April 5, 2011
Many people would look at this curb-jumping, cobblestone-rattling, dog-dodging spectacle of a downhill bike race and see athleticism, speed and madness.
Not me. I see empanadas.
That's because in this coastal Chilean city called Valparaiso—arguably one of the most beautiful on the continent but indisputably one of its steepest—I started to really get into the potent pastry-like pockets.
My appetite had been whetted in Buenos Aires, where the taste combinations are surprisingly static for such a cosmopolitan city: Eaters rarely encounter anything other than ham and cheese; meat, green olive and hard-boiled egg; or straight cheese. They arrive usually fried, but are also occasionally baked (al horno).
In Valparaiso the empanadas were bigger and juicier (not necessarily good things) and much more inventive (a very good thing): I tried things like mushrooms, onions and aged cheeses; chicken, bell pepper and chilies; and potato and pumpkin.
The staple foodstuffs would continue to shift in size and sauciness in Bolivia. Fortunately, when I returned to Buenos Aires I found a lone outpost that trafficked in all sorts of exotic-for-them combos—pineapple and bacon, cured meats and cheese—and learned to cook them myself, experimenting with the different sealing techniques and stuffing them with everything from milanesa (a thin Latin-style breaded steak) to pasta (not the most ingenious idea ever).
The locals that tried them were half-thrilled, half-terrified at my bastardizations. I'd be interested in their thoughts on the infinite permutations American and European chefs have come up with since. Rio Grill's Cy Yontz, for instance, does a special Sonoma goat cheese and lobster empanada with avocado crema and microgreens that will be featured on their upcoming remodeled menu.
The key is the masa, or shell, which was tricky enough that I bought mine store-made. In sifting through the online recipes, the best entry I found for making empanadas also explores some regional differences.
Its empanada inspiration notwithstanding, that Valparaiso bike run is my favorite video I've seen this year.
While I'm at it, then, a few of my other favorite food things of 2011 so far:
My favorite restaurant review: Tour De Gall by A.A. Gill There's a thought in Gill's bio where he essentially says people engage with theater or politics only every once in a while, and since each of his readers will eat that day, his work is given an implicit relevance he relishes—and reveres. Then his all-out slaughter of a Paris place called L’Ami Louis helps prove that. Even though many of his readers will never visit its upper-crusty confines, he unearths common themes—pretension, overpricing and reputation, among them—that any one who has eaten out can identify with.
And, just as importantly, he peels off thoughts like, "The cramped tables are set with labially pink cloths, which give it a colonic appeal and the awkward sense that you might be a suppository" and "The fat clings to the roof of my mouth with the oleaginous insistence of dentist’s wax."
This is an incredible read, and a must read if you like food writing even a little smidgen (or ever tire of English pomp or French ego just a touch).
My favorite food porn blog: Taste Spotting Sure kids are cute and Mama Nature has her comely qualities, but my favorite thing to take pictures of is food. This "community-driven visual potluck" celebrates that tendency supremely, with no tangly, unwieldy words getting in the way. One peek and it's suddenly lunch time.
My favorite food article: Why the Food Movement is Becoming an Environmental Force by Joe Raedle "Even as traditional environmentalism struggles, another movement is rising in its place, aligning consumers, producers, the media and even politicians," Raedle writes. "It's the food movement, and if it continues to grow it may be able to create just the sort of political and social transformation that environmentalists have failed to achieve in recent years."
Myopic energy policy and politicians waging war on science—rather than partisanship—can be truly depressing. But as this article explores, food operates on a profound frequency that knows no party or misplaced principles: "Before the political games, before worries about dead zones and manure lagoons, before concerns about obesity and trans fat, the food movement arose around a simple principle: food should taste better."
So, while the food road ahead is anything but a Valparaiso downhill, there is hope.