Tuesday, August 19, 2003

Feta & Fetish

FETA & FETISH
By
Mark Preston

I had my first true Greek Salad with a Persian friend. He had an odd name, maybe even by Persian standards. Kamran Manoocherie. I think his first name is the origin of our English name Cameron. I was living in Albuquerque New Mexico at the time and the only Greek restaurant in town made a Greek salad with briny black olives and Feta cheese. It was delicious. Surprisingly, it was at Costco that I found black olives for sale in New Mexico, a place not known for it gourmandaise. So it made all the more sense that Costco would have briny olives. Costco sold them in one-kilogram tubs. So I now had one of the two most important ingredients in a Greek Salad. OK, OK, I hear you . . . a man’s cooking column with a salad recipe? “Come on?” I hear you guys saying . . . but I gotta tell you . . . A Greek Salad is a satisfying meal in the summer. Some pita bread, a beer or glass of wine and you can still move around out in the heat.

Move forward a few years, I still make Greek Salad, even though I now live in Los Angeles. But, I have made one improvement. Rather than break up the Feta Cheese with the tines of a fork and eat the cheese mixed whole into the salad; I mix the Feta with the salad dressing and some hummus. The cheese and hummus cause the dressing to thicken and caress the greens and veggies like Dennis Rodman to Carmen Electra. Ooopppsss! Sorry for that allusion.

It would be a good idea to purchase your black olives and Feta from the same place if that is at all possible. There are some ideas for the types of cheese and olives at the end of this column.

Here is the list of ingredients, including the dressing, which starts out as a common vinaigrette recipe.

Casa del Marco Dressing

½ to ¾ cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1-2 Teaspoons of Dijon Mustard
1-2 Tablespoons of Wine Vinegar (red, white, sherry, champagne . . . it doesn’t matter which, it should be sharp and tangy)
½ Teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper
¼ Teaspoon of Salt
1 clove garlic, peeled and pounded into a pulp with the salt
½ Teaspoon of Oregano, Greek Oregano if you can find it. It is milder than the Mexican variety, which at least, in the Western part of the US is much easier to find
1-2 ounces of Feta Cheese, broken up with a fork, for easy mixing -- If you are friends with a cheese monger, ask him to get some Dodoni Feta. It is the least salty tasting of all the Greek Feta Cheeses, and comes from the largest dairy cooperative in Greece. Fantis is the importer into the US. Or ask them to find it for you on the net at: http://www.dodonidairy.gr/Home/Company/Profile/Default.xml.aspx?Language=2
1-2 Tablespoons of Hummus, or more to taste (Freshly made at a Middle Eastern grocer, if possible)

Into a clean, empty, glass jar with a tight fitting lid, mix the mustard and the vinegar. Peel the garlic and chop it with the salt, to help extract all the garlic goodness. Add the garlic-salt to the vinegar. Add ½ a tablespoon of olive oil. Fix the lid and shake like crazy for 60 seconds. Repeat the oil and shake for a similar length of time. Repeat until the oil is emulsified. Which means well mixed. But, if you have a stick blender, just throw all the ingredients in a jar, bring on the stick blender and 30 seconds later, it’s done. I swear by these tools. Cuisinart makes one for about $100, but I’ve seen them at the supermarket for $10 to $20. If you don’t have the stick, once the olive oil is well blended, add the remaining ingredients. Put a cover over the dressing and let it rest on the counter or table for at least 30 minutes before using.

There is no salt in the above, because the Feta has plenty and the garlic got run over with salt, too. If, after the dressing is made, it is not salty enough, add some more of something salty, even salt, if you have eaten all the Feta cheese.

Why do I have you make the dressing first? So that the flavors have time to meld. Are you actually going to measure out the Feta by the ounce? Not likely, dude. Break up a 1” cube. If more crumbles off the block, pop it into your mouth and say: “yummmm”. It would be a good idea to make the dressing in the morning, or the night before you are going to use it.

There is also some prep work for the salad makings as well. I wash my lettuce and then dry it in a salad spinner (see below). Once spun “dry” I put it in an open bag in the ‘fridge, overnight. The cold helps completely dry the lettuce, which if damp, when dressed, doesn’t taste right.

