Monday, July 16, 2012

Panchito's El Tepeyac Cafe departs Northern California

Apparently due to pernicious exhaustion of funds, Panchito's El Tepeyac Cafe has bid adios to Northern California.

For fans of this L.A. institution, it's back to the 400 mile drive to get a Hollenbeck Burrito or some good SoCal machaca.

Perhaps they'll find a solution and return north in a better location, bringing their unique burrito expertise. For now, though, it's back to Evergreen in Los Angeles.

Swordfish with lemon butter and capers

Some ingredients aren't meant to be tasted; they're present to make other things better.

There's molecular gastronomy - where you might want to make a raspberry into a foam - and there's food science. I'm not a big fan of molecular gastronomy. Too many chemicals with names I don't recognize, things that I doubt are healthy.

Food science, on the other hand, looks at the interface between what's in the food and how we perceive it. So, how to improve on a recipe that I've been making for over twenty years?

The basic recipe is to take great quality swordfish, thick steaks whisked here from the most pristine water possible (no such thing as "pristine" but still...). The fish is seasoned with salt and pepper, then sautéed in vegetable oil, put aside before it's completely cooked. A pan sauce gets built with the fond: a quick sauté of some capers, white wine to deglaze, reduce, add butter then lemon juice, adjust seasoning, pour over the fish and serve.

That was my old recipe, from before I started reading about glutamate receptors and how to increase the perception of richness and depth of flavor. So, armed with a bit of knowledge (enough to be dangerous?) I began my mise en place. Celery paste, garlic paste, nuoc mam (nam pla) shiitake mushroom powder and shallots step into the equation.

The sauté process remains the same - that part is all good science, Maillard reaction, all that stuff. The fun begins once the fish is out of the pan, holding in the oven. Sauté the shallot paste, then the celery, then the garlic - deglaze with white wine, add a tiny dash of nuoc mam, throw in the mushroom powder, reduce, add butter, lemon juice, adjust seasoning, pour over fish and serve.

The result? Much richer, a sauce that segues from flavor to flavor, lingering. The trilogy of fish, wine and sauce works well, with nothing dominating.

So, here's the theory. The nuoc mam, shiitake powder and celery paste all supply glutamates that stimulate umami receptors in the palate, making the food taste more rich and savory. None of them were there to provide their own flavor - the mushroom powder and nuoc mam, in fact, were undetectable by mere mortals. It's all a question of proportion, like most things in cooking.

So, eleven ingredients for the sauce, but they definitely take the dish to a new level.

salt - flavor stimulant
pepper - flavoring
capers - flavoring
lemon juice - flavoring and acidifier
nuoc mam - umami (anchovy paste would probably work as well)
shiitake powder - umami
celery - glutamates, again - for umami
shallots - flavor
white wine - flavor, acidifier
garlic - flavor, and umami again
butter - mouth feel, richness

Of these ingredients, the ones you're likely to actually taste are the salt, pepper, capers, wine and lemon. The other ingredients are in smaller quantities and will blend in to support the dish without stepping up and screaming.

Heirloom Tomatoes, Inc?

It crunched, almost. There wasn't much tomato flavor, about the same as those "vine ripened" things they sell year-round at the supermarket. Nowhere near as much flavor as the Early Girl we harvested last week, our first tomato of the season.

So, has Agribusiness Inc. corrupted even the noble heirloom? Were these fruits ripped green from the vine, thrown into some ethylene fogged vault and sold to an unsuspecting public?

Is nothing sacred? We pay a lot more for that real tomato taste, something heirlooms had, until now, faithfully delivered. Now, buyer beware. If the fruit isn't fleshy, heavy and does not smell of time spent ripening in the summer sun, leave in there in the bin. It's not the tomato you're looking for!

(For the record, tomatoes are legally vegetables, but botanically fruits).