Sunday, July 1, 2007

Catching up, pt 2 (Fall 05-Summer 06)

After a long year braving the cold climes of Cambridge alone, Abby finally arrived to start her first year of law school. The first big dinner party of the year was, in my opinion, a big success. The only failure was that we didn't do another one. Jon (my roommate that year) and I had grand visions of starting a monthly dinner party, but, you know, life happens, you get busy, and, more often than not, the dinners that Jon and I would plan revolved around delivery pizza (Dominoes, I am embarrassed to admit) with pineapple and peppers (an unlikely, but surprisingly tasty combination) and a soccer game.
I only have a couple pictures from this dinner party and, alas, none of them were of the food. So, the best I could do was find a picture of good friends, empty plates, and empty wine bottles. If you're curious, the menu included a salad with wine poached pears and goat cheese, roasted butternut squash soup with truffle oil, creme fraiche, and chives, and herbed gnocchi with roasted root vegetables. Instead of the somewhat bland potato gnocchi of Italy, I went with a Thomas Keller recipe for French style gnocchi. The main ingredients are flour, butter, gruyere, and tons of herbs. Healthy? No. But it was damn tasty.

The next and last big dinner party that 34 Sparks Street saw was Thanksgiving. It seems that most of the Harvard population vacates Cambridge for the long weekend, but Abby and I were able to find enough people to fill up a couple of tables.

Thanksgiving has to be one of my favorite holidays. When I was younger, Christmas was the big thing. So great was my anticipation, I would often sneak down stairs in the middle of the night after mom and dad had put all of the presents under the tree and inspect the various packages in the dim, holiday glow that you can really only get from a lit Christmas tree. I would almost always wake up before the sun was up (which isn't saying much, given the latitude) so I could continue to speculate about what sort of Christmas haul I would pull in that year. It just killed me that we couldn't open presents until after breakfast. Now, though, my family sleeps in on Christmas, and idles over breakfast while, in typical Northwest fashion, drinking pots and pots of coffee to combat the oppressive greyness of a Seattle winter. We might get around to opening presents at around 3. Last year, it was dark before we were finished.

As the excitement of Christmas has waned, Thanksgiving has firmly secured number one holiday status. I start thinking about recipes weeks in advance, and as soon as the November issues come out, I obsess over all of the options that the various food magazines present. I begin preparation days in advance. The perfect turkey, I find, takes several days to prepare.

I made my first Thanksgiving turkey in DC, the year after I graduated from college. I made the turkey, Spencer and Tyler made about 50 pounds of mashed potatoes, and Jacob, the host, made cranberry sauce and a pecan pie. I didn't really know what I was doing, the turkey was really dry, and my attempt at gravy was overly thick, lumpy, and salty. My friends said it was really good, but I think they were just being nice. We ate and drank and at and drank, and when the dust had settled, a number of us were sprawled out on Jacob's living room floor, getting into the serious business of digesting a volume of food that had no business being contained by our stomachs. This is what it must have been like to go to those Roman feasts.

This Thanksgiving was my next time making a turkey, and in the intervening years, I've become a lot better at cooking. Even so, the turkey was not without its flaws. Nervous about producing another dry turkey I undercooked it this time. At least it looked nice, and the parts that were cooked correctly were really good. Several of our guests contributed to our Thanksgiving feast, making my work a little easier.

Here are a couple of pictures.

Thanksgiving is usually the time of year that things start to get ugly in New England. The days or short and the weather is harsh. It is exactly the kind of character building, rigorous climate that I image the Puritans of yesteryear just loved. Or, perhaps it was the New England winters that made the Puritans the frigid, humorless.....well....Puritans, that they were. In any case, my time in New England has given me an understanding of spring break that I never could quite achieve as an undergraduate on Pomona's utopian campus. March brings a thirst for sun that can only be quenched with a trip to someplace tropical...Costa Rica!

Abby and I traveled around Costa Rica for about a week and a half. The highlight of the trip was Playa Samara, a tiny, isolated beach town on the Nicoya Peninsula. This is the kind of place that postcards are made of. It has yet to be discovered by the hoards of undergraduate spring breakers that invade several of the country's more well known beaches, and I hope it stays that way.
We were fortunate enough to find a room at a place right on the beach. It was a perfect collection of little bungalows situated around a shaded courtyard with hammocks strung between the palm trees.
We spent a couple of days here doing absolutely nothing but laying in the hammocks, reading, and snacking on the fresh, local produce.
At one point, we ventured down the beach about 50 yards to a beach front bar that a couple of guys from New York had just opened. Shortly after we sat down, me with a beer, Abby with something fruity and tropical, a mass of thunderclouds gathered, blocking out the sun and unleashing a torrent of swollen, tropical raindrops. Loud thunderclaps startled a band of wild horses that roamed around the beach, and we could see them galloping down the beach, illuminated by lightening. And then, not 20 minutes later, it was done. The retreating clouds framed a perfect sunset.

