Thursday, November 19, 2009

Made in Spain, 60611: The José Andrés Episode, or, Everything I Always Wanted to Know About Tapas (But Was Afraid to Ask, Since I Don't Speak Spanish)

“I need you to pick me up from work tonight,” Alpana said. It was Friday afternoon, and I’d just finished posting for the day when the phone buzzed.
“We have shopping to do.

“Why? What’s going on?”

“Dinner’s tomorrow night. Remember?”

“Of course! What do you take me for? Some kind of buffoon?”

I’d actually forgotten. I knew a weekend cooking project loomed, but my focus of the day, the Martha-inspired Chach and Chang afterword I’d been inspired to add to the blog, had avalanched me with thoughts, such that I had lost sight of everything else, as is the proverbial wont of the particularist. Alpana’s request for a ride home brought me back to our current weekend’s mission, which was to be a little unlike the others we’d undertaken so far. Though, just like usual, we’d select recipes from a chef’s cookbook, plan a menu, shop for ingredients, prepare our dishes, and serve them to some friends, we had twenty-four fewer hours with which to work. Plans Sunday night necessitated a Saturday evening service. We simply couldn’t wait until tomorrow to begin.

My sensei and I had already accomplished one lofty task: we’d chosen our chef a few days prior. This week we’d study José Andrés, the jovial, jolly, avuncular, reverentially irreverent Washington, DC-based Spanish restaurateur and host of a hit PBS television show (not as big a hit as some, but pretty popular nevertheless). We’d actually met Andrés in person a couple of times before, in Aspen. The first time, at a late-night party at the Little Nell to celebrate the unveiling of a new mezcal a friend of ours made, the chef was wandering around in fine spirits, despite the late hour (which felt even later, given the altitude and all we’d been eating and drinking), meeting people, smiling for pictures, all the while orbiting the room with a Serrano jamon in a metal vise-like contraption. Using a knife he wielded like, you know, a chef, he sliced pieces of meat for the wine-drunk and smoked agave spirit-electrified attendees who supplicated. We chatted aimlessly for a spell. He called me Amigo, and this endeared him to me immediately. (I realize he likely called everybody else he engaged, in the very distinctive character of his spoken English, Amigo, too, but it was, delivered by this charming, unpretentious gentleman in a white coat, nevertheless touching.) I also liked what, as evidenced by his freely wielded ham, I discerned as his lighthearted and uncomplicated approach concerning food. While others at these festivals may be solely concerned with jockeying for position, making connections, or hawking their TV shows and products and restaurants, José Andrés here, in this industry-heavy room, seemed to want nothing more than to make people happy by sharing a simple pleasure. Though this was no rube we were dealing with; I knew that this man was the owner of several very expensive and highly sought-after DC restaurants, which, coupled with his television exposure, had brought him a level of fame and prestige that he could easily have used to distance himself from the crowds, but it wasn’t hard to see that he still reacted viscerally, spiritually almost, to his primary call: people were hungry, and he wanted to feed them. And I got the same feeling from Andrés the next afternoon during his seminar. This was a guy who loved ingredients—everything was, to use his word, astonishing—and to cook simply and beautifully for (and with) those you love (his young daughter, Carlotta, joined him on stage at one point to help chop) was what this was all about. His tapas dishes are small, and elegant—the word unpretentious returns to mind—and, moreover, a logical choice to serve when casually entertaining your amigos at home. Given our limited time to prepare this weekend’s meal, tapas—the focus of Andrés’s culinary point of view (did I really just use that term? Fucking Food Network) and that which comprises the majority of his recipes—seemed, upon first glance, to be a judicious alternative to the labor-intensive, myriad-ingredient cuisines we’d taken on in the previous weekends. With service a little more than twenty-four hours away, we knew we simply couldn’t take chances with seventy-six step ramen broths or deep-frying chicken that had to be brined for six months prior to dropping into oil (oil that had to be infused with five herbs for six hours each, and so on). We needed a menu that was easy to shop for, fast to prepare, was certain to please—and we needed it quickly.

But we had to stop for dinner first. It was six in the evening, and we were both hungry. Who can contemplate the future on an empty stomach? Alpana knew of a tapas restaurant in Andersonville, not far from her office, and it was at Tapas Las Ramblas that we sat, with copies of their menu and our two Andrés books, to dine and plan our courses.

The restaurant’s menu seemed a good place to begin. We wanted to sample items that might give us ideas and insights. A chorizo dish brought us both the thought to use chorizo and also an important fact: Spanish chorizo and Mexican chorizo (the latter, more commonly available in stores) are NOT the same. Spanish chorizo is less oily, and, in the preparation this restaurant served, had a consistency that was similar to that of a grilled kosher hot dog. Another tapa with anchovies was fun, though the much maligned pizza topping didn’t make the list. We didn’t like the squid dish we had, though since we’d enjoyed grilled squid elsewhere, it seemed like a good protein choice for our menu. We also had the Spanish torta, the omelet of onion sliced fried potato, and searched the books for something like that. We drank Albariño, (a perfect complement to the anchovy dish, Alpana said) and house Monastrell, chatted with the owner (who gave some more suggestions about where to find Spanish ingredients in the city, and also offered us the loan of a paella pan, if we’d wanted), and composed our menu. We opted to stay with the tapas-as-party-food theme and not attempt to make paella, which, though certain to be a crowd-pleaser, felt, well, kind of expected. Similarly, we eschewed tapas we’d had or seen on restaurant menus too frequently in the past (bacon-wrapped dates, baked goat cheese), since part of our project is to also serve our guests foods that are as interesting as they are delicious. Once our list was finalized, and we had what appeared to be a good variety of proteins, textures, and preparations, we were ready to go. It was late when we left, and so instead of beginning to shop then, we made the risky decision to wait until the morning, opting instead to go home and reunite with the pug. Besides, now that we knew what we needed, we wanted to spend some time thinking about where to get it.

