Thursday, April 16, 2009
New Mexico’s cuisine is still centered around crops grown by its first Pueblo inhabitants: beans, corn, and squash, with the later addition of chilies—green or red, depending on ripeness when harvested. In keeping with regional availability, dishes use less avocado, rice and veggies than Cal-Mex and less jalapenos and cumin than Tex-Mex. Beef is big in New Mexico—cows are easier to grow than vegetables in arid conditions. In Santa Fe I ate Frito Pie, a southwestern chili con carne and Frito mashup, at a bar where I didn’t bother asking about where the beef came from.
Sometimes I tire of irritating servers and sometimes I just don’t want to draw attention to myself. When I was young and vegan I was bursting with self-righteousness but now I can’t help occasionally feeling sort of yuppie-ish and precious about my diet when I ask where the beef came from in a restaurant. It’s fun to strike up conversations about local food in Vermont, but in New Mexico I felt a bit road-weary and mostly kept to myself.
Santa Fe’s adobe architecture was totally alien to me and it was easy to see how the otherworldly landscape inspired modernist painters like O’Keeffe. I drove to Taos looking for the Earthship off-the-grid community on its outskirts but felt wary to trespass and satisfied myself with a walk over the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge and a stroll through the sleepy little hippie downtown.
Back in Santa Fe I went for an early dinner at the 315 Wine Bar. The Santa Fe Reporter’s locavore issue came out on my second day in town. Encouragingly, it focused mostly on Farmer’s Markets, farmstands, and DIY locavore stuff like seed-starting that didn’t apply to a traveler like me, with an emphasis on how local food is not a yuppie fad but a way to affect real change. I read about 315 in the dining issue from a few weeks earlier. A reviewer called the restaurant the “Chez Panisse of Santa Fe,” so I was really excited about eating there. My excitement waned a bit upon entering—the “wine bar” area was cramped and dingy and I was installed at a table right next to the neon-lit, bass-bumping kitchen’s swinging doors. I ordered the pan-fried, sage-dusted Texas quail with green beans, mashed sweet potatoes and dried cherry sauce. The dish was nicely composed, with the sides portioned generously to make the quail a meal. The tartness of the cherries offset the sweet potato and an appealing variety of color was presented on the plate, but with the inattentive service and clanging pans I had a hard time really enjoying the meal, and I pretty much ate and ran.
I left New Mexico feeling guilty about my lackluster efforts exploring the local food scene—I should have devoted extra effort in a place with such unique culinary history. There’s a lot to explore there and I’d love to return to New Mexico and elsewhere later in spring and in midsummer, when it’s cheap and easy to put together a local meal. From New Mexico I headed to Arizona and then sunny SoCal, where the farmer’s market offered a dazzling array of produce…
Monday, March 30, 2009
Austin prides itself on being “weird,” a bastion of liberalism in a cowboy state, so I wasn’t surprised to find an active locavore scene there. The Kerbey Lane Café, a local mini-chain open 24 hours, has served affordable diner fare using Texas-sourced ingredients since 1980. At the South Lamar location, the atmosphere was student-friendly, brightly-painted with “funky” mixed-media stuff on the walls, and the crowd was mixed, too—moms with little kids, lots of students, workers on lunch. I ate the Kerbey scramble (mushrooms, tomatoes, green onions, cheddarjack) with Texas toast and OJ—a satisfying breakfast that fueled me on my hours-long walk through the city. The menus have blurbs about cutting carbon emissions by eating local produce—nice to see in an ordinary diner-style place in Texas.
