Saturday, August 17, 2013

Tortilla Española: a Journey from Childhood Companion to Sultry Amiga

When is an omelette not an omelette?

Most who know me know that my times living in Spain have done a lot to shape who I am as a person, and as a cook. Amidst the culture, the architecture, the smells on the streets, and the feel of the land, I have always been able to feel a sense of home in Spain, for no other reason than a genuine connection with the place and the people. I can specifically recall being on the train from Madrid to San Sebastian in 2009, my most recent stint as a temporary Spaniard, rolling through the tranquil countryside. Its tall, narrow trees, scattered about the gray and golden plains, inexplicably felt like home, calming the waves of jet-lag and nervousness rolling through my belly for the adventure ahead of me. Speaking the language has certainly greased the wheels when it has come to immersing myself in the culture, but so has my love of Spanish cuisine, which stems from a number of factors.

First off, Spain embraces the rustic in a way all their own. Italy is often hailed as the ideal paradigm of rustic cuisine, elevated in its flavor and process if not in the labor of its presentation. But I ask you to show me a greater commitment to the rustic approach than having the entire leg of a pig, complete with shiny hoof, perfectly preserved and sitting on your breakfast table twenty-four hours a day with a knife beside it, available for slicing off a Scooby snack whenever the mood should strike. For heaven's sake, who needs a fruit bowl, right?!

Jamon Iberico, where it belongs: on a pedestal.
I am referring, of course, to Jamon Iberico, the Spanish charcuterie tradition taken as seriously by its producers as wine in France and cheese in Italy: indeed, its production and sale are regulated by the Spanish government in order to ensure the quality of both the final product and the curing process. The result is that you can leave this giant salty, acorn-fed ham leg on your kitchen counter and slice off a piece whenever you feel like it. No refrigeration or plates needed. One of the best memories I have from 2009's time in Spain was when my great friend Gabi brought me home with him to Asturias for the weekend and we sat drinking Rioja late into the night at his kitchen table, shooting the shit and slicing mouth-meltingly yummy bites of Iberico off the leg that sat before us. The beautiful hunk of love was a centerpiece, a conversation piece, and a delicious treat all in one. Imagine having a leg of Jamon Iberico in your kitchen right now:

What's that? Game of Thrones is on? Hold on, let me just slice a hunk of this incredibly complex and delicious ham from the large, expertly cured body part in the other room!
I know, it sounds like heaven to me too.

Then there's paella. Do I even need to say anything about paella? Because I'm going to. This wonderfully non-kosher concoction embodies the Spanish spirit of community and improvisation centered around cooperation, tradition, love, and celebration. When I lived with the Doncel family in Segovia all those years ago, I would spend Sundays in the country with them while my friends played football in the fields beside the local castle and got drunk. Being fifteen, I sulked at first to be taken from my friends, but eventually I began to appreciate the ritual of what we were doing. We would drive to a meadow beside a stream where we would meet up with a number of other families, each bringing their own ingredient to the pool. I guess you might call it sort of a 'paella-luck.' (Cue el rimshot, por favor.)

Best jacuzzi ever?
The macho men would build a huge campfire, and get it ready for cooking. Then came the paellera: it was at least three feet in diameter, the largest pan I'd ever seen. Each family would bring forth their ingredients and the paella would be brought together over the course of the afternoon. It was as much about the social experience as it was about the food, of course. Quite tragically, I was a silly little vegetarian at the time, so I didn't get to enjoy the lobster, or the head-on prawns, the chorizo, the crawfish, the freshly butchered chickens, the clams, the mussels, or the calimari. But I will say (and you may laugh at this) that the rice was unbelievable. It was hardly vegetarian in that it had soaked up the flavor-rich essence of the myriad delicious animal parts with which it had cooked, but hey, I had to eat something, right? Its socarrat broke off in cracker-crisp shards, like amber, perfect pork skin, infused with more flavor than any sum of its animal parts could hope to measure up to. How could rice be so good?

