Serendipity: Are Oranges Always Orange?

What the Best Oranges Look Like

What we usually think oranges should look like are bright orange throughout. We are unlikely to accept oranges that are green with some orange on their rinds. But the best oranges I have eaten, whether in solid form or juiced, are much too ugly to sell in an American supermarket. In his book Beyond the Mexique Bay (1934), Aldous Huxley describes his own discovery along these lines when he visited Trinidad:

The oranges that grow in these tropical islands are particularly juicy and aromatic; but they never appear on any European or North American market. As with so many of us, their faces are their misfortune; they have a complexion which nature has made, not orange, but bright green, irregularly marbled with yellow. Nobody, therefore, outside their countries of origin, will buy them. For fruit, strangely enough, is sold on the strength of its appearance, not of its taste. Every grower knows that his product must appeal first to the eye and only secondarily to the palate. Immense pains have been taken to embellish the skin, but how little does anyone ever trouble to improve the flavour, of our dessert! …

But this is not the whole story. Man looks out on reality through an intervening and only partially transparent medium—his language. He sees real things overlaid by their verbal symbols. Thus, when he looks at oranges, it is as though he looked at them through a stained-glass window representing oranges. If the real oranges correspond with the beau idéal of oranges painted on the window, he feels that everything is all right. But if they don’t correspond, then he becomes suspicious; something must be wrong.

 

Old Man Crazy About Fish Tacos

Is It Now My Favorite Meal? Could Be….

My first acquaintance with fish tacos was in Yucatán in 1975. I tasted not only regular fish tacos, but also tacos with pan de cazón, or shark. I liked it then, but over the decades the taste has begun to grow on me. There’s something about grilled fish with raw shredded cabbage, a squeeze of lime, and even avocado slices that is capable of sending me into transports of ecstasy.

Today, Martine and I went to Gilbert’s El Indio Mexican Restaurant in Santa Monica. I had heard they had good tacos, but their fish tacos, which I tried for the first time today, were nothing less than superb. Each was wrapped in two warm corn tortillas and served with wedges of lime and pico de gallo.

In Southern California, there are fish taco chains, such as Wahoo’s, but I care not for their product. Maybe because they slather on some white sauce that tastes like sugared mayonnaise. No, I want to control the flavor of my fish taco, and do not want any weird sauces to wreck my flavoring the taco as I wish.

I have lived in Los Angeles now for upwards of half a century, and I find that I like the cuisine of Southern California, which is really Mexican. I love pork tamales with hot sauce, salads with marinated nopalitos (prickly pear cactus pads), and aguas frescas made with tunas (cactus fruit, not fish). I love hot chiles, when Martine lets me cook with them (they irritate her eyes). Freshly heated corn tortillas are still magical to me.

Although I was raised as a Hungarian—and I still like Hungarian food, when I can find it—I must have been kidnapped by Mexican bandidos when I got off the train at Union Station in 1966.

By the way, the first taco I ever ate was at the Mexican Pavilion of the New York World’s Fair in 1965.

 

You Know What You Can Do With That Giant Zucchini?

Only Hungarians Know The Answer to This One….

Hungarians use their giant zucchinis to make tökfőzelék. (Don’t swallow your tongue while attempting to pronounce this word, or for sure you won’t enjoy your tökfőzelék!)

This is one of those Hungarian poor people’s dishes which are so delicious. My mouth still waters at the squash dishes my Mom used to make. I’ve made it myself, and it’s really tasty. Here’s what you’ll need:

2 zucchini, about 8-10 inches long
1 yellow summer squash, about 8-10 inches long
(You can use all zucchini or all summer squash if you prefer.)
3/4 tsp. salt (fine-grind salt is best)
2 T red wine vinegar
1 T finely chopped fresh dill
2 T finely chopped onion
2 T butter (or use a slightly smaller amount of olive oil if you prefer, but the butter adds a lot of flavor here.)
2 tsp. paprika, plus more for garnish (preferably Hungarian Szegedi sweet paprika: Don’t mess with the tasteless Spanish variety)
1/3 cup sour cream
1 T flour
1-2 tablespoons dill pickle juice, as needed
dried dill weed, for garnish
additional sour cream, for garnish

Follow the instructions at Kalyn’s Kitchen, complete with photographs to help you come up with a perfect tökfőzelék. Even if you can’t pronounce it, you’ll have no trouble eating it.

Why I’m REALLY Going to New Mexico

Hatch Chiles Roasting

After what I posted yesterday, I thought I’d say why I’m really going to New Mexico this summer. When you live in a particular climate zone for most of your life, you yearn for the foods of the region. As a not quite but almost native Californian, that means corn and chiles. And the best chiles in the world come from New Mexico. The joke is that there is a state question: “Red or green?” If you can’t make up your mind, there’s another answer: “Christmas” means a mixture of red and green. I will probably switch between red and green from meal to meal.

There is a nifty local restaurant site called Roadfood.Com. Take a look at the restaurants and dishes they recommend for New Mexico by clicking here. (Compare with what’s available in your state.)

Now poor Martine isn’t going to be able to eat any chiles, but she likes hamburgers and chicken and beans; so there’ll be plenty of generic American food to keep her happy.