I wandered down South Congress Street to the Farm-to-Market, well, market, where I bought amazing, tart chocolate-orange goat’s-milk ice cream and picked up a copy of Edible Austin. A pornographic salad photo pointed me toward the insipidly-named Wink for dinner. At about six, the bar area was filling with an after-office crowd and until I had a glass of wine in hand I felt about ten years old in my ratty t-shirt and shorts. I found a cozy corner and ordered two small plates. During happy hour, all bar apps were half price, meaning that I paid four dollars for a generous portion of really good countryside farm chicken liver pate. Peppery at first, then smooth and satisfying with a sweet finish, I felt like I was robbing them. I ordered a roasted chioga and bull’s blood beet salad from the dinner menu, with baby arugula, walnuts and chevre. The beets tasted really fresh, earthy but not dusty, and I learned that they had indeed been picked that morning. Wink one-ups the typical farm-to-table gratitude blurb by thanking not just farmers, foragers, and gardeners but also ranchers and farm workers, which was nice and kind of unexpected. I’d love to go back for a chef’s tasting—with antelope and bison entrees and their commitment to local produce, it would surely be a real taste of Texas.
The super-friendly bartender at Wink directed me toward the Counter Café, and I saw her reading the paper there over coffee and OJ the next morning. The Café is situated in an ordinary diner where literally all of the other patrons knew one another and all were very interested in hearing about my travels. The eggs and bacon and veggies were local (slogan: local food, global love) but the beef was Niman. I found this phenomenon elsewhere as well—naturally-raised, quality local beef just isn’t widely available in most of the country, including Texas.
On my last night in town, a Friday, I planned to eat some Tex-Mex, provenance be damned, but the place I’d been told about was packed with clean-cut dudes and blaring TVs and I just didn’t have the stomach for it. I wandered down to a wine bar (called, I think, Wine Bar) where I ate an exquisite, delicate first-of-the season salad of barely-dressed baby greens, radish, carrot, avocado and feta with a bit of tarragon. The salad made me realize that I’m chasing spring all over the country, and I felt really lucky.
On the way to El Paso the next afternoon, my tire blew out in the middle of the desert, leaving a trail of twisty scraps in its wake and a pile of black sand beside it. While I waited for AAA to arrive, the Border Patrol pulled up behind me and asked to search my car. I guess they aren’t kidding about Texas being “A Whole Other Country.”
Next: New Mexico and Arizona and California and more! (This country, it’s a big one.)
Thursday, March 19, 2009
I arrived in The Big Easy a few days after Mardi Gras. Throngs of fratty stragglers sipped hurricanes from bright bong-like plastic containers on Canal Street, and emerald green and gold beads were ground into piles of iridescent sand throughout the French Quarter. But just a few blocks away from the chaos, adorable Creole cottages and oak trees lined quiet streets. Outside the tourist-ridden depths of the Quarter, I did not come across a neighborhood lacking charm, and I ate well.
Sarah’s sister Callie, who works at the farmer’s market, introduced me to a flourishing local-foods community. The New Orleans Food and Farm Network encourages farming within the city limits and hosts community meals in city neighborhoods. In Katrina’s wake, pockets of green have sprouted throughout the city as one means of rebuilding community. The restaurant scene, unsurprisingly in a city known for its unique regional cuisine, is fabulous. On my first night I went to Mandina’s, a 75-year-old locals place in center city, near the hostel. I liked the old-school vibe of the place--casual but with bow-tied waiters, framed posters from jazz fest on the walls—and the etouffee was solid, very comforting, with a lot of celery and garlic. Crawfish are such a great ingredient, super-tender and succulent, with a unique clean flavor, lacking the ocean’s briny bite. My lunch the next day, though, was a real standout.
Cochon has got to be one of the best restaurants in New Orleans. With a James Beard award and a lot of high-end press under its belt, the restaurant was busy on a weekday at two in the afternoon despite its proximity to Emeril’s. The décor is warm and cozy, with terra cotta, mustard and chocolate walls, a pretty panoramic photo of a farm on one wall, and an open kitchen where four cooks looked remarkably relaxed while they worked. Like Charleston’s Hominy Grill, Cochon’s focus is on regional food using seasonal ingredients—the chefs are frequently spotted at the farmer’s market, and whole pigs are brought in from local farms and used for andouille and head cheese. If I was going to be adventurous, this was the place to do it, so I ordered fried alligator and a pig patty.
