Monday, November 22, 2010

Jamie’s American Road Trip – A Journey On Many Levels

Photo/David Loftus

I spent an evening last week with Jamie Oliver. In truth, I spent much of it WATCHING Jamie…on a large screen, but then I DID see the real-live Jamie Oliver IN PERSON and I even had a moment with him. Okay, there were 15 rows of seats separating us (as in…he was on the stage and I was in the audience), but, still, I locked eyes with him. (He might have a different story.)

I was seeing a screening of an episode of Jamie's American Road Trip, a series done to highlight Jamie’s new cookbook, Jamie’s America. (Or maybe the cookbook was done to highlight the show…whatever.)

Jamie takes a series of trips around the country and gathers recipes from all kinds of folks. The episode we saw featured former gang members and fabulous Mexican cooks (not necessarily the same people). In other episodes, there are Navajo Indians, alligator hunters from Louisiana and cowboys, who all cook for Jamie.

Jamie’s American Road Trip has the same feeling as Mario Batali’s Spain...On The Road Again without the nonsense. There were no scenes (in this episode anyway) of Jamie soaking in a bathtub (darn!), like there were of Gwynnie, soaking her tired Spanish-speaking body. It was all Jamie driving around finding cool people to talk to and unusual food situations to learn from.

What’s interesting about this book and show is that, unlike Jamie’s Food Revolution, America and American food come off really well here. Jamie isn’t bashing American fast food or our eating habits. (I’m not saying he shouldn’t be, I’m just saying he’s NOT.)

Much of the food he looks at is ethnic food and, I suppose, that’s one of the lessons. Our grandmothers from other lands cooked real food, which is naturally healthier and more delicious than much of what passes for dinner now. But Jamie doesn’t talk about the negatives. He SHOWS great food from a very diverse America.

He starts in Los Angeles at Maria’s house in a Mexican neighborhood. Jamie says the area is more “gangland than glamour”. She’s prepared a feast for her daughter-in-law Esther’s 40th birthday.

Jamie tells us that Mexican food is not good in Britain, but in LA it’s really authentic, because 160 years ago, it WAS Mexico.

Maria is making gorditas. Jamie is enthralled by the name, which means little fat girls. They’re puffy, miniature tortilla rounds. Maria tops them with queso fresco, beans and hot sauce. Jamie loves that they are a quick, fresh, hand-held, authentically Mexican treat that you can make at home. His gorditas are really nice and light and topped with an apple salsa. The recipe follows at the end of this post.

Maria’s party goes full blast, with lots of food, drink and dancing. Jamie makes the point that in this part of LA, when you’re inside your house, you’re fully Mexican. Outside, you can be whatever you want.

His next visit is with a former Blood. Somehow he’s happened upon this young man named Rico, who is making enchiladas and having a few people over to commemorate the death of his uncle, who apparently wasn’t the most law-abiding person. But he was the closest thing Rigo had to a father.

One of Rigo’s friends explains to Jamie, “Ain’t no American dream out there” for them, but Jamie tells us that cooking has been a way out of the gang lifestyle for Rigo. He’s working and learning new skills and he’s not wearing his gang color of red anymore.

During all this tough talk, Rigo grills green chilies, purées them and pours them in the bottom of a baking dish. He wraps up cooked (grilled?) meat in warm tortillas and sets them on the bed of chilies. Meanwhile Jamie chats with Rigo’s friends, who aren’t doing so well. One is in a wheelchair and jobs are hard to find.

Rigo talks about missing his uncle and how he was there for him. Both he and Jamie get choked up and before it goes too far, in a charming bit a business, Jamie clears his throat and says, “Let’s get these bastards in the oven.”

The four of them sit down to eat, after praying for Rigo’s uncle over the food they made. Helicopters are flying overhead. (The kind looking for perps? Probably.) Jamie tells us that in this city, your fortune is decided for you, depending on the neighborhood you come from.

There are more visits to more people and places - a wonderful café and bakery, Homeboy Industries, fully staffed by former gang members, where Jamie discovers a wonderful Mole made with 37 ingredients. “Food can break the cycle of crime,” Jamie learns here.

He goes to a baptism and a baptism lunch, which he's offered to cater; Jamie has a fishing trip with Rigo, who used to fish with his uncle. He shows Rigo how to make a delicious looking fish taco sandwich from freshly grilled fish, topped with peppers, avocado, sour cream, radishes, chilies and lime juice. Yum!

Jamie learns about fresh cactus, which will go in the baptism dish, which he cooks AT the party. He sautés garlic in oil and adds mussels, tequila and chilies, then seven different fish, coriander, tomatoes, lime juice and the cactus. And more lime juice. It’s served over white rice. Everyone approves.

