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Edible Brooklyn| Spring 2011

Mastering the Art of Mexican Cooking

A Park Slope chef from Mexico City has penned a Latin answer to the Julia Child classic.

By Randi Gollin

It’s not that Roberto Santibañez aspires to be a 21st-century Julia Child—Julie Powell of Julie & Julia fame more or less has that ground covered. But with his just-released cookbook, Truly Mexican (John Wiley & Sons), the highly acclaimed chef/owner of Park Slope’s popular restaurant Fonda hopes to channel what Child did for French cuisine and eliminate the intimidation factor that often stands between American home cooks and great Mexican fare.

Child led that charge by hoisting beehived and be-Jelloed homemakers over cultural hurdles with her own culinary bible, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Correspondingly, Santibañez, who hails from Mexico City, aims for his vivid tome to educate enthusiasts on how to cook authentic carnitas, enchiladas, tostadas and taquitos—all illuminated by his lessons on authentic, transcendent sauces. Instead of veering into well-trod topics like Mexico’s diverse regional cuisines and rich history, covered by the influential likes of Diana Kennedy and Rick Bayless, he focuses on the salsas, guacamoles, adobes, moles and pipiánes that form the backbone of Mexican flavors, offering step-by-step directives that are certain to vanquish that no-can-do mindset and replace it with a hearty sí se puede!

In much the same spirit as that famous big-boned dame, Santibañez aims to infuse a soupçon of much-needed levity into the making of a truly Mexican meal. Fittingly, he credits his fascination with Child in equal measure to her endearing flaws and accomplishments. He admires the way she taught America tech niques for dishes they loved to eat, but didn’t know how to cook.“She did so beautifully, saying ‘don’t be scared—grab the chicken and cook it this way.’ And she sometimes got it wrong and she would laugh about it—it was fantastic.”

Coincidentally, Santibañez also trained at the Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, the storied culinary school where the indomitable icon herself first embraced the joys of cooking à la française, whisking her way into epicurean history. He found many French cooking methods to be a revelation, worlds away from those he grew up watching over his grandmother’s shoulder as she stirred her cazuela. He was amazed to learn that the addition or subtraction of a few ingredients could convert one so-called Mother sauce, say, béarnaise, into a Maltese.

In Truly Mexican, Santibañez hands readers the Mother-sauce keys to the cuisine of his homeland. Instead of scattering recipes for, say, moles, throughout the book, he presents them together—and reveals—eureka!—how alike they can be. “I’m just trying to [show] people, oh my God, the basic techniques give you all these possibilities,” he explains. “We Mexicans have made it seem, because of our historical

facts and geographical diversity, much more complicated than it really is. Once you understand it, it’s so much simpler.”

Brooklynite bookmaster J. J. Goode, who’s currently collaborating on cookbooks with such culinary nobility as April Bloomfield, Zak Pelaccio and Aarón Sanchez, himself took on the project as a Mexican cooking neophyte, but came away with a new skill set, inhibitions long forgotten. “Mexican food is so popular, but people still do not cook it at home at all. And it’s really, really doable,” he insists. “I’d say it’s even easier than French food, even peasant French food—easier than beef Bourguignon, for sure.”

Goode joined Santibañez and Shelley Wiseman, the chef ’s longtime friend and the book’s recipe developer, countless times in one or the other’s home kitchen, and that’s where the knowledge in Santibañez’s head and hands literally got translated onto the page. “You get the best information when you’re cooking with someone,” says Goode. “Roberto’s very laid-back in the kitchen, and Shelley has her stopwatch and she’s saying, ‘Roberto, when did you add the water?’ He’s like, ‘I don’t know, Shelley, I just added it.’ It was like Abbott and Costello,” he laughs. “But it’s great to have that precision. You know chefs—‘it’s done when it’s done.’ And home cooks are like, ‘OK, what the hell does that mean?’”

Such exactitude has its rewards, as evidenced in recipes like “Pork in Adobo D.F.” (an abbreviation for Distrito Federal, or Mexico City). The five-ingredient adobo—a boldly flavored, blender-whirred puree of dried chiles, garlic, spices and vinegar—is laced with cinnamon, preferably canela (Mexican cinnamon), and as the pork shoulder chunks simmer, the sauce becomes spectacularly silky.

“I always speak about the platform of flavors, colors, textures that make cuisines what they are,” explains Santibañez. “We use many similar ingredients to China and India, but our food tastes distinct.” Mexicans, he points out, roast tomatoes, garlic and tomatillos, without one drop of oil, in the toaster oven or pan, until charred. And they toast chiles on a griddle, comal or heavy skillet, until blistered—core precepts passed down through the generations. “All these little factors give us these flavors that are particularly Mexican.”

Goode found such fundamentals an eye-opener—and exceptionally easy to master in his own kitchen. “I make stuff all the time now and it’s amazing how good it can turn out!” he raves, sounding a little surprised himself.

Somewhere up in food heaven, Julia Child must be smiling.

(Click on link to see story on Edible Brooklyn’s site. BOOKlyn | Spring 2011)


Bitchin’ Kitchen

Pot Luck!

