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Posts Tagged ‘Food’

Mérida



Yucatán. Mérida. Describing this city after spending only 5 days there would be doing it a disservice. One can’t presume that they will comprehend an entire culture, a way of life, a region of an even larger and more diverse country unless they’ve spent the better part of their life there.

I had first heard of Mérida, rather embarrassingly, about 6 years ago as a junior in college, drunkenly watching Tivoed episodes of House Hunters International late at night. I was coming off of a three month solo trip through Europe the Summer before and had a ridiculously unquenchable thirst for information on anything remotely resembling what I experienced there. It was the Spanish influence that originally made me want to travel to Mérida. After finally going there, for however short a time, its everything but the Spanish influences that make me want desperately to go back.

Instead, it is the people, the food and the history that make Mérida, and Yucatán in general, the place it is, the place that is indescribable. Our first night in town, staying at The Hacienda San Pedro Nohpat, was an interesting, if not strange, way to begin the trip. At the Hacienda, which is located a good 25 minutes outside of Mérida itself, my girlfriend and I spent the night speaking Spanglish, sharing beers and whiskey, and experiencing a side of Mérida that not a lot people see, with a Congressman from the area who happened to be staying there for some R&R. The Congressman was an embodiment of Mérida itself: unique, big-hearted, honest, inviting and passionate. It was he who bought us our first meal, Panuchos, and introduced us to a broader understanding of Yucatán living.

Panuchos

As a huge fan of pork I had set my culinary sites on two dishes in particular that are inherent to the Yucatán region, Poc Chuc and Cochinitas Pibil. Also, a soup called Sopa de Lima (lime soup).

The first restaurant experience we had was just down the street from the small center of the village, Kanasin. Mind you, this is the center of the village that Hacienda San Pedro Nohpat was in, not the Centro Historico of Mérida. The restaurant was La Susana Internacional. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, to try and describe the ride on a small motor bike taxi in the darkness of night to the restaurant is impossible. It was an experience I’ll never forget and I can’t articulate my feelings in any other way. At La Susana we had Poc Chuc Tacos and Sopa de Lima.

Sopa de Lima and Poc Chuc tacos

The next day we traveled by taxi, which only cost about about 200 pesos for 45 kilometers, to Progreso Beach, directly north of Mérida. To me, the beach was not very different than beaches in other countries, if there was a giant Wings on every corner you could have just as easily been in North Carolina or Nassau. This was where I first felt like an outsider. As a 6’1″ tall Romanian I fit in just fine in Europe and other countries, but as untanned gringos, my girlfriend and I stuck right out. To compact the situation, the addition of drunken college-age kids pestering us to take a photo with them so they could “have it for facebook, a picture with the gringos”, didn’t help. My girlfriend and a few other expats who were on the beach saw the humor in it, I did not. An asshole is an asshole in any country you go to. This isn’t all to say that Progreso is a bad spot. Its great. The sun was out, the water was cool, the beers at Buddy’s Bar were cold. There sure are a lot of Canadian expats…

Playa Progreso

The next restaurant we tried was Hacienda Teya. The food, atmosphere and location were all great and I recommend it to anyone going to Mérida.

Pork SausageRice and Fried Plantaine
Cochinitas Pibil
Cheese and ground pork

Our last night at the Hacienda we ventured out into the area around us and picked up some snacks from the stands that were preparing for the bullfight the next day. I can honestly say it was the greatest deep fried hotdog I’d ever had in my life.

Deep fried hotdogs and fries
Churros

At this point I’d like to explain what kind of experience you have when staying at the Hacienda San Pedro Nohpat. First, all of the reviews you may read online are completely accurate, and then some. The owner/operators of the Hacienda are an open-minded, understanding and laid-back-to-the-point-of-reclining type of people. For our last two nights we were the only guests and our hosts made us feel more than at home. I can say with 100% confidence that we will be back. They even let us have free reign of the kitchen and bar, as long as we were honest about what we took. At 25 pesos a beer, it wasn’t hard to be honest.

