
We lingered over the drinks for a while and then called for the bill—at 55,000 Vietnamese dong, or $2.70, it was more expensive than a typical Hanoi cup, but well worth the difference in flavor.
Only later did I realize that we’d grossly underpaid. It turns out that certified civet-fermented coffee, which is also produced in Indonesia and the Philippines, can sell for up to $600 per pound. At a London department store recently, a single cup cost £50, or $80.
So how does Café Mai keep the price down? They’ve cut civets out of the production process. Using artificial fermenting methods, Café Mai, along with other Vietnamese roasters like Trung Nguyen, have brought the flavor of ca phe cut chon to the masses.
Whether the traditionally fermented coffee truly tastes different, I obviously can’t say. But if you have $600 burning a hole in your wallet, order some and let Food & Think know.
—By Jon Brand, a writer based in Austin, Texas. You can read more of his work at www.jonbrandwrites.com.
July 5, 2011
We introduced two Inviting Writing themes in June, one about bizarre dining-out experiences, and the other about food and sickness. Our grand finale for the latter category comes from Victoria Neff, a computer programmer who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan and blogs at I Need Orange.
A Long Recovery From Chocolate
By Victoria Neff
When I was five, someone took me, my friend, and his little brother down the street for ice cream. I remember we sat up high, on counter-side stools, and I remember all three of us chose chocolate.
That was the last time I ever wanted chocolate ice cream. All three of us (and our mothers) were up all that night, while our bodies did everything they could to get rid of whatever contaminant was in that ice cream. For years after that, even the thought of chocolate ice cream would turn my stomach. My little-kid brain put hot chocolate in the same category, and I couldn’t stand it, either.
Eventually disgust reduced to indifference. The time came when I could eat chocolate ice cream, or drink hot chocolate, but I never enjoyed them.
Fast forward to the summer of 2010, when I had the chance to spend three weeks in France with my daughter, exploring different regions and cuisines. We started in Bayonne, the capital of France’s Basque country. Bayonne is known for ham, Espelette peppers and chocolate.
One lovely morning (all our days in Bayonne were lovely), we strolled over the bridge spanning the river Adour, to the old part of town. The narrow, cobbled street leading to the cathedral is lined with bakeries, boutiques and chocolate shops. Cazenave is known as one of the very best places for chocolate. In addition to dozens of varieties of fancy chocolates, its attractions include a hot-chocolate and tea room. The tea room is a charming place, with white wooden chairs, lace, brown-sugar cubes, tiny napkins, cute china and historical information in four languages. It has been serving hand-whipped hot chocolate for over 100 years.
I ordered tea. My daughter ordered the hand-whipped chocolate. The tea was fine. The hot chocolate was much better than “fine.” Here, at last, was the hot chocolate that was able to overcome my aversion. Here was hot chocolate that was delicious. Chocolatey. Bitter. Rich. Complex. Creamy.
We delighted in a large variety of wonderful foods in France. It’s hardly a surprise that it was there that I recovered an ability to connect with chocolate. I didn’t miss hot chocolate, and I haven’t missed chocolate ice cream all these years, but as I write, I wonder if French chocolate ice cream may be as delicious as French hot chocolate. Perhaps, next time I am there, I will eat ice cream, and will be glad I chose chocolate.
June 27, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing, we asked you to share your favorite stories about dining out—your funniest, strangest, most memorable experiences, from the perspective of either the server or the served. Here are three of our favorite short items.
Assault With Menu
I was driving my mother and her friend from Florida to their home in Michigan. We picked up my sister in North Carolina and stopped for lunch. The four of us were taking our time going over the menu when my mother’s friend asked those at the table about grits because she had never had them. The waitress, who was not standing there waiting for our order, somehow overheard me when I quietly replied, “I don’t care for grits, they taste like wallpaper paste!” Suddenly, in a flash, the waitress flew up from behind, gave me one good smack on the side of the head with a laminated tri-fold menu, and said, “Honey, you’re in the South, everybody here loves grits!” I was pretty much dumbfounded! (By the way, it actually hurt and left the side of my face red!) After the initial shock, everyone in our group (except myself) politely laughed, then we ordered our meal. Later, back on the road, my sister made an excuse for the waitress (adding insult to injury) saying that the waitress probably recognized her from previous visits, which must have given her the inclination and liberty to land me a good one! Really?!
—By Judith Burlage, a registered nurse who comes from a huge family of great cooks
Invasion From The Deep
Several years ago I was an executive chef for a major oil company, managing food service on one of their offshore platforms. One night, one of the roughnecks asked my night baker if he could put a loosely covered can in the walk-in refrigerator. Thinking nothing of it, he said, “Yes.”
When I walked upstairs for work the next morning, I was horrified to find the world’s creepiest menagerie of alien-looking sea creatures wandering through my walk-in. Seems the loosly-covered can contained live critters that had been belched up from a pipe that was being cleaned and the roughneck though they would make excellent fishing bait if he could just keep them alive until he left the platform in a couple of days.