On our last night in Samara, Abby and I decided to take advantage of all of the fresh local ingredients and cook dinner in the communal kitchen. Actually getting our hands on the ingredients was more difficult than expected. We were able to get all of the fruit that we needed at a little shop down the street from our bungalow, but it seemed that there was not a single place in the little fishing village that actually sold fish. Luckily, Abby was there, and she has a real knack for making things happen when we travel. After much asking and charming, Abby found a grizzled old fisherman who reluctantly sold us some freshly caught Mahi Mahi. Using what little utensils and cooking implements I could find in the kitchen, I made a meal of rice boiled in coconut milk with coconut shavings and pan seared Mahi-Mahi with a mango avocado relish. Some of our fellow guests at the lodge supplied drinks and shared dinner with us.
After spring break, I got to the serious business of studying for my qualifying exams that were only a couple of months away. I wanted to reward myself with another vacation after I finished the exams, but Abby was in Sierra Leon, so I hit the road again with a new set of travel companions: Andrew and my brother Joe. We started in Oaxaca, which I was really excited about. Oaxaca might be the culinary capital of Mexico, and the food from this region is nothing like the Mexican food that you get in the states. This region is known for its chocolate and moles. Moles are complex sauces that can have upwards of 30 ingredients, and many families have their own recipes. I imagine that these recipes are deeply personal. On our first night in town, Andrew, feeling a bit adventurous, tried chile relleno stuffed with grasshoppers. Chapulinas, as they call them, are a popular snack in Oaxaca, and you can see baskets full of them in the markets, roasted and salted like peanuts. They don't taste so great. Fittingly enough, I thought the grasshoppers tasted a lot like grass. While I'm on the topic of bugs, its worth mentioning that Abby and I tried termites in Costa Rica. They taste like carrots and have a nice little crunch to them. I've heard that cicadas taste like pistachios when properly prepared, but I wasn't able to work up the courage to eat them the summer they showed up in DC.
We spent the rest of our time in Oaxaca trying some of the dishes made from more familiar ingredients. Our favorite place in Oaxaca was called La Naranja, by all accounts, the best restaurant in Oaxaca. If La Naranja is the best restaurant in Oaxaca and Oaxaca is the culinary center of Mexico, well, one might conclude that this is a damn good restaurant. I'm sure Mexico City and some of the bigger tourist destinations have more high end eating, but this restaurant is the place to go to get all of the best Oaxacan dishes, simply but well prepared.

A trip to Mexico would not be complete without trying some of the street food. Oaxaca's central square was filled with protesters when we were there, and several street vendors were there to fill their hungry stomachs. I absolutely LOVE the tacos that the street vendors sell. You can get 4 of them for about a dollar.
Prior to this trip, I had only been fishing a couple of times, but Andrew and I spent much of our trip trying to reel in a fish. Our first attempt was in Lago Atitlan. Here's Andrew catching.....nothing.
We asked around at the docks to see if there was anyplace that we could rent a boat and fishing poles and eventually found a guy that gave us peddle boat and two crappy fishing poles. Armed with our fishing gear, our misguided ambitions, and some cold beer, Andrew and I peddled into the center of the lake, where we didn't get a single bite and spent most of our time untangling fishing line from the reels, which were constantly jamming. All the while, a current was carrying us further and further from the docks. We didn't notice this until we decided it was time to head back.

Horrible! Getting back was absolutely horrible. We didn't have any oars, and the peddles operated a wheels that hardly dipped into the water. It felt like we were trying to row upstream using teaspoons as paddles. We would spin and spin and spin and, still, the current would take us backwards. To make any progress, we had to cut across the current towards the shore and skirt around the edge of the lake. If we ever stopped peddling, we would start going backwards. We peddled, peddled some more, frantically waived at passing boats to tow us back to shore, and continued peddling. After about an hour of constant peddling (believe me, an hour is a hell of a long time to be stuck on a crappy little boat that will start going backwards if you stop peddling), we made it back to the docks. The guy the charged us extra for taking the boats out for an extra hour, and a couple days later I learned that the lake is so deep and clear that there is not enough nutrients in the water to support fish. There weren't any fish in the lake. There were never any fish in the lake. We were swindled! I was so pissed off.

We left Lago Atitlan and headed towards the town of Livingston in the little corner of Guatemala that touches the Caribbean. One of the best things about Livingston is getting there. The only way to get to Livingston is to take a long boat ride down the Rio Dulce. Once there, Andrew and I made another attempt to catch some fish.
Again, nothing. The only bites we got were from mosquitoes.

A few days later, we were in Belize, feasting on all sorts of fantastic seafood. We gave fishing another shot.
This attempt looked a little more promising from the get go. For the first time, we had good bait (fresh sardines), and we were near a reef that supported all sort of sea life. We also had the watchful eye of a new friend to spot any fish that might be roaming around the docks.
Eventually, I caught a little barracuda. I really had no idea what to do with it and was scared of its sharp teeth. Andrew must have thought that was pretty funny, and eventually he took over, removed the hook, and threw the fish back.

The next day, we finally scored. We hired someone to take us out to the reefs where we caught all sorts of fish
including a couple of barracudas. We would have had three, but the last one slipped the hook just as Andrew was pulling it up to the boat.
In addition to the big fish, we caught a ton of smaller snappers. There were more of them than I could believe. I would cast and 5 seconds later I would be reeling in a fish. The second the hook started sinking into the water, you could see fish speeding towards the bait. We each must have caught over 3o fish. We threw back most of them, but our guide took a few home for dinner. After we got back to shore, our guide cleaned our fish for us and Joe, Andrew, and I went to a local restaurant to get a side dishes, and then fired up the grill at our hotel's beachfront bar. For the whole fish (I don't recall the varieties), we stuffed the cavities with lemon, garlic, salt, and pepper. We scored the flesh on the outside and packed the cuts with garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper. The barracuda stakes got a simple treatment of olive oil, salt, and pepper. One of the other guests at our hotel, a gregarious Spaniard (pictured below) whose name I can't remember, gave me the tip that when grilling the barracuda, I should take it easy on the olive oil and, to maximize flavor, dress the fish with a moderate amount of raw olive oil at the end. This, he said, was the way the Spanish grill seafood. It was fantastic, and we had enough to feed all of our neighbors and the hotel staff.
The meal was fantastic. I really think I get fishing now. It is so satisfying to be involved in the complete food process, catching, preparing, and finally, eating. Also, there is nothing like fish that was swimming around an hour before you eat it. Doesn't get more fresh than that.

No comments: