Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Balancing the Table

Thanksgiving at the Abdala house is hardly big, loud, or full of people. We are a small family, most of our relatives reside in Argentina, where Thanksgiving is not an observed holiday; it is seen more as a fun gringo day celebrating happy time, good company, and gluttony.
"I don't care what patron saint day we're celebrating today, it has nothing to do with me and my culture" was my dad's response to my mom's request that they accept a Turkey Day invitation from a neighbor, when they first moved to San Francisco in 1980. This is a picture of my dad on Thanksgiving a few years after he arrived, and he was still in the dark about the meaning or point of Thanksgiving.

29 years later, the family has grown to enjoy, appreciate, and fully observe all American celebrated holidays. The evolution of our holiday menu is an accurate measure of how each of us has contributed our common heritage, our individual tastes, and our growing family traditions.
"If you aren't grilling something on the menu for tonight, then you shouldn't call yourself an Argentinean," says my uncle Perico, a bona fide gaucho and horse breeder who resides in the Andean countryside of Mendoza. We hardly spend holidays with him, which is quite a shame, but it is mostly due to his never having visited the U.S. He always tells us that if he ever does, the first place he wants to visit is Texas. "I want to see cowboys, I want to see their horses and eat their steak, I wonder if it's as good as ours."
Grilled steak in Argentina is soft, buttery, and it often resembles the meat pulled from a slow-cooking stew. The cows are grass-fed, the land is large, and there are enough cows in the country that there is hardly a need for factory farms. Meat is a manifestation of pride for the people of the country, so meat, from the time it is a cow’s living flesh, to the moment it is pinned to iron stakes over a roaring fire, is taken very seriously.

Grilled Turkey 

--> Through some bizarre extraterrestrial intervention—because nothing on Earth could explain this evolution— my mother and I are vegetarians. We do not embrace meat like “normal” people. In fact, according to my Uncle Perico, we might as well be considered shameful and "maybe a little sick" for voluntarily rejecting meat. Nevertheless, we swallow our ideologies and are mindful of the carnivores at holiday meals, and so we do partake in the meat and poultry preparation. Our turkeys, meats, carcasses, what have you, are usually cooked out on the grill. Unlike the grills that can be found in the Argentine countryside, which are usually the size of an entire living room, our home grills limit us to a few chickens or one large turkey and some steak at a time, in most cases. The recipe for this year's grilled turkey can also  be found in Sunset magazine. You have to butterfly the turkey, or cut off the back, so that bird can lie flat on the grill.*

*I am leaving this part of the menu to my mother, who does not get squeamish when she butchers birds. When it comes to mammals, she is more like me. We are shameful and "maybe a little sick" for not embracing meat, says my Uncle Perico and Aunt Nora (next to Perico below).

Spaghetti Squash Ravioli
My mother understands why one must possess a certain kind of grace to enjoy cooking for a family and to cook really well at the same time. She has that kind of grace. She makes the time and finds the patience to master delicate raviolis made by hand, from scratch. She runs a business, manages a household, care for her mother, organizes her husband, coaches her employees, loses her cool, disciplines herself with yoga, but above all, she creates food. She lays out the handmade dough for the raviolis, spaces out spoonfuls of filling made from homegrown sage and spaghetti squash, and cuts out each square dumpling with precision. I think her decision to make pasta from scratch goes beyond how fantastic homemade pasta is compared to store-bought pasta. She remembers watching her Italian grandmother rise at six in the morning to handcraft the pasta for the family's Sunday dinners. In an effort to mirror her grandmother’s craft, my mother hasn’t bought a pasta machine, a dough churner, or any fancy equipment that couldn’t be found in stores in the 1950’s.  She keeps it simple, making fillings with soft cheeses and garden herbs in a pan over the stove, cutting the dough with a handheld dough cutter. I imagine the difference lies in her sauces. I envision her grandmother’s sauces as meat-based, heavy, thick with tomato, truly a rugged Calabria recipe. My mother’s are simple, light, earthy and aromatic.
I will have to sit down with her and jot down this recipe, she knows it from scratch and has a hard time coming up with directions for it. Here is a dough recipe and some dough-filling instructions that are similar to hers.