The socarrat seems, to me, to exemplify the Spanish rustic ideal in culture as well as cuisine. For those who aren't familiar, I'm referring to the layer of rice at the bottom of the pan that gets crispy, almost forming an upside down shell around the rest of the paella. This layer is tough to get perfect, especially in big batches, so naturally, you end up with patches here and there that may have a little char; but do you think that matters to anyone watching a beautiful, glistening mound of paella being piled onto his plate? The socarrat provides texture in the paella, and of course, concentrated flavor. As with coal in the layers of our earth, flavors get impressed and compressed and intensified in the socarrat; it's rich with the story of the paella. It is also, in simplest terms, crispy, fatty rice, bursting with flavor, under many kinds of meat and seafood. It may not be ostensibly sexy, but one bite and you understand. Paella, as a whole, is the bringing together of things slowly and deliberately to yield a result rich with flavor and character that may not always be obvious at first glance. To me, this is a big reason the dish is so emblematic of Spain's traditional cuisine.
Paella, brought to you by the entire cast of The Little Mermaid.

And of course, the dish that brought me here to write in the first place: Tortilla. Tortilla holds the place most special in my heart of any traditional dish in Spanish cuisine, because it is the one that stood by me through thick and thin; it was present and influential in each time I lived in Spain, apropos both my day-to-day life and my identity as a chef. The first time lived in the country, in 1996, my home was the miniscule town of Segovia, a picturesque Spanish puebla somewhat stuck in time, complete with aqueduct  and local castle. Its cobblestone streets provided a pleasant walk to school each morning, filled with sounds and smells and sights that showed an authentic side of Spain not all visitors get to see. But Segovia's streets also introduced me to bocadillo de tortilla: an egg, potato, and onion omelette on soft, white French bread. Simple; delicious; Spanish.
When eggs and toast get frisky...
Siestas at the home of my Spanish family typically involved me dodging meat in each bite that I attempted, due to the family's typically Spanish inability to comprehend vegetarianism. Chorizo, anchovies, squid, ham, clams, and chicken each made it under their radar when I asked if any dishes at the table had 'carne' in them. Meat, in Spain, apparently garnered a slightly looser definition than I was accustomed to.

Belly growling by sundown, I would hustle to the closest sandwich stand on my way out to meet up with my friends and grab a bocadillo de tortilla for dinner. The beautifully simple combination of bread, eggs, potatoes, and onions does extremely well to satisfy one's hunger; it's also a swell combination of protein and carbohydrates, well-equipped to handle a fifteen-year-old learning to drink on sangria. Tortilla Espanola got to know me better in Spain that summer than any classmate or teacher, and I developed an appreciation for it; such a simple dish allows for little variation from shop to shop, but then it's that much easier to appreciate subtle differences.

Pre-tortilla: not exactly thrilling...
The time I spent in Segovia let me truly get to know Tortilla, this simple, rustic dish that embodies the genuine Spanish take on cuisine: here are three seemingly commonplace ingredients: eggs, potatoes, and onions. It's like the most unimaginative Chopped basket ever, right? But the items come together in perfect balance, with stark simplicity, minimal seasoning, ix-nay on the herbs and spices, let's just celebrate the optimal flavor of each ingredient. And wouldn't you know it? It works like gangbusters.

More recently, however, my hometown in Spain was Lassarte-Oria, a suburb a few miles outside the surfer's paradise of San Sebastian, in the thick of Basque country and a stone's throw from Bordeaux. My ticket to Spain this time was a three month stint at trip-Michelin Restaurante Martin Berasategui. For those of you out there who have been reading Tasty Morsels since the beginning, we have come full circle: my stage at Martin was the very reason I started this blog in the first place, the first post written the evening before I left for Spain. For what it's worth.

The restaurant's kitchen was staffed by a team of more than 60 cooks, run in a military style, with a a division of all labor dispersed among the various crews. One of the responsibilities that fell to my crew's section of the kitchen was preparing staff meal on certain nights; once a week, that meant making Tortilla. Nothing went without saying in Martin's kitchen, so I received plenty of instruction on how to properly cook the dish to its authentic correctness. Over the course of my time there, I became fluent in the technique and nuances of its preparation, learning and paying attention to the genuine article.

Between my clockwork communion of Tortilla as a hungry teenager in Segovia, and my clockwork instruction on its method as a passionate cook in Lasarte, you can see why Tortilla is both emblematic and important to me. As a cook, a former vegetarian, a lover of Spanish food and culture, and a connoisseur of simple pleasures, the connection is complex and the fondness great. But since returning to California, I have inevitably spent time perfecting my own version of Tortilla, one that I feel is true to its soul, but indubitably improves upon its greatness. You see, to go wild and make drastic changes to the dish would be to go against part of what makes it intrinsically Spanish: a few, simple ingredients, prepared with love, not particularly dressed up or in your face. How, then, does one maintain those ideals while still managing to elevate? Such is the truest, hardest work of a chef: to make something your own while allowing it to keep its cultural and culinary identity.