The alligator, cut into General-Gau-like chunks and breaded, was coated in a chipotle aioli with surprising kick and garnished with a green chiffonade that I soon discovered was mint. I must admit that I only ate a fraction of the gator. Though the chipotle and mint were really interesting together, the texture was chewy and tough, and when I picked the meat out of the breading it had very little intrinsic flavor. The Louisiana cochon with turnips, cabbage, and cracklins, though, was full of piggy flavor. Shredded cabbage sat in a shallow pool of salty broth, layered with a pork patty, cubed turnip, and big ole’ cracklins on top. What a perfect winter meal. (I could only finish a third of this course.) Because it sounded so amazing, I ordered dessert, too. The gateaux au chocolate (a misnomer, really), with honey, cream cheese mousse and pears, was a thing of beauty. Sour cream cheese, rich dark chocolate, sweet honey, and floral pear…it was, in my opinion, a perfect dessert.
The farmers market bustled at nine the next morning. Strawberries were abundant and cheap, newly in season. Piles of Paleolithic-looking crawfish were piled by tin scales. I ordered tacos, one with blackened fish and one with fried oyster. They were delicious—the oyster garnished with balsamic-drizzled baby spinach, the fish with red cabbage and dill remoulade, a bottle of Sriracha handy. The two pints of strawberries I bought did not last through the afternoon.
The next morning, before heading off to Austin, I sliced open the black sapote I’d bought at the stand in South Florida. It really did look like chocolate pudding and I ate it with a spoon, the other hostel travelers eyeing me warily. When I closed my eyes, though, the flavor was more of a one-note sweetness with maybe a hint of raisin or molasses. Perhaps I didn’t wait long enough for it to ripen…
Next up: Austin, Santa Fe, Arizona, Los Angeles, and more!
Friday, March 13, 2009
South Florida is a long way from Flagstaff, Arizona, where I’m writing now. I’ve crossed the bayou and the desert and now I’m up in the mountains watching powdery snow meander from the sky. It’s so hard to believe that such wildly varying climates and cultures—Cuban, Creole, Cowboy, Comanche—are all part of the same crazy patchwork of a country. Back at the Everglades International Hostel, heaps of fresh oranges and grapefruits, free for the juicing, greeted me from a little outdoor bar outside the kitchen. The Homestead area is home to dozens of farms, from 3-acre organic mom-and-pop joints to mammoth tomato-growing operations with hundreds of employees. After checking in I headed to the Farmer’s Market restaurant, just a few blocks away, for lunch. The restaurant is tucked among several huge produce warehouses—if you have eaten a tomato in January, I read, you have eaten a Homestead tomato. There were no tomatoes, however, on the lunch menu at the Market Restaurant. The menu was straight-up diner fare, using fish and produce from the market when applicable, and the other diners were warehouse workers on their lunch break. The waitress recommended the grouper fingers and they did not disappoint. Four fat chunks of succulent fried fish came with a pile of thick fries and plastic ramekins of tartar sauce and slaw. I’m usually not much of a French fry enthusiast but I was famished and ate every last bite on my plate, even the coleslaw.
On the way to the Everglades National Park the next morning, I passed sprawling tomato fields. Workers crouched in wide-brimmed straw hats and watering vehicles sent massive rainbows shooting into the air. Gorgeous, rosy red tomatoes were mysteriously spread along the side of the road. I swerved to avoid a pack of vultures devouring the first of three dog carcasses I would see that day. In the park, the variety of wildlife took my breath away. Impudent gators sunned themselves on the asphalt paths. Four species of heron and three kinds of egret waded through the marsh, and a cormorant with a big fish in its beak alighted on a mangrove branch. On the way back to the hostel I stopped at Robert Is Here, a flashy fruit stand a couple of miles from the park. I’d read the story of the stand—the owner started selling cucumbers as a boy in 1959, other local farms got in on the action, and now-middle-aged Robert continues to sell local fruit from the same location, with a full staff and a somewhat depressing little zoo out back. Today Robert specializes in unusual tropical fruits. Among the shiny pyramids of heirloom tomatoes and Florida avocados were such rarities as sapodilla (tastes like pear and brown sugar), canostel (“egg fruit”—tastes like custard) and Black Sapote (chocolate pudding fruit). I left with one of each, instructions to wait a week before eating any of the fruit, and a huge canostel milkshake that did indeed taste like a rich custard, with a hint of tangerine.
