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Manolo's Food Blog - Part 60

Memoirs of a Sushiphile

In quick succession sometime early in the 90’s, as if impelled by a master plan, Manhattan streetscapes began to display sushi houses on every other block.ShalomSushi.jpg

What only the truly initiated noticed, however, and here you are fortunate to be reading the reportage of Mr. Henry, an old Japan hand, was that most of these new houses were not under the management of Japanese persons. Indeed this fact was proven when shouting expressions in his increasingly fluent Japanese to the wait staff elicited only silent, baleful stares, responses that could not be explained by reliance on hackneyed clichés of oriental inscrutability.

No, clearly these persons of Asian extraction were participating in an elaborate masquerade not of their own liking. These were Chinese and Koreans, most of them fresh arrivals to America, and their dreams of striking out boldly in the land of opportunity had gone terribly, terribly awry.

It is no secret to you, Mr. Henry hopes, that the Chinese and Korean nations loathe the Japanese, and there are sound, historical, grudge-bearing, vengeful reasons for such enmities. How odd, therefore, to see ancient hatreds so quickly buried in the quest for gainful employment. How much more odd it was to see those enmities buried with regard to food, that most intensely personal and immutable of identity markers.

In the 90’s most of our sushi chefs, however, remained of Japanese ancestry principally because entrance into the ancient, venerated guild and training in its special knowledge requires years of grunt work and an uncle in the business, precisely the same hurdles facing an aspiring electrician or plumber in the greater New York area. Notwithstanding this cultural and, yes, racial legacy, however, strange things began happening to the fish. Slices began to get bigger.

A piece of sushi should be a one-bite experience. The incisors do not participate. The entire edible object, glistening with fresh omega-3’s and not dripping with excessive shoyu and wasabi (dip a corner — don’t dredge the thing, please, please, please) is placed as far back in the mouth as the fingers – yes, the fingers – will allow. Use your chopsticks to grab a pickle or a slice of ginger but the true sushi-meister uses two or at most three fingers of the right hand only.

Did sushi originated as an accompaniment to drink, the heavenly eastern equivalent of the beer nut or the pretzel? Who knows? Mr. Henry is not here to render decisive opinions on the arcana of Japanese culinary history, and if he were to do so he would probably incite hate mail from frustrated, underpaid academics.

Sushi is, you will admit, a predictable experience. It cannot suffer from uneven charcoal broiling. It is either sublime or else for hygienic reasons you should not be ingesting it.

Mr. Henry is Beat

After painting the bathroom all day, or to be perfectly accurate, painting the bathroom trim and corners all day, Mr. Henry is not about to stand up at the stove.

Mr. Henry adores his stove, mind you, his new Dacor hot-air convection oven (the 30” all-gas EGR 30 range with the ceramic radiation broiler – pure heaven on earth), without which the newly renovated chef’s kitchen would have no center, no bottom, no focus loci. But he just cannot face the idea of thinking about, of conceptualizing, of planning a meal.

Cutting a line between Decorator White semi-gloss on the ceiling and Vanilla Milkshake eggshell on the walls made significant demands on his hand-eye coordination abilities and as for his planning capabilities, well, these are never at their best when his hands are paint-flecked and aching. Mr. Henry is beat, and worse, so is She, his loving wife whose energies are without measure.

When Mr. Henry refers to his new Dacor convection oven, by the way, a remarkable home resource, he is stretching the possessive just a smidge. The Dacor, like the other appliances and indeed like the whole apartment, belongs to Her. (The Turkoman carpet, however, is Mr. Henry’s by right of its masculine design and because he bought it for his back office back when he had a back office as well as a secretary, a front office man, a bookkeeper, and the like. Let’s not even get into it, shall we?)

What the Manolo Is Eating: Guacamole

Manolo says, Guacamole!

As one would imagine the Manolo he is not immune to the tropical charms of the finely-crafted guacamole. Indeed, it can be among the greatest of the appetizers, if done well.

Avocados, lime juice, the finely-diced red onion, chopped cilantro, the salt and the pepper, and perhaps as the Manolo has done here above, the little chopped tomato. So simple.

Of the course, the secret it is entirely in the quality of the avocados. Bad avocados, bad guacamole. Good avocados, good guacamole.

The Manolo, he is happy to report that the avacodos for this particular guacamole they were fine. Yes, fine, but not superior. For that one must be close to the source, perhaps in the charming town of the Carpinteria, where the living it is easy, and the heavily-laden trees offer up fruit to whomsoever can reach up from the sidewalk and pluck them from the branchs.