For me, and more specifically, for my version of tortilla, my changes and additions are slight and simple, yet they make a huge difference and can really blow up your palate. In this way, my own version seems to celebrate the very spirit of Tortilla, in itself. To begin, I like to use a cast iron pan, specifically for what it can do to potatoes and onions in the right hands; and my hands happen to be the right hands. I start by getting the onions significantly browner than one would in traditional Tortilla; this helps them release more sweetness and moisture into the dish as a whole. I take them toward their soft stage, still leaving some texture and bite, then add a little bit of butter. Next come the potatoes, which I also get nice and brown, taking them just to the point that they start to get crispy, but not beyond. The only way to really get things to that perfect point is to stand at the stove pretty much the whole time: watching, listening, observing for the key moments to stir and season; that's when the looooove goes in. Finish things off with a handful of fresh thyme, then come the eggs, salt and pepper. I let it brown just a tiny bit on the burner, and then into the oven it goes.

The resulting Tortilla has a particularly earthy sweetness complemented by well-seasoned potatoes, against a soft background of fragrant thyme. The addition of thyme adds something special, and though it's not a traditionally Spanish move, it is also one of the most simple and all-purpose of fragrant herbs, which is why I use it. To go with rosemary or tarragon or something like that would certainly be tasty, but its alteration would be more drastic than thyme, which folds well into the flavors without taking center stage. And as far as the onions and potatoes, the twist of caramelization is merely an addition of love and time, which can only improve a dish. I feel that, in food and in life, building on tradition is as important as preserving it. Cuisine and culture are living entities, and to let them stop changing and growing is to stop growing as a person, whether that person is a chef or a pediatrician or a firefighter.

So now you know all abut my love affair with Tortilla Espanola. A faithful mistress, and one that I continue to hold dear to my heart (and stomach), she has been many things for me: a suppertime savior, a culinary instructor, a crowd-pleaser, and a comfort. As long as I cook, the dish will be one of my signatures, a great source of inspiration, as well as pride. I dare say it holds the same importance for Spain.

Thursday, August 8, 2013


Caution: Do not operate heavy machinery after eating.

From the tender age of 12 up until just before I came out West at the still tender age of 27, I was a... dare I say it? A vegetarian. An affinity for quadrupeds and a misguided stab at healthfulness were the motivation, and if I am remembering correctly, a sensationalist television special about the world potentially ending in 2000 may have been the actual catalyst. I'm not suggesting I had actual fears of apocalypse, it just got me thinking about things like living a healthier lifestyle and making the most of my time here, however long that was to be. Once I had made the decision and stuck by it for a few months, it just sort of folded into my identity and wasn't really something I questioned anymore. Whether it was teenage stubbornness or a genuine stance that kept me with it, I can't say... a mix of the two most likely.

Fifteen years later, food beckoned to me from San Francisco and pulled me in close.
"Let's get to know each other a little better," she said.
"Okay," I replied, intrigued.
"And what's with this vegetarian thing?" she asked, wrinkling her nose. "Let's nip that right in the bud, okay?"
I nodded sheepishly, and then ran home and ate two heaping plates of my mom's chicken enchiladas.

I spent the next few years making up for lost time, pushing my limits and refusing to shy away from anything I had access to, which was quite a lot being a culinary student living in, arguably, the greatest food city in the country. From duck heart sautéed in butter during butchery class to kangaroo tenderloin eaten at a restaurant in SF's Tenderloin neighborhood, to tripe and sweetbreads and feet and ears and everything inside, outside or in between, I made it my mission to re-educate myself. This isn't to say I have become some Fred Flinstone type, grilling Ribeyes and burgers five nights a week; I just have a strong admiration for meat and have come to appreciate its place in food, whether it's in the spotlight as an entree or in the background as a supporting flavor.

