No website,no Facebook page. Only a recommendation by someone from work had led me to a tienda tucked away in a faceless mall near my neigHBorhood. It was a rainy Sunday morning and the windows were steamy from fresh corn tortillas. I wandered the aisles of the grocery, feeling the forgotten thrill of seeing ingredients I had no idea what to do with. So many types of chili, curious kitchen utensils. I was a novice, a new world open to me.
Through my life I have loved these places.When I was a teenager growing up in London my mum and I would go into to Chinatown and feel transported. The shop workers talked in their dialect, shelves would be stacked with pungent dried meats or vegetables. I peered into freezers to find a an eye peering back at me through the cold mist. Used to seeing prepackaged, sterile meals in our typical British supermarkets, the produce here was minimally packaged and labeled with Chinese characters. We desperately wanted to try things, inspired by the perfumed air that came from the restaurants surrounding us, but we never could find the nerve. We always left with bags stuffed with only ramen and tea.
Later, when we moved back to the West Midlands, the communities were different. In my home town one area that had been home to a large Pakistani community, started to see other groups arrive - Iranians, Iraqis and Afghanis escaping war. With them they brought their cuisine and started shops that were filled with spices, exotic sweets and fresh mangoes.
Stepping into these shops for me was like taking a micro vacation. Food looked like food here. You could smell it, you could touch it. The music they played was from their homeland, the labels often were unintelligible to me. There was a sense of not knowing where I was, of being completely out of my depth, and I was always met with kindness.
Anyway, back to the tienda. We had come for the tacos and weren’t disappointed. I said to my husband that I now finally understood what all the fuss was about when it came to tacos. These were no fuss, perfectly flavored with a few simple trimmings - cilantro, lime wedges, radishes, tomatoes. I realized that the tacos I had had up to now at the hipper, more expensive places I’d been to in town, were not even close to the real deal, but created to appeal to the masses of tourists.
I hope that tienda has a future ahead of it. With the rising cost of living in Asheville, who can say? It would be sad to see it go to be replaced by another, bland eatery that justifies its overpriced food by creating a fancy ambience full of re-purposed retro furniture, that serves you drinks in a ball jar and for which you have to wait an hour to be seated. Thanks but no thanks.
La Tienda Hispana La Piedrita does a brisk trade, so next time you fancy brunch, give them a chance.
If you are a little further south in the US, then you are probably seeing the first crops of tomatoes arrive in your groceries and markets. I don't think I have been in a country that didn't revere the tomato. In Italy they were a staple of the the Pugliese diet, being the base for sauces as well as ubiquitous on sandwiches and bruschetta (pronounced 'broosketta'). When I lived in Puglia I watched amazed as my Italian friends would stand around a giant bowl and tirelessly slice tomato after tomato with blunt plastic knives while chatting away. These would then be smothered onto thick toasted bread and sprinkled with olive and salt.
In Zambia, tomatoes were one of the few crops that grew even in the most blistering heat. They were not often eaten raw but were added to vegetables such as rape (a kind of leafy green) or pumpkin leaves and cooked to a rich sauce that would be eaten with cornmeal porridge.
In China, I saw small, bright cherry tomatoes added to chocolate cakes as a garnish. Why not? They looked stunning and they are a fruit after all!
It is important to remember that refrigerating tomatoes is not a good idea. It makes them mealy in texture and impedes the flavor. Nigella Lawson suggests that if you really must keep them in the fridge, then take them out and put them in a sunny spot for a while before using. It's a compromise, I suppose.
We are early in the season and few of us are probably thinking about canning tomatoes yet, so let's try a couple of ideas that allow fresh tomatoes to shine.
Tomato Sandwiches (British Style)
Yes, I know these seems an odd idea for a recipe. However I think, simplicity is deceptively difficult.
- Salted butter at room temperature
- Two slices of good white bread (sour dough, for example)
- One medium sized heirloom tomato at room temperature (Cherokee purple is a favorite of mine)
- Several paper towels
- Slice your tomato thinly and blot the slices on the paper towel
- Spread the bread with a layer of butter
-Once the paper towels have absorbed most of the moisture, add the slices to one slice of buttered bread (the butter should be inside, not outside like it is for grilled cheese)
- Top with the second slice of buttered bread
- Cut sandwich in half.
Salsa crudo is very popular in southern Italy and means 'raw sauce'. The tomatoes are not cooked, in fact none of the components of this sauce are cooked. Typically this sauce is for pasta, but you could use it as a sauce for fish or chicken and maybe add some capers.
- Four large tomatoes - skinned
- One large clove garlic, lightly pressed to release some juice, but still intact
- One tablespoon each of chopped fresh basil and flat leaf parsley
- One teaspoon of good salt
- Two tablespoons of Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- Finely chop the tomatoes
- Mix with all the other ingredients
- Cover and leave to stand for about half an hour
- Taste for seasoning
- Remove the garlic clove and discard
- Serve over pasta or with fish or chicken
Cod is firm and mild and so takes other flavors well. I used wild garlic onions that grow all over my garden. You could easily use green onions or leek. The onions get wonderfully sweet when roasted.
- 2 portions of cod
- 1 lemon
- 1 bunch of wild garlic or green onions
- Six sprigs of fresh rosemary
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- Mixed Peppercorns, ground
- Preheat the oven to 400 F
- Peel the lemon with a vegetable peeler then slice the peel thinly
- Finely chop three of the rosemary sprigs
- Trim the onions and cut in half width ways
- Drizzle some olive oil in the bottom of a small, shallow ovenproof dish
-Scatter the onions onto the bottom of the dish
- Put the fish in the dish
- Drizzle with olive oil
- Add the chopped rosemary, lemon peel, salt and pepper to the top of the fish
- Tuck the remaining rosemary sprigs in around the fish
- Roast for about 15 minutes, or until the fish flakes easily
- Squeeze with lemon juice before serving
Fresh shrimp is best of course and I recommend a good pilsner for this recipe. Don't worry you won't be using the whole beer so you can drink the rest!
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