The Frontier Restaurant Near the UNM Campus

Fortunately, there are some parts of the United States which have their own cuisine. Of particular interest to me are the shellfish of New England, the anything from Louisiana, the fried catfish and BBQ of the Southeast, and the chiles of New Mexico. All are American food at its best. Originally, I hailed from Ohio. Other than great home-cooked Hungarian food, I can’t say much good about the whole state.

What’s Happening to American Food?

Yeah, Well, I Mean Other Than That ….

In the big cities on the Right and Left Coasts, what we know of as American food is—I think, anyhow—starting to disappear. Not that American cuisine is necessarily the best in the world. Being Hungarian, I know it couldn’t hold a candle to a home-cooked Magyar meal. But there are some good American dishes of which I am quite fond. For someone who truly hates the Confederacy, I like Southern food: fried catfish, grits, collard greens, black-eyed peas—though I stop short at chicken. (Martine, on the other hand, is a big time poultry devotee.)

I think the problem is those guys with toques who like to think of themselves, standing in their kitchens, as masters of all they survey. The Food Channel has introduced us to a whole generation of soi-disant chefs who basically like to screw around with food, mix flavors like crazy, and build photogenic little towers on the plate. I think of these toque-n chefs the same way I think of those little kids who like to mix Coke with Mountain Dew with Root Beer at one of those automatic soda dispensers, thinking they’ll come up with something new and interesting. Of course, they never do.

Martine is unable to eat the range of food that I can. I would be perfectly content eating nothing but Asian food all my life, or Mexican, or Argentinean. She has irritable bowel syndrome and needs good plain food. We usually compromise when we go out: one meal to make me feel good, and maybe the next to make her feel good.

Today, for instance, we found that a restaurant chain we loved that had been out of business for over 10 years still had one branch in Sherman Oaks, near the intersection of Moorpark and Van Nuys Boulevard: It was Hamburger Hamlet. The food was not great—not like pigging out in New Orleans on a po’ boy or in Boston on scrod—but it is good; and the menu is large enough and interesting enough to make me feel better than dining at Denny’s or Norm’s.

In our lifetimes, I think the American coffee shops will disappear, at least in the big cities. I hate to think what the chefs of tomorrow will do to our stomachs.

The Original Pantry

Open 24 Hours a Day ... for 92 Years

Open 24 Hours a Day … for 92 Years … with the Usual Line

Yesterday was my birthday, so Martine took me out to lunch today. My choice was a restaurant which I last visited over thirty years ago with my father, who loved the place. The place in question was the Original Pantry at the corner of Figueroa and 9th Street.

Opened in 1928, the Original Pantry serves American comfort food only, with very few concessions to the ethnic diversity of Southern California. My cheeseburger was on toasted sourdough bread, and accompanied by French fries and fresh cole slaw. We had to wait three quarters of an hour for seats, but the crowd was good-natured and gratified by the Pantry’s no-nonsense menu.

One interesting fact: There is no front door lock. The restaurant has literally been open all day and all night since its opening. Even when the building had to move because of a new freeway ramp on the 110, it was open for breakfast at the old location and open for dinner at its present location. And once, a few years back, they were closed for a few hours for a health violation.

If you plan a visit to L.A., I recommend you try the Original Pantry. Good food at a reasonable price—but you can leave your credit cards at the hotel: The Pantry takes cash only.

The Street Food That Hijacked a Cuisine

A Typical Yanqui Mexican Dinner

A Typical Yanqui Mexican Dinner

The food pictured above is an almost archetypal Mexican meal. Except that you might have some difficulty ordering the same dishes in Mexico. First of all, tacos are almost never served in a crispy shell. You may get the beans as shown, but you are probably just as likely to get potatoes .

Mexican restaurant menus consist primarily of foods which, south of the border, are usually referred to as antojitos, or street food as sold by street vendors or market stalls. Typically included are such items as tacos, enchiladas, burritos (but only near the border with the U.S., else what you are ordering is a small burro), gorditas, quesadillas, tortas, chalupas, and tostadas. Common elements include corn (and very occasionally flour) tortillas, corn meal, chiles, a tomato-based sauce, meat fillings, and cheese.

But if you eat at an actual restaurant in Mexico, you are unlikely to find any concentration on antojitos, unless a large portion of their diners are Gringos. At lunchtime, you can almost order a comida corrida, or set menu, which includes soup and/or salad, a piece of meat, potatoes, and a postre, or dessert. You will almost never get tortilla chips.

Mind you, I love antojitos. For dinner tonight, a had a combo of string beef tamal and chile relleno with rice and beans, and chips and salsa. The only real Mexican touch was the pickled carrot salad. If I were in Ensenada and points south, I would prefer to find filete de pescado al mojo de ajo (filet of fish sautéed with garlic) with potatoes, perhaps with flan or queso napoletano for dessert.

So if what is keeping you from going to Mexico is a dislike for tacos or other tortilla-based foods, you need not worry. There will, of course, be differences, such as beef that is tougher and not aged as much as our way. But the general impression of the meal as a whole is nowhere like the one pictured above.