Tijuana’s Salad Days are Back!

February 2, 2012 § 5 Comments

My father tossing a Caesar salad at either the Caesar Hotel or Jai Alai. He was a waiter & “ensaladero” at both places before opening his own joint.

I just finished reading the story in The New Yorker about the Tijuana restaurateur and pioneer, Javier Placencia, and I couldn’t be more proud. Proud of Javier Placencia and what he and his family are doing, proud of Tijuana itself, and proud of the fact that I am from Tijuana. I was born there, at the end of that town’s heyday, a period that would fall at the top of page 52 of the story, somewhere between the line that quotes a French epicurean claiming the Caesar salad to be “the greatest recipe to originate from the Americas in fifty years!” and the next line: “Over time, Revolución devolved into a depressing string of curio shops and…” my father’s restaurant.

El Bodegón de Guillermo, said to have been the most famous in Tijuana during that time, was located just off Tijuana’s main drag, Revolución, two blocks up from the Caesar Hotel. It was my father, Guillermo’s, own sort of Rick’s Cafe during the era between those lines, where, when he wasn’t mingling among the Spanish bullfighters and the politicians and movie stars from both sides of the border, he was tossing Caesar salads table side in a flurry of lettuce leaves and showmanship that would make the women giggle and invariably call him back for a little more of the “secret ingredient” he kept in a shaker in his coat pocket. (My sister and I, little girls then, knew the secret: it was salt.) On this side of the border, the Caesar salad at Zuni Cafe is widely considered to be the best, but to me, none has ever compared to those I remember eating as a child in my dad’s place. It could be nostalgia, but I think it’s the acid.

The original salad, according to me, myself, and Javier Placencia (oh, yes, and the Mexican food authority Diana Kennedy, who sent me the recipe about a dozen years ago that she claims to have gotten directly from Caesar Cardini), was made not with lemons, but limes–the little ones that we refer to as key limes or Mexican limes, but that in Mexico are simply called “limes.” The problem, as I see it, is that the word in Spanish for lime is “limón,” (pronounced “lee-MON”), which of course sounds an awful lot like “lemon.” See where I’m going with this…? (Even the famously fact-checked New Yorker printed that the salad is made with lemons and, with all due respect, I think they’re wrong!) Mexicans don’t traditionally eat lemons. As Jimmy Shaw, a Mexico City-born Los Angeles restaurateur (he owns the wonderful Loteria Grill) and Mexican food authority, says: “To a Mexican, the taste of a lemon is one of the weirdest, most off-putting things you can think of. I freaked out the first time I tasted a lemon.”

Besides the correct ingredients, the one thing you need to make a good Caesar Salad is a wide mouth wooden bowl. Those they used in TJ were always those super-thin kind with the checkered pattern. Looked like wood, but no idea what they were made of.  They certainly do the trick, but that doesn’t stop me from coveting these beautiful hand-turned bowls by Spencer Peterman, in maple, cherry, or walnut. (In Los Angeles, you can buy them at the very special clothing store, Noodle Stories.) They’re not cheap, but you can save money on the tongs. Unless you are standing in front of a dazzled crowd in a waiter’s tuxedo, I recommend you toss the salad with your hands.

Javier Placencia’s Caesar Salad

Javier Placencia gave me this recipe before his family bought the Caesar Hotel; this is how they make it at Villa Saverio’s. Itals are mine.

Tijuana, B.C. Mexico

Makes 1 salad, for two people

2 garlic cloves, minced

2 anchovy fillets

¼ cup good quality extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon fresh Mexican (aka key) lime juice

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 egg yolk, sitting in hot water

Dash of Worcestershire Sauce

Dash of Maggi Sauce (this is a liquid sauce, not a seasoning; I think I’d read the back for MSG, but he uses it, so I put it here)

Freshly cracked black pepper to taste (use lots! And it must be fresh.)

1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

2 whole hearts of romaine lettuce, leaves separated, cleaned and trimmed of dark green ends

Baguette croutons (for croutons, torn are the best kind; more surface area for crunchy bits. officially the garlic and anchovy go on the crouton, not in the salad, but it has evolved.)

In a large bowl (preferably wooden) combine the garlic, anchovies, and a few drops of the olive oil and use the back of a soup spoon to press on garlic and anchovies to make a paste. Add the mustard, lime juice, Worcestershire sauce, and Maggi sauce, several turns of pepper and stir to combine. Add the egg yolk and continue stirring until it is incorporated and the lumps disappear. Add the remaining olive oil in a thin steady stream, stirring constantly to form a thick dressing. Stir in half of the Parmesan cheese. Add the Romaine leaves and toss to coat the lettuce with the dressing. Add the croutons and toss again gently. Transfer the salad to a platter or individual serving plates, sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan and several turns of black pepper, and serve. Pick a piece up of lettuce and put it in the mouth of someone you love.

