Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Buffalo Soldiers

So there's this guy.

He's from Texas.

We're dating.

He lived in Mammoth for a season or two, and had to fend for himself while he was there. Poor thing. Anyway, he told me he used to make buffalo tacos when he lived there, and that he'd sing "Buffalo Tacos" to the tune of "Buffalo Soldiers" by Bob Marley. I think he even sang a verse for me to demonstrate. I didn't think much of any part of this story at the time, since it was a) less gory than the one about hunting and gutting his own venison; b) an affront to reggae lovers everywhere; c) probably just something Texans do.

One evening, we decided to cook dinner together at my house. You know, one of those couple-y things that people do together when they are still so enamored of each other that they can't get enough, so they plan the meal together, cook it together, eat it together, talk about how great it was together, and suddenly realize that 48 hours have gone by and they are still in each other's company.

He said, "Let's make buffalo tacos, like I used to make in Mammoth! I'll bring the meat."

Because that's what men do.

No, this wasn't the last remaining wild bison roaming the Great Plains.

I was a little wary of this whole idea. I'd seen bison burgers in the freezer case at the grocery store, as well as bison stew meat. But I'd never tried it, and wasn't sure how gamey it would taste. The Texan assured me buffalo meat was not very gamey, and would render off less fat than ground beef. Given that he has eaten deer shortly after killing it, I wasn't sure how closely aligned his version of gamey was to that of Normal People. But it turns out he was telling the truth.

Neither one of us had a real recipe for buffalo tacos. He usually used one of those seasoning packets, which he suggested and I must have made a face about, since he didn't bring one. I usually used a few spices in the meat, which I added as he stirred**, but it was missing something. A jar of salsa sat on the counter, and we both agreed it was worth a try. We added a few spoonfuls to the meat, which we thought tasted perfect.



He heated up the tortillas. He put cheese and more salsa on his. I put cilantro, radishes, lettuce, green onions, and more salsa on mine. We sat, googly-eyed, at the table together and ate.

We'll have to do it again some time.

**Despite me putting the real version of that song on the iPod, he sang his version almost the entire time he was cooking the buffalo. Guess which version was stuck in my head the next day.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Sweet Texture of Success

I've lost track of how many times I failed at this. I blogged about it. I searched endlessly for the perfect recipe. I bought a new thermometer. I asked questions of other bloggers who are clearly more skilled than I. And still, I couldn't get it right.

I was nearly ready to give up trying, but then another blogger was generous enough to give suggestions and wish me luck, and an old friend went on a hunt for a digital thermometer for me.  Back at home, she hovered over the thermometer with me while we held our breath, hoping the 27th time would be the charm. And it was.

I realize people have been making caramel for centuries without the aid of digital anything. I realize I probably didn't angle the analog thermometer into the mixture properly, or may not have read it carefully, as the lines and numbers are small and the margin for error is even smaller. But I don't really care, because I can make caramel now.

I said I CAN MAKE CARAMEL NOW! How exciting is THAT?

So what if the whole world knows I have to use a digital thermometer? To borrow a friend's explanation for anything complicated, "It's science." I've seen videos of master chocolatiers who use digital  sensors that don't get dipped into the chocolate, but instead are just aimed toward the chocolate and instantly read its  temperature. Now that, my friends, really is science.

It's not dirt! It's flecks of vanilla.

Eleven more degrees to go.

 The thermometer even beeps at me to tell me I'm almost there. Isn't she nice?

Many thanks to Shawnda of Confections of a Foodie Bride for her advice and encouragement!

All Threats Will Be Taken Seriously

My dad threatened my brothers and me this year.

His side of the family has been making stuffed calamari on Christmas Eve for as long as any of us can remember. The still-living relatives who know the recipe are four in number: two of his sisters and one brother on the East Coast, and my dad on the West Coast. The still-living relatives who will eat the dish are similarly few in number: one of my sisters-in-law, a few cousins, an old friend of my brother, and I. Even so, my dad's threat to stop making the dish after this year created quite a stir.

Here’s what you have to understand about traditions. They have nothing to do with the finished product. They are really about the stories that get told about them. For example:

(back of hand pressed to forehead) “I worked my fingers to the bone to make this calamari/sauce/appetizer/ravioli for you!” 

As the photo clearly indicates, my dad had help this year (and nearly every year I can remember) making the calamari, but it wouldn’t taste the same without his one-sentence guilt trip. And as with all great traditions, this is one that was passed from his parents to him and his siblings, and then to us, and I am certain at least one of my brothers will use it on his children just as soon as they are able to internalize guilt. 