Saturday morning we were in the car and on the road before we’d even had second cups of coffee. Though we had only simple ingredients to track down, given Andrés’s reverence for ingredients, it didn’t seem right to buy the first potatoes we came across. Finding the best available ingredients became our mission of the morning. Even though most of the farmers’ markets close up their stands in the beginning of October, there are a small number that continue to operate well into the colder months, using enclosed venues. The
Green City Market, almost something of a carnival in summer, moves into the adjacent Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum when the temperatures stumble, but on this Saturday—fall bright and cool, not unpleasant, leaves still crunchy beneath your feet, grass green and dark with clinging dew—they’d set up their tables and tents outside. In addition to some very special (read: very expensive) potatoes, we picked up onions, garlic, fresh eggs (laid three days earlier!) for the tapas, and a quart of apple cider, which, after sampling, Alpana decided to use in making a seasonal sangria. From there, we went to a Lincoln Park bakery, popular among hungover locals, and also a supplier of bread to restaurants, for a loaf that would serve us in a variety of applications: in gazpacho, painted with a hand-grated tomato pulp and topped with ham and cheese, and in our “round-two” herbed stuffing recipe to use up the leftovers the next day. Despite our efforts to use only the finest products, we did briefly sneak into Costco, for some staples like flour and parchment paper, and tomatoes we knew were actually riper and more reliable than those that we’d likely find elsewhere. Then it was on to a new stop on the now-familiar shopping itinerary: a restaurant. Café Iberico, one of the first tapas places in which I’d ever dined in Chicago, also, according to the Tapas Las Ramblas owner, had a deli and sold packaged goods. Here we found the special Spanish chorizo he’d mentioned. We checked out a spice market in Old Town, where we bought pimentón and sampled candied ginger, and then zigzagged through the boundless River North road excavation and on over to Fox and Obel. There we picked up bacon, ham, cheese, and Spanish olive oil. We drove home with a weighted-down car, with plenty of reaffirming daylight surrounding us, optimistic about the work that lay ahead and our power to complete everything successfully, before midnight. (Though our joke was that we could get away with serving dinner at an hour in which many in the United States typically went to bed, since that was when people in Spain often sat down to their evening meals.)

It was after two-thirty in the afternoon when we unpacked and began our first menu item—the bacon ice cream, since it needed as much freezer time as it could get. After that, though, we approached the rest of the courses in no particular order. Nobody was in a panic, we had plenty of time—people weren’t coming until seven—and in our minds, the preparations were simple, because the dishes they yielded were small. And this might have been true enough, we’d discover as we went along, if we’d been a little better organized going in, instead of making whatever tapa we recalled needing, beginning at the beginning, not considering what ingredients it might have had in common with another down the line and attempting to consolidate some of the prep tasks, grating, say, all the tomato pulp we’d need at once, gathering all of our evening’s potatoes in one expensive bushel and wedging the lot, as what we imagined was (and knew to be) the case in a restaurant kitchen. To be fair, many of our tapas weren’t hindered by our haphazard approach. The meatballs, for example. Or the tortilla. I kind of think we wouldn’t have wanted to prepare an omelet too far ahead of service. But with other components, like the garlic aioli—something we knew had been troublesome in the past—you’d think we’d have had enough sense to give ourselves a larger window of screw-up opportunity. Having an aioli fail is depressing enough when you’re alone. When your guests are watching you, it’s even worse.

Though a broken sauce is a sobering reminder, even to the staggeringly inebriated (after so much holiday sangria, and with my still-feeble kitchen dexterity, I simply could not pour that oil slow enough, as hard as I tried). I think the lesson to take away is that we’ve perhaps gotten a little too confident about the inevitable success of our dishes, too comforted by our safety in kitchen numbers (at least from my perspective), too trusting of our celebrity chef’s ability to, by virtue of what’s on the page, keep us from wandering off course. If we do end up astray, we’ve gotten used to relying on their ability to transcend time and space to reel us back in. Even if we’re not aided by divine chef intervention, it’s undoubtedly easier to pull off an unfamiliar or difficult dish if one has time to make practice batches, or even just to spend the time thinking and really planning out the meal—even more time than we’d allotted—to not only determine what the best combination of dishes is to serve but to also take a close look at the overlapping ingredients. We knew tapas, by design, by nature, only use a few ingredients. Why it didn’t occur to us that several tapas would need pulped tomatoes or diced onions or cubed potatoes, I have no idea.

Tapas did end up being a fun and mostly injury-free undertaking. The guests quickly forgot about the awry aioli, didn’t notice the bag of spinach elephant in the room, and were, overall, pleased. Nobody sent anything back, demanded to speak with the manager, or ended up in the emergency room on account of a chorizo allergy. And as far as the prep (and service) went, I felt pretty continuously involved in the proceedings. As I suspected at the tapas outset, having what amounted to six or seven main courses instead of only one and some side dishes in front of us to create required me to spend a lot more time in the kitchen, thinking, doing, and the act of which was, no doubt, hugely beneficial to my training. Next time we do this (which won’t be for at least two more weeks, as we sneak off to Europe for Thanksgiving, je suis triste!), I’m going to force myself to spend a lot more time attending to the preliminary steps, contemplating not only what dishes we’ll serve (like, say, a consumer in a restaurant zoning out when a server enumerates the specials), but identifying the actual constituent elements of each item. I may even try my hand at making the shopping list and selecting our raw materials. But don’t quote me on that. Yet.

Check out our Saturday tapas extravaganza shot-by-shot, annotated for your amusement and convenience, here.

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