Back at the hostel I got comfortable reading in the screened-in gazebo among shisha-scented pillows, Moroccan draperies blowing in the breeze. That night I ate a satisfying, locally-sourced eggplant lasagna dinner in the backyard with new friends from all over the country and the world. The next morning, I began my journey up the gulf coast of Florida, with stops in Sarasota and Tallahassee, on my way to the Big Easy.
More to come tomorrow, if not sooner!
Friday, March 6, 2009
My first stop in Florida was St. Augustine, the oldest European settlement on the American continent. The city teemed with tourists. It was hard to appreciate the narrow cobbled streets lined with Spanish colonial buildings—those buildings housed gift shops selling t-shirts for Chihuahuas and rhinestone-studded beach cover-ups. The weather was lovely, though, and I sat reading on the beach for hours. I ate fried shrimp at O’Steen’s, where middle-aged waitresses named Brenda, Debbie and Charlene kept my sweet tea filled to the brim. The shrimp, which I ordered with beets and fried okra, was served with a dipping sauce made with ketchup, mayo, Worcestershire and horseradish. Datil peppers, a Minorcan variety mostly grown in St. Augustine today, leant the homemade hot sauce a peppadew-like sweetness. The hushpuppies were the best I’ve had. Light and fresh from the fryer, they bore no resemblance to the hard little turds I’ve eaten elsewhere. Mostly, though, St. Augustine didn’t seem to care much about fresh food, and I looked forward to Miami, where I knew I’d be connected with some farm-fresh goodies.
On my first night in Miami, Cristin and her brother and sister took me to Red Light on the Little River. Situated downstairs in one of Biscayne Blvd.’s revamped motels, the restaurant has an easy urban charm, with the river gurgling below and fresh herbs growing near the door. The seafood at Red Light was excellent—a delicate conch chowder got a gentle kick from paprika, and the grouper, served with wilted spinach, was allowed to speak for itself—barely seasoned and pan-seared, it tasted like the Atlantic on a sunny day.
The next day I checked out an indoor farmer’s market which, oddly, resembled a high-end hair salon’s waiting room, complete with magazines. Two vendors sold produce from nearby farms and a handful of others sold prepared foods—ravioli and tamales. The vibe was kind of awkward so I left empty-handed, but my next dinner out was fabulous.
Cristin’s sister Meg forages produce for Creek 28 in Miami Beach. She also cooks there several nights a week, and she designed and planted a vegetable garden in an adjacent lot. In her capable hands, I knew I was in for a real taste of South Florida. We sat on a quiet brick patio lit by candles, the scent of flowers wafting over us. Meg amused us with sweet chestnut and fig ravioli, tastefully adorned with single blossoms from the garden. We shared a classic Mediterranean-style tomato salad, the salty feta crumbled over a mound of fresh red tomato chunks and fresh parsley, and a decadent (decidedly not-local) phyllo-wrapped baked chevre drizzled with (local) honey. I ordered a comforting pozole entrée. Fragrant with oregano and cumin, the stew was homey and satisfying, the flavor punctuated with the freshness of radish, onion, and cabbage and the spiciness of chile de arbol. In all of our pleasantly simple dishes, I admired the kitchen’s restraint with spices and its un-showy use of local produce when available. Miami is still Miami and isn’t consumed by localvore mania, but even in a city known for glitz and decadence, a growing appreciation for local foods allows lovely places like Creek 28 to thrive.
From Miami I drove a quick hour to Homestead, near the Everglades, where many of the veggies I ate in Miami were grown. The Everglades were amazing and so was the fruit and I will write about it all momentarily...