Oddly for the Manolo, however, the single best guacamole he has ever consumed it was in most unlikely of places: downtown Tucamcari, in the New Mexico, at the tiny, unassuming mom-and-the-pop restaurant called the El Toro Cafe. The dish it was the “guacamole salad”, presumably because it came with the chopped iceberg lettuce. It was and remains perfectly memorable, with the sort of vegetable-fatty richness and flavor that the Manolo has never again experienced.

The Manolo says, if you are perhaps stranded in the Tucumcari (and who has not, at some point, been stranded in the Tucumcari?) then you must visit the El Toro. He suspects that the guacamole could never again possibly be as good as it was that one time (nothing is ever as good the second time), but the traditional New Mexican food was good enough to justify the visit to this unprepossessing place.

Sauce for the Salmon

Richard Ginori La Scala Gravy Boat with StandMr. Henry is not one for sauces.

After three forkfuls of even the finest sauce, he longs for the pure and free flavor of the meat, fish, or fowl. Here in the home of the brave, the cradle of individuality, are not sauces an Old World affectation? Have US Customs agents been vigilant about their importation? Does the National Security Agency monitor wine reductions, veloutés, or Catalonian foam?

In case they are monitoring him, Mr. Henry wants to say he believes law enforcement authorities are doing everything necessary to protect our values. Heck of a job, guys.

Prairie American virtues include bristling at authority, a feisty disregard for convention, and a consequent culinary approach characterized by rugged unfussiness.

Ours was not a nation constructed on false sauces!

Isn’t our most fundamental right the right to be left alone? And doesn’t that extend equally to the evening entrée?

Mr. Henry rests his case.

To be sure, he can imagine the Founding Fathers enjoying a side of cranberry relish, a shining illustration of American ingenuity. And then, of course, there is gravy, that quintessential English invention, one that survives contentedly today in the South.

A Mr. Henry dictum: Gravy is not sauce.

Shall we move on?

The topic of salmon is broad. At the local fishmongers Mr. Henry found Norwegian wild salmon, Norwegian farmed salmon, Norwegian farmed organic salmon, and his special favorite, Norwegian double-smoked cured salmon. The choices, you will admit, were overwhelming and he hadn’t even left Bergen.

Wild SalmonWest Coast and Alaskan salmon have a wild, weedy, sharp flavor that Mr. Henry has always found off-putting. But then Mr. Henry gets lost in the wild weeds of San Francisco, both physically and metaphorically. There is something out there he just doesn’t get – proper highway directions, for example, or the general tenor of conversations. The scenery is too beautiful, the harvest too bountiful.

He is reminded of a warm morning once spent in the souk of Meknes choosing bunches of the most aromatic mint on earth. Ahhhh, Mr. Henry’s memories are long. Best to stick to Norway. You can’t really get lost driving in the hinterland there because the country is entirely composed of coastline.

In serving dinner to old friends who had not graced their table in a decade or more, Mrs. Henry and her obedient consort decided that for the entrée broiled Norwegian organic salmon seemed a safe bet. It is fresh and plentiful in the market, reliably palatable, and attractively colorful. Unlike pale monkfish that belly-flops across the plate, salmon stands up smart and pink.

The Korean grocery on the corner offered asparagus, super-model thin, which after tossing with a touch of olive oil and coarse salt we placed under the ceramic radiation broiler for two minutes. The result was an irresistible finger-food — a slightly crisped, succulent, nutty sweet grass.

Our wine was a delicious Austrian grüner veltliner by FamilieBauer, refreshing, inexpensive, and cold.

A sourdough French baguette amply satisfied our limited demands for starches. Broiled baby Brussels sprouts offered roundness and verve. The meal now demanded a theme, both in flavor and in color, and the decision of sauce for the salmon loomed large.

A fresh dill sauce hurriedly purchased from the deli counter turned out to be a verdant horror. Its principal ingredient was mayonnaise and the shocking intensity of green color made Mr. Henry shudder even to try it. His old standby yogurt and sour cream dill sauce, although perfectly tasty, always had a disappointing tendency to roam around the dinner dish as though seeking converts to its particular belief system. This evening’s grilled asparagus were each too, too perfect to permit the joy-ride of an uninvited dill sauce.

It is at times like these that Mr. Henry shows the stuff of which he is made. Grit and education, abrasion and lubrication in equal measure, led Mr. Henry to re-imagine sublime salmons of yesteryear. There had been no fresh dill in the market. The salmon was out of the oven awaiting its flavor accessory, its organizing theme.

Only minutes before serving time he seized upon a new solution –- pure, unadulterated, organic, grass-fed, Natural by Nature sour cream — straight from the tub.