Traditions, though, eventually become forgotten if no evidence of them exists. Stories told and retold help prolong their life, but these are not immortal. My small nieces, nephews, and second cousins simply won't be able to grasp just how fishy the marinara sauce becomes with the squid in it, or how tedious it really is to stuff the calamari, or how whiny the pitch of the voice should become when laying the guilt on nice and thick if they never witness The Stuffing Of The Calamari. All of these, and the conversations they spark (which are nearly identical year after year), are what make Christmas Eve the production it is in my family. 

So when my brother informed me that our father threatened to remove this critical element from the celebration, I devised a 21st century fix: blog about the recipe, and preserve it for the 2.87 people who still want to make it. 

With camera and notepad in hand, I arrived at my brother's house and got to work. Note that cute cupcake aprons are vital to the whole operation. My dad had already done the gross important work of beheading and disemboweling the squid (when imparting guilt, always use words such as 'disemboweling' instead of 'cleaning' for dramatic effect). He had also prepared the stuffing, so all that was left was to stuff the squid,

seal them closed with a toothpick, 

Warn your guests that there are toothpicks in the food BEFORE they eat it.

and cook them in the red sauce that was simmering on the stove.

Except it's never that simple. There's always the running commentary that goes along with any labor-intensive meal preparation. This year, the fatherly lecture was on the size of the calamari: the neck openings were practically microscopic, which made them hard to stuff efficiently, which prompted the obligatory Back In My Day monologue. As in,

"Back in my day, the fishermen would've thrown squid this small right back into the water! Bah! Can you believe it? This is all a result of overfishing, you know. These blasted gigantic fishing operations will just take anything nowadays, won't they? Anything for a profit, I tell you. The whole world is going to hell in a handbasket..."

Yep, plenty of Christmas cheer at our house.

Then there were the lucky few who asked about the origins of the recipe: some of our secret family recipes contain bits of dried fruit, especially raisins, which is a typical North African influence. Our calamari stuffing is no exception, so the inquirers listened attentively at first to the explanation, and before long their eyes glazed over as they were subjected to the Unabridged History Of The Arab Influence On The People Of Southern Italy And The Ancestry Of The DiStasi Family Which Might Be Descended Partly From Albanians.

But in the end, it is these stories of tradition that have such powerful influence over us. Their demise, real or only threatened, can spark reconciliations, my brother eating stuffed calamari for the first time in forty years, or possibly even a sudden interest in migratory patterns of people along the Mediterranean Sea. And of course, there is the next generation of the family that has begun its years-long initiation into the realm of Stuffed Calamari. The tradition may live on after all.

NB: An ongoing debate in our family is on the merits of cooking the calamari in the marinara sauce, as opposed to boiling them and spooning sauce over them. Cooking them in the sauce makes the sauce fishy, which is why the small children pictured above are actually eating pre-fishified sauce that was set aside just for them. The next day, the sauce reeks of fish, making it unappetizing to most of us, while the elders of the family stand around scratching their heads, wondering why no one has eaten the leftover pasta with (fishy) sauce. Cook the squid as you see fit.

Stuffed Calamari
In true Old World style, the amounts are approximate, and each cook adds quantities to his liking. The goal is to achieve a stuffing that is moist but not wet, with a balance of herbs, salt, and sweetness from the fruit and nuts.  
5 pounds fed a crowd of 10 adults, plus extra for me to bring to a friend, plus a few left over for the next day.
5 lbs squid, thawed (if purchased frozen), gutted, and cleaned
3 slices slightly stale wheat bread
1/3 loaf slightly stale sourdough bread (approximately)
1/3 to 1/2 C bread crumbs
handful of raisins (or more, if you like)
handful of pine nuts (or more, if you like)
some parsley, chopped
a little basil, dried
a few cloves of garlic, minced
1/4 C grated parmesan cheese, more or less
2-3 TBSP marinara sauce that the squid will be cooked in
salt and pepper to taste

1. Tear breads into small pieces, and toss in a large mixing bowl. Add bread crumbs and remaining ingredients EXCEPT marinara sauce. Mix well.
2. Add marinara sauce (use a bit more if mixture is very dry). Mix well. 
3. Stuff calamari, leaving enough space at the open end to insert toothpick to close (see photo above). Be careful not to over-stuff squid, as they tend to burst while cooking. 
4. Cooking time depends on quantity of squid in pot, but will generally be between 3-5 minutes after the sauce or water has returned to a boil once squid are added. Squid will turn cream-colored when done. 
5. Drain immediately and serve with marinara sauce, alone or with pasta.