When a Chef Meets a Pile of Scallions

March 2, 2009 § 4 Comments

I’m a copycat cook. The difference between me and people who really got it goin’ on is that I might be able to execute one of their dishes pretty darned well, but I could never think of them. I doubt I have ever made anything that I didn’t eat or see or read about somewhere before. It’s just not who I am. So when I found myself with a pile of really pretty, delicate scallions on my hands (or my cutting board, rather), my imagination was limited to the following cliches: using them to top a baked potato, grilling them along with a steak, the way they do in Mexico, or use them instead of onions in a tuna salad. Thankfully, I had the good sense to email a photo of my very pretty onions to my friend Jonathan and ask him what to do next.

Jonathan is one of the most creative cooks I know. He always thinks of things to do with foods that nobody else does (they copy him) and that never seem silly (because he is not). For my onions, he said this: “Now if it were me I’d make soup with the large ones and grilled onion tacos with the smaller ones.” Tacos. Who would have thought?

Because a taco is only as good as the tortilla it’s made with, I buy hand-patted, just0made corn tortillas from my local taqueria, Loteria. Charring various ingredients such as tomatillos and chilies and then pureeing them in a blender is the way many Mexican sauces are born. It sounds kind of intimidating and Aztec but once you’ve tried it, you’ll see that the results—the deep, charred flavor you get from it—is worth the small effort, and in fact, it’s the Umami of all Mexican cuisine, the secret, hidden flavor you’ve been waiting for all your life without even knowing it. Like love.

Smothered Green Onion Tacos
16 small green onions (whole)
2 yukon gold potatoes (peeled and sliced)
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 tomatillos (those are green tomatoes)
4 cloves garlic
2 mexican limes (aka: Key limes)
1 jalapeno chile
1 serrano chile
2 small vine ripened toamtoes
1 small bunch of cilantro (washed and put into two one-cup measures)
16 small corn tortillas

1, Wash the onions. Prepare a charcoal grill. When the coals are medium hot [don't you love how he just assumes we use coals, not gas?), toss the onions and potatoes with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, sea salt and pepper, and grill until they are golden brown on all sides. Place the onions in a covered bowl and let rest for 1 hour. When tender, cut off and discard the root end, and dice the onions.
2. Wash the tomatillos and cut them in half. Put a griddle on the grill [this is Jonathan's imitation of a Mexican comal, so if you have one of those, use it] and let it get very hot (about 10 minutes). Put a teaspoon of oil on the griddle and place the tomatillos outside down. Add the garlic,  jalapeño, serrano, and the tomatoes and cook them until they are dark brown. Turn them over and cook them on the other sides until dark brown. Place the vegetables in a bowl, cover with a plate, and steam for one hour. Remove the chillies and discard the stems and the seeds.
3. Place the contents of bowl number two (the tomatoes, tomatoes, garlic, and chillies) in a blender with one cup of cilantro, 1/2 cup of the diced onions, and the juice of one lime. Pulse to make a salsa. Season with salt.
4. Warm the tortillas. Toss the remaining onions and potatoes with the salsa. Spoon the mixture into the tortillas (in other words: make a taco), and garnish with lime and cilantro, and eat. Buen provecho.

Thanks Jonathan!

Eating Penance

February 17, 2009 § Leave a comment

As far as I can tell, there are two kinds of people who write about food: those who seem to have given in to the obvious occupational hazard, and those who are determined to continue to fit into their jeans. Years ago I went to a seafood restaurant in Boston, one meant to capture the spirit of the New England seafood shacks along the coast, which meant that 80% of the menu was fried foods, and the other 20% was drenched in mayonnaise. I was with a food writer friend who was doing a story. As the waitress continued to deliver what would turn out to be a total of something like 20 dishes—plastic baskets of fried clams and giant bowls of steamer clams and lobster rolls sloppy with mayonnaise on a grilled butter buns—she turned to me (I’m no rail but neither am I the picture of wreckless abandon), and said: How do you do it? She didn’t say this to him because he… how to say it… looks more the part of the food writer. He answered the waitress for me: “When she isn’t out with me eating buckets of fried foods and foie gras, she’s home eating Brussels sprouts and yams.” Which is precisely what I did the day after Valentine’s Day.

I ate dinner in two restaurants Saturday night, which might seem a little greedy for a night known for its shortage of restaurant reservations, but there it is… I ate first at Loteria (for the second night in a row), and then at Palate Food & Wine. Since this isn’t a restaurant review, I won’t go into either meal except to say that if you are ever trying to decide between the two, chose Loteria. Palate Food & Wine is an ambitious restaurant, and while I appreciate the ambition (sort of, or at least I feel I should say that), it felt like the chef’s equivalent of what they call “pressing” in tennis–where you try so hard to win, that you go past your ability and force errors. Veggies cooked en papillote in—get this—hand-churned butter, needed salt. Potted pork wasn’t served in the mason jars as the menu listed them. The waitress explained that they broke, which happens to glass, but the other solution might have been to buy more. Instead, they put the pork in a ceramic dish, which somehow made it more obvious that what we were eating was pig meat cooked in pig fat. An unusual and promising octopus dish seasoned with what tasted like Chinese Five Spice powder was a good idea, but whatever some cooks do to keep octopus from being rubbery (boil it I think) didn’t work.