While you are at the store, with your shopping list in hand to buy the ingredients for the dressing, also remember to purchase:

Greek Salad with Hummus Vinaigrette

1 head of Iceberg lettuce
1 head of another lettuce – such as red leaf, Romaine, just not another Iceberg
1 cucumber – ask your produce man if they get Persian cucumbers – if they do, buy 4 of them
1 green bell pepper
1 red bell pepper
1 Cup of Kalamata Olives – Taste them, if they are too salty, soak them in water for 20 to 30 minutes before adding to the salad. Fotis and Sons, Importers has the extraordinary Mani Province Kalamata Olive, which has more flavor than any other olive I’ve ever tasted, including the olives of Nice, France.

Tomatoes – here you must buy the most expensive tomatoes you can afford. As they are not cooked and/or have extra ingredients added, they must have as much flavor as possible. They also must point out, by their acidity the flavors of the other ingredients in the salad, and the redder they are, the better they look in the Greek Salad.


1 Red Onion
1 Lemon
Other ingredients
a package of pita bread, 14 jack if you can find it
do you have some salt? A pound of salt has to be on hand . . . no you won’t use it all for this recipe beer or wine – by wine is meant a rosé

AS A REMINDER TO THE FORGETFUL, OR FOR THOSE COMPLETELY INEXPERIENCED IN MAKING SALADS

You won’t be using all the lettuces, or the onion, so if you need plastic wrap or zip-lock bags don’t forget to buy those as well.

Here’s the tricky part of giving this recipe, some markets wash their lettuces and some don’t. If you are the paranoid type, when you get home, wash the lettuce in a colander in the sink. Allow the lettuce to drain the water away thoroughly before putting it in the ‘fridge, at least 30 minutes. If you are serving the salad to your food loving friends, you can probably forgo the washing, after you tear off the outer leaves.

At last, it’s time to put the salad together, this will require about 45 minutes. Don’t get fidgety. Begin by finding a bowl large enough for the amount of people who will be blessed by your service of Greek Salad. Four is a good size for a sporting event. Peel the cucumber, seed it, (say, you did make the dressing already, right? If you forgot, make the dressing before starting on the cucumber). I pray you have a vegetable peeler, but if you don’t try your teeth, or a sharp paring knife. Peel the cuke. Using a spoon, carve out the seeds and discard them. Cut the remaining cuke into ½” cubes. Put the cubes in a colander and sprinkle them with salt. (about 1 tablespoon will do, this is why I reminded you to buy salt) Put the colander in the sink or on plate to drain. They need 30 minutes. Meanwhile, if the lettuces are wet, dry them with paper towels, or in a salad spinner . . . yea, I know, it’s probably not cool for a guy to own a salad spinner, but I own one. Maybe I should do a column on cooking cool versus jerk cool . . .

Returning to the instructions:

Once the lettuce is dry or dry-ish. Tear it by hand into bite size pieces, over the salad bowl. If you make enough salads, eventually you may come to the same conclusion that I have that hand-torn is better then chopped up. At least for “house” and other such salads.

Next, using your vegetable peeler, skin the bell peppers. The skin of these things is hard to digest, when uncooked. They won’t skin perfectly, but a little skin won’t matter, I hope. Cut the peppers into bite size squares, or rectangles or triangles. Whatever shapes you fancy. Toss them into the bowl. Cut the onion in half. Peel off the outer first or second layer of onionskin. Chop the onion into bite size pieces. I would cut them from stem to stem, and then into bite size pieces. Toss into the salad. Core the tomatoes, if you want to be really fancy, peel them as well. Cut them in quarters, over a sieve. Using your tomato shark, or the tip of a paring knife, remove the seeds and the yellowish-green goo into the sieve. Toss the tomato pieces into the bowl. Using a spoon, a wooden spoon would be best, lightly rub the goo, over the salad bowl. Why? Because the goo has some of the best of the tomato flavor. You will only get ½ a Teaspoon or so of this liquid. Discard the seeds. Taste one piece of cucumber. If it is too salty, rinse the remaining cubes, lightly. Shake the colander and add the cukes to the bowl. Toss the salad. Open the tub of olives, and toss a cup of the olives into the bowl. Grab the dressing, and dress the salad. (if the salad wasn’t dressed, why are you looking at it? Are you a pre-vert?) Heat a nonstick pan over medium high heat, for 2 to 3 minutes. Meanwhile, using tongs, dish the salad onto salad plates or into salad bowls. Cut the lemon into wedges and serve each guest one wedge in their salad bowl. Once the pan is hot, cut the pita bread in half-moons, heat the pieces, two at a time, and when you have a few heated through, serve them, alongside the Greek salad, with the beer or wine. Tell your guests that the olives have pits, and serve them a napkin to put the pits on. I guess you could pit the olives, but that makes them look bad.

