Saturday, December 14, 2013

Sanma Comes but Once a Year

Sanma, salted and broiled
“You are just like Japanese!”  The woman sitting next to me at the bar nearly jumped out of her seat with surprise. For the last hour she had been conspicuously studying my moves.  Sitting alone at the bar of this small izakaya off The Strip in Las Vegas I was a bit of an anomaly.  Amongst the tightly packed tables, I was one of only a handful of non-Japanese faces.

Just then I had removed the spine from a long, thin fish in one movement.  A moment earlier, perhaps sensing this wasn’t my first time eating sanma, my curious neighbor had leaned over and mimed my next steps for eating this strange fish.  She indicated I was to grasp the tail between my thumb and fingers and pulling back in a clean motion bringing the tail toward the head of the fish.

I followed her advice and like that, two salt crusted, slightly charred fillets were separated from the head and the tail both attached by the spine. I had performed the motion, she said, “just like Japanese.”

This was my first experience with sanma, a Japanese fish that makes its short appearance each fall.  I wish I could say I had known what I was ordering but, like most of my dining experiences at this restaurant, the discovery was a happy accident.  I had learned eating at Abriya Raku to defer to the specials board.  Even if the writing on their movable blackboard menu was illegible and the waiter’s description incomprehensible, if I just pointed to a few items these would eventually show up, and I was never disappointed.

Bones removed with the guidance of my new Japanese friend, I found sanma has the sort of rich, firm flesh that I find delicious in other small oily fish.  Mackerel, sardines, and fresh anchovies are all similar in this way.

It would be a while before I saw sanma again.  This fall it made a brief appearance at the Lobster Place, the fish wholesaler with a retail outlet in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York.  Intrigued, I figured it couldn’t be too difficult to prepare at home.  A bit of research revealed recipes that did not differ much from what I often do to sardines.  Guts removed by the fishmonger (apparently some Japanese prefer cooking it with the organs still inside), I made long slashes in the skin and salted the flesh for a quick fifteen-minute cure.  Under the broiler the thin fish needed no more than 4 minutes per side for the flesh to be nicely charred. 

Salt curing the sanma before cooking
A squeeze of lemon and quick spine-removing gesture later and we were sitting down to a light supper of fish that you normally don’t find outside of Japanese restaurants.

The next week at the market we were back hoping for a repeat sanma dinner.  Sadly, in place of the whole fish were thin, boneless fillets.  Without the slender body and delicate spine the fish lost a bit of its magic.  That day we passed and opted instead for the humble whole sardine.  For me, a fish that comes but once a year deserves to be treated with the utmost respect and little does more to honor a fish than cooking it whole, just like Japanese. 

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

Friday, November 1, 2013

Bánh Mì Version 2.0

Meatball bánh mì  at Bánh Mì Saigon in New York
I remember when no one in New York knew what a bánh mì was. This was a time before Instagram and Top Chef, when food porn was limited to Saveur and the weekly dose from the New York Times Dining section.  Unless you were Vietnamese or had backpacked in Vietnam, the sandwich of cold cuts, pate, and pickled vegetables was a complete unknown. 

When was this long ago time, you ask?  Only about ten years ago, actually.  My how things change.

I was in the backpacker category of the bánh mì knowledgable, though I can't say my first experience was a positive one.  Rushing to pack and get out of Saigon for an overnight bus trip, I persuaded my brother we should buy two uncertain looking sandwiches from a street vendor.  Unbeknownst to us, Ho Chi Minh was the perfect place to be picking up the sandwich, as it was there that the bánh mì, in its classic form, was invented.

Unfortunately, my brother and I broke the cardinal rule of bánh mì: eat immediately. These are not sandwiches designed to be packed away for late night snack on a long bus ride.  Most of our soggy, smelly sandwiches were left behind in a rest station trash bin.

Mackerel Bánh Mì at Num Pang
While I was living in California a few years back, I came to New York for a visit and was surprised to find the bánh mì had taken the city by storm. It seemed shops devoted to the sandwich were popping up everywhere, as with the mini-chain Baoguette.  And it appeared every Chinatown coffee shop had signs placed in the window advertising bánh mì alongside pictures of dark tapioca pearls bobbing in plastic cups of bubble tea.  (How the Taiwanese sweet milk tea drink became companions with a Vietnamese sandwich is an investigation for another time.)

A Laotian bánh mì shop opens in Tribeca
Coming back to New York a couple of years later it seemed the bánh mì had so quickly moved from obscurity into the mainstream it was already on to Phase Two: reinvention.  While walking through the Village I stumbled upon a small shop front near Union Square, Num Pang.  A look at the menu revealed a list of sandwiches that appeared similar to bánh mì but, well, different. “Pulled Duroc Pork with Honey” and “Peppercorn Catfish with House Made Sweet Soy Sauce” sounded innocuously Asian, but the rest of the sandwich ingredients- cucumber, pickled carrot, cilantro and chili mayo- put these squarely in the traditional bánh mì category.

Num Pang’s Cambodian-style bánh mì clearly hit a nerve with New Yorkers. Now, living back in the city, there are so many Num Pang locations I only need to walk two blocks from my West Village apartment when I get a craving for their Khmer sausage sandwich piled high with pickled carrot and slicked with a sheen of chili mayo.

French Dip Duck Confit bánh mì from Khe-Yosk
With Cambodian versions and Vietnamese versions it was just a matter of time before that other border country, Laos, chimed in with a version of the bánh mì.  Enter Khe-Yosk in Tribeca, a window counter opening onto the street, an offshoot of the attached fine dining Laotian restaurant. A couple weeks after the “khe-yosk” opened I stopped by for a duck confit “French dip” bánh mì.  The foie gras spread was lost to me between the rich shredded duck and bright pickled vegetables.  And though dipping the enormous sandwich into a small container of au jus was challenging, I found the unusual addition to be a nice accompaniment for the crusty loaf of French bread.

