Posted by Rob Eshman
Before he came to Los Angeles to die, my cousin Lloyd lived in a courtyard apartment in Oakland. He was 34. That year, the doctors diagnosed his twitchy arm and
trippy legs as Lou Gehrig’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). He saw a specialist at UC San Francisco who believed in telling The Truth: Lloyd’s perfect surfer’s body would grow slack and useless. His witty, insightful speech would slur, then disappear. His bodily functions would give out one by one. He would become a helpless man. And then, within two years, he would die. Lloyd was my cousin. He was also my best friend. He was four years older than me, but we shared a devotion to absurd humor, mysterious women, wine beyond our means and excellent food.
At first, friends told Lloyd his ALS was Epstein-Barr virus, a disease causing debilitating weakness that a lot of driven, successful yuppies seemed to be getting. We knew that it couldn’t be that — neither of us was remotely successful or especially driven. I was writing unproduced plays, supporting myself as a cook and caterer, dreaming about being a writer. Lloyd had a day job doing page layout for a weekly thowaway sports magazine and was dreaming of being a musician. Or a writer. Or an artist. He was good at it all. But he was, like me, best at dreaming.
While Lloyd lived in Oakland, I shared a Lower Haight Street townhouse with two men I never quite figured out. One of them worked for a medical messenger service, transporting false teeth. The other stayed home and experimented with sourdough bread recipes, reading Tolstoy during the hours and hours it took the dough to rise.
We were all of a kind, men bubbling up around 30, waiting for some wild yeast to waft in through the window, land on our lives and transform us into something fully risen.
Long before he took ill, Lloyd and I spent whatever money we had left over after paying rent on eating well. We ate burritos made with handmade tortillas at La Perla, a family-owned storefront in the Mission District.
We bought toe-curling, overripe taleggio from one of the precious gourmet stores springing up like crocuses from the grave of old hippie Berkeley. On payday we’d splurge for a meal at Oliveto, or go back again and again to eat the salad with ginger and garlic and raw peanuts at the only Burmese place we’d ever seen. One workday morning, we breakfasted on pancakes at the Eagle Cafe, and followed through on our dare to wash them down with Anchor Steams. For dinner, we met up at a Hunan place in Chinatown, trading future savings for immediate greens with garlic and chili. That was how our 20s got away from us — in restaurants.
Eventually I moved, first to Israel, then to Los Angeles. That’s where I was living, as a newlywed, when Dr. Truth broke the news to Lloyd. I flew up to hang out with him. We ate out once, at a Nuevo-Mexican place.
By then, Lloyd was on a regimen of vile, gut-wrenching Chinese herbal tea. Even so, he buckled and drank some Herradura with me in honor of the time we took a train through Mexico’s Copper Canyon, drinking tequila in bars where men wore actual six-shooters.
At the restaurant, Lloyd asked me to take him to the men’s room and stand right behind him at the urinal so he wouldn’t fall backward. When another man walked in and looked at us with disgust — Couldn’t you guys find a room? — we faked a moment of loud sexual ecstasy. After that, Lloyd found it easier to take meals at his bungalow apartment in Oakland. He could barely chew, was losing weight rapidly, and most of his meals consisted of cans of Ensure, which he said tasted almost as good as the Chinese herbs.
The night before I was to return to my life in Los Angeles, he asked me to cook real food. I didn’t know how much longer Lloyd would live. I didn’t know how much longer he’d be able to swallow solid food, how many more meals we would share.
My wife and I kept a kosher home, but I chose to make what I knew Lloyd would love: grilled fresh squid, the spicy Italian seafood stew cioppino and sourdough bread. The two of us sat down to eat, a bottle of zinfandel — far better than I could afford — between us. He scooped up a piece of rockfish from the cioppino, chewed it very slowly and smiled.
“Ah,” he said, and his blue eyes lit up.
Lloyd would live another year, and we would eat together often, but that was our last perfect meal. It was the closest I’ve ever gotten to understanding what Christians mean when they speak of a sacrament, the physical manifestation of a spiritual reality.
When he died, I was beside him. Lloyd’s last words to me were, “This is it.”
You would think that instant would be the one lodged most prominently in my memory, but it isn’t. My mind always goes back to the squid, the cioppino, the zinfandel. Those, at least, are real. His death never seems to be.