       My grandmother generally dislikes cooking, because she is a city diva, but she knows how to make a good batch of mashed potatoes, the Argentine way. Thus, this is always her job at every Thanksgiving or big dinner. We would never ask her to contribute anything else to the menu (for her sake and ours). She also knows how to set a very dignified and elegant table. How could she not, she is a city diva.

Criollo (cree-oyo) Mashed Potatoes

2 kilos (approx 4.5 pounds) russet potatoes
oil (preferably olive)
100 gramos (3 ounces) unsalted

2 egg yolks

course salt
fresh ground pepper

You can leave the skins on or peel off, it your choice. Rub potatoes with oil. and place on a baking sheet. Bake potatoes in oven at 400 degrees Fahrenheit, for  20 minutes.  At this point, check up on the potatoes, puncture surfaces with fork, and return to oven. Check the potatoes every 10-15 minutes, but don't leave potatoes in for more than 45 minutes. Potatoes should be tender, like baked potatoes. You should be able to stick a skewer or knife into the potato very easily.

Transfer potatoes to the stove, in a stockpot. Smash down the potatoes with a masher or a ladle. Add yolks, about 1/2 teaspoon or a few dashes of nutmeg, and a teaspoon of salt (or more, to taste). Over medium heat, mix together the ingredients. Add a stream of milk, no more than 1 cup, just enough to soften and blend the mashed potato mix. Stir until all the ingredients are well combined and the texture is light and fluffy. Serve warm.
It may seem odd to say that people “create foods.” I think the phrase expresses how a simple set of ingredients, which are themselves foods, are combined, augmented, and elaborated to take on a unique form that someone designs to be eaten. Everyone who has a mouth, a stomach, and a sense of identity can create, consume, and appreciate amazing food. The food one creates is a work of art that pleases all the senses. Food creates a stairway between the mind and the soul by way of every sense. This is why food can change us. This is why we can create food.

Stuff It Cornbread Stuffing

         And let's not forget my father's contribution. The man would rather hang himself from the debilitated rafters of our ranch tract house than be poised over the stove or by the oven on a holiday, but he will be the first to get in the car and run us some errands! A saving grace during any holiday season, Enrique sets on his horse in his Land Rover and picks up a sack of shiny oily coffee beans from Pete's Coffee and some fresh-baked artisan bread from the Mayfair Bakery. He loves making a fresh pot of coffee in the morning, slathering on some unsalted butter and quince paste on a piece of fresh crusty bread, and dunking it in his coffee. This is heaven for him in the morning, and John and I have taken a liking to coffee with bread, Manchego cheese and quince paste in the evening for a light, less sugary dessert. It’s an enchanting grouping of savory, yeasty, fruity, and awakening flavors that melt together.

              Crazy Elsa, who is comprised of equal portions of crass and sweet, is another one of the few Argentinians that can be found in the San Francisco Bay Area. She makes and caters killer desserts out of her little home kitchen. You can't tell if she is having the time of her life making her mouth-watering alfajores, pionono rolls, and merengues, or if she has decided that "today is the day" she will kill her husband, take his money, and open her own bakery in North Beach. In any case, she is an artist in our eyes, and she will be providing us with a quince paste-filled PASTA FLORA.

The foods that are created by a family are, above all, fail-proof. Our family has countless faults, shabby tempers, busy schedules, emotional ebbs and flows. But we have fail-proofing down to a science. And it can most especially be found in our food. The flavors we create will never fail us.

1 comment:

Joe The Wizard said...

You can easily do a whole turkey; you just need a bigger (read: properly sized) grill. This year at my friend's place here in Brooklyn, we did a 19-pounder, 3 lamb tenderloins, and 2 racks of pork ribs. As a kid at my grandmother's in Atherton, we'd do 3 turkeys on the grill and more ribs than there are stars in the Space Pope's domain. There have been many Thanksgiving as a kid where I didn't eat a lick of turkey—pork and steak only. I mean, fuck Turkey, right? Pork and steak are so much better. Maybe some adobo, rice, enchiladas, and beans too? Though I do love cranberry sauce, but not the weird cylindrical jelly from a can. And gravy. I love gravy.