Beyond the apparent tiny crush that I seem to have on meat, it can be incredibly fun working with it as a chef, if you know what you're doing. You can do some really mind-blowingly delicious and grand things that can knock people right off their feet. No knock on produce, grains, et al, but meat belies something inimitable and indescribable and potentially phenomenal that can be unlocked by a little technique and a lot of love. Lucky for me, my soon-to-be boss, Jenna, knows her shit and seems to feel the same way. As I have begun my transition at SHED from working the line into the larder department, I've started to participate in the larder's process of producing food to fill our take-away case and run our Wednesday evening cookouts, allowing for a lot more hands on time with the food, not to mention a hand in some of the sexier projects the larder puts out.

The first of these projects I got to work on was helping prep two full sides of porchetta (see my earlier post on porchetta if you're not familar with this most holy of food inventions). We were able to get the pig sides custom butchered for our kitchen, saving us a huge amount of time and labor and allowing us to get right to curing and trussing the pork. While Jenna scored the skin so that the cure (made from salt, sugar, and chilies) could better permeate the meat, I prepped the rub for the inside of the pig. I fried five bunches of rosemary and combined that with an absurd amount of garlic, something like twenty heads, plus some parsely, olive oil, salt, and pepper. The resulting product was like butter, almost begging to be spread on a thick slice of bread so it could knock you right on your ass.

These would make for one hell of a log cabin...
We slathered the insides of the hog side with the paste, then carefully rolled it up and tied it tightly with butcher's twine. Jenna sprinkled the cure generously, rubbing it into the surface of the skin as well as the gaps where she had scored it. If you're any kind of cook, professional or otherwise, you recognize that these moments are where you really put the love into your meat. The rubbing, the massaging, working flavor into the flesh while tenderizing it, requires a touch both firm and gentle. Like I said, Jenna knows her shit, and lickety-split, both were done, and ready to cure overnight before being slow-roasted the next day.

The finished product was the image at the top of this post, and let me just say that as incredible as that crispy log appears, the picture does not even begin to capture how delicious and succulent and bursting with flavor it actually was. When Jenna turned it into sandwiches the following evening, she made sure to reserve the beautiful, golden diamonds of crisped skin on the outside of the porchetta and then evenly distribute them among the sandwiches for optimal crunch and flavor. Then it all went onto a beautiful brioche bun with a condiment made from fresh peaches and whole grain mustard. It was a home run, and a touchdown, and a hat trick all in one. Game, set, and match.

Squash or be squashed. Or be squash.
And just to make sure I include at least a small serving of fruits and vegetables in this post, I will report that our pumpkin plant has become quite the overachiever in the garden. One of its bulbous globes decided to sit right on top of the struggling artichoke plant, almost Darwinian in its obliteration of the weaker competitor. Things seem to remain on track to be harvest-ready around the end of the month, though I am frustrated to report that the fucking gopher remains at large. Snipping at unseen roots and stalks like a vasectomy surgeon, you'd think the little sucker had a pair of garden shears down there with him. Yet somehow, even with the gopher chomping roots like they were Jujyfruits, things are managing to flourish, from cucumbers to tomatoes to watermelons. I guess, for now, I can live and let live...

Jeez, I sound like a vegetarian.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

First Tastes of Home

They just grow up so darn fast...

It's almost unbelievable how much change we've seen in the past month. Scroll down to the end of the previous post for a second and check out the last photo of the garden, then return to the above photo: the sunflowers and the tallest tomato plants are nearly six feet tall at this point, and the raised bed nearest to us has been jaw-droppingly dramatic in its growth, every last bit of negative space being covered in layer upon layer of green.

So much for arriving fashionably late...
It's pretty fantastic to see healthy plants doing their thing, thriving and exploding with growth and a will to expand, almost as if they had a brain and plan. The pumpkin plants (very prominent in the foreground above) are growing close to six inches a day, using their vines and reachers to cling and climb and claw their way to the top so they can hog every last drop of sunshine. It's to the point that I have to cut off a new leaf almost every day to keep them from completely taking over the watermelon, eggplant, and artichoke plants. The vines have a few tiny, baby pumpkins on them, even though we won't really see them begin to mature until the fall.

The same goes for most of what's planted: at this point things are growing like there's no tomorrow, but we're not expecting much ripe produce until the end of summer, especially since we planted at the end of Spring, which is later than ideal. That being said, we have gotten early bloomers here and there on the toybox squash and tomato plants (hey, they're called Early Girls for a reason). We've also been harvesting lettuces and herbs, since they readily grow back... faster than we can eat them, as a matter of fact. Currently alive and well in the herb department we have thyme, oregano, basil, chocolate mint, lavender, parsley, and cilantro.

