Thursday, April 25, 2013

Order of Operations

I just ragged on John for putting on jeans and boots while he was still wearing his robe, and he sent me this video (subject line: "guess who you remind me of?"):

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The most memorable meals of my life, in chronological order

1. Staying at some dinky motel in New Mexico with my family and my maternal grandparents, we cooked some kabobs on an outdoor grill: chunks of beef and cherry tomatoes on skewers in some kind of tangy marinade. This is the first food I remember finding unusually delicious, beyond the level of Fruit Roll-Ups and Pudding Pops, and it's one of my first memories period. I must have been four or five.

2. I went to kindergarten and first grade at a little private school called St. Luke's, out in New Mexico farm country. Once a year they did a fundraiser where they sold make-your-own-pizza kits. The resulting pizza was probably pretty lousy in the grand scheme of things, but I truly loved it.

3. On a family trip to San Diego when I was 13 or so, I ordered shrimp tacos at some divey Mexican joint, and they were covered in chopped fresh cilantro, which I may have tasted a couple of times, but certainly not in such quantities. This was before you could buy cilantro just anywhere. It blew my everloving mind. I had no idea what I was eating until later, back in El Paso, when I smelled that taste in the produce section at a grocery store and was stopped in my tracks. (I feel like cilantro isn't that fragrant anymore; I wonder if we use different cultivars now that there's higher demand.)

4. In high school, the gorditas from Pepe's Tamales on Mesa, in the same little strip mall that housed our Blockbuster Video. The crispiest, daintiest little gorditas in history, served in a little paper tray, delicious every time, RIP.

5. Once in college my brother and I stayed in a house on the beach (near Corpus, maybe?) with our friends Robo and Stacey (now married) and Stacey's mother and sister. One night we bought a bag of shrimp fresh off a boat, and I made a batter with a lot of Tony Chachere's (salty Cajun seasoning) and fried them up, and we ate them hot as they came out of the pot. Possibly the best shrimp I've ever had.

6. College again: At Jazz Fest in New Orleans, dripping in sweat, my roommate Kate and I stopped and bought a shrimp po'boy to share from a food stand. Just shrimp in a remoulade sauce with cold shredded iceberg lettuce on French bread. We looked at each other in disbelief as we took our first bites. That sandwich was so fucking good!

7. On my 21st birthday I went to Mark's, a beautiful restaurant built in an old church on Westheimer, and had some kind of carpaccio (tuna, I think, not beef) and seafood risotto garnished with – and this is the most memorable part – the most delicious sliver-thin slices of roasted fennel. This still stands out as maybe the most I've enjoyed a meal at an upscale restaurant.

8. John and I once spontaneously stopped for dinner at Bin 26, an Italian restaurant on Charles Street in Boston, and had an amazing mussel dish. It was just mussels in marinara, but there was a thick slice of grilled bread, that kind of really porous airy peasant bread that gets super crunchy, olive-oiled and almost blackened in spots, sitting on the bottom of the bowl soaking up the sauce, so you could eat it when the mussels were gone. If I could eat real bread one last time, that's the bread I would want. We also had an incredible Cabernet that tasted like coconut. We went back for a birthday or anniversary or something later that year and it wasn't as good, and they were out of the wine.

I'm sure I can think of others, but those are the standouts right now. Some conclusions:
  • I've been to lots of fancy restaurants. Simple foods really are best.
  • A lot of memorable meals occurred in Texas and/or involved shrimp. Of course, you can chalk up the first part to the fact that I lived in TX until I was 22, and we tend to form our most intense memories when we're younger. I still think Texas has better food than most places, though. I don't eat shrimp much anymore because John is allergic to it; also it's just not that great when you're not on the Gulf. Most seafood is flown in from wherever anyway (so it's silly when people are squeamish about eating sushi away from a coast), but shrimp is the one thing I've noticed varies wildly in quality from place to place. I never had exceptional shrimp in Boston. Gulf shrimp may suck now too, in a post-Deepwater world.
  • None of the food I ate during my two weeks in Europe was particularly delicious or memorable. I think you have to spend a lot to eat well in Europe. I mean, you can just buy bread and cheese, but I tend to disagree that random bread and cheese from Europe is any better than random bread and cheese you can get here. I still obviously had an awesome time, but the food was neither here nor there. The food we ate in Spain, in fact, was straight up bad; when we crossed into France, we bought a rotisserie chicken and devoured it like characters in a Goya painting on the floor of our hotel room. For some reason we ate pizza in Monaco. 
  • I think of New York City as a great food city but can't pinpoint a great meal I've had there. Maybe in NYC, as in Europe, you have to spend a lot to get past the abundance of mediocrity. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