—By Rebecca Barocas, through our Food & Think Facebook page.
That’s Cancun Style?
Back in the 70s my hippie art teacher from college and I went to Cancun, long before it became the bustling resort you see today. We got to Cancun on a sketchy wooden boat that had at least 30 people on board. We’d been dining on rice, beans and tortillas all week to try to manage our sparse funds, but we decided to splurge on a real meal for a change and ordered a dish called “Red Snapper Cancun Style.” This was a quaint local establishment and I was looking forward to a nice local treat. We got our meal—and what a plate it was. It was a piece of fish with a half-cooked piece of bacon wrapped around it, skewered into the fish with so many toothpicks that the flavor of wood was imparted to the fish. Topping it were cold canned peas and mushrooms. Not what I expected! (We had a much better meal later that week in Cozumel in a beachfront restaurant that served langostinos sauteed with garlic that was just lightly toasted, and then a little lime juice. Perfect!)
—By Sue Kucklick, a mental health counselor who lives in Cleveland, Ohio.
June 20, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing series, we asked you to share your best, worst or funniest dining-out experiences, from the perspective of either the served or the server. Our first essay reveals just how educational a job in food service can be.
Dana Bate is a writer living in Washington, D.C. She has produced, reported or written for PBS, Timothy McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and others. You can learn more about her at danabate.com.
What About Bob?
By Dana Bate
I should have known there was something odd about Bob from the start. When I met him in the summer of 2003, I was fresh out of college and looking for a part-time waitressing gig. Bob managed a small, upscale restaurant in suburban Philadelphia, and he agreed to meet with me on a hot and muggy June afternoon. I had never interviewed for a position as a waitress before. I didn’t know what to expect.
When I walked into the air-conditioned chill of the restaurant, the room lit only by a sliver of light from the glass block windows, Bob emerged from the back. His skin appeared almost translucent against his thick eyebrows and jet-black hair, and his eyes sunk deep into his skull. He looked a bit like a poor man’s Jonathan Rhys Meyers in vampire form—and I mean that in the worst way possible. Why I didn’t immediately head for the door I will never know.
Bob sat me down, and after chatting for a few minutes about my waitressing credentials (or, rather, my complete lack thereof) he offered me the job. Then he proceeded to extol, in a very animated fashion, the virtues of a macrobiotic diet—as one does when hiring a woman to bus plates and memorize daily specials.
Although I had recently graduated from an Ivy League school and prided myself on my book smarts, I lacked street smarts, and so none of Bob’s quirks raised any red flags. Maybe all restaurant managers dressed in black from head to toe and wore silver and onyx rings the size of Cerignola olives. Maybe all restaurant managers offered prospective employees a copy of An Instance of the Fingerpost. What did I know?
Bob promised to show me the ropes, and as the weeks passed, I picked up tips I surely wouldn’t have gathered on my own. For example, when a couple is on a romantic date, it’s a good idea for the manager to pull a chair up to their table and talk to them for a solid twenty minutes. The couple will love it—or so Bob assured me.
Also, disappearing in the basement to “check on the walk-in” every half hour is totally normal – nay, expected. I had so much to learn.
A month or two into my waitressing stint, a new waitress named Beth joined the team. She had fiery red hair and had waitressed for many years at another restaurant down the street. Beth took grief from no one. To her, my naiveté must have been painful.
One night, as we rushed to flip the tables for our next set of reservations, Beth looked up at me.
“Where the hell is Bob?” she asked.
“He’s checking on the walk-in.” I paused. “He kind of does that a lot.”
Beth chuckled. “Yeah, and I’m sure he comes back with a lot more energy, right?”
Come to think of it, Bob did always come back with a little more lift in his step after his trips to the basement. I knew he smoked a pack of cigarettes a day. Maybe it was a nicotine high?
Beth cackled at my ignorance. She tapped on her nose with the tip of her finger and sniffed loudly. “I think we’re dealing with a different chemical here.”
Wait—Bob did cocaine? Could this be true? I considered it. A drug addiction would explain his chattiness with customers and his frequent disappearances. It would also probably explain why I came in one Monday to find that Bob, on a whim, had spent the previous day buffing the copper siding of the bar, alone, just for fun.
As I let this information sink in, Bob emerged from the basement, his lips and nose caked in white powder. My eyes widened. It was true: Bob was doing drugs.
I realized then how naïve I was—how college had broadened my horizons intellectually but had done little to prepare me for the realities of life outside the ivory tower. Sure, I had friends who’d dabbled in illegal substances here and there, but I’d never known an addict. For me, those people existed only in movies and books and after-school specials. But this wasn’t some juicy story in Kitchen Confidential. Bob was real, and so were his problems. I had even more to learn than I thought.
Beth smirked and shook her head as she watched my innocence melt away before her eyes.
“Welcome to the real world, honey,” she said. “It’s one hell of a ride.”