Thursday, March 29, 2012

A Mango a Day

There’s little that can be said against the locovore movement except this: I love mangoes and they don’t grow in Massachusetts where I live. Much as I’d like to say that I eat only those fruits and vegetables that grow close to home, the truth is that I buy four or five mangoes at the supermarket every week—yes, every week. You see, the thing is that I crave them on an almost daily basis. My standard lunch is based around a mango—a whole mango—and as far as I’m concerned, it’s the best lunch I know. You peel a perfectly ripe mango that feels pleasingly heavy in the palm of your hand, cube the pinkish-orange-gold flesh that smells like nothing else you’re ever likely to smell, and eat it all by yourself with some plain yogurt and home-made granola sprinkled on top. Sort of sweet, sort of tart, sort of perfumey all at the same time.

It would have been better for the locovore movement if Dr. John Fryer had never traveled to India and Persia for the British East India Company in the 17th century. He returned home to England and wrote of the mangoes he’d eaten that “when ripe, the Apples of the Hesperides are but Fables to them; for Taste, the Nectarine, Peach and Apricot fall short.” Who wouldn’t go to great lengths to taste such a fruit, cultivated in India since 2000 BC at least when it was called man-kay (or man-gay) in Tamil, literally, the “fruit of the mango tree”? By Dr. Fryer’s time, the mango was so revered in India that it had become a royal status symbol. The Moghul ruler Akbar had an orchard of 100,000 mango trees planted in Darbhanga and for centuries only rajas and nawabs were permitted to cultivate mango orchards.

Thankfully today you don’t have to be a raja or nawab to grow mangoes—nor to eat them. Today, they’re almost always on special at my local Stop & Shop at four for $5.00. As available and prosaic as they’ve become, however, they never shed their aura of exoticism. Even when heaped up in bins at the supermarket, they still bring to mind the Vedic myth of Surya Bai, daughter of the sun, who was saved from an evil sorceress by being transformed into a golden lotus. When the furious sorceress burned the lotus, a mango tree sprang up from its ashes and when a ripe fruit fell to the ground, Surya Bai stepped out to be reunited with the husband who’d thought to have lost her forever. Clearly I’m not the only one who loves a good mango. 

It wasn’t an evil sorceress, though, but Portuguese colonizers who brought the mango from India to Africa from where it sailed to Brazil and the West Indies, and finally, in the 19th century, to Hawaii, Florida, and Mexico, where many of the mangoes I eat for lunch today were grown.

Which brings me to my last point. Much as I love mangoes, I don’t generally like things made with mangoes—dessert things, that is. I love unripe, or green, mango salads (very popular in India and throughout Southeast Asia) and on summer evenings I sometimes make tandoori-ish chicken which I serve with basmati rice into which I’ve stirred cubed mango, red onion, cilantro, and amchoor (ground dried mango powder). But mango desserts are usually way too sweet for me. Except for one.

Paletas de mango con chile. For those of you who don’t know what a paleta is, it’s a Latin American ice pop and let me tell you that if your idea of an ice pop is grape or cherry, you’re in for a treat. Think guava, tamarind, papaya, coconut, cucumber, and my favorite, mango con chile. Perfect as it already is, the sweet-tartness of the mango is made even more hauntingly redolent by the pungency of the lime and the slight smokiness of the ancho chile. Try one and you'll be likely to agree that a strictly locovore diet might have its limitations.

Paletas de Mango con Chile

1 cup mango nectar
¼ sugar
2 tsp fresh lime juice
1 tsp ancho chile powder
1 large mango, peeled, seeded, and cut in small cubes

Heat the first three ingredients and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Stir in the chile and mango and pour into ice pop molds. Freeze until solid.

Friday, March 16, 2012

On Pasta, Pastry . . . and Paste

If there’s a person out there who doesn’t love pasta, I haven’t yet met him. Having raised two kids and having fed dozens of their friends over the years, I can attest to the fact that if it weren’t for pasta, America’s children might be in danger of starving to death. When all else fails, it’s macaroni and cheese to the rescue. And we never outgrow our love for pasta. Let’s face it. If you didn’t crave it so desperately, you wouldn’t have to torture yourself with those high-protein diets that deprive you of precisely the thing that put on the extra pounds in the first place. (And what’s wrong with an extra pound or two anyway? Just think of Sophia Loren, standing there in all her zaftig glory, declaring, “Everything you see I owe to spaghetti.”)