One of about 100 pictures I could use to show you the beauty of the Hacienda

After our stay at the Hacienda we spent 2 days in the Centro at Hotel Medio Mundo. The hotel’s location was great, it was just far enough away from the Centro Historico to feel like you had your own slice of Mérida all to yourself. From here we went on a few adventures and tried some good food.

Cenote San Ignacio in Chochola

Tacos from a stand in the Centro

Food stands in the Centro

Cochinitas round 2… or 3…

A cerveza, a tequila and a great view of the Centro

The Ballet performing in the middle of the city. For everyone. For Free.

The Hotel MedioMundo, Calle 55

Mérida, like any other city in the world, will show you as much about itself as you allow it to. Much like looking into a mirror you see only what you want, when you want. The stark contrasts of privilege and poverty, complicated and simple, anxiety and total calm are as abundant in Mérida as they are elsewhere in Mexico. In a city where one night, strolling through town, I feel the total and utter disassociation from everything around me I crave so much, only to have it all reversed the very next night by a boatload of tourists corralled in and out of shops full of factory produced knick-knacks and t-shirts and perpetuating the bad travel behaviors attributed to Americans. My short travels in Yucatán were just that, too short, but the impact they had on me will never be unfelt.

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New York. Trying to describe a few days in this city to anyone but your girlfriend, your mother or your friend who’s never been is like telling a group of teenagers that cigarettes are bad for them; everyone’s got their own way of doing it and, in the end, it will fall on, at best, ornery, overly-callous ears that will tell you you’ve got it all wrong.

Regardless, my experience in New York City was a great one. I’d like to go as far as to think, if not for a moment, that I “get” it. The style, the attitude, the similar-to-LA assumption that, even if you’re from a little farm in Iowa, here, you can be anyone you want to be. The moment I walked into Times Square I instantly found myself thinking things like, “Jesus, that’s a lot of overweight tourists” and “don’t these people know that some of the best chefs in the world are here, right now, running kitchens that I would give a body part to work in for a night?” And, I like to think, this is a good mindset to operating under while there.

New York is a city, mind you it’s a huge fucking place with more skyscrapers than any other city I’ve ever seen, but, still, it’s a metropolitan collection of different people, places and experiences unique unto itself just like any other urban hub on the planet. And, because of this, New York, hell the island of Manhattan alone, has more to offer than you can wish to see in a week. To hell with the three TGI Friday’s or the new Bubba Gump Shrimp they just built along 7th. If this is your, or someone you know, idea of New York then you, or said acquaintance, need help, and fast.

Before leaving I made a list of a few places I knew I wanted to see and, luckily for myself, I got to leave a check mark next to each of the items on the list (seriously, I’m a nerd, I checked each one off). Mind you I barely scratched the surface of what there is to see and do in Manhattan, let alone Brooklyn or Queens, but these are the places I checked out:

Gray’s Papaya Hot Dogs

As a Chicagoan I guess you could say I hold the hot dog to a certain degree of culinary scrutiny in other cities. The concept of a tube steak adorned with tomatoes, peppers, relish, onions, mustard, a pickle and celery salt is enough to make my salivary glands flow forth with anticipation. However, as a kid who grew up in Cleveland I, also, have an appreciation for the simpler kind of dog, some mustard, sauerkraut and yes, God forbid, some ketchup, too. In this regard, Gray’s Papaya makes the best hot dog I’ve eaten since the first time I tried Ballpark Mustard at Municipal Stadium with my dad as a wide-eyed youth. Luckily, there were two right around the corner from my hotel.


Bar Boulud

Unfortunately, I didn’t have my Canon while dining at Bar Boulud, but I did have my appetite. I had been waiting to try any of Chef Daniel Boulud’s creations, or a dish created by a chef who worked for him, for more than two years now. Finally, I was given the chance. It was perfect. The boudin blanc I ate there, coupled with the 2006 Coudoulet de Beaucastel I ordered with my appetizer of Oysters, was absolutely ridiculous. The only problem being, with this dish, that it made me hungry for a dish from Daniel. I fear it was only the beginning of a love affair with Boulud’s food.