It's Spring o'Clock Somewhere (Mini-Reviews)

Although it continues to snow once or twice a week here and it's currently 19 degrees, I'm in a horrible mood and have a chronic nosebleed, I've been testing some springy floral scents. I make no claims toward objectivity or perspective this week, for what it's worth.

Guerlain Champs Elysees - I've had a sample of this tucked away for a couple of years, and finally pulled it out of storage when Victoria Frolova mentioned it in a post on mimosa at Bois de Jasmin. Not the simple, raspy spring floral of L'Artisan's Mimosa pour Moi, nor the more intense, gourmand treatment of mimosa as in YSL's Cinema, Champs Elysees is a shrill, rosy mimosa floral with fruity apple-pear top notes, very close in effect to DKNY Be Delicious or the nicer niche version of the same idea, Rose d'Ete from Parfume de Rosine. Luca Turin called it "the second-worst perfume Guerlain ever made." Certainly, it has none of the depth of a typical Guerlain and smells a bit like a high-school bathroom (hairspray and body splash). But it's nonetheless kind of pretty in its way (as is Roucel's Be Delicious – which, to be fair, post-dates both CE and RdE). I don't wear stuff this high-pitched, but I don't find it particularly offensive either.

Vero Profumo Mito - An intensely green citrus chypre, like Parfum d'Empire's recent Azemour but with much more bitter bite in the top notes. In citrus terms, this translates to more of the peel and less of the juice. As is often the case in contemporary chypres, the galbanum is doing as much work as the oakmoss. Very well done, but this really isn't my kind of thing, and when I do want something in this genre, I'll take the earthy, herbal Eau Dynamisante or the smooth resinous lemon of Monsieur Balmain at something like 1/10 the price.

MCMC Noble - A good, natural jasmine soliflore has the same clean/dirty dichotomy as a good musk: equal parts fresh, lovely petals and a dirty, human, post-sex kind of smell. Noble is supposed to involve vetiver and incense and "chai tea" among other things, but all I really smell is jasmine, unadorned, in all its soap-meets-crotch glory. Except that I don't personally experience jasmine as glorious, perhaps because it doesn't grow around where I grow up. So this is merely nice to me. If you're a jasmine lover, though, this may be just the thing.

Michael Storer Stephanie - I don't really understand this fragrance yet, but I'm writing about it anyway. For a white floral (a gardenia construction, necessarily, since gardenias don't yield oil), it's very surprising – most perfumes in the genre exploit the creamy, falling-apart end of the life cycle of a white flower, when the sweet headiness almost approaches rot. Stephanie, instead, feels like a blossom that hasn't really opened yet, green and waxy, almost like the grassy, slightly bitter note of extra virgin olive oil. It's not indolic, and it's not sweet. Initially, it's really rather austere, especially for a tropical floral. The drydown, however, smells uncannily like Champagne de Bois. When Natalie gave me my decant, she told me as much, and sure enough, the ghost of Laurie Erickson emerges after an hour or so. Oddly, the listed notes for Stephanie don't include any base materials, but there must be a good dose of something woody – cedar? sandalwood? – in here interacting with the jasmine. What gives, Michael Storer? Very interesting, though I can't comment on how realistic it smells – El Paso isn't known for gardenias either.

Tauer Perfumes Zeta - Oh dear. You know I'm a Tauer lover from way back, but the combination of strident citrus and linden blossom in the top notes here conspires to turn into cleaning products on my arm. I'm sure this is full of natural materials; all the same it gives me lab chemical vibes. Better as the lemon burns off a bit, but still too close to furniture polish for me. Many people love this one. More for you all, I guess! 

