“Time goes by so slowly for those who wait. No time to hesitate. Those who run seem to have all the fun.
– from Madonna’s Hung Up
It’s already halfway through January 3rd. Really. The year is flying by.
So this holiday weekend started out with a conflict. Initially an internal conflict, but one that expanded into the outside world. Probably the most common question I get about running Casa SaltShaker is some variation on “Aren’t you worried about letting all these strangers into your home?” It’s a culturally based question – people from places where having a stranger over to your house or apartment is just “not done”, such as, in general, here in Argentina, are usually the most worked up about it, while those from cultures where it’s common, such as the U.S. (or at least having grown up in the midwest it was), tend to pass it off more – often even saying something more like “It must be great fun having all these strangers in your home.” Back to the question, am I worried? Generally not. But sometimes.
Sometimes it’s obvious. Over time I’ve shared some past experiences with reservation requests that were from people who were so blatantly not people I wanted in my home that it was an easy decision – people who’ve made homophobic comments, anti-semitic comments, racial slurs, or, those who were simply too demanding, whether it was for how they wanted us to rearrange the evening to suit their tastes, be it the menu, the seating, the decor, the other guests. And yes, people do all those things. But sometimes it’s more subtle, and it comes down to a judgment call – often that call is not based on anything tangible that I can put my finger on or any evidence I can point to, it’s more of what we’d call a “gut feeling”. And this is my home, and I have to feel comfortable with who I say yes to.
So, way back about two months ago I got a request for the holiday season from a party of four – three from Palm Springs, one from here – a group of four gay friends. And their request was quite matter of fact, asking if we’d decided yet on our holiday schedule, and availability. I told the host I’d get back to him once we had and didn’t hear anything back – usually people say something like “thanks, I’ll look forward to hearing from you”. I let him know when we’d arranged the schedule, and he asked about Christmas weekend, but specified, with apologies, that two of them were allergic to shellfish and as a group they didn’t like fish in general. I suggested instead they come New Year’s weekend, already knowing we were going for the whole seven fishes thing over Christmas. He apologized again but asked us, with apologies that his group was “a pain”, to work around his group’s preference. I declined and again suggested New Year’s weekend. I didn’t hear a word from him for nearly two weeks, and then he asked for a reservation for the 30th. I already had that tingling gut feeling that something just wasn’t right for us, but I said yes, and from there, all seemed well – I planned one evening to be a non-seafood menu, and then, a day and a half before, got another e-mail from him asking if we’d change the first course on the menu for two of them who didn’t like beets, and apologized again for being difficult. You see, it’s all pretty innocuous, but a little alarm went off in my head…
…past experience, thirty years working in restaurants in one capacity or another, something just said to me, these guys are going to be a problem. Something’s going to come up at the dinner table that they don’t like, and it’s going to be a scramble in the middle of serving a holiday meal to try to please them, or having to say no and having them pissed off. It was a little niggling thought that, “these guys don’t play well with others.” Henry and I talked about it and decided that neither of us were comfortable with the possible, and it’s clear it was just possible, scenario. So, very politely I informed the host that we were simply not comfortable continuing to extend the invitation for them to come to our home, withdrew it, and refunded their deposit. He didn’t respond until more than a day later, a few hours before the dinner – he was disappointed and said he’d never have made the requests had we not asked for “specific dislikes”. We didn’t, we never do, we never have. We ask about people’s food allergies and dietary restrictions like vegetarian, pescetarian, kosher-ish. Likes and dislikes? Not interested – in fact, our website states that clearly.
And, I thought that was the end of it, except that I then received a barrage over the next hour or so of text messages from his porteño companion that reiterated that I had asked them about dislikes and I wasn’t being consistent (go read the site and see what it actually says my friend), that assured me they weren’t a group of pretentious gay men (who said they were?), that listed off the Michelin three star restaurants they’ve been to in the world where their demands have always been met (what was that about pretension?), that they were going to go on with their fabulous lives without including us (again, pretension?), that asserted that I was projecting my own insecurities and inadequacies onto them (well, insecurity in that I wasn’t comfortable with them in my home, and pretty much this string of messages confirmed our decision), that I had no right to not be comfortable with strangers in my house once having agreed to host these dinners, that demanded I seek psychotherapy for my fears and inadequacies, that suggested I better my English since it was clearly not up to the task of communicating my real intentions, etc., etc. Okay, it was only eleven text messages, but he packed a lot in. I guess he got tired of it because they stopped. We refilled the spots from our waiting list, easily, and ended up with a great group for the evening, that gelled amazingly well, hit it off, had a great time, and enjoyed the food, as we presented it (we went back to an all seafood evening like originally planned).