I remember when there was no bánh mì.  Now, just ten years on, I live in a New York era of so many kinds of bánh mì and restaurants that serve them, I could eat a different version every day months.  When it comes to this sandwich none was bad, some was good, and more is definitely better.

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

130 Miles of Food

Poached Eggs in Melted Epoisses
Burgundy Road Trip

Imagine you are taking a California road trip.  You are starting in Santa Monica, ultimately destined for San Diego. But before leaving the swaying palms of this famous stretch of beach, you stop for a bite to eat.  It doesn’t really matter which restaurant, diner or taco shack you end up at, in this imaginary Southern California the eateries of this town all serve the same local specialty.  We’ll call this special dish “Eggs Santa Monica”: poached eggs perched atop avocado, oven roasted tomatoes, and a thick slice of grilled country bread.

Fortified, you hop in your car for the 30-mile drive to Long Beach.  You have heard that though Long Beach and Santa Monica fall within the same county lines, there is a completely different specialty here, a dish that has a place on every Long Beach restaurant menu.  We’ll call it, “Eggs Long Beach”: two fried eggs on black beans with pico de gallo. 

So your trip continues, stopping 20 miles later in Newport Beach, 30 miles after that in San Clemente, then Carlsbad, then La Jolla, and finally downtown San Diego.  At each city stop you find a dish that is both completely unique to that town, found in virtually every restaurant in that town, yet almost nowhere outside those town limits.

Winemaker Cyril Audoin (left), me and a travel companion
Sounds a bit wild?  Well for anyone that has traversed the famous routes of France, particularly along the verdant Burgundy corridor, that is pretty much the experience. 

The distance from Chablis, the northernmost part of Burgundy to Macon in the south is approximately 134 miles, the same distance from Santa Monica to San Diego.  In place of the pristine California coastline, the road trip in Burgundy is graced with mile upon mile of some of the world’s best grapevines and, as I found on a recent wine tasting trip, excellent food.

With each village boasting it’s own unique wine identity- from the ancient oyster shell bed that gives Chablis is distinctive taste to sun-ripened chardonnays of the Côte Chalonnaise- perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised to find the same proud individuality can be found in their cuisine.

Oeufs meurette- poached eggs in red wine sauce
Just north of the Burgundy border, in a small village in Champagne, the local bistro was serving one of the most famous dishes of its neighbor appellation.  Oeufs meurette, is a dish of poached eggs served in a red wine (classically Burgundy) sauce often with a scattering of bacon lardon.  Here the red wine was reduced down to an unctuous concentration but retained enough acidity to act as a foil for the golden yolk as the punctured sack released its insides.  As I wiped the last drops of the egg and wine sauce from my plate with a torn piece of baguette, it occurred to me that French bread may exist solely for the sopping up of that delicious mess.

A few days later sitting down to an al fresco lunch in Fixin, a village in the north of the Côte d’Or, poached eggs were again on the menu, but here with a whiff of fromage.  On our drive from Chablis to the heart of Burgundy, our car had passed the village of Époisses.  It is in that village that they make a famous orange rind, soft-ripened cow’s milk cheese of the same name. In Fixin the restaurant was serving this cheese, rind removed and melted down to a creamy puddle, as the sauce for two poached eggs.  Our winemaker host, Cyril Audoin of the nearby Domaine Charles Audoin, told us this was a dish we would only find there.  Indeed, as we continued our drive south, never again did I encounter the eggs in Époisses. The decadent slurry of yolk and liquid cheese was left behind, a signpost on the journey.

At this point eggs took a bit of a back seat to meat.  They would reappear further south in the Rhone Valley, notably in a dish of scrambled eggs with black truffle, but for the moment my attention shifted to the cured meats of the region.

Bucolic pasture and vineyard behind Domaine Danjean-Berthoux
If ever there was a way to layer meats in a pan and preserve them- suspended in aspic or sealed beneath a layer of fat- it seems the French have done it all. Burgundy, particularly this mouth-watering stretch of the Cote d’Or, has (surprise) a terrine you can find almost exclusively there: jambon persillé. Unlike its more delicate siblings, this terrine is traditionally made of roughly torn pieces of unsmoked, salt-cured ham (think prosciutto as opposed to Easter ham).  The shredded pork is set with a “jelly” of seasoned white wine and a small forest of parsley.  The result is a lovely mess of a terrine, stunning in the marble of pink meat and leafy green herbs.

Jambon Persille, right front
Our traveling party found this dish practically everywhere in the Côte d’Or.  At the supermarket in Beaune, we had the butcher cut off a brick sized slab.  We nibbled on the ham for days back in our rented house in Chassagne.  On restaurant menus it was a given that it would appear on a charcuterie spread.  It was no surprise then at lunch in Givry, hosted by winemaker Pascal Danjean, a small bowl-sized jambon persillé materialized as part of our appetizer course, naturally homemade by Pascal’s lovely wife.

It would be near impossible to imagine the drive from Santa Monica to San Diego, or any 130-mile drive in the United States for that matter, claiming as many unique, traditional dishes as I found in Burgundy. To think Burgundy is only one of twenty-seven regions in France.  If a place is best explored through its food, looks like I have some more road trips, and a lot more eating, in my future.

Breaking for a merguez sandwich and Grand Cru Burgundy at a roadside restaurant.
Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell