Mexican cuisine

I’m at home today, prepping for a Mexican dinner party we’re hosting in a few days. On my list is to make the cajeta, and right now the house smells of sweet cinnamon and cream. I had forgotten just how much I love this stuff. I rarely make cajeta, though, since I seldom have goat’s milk on hand; that plus, even though I’m a pastry chef, who really needs more sugar in their diet?

I’ve been living on this tiny British island for a little over two years now and I’ve had decent Mexican cuisine exactly once. It was at a place called Cielo Blanco, which I’d highly recommend to any American expat craving a little taste of home. They did a great job with it: authentic ingredients, spicy salsas, delicious tortillas, seasoned properly (mostly)… They must have imported the chefs direct from Mexico City along with real chipotle, corn tortillas, and queso fresco. The lunch I had there was a wonderful little culinary vacation!

As I’m cooking and prepping today, I’ve realized that Mexican cuisine (specifically Oaxacan) is one of my all-time favorites, ranking up there with French and Vietnamese. Mexican food, for me, hits all the right marks: The dishes are extremely diverse, each dish is layered with strong, identifiable flavors, it’s food of the common people, it’s uniquely ethnic (as I’ve learned here in London!), it has distinctive rules for the flavor combinations, and generally it’s fairly cheap to make.

Some of the dishes that just make my heart ache and mouth water:

  • Tamales
  • Chipotle in adobo sauce
  • Fresh masa tortillas (and so delicious when made a la minute!)
  • Salty tangy guacamole
  • Rich al pastor sauce
  • Chilaquiles (!)
  • Thick saucy spicy black beans
  • Churros
  • Hibiscus tea

A fact that doesn’t get enough recognition is that the late 15th century was the single most significant food even in human history after the discovery of fire. All the “New World” ingredients that the European explorers learned about and spread around the world changed every single cuisine in every single country. It’s a sad undeniable fact that these European explorers were horrifying men-rapists, really-rapists of people, culture, lands, history, but what they inadvertently did for world cuisine should be recognized.

Without the introduction of these unique and wonderful ingredients to the rest of the world, we wouldn’t have any of the delicious dishes we enjoy today. While Mexican cuisine certainly was influenced by Spanish cuisine (pork, chicken, cheese, frying), Mexico’s culinary fingerprint can be felt in every single other cuisine of the world. No other culinary tradition can claim such an expansive influence.

In a sense, one could argue that Mexican cuisine is the grandmother of world cuisine. Take a look at all the ethnic food around the world and what do they generally have in common? Tomatoes, chilies, squashes, along with chocolate and vanilla for desserts, just to name a few. What would Italian food be without tomatoes? What would Thai food be without those tiny little bird’s eye chilies? Indian food with only Tellicherry black pepper, boring! French ratatouille without zucchini or yellow squash? British food without the potato, forget it! Even the West African peanut soup and the Middle Eastern shakshuka owe their entire existence to Mexico.

A great debt of gratitude is owed to Mexico, its cooks and its cuisine , ancient and modern. I aim to do them proud this week.

Fixing our broken industry

The Guardian published today a good article about the food industry, based on interviews with staff from various establishments around London.

‘The manager was selling coke to staff’: the truth about top restaurants

Periodically, a piece like this gets published and makes the rounds. It’s not really new information, but it does reiterate what a shit industry ours can be if the wrong people are in charge. Compounding this is the nature of work-life in the UK. As I’ve written before, the labor laws in this country are backwards, retrograde, abusive, and downright Dickensian. For example, I recently learned that as chefs, if we accidentally injure someone or make them sick, we are personally liable. As in, the diner could sue us directly for damages. Contrast this with the more reasonable US laws that the employer’s insurance largely indemnifies the employee from responsibility for injuries caused.

One of the biggest shocks for me in this article is that it’s completely allowed to charge the waiter if someone dines and dashes. This is so unethical based on what I would consider normal humane practices. Charging the employee for customer theft? This is so beyond the pale I can barely stand it.

Other problems common to most of these interviews are the regular litany of pay rates and gratuities, required shift lengths, and abusive managers. We’ve all heard about this before, like I said, it’s not new, but it’s always worth discussing.