I remember reading somewhere that all a food magazine has to do to bump up sales is feature pasta on the cover. It doesn’t matter whether that pasta is spaghetti, fusilli, vermicelli, ziti, radiatori, farfalle, or lasagna, nor does it matter whether it’s been marinara’d, puttanesca’d, carbonara’d, alfredo’d or pesto’d. All it’s got to be is pasta and the crowds come running, forks at the ready.

Funny, isn’t it, that we should be so utterly helpless to resist what, when all is said and done, is no more than paste, which is, of course, a related form of the same word. Paste: “A liquid adhesive made by mixing roughly equal portions of flour and water and heating it until it thickens, used since ancient times for book binding, decoupage, papier-mâché, and for adhering paper to walls.” Replace the water with egg, and what do you have? Homemade fresh pasta. It’s not surprising that one way to test whether the spaghetti’s done is to hurl a piece against the wall: if it sticks, it’s done. By this logic, you could use al dente pasta the next time you set out to wallpaper your kitchen.
And then there’s pastry, which turns out to be just another form of the same word. Whether it’s shortcrust, flaky, puff, or choux, our pastry, the historians tell us, evolved from ancient Mediterranean filo-type doughs, made by mixing—guess what?—flour, water, and a bit of oil into a dough and stretching it into paper-thin sheets. Puts me in mind of a cartoon I’ve got over my desk. Crusaders are returning from the Holy Land, their javelins incongruously skewered with pineapples, bananas, and loaves of bread. The caption reads: “By the time we got there, all we wanted to do was raid their kitchen.” There’s truth said in jest: the Crusaders might have left Europe with the dream of winning back the Holy Land, but it was with enticing new foods they returned, including the ancestor of the delights we gaze at so longingly in the windows of French patisseries today: the Napoleon (aka the mille-feuille, or “a thousand leaves”), the cream puff, and the éclair. 

Pasta. Paste. Pastry. Hard to believe, isn’t it, that a simple homely little mixture of flour and liquid could be so irresistibly good?

[NB: Here's a confession. I've had that cartoon, from The New Yorker, over my desk for years, believing the whole time that the figures were returning Crusaders. I just looked more closely. I was wrong. They're Vikings. Hmmm. On the other hand, if I remember my history correctly, the Normans were originally of Viking stock—Norman means "Norseman"—and the Normans were Crusaders, so maybe I wasn't so wrong after all. Phew.]

Friday, March 9, 2012

Venti Coffees & Super Colossal Olives: Where did all the small food go?

Am I the only person who has a hard time getting the words out of my mouth at Starbucks? It’s not that I’m tripped up by “a skinny venti caramel macchiato,” which, no matter how many times you say it, is a mouthful. It’s simply that I don’t like the language they force their customers to use. When did a small coffee become a “tall” coffee? Apparently at the same time that a medium become a “grande” and a large became a “venti.” And even the 20-ounce “venti” has now been dethroned by the “trenta,” which, according to the company’s website, logs in at a whopping 31 ounces. When you consider that the average human bladder holds only 18 ounces or so, you have to wonder why anyone would even want so much to drink—anyone other than a hiker severely dehydrated after hours and hours spent wandering around in the likes of Death Valley.

And so I resist both the gargantuan sizing and the silly nomenclature. I ask the cashier (or is that a barista?) for a “small coffee in a medium cup” (my devious way of ensuring that I get my money’s worth; this way, there’ll still be enough room in the cup for me to add as much milk as I want). “You mean a tall in a grande?” he asks me. “That’s right. A small in a medium.” My family rolls their eyes and pretends not to know me. I suppose I see their point—when in Rome, as they say—but on the other hand, I’ve got a point too. What’s so wrong with “small”? I thought the best things come in small packages, but apparently I was wrong. In the world of olives, there’s no such thing as small at all. Sizing starts at “large” or “jumbo" and goes up from there. In what world is a medium olive “colossal”? In the same world where large ones are “super mammoths.” And then there’s that strange entity known, not as a prawn, but as a “jumbo shrimp.” Talk about your oxymorons. 

It’s not even our American Super Size Me attitude that I’m talking about—although, now that I think of it, I could go on for quite some time about movie theater tubs of popcorn and portion sizes (not to mention calorie content) at places like the Cheesecake Factory, recently voted “The Absolutely Worst Family Restaurant in America”—so much as I’m struck by our sheeplike willingness to believe that if you change the name, you change the thing too. Either we're gullible or in denial. Perfect example: how many calories can an ice cream cone have if it’s a “small”? A lot considering that today’s “small” cones have an eerie resemblance to frozen mushroom clouds. These days, if you want a small cone, you have to order a “kiddie cone.”

