Sunday, September 13, 2009
A Week in Three Meals
Investigative culinarianism comes at a cost, sometimes to the detriment of health but more often than not it's chalked in dollar terms. In calculating our budget for Mexico, I realised that we could save AU$285 (that's around 560 tacos, no light matter) by braving a 20 hour trip that kept us in Fiji for a stopover en route to LA. Bleary-eyed in Nadi, we spent hours looking at huge packets of Twisties and all manner of things concocted from coconut, dreaming of our budget accommodation we'd booked at Los Angeles airport.
We emerged from LAX customs at 3pm local time, happily took a free shuttle to our cheap bed, and found ourselves located in a nutritional desert. An effort to find food that vaguely resembled the results of natural selection, I embarked on a frustrated three mile walk that came to naught. At the end of my reserves, I surrendered to a neon sign perched atop a deep-fryer, and left clutching a predictable Styrofoam container, a four piece "meal" from Pollo Loco. In an age of naming eateries after key ingredients, the people behind crazy chicken have shamed us all for creativity.
What can I say? Chances are I was looking at the remains of some poor bird who had lived a terrible and brief life in a feedlot, sustained on antibiotics until its death and injected with flavour solution afterwards. My own solution was similarly appalling: at three miles and half a world of flying behind me, my ethical and nutritional standards came to dust, and this dirty bird had my name on it. Four pieces of chicken thigh, a side of pinto beans, rice, a little stack of tortillas and sauces, and you can see why this awful food is endemic and threatening, with a total cost US$7.71 . And since the Pollo Loco nutritional guide informs me that this meal contains at least 860 calories (about 110 per dollar, taxes included), it was more than enough to make it to Guadalajara.
And so fourteen hours later, there we were. Jalisco's state capital has a reputation as the most Mexican of cities, the balanced and blended Mestizo and Spanish cultures reflected in architecture, people and of course food. Birria de chivo is Jalsico's most famous and ubiquitous dish, a spiced goat stew that can be prepared many ways but always features Chile de arbol and requires hours of gentle heat. The resulting feast is fall-apart, tender and moist, subtle in its balance of earthy notes, spice and goat, with delicate aromas and a clean finish (I know, it sounds more like a goat chardonnay). Birria is then served with chopped coriander, diced onion, tortillas, lime and a platter of house specialty salsa. We had it twice, the first plate an entirely forgettable concoction from the Mercardo Libertad, the second a sublime and accomplished example of tradition and quality at Birria las Nueve Esquinas, really the place to try this amazing dish.
On to the coast. That I have traveled thousands of kilometers to learn about, and eat local food is a somewhat confused point, of this I am well aware. Cooking local produce anywhere however, is an unconflicted joy (akin to being proficient on your own instrument, then getting the chance to play around on a new and exotic one just to see what sounds you can make). So to this end I was delighted to find a fish market at the little town of San Paucho, on the Jaliscan coast, selling Huachinango only hours from the catch. These small red fish are more or less Red Snapper and really wonderful when so fresh. I treated them in no extraordinary way, letting the freshness and quality speak louder than my interference. Scaled, scored on each side and trimmed down to fit in the pan, I salted them lightly then cooked each side through, crisping the skin only slightly. I then used the pan to make a quick salsa, as follows:
a good slug olive oil
quarter red onion, diced fine
small clove of garlic, finely sliced
2 small ripe roma tomato, diced
half a Jalepeno chile, seeds removed and diced
juice of 1 lime
Soften the onion in the pan with the oil, letting the flavours of the fish permeate. Add chile and garlic, saute gently. Add tomato, then cook a little further. Add a squeeze of lime and spoon over fish, serve with good bread or tortillas to mop up. Pretty good with a crisp sweet beer and a slight rosy sunburn. Provecho.
Sure it's simple, but the key to this salsa is tomato with a pronounced flavour of... tomato. Please, "Just Say No" to Woolworths, Safeway, and other such threats to our farming communities and our quality of food. Check your local Farmers Market when the real ones are in season. Better still, grow your own.
I'd better wrap it up, off to a tortilla factory...more next week.