Minimum wage in London is pretty shit with the minimum wage being near the equivalent of $9/hr, but comparatively it was much better before the Pound Sterling took a dive because of the Brexit vote. Adjust this rate for the cost of living in London, though, and you realize that these are barely subsistence wages. Considering that there’s no such thing as mandatory overtime pay in this country, you get the situation where chefs have to work 60+ hours per week just to make ends meet. Imagine if these chefs have children to support. Ironically, it’s surprising these chefs can put food on their own tables with these incomes.

Gratuities here have the same problem they do back in the States, what with employer theft (See: Michel Roux), skimming, and the nature of Britishers just not having a culture of tipping in the first place.

Shift lengths in kitchens are ridiculous, too. There is no reason here in the UK to hire one person to work 70 hours when you could hire two people to work 35 hours. In the States, doing so would be a huge savings for the employer as there would be no overtime pay due, but here in the UK, it doesn’t cost any extra to force an employee to work more than the common limit of 48 hours. But there’s not much benefit, either; it just breeds resentment and burned out staff.

Abusive managers… Well, this one topic could support its own full-length blog post. Short version: There is no reason, ever, to dish out abuse to your employee. Not physically, not verbally, and not passive-aggressively either, behind their backs or on social media. If you’re in charge, and you have a problem with an employee, talk to them directly, in private, and resolve the issue or fire the employee. Just take care of it like a professional and like an adult. You’re the fucking chef, so act like one.

Solution: Better labor laws
The UK needs better labor laws, full stop. Sadly, because of the self-inflicted wound of the Brexit, I doubt anything is going to get better any time soon. But if it did, here’s what would happen. The government should mandate a better pay rate floor, maybe adjustable based on the locale, pegged to an annual assessment of the cost of living. The pay rate floor would apply to every hour worked and it would mandate a US-style overtime for every hour worked over the UK standard 48 hours. In addition, there would be a maximum daily limit to hours worked, probably 12, and a maximum number of work days in a row, say 7, with two consecutive days off. Or one day off for every four worked, non-consecutive.

Solution: Eliminate tips
This sort of income is so problematic, I can’t imagine a solution that would work short of eliminating it all together. Tip-pooling, mandatory 12.5%, keep-what-you-earn, etc. None of it works and can even make employees turn against each other. If we mandate a high enough pay floor and raise the rates of dining out for the clients, this would solve most of the problems tipping creates. Sure, some waiters in some restaurants aren’t going home anymore with hundreds of dollars after a 9-hour shift, but we would have an equitable situation between the Front and Back of the House. And if tips still come in, it should go straight to the employees to share, no skimming off the top by the employer at all under any circumstances.

Solution: Vote with our feet
If you’re an employee receiving abuse, please do something about it. I’m not saying you have to leave your job, because I know that might be very difficult in a practical sense. But at the very least, stand up for yourself and let your abuser know you won’t take it anymore. Document what happens. Talk to other witnesses to back up your claim. No one, regardless of the situation deserves to be yelled at or abused. Ever. If you see something like this happen, protect your team. Chefs always talk a tough game about “having your back” but when the shit hits the fan, chefs by nature, have a tendency to blame the victim. Remember, even if the employee fucked up, it is completely inappropriate to yell at them or abuse them in anyway.

If you can, unionize. I have no idea how this works in the UK and I suspect that dear old (dead) Maggie fucked this one up good for the working stiffs, but we need to stick together in some fashion. And if it’s even remotely possible, quit. Immediately. There are tons of jobs for chefs out there; all I hear every day is how hiring managers can’t find good chefs. And if a place can’t keep its staff, guess what’s going to happen: A restaurant without staff won’t be a restaurant for long.

Solution: No more romanticism
Chefs have a huge weakness and strong tendency for idol-worship, especially if said idol is a total prick. This has to stop. We must stop lionizing accomplished/famous/celebrity chefs who abuse or denigrate their team. You may console yourself that you’re learning a lot by being in his kitchen (because honestly, it’s almost always a man), but I’ve talked to way too many chefs who primarily focus on all the abuse they suffered, not the techniques they learned or the experience they gained.

For the diners, this one is your responsibility, too. The concept of “ethical dining” (which has been taken to ridiculous extremes in my home town Seattle) should also include evaluating the ethics of the chef and managers themselves. Way too often (as mentioned at the top of the Guardian article) the diner has no idea about how the kitchen is run, and quite honestly they don’t want to know. If it’s the hot new hipster joint serving freeze-dried kim-chi foam seasoned with imported za’atar on chef-raised pork belly from a pig named Ronald topped with deep-fried reindeer moss, I guarantee most foodies will sell out their morals in an instant just to be part of the cool kid scene. But don’t. If you truly care about the ethics of food, doing some sort of accountability background check on the chef is a must.