DelRae Amoureuse - Amoureuse combines the waxy, woody green of Stephanie, the faint animalic stank of Noble, and the complex, honey-like sweetness of some white flowers into something very much like the warm, humid air in the tropical conservatory at the Denver Botanic Gardens right down the street. A surprising tangerine note weaves in and out of perception, so at one moment it smells strikingly like a hothouse flower, and the next more like an abstract, made perfume. I find it reminds me very much of Tauer's Carillon pour une Ange, another juicy green spring floral built of similar materials. Like eating a creamsicle in an overgrown garden – overblown, even. Can flowers be blowsy? Why does this perfume make me think of B words, like buxom? Why do I think of "blowsy" as a positive word when the dictionary suggests it's used for slut-shaming? In linguistics, the idea that phonemes carry meaning in themselves is known as "sound symbolism" or "phonosemantics." When a group of words with similar meaning all start with the same sound (as in slip, slide, slosh, slurry, etc., or blowsy, buxom, boisterous, bootylicious...) that's called "clustering." The more you know!

Gardenia image via miamism

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

3 truths and a lie

The lie is that there is no lie, these three things are all true:

1. It's snowing (again). Looks like snow now, when we left the house this morning it was more like tiny hail.

2. The right side of my neck itches. It almost always itches. This has been true for decades. Why, neck? Why the right side?

3. My latest column on "The Poneme" is up at Lemon Hound. I wrote about Ana Bozicevic's new book, Rise in the Fall, and "the godlike thought" in poetry. It goes like this:
When on occasion I teach poetry, one of the main things I try to instill in my students is, to quote Spicer, “Poet, be like God.” To go from trying to write poetry to really writing poetry, there’s a leap that has to happen, and that leap is a realization that you are the god of your poem, and you can make anything happen – anything at all within the world of your poem. The poem has no obligation of faithfulness to reality or known syntax or anything aside from the fact that it must be made of language, the way we’re made of oxygen and carbon. 
The task of the poet is to figure out what they want to do with that material – what they want to make happen....

Friday, April 12, 2013

'90s Nostalgiafest Continued: Veruca Salt

I'm not sure why I'm on such a '90s bender lately, but I just listened to Veruca Salt's first album, American Thighs – the golden era of DGC records – while I was out running some errands. And wow, guys, this thing totally holds up! Like at Nirvana levels (the band, I mean, I'm not getting spiritual on you).

I am twice (and change) as old as I was when I bought this album, and I haven't listened to it in well over a decade. What I find interesting is that my favorite songs are the same. There are two explanations for this:

  1. I "learned" to like those songs best while listening to this album well over a hundred times when I was 15/16; that "knowledge" is still burned in my brain.
  2. My taste hasn't changed all that much.

It's probably some combination of the two. I mean honestly, my tastes haven't changed that much. (My So-Called Life is still basically my favorite show.) My favorite song on this album is track 11, "Twinstar," a name I never would have remembered because it's not anywhere in the lyrics. I completely forgot this song existed, though I vaguely remembered having a fondness for the last three tracks, and when it came on in the car, I experienced a moment of sublime recognition, translucent and pure, and happiness seemed to pour into the car like sunlight. (There was also actual sunlight, as the clouds had just broken.) Oh my god, this song is so good.

Do you guys remember this album? Other highlights: "Forsythia," "Number One Blind," and "25," the slowburner clocking in at 7:56.

A couple of (largely) unrelated links for you:

  • My poetry BFF Kathleen Rooney has an article in the New York Times magazine connecting a handful of contemporary poets to Jack Handey of Deep Thoughts fame (the '90s!). 
  • My Twitter pal Ruth Graham has a piece in the Boston Globe's Ideas section on the socioeconomics of baby names. I love stuff like this. There is much focus on the name Olivia, which I have always irrationally hated, possibly because of my fourth-grade math teacher, but I was awesome at math as a kid and she wasn't particularly mean or anything, so that doesn't really make sense. I don't like the name Oliver either, FWIW. (Apologies if this is your name or your mother's or baby's, etc. It's really, really not personal; in fact if I meet someone cool named Olivia, maybe that'll reverse the curse?) I wonder if its recent resurgence has anything to do with Olivia Wilde?