Ahh! Summer! The flavors meld incomparably on the palate.

Oh – don’t forget to wrap up the lettuce and onion. If the weather stays warm, you’ll want to make another Greek Salad before the week is out. Note to self: you’ll probably need to buy more beer or wine and some more of that pita bread, a little more Feta.

A Short Treatise on The Taco

I hate to cook all the time. I love Mexican food. I hate to eat out. I love tacos. I’m lazy. And the only taco stand in all of Los Angeles worth mentioning is Clarita’s Tacos D.F.. She makes great Mexican food, but she hardly serves tacos or burritos. More like pambazos and huaraches. You can’t get those in the rest of the US. If I make a bizillion dollars, I’m going to franchise Clarita’s all over the US. But Clarita’s is on the East side of town, and that means a 45 minute drive to get there. And I’m lazy, and I don’t want to drive. Not in LA. Not in this traffic.

Chicken or beef tacos? Well that’s a no-brainer. If I wanted beef tacos, I would buy some top sirloin, chop it up and make tacos. Dear Reader, I’ll tell you my secret recipe for chicken tacos, and then you’ll probably tell a pal. This is a way of making food that makes both taco meat and some chicken stock. That way, you get double your money’s worth. Now, if you are like me, you wait for chicken to come down in price at the market, then freeze it until you are good and ready to make stock. I can sometimes find chicken QUARTERS at the market in 10 pound bags for 39¢ a pound, frozen. A quarter is a leg and a thigh. Once I’m in the mood I’ll separate the legs and thighs, saving the thighs for palliards of thigh, or a supreme of chicken.

Let’s get a leg up. Take the thighs and pull off the skin. I save the skin and render the chicken fat for cooking potatoes, but you can waste your money and throw it out. If you want to freeze the skins and render the fat later on, sprinkle a little salt on the skins, throw them in a plastic bag and shove them in the freezer.

Put the thighs in a stock pot. An four quart stock pot would be ideal. Cover the meat with water by about 2 inches. Hey! Did you remember to run the tap water for 10 seconds before filling the pot? If you didn’t do so next time. Next add one tablespoon of salt to the water. Put a lid on the pot and turn the flame up to high. Remove the lid in 15 minutes, lower the flame to medium and when the liquid just starts to bubble, change the heat to low. Once the legs start to simmer, set a kitchen timer to 30 minutes. Or look at your wristwatch, noting the time. Or watch a Seinfeld episode. Allow the meat to simmer slowly, then turn off the flame and let the pot cool to room temperature, or overnight. If you are going to finish the work the next day, let the pot cool two hours, and put it in the fridge. Once the pot is cool, remove the legs, with a tongs to a plate. Use the broth for making your next batch of stock. As you make more stock, add a little more water to keep the level of the liquid about 2 inches over the meat, at the beginning of each batch. Freeze the liquid in the meanwhile. Don’t freeze it in glass containers. Or, if you want to use the stock for soup, keep it cold in the fridge, but faithfully bring it to a boil every three days, or it will go bad.

Using your hands, twist the leg bone and remove it. Find another bone with a sharp point (not it’s not sharp enough to cut you) in the meat. Pull it out. If there is any gristle or bone left at the fat end, remove it. What is left is meat. Two legs worth of meat per person will make enough for four tacos. Usually enough for a meal when served with frijoles refritos and some rice or a salad or both. Freeze what you won’t use immediately. I usually cook for two, so I freeze four legs in one plastic bag. When you are ready to make your chicken tacos, chop the meat, throw it in a bowl and add minced garlic, chopped onion, salt and pepper, oregano and enough olive oil to make the meat glisten. Allow the bowl of chicken to marinate like this for 30 minutes before you start cooking. You must use the olive oil to re-moisten the chicken meat. Especially if it has been previously frozen. If you like, marinate the chicken, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until ready to use. Sauté the meat in a hot skillet. Better still, if you have the time, chop an onion (yep, a whole onion) and brown it in olive oil, over low heat., before adding the chicken meat. This onion-browning step should take about 20 minutes. Otherwise your heat’s too high. When the onions are brown, add the meat, raise the heat, and using tongs or the back of a wooden spoon, put the meat down to fill the skillet. After five minutes, turn some of the meat over, it should have browned. If it hasn’t let it go another minute or two. Turn the meat several times like this, until the browned bits show all over. Serve with beans and salad.

