Favorite Things

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Favorite Things: Bubbly

Note: Between now and January 1, we’re going to write about ten of our favorite things (in no particular order), from 2009.

Photo by David Lansing.

Photo by David Lansing.

I have this theory: You can measure a city’s sophistication by the number of champagne bars it supports. Barcelona, one of my favorite places in the world, has dozens (they are called xampanyerías, which sounds as festive as a popping cork). There are several famous ones in Berlin, London, and Paris (the best, Bubbles, is just off the Champs-Elysee) , and at least one good one in Chicago, New York, San Francisco. Reason enough, as far as I’m concerned, for a visit.

Frankly, I never tire of champagne (which brings to mind the dying words of Lord Maynard Keynes: “I wish I’d drunk more champagne”). I particularly like what I call “Farmer Fizz” sparklers: champagnes from small artisan producers like Egly-Ouriet, which produces a creamy bubbly with pear flavors, and the remarkable Henri Billiot. But just about any sparkling wine will do.

My love for bubbly goes back many years, to an 18 hour flight to Kuala Lumpur when I was seated in business class next to a woman from New Orleans who clasped a bottle of Xanax in her sweaty palm while talking out loud to herself as the plane took off.

Our flight left L.A. at 1:40 am. I was hoping to pop a little blue pill and drift off to sleep, but the woman from New Orleans wanted to talk—endlessly—whether to herself or to me, it didn’t seem to matter. She began by telling me that she thought I looked a little like James Spader and then wondered if I liked her retro sunglasses (collecting old sunglasses was her hobby, she said), and then, perhaps noting my silence said, “My therapist says if I talk to strangers, I’ll feel less anxious and won’t need so much Xanac.”

No reply.

“Am I bothering you?”

Before I could truthfully answer, the attendant came by and asked if I’d like a glass of champagne. I shook my head no. Which is when the woman from New Orleans put her hand on my wrist and said, “Honey, here’s what I say about champagne: Any time, any where, if someone offers you a glass of champagne, you just say yes. That’s just all there is to it.”

And then she took the glass of Veuve Clicquot from the attendant and handed it to me before grabbing another for herself.

I drank the champagne. And another. Long before the night ended, the woman from New Orleans and I had depleted the stock of champagne in business class. And become life-long friends.

So now, no matter where I am, no matter what time of day or night it is, if someone offers me a glass of champagne, I just say yes. You would be wise to do the same.



Favorite Things: The Mandoline

Note: Between now and January 1, we’re going to write about ten of our favorite things (in no particular order), from 2009.

There is no culinary language more seductive than French. Consider that most basic of edible tubers, what the Germans call Kartoffel, the Italians and Spanish patata, and we know as the potato. A homely name for a drab vegetable. Except in France. Where it is lovingly referred to as a pomme de terre—an apple of the ground. And what do the French do with these “apples of the ground?” Why they coif and rouge the little beauties, dressing the country bumpkins up as gratin dauphinois—what we unimaginatively call scalloped potatoes. Or they soak and press the little darlings into pommes Anna, a buttery potato cake with a luscious crispy crust.

The secret to most French potato dishes—from gaufrettes to gratins—is another creatively named Galic wonder, the mandoline. No one really knows who invented or named the mandoline. Manual vegetable slicers, made out of blocks of wood with a sharp blade in the middle, have been around for hundreds of years, but the first metal version was made by Jean Bron, a manufacturer from the Haute-Savoir region of southern France, in the early 50s. Like Edith Piaf, the Bron mandoline became a French classic because it is proletarian in a haughty sort of way. Every French chef has a mandoline. And respects it like an elderly relative.

One of my favorite chefs, Gregory Short, remembers first coming across a mandoline while studying at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. “I had a French instructor who was so adamant about the care of the mandoline that you had to sign it out before you could even use it,” he says. But the hassle was worth it, particularly when Short had to prepare something like Vichy carrots or thinly sliced celery root.

Its efficacy wasn’t lost on the young chef when he went to work at Napa Valley’s legendary French Laundry. “I watched other chefs do things with knives that were really just a waste of time,” he says. “They’d be making very fine, tedious cuts that could actually be better done using a mandoline.”

A Japanese Benriner mandoline.

A Japanese Benriner mandoline.

Mostly I use a somewhat expensive stainless steel French mandoline but I also get a kick out of using an inexpensive Japanese model, Benriner, because it’s lighter and easier to clean. Plus it gives you the flexibility to shave very thinly sliced vegetables right over the dish.

While almost all mandolines are designed with cutting guards to protect fingers from being thinly sliced, I seldom use it. Sometimes I’ll hold the vegetable with a towel but usually I’ll just use my fingers to push the vegetables through—and try to be careful.

Très, très prudent .


Note: Between now and January 1, we’re going to write about ten of our favorite things (in no particular order), from 2009.

The Tamale Lady of Sayulita. Photo by David Lansing.

The Tamale Lady of Sayulita. Photo by David Lansing.

“You may not be able to tell at first that tamales are being cooked except perhaps by the steamy windows—but later on a rich, subtle smell of corn husks, masa, and good lard, all intermingled, fills the house and gets stronger as the cooking nears completion. After their allotted time, you open one up to see if it is done. You heave a sigh of relief as a soft, spongy, white tamal rolls quite easily from the husk. It could so easily have been heavy and damp.

