Posts Tagged ‘language


a large vocabulary for corn

There’s a paragraph in the November/December Cooks Illustrated that delighted me and confused me at the same time:

Masa and masa harina are both made from hominy, which is dried corn that has been soaked or cooked in an alkaline solution of water and calcium hydroxide [sic] to remove the germ and hull. This process, called nixtamalization, imparts a distinctive flavor that differentiates masa-based products from other forms of dried corn like polenta and cornmeal.

There’s nothing wrong with the way that’s worded. Why was it reading so funny to me? I realized that it was because I could think so many other ways to word it, and I was thinking of them all at more or less the same time.

  • masa aka dough
  • masa harina aka maseca (a genericized brand name)
  • hominy aka nixtamal
  • corn aka maize
  • soaked or cooked in an alkaline solution… aka nixtamalized, slaked, limed
  • calcium hydroxide aka quick lime, cal, calcium oxide (all these synonyms name the substance before it is mixed with water)
  • nixtamalization aka slaking, liming

This sort of linguistic interference makes playing Scrabble very interesting sometimes, as I try to sort out whether a word is or is not part of the English vocabulary.


a very San Francisco summer dinner


Hot, nourishing celery soup to ward off the chilly blue fog, next to a BLT with amazingly sweet-tart, in-season tomato (not to mention free range bacon).

The celery soup recipe comes from PJ, who requested my calabacitas* recipe. For a celery soup that “tastes small and beautiful,” you will need:

  • cooking fat
  • a head of celery
  • a large yellow onion
  • salt
  • herbs that you enjoy (to borrow Gwen’s phrase; tonight they were thyme and garlic chives)
  • two medium starchy potatoes
  • pepper
  • zest of 1-2 lemons
  • six cups water

Heat the fat and get the onion and celery softening in it with some salt. Let that cook, stirring occasionally, while you prep the other ingredients. Add the potatoes, herbs, pepper, lemon zest, and water, along with some more salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and keep it there, covered, until the potatoes are done (another 20 minutes or so). Puree, adjust salt and pepper, and serve.

To puree, we use the immersion blender that Kelli, whom we will love forever, gave us. It replaced our 2-cup food processor for the purpose, and even a couple of years on, it still surprises us how easy the immersion blender is.

* PJ reports that her father’s family, who called summer squash cymlings, made something similar to calabacitas. The American Heritage Dictionary says that cymling is an alteration of simnel, which is a type of marzipan-covered cake served in Britain at Easter. I assume the association is through the shape of the patty pan squash, which kind of looks like a little cake.

simnel cake



making new foods familiar

Wednesday‘s NYT article on Korean tacos made me think of Richard Wilk’s Home Cooking in the Global Village: Caribbean Food from Buccaneers to Ecotourists, which discusses, in depth and in the context of Belizean cuisine, six ways in which cuisines interact and exchange elements. One of those six is, of course, wrapping or stuffing: “physically enclosing something new or foreign within a familiar wrapper, or vice versa.”

White bread or hamburger buns can civilize otherwise low-status local foods, “making them acceptable to middle class and foreign tastes.” In Belize, the result is something similar to the Mexican torta compuesta; Belizeans are even able to civilize gibnut* (a jungle rodent) by using a bun to dress it up as a hamburger. Local, low-status food + foreign, high-status form = sudden acceptability.

Wilk also notes that local wrappings can make foreign foods local. In Belize, “canned tomato paste and Campbell’s vegetable soup” make their way into tamales wrapped in locally familiar banana leaves. In Mexico, he says, corn tortillas play the role of banana leaves “in wrapping all kinds of ingredients; the name of the dish and the mode of preparation as tacos or enchiladas or gorditas remains familiar, even if the stuffing is alien or strange.”

And now, restaurateur John Ban tells us, corn tortillas are a familiar enough wrapper in the United States that they can turn Korean barbeque into recognizably American food.

Note that this essential Americanness did not skip the humble Tex-Mex flour tortilla for the newer-to-these-shores but more “authentic” corn version; think of every wrap joint you’ve ever been to. Though perhaps that’s a case of the fillings, which undoubtedly cater to a particularly bland American taste, civilizing the wrapper. And giving “wrap” makers the latitude to take out the lard and replace it with spinach. Or flax seeds. Or whatever.

Maybe the very American health consciousness of the wrap is a way of mitigating any remaining suspicions that its form–essentially a street food–might arouse that the wrapper “conceals suspicious or even dangerous ingredients.”

* Gibnut is technically Cuniculus paca. WIkipedia reports that it is known as “paca” throughout most of its range, which extends from central Mexico to northern Argentina. The article proceeds to give the other names by which it is known in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, Venezuela, Guyana, Trinidad, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru–leaving us to wonder where it is actually called “paca.”

The most interesting names for today’s discussion are its Latin name (cuniculus being part of the scientific name for rabbit) and those from Panama (conejo pintado, or “painted rabbit”) and the Venezuela-Guyana-Trinidad axis (lapa-labba-lappe, all variations on the French lapin, meaning “rabbit”). Civilizing foreign ingredients through language.

For those familiar with the campo cuisine of Guatemala, we are of course talking about tepezcuintle here. It’s not bad: white meat, pleasantly gamy, though a little stringy.