Thursday, February 26, 2009
If Charleston has a pedicure and perm, Savannah wears a well-loved vintage dress, wrinkles and all. I checked into the Thunderbird Inn, a recently renovated 1960s motel. The exterior was colorful, the rooms surprisingly plush and luxurious, the staff friendly and helpful. Savannah contains an astounding twenty-four gorgeous public squares and a mix of Federal, Georgian, Gothic Revival and Italianate architecture spanning centuries. I took a self-guided walking tour of the city and daydreamed about moving there. The art school breathes life into the city—it’s just as beautiful as Charleston, but less of a museum. I ate a spectacular lunch at Cha Bella, a restaurant at the forefront of the Savannah’s farm-to-table movement. The owners of Cha Bella ripped out part of their patio to plant herbs. They own a farm a few minutes away where all of the restaurant staff, from dishwashers to servers to chefs, work cultivating and harvesting vegetables. They even have swings in the yard! I started with a cup of roasted mushroom and leek soup. With no distracting chunky texture, the thin, delicate puree captured the core of the mushrooms’ earthy flavor. Then, lo and behold! Actual fresh vegetables! A simple veggie sandwich on fresh focaccia was such a delight after all those weeks of meat eating. I would have preferred the local goat cheese that came on the salad, but the gorgonzola on the sandwich was good, and seeing some bright color on my plate for a change made me ridiculously happy.
The next night, I walked to Local Eleven Ten on the edge of historic Savannah. The space was distinctly urban, airy and loft-like with lots of black lacquer and white-painted brick. I ordered two starters, local oysters on the half shell and the house charcuterie. The oysters, served in a champagne broth with a tomato tapenade, were a bit of a disappointment. The tapenade looked and tasted like gazpacho—it drowned out the delicate briny flavor of all but the biggest oyster, which, interestingly, looked more like a jagged prehistoric rock than I’d ever seen before. The charcuterie, too, was much more appealing on the menu than on the plate—the “pickled vegetables” were jarred cornichons, and the salami, prosciutto, and bresaolo were uniformly dry and bland. I enjoyed myself anyway. The Chateau Pesquie rose was floral and delicious, the bartender capable and friendly—I suspect that, had I asked her for suggestions, my food would have been much better.
On my way out of town the next morning, I stopped at the health food store to get provisions for the Hostel in the Forest, in Brunswick, GA. A variety of local greens were on offer but I stocked up on apples and yogurt, anticipating communal dinners at the hostel.
The Hostel in the Forest is such a remarkable place that I struggle to summon words to describe it. It’s easy to see why hippies describe everything as “magical” when they live in places like this. I arrived as a guest, intending to spend three nights. I reluctantly left ten days later, having attended a staff meeting and taught a workshop, promising to return for a longer stay within the year. I could write a book about the Hostel in the Forest (perhaps I will) but I’ll aim for a degree of brevity here.
The term “hostel” seems inaccurate when describing The Hostel in the Forest. The main hub of the hostel is a geodesic dome, with nine guest tree houses spread throughout the property. Another dome is being rebuilt as a library. Though the place is partly supported by travelers, it has the feel of a utopian intentional community, with some volunteers staying for months at a time to work and live. After my three days as a paying guest, I found a niche working in the garden in the morning and cooking vegan feasts in the afternoon. I spent a day cleaning out the chicken coop. On Valentine’s Day I taught a wine-tasting workshop for guests. Work-exchangers are expected to work four to six hours a day but almost always do more because they choose their projects and the work is rewarding and fun. The hostel teaches sustainability with its composting toilets, organic garden, use of solar energy and sourcing of forest wood for building. It was such a pleasure to harvest herbs and greens, then serve them to an appreciative crowd hours later. Each night before dinner, guests and staff join hands around the fire in a circle of thanks, reciting their names, where they’re from, and a few things they’re thankful for. The hostel’s peaceful atmosphere, lush beauty and loving people made it difficult to narrow it down to a few.
Next up: sunny Florida.
