Monday, June 16, 2008
'El Mexicano Restaurant’ reads the sign on the unprepossessing building as we speed on our way back from Albany to Granville on Saturday. It was big, brash, and colorful, inviting the eye to further reassurance, and there it was – ‘Authentic Mexican Food’ – words whipping into the corner of my eye just as we passed. That sign painter knew what he was doing!
But by now we were past – just this side of Fort Edward and Hudson Falls on an otherwise dreary stretch of Route 4 in New York that had never before offered anything more than an adequate breakfast or a creemee.
“Maybe we should go back,” we said, and my foot lifted from the accelerator. “It might be a real find.” But we both knew what a pig-in-a-poke chance it was that we’d find good food on this stretch. We had things to do, places to be, but our stomachs were growling after that usual mad dash to Albany airport. Half a mile down the road I turned around. We could always just have a taco and leave. And if it was good, I’d pass it on to Randal, who would jump up and down for joy!
I had been noodling about ‘authentic’ ethnic all the way from the airport, trying to get my thoughts in order about the kind of behavior people will indulge in to assure authenticity in their Indian or Abyssinian food and how misled they can be, and even, sometimes, such bores about the whole thing. Who cares what’s authentic as long as it tastes good?
Well, sometimes I do – LOTS of times I do. I’m just not as dogmatic about it as I used to be. I hope.
We used to have a ‘gourmet’ group that met periodically to cook ethnic meals together, all research and sticklers for authenticity – and fun, of course – which is the reason you would have seen Leo squatting on the porch, with our small daughter under one arm, a cleaver in the other hand, and a thirded lobster scuttling haphazardly across the porch. “With a sharp bladed knife, cut the live lobsters into three pieces...” I believe that one was Spanish. Paella. Oh yes, I had to be authentic, even if it was dictated by the Time-Life Series of Gourmet Dogmatism.
I mean, really, if one is not in a Roman home, one is not eating an authentic Roman meal. And even then, what invading influences are in that pasta – tomatoes perhaps? Brought over from the New World way back when? And if one comes back from Rome and attempts to duplicate that Italian meal, then one is eating a facsimile Italian meal, with American – and here let’s say Rutland County – ingredients. Nothing wrong with that. Cooking and eating are cultural artifacts, and incorporating ethnic influences into our own cuisine can be nothing but enlightening.
Why was I noodling about authentic ethnic? Several things! Randal’s Indian dinner that he wrote about in Invite, that Moroccan cookbook that’s been staring me in the face all winter, Peter McGann’s ethnic cooking classes at the Co-op this month – all have been rich in instigating thought about authenticity.
I’ve been witness to heated conversations, a boorish authoritarian authenticist or two, a couple of dyed-in-the-wool experts, too, much polite, if passionate, discussion, and a lot of good food.
A week ago – the hottest evening of the year, I hope – was Peter McGann’s Japanese cooking demo at the Co-op. Among other things, he prepared Braised Sea Vegetable (Hijiki No Ni Mono; and that’s HEEjiki). This is a shredded black seaweed – you’ve seen it; probably eaten it – with a chewy texture almost like al dente spaghetti, that is not quite crisp, with that little thud of the teeth meeting through the center. It was strewn with carrot shards and fried bean curd, and dressed with the usual tastes of soy sauce, sake, ginger and dark sesame oil. I believe I’ve had a sweet form of this salad at Tokyo House, which is also utterly delicious.
“This is very mild tasting,” I said to Peter, “almost like it needs a jolt of hot pepper or something.”
No matter that I had raved about the chicken teriyaki and the green beans in thick bean sauce, Peter took my mild criticism of the Hijiki to heart. But perhaps he wasn’t moping, perhaps he was trying to find the words to explain to me that “not everything needs to shine. Much of the interest in this dish is in the texture.” For that’s exactly what my friend Jesse – an excellent food thinker himself – told me later when I was describing the evening’s tastes. And it’s funny, because now, as I write, it is Hijiki that I really crave to taste again.
And perhaps that’s the loveliness of foods that are strange and esoteric in our experience – you never know when you’ll turn on to an entirely unknown quantity and it will become yours.
Food is a social tradition – why else do a dozen Lebanese or Moroccan ladies at a time get together in the labor-intensive exercise of making couscous? Couscous is ground semolina wheat that is sprinkled with water and rubbed between the hands until it forms little pellets. Then it’s screened, and the smaller particles that fall through the screen are rubbed together again, ad infinitum. To prepare it, it’s steamed several times in a utensil called a kiska:s or couscoussière that’s so big it would just about fit in my cellar.
What most people use, though, is the more processed kind of couscous, that we usually find in the states, and that requires very little preparation.
A gorgeous book by Claudia Roden called Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey, & Lebanon, has been sitting at eye level on a bookshelf just inside my front door all winter. I’ve done nothing but page through it, mentally tasting a mounded couscous with lamb decorated with lines of cinnamon, confectioners sugar, raisins, dates, fried almonds. It’s a beautiful book with thick glossy paper and gorgeous photographs, and words like tagine and ideas like preserved lemon. Combined with olives. Much too beautiful to go into the kitchen and get spotted up with broths, tomato splashes, and sticky bits of honey. How many times have I chided myself for not just spending time cooking from it, delving into it, making it mine, becoming aware of the hows and wherefores of that tradition of food?
