A Culinary Education

view of the Pacific from Miraflores

(Many, many) thanks to Latam Airlines, I was gifted with two tickets to Lima, Peru, and used the trip as an opportunity to eat. Yes, we visited museums, no we didn’t go to Machu Pichu, but we did eat. Ceviche of course, and pastries at the charming La Mora pasteleria around the corner from our hotel.

The education came at Central, Virgilio Martinez’s restaurant that “celebrates the bio-diversity of Peru.”

Behind a discrete facade, the sign nothing more than a brass plaque set into the sidewalk, and through a dark entry and bar, the dining room opens into a tall skylight dining room. The journey begins.

central dining room

Impeccable but friendly service, refined decoration of raw wood and smooth stone, and a menu that ranges from the countries highest to lowest points–I mean that literally, not metaphorically. With his sister, Martines explores Peru’s unique environments from the thin air of the Andes, to the mysterious oceans. They gather flora and fauna, some that are used as food by local populations, some that are not considered food.

the menu at Central is marked with altitudes, not prices (the menu is prix fixe)

They gather, and empty their rucksack findings onto the kitchen counter, and he (and his wife, who is also a chef) begins to experiment. Each course is a composition of the biome where it was found–noting the elevation from 3,500 feet above sea level to below sea level.  River Scales marks both the river shrimp and the texture of the dish.  There are completely unfamiliar ingredients like air potato, sachaculantro, and olluco. On the Netflix series, Chef’s Table, Martinez admits that not everything tastes so good, but you quickly realize that taste is only part of the equation. You are participating in a scientific experiment.

a biome on a plate

It’s a food writing trope to describe the moment when you look at a menu and unfamiliar with the dishes, you just point and end up with something daunting like calve’s head. At Central, the waiter delivers each dish and describes what is in front of you. Nearly every word is unfamiliar, the colors are often bright, the shapes are sometimes Seuss-ian, textures unexpected, and with each bite you struggle to find familiarity and comparison. Aah, the corn dish is like American Indian pudding, the grassy corn flavor complemented by sweet molasses. Oh, pepino melon and with sea urchin and razors clams is a kind of ceviche. Flavors range from bright to earthy and are somehow a message from their source.

this did taste good (most of the courses did)

Martinez is pursuing an idea, allowing us into that idea by running an elegant restaurant, but also performing ethno-botany that may have reverberations for Peru’s culture, economy, and menus.

If eating at Central is like reading an explorer’s journals, a meal at Astrid y Gaston is familiarity, wit, and surprise. Courses are served balanced on little tripods or arrayed on rocks. Savory alfahores are served on a ceramic bed, when you open the little wooden drawer below you’ll find two neatly folded empanadas.

you made your bed, now eat it

The restaurant is in a renovated San Isidro mansion that has been decorated in the most elegant way. The wall of the bar is lined with modern interpretations of the Incan breastplates that you saw earlier at the Museo Larco.

one balanced bite

The wine pairing is its own kind of culinary education, ranging from fine French to local Peruvian, and including sherry and beer. It is all generous and charming, from the art on the walls, through the truly explanatory wine explanations, to the final dessert course–a massive candy box from which you can choose among Astrid’s inspired bonbons and truffles–or choose them all.

foams and dots and precious presentation, it would be a joke if it weren’t all so expertly delicious

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Cleaning Out the Basement–Thirty Recipes Suitable for Framing

My tattered edition of this portfolio was picked up at a small bookstore in western Massachusetts. The folder was torn and it was shoved into a remainder bin.

After framing one image–Cherries Jubilee (we live in DC, cherries are a thing)–I shoved it into a safe space between my desk and bookshelf and forgot about it for years at a time, which I sometimes think is the easiest way to create value–forgetting about something and  seeing it with new appreciation when it resurfaces. It applies to people and prints.

When I graduated from college, David Lance Goines‘ work was the height of sophistication–hippie historicism. Medieval, William Morris, filtered through Berkeley California, where Goines set up his Saint Hieronymus Press and printed annual anniversary posters for Chez Panisse, another alternative business run by his friend Alice Waters.

