Food; Cold Fusion

Sorbets From Mexico to Manhattan

New York Times magazine: August 1, 2004

A few years back, I spent a couple of weeks in Oaxaca, Mexico. It was, of course, an eating holiday, but to ease the languors between breakfast on the zócalo and lunch at wherever, I arranged French conversation lessons with a likable chap named Hervé. His existence in the town was pure Magic Realism, predicated on the notion that eating Oaxacan chapulines -- fried grasshoppers -- has the same mystical someday-you-will-return effect as a coin tossed over the shoulder into the Trevi Fountain. On a youthful dare, a visiting Hervé had downed a cricket or two a couple of blocks from the zócalo in Benito Juárez Market; when I met him years later, he was living in Oaxaca, still blinking with surprise, giving French classes to pass the time.

He was a good guy, a Gascon (I think) with an excellent palate and a gargantuan appetite for life. All life -- marine life, plant life, mammals, arthropods, etc., preferably with butter and garlic. He considered Oaxaca a gastronomic heaven, and we bonded over his contention that mole negro oaxaqueño would be better showcased with duck, since it overpowers the hapless chicken it usually accompanies. For my formal last meal during my stay, I invited him to dine at a restaurant that specialized in regional foods dating back to before Christopher Columbus dropped anchor in the New World.

Eating in Oaxaca is like eating in France, with high highs and grisly disappointments; that final afternoon provided both. We began with large, deep-fried fish ovaries the color and mealy texture of corn sticks, which arrived at our table in a venomous fume of rotting fish. As I chewed, I imagined the roe sacs basking torpidly on the griddle-hot rooftop of a Oaxacan bus as it wound its way slowly from the distant shore to the mountain city.

It was a relief to move on to the estofado de iguana, chunks of iguana in a tomato-based sauce, a kind of reptile cacciatore. The meat tasted a bit like chicken, of course, but also a bit like fish and, most strikingly, like rabbit. Unfortunately, the iguana is small enough that no matter which cut you're eating, you're always aware of its rightful place on the intact lizard and can't help imagining it still attached to the original iguana, scuttling through the undergrowth in search of worms or other iguanal delicacies. I also wouldn't have missed the skin, had they removed it.

I sat there glumly chewing my iguana. Across the table, Hervé wolfed his down, then turned with annoying gusto to the guisado de armadillo that followed. Mouth-watering globs of armadillo in another cacciatore-ish sauce, the meat impressively similar in flavor to iguana, only more intense.

We finished with a dismal pancake coated in egg, deep fried, then drizzled with thin honey and garnished with a cockroach (the latter I suspect to have been a stowaway, but I cannot be certain). As a dessert it was rather grim, but as a culinary climax, it ranked as one of my favorite: Hervé, called back to Oaxaca by the magical bugs in his youth, had developed an abject terror of cucarachas during his time in the city. The advent of the roach straddling his crepe made for the sort of entertainment only encountered when the very suave are suddenly transformed into the very hysterical.

When he calmed down, we went for nieves, literally "snows," on the shady plaza in front of the Basilica de la Soledad, the handsome 17th-century Baroque church that cleverly combines the dual thrill of holy-virgin worship with cooling frozen treats. At the end of the day, le tout Oaxaca gathers to eat fruit and milk ices as the sky turns violet. The sorbets are particularly lovely: incredible flavors like burned milk, corn and cactus pear, tropical fruits like mamey and guanabana, and a very delicate rose petal. (Zarela Martínez includes several nieves in her excellent "Food and Life of Oaxaca.") There are few things quite so pleasant as watching the swallows fluttering around the sand-colored cathedral as you reflect on a hot, dusty day spent eating things you'll never eat again, by God and the Holy Virgin of Solitude!

I'm not holding my breath for Mesoamerican cuisine to come into vogue in New York City restaurants, but lately it seems that fruit ices are enjoying a renaissance here. Sorbets are pushing their way into the dessert menu like kudzu, new flavors boldly forcing aside the effete panna cotta and the hoary molten chocolate cake. At Trinity in the Tribeca Grand, for example, the chef, Franklin Becker, features a tasting of three different melons glazed with three different liqueurs and served with three sorbets (each of which combine two different flavors — Thai basil-lemongrass, lychee-pickled ginger and Muscat grape-sugarcane). Becker's sorbets have even colonized the cocktail menu, with a kir royale based on cassis sorbet and a Bellini with white-peach sorbet in the works.

This makes good business sense; since a good sorbet contains nothing but fruit juice or purée with sugar, the cost is low. To pastry chefs, though, the issue goes far beyond kitchen economics; a good sorbet captures the essence of a fruit. To make a sorbet is to perform alchemy, to transform a perfectly ripe, sweet piece of fruit into a distillate of itself. There is a purity of nature and chemistry at work that is equaled only by fine perfumery.