Bar Americain

I am actually, and surprisingly, a big fan of Bobby Flay. I’ve been a fan, in fact, since I saw his show Boy Meets Grill on the Food Network back in college. The ginger chef with a hot wife and an affinity for chipotles and cilantro was one of the few things worth watching back then, let alone now, on the channel and, hell, he even cooked some kick ass food, on a Manhattan roof top no less. The lamb shanks I ordered were good. They weren’t the best pieces of red meat I’ve ever imbibed, but they were definitely better than any calorie and cholesterol explosion from Outback Steakhouse or similar. The beer selection was pretty cool, a good selection without a lot of the pretention you can get (I understand you have Rogue Dead Guy Ale, guess what, so does every other shit-hole bar on the planet). There was one surprisingly good offering that I went for, myself being on a budget, and it was the french fries. Sweet jesus they were good. I know, its hard to fuck up a fry and most, if not all, fine dining establishments make some really good french fries, but these were amazing.

Spotted Pig

I had really high hopes for this place. Located in the middle of the Village, right down the street from where Friends the TV show was set, it has the perfect location. To set the mood even more, picture a colder, rainy evening in the Village, a Thursday, with Autumn right around the corner. Feeling a little sick to my stomach from what I really hope wasn’t Bobby’s lamb shanks (but it might have been, that’s another story) I stepped into this place at what seemed to be fairy tale-caliber perfect timing as they were just about to begin seating customers. The ambience was relaxing, the perfect place for that first, second or third date, when you know you’re ready to sleep with the person you’ve started seeing. I ordered some house-made olives and roasted almonds to start out. Olives are one of my favorite foods and these were right up there with some of the best imports from Spain and Italy I’ve had.

I, also, ordered the skirt steak with horseradish and beets. It was melt in your mouth good and, for anyone who has tried to cook skirt steak at home, this is not easily accomplished, especially such a small cut of it. What made it even more fun was the fact that chef April Bloomfield was in the house, which was cool.


Sake Bar Hagi

I heard of this place from Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. I like sake and love tempura so this seemed like a good choice for a late night snack and some alcohol. It was a cool place, underground and hidden from plain sight. The weird thing being, though, that it was right in the middle of everything. An almost literal stone’s throw from Time’s Square, I would have assumed it would be filled with tourists and crying babies however, fortunately for myself, it wasn’t. As a matter of fact I would say that the clientele were young, under 35, and a nice mixture of young Japanese business men, travelers, locals and hipsters. The sake selection was alright, the food was great and inexpensive and the atmosphere… well, I think that’s probably this places’ greatest asset. And there is nothing wrong with that.


And some random pictures:










This pretty much sums up Times Square.







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Mici

As previously stated, I’m of Romanian decent. Last week I was given the chance to really learn from some first generation Romanians about my cultural and culinary heritage. It was pretty awesome, to say the least. When hanging out with my new found friends I sampled a few different, home-distilled brandies (which are akin to moonshine) called tuica. I got to sample an assortment from both Romania and from the States that were made from plums, pears and apples. Also, I was given the opportunity to try homemade mici, also known as mititei.

Mici is kind of like kabob, in a way, and is like a handmade, caseless sausage containing beef, pork and lamb with an array of herbs and spices. Its absolutely delicious, easy to make and filling. After returning home, I promptly tried my hand at it. This is what I did.


Let me state now that I apologize for the cell phone pictures for this recipe (and, basically, for the whole blog), they make the food look less than appetizing but I promise this is a great dish. Okay, back to the recipe. First, I picked up some ground pork, lamb and beef. You can, by all means, pick up meat from the butcher and grind it yourself in a food processor or meat grinder for even fresher ingredients, but for time’s sake I went with ground.


In a bowl, combine a good amount, about a third of a pound of each meat, and some paprika, dried parsley, cumin, thyme, garlic, salt and pepper and, I’m not completely sure why, a small amount of baking soda. Mash the mixture together with freshly washed hands until everything is good and mixed and then form into long, sausage-like shapes, a little more than the width of your thumb.