Lloyd’s Cioppino (Kosher Version)
This is the version of cioppino I made for Lloyd, minus the shrimp, mussels, scallops and clams). If you want to go authentic, substitute some of the fish for a mix of fresh, cleaned shellfish.
1 large onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 stalk celery, diced
1 small carrot, diced
one-half c. olive oil
2 bay leaves
1 t. fresh oregano
1 t. fresh thyme
1/2 t. crushed red chili pepper or more to taste
1 t. salt
fresh ground pepper
2 cans high quality Italian peeled and crushed tomatoes
1 T. tomato paste
1 c. Italian dry white wine or Prosecco
2 c. water or fish stock
3 pounds mixed ocean fish and shellfish, cut into large chunks (Use a mix of very fresh filets of rockfish,cod,halibut,sea bass,mullet, tuna, albacore
—don’t use salmon or very oily fish)
In a large soup pot, heat olive oil until almost smoking. Add all vegetables and herbs, except tomatoes, and saute until soft, about 10 minutes. Add wine, cook 3 minutes, then add tomatoes, fish stock or water, bring to boil, then lower flame and simmer 20 minutes, until flavors meld.
Add fish, stir once to blend, cover and simmer until fish is cooked, about 10 minutes. Reduce heat to low simmer until ready to serve.
Serve in big bowls with a squeeze of fresh lemon and a drizzle of great fruity olive oil, and plenty of great sourdough bread.
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May 14, 2010 | 12:04 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
Here’s the video Jay made of me making blintzes. It has the recipes and shows the steps. We try to keep these video short and fun. I guarantee that if you watch to the end, you’ll enjoy Jay’s visual joke based on a movie that has nothing to do with Shavuout, except that once upon a time Ben Stiller’s ancestors celebrated it.
In the video, I don’t explain the connection between Shavuout and blintzes. I do in a previous blog post.
One more thing: I’m not even a blintz fan, and I love these blintzes. Have any blintz-making questions? Ask me.
May 11, 2010 | 5:43 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
Over the weekend our Web Master and VideoJew Jay Firestone came over to our house to video me making Lemon Ricotta Blintzes for Shavuout.
Judaism has developed two main ex post facto reasons why we traditionally eat dairy foods on Shavuout: because the holiday commemorates the giving of the Torah on Mt Sinai, and Torah is like mother’s milk to the Jews, or because the newly-given laws of kashrut were too complex regarding meat eating, so instead of mistakenly crossing them, Jews stuck to dairy.
But the Foodaism reason is more straightforward: we eat dairy at Shavuous because it’s late spring, and the mother animals are bursting with milk. A lot of Jewish laws—a lot of religious laws in general—have obvious roots in natural cycles, and the traditions of Shavuout are no exception. When God gives you milk, make milk-ade.
These are my favorite blintzes. They’re not made with the usual hoop cheese or farmers cheese. So, they’re not dry, but have more of a cheesecake-like filling. They are not like those industrial strength deli-bombs, but light and delicate, a filed crepe by way of the shtetl, if the shtetl were in Italy.
The ricotta I used came from Whole Foods, the brand is Angelo and Franco, and it is superb. I also used some of the last Salvatore Brooklyn ricotta that I brought back from Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood. It’s a locally made artisanal brand, very thick, and perfect for this dish.
Foodaism Lemon Ricotta Blintzes
FOR THE BLINTZES:
FOR THE FILLING:
1. Combine crepe batter ingredients in blender or bowl and mix until smooth. Let rest a half hour.
2. Combine filling ingredients in mixer or bowl and blend until smooth. (Use good quality ricotta. If very moist, drain in cheesecloth-lined colander; set inside pan for a few hours or overnight in refrigerator)
3. Heat a non-stick crepe pan or 8 inch skillet. Rub with oil or butter. Add ¼ cup batter and tilt pan to spread batter thin. Cook until set then flip. Cook until dry, then turn out onto plate. Repeat until all the batter is used.
4. Spread 2 or 3 T of filling along bottom of crepe. Roll up into a cylinder, tucking ends in before you finish rolling. Repeat until all the crepes are filled.
5. Heat one T. vegetable oil in a skillet, Add crepes 2-3 at a time and cook on each side until golden. Serve with a dollop of sour cream and fresh berries.
May 11, 2010 | 9:52 am
Posted by Rob Eshman
Finally there’s a Middle East war we can enjoy.