Back in reality
Sadly, I think there’s way too much going on in the industry for anything I suggest to actually take hold. I think it all really comes down to the employee to be the change we want to see. Unfortunately, we are fighting an uphill battle against what is probably the second-oldest industry. The best we can reasonably expect is that we are our own agent and we stop taking shit off our employers.

Nepali cuisine

I just got back from a two-week trip to Nepal. Overall, it was a very interesting trip. Not easy or relaxing, necessarily, but worth it: Nepal is a beautiful country with friendly people and a curious mix of Indian and Asian cultures.

Two years ago (April 2015), Nepal was devastated by a massive earthquake, and it’s still trying to recover today. Homes, businesses, and temples were, in many cases, completely leveled. Even now, earthquake damage is evident in the remaining buildings. Touring through Nepal (Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, Pokhara, Chitwan) was very much like traveling in a construction zone. Everywhere you looked were piles of bricks, gravel, concrete bags, rebar. There was very little heavy machinery; I saw people rebuilding homes and businesses by hand, one brick at a time. At this rate, it’s going to be a decade before they completely recover.

The food in Nepal was sadly disappointing. Some cultures around the world really worship food and their cuisine (France, Vietnam, Malaysia) whereas others really don’t seem to care so much (Kenya, Britain, Switzerland). For me, a culture’s culinary priorities are evidenced by how much diversity exists, as well as the care and finesse they put into producing their dishes. Nepal is one of the cultures that really doesn’t seem to place much emphasis on their food. In fact, of all the places I’ve traveled around the world, Nepali cuisine seems like one of the most under-loved cuisines. Nepal is a very poor country (in the bottom 30 worldwide) so that probably accounts for this lack of culinary diversity, but Cambodia is also a very poor country and they seem to take their regional cuisine very seriously.

All the restaurants I saw in Nepal had nearly exactly the same menu. It was as if the entire country is served by a single centralized kitchen providing food across all the cities and towns. Each restaurant (and hotel) offered a few Indian dishes, chow mein and fried rice, and the Nepalese version of thalis, as well as the national dumpling, the momo. Occasionally a restaurant would offer a few Thai dishes (which were good, but a far cry from authentic Thai) as well as the backpacking-gap-year-20-somethings culinary staple: pizza.

All this is not to say that the execution of Nepali food was bad, it was better than serviceable, it just wasn’t very creative or innovative. When I travel to a country that places importance on its food offerings, I have a small amount of anxiety to not “waste” a meal on a bad restaurant or menu choice; I didn’t have that feeling in Nepal at all. I knew that my options would be the same no matter where I went, so I just picked places based on price and apparent cleanliness.

That said, the momos were nice, but not really original. Momos are basically Chinese-style steamed or fried dumplings filled with chicken, buffalo, or vegetables, and served with a spicy-sweet chutney. Nepali chow mein was also good (quite filling) but again, not very original. One of the best meals I had, though, was a Nepali thali. Just like Indian thali, it was a large platter with several little components. A good thing about the Nepali thali, though, was that it always seemed to be made from scratch, no matter where I had one. Whenever I ordered it, I ended up waiting at least an hour!

One of the dishes I liked the best was the peanut sadeko, basically a roasted peanut salsa, and what I realize now is a derivative of the Indian peanut chaat masala. It was spicy and salty, and I would mix it into the chow mein, resulting in a hacked-together Chinese-style phad thai. I also enjoyed the “millk mountain tea” which was a very flavorful chai tea with milk and sugar. In some cases, there was enough milk and sugar in the tea to pass as dessert; it would have made a very delicious ice cream.

So overall, Nepal was a bit of a disappointment, food-wise. Definitely visit if you’re a trekker or a hiker, just don’t go for the food.

The Royal Star – The SRP

The Royal Star
220 City Road
London, EC1V 2PN

I had forgotten just how good parsnips are in this country. Sweet and just a little spicy, they’re delicious. I haven’t had many roasts this winter, so I’ve been missing out on all the amazing parsnips. Also, roasted potatoes. The British way of cooking potatoes is really very nice. It’s a two-step process that Americans don’t bother with: First a few minutes in boiling water to par-cook them, then into the oven tossed with fat (ideally goose or duck fat). It’s a method I’m totally adopting into my repertoire.

