Friday, November 20th, 2015
For me, fall rains are synonymous with foraging. Almost 20 years ago when I had first moved to the Bay Area, I was turned on to a book called Mushrooms Demystified. Its author, David Arora, is a mycologist who teaches at UC Santa Cruz. His field guide to mushrooms is one of the most comprehensive available, and while covering the entire country, it is focused on the Bay Area since this is the author’s main stomping ground. Due to the drought, the last 2 years have been pretty much a washout, pun intended, when it comes to foraging mushrooms, so it was with much excitement that I struck out into the East Bay hills this past week. While I didn’t find any mushrooms (I suspect that it will take one more heavy rain to trigger fruiting), I did find other edibles – particularly leafy greens. There are many wild edibles that grow in our area, from fennel and wild radish blossoms to miner’s lettuce (named for the gold prospectors that survived on such greens during tough times) and wild nettles.
I am particularly fond of wild nettles. While in their raw form nettles have fine threads on their stems that will sting, once cooked that sting is neutralized. They are one of the healthiest foods on the planet, packed with Vitamin C and Iron. Nettle tea is frequently used as a diuretic to boost kidney function and to support prostate health. In addition I find nettles to be quite delicious, kind of like super intense spinach.
One quesadilla that I’ve broken out each year for our annual New Year’s Eve party (more on this year’s party in the coming days) is stuffed with adobo marinated white shrimp, chipotle salsa and wild nettles. At John Paluska’s suggestion, I’ve decided this quesadilla is too delicious to only save for special occasions, so starting tonight and throughout nettle season, we are going to work this quesadilla into the mix of our daily changing menu. Let’s hope that this El Nino is for real and we are blessed with many wild edibles to forage this rainy season.
Tuesday, November 10th, 2015
After hosting popular Passover Dinners each spring for the past three years, Comal is adding a new twist on the Jewish/Mexican mash-up theme with a Mexican-inspired pair of Oaxanukkah Dinners. The multi-course family-style dinners will take place in Abajo, Comal’s intimate private dining room, on Monday, December 7th and Tuesday, December 8th. Executive Chef Matt Gandin has created a menu in his signature Mexican style inspired by classic Hanukkah dishes. Dinners will follow the more liberal Sephardic traditions, incorporating rice, beans and corn into the meal.
The dinners will start promptly at 6:30 pm. Seating is limited to 22 diners per night, and based on past events, tickets are expected to sell fast. Tickets are $70 per person (hospitality included but beverages excluded) and can be purchased through one of the following links:
December 7 – Ticket link
December 8 – Ticket link
Oaxanukkah Dinner Menu
Tequila-cured Salmon avocado, endive, radish, cilantro oil
Potato-Jalapeño Latkes crema, spiced apple salsa
Braised Beef Brisket ancho chile adobo, carrots, raisins
Rapini w/chile arbol and garlic
Midnight Black Beans de Olla
Bunuelos bitter orange marmelada
Tuesday, November 10th, 2015
Jews have a long history of immigration to Mexico, the first arriving soon after the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. This group, known as “Crypto-Jews”, practiced their religion in secret. They were forced to convert to Catholicism during the Inquisition, but many viewed the opportunity to come to the new colony in Mexico as a way to maintain their identity in secret further from the intense scrutiny of the Spanish crown and the church. Most of this initial wave of immigrants ultimately assimilated fully into Mexican society, discarding their Jewish identity. While few of them practice the religion, 20,000 modern-day Mexicans have traced their heritage back to these “Crypto-Jews” or “Conversos”- persons who had converted to Catholicism to avoid death. The surnames Mendoza and Garza were common names among Jews in Spain, and those in Mexico with such surnames today are likely descended from “Conversos”.
A second wave of Jewish immigrants arrived during the second half of the 19th century, after religious freedom was granted in Mexico. The majority of the 50,000 or so Jews that identify as such today are descended from immigrants that arrived between 1881 and 1939. Two distinctive groups, Ashkenazi Jews that fled pogroms in Russia, and Sephardic Jews fleeing from the collapsing Ottoman Empire in Syria and Turkey (they had previously fled here from Spain during the inquisition) arrived during this period, setting up their own communities and following their differing customs.
