When does the summer end? For those of us living in a cold climate it is definitely not August 31st or September 1st, not even the Labor Day (first Monday of September). The fall in Eastern Canada begins around autumnal equinox time (22nd of September) with sudden gusty winds and rains bending and rocking the trees, blow-drying leaves into their new colors and flocking the birds to swarm into the their long journey down South. Although it’s still possible to make some BBQ, the goose-bumping temperatures usually lock us in to experiment with pies and breads. This tart was a pure impromptu caused by our unexpected garden find – squash flowers.
Air chilled September has arrived to the East coast with the oyster season fanfare first in Montreal and now in the New York City. If you’re an oyster geek or just an exploring amateur, it’s time to learn a few new things about the little bivalve and the best ways to enjoy it. For those who can’t go to the Big Apple or line up for the new celebrity chefs’ oyster creations, there’s plenty to catch up with: dozens of fresh oyster varieties have just arrived into all major groceries and are now available for the price of a lollipop per pop. So if the shucking oyster party is your thing (which you can still enjoy outdoors as the current street temperature provides the best timing to serve and taste the oysters), it’s time to experiment with the new oyster condiments.
The New York Oyster Week founder Kevin Joseph has just declared a war on the traditional cocktail sauce from seventies (it’s about time someone bans that dreary creation out loud) and strongly encourages that people start using some freshly ground condiments like horseradish to bring the best out the fresh oyster. And here is when I pitch in with my latest granita, little icy Sicilian dessert that was first made with the snow from the Mount Etna.
Specifically, my new favorite, which I called Mighty Aphrodite Granita – a Lemon Ginger Cucumber Mint Granita. Don’t get me wrong, I still love classic Mignonette sauce like any other person, and totally agree with Nigel Slater that ‘nothing quite takes the salty, iodine tang off a good oyster like the shallot vinegar, Tabasco and lemon.’ But there’s something I’ve discovered about granitas: they can make a really creative condiment (a little step up from just a generic lemon) that would not only complement the taste of the oyster, but would also make a perfect palate cleanser or an entremet between sampling different kind of oysters, so your palate’s capacity will be enhanced to actually catch the difference between say Malpeque from Kumamoto, or Raspberry Point, or many other varieties (check Montreal’s La Mer for the local stock).
Granitas are very easy to make: the icy texture can be reached without any special equipment (like the one required for sorbet) – all you need is fork, tray and freezer. They make a stunning presentation. The melt fast, so your oyster will not be compromised with too much ice. And then there’s something else: there’s no particular proportion – you can customize your own granitas with your own amounts and preferred ingredients to reach the sweetness-sourness-saltiness balance according to your needs.
Julia Child mentioned in her Mastering the Art of French Cooking that the French Royal Court preferred to pair the oysters with Sauternes, the famous sweet wine of the Bordeaux region. This inspired me to make a sweet, slightly acidic granita with a splash of dessert wine, sugar, lemon juice and the refreshing touch of ginger, cucumber and mint. The result was outstanding. And guess what, if you don’t have any botrytis wine at hand, you can successfully replace wine with a dash of champagne or rice vinegar. Or just omit the alcohol completely and your granita will still taste heavenly and will make a fun and clever condiment or an entremet. And don’t forget to use some liquid leftovers to wet the rim of the shot glasses before dipping it in a lemon, celery or your choice of salt mixture for any chilled booze you would like to serve with your oysters (from sake to tequila to Guinness).
As much as I’m for letting the imagination go experimenting with citrus granitas, a word of a personal warning: stay away from experimenting with soya or ponzu sauce granitas – they are too overpowering and completely kill the taste of the oysters. I made some on our last Valentine and they both ended up in a trash leaving us to a humble simili-caviar condiment only, but then of course the good ol’ mignonette arrived to help in a jiffy.
Back to our feature Lemon Ginger Cucumber Mint granita: three -five minutes work, an hour in a freezer, basically all the job is about forming ice crystals with the fork every 15-30 minutes depending on the quantity you make. You can serve as a little refreshing adult digestive or dessert as well. Believe me, I wouldn’t waste my time on writing this if it wasn’t absolutely delectable condiment, dessert re-fresher and a palate cleanser.
