Sunday, January 4, 2009

As We Look To The Year Ahead, Leftovers & Hangovers From The Year Before; or, I'd Rather Have a Bottle In Front Of Me Than A Frontal Lobotomy

~Two Loafs~

So, we are here in the new year, the ninth one after the world did not explode due to the new millennium, and lots has changed. About a third of my life has passed, and I'm in a very different spot now than I was then. I think back then was right about the time I started a relative calming down; which is to say I stopped being out all night drinking 6 nights out of 7, and reduced it a bit. I think I probably ate out a lot more then; LOTS of 3:00 AM breakfasts and 2:00 PM brunches, if you know what I mean. Burritos were regularly involved, and to be honest, I had no clue culinarily. I was probably aware of a few things, but really didn't have the tools to understand them. Little ladies sold burritos and tamales outside of the bars in Denver where I'd go, and I ate plenty of those late at night.

But importantly, my girlfriend was Peruvian (note: she still is Peruvian; she's just not my girlfriend anymore), and I came across some great food via her: Lomo Saltado, strips of beef, onions and peppers cooked with tomatoes and served with fried potatoes; a soup that I can't recall the name of that was quite similar to Posole, with hominy and pig's feet; papas rellenas, potatoes baked and stuffed with a load of meat, olives, onions and more; and even the mysterious pancha mancha, involving a pit dug in the ground, a fire made in the pit, resulting in super hot coals over which a goat was placed, then buried in the dirt for hours, slow roasting the beast, until it was ready and exhumed and devoured by all. Maybe I'm romanticizing some of this in my head. Nevertheless, I can write this and feel good about myself in the fact that I recognized the significance of this food then--it wasn't a complete waste on a beer guzzling idiot whose main claim to fame was my ability to chug an entire pitcher of Guinness at once.

So here we are, nearly ten years later, and the food I experienced then and in the years before and after is still in the forefront of my mind. It's reassuring to know that, especially during a time when so many discouraging things are happening: Governors thumbing their nose at the people who elect them, broken transit systems raising prices, 60 degree temperatures the day after Christmas. But we can still get an awesome bowl of Pho followed up by Jin Dui (glutinous rice pastry filled with red bean paste and rolled in sesame seeds) on Argyle Street in Chicago for less than ten bucks. We can also get vegetable pies, each rolled uniquely to denote what is inside, for cheap at the Middle Eastern bakery on Foster and Clark. Huaraches Dona Chio has ridiculous Huaraches for super, super cheap. A Huarache is most popularly known as a kind of sandal; what I'm talking about is a sandal shaped wad of masa that a wonderful woman, shaped not unlike a thick Huarache, makes from a fresh tub full of the stuff. She presses it on this enormous old press and throws it on a flattop griddle, and ultimately tops it with whatever you like. The al Pastor was wonderful, everything done in big pots on a few burners in the tiny, exposed kitchen, as cramped as the dining room, which consists of 3 tables, 8 seats, a few stools at the bar overlooking the kitchen, and one large television blasting novellas. It's the kind of place that people of my "demographic" tend to get nervous being in, trying to act as natural as possible and trying to pronounce things properly without sounding patronizing, and as we all know, these are the places that the best food can be had at. The great food writer Calvin Trillin, in his essay Divining the Mysteries of the East, writes about his difficulties in eating at Chinese restaurants and his displeasure in receiving the dumbed-down menu given to most Americans when what he really wants is the "off the menu" type items, usually displayed in Chinese prints on the wall, available only to those speaking and reading the language. He's not scared to ask. I still kind of am. ANYWAY, the Huaraches at Dona Chio are delightful, and plenty for two, even when one of those two is a race-to-the-finish, eat-it-all-before-anyone-else-does hog.

I suppose all of this means that I am at a good spot culinarily speaking. I'm lucky enough to live in one of the best cities to access cheap food at it's finest, and I'm also privy to lots of great whole foods (i.e. vegetables, meat, etc., NOT the overpriced, phony grocery store chain--ugh!) with which to cook. So things are good, and as far as the leftovers and hangovers mentioned in the title of this post are concerned, the hangover is gone (though it takes awhile for several negronis to make their way through the system), and the leftovers were pretty non-existent. The bread I made for New Year's Eve and discussed in the last post turned out great, though I had to add just a dash of packaged yeast because I was lazy and started the starter a day or two too late--but the flavor was definitely there from the few days it was allowed to cultivate, and the crust was crisp and thin and flying off everywhere when we cut it, and the crumb of the bread was nice and chewy--very satisfying. One of the friends who came over for dinner that night started eating the meatballs I made instantly out of the pot, and never stopped; of the 4 pounds and roughly 50 meatballs, there were 5 left the next day. So much for meatball sandwiches well into the new year. But it was worth it--nothing is so flattering and satisfying as to make someone genuinely happy with food, be it fancy, cheap, or whatever--and I sat back with glee and nourishment and watched him throw meatballs in his mouth like popcorn. We each ate 12 grapes at midnight; a tradition I'd encountered before, with the Peruvian family, making a wish with each grape. But this time, the tradition of Las doce uvas de la suerte was explained to me--it was started in Spain in 1909, by a wine producer that had a monster harvest, too many grapes to make into wine, in fact, thus they created the event of eating a grape for each month of the new year, making wishes along with each one. I suppose I felt kind of scammed, especially since a grape harvest coinciding with New Year's Eve seems a bit off, but who cares--it was now a tradition amongst us, and we'd keep it so.