Friday, March 1st, 2013
My family name, Gandin, is one that offers few clues to its origin; I have been frequently mistaken by others to be one of “their people”. In culinary school, my French instructor insisted on calling me Monsieur “gan-DAN”. When I lived in Italy, my coworkers believed that my ancestors must have come from the Veneto region of Italy. In the Venetian dialect, the letter “I” is dropped from the end of the not uncommon Italian surname Gandini.
I am a third generation Californian, but my ancestors were Jews that emigrated from the Ukraine. Although my upbringing was fairly secular, I did have a Bar Mitzvah and attended a Jewish summer camp in Malibu each year as a youth. Most people don’t realize that there is actually a significant Jewish community in Mexico, centered in Mexico City. Like most immigrants, they have assimilated into Mexican culture. Even though it is a predominantly Catholic nation, historically the Mexican government has been surprisingly tolerant of differing faiths.
I have always been fascinated by how cuisines are transformed by the cross-pollination of different cultures. For example, Lebanese immigrants brought the vertical spit roasting method for cooking shawarma with them, which, using local ingredients, in Mexico morphed into pork al pastor. This year during Passover, we will be hosting two nights of Mexican-inspired seders in Abajo, our private dining room. There will be no hagadahs, and I make no claims to the “kosherness” of this meal, only to its deliciousness. Of course no pork will be served, and we will follow the more liberal Sephardic tradition that does allow for corn, rice, and beans during Passover.
These multi-course family-style dinners will take place in Abajo, our 20-seat private dining room, Monday, March 25 and Tuesday, March 26, commencing at 6:30 pm each night. To purchase tickets to either seating, click on one of the following links:
March 25 dinner – http://www.ticketfly.com/event/233205
March 26 dinner – http://www.ticketfly.com/event/233209
Tuesday, February 5th, 2013
Today one frequently reads many articles extolling the virtues of the “Mediterranean diet”. It is generally regarded as healthy, diverse, low in fat, and rich in essential vitamins and minerals. What is not often pointed out is that 500 years ago this diet consisted of essentially bland, boiled cabbage. Not that I hold anything against the humble cabbage, but it wasn’t until Columbus returned from the New World that the Mediterranean diet as we now know it began to take form. What took place after the arrival of Europeans in the western hemisphere was the largest transfer of foods in the history of mankind.
Today it is hard to imagine visiting Italy without sampling pizza or pasta with tomato sauce in Naples, Polenta in Torino, or cannellini beans in Florence. After all, Florentines are known as “mangiafagioli”, or bean-eaters. Tomatoes, which seem synonymous with Italian cooking, weren’t cultivated in Italy until the 18th century. Gazpacho didn’t find its way onto the Spanish menu until chiles arrived. This transfer of foods gave poorer populations inexpensive and easy-to-grow crops, which completely transformed what we now know as the Mediterranean diet.
Other important crops that were brought back to Europe include chocolate, vanilla, potatoes, sunflowers, peanuts, avocadoes, and hard squashes. Squash in particular was invaluable, in that the vegetables can be stored without spoilage through harsh winters when other food sources are scarce. Many historians believe that without this injection of new ingredients, the Renaissance, Enlightenment, and Industrialization might have unfolded in very differently and the Dark Ages may have persisted throughout Europe for a longer time.
Of course, the Aztecs and Mayans already had a long history of cooking with these foodstuffs before the Europeans arrived. Perhaps it is time to praise the “New World” diet!
Saturday, January 26th, 2013
Corn is truly a staple of the Mexican diet. Just as rice is eaten with each meal in China, and bread in much of Western Europe, for most Mexicans a meal is not complete without tortillas.
Thousands of years ago, it was discovered that dried corn could be converted to masa, or dough, through a process called nixtamalization. The corn kernels are simmered in water with an addition of powdered slaked lime, also called cal. This alkaline brew softens the kernels and their outer husks, allowing the corn to then be ground and formed into a dough, also releasing the enclosed nutrients, making them more easily digestible. This masa can be transformed into tortillas, tlayudas, and other forms, or mixed with lard and stock to make tamales.
Amado Ramirez Leyva is the proprietor of a small restaurant in Oaxaca City called Itanoni (which means “corn flower”). His restaurant’s mission is to preserve the traditional heirloom varieties of corn that have been used for making masa for generations. With the influx of agribusiness concerns such as Cargill in Mexico, much of the corn now produced is of genetically modified strains. As more people eschew village life to seek work in the cities, the traditional crops are being lost to history. Amado still treks to the remote villages of Oaxaca to purchase corn, the small surplus that these subsistence farmers produce. The quesadillas, memelas, and tetelas that I ate at Itanoni are the gold standard which I hope to emulate at Comal.
We have a unique arrangement with Tortilleria El Molino in Concord. They pick up bags of dried corn from Comal and bring back delicious masa made to our specifications (using the nixtamalization process described above) several times a week . Whether in familiar forms such as tortillas, enchiladas or tamales, or the less common tlayudas and memelas, masa holds a prominent place on our menu. Not just delicious, corn masa is also gluten free. It is nutritious, filling, and low in fat, of course that is until you stuff it full of juicy carnitas!
Thursday, January 24th, 2013
Thursday, January 10th, 2013