Heat up your griddle pan, grill pan, grill or, like me, a saute pan (with a little olive oil) to medium heat. Place the mici on the cooking surface and cook fully through. Mici definitely tastes the best when grilled, however my current living situation makes grilling a daunting task, so for posterity’s sake I used a pan.


Once the mici is fully cooked, plate and serve with some fresh bread and brown mustard. I’ve added a few slices of tomato with balsamic and olive oil for a vegetable. This is definitely worth making.

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As an Atomic Age enthusiast I feel like if you’ve seen one food advertisement from the era, you’ve seen them all, and you can see where our country was at its peak design and industry-wise but backwards in terms of food and nutrition. That being said, I had to post this image of corn beef hash from the fifties. Youngsters love it!

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I could go on about partially hydrogenated oils, trans fats, etc. but I think the tag line on this 25 year old tub of Crisco really says it more eloquently than I ever could…

Photo Source: crapatmyparentshouse.com

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Romania



As an American from Romanian descent, and having a Romanian last name, I get a bit frustrated with the way my great grandparents’ home country is represented in the media. Especially after I watch the Romanian episode of No Reservations, where one of my heros, Anthony Bourdain, traipses through the country with Russian stereotype Zamir and depicts the place as a backwards, down-trodden Dracula theme park with no culinary history.

Can I blame Anthony Bourdain and the crew of No Reservations for making a show like this? The answer is an unwavering “No”. After reading his subsequent blog entry about the episode, one can take away that they weren’t trying to make a show like this and they weren’t trying to paint Romania in a bad light, that’s just what happened, much like the episode in Sicily. However, I can say that the way the show was edited made it seem that, much like every other representation of Romania in the English speaking media, Bourdain and Co. didn’t want to, or try to, show any of Romania’s good points, of which it has quite a few. In my opinion, it was just another biased joke at an entire nations expense.

Either way, this isn’t an essay dedicated to bashing one of my literary, travel and culinary idols. I’m merely stating that Romania gets an unfair depiction in contemporary media. To quote John Peterson, from the Romanian Times:

“My feeling was (and still is) that Romania is a great “undiscovered” place to go, that it has lots to see and wonderful out-of-door venues.”

“What impressed me most was that Romania ‘fits together’. It is a culture and has a sense of place, with great landscape as a setting.”

“It is not a plastic tourist attraction, but a living, breathing neighborhood that is fascinating to engage, see and enjoy.”

In terms of culinary heritage, while nowhere near some of its neighboring nations, Romania has made some contributions. Being on the most eastern borders of the Roman Empire, many different cultures passed through the area now know as Romania and all left something different behind. One site that has showcased, perhaps better than I could, is The Culinary Anthropologist. Check it out here.

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Pimentón, or paprika, is a great spice used in a variety of dishes in a variety of countries. The word Pimentón is inherently spanish, while paprika takes its roots in Hungarian, literally meaning pepper. It is used in everything from goulashes to sausages and everything in between and it contains Vitamin C and antioxidants, although the quantities ingested would have to be pretty high to make it a good source for either.

I was recently at a boutique spice shop and had the opportunity to buy some fresh Pimentón, which inspired me to make a few dishes that utilized it. Both of these are tapas dishes based on Jose Andres’ own:


This is a simple dish of potato and chorizo sausage, deep fried and then sprinkled with paprika and served over a bed of piquillo pepper puree and olive oil. Just slice the potato on a mandolin, wrap them around the chorizo and skewer them (the skewers should be soaked in water prior to use) then drop them in canola oil to fry for a few minutes. Drop some piquillos, olive oil and Pimentón in a food processor and let it rip for a minute and plate. Not hard.


This was originally supposed to be a tapa made from mussels and potatoes, but the store had no fresh mussels and I wasn’t going to buy frozen… so I got scallops. Get some fingerling potatoes and clean them, while putting a pot of salted water on the stove to boil. Cut the potatoes into small pieces and drop them in the water to cook all the way through, shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes. In a saute pan, saute your baby scallops in a little olive oil and butter, adding some white wine at some point.

After the potatoes are cooked, serve them as shown.

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