Cilantro with a Peter Pan complex.
If you're a fan of cilantro (I know, you either love it or you hate it), I highly recommend planting some for yourself, in any small planter or pot where it can get plenty of sun. Besides the obvious benefit of not having to buy cilantro at the store, there's the bonus of being able to snip off the young cilantro leaves, which are, naturally, less common than the wider, fuller, mature leaves you typically see in bunches at the store. Young leaves are far more tender, and extremely delicate in texture (similar to dill or fennel fronds), with all the cilantro flavor. They are delicious and interesting and you aren't likely find them shopping, so it's pretty cool to be able to grow your own.

For the very first tomatoes, which we picked at the beginning of July, we naturally opted to complement them with nothing more than a drizzle of olive oil and some kosher salt and fresh-cracked pepper. Aesthetically, we couldn't have been more pleased:

"The Girls of Summer"
(Don Henley's lost hit)

The first piece I picked up had reddish purple skin and flesh of pale green that faded to muddled red in splotches. I surmised that I may have been a little overzealous and picked an unripe tomato, and a taste more or less confirmed it: the flesh was a bit mealy and the flavor had an unbelievable bite of acidity, so much so that I actually asked Julia if she had squeezed lemon on them. All of our tomato plants are heirlooms, and I know that sometimes heirloom varietals can have unique or odd or unexpected flavors, but for now, I'm thinking I wait and try them again in August. The second wedge was bright red, and firm but juicy, pretty much everything you want in a tomato. It was sugary sweet with just a tiny touch of acidity, balanced and satisfying, and made you dream of swimming in the tastiest marinara ever. Regardless of Mr. Green's bitterness, we were happy with the first tasting's results and we toasted our success with hunky wedges of tomato, our hands dripping heavenly, flavorful juice and tomato seeds down to the wrist.

Encouraged by the tasty tomato experiment, we decided to harvest the few squash that had arrived before their brothers and sisters, and defrosted a turkey breast to give us a protein to work with. I used a green one for lunch on a day off, slicing it, along with some cucumber, thin on the mandolin and marinating it in spicy Sol Food vinegar and chili oil from Diavola for about ten minutes. I used to love when this technique was on a set at Waterbar, usually done with a lime vinaigrette; I would inevitably snack on the tart, fresh discs of summer all throughout service. Once the thin slices of squash 'cook' in the marinade, much like 'cooking' in ceviche (technically, it's called denaturing), they soften to perfect edibility and absorb tons of flavor. I made a bomb-ass turkey sando on thick slices of whole wheat levain with a black garlic mayonnaise and piled it high with the marinated squash and cucumber, along with some leaves of mesclun mix, also from the garden. The sweet, earthy mayo and the spicy, tangy squash wrapped their flavors around the delicious roast turkey and the levain wrapped its softness around all that and made it all just freaking delicious. Hooray squash!

Dressing to match dinner?
Julia, not one to be left out or outdone, took things to the next level for dinner a few days later. First she harvested some ripe tomatoes and another beautiful yellow squash; then she used the tomatoes and a red Mole paste I brought back from Mexico City to make a sauce, while she diced the squash, shredded the turkey, and grabbed some black beans to make enchiladas. Naturally, we finished it with essentially an entire block of cheddar cheese (not counting what we ate as we shredded), and into the oven it went, to get dreeeeeamy. The cheese was all stringy and you could fully taste the flavor of the squash along with the turkey and chipotle she had added. Better yet, the squash had steamed to perfection inside the torillas as the dish baked, and the filling was hearty and clean but filled with flavor.  I swear to god, it tasted like my mom's, which is a little strange, but extremely wonderful in its deliciousness. We housed all but a few bites of it, but only because we stopped ourselves so Julia would be left with enough to make a tasty scramble before work the following morning.

I want to live inside there...

Clearly the enchiladas were another success, so I'd say we are off to a pretty solid start to this whole growing and eating thing, and we haven't seen anything yet as far as fruiting! Come August and September (and hopefully October with the Indian Summers of Northern California), we are going to have pumpkins, watermelons, eggplants, green beans, wax beans, cucumbers, serranos, habaneros, radicchio, and a lot more of what we've seen already.

Homegrown dinners every night and a couple of chefs living together means we are in for some good eating...

