Norman Van Aken

Sopa De Pollo

Apr 19, 2014

We drive about 60 miles round-trip to get our tortillas these days. I don’t wish to think … as an accountant might… how much gas that costs per tortilla … but these tortillas are worth it … partly to the see the face of the 70-something woman who sells them to me from her little bodega. She sells lengua and such too. Her shop is named “Moreno’s” and I urge you to make the trek. It is down in the bosom of our South Florida’s growing region … which encircles the appropriately named village of ….  ‘Homestead’.

The way my mother taught me to make cinnamon toast was to start with raisin bread and toast it to perfection.

She might have timed it by how long it took her to jump into her waitress work uniform before slathering it with rich and creamy Wisconsin sweet butter. Then she sprinkled a combination of sugar and cinnamon out of our plastic, yellow  ‘baseball player’ figurine bottle that was covered with wax paper tucked under a red metal lid tha t doubled as the faux baseball boy’s ‘cap’. She usually slathered enough butter on the toast so that the cinnamon and sugar mix slide over the top of it like grains of sand dancing in the ebb of an ocean wave.

The majority of times I have enjoyed oxtails has been in the classic Cuban dish named, “Rabo Encendido.” The translation is literally “Lit Tail.”

This is supposedly due to the spice level in the dish, but unless I make it myself or have it in the home of another chile-loving person, the spice is mild, while the flavor is great. I love the tomato-ey rich stew that I have eaten since venturing into places like “El Siboney” in Key West years ago. I had it there again recently. 

I walked into our restaurant kitchen and I inhaled an aroma I’d known before I knew it’s name. It was blood. It spiraled me back in time to a grocery store where my mother shopped when I was young. She carried me in there before the age of three and slung me from hip to hip while she selected our food and put it in the cart. By the time I was five, I knew the owners names, Mr. and Mrs. Petersen.

Though small, the store was pretty amazing for the time. They had a full butcher case that Mr. Petersen personally manned. He had a box of sawdust that he used to toss like chicken feed onto the wooden floors to sop up the blood that fell off his knives. A vibrant produce section lined one whole wall of the store. It relied on the area’s farms and orchards. Though the fish choices were few, they were fresh Great Lakes fish. There was even a baked goods cabinet by the check out area. Mrs. Petersen added in her own home-baked Greek specialties that lent a sense of exotica to the rural store in our town.

A Word On Food: Turkey

Jan 11, 2014

The first time we rolled down Highway 1 in the Florida Keys was 1971. Sometimes you would not see an oncoming car for 10 to 15 minutes. The darkness on those narrow bridges we crossed was nearly overwhelming.

But above us the constellations came through. The starlight was an explosion of skyward imagery that guided us forth. Now we drive across these islands on the same highway and struggle to find a gap where you hope to find the darkness once again and the attendant miracle of the stars. Returning here, I am reminded of the words of ancient Heraclitus, “No man ever steps in the same river twice for its not the same river and hes not the same man.

Many North Americans would look at the word "mojo" in its printed form and pronounce it “mo-joe." In Spanish of course, it's pronounced "mo-ho" because the letter “j” is pronounced as an "h," as in jalapeño.

The word mojo comes from the word “mojar,” which means, "to wetten” so the usage of mojo can actually be pretty broad in that there are many ways to ‘wetten’ food. Years ago, I took a rather radical departure from the traditions of mojo and made tropical fruit mojos! If mojo meant a thing that would get something wet, I wanted to demonstrate that food that I’d added spices to, especially fish, would be happy swimming in a puree of mango and another dimensional ingredient or so.

A play of light mesmerized me as I lay in bed, savoring the last moments of an unmoored  consciousness. I allowed my mind to wander as I simply enjoyed the light show and worked on understanding where it was coming from and how it was working.

The process of cooking is nearly identical for me. The analyst in me came to realize that the fluttering sequences of light and shadow dancing on the unadorned wall placed me in the room that once was my son’s. The light of the early morning sun punctuated by the rhythm of the ceiling fan sought to keep me lulled and sleeping longer.

The very words themselves call up ancient things. I imagine it on the menu that day in the year 1215 when King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta at Runnymede or something Shakespeare’s own mother would have served.

When I fantasize about the words being read in a perfect movie, I hear a voice like Sir Alec Guinness intoning them.

“Roast Beef.”

I learn words in many ways, but the best may be in eating. The words on the menus and in the cookbooks I have from around the world have helped me conquer at least ‘parts’ of foreign languages.

I have a good knowledge of French, Italian and even some Japanese, if you allow that food is the central most important aspect of understanding a people’s tongue. My vocabulary was broadened by at least seven new words in Little Havana just the other day at a place blandly named, “Viva Mexico.”