I am a sucker for the nobility of the press and the artistry of letterpress. I still love these images–calm, carefully considered, assembled on the page with a creative rigor enforced by the press and the page. Roots and stems crawl and twine; crabs, carrots and cows march in sturdy sets. Most of the recipes are illustrated with their ingredients but Chicken Breasts Florentine come with two blank-eyed, burgundy harpies, Marinated Tomatoes are elaborately illustrated with a crusader knight on horseback, and Apple Sauce with a fundamental Eve, Adam, snake, and tree.

And the I love the recipes as well. They capture a time of growing interest in the American table. Reaching out to unfamiliar cultures with dishes like Chicken Biryani, Stuffed Grape Leaves,  and Moroccan Carrots; interpreting French sophistication with Orange Duck and Pate Maison; and exalting the simple in recipes like Pepper Toast and Homemade Yoghurt.

I’m thinking it’s time they come out of their portfolio–maybe framed on the dining room wall?





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Fruit by Nancie McDermott, UNC Press 2017, $20.00 cloth, 144 pages

It has so happened in all ages of the world that some have labored, and others have, without labor, enjoyed a large proportion of the fruits.

Abraham Lincoln

It’s easy to see how the wild and cultivated sweet produce that nature gives us is turned into a vivid metaphor.

This Savor the South series continues to unearth culinary treasures. In this book, McDermott admits that, “While apples, pears, blueberries, raspberries, and nectarines have a proud place on the Southern table, they are also widely known…”.

And so she reaches up higher into the top branches and deeper into the thorny patches to pull out distinctly Southern fruits like scuppernong and muscadine grapes, mayhaws and damson plums, wild persimmons and elusive pawpaws.

As with all the books in this series, McDermott incorporates her own memories and some history–cantaloupe was  named in the 16th century for the Italian city of Cantalupo, even though the strain we enjoy is actually a muskmelon cousin. Fig orchards thrived at Mount Vernon and Monticello–it was the founders’ intent that we should enjoy fruits–actual and metaphorical. The indigenous pawpaw is full of vitamin C and sustained Native Americans and African Americans escaping slavery, but the mango-like pods are easily bruised and unsuitable as a market fruit.

Some of these fruits take work–pawpaws and mayhaws are foraged, and mayhaws and quince have to be cooked into preserves or syrups before they can be enjoyed. But others, like peaches and blackberries can be found at a pick-your-own farm or, if you must, at the supermarket.

Make this book a summer project, from cooling Cantaloupe Agua Fresca, Fresh Fig Pie, and Bill Smith’s Green Peach Salad, to Strawberry Rhubarb Pie. And if you time your project right, preserves like Watermelon Rind Pickles, Quince Ratafia, and Damson Plum Jam will take you right through the winter.

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Eight Flavors

In a clever combination of history and contemporary technology, Sarah Lohman has sussed out what really American flavors are. And you can blame it on the rosewater used to flavor cookies at the Ohio living history museum she worked at as a teenager. Why not vanilla? Run that question through data-mining software and it leads to all kinds of revelations–in this case, eight.

This review appeared in CHoWline, the monthly newsletter of the Culinary Historians of Washington DC. We meet monthly, check us out online.

chowline review

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Build a Bowl–Cookbook Digest

Sometimes you just want a bowl, a spoon, and no fuss. Either of these books are just the thing when you’re tired, hungry, and not sure what’s in the fridge. But a reasonable pantry, a creative eye, and the inspiration in Grain Bowls can lead you to hearty, fresh, meaty, veggie dinner.

Or go for seasonal soups. Long-cooked or a quick simmer, Anna Helm Baxter helps you build flavor.

This review appeared in Cookbook Digest; pick up your copy here.



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Cleaning Out the Basement–What Shall I Cook Today?