The roast today was pretty good, above average, but the thing that stood out was the music selection. It seemed to be all 80’s one-hit wonders and other forgettable 80’s tracks, including “Drive” by the Cars, something by Crowded House, a flaccid Phil Collins song (Another Day in Paradise), Heart (who I’ve always detested), and one of Boy George’s few hits. Talk about the perfect opportunity for a forty-something (me!) to have a perfectly bad sing-along session, this was it!

Worms in salmon

Recently, tapeworms have been found in our wild salmon, and it’s causing quite a brouhaha. The wild salmon in the Pacific Northwest is one of the hallmarks that makes this region of the world unique and special, and as a chef, I have a double obligation to protect this amazing resource.

The “salmon” we get here in the UK is not salmon. It’s pink trout.

Real salmon are born in streams and lakes then migrate to the ocean. They generally eat only while living in saltwater and they breed only in fresh water. After a four-year lifespan in the ocean, they make a migration to their original birthplace(!), they spawn, then they die. As that they don’t eat during their migration, they eat before they make their start, which means that the longer the river they have to travel, the fatter and bigger they will be when they start off. Which is why Copper River salmon are so prized; that river is about 290 miles (or about the distance from Trafalgar Square to Dublin as the crow flies). Finally, wild salmon’s flesh is red/pink/rose from their diet in the wild.

The Atlantic “salmon” (or Scottish salmon as it’s known here in London) are part of the genus Salmonidae, I concede. But they have much more in common with lake and river trout than my mystical Pacific salmon. Atlantic pink trout don’t have a regular 4-year life cycle, and they don’t die after spawning. Worse, their flesh is grey. It’s only pink because of the food dye in the pellets that they’re fed while in their pens.

Worms in fish
But back to the issue at hand: Worms.

Tapeworms are a very common parasite found in fish. In fact, if you buy large fillets of halibut, you will almost always find at least one worm in every single fillet. They’re that common.

But while worms are common, they’re also stupid-easy to deal with. Simply freeze the fish for a couple days, then slowly defrost in your fridge before you cook it (or serve it as sushi). Better still would be to buy Frozen At Sea (FAS) fish, which is fish that’s frozen right there on the ocean trawler right after the fish has been gutted and cleaned. These boats have huge commercial freezers and can do a proper job freezing the salmon, much better and faster than your little consumer-quality freezer.

Fresh vs Frozen
Freezing has a really bad rap amongst consumers, and it’s undeserved. I would never buy “fresh” fish because within my industry, “fresh” equals “not frozen” which means that fish is likely to be just one short day from going bad. If the FAS fish is still frozen when I buy it, all the better, because now I can keep it and serve at my convenience.

To consumers (non-chefs), “fresh” means “is it still good to eat”? So if you buy into the romanticism of buying “fresh” fish, at least ask: “How many days ago did this particular “fresh” fish come out of the water?” If the seller can’t answer that easily and honestly, then don’t buy that fish. You might find it’s not so “fresh” after all.

There is one problem with freezing: For maximum quality, it can only be done once. We all know that water expands when frozen. Meat is mostly water, so those meat cells rupture when frozen and it feels mushy when defrosted. The more times you freeze/defrost, the more meat cells you’re rupturing, destroying the quality of the meat. And the slower the freezing process, the more damage you’re causing, which is why commercially frozen fish is likely to be the highest quality, as long as you don’t freeze it again when you get home.

Incidentally, this freezing policy also works for pork, which is why eating pink (medium-rare) pork is perfectly safe. Trichinosis can’t survive freezing, so if that chop has been frozen before you cook it, you can serve it with a nice tender pink center, instead of the dead grey curled piece of shoe leather we all had to do in the 1950’s (apparently).

Too long, didn’t read?
Buy whatever fish you want, just make sure that somewhere along the line it’s been thoroughly frozen. Then you’ll be ok. But if you’re still worried, make sure you cook it to an internal temperature of 145F.

Finally, if you must have something fish-related to get worried about and lose sleep over, it should be tuna and its mercury content. Tuna are at the top of the fish food chain (relatively speaking) so they accumulate all the mercury of all the fish it eats, and all the fish they ate, and all the fish they ate, so on and so forth. When the tuna gets to your kitchen, unlike tapeworms, there’s no cooking out the mercury.