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April, 2008 | Manolo's Food Blog
Archive - April, 2008

California mulching

Lately Mr. Henry has been thinking a lot about dirt.

Riverside Park has exploded with flowering plants that must have been stirring in the dirt for some time, unseen and unheard, because last week all at once they burst forth in a simultaneous crescendo, intoxicating each stroller, jogger, and rollerblader. Walking along the Hudson this morning Mr. Henry was nearly overcome by the cherry and crab apple blossoms. The air was thick and its perfume was rapturous.cherryblossoms.jpg

Last week, as well, the wet earth began to exude a loamy aroma, a black bouquet captured in truffles, red wine, roquefort, and root vegetables.

There is nourishment in dirt, and not just nourishment for the body. Working a garden, aerating the soil, planting, trimming, mulching, bending over for hours, these are activities that soothe the soul. (Your back may remember them differently, however.)

As she does every year at springtime, Mrs. Henry once again announced her resolve to move back to California. When asked just why she feels this compulsion, she responds opaquely, “Wouldn’t you prefer to live in California?” as if such sentiment were self-evident to anyone with half a wit.manzanita_bark_lg.jpg

Televised images of redwood forests stir her vitals. At the merest mention of avocados, manzanita, or heirloom tomatoes she whirls dervish-ly around the kitchen issuing grim promises to cabinets and countertops that pretty soon she’s moving back west to start a garden.

Little Henry greets these seasonal pronouncements with an eye rolled heavenward and a deep sigh identical to the sigh Mrs. Henry has perfected through years of practice.

There is nothing much to eat in the market this month that is fresh, but no matter. Morning and evening, together with his noble hound Pepper, Mr. Henry bathes in the smell of cherry blossoms in the park. The vapors of spring substitute for the fruits of summer.

For dinner he buys a simple chop and opens a simple bottle of wine. He roasts baby Yukon gold potatoes and tosses french beans in parsley. The evening walk is so gentle and kind that he does not seek complications at the table.
Offbeat spring salads have begun to appear – mâche and baby arugula – welcome treats after winter’s steady diet of romaine. If Mrs. Henry had a garden right now, she might dig out greens that had “wintered over.”

Earthworms are wriggling. Hibernating amphibians are exhuming themselves. Migrating songbirds are arriving and building nests. Mrs. Henry is muttering and baking banana bread. Mr. Henry hides quietly in his study.

Vermouth romance

In the thrall of his own remembrances, Mr. Henry set out to prepare a proper Moroccan dinner for the family. Unfortunately, however, he could not devote half the day to the task, nor had he prepared pickled lemons 30 days ago. What to do?

He telephoned Nadia for help. She recommended a one-hour stovetop tagine (stew) of chicken with grated onion, saffron and ginger. In this tagine there is a curious trick common to Moroccan cooking: you load the ingredients upside down.
Nadia uses Cornish game hen but Mr. Henry prefers skinless chicken.

In the bottom of a heavy stew pot, place the chicken without oil or butter. Grate two normal sized onions in the food processor and pile the onion on top of the chicken. Add a teaspoon or more of ginger, a half package of saffron, salt, pepper, touch of cooking oil, and tablespoon of butter. With low heat the meat will brown slightly, release juices, and steam the onion. Once the covered pot is leaking steam, stir the tagine and continue cooking on low until meat is falling off the bone. If you want more sauce, add a touch of stock early on.

In Morocco this is served over couscous accompanied by prunes stewed in sugar and cinnamon. A crusty bread, however, serves equally well.

Mr. Henry inhaled the simple but exotic amalgamation of flavors redolent of ancient Andalusia and, despite Nadia’s express rejection of this idea, poured in a good half cup of dry white vermouth. Was it anathema? Well, so what if it was. The result was excellent.

Mr. Henry rarely makes a sauce without adding some spirit or other. More often than not, however, he pours not from the bottle but from the chef’s personal glass.

Lately Mr. Henry has been on a something of a vermouth binge, the dry white French version, mind you, not the sweet red Italian version. A fortified and spiced wine, vermouth adds magic to any dish that includes the flavors of Provence or the Piemonte. Think of herbs de provence, garlic, and rosemary – all rather intense flavors that can easily become too insistent. How do you force them to blend so that one does not predominate? Any white wine will work, but vermouth’s spices yield an aroma less sweet and more woody.