TREATISE TACOS FOR TWO

A short list:
Chicken legs – two per person cooked
1 x 15 ounce can frijoles refritos I actually find that Taco Bell has an excellent flavored bean (I hate to say this as they will probably get a swelled head at corporate and beseech me to forever mention them again here in this column, which won’t happen, but don’t tell them that I told you that.)
A head of lettuce
2 Tomatoes
1 bunch of cilantro
1 white onion
1 or 2 jalapeño chiles
1 small lemon or lime
a pinch of salt
corn tortillas (or if you are a gringo, flour tortillas)

When you get home, if the cilantro is wet, dry it in paper towels. Or better still, stick the stems in a jar of water, and put in the in ‘fridge overnight to dry. If you make salsa with wet cilantro, it’s makes a mess, is extra work, and the like.

Now, here I differ from most folks, I pull the cilantro leaves off the stems and when I have a cup of them, I chop them up for the salsa. Salsa, like salad dressings must be made ahead of time to allow the flavors to meld. Chop the cilantro, put it in your salsa bowl. Peel and dice the onion and toss the onion and cilantro together before adding the more moist ingredients. Cut the tomatoes in quarters, over a sieve. Using your tomato shark, or the tip of a paring knife, remove the seeds and the yellowish-green goo into the sieve. Toss the tomato pieces the cutting board. Using a wooden spoon, lightly rub the goo, in the sieve over the salsa bowl. Cut the lemon or lime in half. Save half to serve cut in wedges with the tacos, if you like. Use the other part of the lemon to “rinse” the goo from the sieve. Chop the tomatoes into dice. Add them to the salsa bowl. Mince the jalapeños, discarding the seeds. I like use pickled jalapeños, but to each his own. Sprinkle a little salt and lemon juice over the salsa, and set it aside for at least 30 minutes before serving it. Yes, you can taste it a little while you prepare the rest of the meal, but don’t write to me about this column saying I gave you license to eat it all before dinner.

The chicken tacos will take anywhere between 15 to 20 minutes to cook, so start heating the beans about 5 minutes after you start cooing the tacos meat. During the last 7 minutes, heat a large skillet (also known: as a non-stick frying pan) and if you have some bacon drippings at a piece of fat the size of a small chicken egg. Pre-heat the oven to the lowest possible setting. The tortillas will rest here while the rare ones are being warmed up. Once the bacon dripping is melted, heat one tortilla at a time, spinning it around in the pan so that the fat coats it thoroughly. Usually no kitchen stove and skillet (or non-stick frying pan), are completely level. The bacon dripping will gather at one side of the pan. Put the tortilla into about ¾” of the fat, pull it away and turn it around in the skillet to heat through. When it is hot and moist all the way through, repeat the steps on the other side. Then put the tortilla on a plate in the pre-warmed oven. I do all the foregoing with my hands, except for the moving the tortilla into the oven, where I must use tongs, because the tortillas are too hot to touch. Try not to scratch your non-stick pan.

Check your chicken. Stir the beans, they should be bubbling. Finish the tortillas. I plate this dish up by serving the tortillas stacked up, usually four high. Then the meat goes on top of the stack. The beans and salad are served on the side, along with a lemon wedge and Cholula Hot Sauce. Cholula is a small village in the State of Jalisco, Mexico. There are 365 churches in Cholula. Some day I’m going to make a pilgrimage there and see if I can find the mother of this sauce. It’s about the best flavored hot sauce commercially available. Far more flavor than Tabasco. Yea, it’s not as hot, but that’s not what I want in a picante sauce. Their web presence is: www.cholula.com.

