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Northern Exposure

Colonial-era Acadian cooking in New York City; a chef scours Peru for bizarre ingredients; urban farmers think inside the box in Boston; the humble sesame seed hits the cocktail bar

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The underappreciated Canadian culinary bridge between French and Cajun cuisines / Amber Gibson, photography by Sam Polcer

 

NEW YORK CITY – Beyond Tim Hortons’ doughnuts and Quebecois poutine, few Americans know the first thing about Canadian cooking.

But all that could change with the opening of New York City’s King Bee. The rustic East Village restaurant is dedicated to the little-known food of Acadia, a 17th-century French colony in what is now the Maritime Provinces and Maine.

If some of the dishes on the menu look familiar, you may recognize the flavor profiles from their later iterations in the cuisine of Louisiana, where the Acadians emigrated after being expelled by the British in the 1750s—it was here that the Acadians became the Cajuns. (The spot takes its name from “I’m a King Bee,” a 1957 swamp blues tune by Baton Rouge’s Slim Harpo.)

“People have been really interested in tracing the origins of Cajun food from France to Newfoundland to Louisiana,” says King Bee chef Jeremie Tomczak. “I’d really never heard about the culture before. I didn’t know the background of Cajun cuisine. That’s what attracted me to it. I was fascinated by their journey.”

Rural French farmers adapted to living in the harsh Canadian Maritimes by fishing, hunting, foraging and farming hardy root vegetables. As a result, Acadian food is uncomplicated, with minimal ingredients and straightforward preparation. Take, for example, the potato dumplings known as poutine râpée, stuffed here with lamb neck, instead of the traditional fatty salt pork, and served with partridgeberry preserves, or even cod tongue, the gelatinous bits of flesh around the fish’s throat. “Fishermen used to cut out the jowls and make this stew on the boat,” says Tomczak, who serves cod tongue in the approachable style of fish and chips. “It’s a delicacy to them. It has so much more flavor than other cuts. It’s more oceany.”

Tomczak explains that a lot of Old World cuisine is about preservation, “whether it’s pickling, preserving, smoking, salting or curing.” Sailor-staple salt pork appears in dishes like confit lobster with grits and mustard greens, while other entrees incorporate pickled and preserved produce or smoked and salted fish and meat.

In the future, dishes may skew even more, well, wild. “In Acadian cuisine, there’s beavertail, beaver fat, wild game, waterfowl—a little more adventurous for some people to swallow,” Tomczak says. “We’re taking baby steps with the restaurant right now, but we’re going to start pushing the boundaries.”

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From Ocean to Andes

Virgilio Martínez is finding ingredients and culinary inspiration from all four corners of his beloved Peru / Julie Hatfield, photography by Gustavo Vivanco

LIMA – Think of Peruvian chef Virgilio Martínez as the Indiana Jones of fine dining. To source the ingredients for his much-lauded Lima tasting menu spot Central Restaurante, Martínez travels to every corner of his home country, from under the sea off the Pacific Coast to the Amazon rainforest, from the desert to the 14,000-foot-high Andes.

“I receive inspiration from the landscapes of Peru,” says Martínez, who returned to his home country after cooking in such prestigious restaurants as London’s Le Cordon Bleu and New York’s Lutèce. “Peruvian biodiversity is rich and stimulating.”

On his Mater Elevations tasting menu, for example, the altitude is listed next to each of the 17 inventive courses: from 25 meters under the sea, frogfish with deep-water algae; from 645 meters in the rainforest, barks and resins from local trees; from an elevation of 4,200 meters in the Andes, Isco potatoes, tunta (traditional Quechua freeze-dried potatoes) and cushuro (spherical aquatic bacteria colonies that look like tapioca pearls). Along the way, diners sample edible chaco clay, Andean corn varietals, sargassum seaweed and coca leaves.

Martínez has even established what he calls Mater Iniciativa, a research program in which he travels with chefs, botanists and nutritionists throughout Peru to uncover the country’s wild flora and fauna. While eaten by indigenous populations (like the Quechua) for centuries, these foods have remained undocumented and unknown to most Westerners.

“Some of this food was originally used as perfume, some for medicinal use,” he says. “But it’s food, too!” For example, Martínez employs seeds used by Peruvian women to make a dye to add vibrant color to their textiles, and annatto, which indigenous tribes use as makeup. “Airampo is used to calm fevers in the Andes,” he says, of a prickly cactus pear. “We use it to marinate fish.”

And while bacteria, cactus and algae might not normally appear on fine-dining menus, these ingredients get treated with the same respect a French chef might show to foie gras or truffles. Twenty-five sous chefs and assistants are working behind the scenes at the 54-seat Central Restaurante. The culinary world has taken notice:

Martínez’s eatery recently appeared at No. 15 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list; it jumped from No. 50 the previous year, earning it the “Highest Climber” award.

“Fifteen years ago, food was Italian or French,” Martínez says. “Our chefs are defending Peruvian traditions. Whenever we touch something from our region, it’s changing the way we see our people. It helps our own suppliers and farmers. We really can change our little world.”