Jamie’s also made a dessert tart with chilies and chocolate, inspired by the mole. He makes a shortcrust and puts caramel over the base and fills it with eggs, sugar and chocolate. Then he sprinkles over a mixture of cinnamon, cloves, dried chili and orange zest.

Jamie tries mescal (and apparently quite a few other things - off camera) offered by a sweet old lady in a marketplace.

Strangely, American Road Trip has been shown in 120 OTHER countries, but not in America. AND no American broadcast network has bought it…yet. I sure hope someone will.

This series is really a big pat on the back for America for all the wonderful cuisine that’s available in so many places. Jamie says he was amazed by the high-level artisan cooking that is happening all over. He tasted pork that was as good as in Spain or Italy. He found great cooking around every corner, he said.

What I liked best about Jamie’s American Road Trip wasn’t the food and the recipes, although those are terrific. It was the people he introduced us to; and the lives he showed us, which had been made better by coming together over a meal or celebration or the ability to make an (honest) living.

Jamie showed the redemptive qualities of cooking and what preparing fresh, home-based food can do for an individual, a family and an entire community.

Jamie Oliver’s Gorditas and Salsa (serves 16)


Posted with permission

Printable recipe here

For the gorditas:
• 500g fine cornmeal or masa harina (which is similar)
• ½ level teaspoon sea salt
• 1 heaped teaspoon baking powder
• 700ml hot water
plain flour, for dusting
• olive oil

For the salsa:
• 1 red apple, halved and cored
• 3 large, ripe tomatoes, quartered and deseeded
• 2 spring onions, trimmed
• 1 red chili, deseeded
• a small bunch of fresh coriander
• 1 tablespoon pumpkin seeds
• 1 tablespoon sunflower seeds
• 1 lime
• sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

To serve:
• 200g Don Francisco Mexican cheese, or feta (which is similar)
• optional: 1 fresh red chilli, very finely sliced
• 1 lime, cut into wedges

Put the cornmeal and salt into a large bowl and make a well in the centre. Mix the baking powder into the hot water and pour this into the well. Using a fork, mix the cornmeal into the liquid, and when it starts to come together use your hands to knead it. Divide the dough into 16 equal squash-ball-sized pieces and dust them lightly with flour. Roll each piece around in your hands, then pat and flatten into a small round roughly the size of the base of a wine glass. Put these on an oiled tray, dust with flour and put aside while you make your salsa.

Finely chop your apple, tomatoes and spring onions, and finely slice your chili. Put them all into a bowl. Pick the leaves from your coriander and put them into a bowl of water until you’re ready to serve. Chop the coriander stalks up nice and finely and add to the bowl with the other salsa ingredients. Put a large pan on a medium heat and add your pumpkin and sunflower seeds. Toss them around for a few minutes and toast them. Add them to your salsa with the juice of your lime, a good lug of olive oil and a pinch of salt and pepper. Mix well, then have a taste and add a little more seasoning, lime juice or chili if you think it needs more attitude. Put the pan back on a medium heat and add a couple of good lugs of olive oil. Cook as many gorditas as will comfortably fit into the pan for about 2 to 3 minutes on each side, or until they’re golden and puff up a little.

Serve the gorditas warm out of the pan with a tablespoon of your beautiful salsa, a little hunk of cheese, a couple of your drained coriander leaves and a few slices of chili, if you fancy, and with lime wedges on the side for squeezing over.


Emily said...

I can't believe no one has bought the show yet. Why wouldn't they? I hope they do because I really would like to watch it.

I'm craving Mexican food right now. Your gorditas look amazing. I could make them right now! I have masa. I love the salsa. Perfect for fall!

Sue said...

I LOVE that you're stalking me. I JUST posted this. The show really was great, Jamie was too cute for words and I hope it's shown here too.

Sue said...

PS I wish they were MY gorditas. The photo credit is getting added NOW.

Anonymous said...

I suspect Jamie Oliver doesn't fit into any network's viewing demographic at the moment, since he hasn't had any new US shows in a while -- and his school lunch reality show didn't do well (or at least it wasn't well-reviewed in what I read of it). Maybe he wants too much money for it. I have to say he doesn't appeal to me personally when I see him on TV, and I get the same vibe from his books (normally that's a good thing for an author who also does TV shows).

The Short (dis)Order Cook said...

I wish I could see this show. It sounds really interesting.

My neighborhood has a selection of hole-in-the wall Latin restaurants (Mexican, Salvadoran, Peruvian) and I've been trying them for lunch while I've had some extended time off. I will be blogging my adventures after Thanksgiving. Jamie kind of reminds me of that.