But like I said, this isn’t a restaurant review. It’s an excuse to give you a recipe for what I like to cook and eat after a night of tacos and hand-churned butter. You guessed it: I steamed up some Brussels sprouts, tossed them with a bit of mechanically-churned butter and some sea salt. And I baked the predictable penance yam along with a butternut squash, and then I turned them into a delicious, creamy Butternut Squash Soup. Two hours of yoga later, and I was ready to head to Animal. It was a Sunday night, so I felt casual. I figured I’d throw on some jeans. While I still could.

Butternut Squash Soup

February 17, 2009 § 1 Comment

Giving a recipe for butternut squash soup feels something like giving a recipe for sliced tomatoes. I’ve provided the amounts I used to make this soup, below, which may well be the best of a long, long history of butternut squash soups, but you should know that I based the amounts largely on what I had: If I’d had three yellow onions, I might have used all three. Had I only two large carrots—or none—that’s what the recipe would say. If I didn’t have the good fortune of sweet potatoes rolling around in my refrigerator drawer, I would have made the soup without the potatoes (though the do give it a wonderful velvety texture, and a deep flavor you only get from things pulled from the ground. Had I not also the good fortune of two different neighbors, one whose front yard is landscaped with creeping thyme, the other with a rosemary bush large as a hedge, I may have skipped one or both of those, too. You get the idea. Don’t you?

1 butternut squash (or hubbard, acorn, cheese pumpkin)
1 (or 2 or 3) sweet potatoes (I used garnet, but use whatever you have or want)
Olive oil (nothing fancy)
2 big yellow onions (white would be fine and red would probably work too), chopped
1 bunch of carrots, tops removed, chopped
1 sprig of rosemary and/or a few sprigs of fresh thyme
1 arbol chile
2 quarts vegetable or chicken broth
1 lemon, halved
Sea salt

Preheat the oven to 400ºF.

Cut the squash in half. This is no small task as you know if you have ever tried to slice through a butternut squash. the best way I know to do it is to take a big knife you don’t care that much about, plunge it kung-fu style into the squash, then, using the knife handle, pick the squash up (it’s now like a giant lollipop) and bang it on the counter so the knife goes further in. Keep doing this until you’ve created enough of a crevice so you can pry the thing open, and do. Scoop the insides out like seeds from a cantaloupe and discard.

Put the squash face-down on a baking sheet and put it and the sweet potatoes (did you know that sweet potatoes aren’t really a potato?) in the oven. Remove the sweet potatoes when they’re soft to the squeeze; remove the squash when it’s soft. Today my sweet potatoes were such different sizes that I took each one out separately, as they were done. I wondered: Is it possible to overcook a sweet potato? I will get an answer to that question.

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a big soup pot. Add the onion, rosemary, thyme, and chile and saute over medium heat for about 10 minutes, until the onions are soft. Add the carrots and saute another 10 minutes until they are soft. The time doesn’t matter, I just put it there because somewhere, somebody would think: soft? 10 minutes? An hour? What exactly does it mean that an onion is soft? The goal here is: soft, sweet vegetables without any color. If the pan is too dry and you are burning the vegetables, add a splash of water or stock. The idea is to buy time. Cooking time that is.

When the squash and potatoes are done, add them to the pot—not the skin. Throw that in the trash or eat it with butter and salt. Or hand it to your dog. Add the stock and cook everything together for 10 minutes just to feel like you’re doing something, and like something is happening with the soup. Remove the herbs and chile. Repeat: REMOVE THE HERBS AND CHILE. Puree the soup with a stick (immersion) blender if you have one. If you don’t, puree it in batches in a blender or food processor and resolve to buy a stick blender before you make a pureed soup again.

Add a squeeze of lemon juice and salt to taste. If this soup is not the most delicious fall soup you have ever tasted, rich in rust-colored flavor, it probably needs more salt. I’m going to guess you know how to serve and eat soup so I am not going to explain. In the late, late fall, I served it with a plate of sliced tomatoes, the last heirlooms of the year from Chino Farms and as good as if it were August. Unless you live south of the equator or have a thing for tomatoes that taste like geraniums, I don’t recommend you eat this soup with tomatoes until next fall, during that short window when tomatoes are in season and it’s cool enough that you’re craving silky soup like this one. If you want to make the soup look like the sort of thing you’d find in a restaurant with stuff on top, there’s a recipe in Twist of the Wrist for b’nut squash soup topped with sauteed spinach and farro–and knowing Nancy, there must be bacon in there, too.

Good night. And good eats.

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