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Seasons by the Sea: Culinary Esoterica

Thu, 08/13/2020 - 12:29
The pandemic has caused some chefs and cooks to miss the foods they usually enjoy while traveling. Online orders such as sauces, tamales, and peaches help cure the cravings.
Laura Donnelly

It is always great fun to pose a food question to friends on Facebook. I have come to the conclusion that everyone likes to talk about food; it is our connector. And it probably makes sense that a lot of my friends are foodies or chefs or fine home cooks and gourmands. So I always get a lot of fascinating answers and learn a great deal.

The question was along the lines of "have you found yourself buying interesting, esoteric, unusual foodstuffs online lately? Have you accidentally purchased more than you meant to?" That would be me, for sure.

I have never been much of an online shopper, especially when it comes to food. My abilities with technology are so dismal, I suspect that's why I accidentally order double or triple the amount I mean to. I also just prefer fresh, local foods and tend to, or used to, shop on a daily basis like the French do. If I need curry and kaffir leaves, or Szechuan peppercorns, then a quick trip to New York City would take care of that. The only thing I have been buying online for years is a case of Hatch green chiles from New Mexico that I grill, peel, seed, and then freeze for various dishes. And yes, I have on occasion accidentally bought a 50-pound box of chilies and another year a mere five-pound box. Either way, it is fun afternoon outside with a whisky sour to entertain me as I grill, flip, grill, flip, peel, seed.

Maybe it's the discomfort I feel about going to restaurants or the fact that travel is still a far-off dream, but I have found myself ordering more culinary esoterica than ever before. I've also been ordering a few more ordinary foods like pulled pork and ribs from Central BBQ in Memphis and creamed corn from Loveless Cafe in Nashville, just for the heck of it.

There is a company called Goldbelly that offers famous foods from famous places. You can order something as simple as chocolate chip cookies from Jacques Torres (don't) or dumplings from Dumpling Monster (do!). You can get a kit to make a muffuletta sandwich from Central Grocery in New Orleans (make your own for Pete's sake!) or a kit from Shake Shack so you can replicate its tasty burgers. Do!

A lot of private chef friends who would normally be commuting with their clients between Manhattan and the East End (and therefore able to find many ingredients in the city) are now hunkered down out here and have to rely on online ordering. My friend Andrew Engle loves Natoora for exotic fruits and vegetables, Journeyman Meat Co. for high end salumi, and La Boîte for spices. Jeremy Blutstein has been getting live Alaskan king crab, Japanese A5 wagyu, Hokkaido uni, Chilean winter truffles, Oregon fresh wasabi, Japanese hairy crab, and West Coast uni and abalone. When I ran into him at the Sag Harbor Farmers Market a few weeks ago, he told me he is thrilled to be working for a family of adventurous eaters who will and do try everything.

Who knew that Richard Barons, former executive director of the East Hampton Historical Society, is such a jam, jelly, and preserves savant? He has amassed and tasted (with his morning scone from Old Stone Market) products from Small Batch Jam Co. in Pacifica, Calif., Harbor Candy Shop of Ogunquit, Me., and Maine's Own Treats, where he gets the Hot and Wild blueberry jam.

A lot of people find they are stocking up on hard-to-find ethnic ingredients. Amy Lee has been buying Shanghainese pork chops, Korean condiments, dashi, ponzu, and Chinese rice wine. Peter Garnham stocked up from Eden Foods on canned goods along with soba and udon noodles, seaweeds, dried fish flakes, ume plum vinegar, shoyu, mirin, and a lot more. He has found this a good time to make kombu dashi and other tasty Japanese dishes. He is also enjoying weekly deliveries of cheese and meats from Mecox Bay Dairy. I told you my Facebook friends are foodies!

In the category of "oops, what have I ordered?" and "oh, no, you DIDN'T!" Morgan Duke Vaughan accidentally ordered, or accidentally received, a big ol' brisket. Her Texan husband suggesting smoking it on the hottest day of the summer, but she went with Adam Flax's recipe for some delicious Jewish comfort food. The Star's fishing columnist, Jon Diat has been buying Slim Jims by the carton and attributes their ingredients to the fact that he hasn't gotten sick. Let's hear it for sodium nitrite and "mechanically separated" chicken bits! Bess Rattray, editor of EAST magazine, has been getting emu meat from Amaroo Farms in Tennessee because she has Alpha-gal syndrome, the meat allergy that can come from a Lone Star tick bite. She reports that an emu burger is pretty close to a "thin, grilled diner burger." I'm not sure if that's a compliment or not.

Through the Facebook conversation thread I can now imagine my college friends Chad and SueBee enjoying exotic gochujang chili paste on their Earthstar Farm in Whitefish, Mont. My former NPR colleague Bill Drummond will be sharing his too-large purchase of Greek olive oil with Doug Levy in the San Quentin prison parking lot, I kid you not. Bill is editor of the prisoners' San Quentin News newspaper.

I'm still bad with technology and my 3 a.m. insomniac purchases are occasionally very large failures. Why did I order an imitation of Blum's famous Coffee Crunch Cake that is covered in whipped cream and got delayed due to storm Isaias? How did I accidentally order some stupid green chile cheese tamales that turned out to be the same brand I can find locally? On the silver lining side, I have my weekly delivery of peaches (which I ordered way pre-Covid-19), which is fun to share with friends. I have also become pen pals with Jenny Gao of Fly By Jing, the best Szechuan chili crisp of all time, made in Chengdu, China. They have had a heck of a lot of problems recently with production, packaging, and distribution, as you can imagine.

As long as we are stuck at home or are reluctant to dine out, at least we can travel the world through foods from afar. And for that we should be grateful.

Amy's Hatch Chile Rollups
It goes without saying that anything you can buy locally, you should. But for those hard-to-find or replicate items, by all means, get them online. If you like somewhat spicy peppers, then it's not too late to order some Hatch chilies from New Mexico. They are ripe and ready to go right now.

Here is a suggestion of a recipe (without measurements) from a friend from New Mexico. You will need a couple of Hatch chilies that have been grilled, peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped. For each roll up you need a big flour tortilla, a few tablespoons of cream cheese, and as much chopped green chilies as you can stand. (I use a few tablespoons per rollup.)

Slather each flour tortilla with thin layer of cream cheese, then sprinkle chilies over all. Roll up tightly and refrigerate, covered in plastic wrap, for a few hours.

To serve, cut off each uneven end and eat those yourself. Cut the rest of the rollups into one inch pinwheels and serve with drinks. They are addictive. 

Nuoc Cham
As Peter Meehan says about nuoc cham in "Lucky Peach Presents 101 Easy Asian Recipes," "if Vietnamese cuisine was a car, this would be the juice it ran on." This is a great condiment to have on the table, and this recipe will last about a week, refrigerated.
Makes one cup.

1/2 cup fish sauce
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup lime juice
2 Tbsp. palm, raw, or light brown sugar
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 tsp. sambal oelek 

 Combine all ingredients and adjust the consistency if necessary. If you like it spicier, add more sambal oelek.

Dumpling Dipping Sauce
Whether you make your own dumplings or order some online, it is very easy to make a fresh dumpling dipping sauce. To make it extra fun, add some spicy chili paste.
This is also from the above-mentioned Lucky Peach cookbook.
Makes half a cup.

3 Tbsp. soy sauce
1 Tbsp. rice vinegar
1 tsp. sugar
2 Tbsp. water
A few drops of toasted sesame oil

 Combine ingredients in small bowl, serve with dollar dumplings.

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