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Tinnitus seems worse than pain

John's recurring tinnitus has recurred. "Tinnitus" as you and I know it is pretty benign, a slight ringing or buzzing in the ears when you go home after a concert. John's isn't like that. In the past month he has compared the noises in his ears to:

  • The sound of grinding metal; a car crash
  • A roaring like a hair dryer or vacuum cleaner or leafblower right in your ear
  • A pulsating siren like an alien spaceship landing outside

It's like a horror movie soundtrack half the time, he says. Stress makes it worse but it's kind of an irrepressible physiological response, stress is, when you're hearing noise like that right in your ears, so loud that you're functionally deaf. You can't teach or talk on the phone or sleep or listen to music. He says it's so strange that I can't hear it.

What the F is wrong with him? We don't know, nobody seems to know. Sometimes it switches sides, sometimes it's in both ears. I wish it wasn't in his head. I wish it was pain, somewhere lower down on the body, excruciating pain even, maybe in his leg? That would make me feel better. I wish it was my pain. I would much rather be in pain than watch him listening to his tinnitus.

I love this so much, by Molly Laich: 7 don't kill yourself tips:

1. There’s no such thing as death.
There’s no shortcuts ever, right? You fall asleep here, you wake up somewhere else. No ghost has ever not regretted that time she hanged herself in the basement. Watch Faust. Read Sartre’s No Exit. Don’t be frightened, but for real, there’s no exit. 
2. It hurts a lot.
Every kind of suicide hurts. Lots of pills make your organs shut down, like they’re walking down a flight of stairs and also on fire. A gun, a knife, a rope. You’ve seen a magician floundering in a tank with no key. Did it look like a wet hug? You’ll be so alone; don’t do it. 
3. Make girls laugh instead.
Think about it: A giggling girl, and you did that to her. What is better? Start by whispering in her ear some acerbic truth about the situation....

Monday, April 8, 2013

How to make the easiest/best El Paso–style crispy-soft taco shells

I hail from El Paso, Texas, sometimes known as "the Mexican food capital of the world" (I know, you'd think it would be in Mexico, go figure!). The Mexican restaurants in El Paso are, it must be said, highly inconsistent, but when they're good, they're so mother-effing good, and they're not like anything else in the world. The food they serve constitutes its own sub-genre of "Tex-Mex," which I've come to think of as being better represented by Houston, Austin, and other cities in East Texas, 700 or 800 miles yonder. Textbook Tex-Mex as seen at, say, a Chuy's, is super-sized and kind of sanitized – the colors are brighter, the beans and rice are fluffier, and though you're surely taking in enough calories for a baby elephant with every plate, there's less visible surface grease. The ingredients are slightly different too: more tomatillo, for example, more white meat versus dark meat.

El Paso, being on the border of New Mexico, is more dependent on green chile, but the real measure of an El Paso Mexican restaurant (EPMR) is the red sauce: super-earthy and rich and best on cheese enchiladas, perhaps topped with a fried egg. A combination plate from an EPMR will have less verticality than one from Houston. The tortillas are softened in hot oil before they're (minimally) stuffed, rolled, and sauced; the sides of beans (a much thinner consistency than typical elsewhere, made delicious with lard, probably, and a topping of grated jack cheese) and rice (El Paso is one of the few places in America where the Mexican rice is worth eating) are added to the plate and the whole shebang goes into the oven for a re-warm-through, so when it arrives at your table it's too hot to touch and there are a few strands of burnt cheese on the rim (sign of greatness). Before that though, you get a semi-pointless little "salad" garnish of shredded iceberg lettuce and a half-slice of wan tomato (which I sometimes actually eat), and your taco of choice. The taco is immediately recognizable for its shell, which is neither deep-fried until crunchy nor soft as though steamed or dry-toasted on a skillet. Instead, it's a kind of "soft fry": cooked in hot oil enough to brown and crisp the edges and hold a shape, but not so much that it loses its chew. This, to me, is the Ultimate Taco.