A tough decision to make, though given the response, I think we made the right one. We’ll never really know of course, and we’ve pissed off four people who likely will tell their friends, and all that, but, gut feeling still is that even with that, we’re better off than had they come. And, to be clear, this was for the 30th. Had it been the 31st or 1st, days when it’s really hard to find anywhere to eat here in BA, I probably would have sucked it up and let them come rather than cancel at last minute. And that’s pretty much the text of today’s post on the New Year’s weekend, the rest in pictures….
A tweaking of our mango gazpacho from a week or two ago. Base is the flesh from a couple of ripe mangoes, a couple hot chili peppers, a roasted yellow bell pepper, a leek, a green onion, a large garlic clove, a small knob of ginger, a quarter cup each of good olive oil and rice vinegar, salt, white pepper, and enough water to blend it all smooth. Into that, diced tomato, cucumber and red onion. Lots of chopped cilantro. Chilled, adjusted the seasoning.
My reworking of the calamarette bakhlava we’ve made before – the squid-lets filled with the savory-sweet bakhlava mixture, this time of almonds, walnuts and pistachios. Served over crispy rice noodles, three onion confit (white, yellow, red), and a drizzle of reduced pomegranate syrup, fish sauce and chilies.
Blackened salmon, creamy quinua “polenta”, and roasted okra. Here’s the thing about blackening. It’s not the spice rub. You can rub things all day long with spices and herbs, even “official” blends of blackening ones, and that doesn’t make it blackened. I’ve read blog posts ad nauseum and even seen cookbooks where a piece of fish or chicken was rubbed in spices, stuck in the oven, or fried, or what-have-you, and called blackened. It’s not. Blackening is a cooking process. Yes, you coat the fish in the spice and herb rub – though everyone’s got their own version – in this case, a whole side of salmon cut in fillets in a mix of 1 tablespoon each of dried parsley, dried oregano, ground cumin and coriander, ají rojo (or hot paprika, but I like the extra kick), and two teaspoons each of salt and black pepper. You heat a skillet, preferably cast iron, until it’s really, really hot. I mean really, really hot. When I worked at the Sazerac House in NYC we used to put the cast iron skillet over a burner first thing when we came in in the morning, low to medium heat, but didn’t move it until lunchtime when we started using it over high heat – it was usually borderline glowing. The fish goes in, presentation side down – no oil, no butter, just dry heat. And it stays there for about 3-4 minutes, until the surface has been completely caramelized – blackened – not burnt, but charred. Then, flip it over to the other side and do the same. That’s it. No oven time (for chicken sometimes we put it in the oven on a hot plate for a few minutes to make sure the center was cooked through, but not for fish). If you’re preparing more than one fillet at a time – I was making a dozen, what I do is after flipping the fillets over, I put a top on the skillet and turn the heat off. There’s more than enough heat on the pan’s surface to caramelize the bottom of the fish, and with the lid, the fish cooks through perfectly in about 5 minutes.
The quinua “polenta” – rinse 200 gm of quinua until the water runs clear. Put in a pot with a liter of water, a teaspoon of salt and a half teaspoon of white pepper. Cook over low heat, covered, for 30 minutes until the liquid is absorbed. Add 75 ml cream, 175 ml milk, and 2 tablespoons of butter – stir well and continue to cook, without the lid, until the liquid is absorbed again and the quinua takes on a creamy polenta-ish texture.
Mmmm… cheesecake. Cocoa crust. Homemade cream cheese with the zest and juice of a lemon, plus a good knob of fresh ginger and a couple of teaspoons of powdered ginger. Dark chocolate ganache. Rum sauce. 1 can of condensed milk, ½ the same can of whole milk with a tablespoon of cornstarch dissolved in it, ½ teaspoon of cinnamon – bring to a simmer, whisking steadily, and cook until thick. Off the heat add in two tablespoons of butter and two tablespoons of rum.