Saturday, April 16, 2005

Surrounded by Happy Shiny People

I now know where the happiest people in the world are and it isn't Disney. I have just returned from Salt Lake City, having spent the better part of last week there on a business trip, and my face hurts. I have not had to paste a smile on my face for that long since I was meeting a long since dismissed beau's family at his parent's 35th anniversary. Now, maybe it my Northeastern attitudes and agnostic leanings but, there is no way without the benefit of large quantities of alcohol or some other mind altering substance that you can be that happy. And talk about polite! (not that there is anything wrong with that...) I haven't been Ma'med like that since I was last below the Mason Dixon line. By the time I got on my airplane yesterday morning, I was actually looking forward to the surly attitude of the Northworst Airlines flight attendants. But, all sarcasm aside, Salt Lake City is a city of dichotomies. Seriously. For example, did you know that Salt Lake City has the 2nd largest copper mine in the world that has created the 3rd most polluted body of water in the US and a slag heap from its strip mining of the area mountains that is visible from space? I didn't. All I remember from previous trips to Salt Lake City was the green space downtown and the mountains. Salt Lake has a fairly large population of working homeless too. I found this out talking to my maid at the hotel. She was telling me about how she and her sister had spent three months living in the back of a broken down van while they saved enough money to have first/last/security for a one bedroom apartment. I thought to how I have never seen panhandlers in Salt Lake like I see in Boston, New York or other major cities. Later that afternoon, on the way to an appointment, I drove through an area of the city where it was obvious most the people either were living in their cars or one step from living on the street. There are several rusting hulks of steel mills, mining operations, and chemical plants scattered around the valleys. The more time I spent driving around the environs of Salt Lake City, the more it began to look like the Pittsburg or Cleveland of the early 80's. And the sprawl... One last little surprising tidbit, Salt Lake City is where the chain restaurants go to test market new concepts. Apparently, it is the Peoria of American taste-buds. Everywhere you turn there is a Chilis, Applebees, Rumbis, Parrot Pete’s, Eat-at-Joes and hundreds of knock-off whannabees. I asked one of my clients where I could go for a good meal that wasn't a chain. He told me he and his wife really enjoy a place called the Mayan as they served authentic South American/Latin American food. Excited to have Peixe Ensopado (Brazilian Fish Stew) and wash it down with the spicy ginger beer of the region, I drove to the restaurant for an early dinner. What greeted me was a big fake Mayan temple complete with large neon Toucan on the side of the building. As soon as I walked into the door, I knew that any hopes of authentic or even close to authentic South American food were dashed. I was seated and promptly served a platter full of tortilla chips and fried plantains and sauces ala every Tex-Mex joint in this land. Basically I had stumbled into a Rainforest Cafe meets Chi-Chi's and the menu reflected that concept. I left $7.00 on the table for the ginger beer I had ordered as well as the trouble to clear the table and left. On my drive back to my hotel, I spotted a Wild Oats grocery store. I stopped to pick up a meal from their salad bar and went back to my plastic hotel in a plastic suburb in a plastic town with plastic people to numb my mind with the plastic version of Sex in the City showing on TBS and all the while, REM's "Happy Shiny People" played in my head...

Peixe Ensopado: Coconut Fish Stew

This is a recipe that a friend from Brazil gave me. She typically made it with badejo, a fish native to Brazil and like sea bass. I found a good substitute is haddock or a thick cut of hake or cod.

Juice of one lime
1/2 teaspoon salt
Black pepper to taste
4 fish steaks 1/2" thick
1 large onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
8 green olives, sliced
3 tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 malagueta pepper, chopped (optional but tasty)
1/2 cup coconut milk (see recipe below. You can substitute canned but it will be much sweeter tasting)

Make a marinade of the lime juice, salt and pepper and marinate the fish for 1 to 3 hours. Sauté the onion, olives and garlic in oil until onion is limp. Mix in cilantro and cook for 1 minute. Add fish and marinade. Simmer 10 to 15 minutes, or until fish is done. Mix in tomato paste, malagueta pepper and coconut milk. Simmer for another 5 minutes. Serve with rice.

Coconut Milk

1 coconut (see below)
1/2 cup warm water (for a thick milk)
2 to 3 cups warm water (for a thin milk)

Heat the coconut in a preheated 350 degree F oven for 10 minutes. This will crack the coconut. Using potholders, remove the coconut from the oven and place it in a large metal bowl on the floor. Cover the bowl with a towel and with a hammer, hit the coconut to break it open (note: good to take frustrations out as it will take several good hits to break it open). Take out large pieces of broken coconut and strain the coconut water through a coffee filter to take out all the little shell fragments and set aside. Separate the coconut meat from the shell. Use a big solid serving fork or dull knife. DO NOT USE A SHARP KNIFE!! (trust me on this...I have the scar to prove this is a bad idea). You can use a vegetable peeler to get the brown skin away from the ends of the meat. Grate the meat in a food processor or through a food mill.

To make the thick milk: Put the gratings into cheesecloth or a clean white dish towel and tie the ends together. Soak the wrapped gratings in 1/2 cup warm water in a small bowl for a few minutes. Firmly squeeze the gratings over the bowl. This should make about 3/4 cup of thick milk. Add to reserved coconut water.

To make the thin milk: Follow the same soaking process above but use 2 to 3 cups of warm water and repeating the squeezing procedure several time. Use the reserved coconut water and bring the volume to 2 to 3 cups with warm water is needed.