They say necessity is the mother of invention, but we all know laziness is at least as fortuitous. My mother used to make taco shells in this fashion by pouring a little vegetable oil onto a big double griddle (same pan we used for french toast and pancakes) and standing there frying and folding until there were enough shells for four. This was an obvious pain in the ass. Even when cooking for two, I don't much care to splatter hot oil all over the stove and my person; it's also really hard to get the right amount of oil in the pan so the shells get kind of dampened but not soaked. To avoid this mess, I used to heat up tortillas directly over a gas burner, which gives you great char. But my current apartment has an electric stove. An easier way to warm a stack of corn tortillas is by wrapping them in a damp paper towel and zapping in the microwave for 30 seconds to a minute. If you then wrap those in a cloth kitchen towel, they'll stay warm for the duration of your taco session, assuming you eat tacos as quickly as we do. Unfortunately, this technique doesn't add any flavor or texture to the tortillas.

Somehow, recently, I hit upon another method. It's not messy or very time-consuming, and best of all, it gives you perfect El Paso–style taco shells every time: a little soft, a little crisp, a little chewy, with great, photogenic color (but I'm not a food photographer, sorry) and lasting integrity around your filling. It's the best of all worlds, people. Take it from a taco expert.

So here's how you do it!

El Paso–Style Taco Shells, THE DEFINITIVE RECIPE for Semi-Authentic Types

You need:

Corn tortillas, any number
Cooking spray (I like Winona Pure 100% Sunflower Oil)
A griddle (mine is nonstick, but cast iron would probably be best)
A paper towel–lined plate

OK, so, the idea is that these will eventually become tacos, so get all your taco stuff ready before you start the taco shells. (Tonight, the filling was shredded poached chicken and cheddar cheese, with toppings of fresh salsa, smashed avocado, spicy sour cream and shredded romaine, but I have endless ideas for taco fillings. See below.) Spread your toppings out on the table, keep your fillings warm, and get your griddle nice and hot. I put it over medium-high to high heat (7-8 on our burner, which goes up to 10, works best) for several minutes before I start laying on the tortillas. Throw as many on as will fit in a single layer with no overlapping (my griddle holds four), then quickly blast each tortilla with a little cooking spray. Then (this is key!) flip the tortillas over so the sprayed side is down. You don't need to spray the other side. Then just let 'em go for a good 3-4 minutes. This will vary based on how hot your pan is, but you want to develop some brown spots without going so far that they aren't pliable. At that point, flip them back over and just give them a wee bit more time on the other side to warm through. Then, using your tongs, gently fold each tortilla in half, with the sprayed-and-crisped side out, and transfer them to the plate. If there's any excess grease you can blot that off on the paper towel, but if you're doing it right, the minimal oil will mostly be absorbed into the shell. Prop the shells up against each other to encourage them to hold their shape and help keep them warm. (If you're really fancy, you could keep them warm in the oven.) Repeat until you've got enough tacos to properly stuff your face. Following in the footsteps of my mom, I generally make all the shells (6-8 for two people; we're gluttons but we don't usually have any sides with tacos), then stuff them with the warm filling(s) before taking them to the table. Then everyone can serve and top themselves.

This is the only way I make tacos now, and we have tacos about once a week. Cooking spray for the win!

Since you asked, here are some quick filling ideas:

CHICKEN: Poach or roast chicken breasts on the bone, then skin and shred. Alternatively, roast and slice boneless/skinless chicken thighs (which don't dry out as easily). For tonight, I did a kind of roast-poach, adding a quarter of a cup of water to the pan and covering the chicken breasts with foil, then cooking at 375 for about 45 minutes, which results in very tender chicken.

PORK: This recipe for carnitas is my favorite, mostly because I like it enough that I haven't tried any others. Pickled onions are a nice touch here.

FISH: Sometimes I pan-fry tilapia or catfish, usually tossing it in some kind of spice mix first, sometimes with a bit of a breading (usually a mix of cornmeal and chickpea flour in this house). Sometimes I quick roast halibut in a coating of mayo with some sriracha (or other hot sauce) and chopped garlic stirred in. I know, that sounds random, but mayo is a classic way to keep halibut moist in the oven, and it bakes into a kind of sauce. Seared and sliced tuna steaks are also good, when you're feeling flush. I often make a quick slaw to serve on tacos; with fish tacos it's a staple.

