Wednesday, February 15, 2006

A Simple Dish

I am a great fan of complicated food in some situations. The depth of flavor in a mole, especially a deep, dark black oaxacan mole, made from scratch over a number of days and simmered for hours with turkey, the array of textures in a pallella, the hormonal flavour and unctuous mouth-feel of braised ox tails or lamb shanks the day after cooking them, all of these and more are some of my favorite things to eat. Cooking complicated food is also an experience to relish, as so much is involved. When I was in my teens and twenties I wanted to eat like that all the time, every meal of every day; but in the past six or seven years I have found as much pleasure in very simple food as in the complex.

I love a meal of tortillas and refried beans. The beans should be cooked, allowed to cool, and then reheated ("refried" of course does not refer to this double cooking procedure, but to the fact that you want to fry them up thoroughly in the second cooking). I like the anis-y flavour that adding epazote to the beans creates, but it is not necessary. The creamy, earthy flavor of the beans, sweetened just slightly and made a little smoky by frying them in bacon fat is more than enough. It's all the more lovely if the tortillas are fresh made, either from the tortilleria, or at home. In Modesto, California, where I grew up, Ellen and I used occasionally to shop at La Perla Tapatia, on the south side of town. If we got there at the right time they would be bringing fresh-made tortillas out of the back. The smell and feel of the big stacks of little 4 inch tortillas still pillow-y and steaming from the grill is overpowering even now as I remember it years later.

When Isabella was born, I had her and Coleman at home after school often, just around 1 pm, just in time to have a late lunch. My favorite simple meal was to make quesadillas. Not the big, dripping, sour cream and chicken and every other ingredient in the kitchen sort that are on every chain restaurant menu in the U. S., but the kind Rick Bayless describes in his various cookbooks. When making tortillas, if, instead of grilling on both sides, you grill them lightly on the first side and put cheese and maybe a little leftover meat or sauteed vegetable on them before the top cooks and then fold them over and press the sides down to seal them, they are unbelievable. This is the ultimate simple food: corn masa and cheese; and yet it has such to offer. The inside of the tortilla stays creamy and blends with the cheese, the outsides get crunchy and brown.

I discovered my favorite simple dish when I was living in St. Louis in the late 90s. At the time St. Louis was not a great restaurant city (it has gotten much better in the last few years), and in any case, I was in graduate school, Ellen and I had a new baby, and we were beyond poor. There weren't any good Chinese restaurants near us (plenty of chop suey, though), but there were a bunch of interesting Chinese grocery stores on Olive in University City. I was excited to learn to cook Chinese food because it offers an almost unending array of variety and depth of complexity--really learning to cook it could occupy a whole lifetime. I have never become more than a passable cook of Chinese food of any sort, but I did run across a recipe for a soup in an odd little Chinese cookbook from the 60s that I made almost every day at about 10 am for a few years, and that I still love and make occasionally. The book called it "Soup for the Gods." I consists of soy sauce, toasted sesame oil, green onions, and water (I have also seen this recipe elsewhere to include minced ginseng root). To make it, you chop one green onion per bowl, and combine the onion at the bottom of a bowl with perhaps a half teaspoon of soy sauce and a drizzle of sesame oil. I let this sit while heating up the water, during which time the onions soak up the flavor of the soy and sesame. Once the water is hot, fill the bowl with it and the soup is done. Though there is very little more than water and salt in this soup, from a nutritional standpoint, it is surprisingly satisfying.


Blogger Jesse VanHalen said...

I'd like to add the there are many other even more simple dishes like Ice water, Cereal and even water. I discovered all of these dishes when I became alive and still use them today. Some dishes seem simple, but when you try to make them in a closet they don't turn out very good.


9:42 PM  
Blogger The Modesto Kid said...

Speaking of simple dishes and Chinese cooking: congee is rice porridge, it is one of the simplest things to cook (and cheap), and it's delicious. Basically just boil short-grain rice in too much water with some vinegar and/or soy sauce, and let it reduce. Better if you use a mixture of stock and water. You can saute bits of fish and vegetable or tofu, and mix it in after the congee is ready. Great food for kids and adults.

1:29 PM  
Blogger Lynndi said...

Soup of the Gods does sound really nice. And your bro's congee recipe too. But I've had ice water prepared by Jesse before, and I'm not recommending it.

10:53 PM  
Blogger Jaybriel said...

Congee. Yes, I had in fact thought about including it as one of my favorite simple foods. I crave it at 10 in the morning. My favorite way is with pork shreds and 1,000 year old duck eggs. I've never actually cooked it, but Jeremy always says it's easy. It is the first thing I ate in Sydney last summer. I got to the hotel at 6:30 in the morning, slept for a few hours, and then walked out to find I was in Chinatown.

8:12 AM  
Blogger Jaybriel said...

Oh, Jesse, call and I'll give you a new recipe for ice water. But first you might have to buy a fridge and spend a few hours figuring out how to use it.

8:13 AM  
Blogger Smellen said...

in case anyone is wondering, yes he said 1,000 year old duck eggs and while they're not actually 1,000 years old...they do frighten me. I'm an adventurous eater, but sheesh, those things are scary! Well, what does one expect from someone who truely loves "the hormonal flavour and unctuous mouth-feel of braised ox tails or lamb shanks..." I rest my case...

8:52 PM  
Blogger Lynndi said...

"unctuous" was enough for me. So how old are they really? When do you want your dish back? When can we hang out?

5:25 PM  

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