Last January Israeli chefs cooked up a five ton plate of hummus, that otherworldly combination of garbanzo beans, tahini, garlic, lemon, salt and the secret ingredient. The dish entered th Guiness Book of World Records as the largest.
This week, chefs in Lebanon fought back. In a village about 5 miles east of Beirut, 300 chefs came up with a dish weighing 11.5 tons, CNN reported.
This is a good sign for all of us interested in Middle East peace and appetizers. There is no better proof that Israelis and their neighbors have more in common than their history of war and conflict than their mutual love of the same food. Sharing the same food isn’t sufficient to keep people from killing each other, but it’s a good place to start building on commonalities, rather than differences. If food can lead us to God, it can also lead us to peace. Arguments over who invented hummus and falafel rarely end in blood.
And these hummus wars provide a good jumping off pointb for deeper truths about today’s Middle East:
1. Lebanon is making a major push to reach the West for investment and tourism. It is trying to refashion its image in the States in a big way—including several pages of advertorial insert in last week’s Newsweek. What says “Welcome!” more than a big plate of hummus?
2. Israelis have long seen Lebanon as a natural partner for growth and cooperation. Both are small countries with an educated, Western-oriented, diverse and ambitious population. In Shimon Peres’ Middl East pipe dream, trains would run from Tel Aviv to Beirut, creating an international corridor of trade, development and culture.
3. Lebanon and Israel share an entrepreneurial, outward-looking spirit. It’s not a coincidence that they both see the internationla potential of hummus. The dish has been around thousands of years, but it was the Israelis who jumped on the idea of making it an international brand. Sabra? Tribe? Miki? Israeli. I suspect they’ll get competition sooner rather than later from Lebanon.
Meantime, here’s an even deeper truth: you can make your own hummus that tastes far better than the packaged stuff. Just don’t use canned chickpeas. Here’s the recipe.
“What we have been trying to do is just what the Greeks have done with feta cheese,” said Fadi Abboud, president of The Association of Lebanese Industrialists.
The Israelis have a different point of view.
“Trying to make a copyright claim over hummus is like claiming for the rights to bread or wine,” said Shooky Galili, an Israeli whose blog, dedicated to all things hummus, bears the motto “give chickpeas a chance.”
May 7, 2010 | 1:03 am
Posted by Rob Eshman
Tonight on my way home from a lecture I ate in a popular Japanese restaurant in West L.A. The chef/owner joined me, and we fell into talking about the state of fish. This is a man with 30 years experience in the Japanese restaurant business in Los Angeles—sushi, bento, ramen, robata, teriyaki combos, you name it. He didn’t want to be identified, but trust me, you’ve eaten his food.
While I ate his food and sipped his cold sake, he drank iced green tea bobas. I was eating a piece of grilled local yellowtail, telling him how much I liked the flavor of a relatively local fish.
“Sushi is over,” he said, pretty much out of the blue. “The price goes up and the quality is going down. It got too popular. Everything is farmed, now in Japan even tuna is farmed, and it is all fatty, not fatty and lean, like in the wild. Here people will eat farmed salmon, but in Japan no one eats salmon sushi—it has parasites.”
The problem, he said, is that there is almost no more good wild fish left. When he first came to the States, 98 percent of tuna was sold in Japan. Now everybody wants tuna, including China and India and Russia. The wild stocks are crashing, and there;‘s no point in pretending what’s left can sustain all the gazillions of sushi restaurants.
He himself is moving away from sushi toward other Japanese foods: izakaya, ramen, robata, fusion. It’s time to teach Americans to eat parts of chickens and pigs they never tried before, to get them accustomed to beef heart and chicken combs like they got accustomed to sea urchin roe and eel.
He was going on and on about getting Americans to appreciate Japanese chicken like they appreciate Japanese fish. One brand, Jidori (it translates as “ground chicken”; i. e. free range,” in Japanese, ji= ground and tori= chicken) is raised on farms around Central California and has a deep, rich flavor, could please even the most dedicated eel-eater.
The man wasn’t being sensitive to the fate of the oceans, or nostalgic for the last big eye tuna—just practical. But he was attuned to the problem now, before it’s too late—a businessman paying heed to those who are listening to what science and nature are saying. The more we love food, the more we have to obey nature: one ties us inexorably to the other. The technology that helps us track and kill the last tuna also helps us get and spread more complete information on the fate of our fisheries, and gives people like this chef the chance to make the right decision for his business, before it’s too late.