While there are Jewish communities today in Tijuana, Guadalajara, and San Miguel, 75% of Mexican Jews live in Mexico City. While initially settling in the historic center of the city, after establishing themselves as merchants many moved to the tree lined suburban neighborhoods known as La Condesa and Roma, two of the hipper neighborhoods in modern day DF.
Hannukah is definitely one of the lesser Jewish holidays, but its chronological proximity to Christmas and the sense of exclusion among American Jewish children has built it up in American culture beyond its historical importance. The holiday celebrates a small band of soldiers known as the Maccabees who defeated their much more powerful Greek rulers. Amidst the siege occurred a miracle: what should only have been enough oil to keep the eternal lamp lit for one night in the temple lasted for eight days and nights. It is for this reason that Hanukkah is celebrated for eight nights, and why a candle is lit on the menorah each night. The oil is represented in the foods that are eaten as well. Fried foods are called for, such as potato latkes and donuts.
Passover Dinners have become a yearly tradition at Comal. This year, we will be hosting 2 nights of Hannukah dinners. Taking the lead from the Jewish immigrants in Mexico, the idea is to create a mash-up of traditional dishes and Mexican flavors. This is a fun, secular event; the dinner will not be kosher, but obviously no shrimp or pork will be served. Dinner will be served family style in our private dining room, “Abajo”. Seating will be limited to 20 per night on Monday, December 7 and Tuesday, December 8. Purchase your tickets early, as based on the popularity of past Passover dinners, it will likely sell out quickly. I look forward to seeing many familiar faces, and hopefully some new ones too.
Saturday, September 6th, 2014
While Labor Day signals the unofficial end of summer, we who live here in the Bay Area know that the best weather of the year is yet to come. The days are certainly shortening, but we will be blessed for the next two months with an explosion of summer produce even as the first pumpkins are showing up at market. Many folks pushed heirloom tomatoes onto their menus months ago, but in my opinion, the peak of our local tomato season is from the beginning of September through the first significant fall rains, usually around Halloween.
Tonight we will be debuting a new heirloom tomato salad that also features local heirloom muskmelons and cucumbers. Tossed with a red wine vinaigrette and spiked with toasted arbol chiles, the salad is finished with chopped black olives, raw goat feta, and sunflower seeds providing brininess, pungent richness, and crunch respectively.
Thursday, August 28th, 2014
(above: Chilipepper Rock Cod “Zarandeado” – pictured here with grilled spring onions and asparagus)
A few years before Comal opened, I was feeling a little burnt out from my previous job, having gone a couple of years without taking significant time off. What I needed more than anything was a “lay on the beach” type of vacation. I remembered that I had won the use of a condo in Puerto Vallarta at a silent auction the previous year, and decided to cash it in. With a former roommate and fellow chef in tow, we headed off to Mexico.
Whenever I travel, especially abroad, eating the local specialties is always an important part of the experience. While in the taxi en route from the airport to the condo, I asked the cab driver what local dishes should not be missed. Immediately he responded that we should make sure to have a fish “Zarandeado”.
“Zarandeado” refers to the action of rotating the fish over the wood coals while it is cooking. What makes this preparation truly distinctive is the rub that is smeared on the fish. It is a mayonnaise-based marinade that has some flavors that one would expect to find in Mexico, and others that are truly surprising. Traditionally it is flavored with tomatoes, chiles and garlic. It also contains soy sauce, an ingredient introduced by the sizable Chinese immigrant population in Puerto Vallarta. This rub creates a fantastic crust as it caramelizes the skin while the fish is turned over open coals. The best restaurants in Puerto Vallarta for seafood are right on the beach where the fishermen dock with the daily catch. One can select an extremely fresh fish, have it cleaned, rubbed, and on coals over a pit dug in the sand within minutes after it has been landed.
This was the inspiration for the dish that we run at Comal off of our wood grill, showing up on the menu most often during the summer months when we have our best local catch. It is accompanied by grilled vegetables and, like our other “Platos Fuertes”, it comes with rice, beans, tortillas and salsas.
For those who want to try making it at home, check out this recipe in Food & Wine that describes our take on this classic dish.