Plague Diary 11: The Cosa Nostra Cooking Hour

I Develop My Cooking Skills

Living during a time of pestilence, I have decided to become a better cook. My goal is to cook meals that both Martine and I like. We both like Italian food, but for some reason, Los Angeles is not a great place for Italian cooking.

Although Martine was born in France, she spent her most of her childhood in Oceanport, New Jersey, where she loved the pastas with rich red sauce—not the pale imitation to be found in Southern California.

Several years ago I picked up a used cookbook written by ex-Mafioso Henry Hill entitled The Wiseguy Cookbook: My Favorite Recipes from My Life as a Goodfella to Cooking on the Run. Now you may remember an entertaining gangster film directed by Martin Scorsese and released by Warner Brothers in 1990 entitled Goodfellas. The film starred Ray Liotta as a mafioso with the non-Italian moniker of Henry Hill. Well, it’s the same Henry Hill as wrote the cookbook.

Today I spent several hours preparing a favorite dish that Hill cooked while serving time at Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary in Pennsylvania on narcotics charges. The recipe is for “Oven Penitentiary Sauce with Sausage” on page 133. For some reason, there is an Italian grocery in Santa Monica called Bay Cities Italian Deli whose shelves are not picked clean by hoarders. (I guess they’re too busy snooling on their stash of toilet paper.) So I have access to high-quality Italian groceries, while not having comparable access to American goodies at the supermarket.

The Oven Penitentiary Sauce with Sausage was a big hit with Martine, and I loved it as well. It was the rich Italian food of the Italian migration to the East Coast, with lots of garlic and fresh basil baked in a 350º oven for an hour. I even added my own touch, combining the sauce with fusilli pasta in the oven for an additional quarter hour.

I am looking forward to exploring this cookbook in greater detail during the prevailing plague conditions.

 

 

Plague Diary 10: Black Beans and Rice

Simple Cooking During Times of Quarantine

Of late, my favorite dishes have combined vegetarianism with hot chiles. Meat doesn’t please me as much, probably because I suspect that over the years the quality has declined somewhat. On Tuesday, I cooked a tuna noodle casserole for Martine to eat for suppers this week. For myself, I made my favorite easy and mostly vegetarian black beans and rice dish. Here is a list of the ingredients:

½ cup olive oil
1 cup Basmati rice
1 chopped onion
2 minced Serrano chiles
Several cloves of garlic, minced or crushed
1 15 oz can of black beans with liquid
2½ cups chicken or vegetable stock
Salt and pepper to taste
Garnish with chopped parsley or cilantro

Start by chopping the onions and adding to the heated olive oil. Then add the garlic, but don’t wait too long before adding the chile: Garlic burns quickly when left untended, leading to an unpleasant flavor. Basmati rice can be a little difficult to work with as the amount of liquid to use is often variable depending on the particular rice used. Add the rice to the browning onions, garlic, and chiles, and stir for a couple of minutes. Lower the flame, then add 2½ cups stock, cover, and leave untouched for about 12 minutes.

Then and only then, remove the cover and stir briefly. If all the liquid is absorbed, add some more and continue. Then open a can of black beans and pour the beans and the liquid it came with on top of the rice. Re-cover the pot and cook for another ten minutes or so, adding salt and pepper to taste. Before serving, garnish with parsley or cilantro.

This quantity of beans and rice usually lasts me for four meals.

The main difficulty during quarantine is that hoarders usually scoop up all the Basmati rice from supermarkets. You can buy it in 5- or 10-pound bags at an Indian or Persian grocery.

 

 

Yucatán Yummies

La Chaya Maya in Mérida

One of the best parts of my recent trip to Mexico was the general high quality of the meals I ate. Following is a brief survey of some of the highlights:

Mérida. My favorite restaurant in Mérida was La Chaya Maya on Calle 55 near Parque Santa Lucia. In all, I ate there five times. The specialty there is Yucatec Maya food, such as papadzules, salbutes, panuchos, and the excellent sopa de lima. It was there that I discovered chaya, or tree spinach, which when mixed with fruit juice makes an incredibly refreshing drink.

Martine vividly remembers sopa de lima from her trip with me to Yucatán in 1992. La Chaya Maya’s sopa de lima was the best, with its shredded chicken and tart local limes.

Honorable mention goes to Marlin Azul on Calle 62, where I had a memorable ceviche de pescado for just a few dollars.

Santa Elena is a small town between the ruins of Uxmal and Kabah. The Pickled Onion is a B&B run by a British and Canadian expat by the name of Valerie Pickles. Although she no longer does the cooking, the breakfasts at her place were memorable, but the poc chuc (a Maya pork dish) I had one evening was superb. I treated my Maya guide to the Puuc Hill ruins to a meal there, and he was so enthusiastic that he wanted to bring his family there.

A Few Miles South of Champotón is a restaurant on the Gulf of Mexico shore where I had the best seafood lunch of my life: It was a filete de pescado a la Veracruzána (filet of fish with a sauce of tomatoes, onions, and olives) at a restaurant whose name had the word Tortuga in it. I only wish I remembered the exact name. I liked my lunch there so much that I kept ordering the same dish elsewhere, but it never was quite so good elsewhere.