Just the other day the Brooklyn Gal hauled butt to Williamsburg to check out a few cool kitchen shops. Or, rather, our foodie pal Jo, aka Plumandradish, a former Brooklynite visiting from the Windy City, hauled both of our butts to Billyburg, in her cute little Mini Cooper.

It was a cold day, and the streets felt rather bleak and looked kinda monotone (er, gray), but our afternoon immediately brightened upon entering The Brooklyn Kitchen, a vast industrial-ish space set in the shadows of the Williamsburg Bridge and packed with all sorts of primo comestibles, bakeware, cookware, barware, and sundry other goodies.

We loved perusing the local and artisanal chocolates (we especially heart Mast Brothers‘ tempting bars wrapped in delightful, suitable-for-framing paper) and the lovely larder must-haves like Baldwin Extracts’ pricey vanilla, concocted with aged bourbon and perfect for that winter bake-off. And items like Pommaireware’s cute-as-a-button clay pig-faced cookie jars handmade in Chile and old-fashioned  Haeger Stoneware pie plates made us desirous of a humongous country kitchen, far, far away from King’s County.

We may consider ourselves pescatarian, but we confess: even the butcher counter, run by The Meat Hook and well-stocked with prime cuts of beef, charcuterie, gourmet sausage and the like, seemed sort of, well, enticing.

Who knows, maybe one day we’ll cross that bridge, too. Just don’t expect us to work up an appetite for pig head or (gasp!) head cheese.


Fairmont Hotels Magazine – Bermuda story – Winter 2011

Afternoon tea in Bermuda perfectly encapsulates the entire vibe of this island. A pot of Earl Grey and a shrimp and watercress-stu!ed mini-croissant, plus a rum scone with Devonshire clotted cream and lime jam: everything is properly British – yet with a distinct island accent.

Though Bermuda’s stormy beginnings are rife with stories of treasure-laden galleons and plundering pirates, civilized serenity reigns here today, as evidenced by its neat lines of colonial cottages in sherbet shades overlooking the crystalline Atlantic. The 54 square-kilometer (21-square-mile) archipelago is the oldest of the British overseas territories. Yet still, like the Bermudian businessmen I see everywhere wearing smart blazers with colorful knee-socks and the country’s namesake shorts, beneath its orderly Anglo-Saxon-isms, the maverick origins of this place are ever present.

After nibbling on sweets and savories, I take in the sights of the capital city, where my teatime oasis, the resplendent Fairmont Hamilton Princess hotel, is situated. The bustling capital is flush with restaurants and boutiques. Mopeds zip by and cruise ships rest in the ferry terminal. The venerable hotel, celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, is a beloved fixture of this urban environment. The “Pink Palace,” as it’s known locally, was bestowed its offcial moniker in honor of Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Louise, who had extolled the glories of Bermuda as a kind of paradise. True to form, The Fairmont Hamilton Princess has its own dishy history. During World War II, it was intelligence HQ for allied secret agents and served as temporary home to a real-life Commander Bond (reportedly the basis for Ian Fleming’s rogue agent 007).

As the lazy afternoon melts into evening, teatime gives way to happy hour. Now I find those Bermuda-clad %nanciers in relaxation-mode, mingling with women in breezy casual-chic attire while children scamper on the lawn. The live band lets loose with Fleetwood Mac and Coldplay covers, and I get into the local sway, ordering a Dark ’n’ Stormy, the island signature made with Gosling’s Black Seal Rum and Stormy Ginger Beer. Settling into a seat on the terrace, I cap off the evening by dreamily watching boats breeze past Hamilton Harbour.

The feeling of Bermudian intrigue resonates with me again the next day as I explore the sprawling Fairmont Southampton, a few parishes and an entire mindset away from Hamilton. The country resort, set on the island’s highest point, overlooks the pink-sand idyll known as the South Shore. Here, I join 11th-generation Bermudian Peter Frith and his wife, Chrissy, on the outdoor terrace of the Ocean Club, where we hoist signature Ocean-tinis (vodka, rum and vibrant blue Hpnotiq liqueur). My host (who happens to be the resort’s former director of sales) is descended from legendary seafarers: Christopher Carter, one of two Brits who settled in Bermuda after the shipwreck of their vessel, the Sea Venture, off the east coast in 1609 and Hezekiah Frith, a plucky privateer. “That’s like a legal pirate,” winks Frith naughtily. “The King of England gave them permission to raid any ship with which they were at war.”

My own treasure arrives on a plate: harissa-spiked tuna tartare, and rockfish, in a complex kaffir lime leaf sauce, revealing the worldly palate of Sanjay Leeme, senior chef de partie, whose résumé includes a stint working with a French master chef.

Tableside, the Sri Lankan talent confides that he uses local catch whenever possible and “mixes Asian flavors into European cuisine.” Each bite is as transcendent as the view of towering black rocks over azure water.