Thursday, February 19, 2009
Myrtle Beach is a pancake town. Pulling into the city, I passed Harry’s Breakfast Pancakes, Woodhaven Pancake House, Omega Pancake and Omelet House, Plantation Pancake House, Golden Egg Pancake House, Pan American Pancake and Omelet, Southern Pancake House, Omega Pancake House, Golden Griddle Pancake House, Garden City Pancake House, Dino’s House of Pancakes, Tar Baby’s Pancakes, and Applewood House of Pancakes. Pancakes are one of the few foods I really don’t care for. As it turned out, I really don’t care for Myrtle Beach, either. I’d read that motels on the beach were cheap on the off-season and I thought Myrtle Beach would be a sort of campy, fun spot to hunker down and write for a day or two, so I checked into the Sea Breeze and felt immediate trepidation, then regret. As I mentioned, it was scary. I spent a lot of time in my room, but felt totally uninspired and watched cable until I numbed myself out enough to sleep. I read on chowhound that the best she-crab soup was in Murrell’s Inlet, 20 miles south, so on my second day there I took the back roads to discover a pretty fishing town--a lot of little waterfront houses on stilts and live oaks swathed in Spanish moss. But between Superbowl Sunday and the off-season, every last crab shack was closed. Even the gas station was closed. Early the next morning, I took a peaceful eight-mile walk on the empty beach, then drove down to Charleston.
Charleston’s opulent beauty was so refreshing after Myrtle Beach. I parked and walked for hours, passing block after block of grandiose, perfectly maintained eighteenth-century mansions with perfectly manicured gardens. It’s a college town but seemed to lack any bohemian culture of any kind. Brooks Brothers, Dockers, and Nantucket reds are the norm for men young and old, with such a peculiar profusion of bubblegum pink in the young women’s clothing that I thought it stood for something. (It didn’t.) The city didn’t beckon me to move there but it sure was a nice place to visit. As luck would have it, I got sick again, but I ate at such a great restaurant when I felt better that I don’t feel I missed out on anything at all. The Hominy Grill was just two blocks away from the hostel where I stayed. My first experience with boiled peanuts happened there, and I felt like someone eating sushi for the first time. Alone in the restaurant with no example to follow, I pulled the nuts apart and picked the meat out with my fingernail. Boiled peanuts…are not for me, but everything else in the restaurant was perfect—simple lace curtains, warm cream walls, candlelight, butcher paper on the tables, and great service even though I got there late. The Hominy Grill specializes in traditional low-country foods made with fresh local ingredients, and I wanted to try Chicken Country Captain or Purloo, a low-country rice dish with Middle Eastern roots, brought to the south via African slaves. My stomach, however, had other, less adventurous ideas, so I ordered fried chicken with two sides, green beans and sweet potatoes. This simple meal was breathtaking—the first on my trip where, had I had a dining companion, I would have put down my fork and laughed with disbelief and pleasure. The sweet potatoes were a silky, custardy mousse, the green beans succulent in a ham broth, the chicken salty with a light crust in a pool of buttermilk gravy. For dessert I had buttermilk pie. Smooth as silk, with hints of clove and cardamom and a distinctly un-lemony, buttermilk sourness, it was, as my mom would say, divine.
On my last day in Charleston I sniffed out a casual little sandwich shop off Charleston’s tourist track, in the West Ashley neighborhood. I read that The Glass Onion, a no-frills place where you order at the counter, was more fiercely committed to localism than anywhere in Charleston. Refreshingly, the only evidence of this was a refrigerator case on the far wall containing local greens and eggs for sale. I ordered a shrimp and oyster po' boy with a deviled egg. (For years I’ve wanted to open a restaurant with a deviled egg of the day, so this was exciting for me.) What a difference fresh shrimp makes. The thin membrane gives with a gentle pop, releasing a rush of flavor right from the ocean’s floor that lingers at the back of the tongue. In keeping with the unfussy vibe of the place, the sandwich was made with store-bought mayo on a deli roll, but the Boston lettuce and ripe tomato were totally fresh and delicious. Plus, the guy brought me a lip-smacking peanut butter cookie when I waffled on dessert, free of charge.
On my way to Savannah the next morning, I drove about ten miles out of town to check out a plantation. It was really cold walking around the Magnolia Plantation but some camellias and azaleas were still hanging on and the grounds were gorgeous. Two egrets and a heron waded in the swamps. The plantation is still owned by the same family that owned slaves there and I couldn't believe how that aspect of the property's history was glossed over. The slave cabins were being refurbished and I sneaked into one and got chased out by security guards. It was a pretty haunting place.
Next up: Georgia