Well, many! But perhaps the biggest reason, I’m coming to realize, is that I like to cook with people, not for people. Call me selfish, but for me it’s a group activity between family and friends. I wish it happened more often that way.
For pre-prepared couscous Claudia Rodin combines equal amounts – 2 ½ cups – of couscous and warm salted water, stirs it vigorously, leaves it to absorb the water and to swell for 10 minutes, then mixes in 2 tablespoons of oil and rubs it between her hands above the bowl “to air it and break up any lumps. That is the important part.” The dish is put into a 400 degree oven for 20 minutes before eating.
Peter’s going to use un-pre-prepared couscous on June 23rd for his Moroccan lesson, steaming the couscous several times in the couscoussière he’s ordered. I can’t wait, so I jumped the gun!
I’d got some goat stew-meat from Blue Ledge Farm at the Farmers’ Market with which we strung up little kebabs that I marinated in buttermilk and herbs, garlic and a little bit of cinnamon. I made a salsa with a tomato and mango, sliced green garlic from my garden, a little balsamic vinegar and olive oil. And I made naan-style flatbread that my daughter cooked on the grill until they were darkly blistered, after Leo had grilled the goat kebabs. And much to their surprise I set an earthenware casserole in front of them with couscous scattered with goat, salsa on the side, homemade yogurt in a little bowl, and bade them tear pieces of flatbread to dip it all up. No individual plates. It was all in the family. It was not authentic anything, but it was strange, it contained bits and pieces of several cultures, and it nourished us. And it really was mostly local, and we only used our right hands.
When I told Peter about it he looked up from the cash register and said, “Goat!!?? Sharon, we have to talk!”
So I imagine goat is not authentic with couscous. But I’m far beyond the day of inflicting egregious cruelty on any creature, or running out to the supermarket for some esoteric ingredient. I’ll use what I have, mostly, but I’ll do it with some thought to the people who taught me to do it that way, their strange histories, their backyard tree of mango, their mewling baby animals, the gods they presented them to.
...shades of marty robbins...
We step from blazing tarmac into cool, low-ceilinged cantina – El Mexicano Restaurant – with the plunk plink strummmmm of the Mexican guitar, the bright sprawling wall graphics, garish flags of, umm, Mexican beers, probably, and the good smells of corn and beans and peppers. Murmuring groups of people. It’s 1:30 on a Saturday afternoon. A stocky, muscular, smiling man leads us to a booth, another mans the bar, and yet another serves the table behind us.
Our man is Gabino Vazquez and he is the artist of the big Mexican-surrealist murals that cover the walls – swarthy men with moustaches, charging horses, sunsets – outlaw scenes, revolutionaries, in the style of Frida and Diego. The man’s a genius. He introduces himself as “the, ah, decorator. I am the decorator of all this.” He holds his arms wide.
“Is that a picture of your relatives?” I wave to a photograph on the wall beside me. He looks stunned for a moment, then smiles and says excitedly, “Oh no, that is Villa. And that other is Zapata.” He looks at me. “Pancho Villa?” I nod.
In the meantime, we’re served salsa and tortilla chips, and then, later, a warm soft tortilla stuffed with cheese and a pepper before we’ve even ordered. A little gift from the kitchen. A Mexican amuse-bouche. I like that practice a lot: we’re there to eat – feed us! Immediately!
Gabino is the owner of El Mexicano with his brother, Esteban, and five other Vazquez brothers work the business with them. “Oh yes,” he nods, “we are real brothers.”
We order a combinacione of aperitivos – a couple of tamales (yes they are steamed in cornhusks, yes the cornmeal is mixed with lard, to my approval. Authentic!), a taco – just because the idea of one won’t leave me alone – and a chile relleno.
Not the most imaginative of orders, but certainly enough to let us judge the quality of the food. They are superb. Are they authentic? Well, I imagine! As much as they can be so far from Mexico. A little note on the menu tells us “Our food is not spicy unless requested.” Another, on the website says they’ll cook anything you request even if it’s not on the menu.
As we’re eating, the music takes a serious turn, and as we comment on the excellence of the sound system, we realize that it’s live music. Yes. A Mexican musician wanders the place every lunch and dinner but Tuesday with guitar and extensive repertoire. He sings in Spanish.
We talk and talk with Gabino, and I take some photos. We’ve drunk two glasses of iced tea and eaten a small assortment of appetizers, and have not ordered dessert – nor have we been asked to do so. But what is this –another amuse-bouche –a tortilla stuffed with banana and honey and fried. We dip this in rosettes of whipped cream.
We leave. We drive on. Our mouths are open. We grin. We remain astonished.
We’ll be back Gabino.
El Mexicano Restaurant .
3011 State Route 4
Hudson Falls, NY 12839
Open 7 days a week for lunch and dinner
3$ to $23