“Tamales are made for an occasion, and an occasion is made of making them. Men, women, children, and servants all join in with good humor, shredding, chopping, stirring, and cleaning the husks until all is prepared. Then everyone converges to form a real assembly line, some daubing the husks with masa while others add the filing, fold, and stack into the steamer. And there is nothing quite as delicious as that first tamal, straight from the steamer.”

–Diana Kennedy, The Cuisines of Mexico

I think the first time I came across The Tamale Lady was Christmas Day two or three years ago. I was lounging, half-asleep, on a beach chair in front of Don Pedro’s in Sayulita, Nayarit. This particular stretch of sand is one of the most remarkable in the world (although it never seems to pop up on those ubiquitous “best beaches” magazine lists) for not only is the water warm and cerulean, the breezes mild, the palm trees shady, but you can sit here all day and eat and drink just about anything you want without ever having to move, from little spears of charcoal-grilled shrimp to a fermented pineapple drink called tepache served in a hollowed-out pineapple husk. Sit there long enough and you will hear the calls and whistles for roasted peanuts, jelly beans, chicharrón, mango chunks, torta Mexicana, elote con queso, coconut ice cream, and plastic cups brimming with spears of watermelon and jicama.

But do not be tempted. Wait. Until you see a short, gray-haired woman with large hoop earrings carrying a blue plastic pail: The Tamale Lady. The first time I tasted her wares was serendipitous. I had been waiting for the woman who usually came around with the tin pail selling tortas. But she was sick that day or maybe just taking the day off and suddenly it was almost two o’clock and I was starving. So when I saw the little woman, dressed all in white, calling out, “Tamals!” I flagged her down, figuring I’d buy a single tamale to appease my hunger while waiting for something more substantial.

In her bucket were pork tamales, tamales de pollo, and, because it was Christmas, she said, tamales dulces—the sweet corn tamales from Jalisco flavored with piloncillo (cones of raw sugar), anise seeds, and cinnamon. Curious, I got one of those.

What a revelation! The kernels of corn inside the moist husks were as sweet as if they had just been harvested that morning (which it probably had) and the piloncillo and spices gave it a Christmas-y cookie flavoring. Licking my fingers, I ran down the beach after her.

“Excuse me,” I said, “but that is the most delicious tamale I’ve ever had.” She smiled.

Mi tamales de carne de cerdo son también muy buenos,” she said.

So I tried the pork tamale. And then the chicken. Each was more remarkable than the last.

“¿Cómo te llamas?” I asked her.

She shrugged. “La señora tamal.” The Tamale Lady. Who I hope will be on the beach again this Christmas selling her amazing tamales dulces—another one of my favorite things.

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Note: Between now and January 1, we’re going to write about ten of our favorite things (in no particular order), from 2009. First up, The Gentleman’s Companion.

He was the original flâneur, an unheralded writer who came out of the Jazz Age and Prohibition who always seemed to end his stories with a drink recipe. Charles H. Baker, Jr., born on Christmas Day, 1895, in a hamlet of Orlando, Florida, attended Trinity College in Connecticut where he met his first wife, Ruth Parker (who died a year later of Spanish influenza), before, as he wrote, publishing his own magazine, taking a trip around the world, selling his magazine, and starting an interior decorating business. All financed by “a happy legacy from a thoughtful grandparent of the old Pittsburgh school who believed in making steel from iron.”

The trip around the world was aboard the SS Resolute, “a grand, three-stack steamer, complete with a ballroom, a French chef, an orchestra, and an itinerary that included forty-five foreign ports,” according to St. John Frizell, a restaurateur and former writer for Bon Appetit who has written the most extensive history of Baker to date.

Charles H. Baker, Jr. and Ernest Hemingway, circa 1935.

Charles H. Baker, Jr. and Ernest Hemingway, circa 1935.

Frizell writes that at “every port of call, Baker copied recipes for exotic dishes and cocktails into his notebook.” More than a decade later, these notes formed the backbone of his inimitable bible of exotic drinking, The Gentleman’s Companion.”

A classic that is hotly sought after and collected by studious bartenders and cocktail aficionados (I recently saw the two-volume set being auctioned on eBay for $400), Baker’s work is, as Frizell notes, “part travelogue, part memoir, and part instruction manual for budding bon vivants.” The only way to really give you a feel for what I’m talking about is to quote Baker directly. From the introduction to the second volume of The Gentleman’s Companion: Around the World with Jigger, Beaker, and Glass:

“By Suez, we were groggy…By Singapore we were cellars-dry, and bought again. We literally drank our way across Siam and Cambodia….By the time we quite Honolulu, the bald-faced conclusions were plain as the nose on our face—much of the welter of mixed things with fancy names were the egotistically-titled, ill-advised conceptions of low-browed mixers who either had no access to sound spirits, or if they did have, had so annealed their taste buds with past noxious cups that they were forevermore incapable of judicious authority.”

So raise a toast: To Charles H. Baker, the original flâneur, and author of the brilliantly-entertaining but long-forgotten Gentleman’s Companion—one of my most favorite things.


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