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Freight to Table

Urban farming pioneers think inside the box / Heather Hansman

BOSTON – At Chef Quique Dacosta’s eponymous restaurant on Spain’s Costa Blanca, one of the most impressive dishes is also the simplest: one gamba roja (red shrimp) served “naked,” the white flesh gleaming as you crack through its striped armor. The bare-bones preparation might come as a shock to foodies familiar with the three-Michelin-starred chef’s usual culinary fireworks—think oysters coated in “edible titanium” to mimic the Guggenheim Bilbao. But that doesn’t mean the stripped-down dish doesn’t have a trick up its sleeve. The secret ingredient is seawater. “You don’t need anything else, if the product is good enough,” says Dacosta.

Chefs along the Mediterranean have long believed that seawater adds something to the pot that you just don’t get from the usual fistful of salt. ElBulli’s Ferran Adrià, one of Dacosta’s biggest inspirations, used to cook seafood with it himself, claiming that “the fish tastes more of fish.”

These days it’s not just chefs who are dipping into the ocean. In the town of Xàtiva, Er Boquerón beer is brewed with a glug of the Mediterranean; perhaps unsurprisingly, it genuinely tastes of the briny sea, with a savory aftertaste. Added bonus: There are claims that the minerals found in seawater can help reduce hangovers—or at least help rehydrate you more quickly.

Before you go adding a teaspoon of the Atlantic to your Bud Light, remember that it’s not recommended to drink saltwater directly from the beach. Both Er Boquerón and Quique Dacosta use purified seawater from a company called Mediterranea.

“Ferran Adrià had the advantage that his restaurant was at Cala Montjoi, a part of the Mediterranean where the water is particularly clean, and he took water from there,” says Mediterranea’s marketing director, Albert Fernández. “But although the water might appear clean, it could contain anything.”

Since Mediterranea opened in 2013, at least six competitors have started filtering seawater in Spain. At Abastos 2.0 in Galicia, chef Iago Pazos uses the local Siete Mares seawater to cook mussels. “Too much salt masks the flavor,” he says. “But with seawater, you get a different kind of intensity.”

Other chefs make their own seawater by simply adding sea salts, but Fernández claims it’s impossible to get quite the same range of minerals. “Ordinary salt is 99 percent sodium chloride,” he says. “Sea salt is 98 percent sodium chloride, while the minerals in our seawater are 86 percent sodium chloride.”

For skeptics, Mediterranea managing director Jorge Díaz-Crespo suggests trying “the proof of the potato”: Cook half a potato in water with salt and the other in a diluted seawater solution. It’s a surprisingly convincing experiment. “It’s not that it makes it taste of the sea,” he says proudly. “It just makes it taste even more like a potato.”

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Sesame Treat

Asian-inspired cocktails highlight the versatile sesame seed / Nicholas Derenzo

NEW YORK CITY – At the hip Japanese eateries Cherry, in the Meatpacking District, and Cherry Izakaya, in Brooklyn, the most innovative cocktail on the menu is also the most unassuming. In fact, the Sesame Whiskey looks like little more than bourbon on the rocks. But a key addition from the kitchen sets this quiet stunner apart: “Sesame seeds are a staple condiment in many Japanese dishes,” says mixologist Esteban Ordoñez. “They bring a beautifully light nuttiness.”

Ordoñez infuses Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky with toasted white sesame seeds; the combination completely transforms the spirit’s character. “When infused in whiskey, sesame seeds release oils and flavor in a much more intense way,” he says. “It changes the body from lean and astringent to an almost silky texture, with bittersweet notes that match and enhance the wood/leather and vanilla notes.” The smooth infusion tastes of rich peanut butter or savory tahini.

At LA’s Lock & Key, sesame shows up in the form of three drops of pungent toasted sesame oil squeezed into the frothy egg white topper of the Torpedo, imparting first a heady aroma and then a subtle nutty backnote to this refreshing mix of pear vodka, pear nectar, maple syrup, ginger juice and black pepper.

And at Daikaya, in Washington, D.C., sesame is part of the base spirit itself: Beni Otome is a Japanese shochu distilled from rice, barley and toasted sesame seeds. Here, it’s served with ginger beer, yuzu and Angostura bitters in a drink called—what else?—the Sesame Street.

Sesame Whiskey From Cherry

• 750 mL Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky
• 1 cup white sesame seeds (ratio of spirits to sesame seeds can be altered depending on desired level of sesame aroma; 4:1 yields a very strong infusion)

1. Preheat a large, dry frying pan over low heat. Add the sesame seeds and toast until golden brown, stirring continuously to prevent burning. The seeds will start to glisten and pop once ready, after approximately 2½ to 3 minutes.

2. Remove the seeds from the frying pan and lay flat on a baking sheet to cool. Once fully cooled, transfer to a large mason jar, add the full bottle of whiskey and close tightly. Let it infuse overnight, or longer if a more concentrated flavor is desired (the longer the infusion, the more pronounced and intense the flavor will become).

3. Once the desired flavor has been reached, strain the infusion through a fine mesh sieve. If a cleared whiskey is desired you can re-strain through a coffee filter. Discard the sesame seeds and store the whiskey in a nonreactive, airtight container.

4. Serve neat or over a large piece of ice.

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