Friday, June 14, 2013


Carl, I totally get it.

We have a fucking gopher problem.

I know that's some stanky language for the opening sentence of my first post in three months, but if you've ever had a gopher problem, then you know that they'll make you drop f-bombs like it was Hiroshima on the 4th of July. Gophers move like invisible underground ninjas through your garden, satisfying their munchies with the tender roots of your helpless everything, taking what they please and taunting you with their little trapdoors dug into the soft earth every five feet. It's said that the one and only solution is swift gopher death by metal trap; the death is marginally humane, if proactively killing something can actually be considered humane. I hate the idea of offing critters (no matter how annoying), but this is how it works, so I may have to embrace it. I've read it's also a good idea to take the extra ruthless step of leaving your victim's dismembered corpse to rot in the alcove he dug himself. The little varmint will fertilize the soil as it decomposes (and I would hope his rotting body provides at least some degree of repellant for any of his hypothetical kinfolk).

I still need to get the traps, but for the time being I have covered the areas in charcoal ash from the grill, as well as spent coffee grounds. I am not sure if this will do anything at all, and the logic I used to arrive at charcoal and coffee is questionable at best, but, to paraphrase Uncle Rico, I may as well do somethin' while I'm doin' nothin'.

Gophers aside, the rest of the last few months' transition has been fantastically smooth. I proposed to Julia, we moved to Windsor in the Russian River Valley (NorCal wine country), and we both started working at an incredible (no, seriously: incredible) place called SHED. And with that, we're caught up.
When this raised bed's a-rockin'...

The new digs afforded us a pretty awesome (albeit initally barren) space for a garden. We almost couldn't wait to get started; and the fact that SHED had an extra six or seven baby tomato plants they needed to offload gave us a reason get the first bed going right away.

Knowing that plants tend to thrive best in a polyculture (thanks, Michael Pollan), we stopped by Healdsburg nursery on the way home from work one day and picked up a few zucchini and basil plants to intersperse among the tomatoes. We also made sure to get bean plants, as young bean plants' roots enrich the soil with nitrogen, and nitrogen is exactly what all little baby plants need to grow big and strong. We got everything in the bed with some space to grow, and stepped back to admire our handiwork:

From humble beginnings... come wondrous BLTs.

I have to admit, it didn't look like much. But I know from plenty of experience not to judge the quality of a plant by what it looks like right after you've put it into the earth. Just like us immediately after our move, the little guys were somewhat disoriented, a little dehydrated, marginally nervous about their new surroundings, and generally in need of some TLC. Within a week or so, they had made themselves comfortable and were beginning to look quite handsome.

Note to self: fake hawks made of fabric are less effective at gopher control than actual hawks.

And within a month, they were hulking out, a harmonious tangle of leaves and roots and aromas.

Straight diet of Muscle Milk and Four Locos for these guys.

Seeing the plants thrive in our new environment was rewarding, especially coming from SF's fickle climate and sandy soil, not to mention our excessively shaded (albeit lovely) backyard. The fact that we were able to get even a few herbs and succulents to grow there was an accomplishment; growing more than that would have taken a miracle.

One of the perks of living in wine country is the produce-friendly abundance of hot, sunny, days and cool nights. The mountains on either side of the valley trap in the heat during the day, often seeming to wilt plants to a point that you wonder if they're actually going to bounce back. But as soon as the sun drops enough to leave them in the shade, they spring back to life within less than an hour; it's actually pretty cool to observe as the shade creeps across the garden and row by row of plants go from sickly to spry, like a graveyard of withered bodies coming back to life. It turns out that this happens for a specific reason: when plants get a whole lot of sun, the leaves often grow faster than the roots can keep up, so they can't get enough water and nourishment to stand up straight and support themselves. Once the sun sets and the leaves stop growing, the roots catch up and supply everything with the proper nutrition and hydration, and the little guys slowly regain their strength and composure.

With the first bed doing so well, we couldn't resists scaling up the garden almost immediately. After all, the space it would occupy was currently nothing more than a large, rocky, dusty bed of unattractive bare ground, just begging to be transformed.