Another treasure from the St. John's Opportunity Shop that will likely head over to the Products Cookbook Collection at the National Museum of American History, via CHoW

Another treasure from the St. John’s Opportunity Shop, likely to head over to the Product Cookbook Collection at the National Museum of American History, via CHoW

Spry was a vegetable shortening, says Wikipedia, first manufactured in 1936, and meant to compete with Crisco. Kind of like Hydrox was to the king of all cookies–the Oreo.

Today, when we value natural, organic, artisanal, and local, cooking with a  colorless paste, cranked out by a soap company is hardly appealing. But for cooks who dealt with spoilage, idiosyncratic shopkeepers, and unsanitary packaging, Spry and its big brother Crisco had the appeal of reliability. The same appeal of McDonald’s and shrink-wrapped, boneless, skinless chicken breasts at your supermarket.

The pamphlet advertises that Spry “Keeps Sweet on the Pantry Shelf,” but we know anything creamy that keeps on a shelf is bound to be bad for you. It reminds you that “Spry’s Superior Quality Never Varies,” just like a manufactured hamburger. And finally,  it’s “the Most ECONOMICAL.” Well, we all like cheap food–see hamburger mentioned above–never mind the environmental impacts of producing it.

Of course, this pamphlet starts out with Deep Frying and moves through shallow frying, sautéing, pie crusts, cakes, frostings, and breads. And there are some nice recipes here–though you can’t make Orange Tea Doughnuts, Celery Fritters, Ham and Egg Pie, or a Crimple Crust Chicken Pie with Spry anymore, which was phased out in the 1950s. We don’t eat like this much anymore–the closest these recipes get to vegetables are Fried Onions or French Fries.

And in another retro position–this is clearly women’s work and women’s decision. Who wouldn’t want a mannequin-like White man complementing you on your fried chicken. And be careful not to dip that pussy-bow blouse into the fryolator!





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The Underground Culinary Tour

The Underground Culinary Tour by Damian Mogavero, Crown Business 2017, cloth $27.00, 320 pages

The Underground Culinary Tour by Damian Mogavero, Crown Business 2017, cloth $27.00, 320 pages Thanks Blogging for Books!

I never eat in a restaurant that’s over a hundred feet off the ground and won’t stand still.

Calvin Trillin

Chef’s are stars and restaurants are their stages, and who doesn’t love a backstage tour?

Foodie and data geek, Damian Mogavero runs the backstage tour of all time, but you have to be invited. And to get invited you have to be a food exec at a place like Cinnabon, Buffalo Wild Wings, or California Pizza Kitchen. One of the people who will make kale, kombucha, and green tea trickle down into what most of us eat. Pumpkin spice anyone?

So if you can’t get on the tour, read this book. You’ll learn why your waiter is making you happy–it’s not the upselling, it’s the attentiveness. You’ll learn why small plates are on everyone’s menu; it seems to be because Tom Colicchio and his wife were always ordering appetizers when they ate out–so why not design the menu that way?

Sliders, craft cocktails, and Neapolitan pizza don’t just happen. It takes a data guy to spot a trend and make it marketable. But he digs in even deeper, figuring out why one restaurateur can sell oysters at cost and still make a profit. Or why one server just needed a little training to move from selling glasses of wine to bottles.

And if you’ve ever wondered how restaurateurs know how much food to order–a lot of time they don’t–until Mogavero comes along with his analysis of operational data. He looks at what guests are doing–when they eat, how much they spend, on what drinks and food–to spot trends that a restaurant can capitalize on.

There’s a lot back-patting of his corporate clients, but also some great background on who really develops the dishes for celebrity restaurants and the genius bits of presentation that get us all instagramming. So while it may no longer be the height of sophistication to eat at the rotating top of a skyscraper, you can hardly put too many chairs on a rooftop bar these days.

And that’s how Mogavero sums it up. Restaurants are complicated organisms and you can spot innovation in four places–ingredients, beverage, space, and and ineffable X-factor. So anyone for a green tea latte on the roof delivered by instagram-ready wait staff?

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