After all, what goes better with smoked salmon than sour cream?

[Philadelphia cream cheese is a horror. Mr. Henry is sorry to have to say it, but there it is. In the long run it does no good to sweep these things under the rug. Mr. Henry strongly believes that it is best to be open and honest about processed cheese spreads of any distinction. They are a national embarrassment, a cultural character blemish, and he cannot say this often enough.]

And if sour cream is the perfect accompaniment to smoked salmon, could it not also work with fresh?

It could, and it did. Its working-class sourness suavely partnered the rich sweet fish.

Was the serving of “plain,” if you will, sour cream seen as a failure of the imagination? Ha! On the contrary. This particular sour cream with every homespun, handmade bona fide, with deeply rich texture and the perfect blend of tartness, sweetness and umami could not have been bested by Escoffier’s Army of the Republic. American sour cream was triumphant.

De l’audace! Encore de l’audace! Et toujours de l’audace!

Mr. Henry’s Appetite

Mr. Henry has a healthy appetite.

His invariable breakfast routine begins with a banana, a small piece of which he offers to his noble hound, Pepper, despite a strict household injunction against such departures from her regular diet. Since the rest of the Henry household lies asleep at this hour, however, this little transgression remains his little secret.

Sometimes mixed with raw rolled oats, raisin bran, and a touch of Grape Nuts for crunch, yogurt is a breakfast staple, as well. The intestines approve whole-heartedly. Coffee, that great Arabian contribution to world culture, is required for the well-being of Mr. Henry’s disposition. The buoyancy it imparts to Mr. Henry’s morning mood ensures that whatever horror the New York Times may report about national policy will not upset the intestinal balance achieved by banana plus yogurt.

Soon after returning from Pepper’s morning run, however, Mr. Henry begins casting conspiratorial glances towards the refrigerator and speculating about lunch.

Lunch is without question the pivot of Mr. Henry’s day, its central alimentary event, the Henry organism’s very purpose and mainstay.

An Arabic proverb declares: “Eat your breakfast, share your lunch, and give your dinner away.”

This is the soundest advice Mr. Henry has ever heard on the noisy subject of diet, and he did in fact hear it from a bona fide Arab gentleman many years ago in Tangier. In embracing this wisdom he lost the thirty pounds gained during Mrs. Henry’s pregnancy and has maintained a waistline that remains the envy of his peers. In casting downward glances Mr. Henry has a nearly unobstructed view of his feet. Indeed, so long as he doesn’t exhale, when wearing his racing Speedo at the J.C.C. he can make it from the stairs to the pool without compromising his dignity one iota.

Cahill's Farm Porter CheddarThere are, however, boundaries to his discipline. In this world there are temptations of many types — worldly pleasures of such fragrant intensity that no man, not even a man of Mr. Henry’s character and breeding, can long resist. Mr. Henry is speaking, naturally, of the cheese course.

The St. Patrick’s Day corned beef and cabbage party, an annual Henry household event, terminated with two divine Irish cheeses provided by Dr. Lorna: Cashel blue, a creamy not crumbly one, and Cahill porter cheddar, a nice farmhouse cheddar shockingly marbled with brown veins.

A Cold Guiness: One of Man's Greatesst AchievementsBottles of cold Guinness draught brought smiles to our faces. Inside each bottle you will find a curious little ceramic whirligig which when you pop the cap expels a jet of gas into the brew. The result is as light as the old standby stout is heavy, a surprisingly gentle, refreshing, and apt accompaniment to corned beef.

Leave it to the Irish to create a cheese laced with brown ale. When thinking of cheese, one’s imagination does not leap to visions of Ireland, and, frankly, Guinness stout does not call out for cheese, either. And yet a slice of cheese washed down by draught Guinness drunk cold from the bottle provided the perfect close to the meal.

At Mr. Henry’s house the cheese sits out.

It sleeps on the countertop like a tranquil pet.

Mrs. Henry is dismissive of cheeses left out to achieve “room temperature.” Harsh words have been exchanged on the subject. For Mrs. Henry cheese is an invitation to mice. For Mr. Henry cheese is a work of refinement and high craftsmanship, a binding tie to ages past, the highest achievement of animal husbandry, and the one completely irresistible food.

At long last, low-fat diets have beaten a retreat. Granted, those Henry friends and relations who have suffered heart attacks are forbidden to participate in round-table cheese tastings, but even that may be needlessly cautionary.

For Mr. Henry cheese is appropriate after most meals. The nineteenth century habit of an obligatory cheese course needs re-invigorating.

Let a thousand cheeses bloom!

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