The plan(ts).
We headed to Healdsburg Nursery and picked up a truckload of new starters, then mapped out how we wanted to do it and set them in place to adjust to the new location for a few days before we planted them. I have learned the hard way that if you try to transplant before the little guys have time to adjust, you diminish their likelihood of thriving. We ended up with about 25 different herbs and vegetables, including (but not limited to) eggplant, artichoke, watermelon, pumpkin, lettuces, cucumbers, and half a dozen herbs. I also picked up some border stones and rubber mulch to class things up a bit.

"Why rubber mulch?" you ask; so we can walk barefoot on it, of course.

The following day, we got up early and busted out the entire project by mid afternoon. We were damn pleased with ourselves, and with good reason.

It's baby food! (Get it?)
Over the last few weeks things have continued to flourish and we've made adjustments here and there to help the plants along, like providing a screen over the more delicate lettuces to protect them from the blazing hot afternoon sun, and tying up the tomato vines as they have gotten massive.

Today, it's raining, and everyone in the garden is absolutely loving it. We should start to get tomatoes, cucumbers, and other goodies in the next few weeks, so the next post will likely be more about eating this stuff than growing it!

Happy gardens make happy vegetables make happy chefs!

Or I might just be writing about slow-roasted garden critters...

"Gopher, Everett?"

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Subjective Complexity of Food

In my last essay, I drew the conclusion that what made food inherently "good" was not easily or simply defined. Differing personal experiences and preferences play into exactly what each person thinks and feels about a food or a dish. I am also realizing, more and more, that people can even have different ideas of exactly what it is they're tasting; and, sometimes, both can be correct.

You may be familiar with the discovery of how humans actually perceive color:

Our sensations of colour are within us and colours cannot exist unless there is an observer to perceive them. Colour does not exist even in the chain of events between the retinal receptors and the visual cortex, but only when the information is finally interpreted in the consciousness of the observers.*

Essentially, what we perceive as color is primarily a wavelength of light's reflection. The shortest viewable wavelength is what we see as blue, and the longest wavelength is what we see as red; the other wavelengths that fall between them are what we see as other colors. However, color perception is subjective: we do not have a way of proving that two different people perceive the same color.

So when you and I both see and think of "blue," we may be thinking of two different colors to some degree, depending on how our individual brains interpret it; similarly, we may have different labels for what is essentially the same color. Just think: is there any way to answer the question, "Does the blue you're seeing match the blue I'm seeing?"

Did you ash in my wine?
I think that the same thing happens with flavor. Anyone who has been wine tasting with a group of people has probably witnessed evidence that suggests this: a complex red wine can contain notes of a dozen different aromatics, even some that seemingly have nothing to do with food. From barnyard in a Bordeaux, to leather in a Malbec, to a whisper of cigar or a sniff of clove; a talented nose can pick out all sorts of aromas in a glass of wine.

But here, as I see it, is the rub: there is no way to verify or know precisely what each individual tastes; and even if two or more agree on a specific note of flavor, are they actually tasting the same thing? Much like color, flavor is open to interpretation: does your idea of caramel equate exactly to my idea of caramel? Probably not. Everything from different personal experiences to variations in tastebud topography can and do affect how we perceive taste and to what degree. In essence, 'taste' itself ceases to exist until someone puts something in their mouth and consciously observes its taste; our awareness of taste is the very thing that makes it exist.

I seem to be treading into Descartes' territory at this point: I taste, therefore I am? Actually, it's more like, "I am, therefore I taste." And if I am tasting a bottle of wine with a few other people, who is anyone to say whether or not I taste strawberries, or straw, or strudel? Sometimes one person will get notes of this, while another will get a taste of that, and so on. There is, expectedly, plenty of common ground when everyone tastes the same food, but now and then one person will get something the others don't. I would hope that said person isn't just full of shit; I mean, what does he stand to gain from making something up? So... giving him the benefit of the doubt, isn't it strange that he tastes something no one else does?

wine and boxes just make sense together.
I am reminded of a scene in the movie French Kiss starring Meg Ryan and Kevin Kline. The two (whose characters are Kate and Luc, respectively) are drinking wine, and Luc presents a box containing little vials of of herbs, spices, and flowers that came from the surrounding countryside. Smelling the contents of the box, then taking a sip of wine, Kate is able to pull out flavors of currant and lavender almost immediately, as she had experienced them moments before in their vials. But if there had been no magic box, it may have been much harder for Kate to place the scents and tastes she was experiencing.