Campeche. I ate twice at Marganzo near the Plaza Independencia in Campeche. The seafood was great, particularly a botana (freebie extra dish) of octopus ceviche, which was incredibly fresh and tender.

The only bad meal I had in Mexico was also in Campeche, at a Chinese steam table buffet called the Restaurante Shanghai where all the dishes were tepid.

 

 

Fish Frenzy

The Perfect  Place for Filete de Pescado a la Veracruzana in Champotón

As I get older, I begin increasingly to tend toward being a vegetarian. Except where fish is concerned.

In my recent trip to Mexico, I visited three fishing ports: Campeche, Champotón, and Progreso. In each of them, at least one meal a day was dedicated to seafood, mostly filete de pescado a la Veracruzana, which consists of a filet of fish with a sauce of tomatoes, onions, and green olives. The best were at a place called something Tortuga something at Champotón, the Marganzo in Campeche, and Shark in Progreso.

I do not usually eat a lot of shellfish, though I had some excellent ceviche de pulpo (octopus) in Campeche and Progreso. Typically, I do not eat shrimp because of some bad experiences with symptoms resembling a sudden onslaught of strep throat. I usually tell everybody that is because of the mercury levels in coastal waters by large cities. In fact, I don’t know the real reason; but I do know I can eat shrimp caught in northern waters or in the Caribbean—though I usually just don’t. I have had similar experiences with lobster.

Ceviche de Pescado at Mérida’s Marlin Azul

Ceviche is one of my favorite dishes. It consists of raw fish or other seafood “cooked” by marinating in lime juice and served with chopped onions, tomatoes, chiles, and cilantro, as in the photo above. The fish actually tastes cooked, though it is always served cold. I grew to love the dish when I visited Lima, Peru, where it is the lunch dish of choice, but is rarely served at dinner time.

The only other place in the world when I went crazy over the fish was Iceland. Rarely did I eat at restaurants there which were not practically in view of the local fishing fleet. And the types of fish were radically different from what I was used to.

 

 

Black Beans and Rice

(Mostly) Vegetarian and Muy Picante

As time goes by, I become more vegetarian. Although I do all the cooking in our household, I can’t altogether dispense with meat. This is mostly because Martine seems to think that meat is the only good source of protein. So I alternate meat dishes with vegetarian dishes. At times, I can cook something that Martine is not interested in sampling, such as my black beans and rice.

Now black beans and rice is not normally a spicy dish—but the way I make it, it is. Here is a list of ingredients:

1 cup Basmati rice
1 chopped onion
2 minced Serrano chiles
Several dried chile pods
Several cloves of garlic, minced or crushed
1 15 oz can of black beans with liquid
2½ cups chicken or vegetable stock
Salt and pepper to taste
Garnish with parsley or cilantro

As a certified chile-head, I occasionally have to indulge my love of capsicum. (Don’t worry, I got something else for Martine, who hates chiles so much that she can’t be in the apartment when I cook with them.)

Years ago, I read a book by Frances Moore Lappé entitled Diet for a Small Planet. Her belief was that one could get all the protein one needs by using ingredients whose amino acids, when cooked together, form a complete protein. Beans and rice are two such complementary foods.

Although I tend to use chicken stock to cook the rice, I do not add pieces of meat. So, in fact, my way of preparing it with chicken stock is not technically vegetarian. If you want, you can use vegetable stock or even water.

 

Deadly Nightshade

So Many Foods I Love Are Related to Deadly Nightshade

On several occasions, I have been warned by good friends to beware of foods that are related to deadly nightshade (a.k.a. belladonna). Unfortunately, these include some of my favorites, including:

  • Potatoes
  • Tomatoes
  • Chile peppers
  • Bell peppers
  • Eggplant
  • Paprika

It is not unusual to find foods that have unsavory relatives. Perhaps most common of these is common table salt, which is made up of two poisonous elements, sodium and chlorine. Despite all the bad press that salt has received from many in the medical profession, it is indisputable that the human body cannot exist without it, especially in hot climates.

Despite what some of my more health-food conscious friends may say, I have no intention in cutting back on members of the family Solanaceae. In fact, I believe that the foods in the above list are positively good for me. If anything, I will eat more of them in future. For instance, I cannot imagine living my life without chile peppers.

 

 

 

 

Sandwich Excess

What Ever Happened to the Simple Sandwich?

The Carls Jr.  hamburger chain had a TV ad a few years ago that used as its motto: “If it doesn’t get all over the place, it doesn’t belong in your face.” It seems that what used to be a rather simple dish has grown out of all proportion.  I used to be a big fan of sandwiches; and I still am—if I make them myself!

Over the course of the last few years, what has happened to sandwiches is a microcosm of what has happened to American cooking. In a word, there is more of everything, until it is a major production including the beginnings of a salad and the obligatory glop, whether it is mayonnaise, mustard, Russian or Ranch dressing.

Under no circumstances would I make a sandwich if:

  • It wouldn’t fit in my mouth
  • Most of its contents would drip onto my shirt

My Father and my uncle used to make fun of me because I tended to make sandwiches out of all kinds of meat dishes, which they preferred to eat in splendid isolation from bread, raw and pickled vegetables, salad dressing, and cheese. In fact, my sandwiches were rather simple affairs, and they still are.

Go to Google Images and search for pictures of sandwiches, or click here. You won’t find anything but rather elaborate productions.