With our real national holiday approaching, let's talk about food for a Superbowl party. Here's an idea for a substantial meal you can set out and leave on the kitchen stove or table for people drifting in during commercials and at half-time. It's kind of the same idea as wandering down a street, with vendors and stalls ready to serve tempting delicacies. A meal of street food.
"Street food" is not always actually purchased on the street, of course. It's more a concept than a literal requirement. And with our obsession for culinary hygiene, the U.S. is a difficult country for street vendors and impromptu stalls, the romance and chaos of which inevitably suffers under rigid bureaucratic control. Still, Arcata's Oyster Festival is proof it can be done.
But we pale beside the cornucopia of street food around the world. Is it always sanitary? Um, frankly, almost never. Experienced world travelers say that the most dangerous thing you can consume is local water; second is uncooked vegetables that have been washed in that water. Yet street food has flourished, brimming over with in variety and taste.
The world capital of street food is said to be Singapore, to which have drifted the specialties of Thailand, Indonesia, India, Malaysia and China. The civic authorities, recognizing that they couldn't simply ban vendors, instead built vast public arenas, where they can create their delicacies under perfect sanitary conditions. Calvin Trillin, writing in The New Yorker, says, "It has become possible to eat in Singapore for days at a time without ever entering a conventional restaurant."
At home, some of the best street food I've eaten has been at lunch stands, tiny stand-up storefronts or bars. Or pool halls: at the Dante Billiard Parlor in North Beach, I had a warm Gorgonzola and red onion sandwich on oven-fresh sourdough. Then there was the char-grilled carne asada taco at a Nogales bar, sausage-and-pepper loaf in Manhattan's Little Italy and, my ultimate decadence, paper-thin, blood-rare roast beef from Carnegie Deli, piled high on a Kaiser roll, slathered with Russian dressing.
Oops. Actually, that sandwich isn't really street food -- it demands a table, or a place to put the other half, not to mention the garlic kosher dill pickle slice. And too many books titled "Street Food" are simply excuses for exotic recipes. One book includes a Guatemalan tamal described in such terms, even though it is a plateful of food tied up and steamed in banana leaves, and another offers biryani, a lavish preparation of rice mixed with rich curry, often gilded (that's right, coated with a paper-thin layer of gold leaf!), usually part of an Indian wedding feast. Not street food.
I guess I should come up with some definitive definition, so here goes. "Street food" is walking food (not car food, a whole different thing). It's something you can: One, eat standing up; two, eat without utensils, condiments, anything but a cheap paper napkin, and/or; three, take with you. Perfect for that Superbowl party.
The U.S. has become truly lame in this aspect of our culinary culture: It's ironic that "fast food" is part of our history; it was not the invention of McDonald's or Colonel Sanders. All they did was to perfect mass-production and mass-marketing, serving stuff so cheap that small burger stands, chili joints, barbecues and chicken shacks couldn't compete (quality be damned).
Getting back to our Superbowl theme, many street food items can be incorporated into party food. Here are three examples:
Oven-toasted bread topped with baked garlic cannellini beans and pesto;
Keema-filled pita, with lemon-cucumber yoghurt;
Crisp fried tofu with chilies.
The toast is any rustic Brio bread (not their focaccia), sliced thin, brushed with olive oil and salt and baked in a moderate oven ’til slightly toasted, about five minutes. I am a fan of good, cheap solutions, and for this dish I do not make white beans from scratch; I buy a can of Progresso cannellini beans, drain, and mix with a lot of chopped garlic, some melted bacon fat and a few leaves of fresh thyme, oregano or rosemary. (Be very sparing of the latter -- it can easily overwhelm.) The bean-garlic combination is cooked in a slow oven. Don't let it dry out -- add white wine, leftover beer, anything but water. Cook ’til the beans absorb the flavors.
Assemble the toasts, spoon the beans and top with a drizzle of pesto. If you don't have pesto, use your favorite salsa -- who's looking?
Pita (in India, it would be very thin naan as a wrap) separates, allowing a "pocket" to be filled. Put in a covered dish and microwave.
Keema is, simply stated, a ground meat curry. (Melt butter or oil in a large pan, add mustard and fennel seeds and other spices, then minced onion, garlic and ground meat; stir to avoid the meat clumping. You may loosen the mix with a little water, though I prefer individual cans of tomato juice. Naturally, it will be improved by fresh ginger, Serrano chile, and if you wish, a little curry powder -- all these should go in before the meat. Cook everything 20 minutes or so, and let sit, to reheat before you assemble the meal.) Lamb and goat are better still. If you cube the meat and partially freeze it, you can "grind" it in a food processor, more flavorful than buying packaged. Anyway, this is a very forgiving preparation.
The yogurt, on the other hand, is a critical element. Process Nancy's Yogurt with diced cucumber, minced lemon (skin included), shreds of mint or cilantro and salt. Serve the pita warm, fill the pocket with curry, top with yogurt mix.
I knew eventually I'd find a tofu recipe I like. The point, of course, is not to disguise the tofu, but feature it. The Tofu Shop makes it fresh locally; get the firmer (less likely to crumble in cooking) and cut into half-inch cubes. Prepare a thickish dip of catsup, tamari, dark sesame oil and Serrano chiles (use your knife to cut away the outer flesh, then mince it).
Heat peanut oil in a wok, and when it's hot, add the coated cubes. Stir-fry briskly, turning with a slotted spoon until they are golden brown all over. Remove and drain over newspaper. Salt and serve with dip.
Yes, street food, but if you want to avoid the inevitable drips, have paper plates and napkins available.
If you have all this as a meal at the table, it would be good to add a simple salad, like Savoy cabbage slaw, with cilantro, lime zest and juice, and a little good olive oil.
Wine doesn't go with street food. But beer does. Once at a jazz festival in Sacramento, they brought my band frosty mugs of Pyramid Apricot Ale, the only flavored beer I've ever liked, fruity and refreshing; it would go very well with the bold flavors of this meal. But this is a Superbowl party -- one thing you probably won't have to worry about is having enough beer.
Note: Super Bowl XLIII, with the Pittsburgh Steelers v. the Arizona Cardinals, is on Sunday, Feb. 1, in Tampa, Fla.
It's a recession, maybe even a depression, closing in. What are local restaurants doing about rising costs and diminishing sales? Have an example? E-mail Joseph at email@example.com.