Similarly, when that group of people from before was trying to explain what they smelled or tasted in their wine, maybe someone couldn't quite put their finger on a flavor, so it went unnoticed. I can recall wine tasting with the Clamages in Napa last Spring, when our group stood for a good five minutes with our noses buried in our glasses of wine, trying to articulate exactly what it was that we all smelled but couldn't name. Nearly at the brink of real frustration, I finally had the epiphany: it was green tomato. There was a distinct aroma of green tomato in this glass of white wine. Weird, right?

That's the part that's even stranger about taste: there were obviously no green tomatoes harmed in the making of that wine. Nor do they put leather in Cabernet Sauvignon or strawberries in Pinot Noir or granite in Pinot Grigio. How is it possible then that you can taste these things when you drink a glass of their respective wines? One obvious (and accurate) explanation is terroir, the idea that the soil, air, and water that nourish a grapevine influence the wine it becomes; from limestone in the earth beneath it, to berries and flowers that grow across the earth around it, terroir is like a hidden flavor code in grapes that can only be unlocked through the wonder of the vinification process.

Terroir, however, only explains some of those flavors. Where do the vanilla or clove notes come from in a glass of Napa Cab? Vanilla and clove both grow on literally the other side of the world, so there is no way they are making their way into the terroir of Northern California. This is where the idea of flavor really starts to get into unexplainable territory.

beans: the musical fruit?
I recently sampled a new line of chocolate bars from Lake Champlain Chocolates called Blue Bandana, made exclusively and intentionally with cocoa beans from Madagascar. The founder of Blue Bandana, Eric Lampman, designed the bars to be all about the chocolate tasting experiences. Simple, but exquisite, tasting these chocolate bars is a mind-blowing exercise in flavor exploration. There are floral undertones, distinct flavors of tart citrus and red berries, bitter coffee balanced with bright fruit. Just like with a glass of wine, the notes and hints of this and that are numerous and open to interpretation.

It makes me ponder about the nature of flavor and tasting in the human mouth... bear with me here:

what do these taste like to you?
Imagine that "flavor" is made of lots of different elements, each relatively insignificant on its own but distinct nonetheless... kind of like legos. There are hundreds of different shapes, sizes, and colors of lego, but on its own, not a one of them is really remarkable. Yet each of these pieces has a number of different ways it can be attached to or combined with other pieces, yielding an exponential possibility of different shapes and constructions. And if you have the right pieces and put them together in the right way, you can get something recognizable: a dog, a boat, a tree, whatever.

Now think of what taste is on a molecular level: it's your mouth's cells interacting with other biological matter and sending a message to your brain. If taste is made up of all these 'legos,' then when we taste something, like chocolate, it may contain traces of the same flavors as, say, berries, in the same way that if I made a boat and a tree out of legos, I might use some of the same pieces to make these two very different things. Follow me?

Moreover, we can only define flavors in terms of what we already know. Once we know the words, we can say earthy, or sweet, or bitter, or salty, or whatever; and we can say, "it tastes like..." But if you have never seen or eaten a pear and you try one, you can't say "It tastes like a pear," until someone tells you that what you're tasting is called a pear. And you certainly wouldn't ever say something else tastes like a pear if you'd never tasted a pear before. So if someone notices blackberry on their tongue as they taste a Montepulciano, they could actually be tasting some of the same 'legos' in the grape that we also find in 'putting together' a blackberry; and due to the aforementioned difficulty of naming flavors beyond the already available terms, we say "notes of blackberry."

Such is the subjective complexity of food and flavor: in a sense, anyone can be right when they call out flavors and discoveries in his glass of wine or her chocolate bar. Until you can taste a mile in someone's tongue, you can't know exactly what flavors are dancing around his mouth or firing off in his brain. All we can hope to do is strive to sharpen our own senses, and learn about where our food comes from. It's definitely a fun exercise, especially with a group, to sit there chewing or swishing, trying to decipher pieces in the hidden code of flavor bouncing around your tastebuds. Even if it's challenging at first, you'll find that you get better the more you do it.

smell your food!
Whether you're a novice nose or professional flavor translator, you have a great excuse to go pick up a bottle of wine or a bar of chocolate (Tcho, which I have mentioned before, is another chocolate brand that really showcases and contrasts the terroir and complexity of cacao from different origins), or even a great cup of coffee. Pay attention to what you eat, and you may just be surprised what you find.

*Wright, W. D. 1963. "The Rays are Not Coloured"