One of the forty or more spices in vermouth is juniper, hence its walk-on role in the dry martini. Wormwood (the origin of the word vermouth) adds another woody note, an aroma that recalls the dusty hillsides of Provence.draguignan053.jpg

In the 1980’s outside Draguignan in the Var, a forest fire destroyed much of the old growth forest on either side of the autoroute that follows almost exactly the ancient Roman via Domitia. Setting out from Gawain’s castle one sunny morning Mr. Henry climbed a long hill through waist high bushes vigorously sprouting from the charred earth. For no apparent reason he kept dreaming of roast lamb. Covered in fine pungent dust, he realized he had just hiked through two miles of rosemary.parsnip_gladiator.jpg

Last week he found some firm parsnips in the market and decided to roast them with garlic, shallots, olive oil, herbs de provence, and fresh rosemary. In the LeCreuset oval gratin dish, beautiful for serving, he roasted his parsnips covered for 45 minutes. The dish was nearly done but seemed, like Winston Churchill’s pudding, to have no theme. A liberal pour of vermouth and another 15 minutes in the oven was the coup de grace.

On Saturday night after Little Henry returns from fencing class, Mr. Henry usually set up place mats in front of the TV to watch reruns of Monk and to eat hamburgers. Mushrooms sautéed with bacon and onion provide a savory accompaniment. Here again a dash of vermouth brings it all together. Be sure to add it when the pan is hot so that the alcohol evaporates more completely and the food does not absorb it too deeply. Otherwise you get vegetables that taste of little else but vermouth. There is such a thing, after all, as too much romance.

High hopes

“Luv” back at you, Poochie, for your comprehensive and very informative letter on Disney restaurants.

At Epcot and at the resort hotels they do serve passable fare. Mr. Henry has eaten at the Swan and Dolphin, at the Beach and Yacht Clubs, and at most of the country pavilions, but he has yet to eat anything really delicious. The hamburger at Spoodles was probably the best meal he had in all of Disney World (with Sam Adams on tap, to boot).

At Animal Kingdom, soaked from hat to shoes after the Kali River raft ride, he froze solid in the Rainforest Cafe’s air conditioning even before being seated in their windy frigidarium.

The real problem at Disney World is not the absence of good food but the near impossibility of getting a table. You have to book months in advance. (“Is a 5:00 reservation alright?”) A vacation lacks a certain spontaneity when you know exactly where and when you’ll be eating lunch and dinner each day.paulawolfert.jpg

Pilgrim writes that the Moroccan restaurant at Epcot serves great food. Well, yes but not quite. Mr. Henry ate there once and remembers it as a pale approximation of the real thing. Paradoxically, Moroccan cooking is one of the great undiscovered cuisines of the world, but not for lack of restaurants.

After his first trip to Morocco Mr. Henry, high on the vapors of couscous and nectarines, decided to abandon his research into modern Moroccan cultural and political history so as to write a Moroccan cookbook instead, one that captured the genius of Esther’s recipes. Landing on the American shore, he straightaway went to the bookstore to discover a freshly published book by a first time writer, Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco by Paula Wolfert (1973).

Although Mr. Henry may cavil with the inclusion of smin (rancid butter) in some recipes, a special bugaboo of his, the book is a monumental achievement. In addition to capturing the wild spirit of the place, Wolfert offers a spot-on description of the most celebrated and difficult Moroccan dish, basteela, (Paula calls it basteeya) a savory pie of braised squab, curdled eggs, and toasted almonds. You haven’t lived until you’ve tasted a great one.

On reading Wolfert’s Couscous, Mr. Henry abandoned his high ambition and returned to the drear of academe, defeated and directionless.

Wolfert noted then that no restaurant anywhere – not in Fez, Marrakech, or Paris – prepares food that even approximates the delicacy and refinement served at home. This remains true even today 35 years later.

Mr. Henry believes the clue to this riddle lies in the sexist and medieval division of labor that marks Moroccan society. Although women do all the cooking at home, and all the rest of the housework as well, they are not permitted to leave home to run service businesses like restaurants. Consequently, no Moroccan restaurant anywhere has a real Moroccan chef in the kitchen.


At Epcot last month, having been refused service by Europe and North America, Mr. Henry quickly dusted off his Arabic as he approached the hostess of the Moroccan pavilion. “Do you have a table for seven?” he asked flawlessly. She disappointed him both by refusing to find a table and by responding in French, the same way the deracinated Algerian youth in Paris respond, despite their militant identité arabe. Oh well. Mr. Henry’s high hopes were bound to be disappointed, and not for the first time, either.

Wolfert, by the way, now lives in San Francisco. Only in California, where the climate mimics Morocco’s, can you find the exceptionally flavorful tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and the like that are essential to Moroccan cuisine.

Amusement at Disney World

Bridey writes:

Well, it’s just so desperately chic to mock other people’s pleasures, isn’t it? I bet Mr. Henry would come home from Las Vegas with the shocking news that it’s gaudy and vulgar.

I’m not a Disneyphile by any stretch — I haven’t been to Disneyland in years and feel no pressing urge to go again. But geeze. If you don’t like it, don’t go.

From time to time Mr. Henry has been described as chic, but witnesses of his recent Disney World tour would surely testify against such an accusation. In his broad sunhat, anti-UV sunshirt (tail flapping), and slouchy lightweight trousers – all in clashing shades of greenish khaki – Mr. Henry looked like the youngest recruit of the AARP.

