Saturday, August 25, 2007

Adventures in Imported Food

If you follow the "food" thread on this blog, you already know that, when it comes to dining out at restaurants, I spoil myself terribly. To a lesser degree, I also spoil myself at the grocery store. I say "to a lesser degree" because I am not much of a cook, as you must also realize if my proudest achievement is combining red clam sauce with Velveeta Shells & Cheese. Nevertheless, I like to have adventures with food, so I am often trying new things.

Lately, I've realized that several of the flavor adventures I enjoyed the most are Cajun specialties. For example, your grocery store may carry a condiment you have never tried, called Chow Chow (above, left). Don't worry, it's not made out of dogs. It is sort of like a combination of pickle relish and mustard, only it contains chopped up pieces of squash, zucchini, onions, peppers, and maybe cauliflower, plus a unique blend of spices. It's chunky yet spreadable, tart and spicy but not overpowering (if used judiciously)...a very creditable alternative to ketchup and mustard!

I think I have previously mentioned the wonders of the muffuletta sandwich. Muffuletta bread (right) is a flat, round loaf of dense bread, in some cases sourdough. Sliced in half horizontally, it becomes the backbone of the sandwich that shares its name, a sandwich that (in its authentic, Louisiana-born form) contains several kinds of cold cut meat, cheese, and a condiment which few of us outside Cajun or Italian-American culture can identify. But they are all wonderful, and together they are miraculous.

Today I made a very heterodox muffuletta for lunch. Actually it wasn't anything like a muffuletta sandwich, but it had two of the key ingredients, plus sliced cheddar, between two long, oval slices of so-called "St. Louis Sourdough Bread." The first ingredient was a concoction called Black Olive Tapenade (left), which contains black olives, tomatoes, garlic, capers, and other flavorful stuff, ground up into a chunky, oily paste. You can also get Green Olive Tapenade, as well as other kinds of tapenade containing such things as artichoke, but the key to a good muffy is a spreadable olive salad, and I went with black.

The other special touch was capicola (below, right), a cut of dry-cured, cooked meat from the neck and shoulder of a pig. Thin-sliced, rubbed with a delicious blend of spices and paprika, it has a texture vaguely similar to corned beef and a flavor all its own. Italian Americans pronounce the word "gabaghoul" and eat it on pizzas, salads, and sandwiches. A proper muffy is made of gabaghoul, olive tapenade, and muffuletta bread, plus salami, provolone, Swiss cheese (or rather, emmentaler), and bologna (or rather, mortadella: another wonderful Italian cold cut, from which bologna evolved).

My grocery store, particularly the deli and imported foods sections, has exposed me to a world of meats, breads, cheeses, and relishes that have distinctive flavors, textures, and appearances, compared to the homogenized and impoverished varieties American shoppers know better. Just think what eating adventures may await you in the aisles of your neighborhood supermarket!

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