If you're the sort who talks seriously about purity and sorbets, you'll soon find yourself at Jon Snyder's Laboratorio del Gelato on the Lower East Side. Snyder, who co-founded Ciao Bella in the 80's, makes sorbets that consist of nothing but fruit, sugar and water, with an occasional pinch of vitamin-C powder to prevent browning. His discourse is an earnest susurrus of mantras like "respect the fruit" and "in season," "perfectly ripe, where possible, organic," "ideally tree-ripened." When I proudly told him that I would be including a recipe I whipped up myself, a pantry sorbet made from canned lychees, the syrup infused with kaffir-lime leaves prior to puréeing and freezing, his face creased with pain; his was pretty much the reaction I would get from my mother were I to say, "Mother, bored with the single life in Manhattan, I'm off to tour the fleshpots of the Orient, and I don't expect to be back until I've found a wife."

The thing is, Jon's piety and ascetism are completely balanced by his beautiful ices. He makes approximately 100 different gelati and sorbets, almost all single flavors. His sorbets are simple to make. They're nothing but water, sugar, air and a flavoring agent. If a food can be made into a liquid, it can be made into a sorbet. As a general rule, the pastry chef Bill Yosses of Josephs restaurant recommends a mixture of 85 percent fruit juice or purée and 15 percent sugar and water. If your sorbet mixture is too sugary, it won't set properly, yielding a sweet, fruity slush. (Tell your guests it's a "fruit snow.") Too little sugar, and it'll be icy (a "granita"). Make sure that your sorbet mix is as cold as possible before going into the machine -- most of us have those weeny freezer-canister dealies, though they still do the job. And trust me: if the end result isn't the prettiest thing in the world, it'll still taste pretty nice. So experiment! Mess things up! What's the worst that can happen? A couple of dollars down the drain? A trifle, when you bid for perfection! Let your imagination guide your creating hand.

When he's invited to a dinner party, Yosses sometimes picks up a blend of beet and apple from his neighborhood juice bar, running it in his ice-cream machine for a quick intermezzo sorbet. And Sam Mason, at WD-50, offers a fantastic "liaison" course (between the savory and the sweet) of celery sorbet with peanut-butter Rice Krispies and cinnamon-poached raisins. The dessert was inspired by a snack he used to eat growing up in the South: a celery stalk slathered with peanut butter and then topped with raisins. "Ants on a Log" -- an insect-studded dessert that Hervé would have loved. Tomato-Water Sorbet With Mint (from Bill Yosses, Josephs Restaurant) 6 ripe heirloom tomatoes (about 2 1/2 pounds) 2 teaspoons Fleur de Sel or any good salt 12 branches mint leaves, stems removed 1/2 stalk of lemongrass, chopped fine Freshly ground white pepper.

1. Remove stems from tomatoes and place in a food processor with the salt. Run for 30 seconds until well broken up, but not a purée. Add the mint. Run for 10 more seconds.
2. Place a cotton cloth (a thin towel, not cheesecloth) in the bottom of a bowl and pour the contents of the food processor into it. Bring the corners together to form a pouch and tie together with string. (The tomato water will already start to drip out.) Lift the towel 3 to 4 inches above this liquid and suspend over the bowl in a cool place. Allow tomato water to drip into this bowl overnight.
3. The next day, add the lemongrass and heat the tomato water without boiling, using a ladle to skim off any particles that rise to the surface. When the tomato water is clear, correct seasoning with Fleur de Sel and freshly ground white pepper. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours before churning in an ice-cream machine. Set up to finish in the freezer.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings.

Note: You can pick up a decent home ice-cream maker for less than $50. Krups makes a good one. Black-Plum Sorbet With Honey and Thyme 3/4 cup, plus 1 tablespoon, granulated sugar 4 sprigs of fresh thyme 1 1/2 pounds very ripe black plums (approximately 6 plums) Pinch of ascorbic acid (vitamin-C powder, or simply pulverize a vitamin-C tablet using a mallet ) Pinch of salt 2 tablespoons honey.

1. To make the syrup: Dissolve the sugar in 1/2 cup water over medium heat. Once the sugar is dissolved, remove the pan from the heat and add the thyme sprigs, pressing them under the surface of the syrup. Allow them to steep for 1 hour.
2. Meanwhile, peel and pit the plums, chopping them coarsely as you do. Combine the plums, about 1/3 of the skin, the ascorbic acid and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Process until smooth.
3. Remove the thyme sprigs from the syrup and stir in the honey until dissolved. Pour 1/2 cup of the honey-thyme syrup into the plum mixture and process until blended. Taste the mixture; it should be sweet, but not intensely so. If plums were underripe, you might need to add a little more syrup. Pour mixture into a bowl and refrigerate for at least 2 hours before churning in an ice-cream maker. Set up to finish in the freezer.

Yield: 8 to 10 servings.