By day, the seascape is just as mesmerizing. As I splash along Horseshoe Bay Beach, near the Fairmont Beach Club, the ocean, like the Miles Davis classic, is a harmony of blue in green. I saunter along the pinkish, powdery sand of one of the world’s most photographed coastlines, then up the dunes, encountering dramatic coves that create pockets of privacy dotted with sun worshippers and shutterbugs. This beach reminds me of the dreamy interlude I enjoyed at the luxe Willow Stream Spa at The Fairmont Southampton: the smooth stones used in my hot-stone massage were black like the island rock; the rose- and cedar-scented oil reminiscent of Bermuda’s heady flora. A facial with sea algae and the invigorating salt used in a body scrub are both inspired by this sea and this air. A bikini-clad adventuress ambles atop a striated black boulder, waving her arms. She’s the queen of the world, for a moment in time.

Another sensory encounter awaits in the Town of St. George, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in St. George’s parish. The town crier is off duty as I walk past King’s Square and follow the narrow, cobblestone streets, past storybook houses, to Stewart Hall. Here I find The Bermuda Perfumery, which has been making its own distinctive fragrances under the Lili Bermuda brand since 1928.

Isabelle Ramsay-Brackstone, the French-Canadian owner and master perfumer, leads me to the maceration room, where essential oils commingle in enormous bottles, then to an atmospheric, cedar-beamed room boasting perfume-making paraphernalia from bygone eras and jars stu!ed with orrisroot, oak moss and musk seeds. As I sniff paper blotters infused with single notes, Ramsay-Brackstone explains how she strives to capture the island’s “lush greeneries and flowers, the ocean, the fruits,the wind, the sand and the sun” in her artisan fragrances. One of her latest is South Water, a coconut milk, sea salt and juicy guava blend. “I call it Liquid Bermuda because to me it smells like the beach. It’s incredibly sultry and flirty.”

I dab it on my wrist; like Bermuda itself – from its blush-hued beaches to its unconventional cuisine – it’s perfection, with just a hint of wild abandon.


Edible Brooklyn| Winter 2010 – Like Mom Used to Make

Virginia Dobles never regarded her mother, homemaker Patsy Roberts, as a professional role model. But after Dobles lost her job last year, she spent two weeks soul-searching, mostly under the bedcovers in her Park Slope apartment, and had a revelation.

With her 30-year advertising career kaput, Dobles, 53, wondered whether baking—always her mother’s passion—might hold the key to her happiness, too. “She was a real mom’s mom. Everyone in the neighborhood used to get a tin of her cookies for their birthday—everyone. That she became my inspiration sounds hokey, but it’s true.”

Dobles mixed up the butter cookies that had made Patsy, now 84, a local legend decades earlier in Rockaway Beach, Queens, and a nebulous plan took shape: Why not distribute bundles to 50 friends for Thanksgiving and let kismet take its course? Dobles’s husband, Cristian, a former ad agency creative director, whipped up retro-cute labels featuring Patsy in her prime with a fitting tagline—“Sweetness is the main ingredient”—and Patsy’s Cookies took flight.

Friends told friends about the Dobles’s prettily packaged cookies and they sold 500 boxes for Christmas. Soon they were selling three varieties—cookie-pressed butter cookies, dusted with sugar crystals; chocolate-chip butter; and walnut and maple syrup—to Union Market and Back to the Land in Park Slope and the Blue Bungalow in Rockaway Beach, even the Garden of Eden Gourmet Market in New Jersey.

Dobles believes the “sense memory” resonates with customers. At the couple’s in-store samplings, shoppers take a bite and wax nostalgic about their own mother or grandmother’s buttery renditions. She says some even well up.

These days the Dobles’s sprawling Slope apartment is “corporate headquarters,” while their cookies—along with brownies and walnut crumb cakes—are baked in a certified kitchen in Bedford- Stuyvesant. Dobles substitutes real vanilla for Patsy’s cheap stuff, chops nuts in a Cuisinart instead of, ahem, a meat grinder and mixes dough in a KitchenAid stand mixer. “My mother did it like this,” she says, stirringan imaginary bowl.

The resultant cookies are lighter, but Patsy Roberts wholeheartedly approves. “The first time I showed her the packaging with her face on it,” recalls Dobles, “she said ‘Now I feel like I have a legacy’ and it made me so proud.”




No Bull

Meet your matador at Despaña

The Brooklyn Gal doesn’t usually snoop and tell, but this snippet is too exciting not to share…Overheard at Despaña on Broome Street in NoLita the other afternoon: their highly anticipated wine bar next door may be opening in just a few short weeks.

We love Despaña mucho already, especially since this Spanish food favorite expanded its café area several months ago (we can actually order our bonito bocadillo – a humongous, oil-packed tuna sandwich on ciabatta bread stuffed with tomatoes and piquillo peppers – and enjoy it at communal tables in a little white-tiled room instead of scrunching at the tiny counter).

The grocery area, packed with all kinds of tempting vinegars, olive oils and chocolates, the specialty meat counter bursting with sausages, ham and 50 kinds of cheese (okay, not the Brooklyn Gal’s thing), even Pepe El Toro, the stuffed bull head from Malaga, surveying the scene from the back wall, all make us feel oh-so-European.

We didn’t think that our favorite weekend stop could get much better, but it looks like we were wrong. In no time at all we will be able to snack and sip red wine, all at the same time.