Bridey is partly justified in her objections to Mr. Henry’s anti-Disney screed. Of course, he went for the kids, not for himself, as raincoaster so aptly noted, and he freely admits that overall he had a pretty good time.

However, his feet were killing him, the sun was everywhere, and chairs were nowhere. Although he spent nearly a thousand dollars per day, he admits he had good fun watching Little Henry and posse invade the place. Despite the flow of coin cascading from his pockets and the plethora of eateries at every turn, however, he was hungry – desperately hungry, not desperately chic – and desperately trapped, to boot, deep inside the great Mouse kingdom.

At these prices, Mr. Henry doesn’t feel that to expect one decent meal is asking too much. It’s an amusement park, after all. When you are hungry, you are rarely amused.

Why can’t Mouse managers get with the new food program? Why must every food served be sweet and fried and carry the nutritional content of cotton candy? Is there something NOT FUN about eating fruits and vegetables? As a nation, haven’t we gotten past the notion of vegetables as things eaten only under duress?

In Animal Kingdom there are ersatz Indonesian eateries serving unpalatable foodlike substances. For the love of god, bring over some Singaporean street vendors! Even the Bengali and Yemeni halal food carts from the streets of Manhattan would be a huge improvement.

And to think that the original vision of EPCOT, the Experimental Prototypical City Of Tomorrow, included a vast plan for sustainable agriculture! A planned community in harmony with nature and with man! No, Uncle Walt certainly didn’t lack ambition. Mr. Henry has always admired the sheer scope and scale of the place. Only in America, by golly. The bean counters who inherited Disney’s great city of tomorrow betrayed his ideals and turned back the culinary clock.

Lest you suspect Mr. Henry’s peculiar brand of superciliousness and skepticism to be his own original invention, read H. L. Mencken in On Being an American:

To be happy one must be (a) well fed, unhounded by sordid cares, at ease in Zion, (b) full of a comfortable feeling of superiority to the masses of one’s fellow men, and (c) delicately and unceasingly amused according to one’s taste. It is my contention that, if this definition be accepted, there is no country in the world wherein a man constituted as I am – a man of my peculiar weakness, vanities, appetites, and aversions – can be so happy as he can be in the United Sates.

Pure corn

waltmick.jpgWalt Disney World is America’s #1 tourist destination – a vast Orwellian shining city in the swamp brimming with bratty English schoolchildren spitting insults at cowed, permissive parents, with tattooed teenagers trying desperately to pretend they aren’t walking beside uncool parents, and with grinning sunburned, foot-weary pilgrims of pleasure plodding on and on and on.

Four theme parks and a dozen other destinations employ 60,000 cutely costumed refugees from backward countries and failed American cities – gays and unmarrieds, retirees without health care, unskilled veterans, brave loners seeking a new life in the sunshine state.

On the bus, on the everlasting bus, your senses are subjected to upbeat jingles, catchy colors, and corny jokes. Slipping deeper into stupor, you begin to imagine Glare and Blare as two more adorable animated characters.

In fact, the whole experience is pure American corn in every iteration and manifestation. The food is the worst of it, and that’s the part you literally ingest. After only two days of indoctrination, you become convinced that in order to have fun you must eat garbage. Mr. Henry defies you to escape high fructose corn syrup at Disney World.

Mark Twain, the first modern writer, surely got it right. The food at Disney World is “monotonous execrableness.”

Why were the french fries always the same french fries whether served at the Brown Derby at Disney Hollywood or at any of the sidewalk food outlets?stalin_speech1.jpg

Why, in the midst of orange groves larger than Arkansas, can you not get a glass of fresh orange juice?

Why must Disney food be “theme” food? Their many attempts to serve ethnic foods invariably get dumbed down into Sandra Lee’s semi-homemade. Mr. Henry understands that it may not be practical to construct Cinderella’s Castle walls from genuine limestone blocks, but must the edible be as ersatz as the visible?

There is not a cooked leafy green to be had for love or money. Instead, there are frighteningly snazzy combos like baked salmon on parmesan foccacia. (Mr. Henry shudders to recall it.)

It took Mr. Henry an entire week to recover from the numbing over-stimulation and hypnotic cheeriness of the place.

And the souvenirs! The irrepressible Trudy writes, “The whole thing was just one big retail Venus fly trap for more shit made in China, with that looming castle as the cosmic bait drawing children and their reluctant into its orb.”

There is a hidden ideology here, an imposed classlessness, a Puritan sense of public obligation towards the simple life. Any attempts to seek out fine food are blunted. Carefully prepared fresh food is simply not for sale. Everyone at Disney World eats the same food, rides the same bus, and laughs at the same amusement. There are no individuals. There are only crowds.