A brief dilation of the subject of the tortilla. A real tortilla is not made with flour or for those who are already shuddering at reading this: wheat flour. The Mexicans had no wheat, only corn. It is true that during the first two years I lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico that you could not purchase good tasting corn tortillas. They had fine tasting flour tortillas. It took a friend, Leo Nunez, to fly them in from Los Angeles everyday to introduce New Mexicans to good tasting tortillas. A while after that and some enterprising soul in El Paso started bring them up the 375 miles to Albuquerque, every day. In Mexico you can see tortillas that are a golden-yellow color. I had some of those at a roadside diner outside of Ensenada, Baja California. That place was still there the last time I drove down from LA a few years back. It’s on the Old Highway out of Tijuana, on the right as you drive towards Ensenada, about 40 kilometers outside of town. A caveat about tortillas in Mexico: in the southern states, they don’t grow corn, only wheat. Or more precisely, they grow less corn than wheat. The supermercados will have excellent flour tortillas, but not so good corn tortillas. You are warned!


A Dinner at El Zaghuan

When I tell my friends that I had been to a great “upscale” restaurant in TJ (Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico) they all snicker! They have all been to the tourist district, near 3rd Aveneida and Revolucion. They have eaten at Iguanas y Ranas (Iguanas and Frogs), maybe even ventured a Caesar Salad at the Hotel Caesar along Revolucion. Some cookbook authors say the Caesar Salad was invented here in TJ. I have seen conflicting reports . . . more of this in another column. A strolling Mariachi band does go into the Caesar Hotel and they have the lovely rustic character I find so beautiful in all of Mexico. At El Zaghuan, I had lunch one day. It was a salad of Mexican queso ranchero, basil leaves in a chipotle vinaigrette dressing. Chipotle chiles are jalapeños that are smoked over oak wood until they turn brown and shrivel up. Because they are dried they hot stuff is much concentrated. They smell heavenly! I once met a produce guy at his shop, just as he had unloaded about a fifty pound box of chipotles off his stake-bed truck. Man! The fragrance was extraordinary. I bought ½ a pound and sent a few to some friends. They called me when they got them and asked for a pounds worth. That’s a lot of smoked chiles, because once they are dried they only weigh 1/3 of an ounce, each. My friend put 2 or 3 of them in a bottle of vodka she uses to make bloody Marys. You can do the same. The Mexicans also smoke a Chile Serrano, which, is called a Morita, “a little Moor”. They are even hotter than the
Chipotles, and their flavor is just as good.

Birch Beer, Root Beer, IBC, A&W

... I'm jumping in feet first to try to help those of us who remember real Root Beer.

As a food nut, I have looked far and wide for foods I like. Growing up in St. Louis, before 1960, I easily remember the flavor of IBC Root Beer. We even had a hamburger joint (Fitz's) that had root beer on "draft". It was soooo creamy. But IBC tasted better.

The Quest was on and my research brought me to: The Independent Liquorist by Leonard Monzert. (New York : Dick & Fitzgerald, 1866). Monzert gives a wonderful root beer recipe.

But before I go into the history of this beverage, I want to deal with the chemistry of birch and "sassafras" root. The chemical name for both wintergreen and sweet birch is: METHYL SALICYLATE. That should mean that both birch and root beer taste about the same, at least as to that one ingredient. So it must be the remaining ingredients that constitute the flavor you all remember.

Monzert's Recipe for 10 gallons of:

Root Beer:
1 ounce yellow dock
1 ounce wintergreen
1 ounce sassafras
1 ounce allspice
1/2 ounce coriander seed
1/2 ounce wild cherry bark
1/4 ounce hops
3 quarts molasses
8 fl. ozs. brewer's yeast.
10 gallons of Spring Water (that means soft water)

Pour boiling water over all the ingredients. Stand 24 hours. Filter and add 8 ounces brewer's yeast and it is ready for use 24 hours later.

Root Beer in lore and legend is supposedly a response to the amount of beer guzzling going on in mid 19th century America. The inventor, whose name is lost to time, wanted to make a drink that would taste good, but not inebriate. Unusually enough, the molasses and brewer's yeast do yield an alcoholic beverage, but the alcohol is about .5%. You would have to drink a six-pack of root beer to equal one Bud.