The best thing the pressure cooker has given us so far: chickpeas. Though I like hummus and falafel, I’ve never been a fan of whole chickpeas. From the can, they’re kind of grey, mushy on the outside, somehow both mealy and hard on the inside, and a little tinny. Dried chickpeas were too intimidating to try; they look like they’ll cook forever and never get soft. But with the pressure cooker, I tried them yesterday.

So good! The taste is a little grassy (in a good way), they’re still a little mealy but not hard, and they’re yellow, not grey. I made way too many, but I don’t mind at all. Last night a cup of them made their way into Mark Bittman’s chicken and chickpea tagine*. I scaled the recipe down for two, omitted the vanilla bean, and pressure cooked it for 10 minutes rather than simmering for 45. At the end, I browned the chicken pieces in butter (they were pale and unappealing straight out of the pot), reduced the sauce (I’d added a cup extra liquid so that it would steam properly), and garnished with parsley. Served over bulgur, with a salad of mixed greens with feta, nectarine, cherry tomatoes, mint, and honey. Delicious.

This morning’s protein was chickpeas with red onion, mint, lemon juice, and salt. Tonight, we’ll be having chickpeas with spinach and chorizo again. If they’re still not gone after all that, I may try to reinvigorate three-bean salad. I mentioned I made a lot, didn’t I?

*Bittman’s tagine is a Moroccan-style dish. A Tunisian tagine is like a fritatta rather than a stew. The word “tagine” refers not to the preparation but to the cooking vessel.

So I suppose I should call mine a “pressure-cooker,” and Bittman should call his a “skillet.” But “tagine” sounds better.



Helsinki fine dining: Havis

On the first night of the conference, we had a very good dinner at Havis, a high-end Finnish cuisine restaurant on the waterfront. It started with skagen, an open-face sandwich that in this case included shrimp, a dill-cream sauce, and lavaret roe. The main was a white fish (I’m not sure we were able to get a good translation as to what kind) in a creamy false morel sauce. Both delicious. Wine was chosen by the eminences of J-P’s department, who’ve made extensive (academic) study of the subject and so have my trust, and dessert was creme brulee with (possibly) lingonberry sauce. Conversation included the antiseptic and other merits of various spices–I plan to report back here later. A good night.

One hitch in the meal: a fellow diner fished something very un-morel-like out of his sauce. As he was wondering what it was, I, with my tact as ever one step behind my mouth, gave a positive id. “That’s a spider.”

And it was. It was very small, and probably well cooked. When we told the waiter, his response was terrifically deadpan. “You’re joking.” Examining plate: “That’s disgusting.” And he brought another.

We enjoyed the food regardless, making jokes about the delicacy of baked giant spider eyes. The topic of Extreme Cuisine came up, as well as the time I watched a woman inadvertently make tarantula tamales in Guatemala.

We actually had an even better meal in Helsinki (story for another post), but nothing else as dramatic. Unless you count the clerk at the second kebab shop we visited warning us away from sitting outside to eat. “Oh, it sounds good. But there are birds attacking people and stealing their food.”


Stadin Kebab

J-P and I escaped the fancy-conference-restaurant treadmill tonight with a visit to Helsinki’s “bohemian” neighborhood and the first kebab shop we saw: Stadin Kebab. (Don’t worry, we have been sampling the local fare: fish, reindeer, mushrooms, and unidentifiable berries have been consumed. We just wanted cheap tonight.)

Stadin Kebab gave us our first interaction in Finland that had to be conducted through grunts and pantomime. The pictorial menu helped, too. J-P haltingly ordered a “rullekebab ateria” and I ordered fish and chips (the only English on the menu) in my American accent. No problem for the non-English-speaking clerk. That was not the case earlier with the (English-speaking and otherwise very helpful) woman at the Suomenlinna information desk, who heard me say “Pajasali” three times before she understood which building I was trying to name.

When it came time to pay, J-P pulled out a 20 pound note, instead of 20 euros. We all laughed. J-P asked for a “cash machine.” Blank stare. “ATM?” More of the same. They settled on “banke” and pantomimed directions.

While J-P was gone, I filled glasses with water, and the clerk asked me, complete with a demonstration, if I would like ice. Dredging my memory for tidbits from the Finnish primer my sister made for me, I attempted “No, thank you.” “Ei kii-tos?” The clerk grinned and nodded, putting the ice away.


Maker Foode

J-P, Glenn, and I went to Maker Faire in San Mateo yesterday. Highlights included the bike area, with Cyclecide’s pedal-powered carnival rides, Oakland’s own scraper bikes, and a tandem unicycle; the darkened building with singing Tesla coils, a neon land shark, and MonkeyLectric’s programmable Lite Brites for your bicycle wheels; and TechShop’s building, which made us eager for their San Francisco opening this summer.

And then there was the food. Fair food has gotten a lot better since I was a kid.

My Pica Pica “maize’wich,” a fresh-corn pancake filled with black beans, plantains, cheddar, and Tapatío:

Gerard’s Paella:

Featuring a paellera with its own license plate:

And TechShop’s lasers expand the options for cascarones:

There was also a lemonade stand that blew my mind. Besides lemonade and limeade, it offered fresh watermelon juice and hibiscus tea. Taken together, the menu screamed “aguas frescas” to me, but the menu was all in English. Crazy.

More Maker Faire photos and videos here.

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