To each his own and far be it from me to deprive anyone of their (literally) gut-busting beverages or their super-sized burger and fries. But, by the same token, far be it from them to deprive me of a perfectly serviceable vocabulary of smallness. When I want a small coffee, I want a small coffee—not a tall one, not a “short” one, but a small one.  

Friday, March 2, 2012

Leeks: The Unsung Heroes of the Onion Family

Every year for the past few years I buy the same kitchen calendar for myself (it's the Eating Well Calendar if you want to know, and you can still order one for yourself if you haven't yet committed to a calendar for 2012). It’s got such beautiful pictures of fruits and vegetables that I don’t have the heart to throw the calendars out by the time the end of December rolls around. In fact I’ve got a collection of old ones upstairs, dating back, I think, to 2004 or 2005. I suppose I have it in the back of my mind that one fine day I’ll get around to framing a few of my favorite images to decorate the walls of my kitchen. But how to decide between the apples and beets and figs and cabbages?

But now it’s March and I just turned a new page on my calendar (it’s a little game I play with myself, refusing to peek ahead of time) to find . . . an onion. Hmmm. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a really good close-up of the vegetable that is, arguably, the one we cook with most of all. A basic kitchen staple. A veritable work-horse. Old Reliable. I bet that if you’ve cooked dinner at all within the last week, an onion figured in the preparation. I couldn’t tell you if it was a yellow, white, or red one—or whether it was a Bermuda, Vidalia, Walla-Walla, Maui, or maybe a pretty little Cipollini or Pearl. But I’m willing to wager that if you cooked this week, at some point your knife made contact with an onion.

All of which is simply another way of saying something that Julia Child—aka The French Chef—once commented on far more memorably: “It’s hard to imagine civilization without onions.”

So here’s my question and here’s what made me pause when I turned the page on my calendar to discover an onion. What’s become of that other member of the allium family that I, for one, turn to time and time again during these long dark wintry months? No, not the scallion and no, not the shallot. The leek. What's become of the leek? Why haven’t I ever seen a glossy shot of a leek on my calendar? When was the last time you chopped a leek?  

There always seems to be a reason to avoid the leek. “A what?," I've heard some people say. “Looks like a scallion on steroids.” “What’s it taste like?” “They’re so dirty.” “What a pain to rinse out all the grit.” “What do I do with it?” Supermarkets even feel the need to explain what they are and sometimes post designed-to-be-helpful signs: "Mild, with an onion-like flavor."

But think of this. Time was (granted, a long long time ago) when the leek was so far from being the underdog of the onion family that other oniony vegetables were named after it. Instead of “spring onions” and “pearl onions” and “green onions,” there used to be plants called “cropleac,” “holleac,” and “bradeleac.” No one’s quite sure what the names referred to all those years ago, but the “leac” at the end makes one thing very clear: whatever they were, they were treated as a type of leek.

We’ve still got one such word with us. Garlic. Bet you didn’t know that garlic gets its second syllable—the lic—from the leek. The gar meant something like “spear,” which makes sense if you’ve ever seen a head of garlic with its stem still attached.

So why is it that today the leek is considered to be a member of the onion family whereas it used to be that the onion was considered part of the leek family? What was responsible for what the late great food writer Jane Grigson once referred to as “the social collapse of this ancient vegetable”?

Now there are all sorts of practical reasons. Onions have papery skins that allow you to store them longer, not to mention keeping out a lot of the dirt and grit. But I wonder whether there’s also something about the names. Shakespeare knew a thing or two about how to use his words and he made good sport out of the fact that “to eat a leek” meant “to humiliate.” “I will make him eat some part of my leek, or I will peat his pate four days,” declares the leek-eating Welsh Ffluellen in Henry V. 

Somehow the monosyllabic leek just doesn’t sound as musical or as appetizing as onion. Linger over the word. Say it slowly. On-yun. It flows trippingly off the tongue, doesn’t it? Just another example of something I have found to be true, if not all the time, at least most of the time. We like French-sounding words better than German-sounding ones and our linguistic preferences seem to coincide with our culinary ones. Which sounds better to you? L’oignon or der lauch? And which do you reach for more often?