If you are going to bottle this batch, sterilize your bottles and have a quality capper on had. I give a slightly easier recipe below.

From The Standard Manual of Soda and Other Beverages by A. Emil Hiss (Chicago : G.P. Engelhard & Co., 1897) comes his recipe for:

Birch Beer 3 ounces Princess Pine leaves
1 1/2 ounces wintergreen
1 ounce ginger
1 gallon water
5 pounds sugar
4 fl. ounces birch or birch beer extract

Ferment or charge in a soda fountain. Hiss' instructions for making birch extract are somewhat "strange". He gives 4 differing recipes, of which, one I give here:

Birch Essence or Extract (I.)
Oil of wintergreen 5 fl. drams
Oil of lemon 2 fl. drams
Oil of cloves 1/2 fl. dram
Oil of sassafras 20 drops
Extract of vanilla 4 fl. ounces
Alcohol 16 fl. ounces.

Dissolve the oils in the alcohol and add the vanilla.

In 1958, the Federal gov't. passed the "Delaney Amendment" to the U.S. Food and Drug Act. It called for a "zero tolerance" policy for foods that could be suspected of causing cancer. Old fashioned root beer was one of the first "victims" of this Delaney act. It seems "reputable" scientists gave the equivalent of about 17,000 root beers a day to dogs and mice and they got cancer and died. I don't mean they force fed those animals that quantity. They gave the "safrol" oil, which is what sassafras bark has in it. So they used that concentrated oil, which is thousands of times "stronger" than ordinary. Who among us would consume 2 to 3 pounds of salt a day and believe it was a healthy idea? None the less, sassafras was made illegal for use in root beer. The soda pop industry reformulated about 1960 and root beer never tasted as good again. Curiously enough, mace, black pepper and nutmeg have small amounts of safrol in them, or safrol-like chemicals and the government never "zero-toleranced" them out of business.

Meanwhile, I've learned to make root beer extract with alcohol and the first recipes ingredients. It yields about 6 ounces of liquid to which I add hop essence (from the home beer making shop). That is then mixed with 96 ounces of simple syrup.

Approach it thusly:

Root Beer:
1 ounce yellow dock
1 ounce wintergreen
1 ounce sassafras
1 ounce allspice
1/2 ounce coriander seed
1/2 ounce wild cherry bark
1/4 ounce hops
Caramel coloring (Smart & Final, about $3 for a quart.)

From your local homebrewing shop obtain some hop extract. (internet addresses at end)

Buy a bottle of vodka. If you don't regularly drink vodka, a pint will do fine. You need 12 fl. Ozs. to start with. Grind the herbs or have your herbalist pulverise them for you. Herbs of Mexico, here in Los Angeles, charges 75¢ extra, but the herbs come out as a nice size particle. In to a mason or other, sterile, jar, put the herbs, then the vodka. Stir well. Put the lid on and shake for 30 seconds to a minute. Get the menstruum well mixed. Put the jar into a dark cupboard, the liquid becomes light sensitive and must be kept in the darkest spot available to you. In the morning, line a sieve with a Mr. Coffee filter or equivalent. Put the sieve and filter over a bowl to catch the liquid. Empty the jar. Next, allow it to stand until you collect at least 6 fl. Ozs. of extract. If you have a dark room, so much the better. It won't take more than an hour. Or at least it shouldn't. If you don't have 6 fl. Ozs. pour more vodka over the menstruum to obtain it. Wash the grounds out, so to speak.

Put the 6 fl. Ozs. into a sterilized (including lid) hot sauce bottle. They measure 6 fl. Ozs. I am just going to assume that everybody uses some brand of hot sauce or can afford a 69¢ bottle of Red Rooster or some such.

Next, make your simple syrup. To 96 fl. Ozs. of water, add 96 ozs. of sugar. Bring to a strong boil, being careful not to let the sugar burn before it dissolves completely. Add the caramel coloring until you get a very dark color. Four to six ounces should be enough. Allow to cool and once the syrup is at room temperature, add the root beer extract. Decant into one gallon jar and a one quart jar. Keep the lid on tightly.

To serve: add 2 to 3 ounces of root beer syrup to a glass, ice and pour sparkling water over. I use Perrier.

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