One nice slurp of a briny devilish oyster followed by the tiny spoon of this pristine pure-tasting granita will pair and separate both gracefully (‘with a bite of the buttered brown bread to follow to stimulate the papilles… and then of course, a fine mouthful a white wine’, as recommended by legendary M.F.K. Fisher). You will only wish to continue tasting that dance and at some point might actually start feeling one step closer to a mighty Aphrodite (with, obviously, cucumber green hair and a piece of ginger in her hand for this recipe), the Greek goddess of love, who sprang from the sea on an oyster shell. And then the myth of the little aphrodisiac was born… Which ultimately brings me to Jay Rayner’s advice to ‘never date a man with no taste for oysters’ from The Guardian’s article ‘If You Don’t Like Oysters,You Will Never Be a Grown-Up’, but that’s another story…
First there was a cracker. Then nachos came from South of the Texan border some 50 years ago and the North American snack was re-defined forever. One of the perks of living in multicultural society is that today you can discover endless variety of comforting ethnic foods almost on a daily basis in any given big city. Take arepa, for example, the crispy corn flat bread originating from Venezuela and Colombia. Delicious and highly versatile in stuffing it makes a great gluten-free bread/sandwich alternative, a vegetarian trouvaille (catch) and nice and fresh step away from the usual boring food. You can make arepas in minutes during busy weeknights and kids just adore them. They are perfect to combine with any sandwich ingredients and most of the warm recipes of the fall and can be served as an appetizer, side, school lunch, main dish or a snack. Arepas also make wonderful party or potluck food on a budget with some pulled meats you can prepare ahead separately. Few years ago though I didn’t even know this food existed.
One sunny end-of-summer day, in a happy turn of events, we hopped sideways of the bustling St-Denis street of Montreal and discovered a tiny hole-in-the-wall Venezuelan eatery Arepera The place offered plethora of tasty corn flour cakes with all kinds of fillings at more than affordable prices. Ten minutes of waiting time (this place is actually quite popular in the neighbourhood) and we stepped into the little arepas heaven filled with the smell of the freshly pan-fried corn cakes and garlicky guasacaca (famous avocado & herb sauce to go with arepas). The Spanish-speaking buzz and background percussion of maracas instantly teleported us to some hot place in Venezuela. The hearty ambiance along with friendly and fast service made us fully enjoy the charred and crispy on top, fluffy and soft inside corn cakes stuffed with authentic vegetarian (black beans, avocado and fresh queso) and pulled chicken (pollo guisado) arepas with some fried plantain slices (tajadas), extra queso on a side. We made a mental note to come back and try more things (not-surprisingly, this Arepera is consistently well-rated on the Tripadvisor).
As you know already, I have a proclivity to test my kitchen skills every time I try some new exciting dish, so, naturally, upon few more visits to Arepera I was ready to make them a home. I googled the recipe of arepas and found the Areparinaspecial pre-cooked corn flour (P.A.N. corn flour in the US) used to make arepas in the nearest Walmart ($2.69 per 2 lbs). Fresh queso blanco cheese was harder to find, so I used the squeaky curd cheese in place of traditional queso (cottage and ricotta cheeses would be other close alternatives) and later even regular cheddar or mozzarella. Easy, fast and as delicious as any best street food can be. And they came out perfect from the first time! Even the ones I took a minimal effort to put a piece of cheese inside turned into super-savory patties with irresistible pan-fried crisp crust (the reason these little babies will always be a hit with diners).
Keep cooked arepas warm in a 300F oven as you prepare the next batch. Double or triple the amount of ingredients accordingly if you need to feed more people. Serve with traditional avocado sauce or guacamole or just the dollop of sour cream. For a more spicy adornment, feel free to use the lentil avocado spread, or salsa verde, or buttermilk sauce, or lime avocado mayo which I posted previously – all of them go very well with the neutral arepas taste.
Simply put, you can stuff arepas with almost any kind of sandwich layers or leftovers, from omelet to pulled meats, to bacon, to ham, to cheese, to shrimp, to fish and of course all their vegetarian equivalents. Here is a nice and quirky graphic poster by Sorelis Liendo I found on Pinterest on the most popular kinds of arepas in Venezula with their names and ingredients in Spanish (funny, the one without stuffing is called a widow).
|Top Left: Infografía de “La Arepa” (vía @Sorelys Liendo)|
The party favorites are of course pulled meat arepas. Try the ones with the pulled pork recipeor the veal/beef pulled blade roast turned into Cuban Ropa Vieja, all of which I posted last year, and the famous Guasacaca avocado sauce (below).
Oh my, I think I’ve exaggerated my writing quota today (to compensate for my temporary absence). Are you still there or have I long lost you to the Facebook gossips? Anyways, if you are a nachos lover and like to have something different from time to time, I’m sure you will be positively surprised to discover how they can soothe you with the simple joy of street comfort food.