MUSHROOM: Slice several portobello mushroom caps in half, then into thin slices crosswise (about a quarter inch thick). Toss with salt, pepper, a little dried oregano and maybe some cumin, olive oil, and a little bit of water or broth on a sheet pan, and roast at high heat for 15-20 minutes, until they're softened with a few crispy edges.

BEAN: A cheap pantry classic from my childhood. Refried beans from a can and shredded cheese, it's that simple. The topping we always made to go with these was chopped iceberg lettuce and tomatoes moistened with a spoonful of mayonnaise. I KNOW, WTF. It makes no sense but is improbably delicious.

MAYO: Just kidding guys, I don't really eat that much mayo!

Anyway. Make some tacos.

UPDATE: In the interest of not getting sued, I should note that cooking spray is supposedly flammable, so if you have a gas stove, use caution. You might want to spray the tortillas on one side before you drop them on the hot griddle, so you're not aiming the pressurized oil toward an open flame. Nobody ever said, "It's not a taco party until somebody catches on fire." (Until now.)

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

More Mini-Reviews: Noontide Petals, DSH Cordial & More

Tauer Perfumes Noontide Petals - Noontide Petals immediately reminded me of two of my favorite Tauers: Une Rose Chypree and Incense Rose. All three walk that paradoxical line between juicy and powdery. There's that same bright, full citrus in the opening, but with what smells to me like some lemon thrown into the mix with the mandarin and bergamot stuff, plus a big sweet dose of vanilla. There are twinkling aldehydes and some raspy white floral notes, but it doesn't immediately announce itself as a tuberose scent, as I was expecting. And it's not as sweet as Miriam or something like a Chanel No. 22. It's more of a hazy, vintage-y floral blend, with noticeable rose but yellow in hue, and a classically Tauer woody incense base. If you like SSS Nostalgie, this will probably be right up your alley. Both Nostalgie and Noontide have some ingredient that reads as slightly urinous to my nose at times. Is it a facet of the jasmine? Or patchouli? Is there some beeswax/honey in here? Or just an effect of the aldehydes? I'm not sure, but in any case it's very subtle and just supports the old-fashioned feeling of this yummy rounded blend. I think I smell a touch of mimosa in here too, making this a lovely Tauer for spring. As it dries down, you veer into standard "Tauerade," but luckily I love Tauerade. This is one of my favorite releases from Andy in the past several years, and feels like a return to his classic style.

DSH Cordial - In Perfumes: The Guide, all perfumes are given a two-word descriptor, like "apple mimosa" or "nasty leather," before their lengthier review. My two-word descriptor of Cordial, which Dawn released around the holidays last year, would be "doughy incense." There's a gingerbread cookie dough accord hanging out alongside a resinous note that reminds me of Nag Champa, which must be the benzoin. The main effect is not, as the name implies, boozy, to my nose, but spicy and softly smoky, in the Tea for Two mold (though not as close to TFT as Spicebomb, to be sure). As it dries down it gets fruitier; I wish the fruit note were more raisin, as in Feminite du Bois, and less glaceed cherry. Not as complex or exotic as Mahjoun, another DSH gourmand, but nice.

Heeley Cuir Pleine Fleur - Where's the beef? An extremely soapy floral accord (think violet leaf and vetiver as in Grey Flannel or Green Irish Tweed, both of which are remarkably close to Irish Spring) completely overtakes whatever leather is going on in here for me. I think Luca Turin likes this because it reminds him of Grey Flannel. Not a scrubber but I didn't enjoy it at all.

Micallef Royal Vintage - Very clean-fresh-musky-herbal-citrus in the vein of Voyage d'Hermes, but with a leather note that seriously smells like the zoo. Kind of insane because if you like animalic leather, you probably don't want gin-scented soap on top, but if you want to smell like gin and soap you would surely opt to skip the monkey house. But maybe it's genius? I can't figure this house out!

Montale Red Aoud - Like a stronger, more chocolately version of Rose Anonyme – which, you may recall, I liked everything about except its staying power. The berry-like rose note is also denser, less sheer – in other words, more red, less anonymous. It's funny, I had nothing to do with the Montale line for years; a hundred ouds in hairspray cans just didn't appeal. But the first two I've tried (see also Boise Vanille) have been really lovely. I like you now, Montale!