“One Chinese Esperanto speaker described Esperanto as a linguistic handshake. When two people shake hands they both reach out halfway. When two people speak Esperanto they have both made the effort to learn a relatively easy, neutral language instead of one person making the huge effort to learn the other person’s difficult national language and the other person making no effort at all except to correct his/her interlocutor’s errors.”
– Sylvan Zaft, Author, Esperanto: A Language for the Global Village
Buenos Aires – Apparently, in some households, Zamenhof Day is not a major festival. It seems some don’t celebrate it at all. Many seem to simply be unaware of its existence. Of course, at Casa SaltShaker, it’s worthy of a feast. Or two.
Zamenhof Day is, of course, the birthday of Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhof. A Polish opthamologist, he was dismayed by what he saw around him amongst the various ethnic groups in his home area – inequality, misunderstanding, brutality, and distrust. His feeling was that much of the antagonism and many of the problems could be avoided if the various groups could simply communicate clearly and effectively. Idealistic yes, pie-in-the-sky, no. He had no illusions that the artificial language he created, Esperanto, would, as he put it, “turn men into angels”, but he did believe that much of the strife in the world arises from lack of communication. He’s certainly not the first to propose the idea… isn’t that, in some ways, the lesson of The Tower of Babel? There are, by the way, roughly two million people out there who speak Esperanto (including yours truly, though not fluently), amongst them a few over a thousand who were raised as native Esperanto speakers (the most famous of whom is businessman George Soros).
I like themes like this for our dinners – they pretty much give me carte blanche to do what I want. True, Zamenhof may have been Polish, but bringing in the whole Esperanto movement basically means I could bring in dishes and ingredients from wherever I felt like it. I did start with a sort of Polish, or at least Eastern European, core to the menu… and didn’t stray too far.
It’s been hot the last couple of days. I still like a meal to include soup, but it’s clear that this summer is going to have to include some interesting chilled soups. Somewhere in my past, I remember I used to make a chilled berry soup with sour cream. It was a Russian or Eastern European dish of some sort that I may have gotten from the Time-Life Good Cook series many years ago. I decided to do a bit of playing around with different flavors, and spotted an intriguing recipe for a Blueberry Peach soup on Ruth Reingold’s website. I wanted to make it a little more savory than her version – so mine uses a fair amount of red wine, peach juice, lemon juice and zest, water, cinnamon, nutmeg, thinly sliced nectarines, and blueberries, and is thickened with cornstarch. There’s just a splash of red wine vinegar and a dash of salt to brighten it up and balance the sweetness of the fruit. I drizzled it with a little fresh cream (and drew squiggles with a toothpick) – since I knew the main course was going to use sour cream, I decided against using it in both dishes.
Sometimes things that don’t quite work out sit in the back of my mind and simmer, waiting for an idea. About a week ago, I ate at a very nice fish restaurant, Lo Rafael, where I tried three different fish dishes. The salmon dish seemed an interesting idea, but they just didn’t quite pull it off. Simmering away, and adding in my promise to make some various non-pork empanadas, I thought I’d go with salmon. A traditional mix of flavors from the area where I was starting off is salmon and cucumber. I coarsely chopped fresh and smoked salmon along with cucumber and roasted piquillo peppers. I didn’t feel the mixture had a smoky enough flavor for what I was looking for, so I seasoned it with smoked salt and white pepper – you have to judge based on how smoky the smoked salmon is, and the ratio of it you use to the fresh. I put the mixture in empanada skins (note to self, do this much closer to baking time – the cucumbers and fresh salmon start to lose liquid with the salt and the bottom of the empanadas becomes wet and is difficult to bake thoroughly) and sprinkled them with medium hot paprika before baking. Following on the restaurant experience, I decided to make a dipping sauce with the blue cheese – melt blue cheese, some sort of cream cheese or queso blanco, and butter in milk, thicken with a slurry made of milk and cornstarch, and season with smoked salt and white pepper. This dish seemed to be the hit of both evenings!
This is not your grandmother’s stuffed cabbage. Or, if it is, I want to meet your grandmother and talk food! I had to make stuffed cabbage – how could I look at an Eastern European-ish dinner and not? That didn’t mean I had to make it quite the way it was made at various family events through my formative years. The filling is a mixture of very lean ground beef, finely chopped smoked bacon (most of the fat removed), uncooked rice, chopped shiso leaves and nori, shichimi powder, and salt. The sauce is a pureed mixture of plum tomatoes, lemongrass, salt and pepper, and just a smidgen of dark brown sugar. The cabbage leaves are blanched, trimmed, and wrapped around the filling. The rolls are put in a dutch oven, covered with the sauce, the pan is covered, and put in a hot oven for an hour until cooked through. I thickened the sauce with just a bit of butter and flour.
Okay, this gets no points for pretty. On the other hand, I think it gets points for tasty. Both nights by the time we got to this point, people were saying, “no, really, I’ve had enough to eat…”. Both nights, almost every plate came back nearly licked clean. This is comfort food, pure and simple. I marinated thick slices of bondiola, or pork shoulder, in olive oil, apple cider vinegar, dill seed, marjoram, mustard powder, salt, and black pepper, for several hours. I pan roasted them in very hot cast iron skillets. Meanwhile, I cooked up some whole wheat mostaccioli (that’s a pasta shape I don’t think I’m quite up to trying to make my own yet…). When the pork was cooked to about medium, I removed it and kept it warm, then added sour cream and a bit of flour to the drippings in the pans (combining them into one, since I was using two pans), cooked over high heat, stirring constantly, until thickened, then added the drained mostaccioli to the sauce and served it alongside the pork.
Last, but by no means least, I started with the idea of a Plum Kuchen, a traditional dish from Bialystok, where Zamenhof was raised. I decided to focus more on the plums – they were so juicy and fresh, and I switched to making more or less a plum tarte tatin – except I decided to make individual ramekins of it, and not flip them over. I pitted and cut the plums into wedges (the first day I used small blue plums, the second day I tried large red plums – both came out about the same in flavor, though I liked the cooked texture of the blue plums more), and put them into ramekins with a pat of butter and some very dark brown sugar (azucar negro). I baked them without a crust for about 35-40 minutes until they were soft and the butter and sugar had caramelized with the juices. I tried two different versions – I think I like the first better, at least in terms of presentation – the first night I rolled out the crust thinly – a simple pate sable with poppy seeds added (gotta keep that touch of kuchen in there) – and sealed the ramekins with it. The second night I tried leaving the crust thicker, and cutting disks, almost like a poppy seed cookie perched on top. The ramekins get returned to the oven and baked until the pastry is browned and the juices are bubbling.
All around, I was quite happy with the way things turned out for this dinner, and the folks who were here seemed to have enjoyed themselves thoroughly!