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The Toronto Star
Taste The Nuevo Millennium
20 October 2004
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO -- Restaurateur Robert Trevino is hanging with his sous-chefs brainstorming over the menu they will serve the next day to 100 food journalists when a call comes in saying the writers will be arriving in 30 minutes.
Someone has messed up the date.
Can Trevino's staff - in for meetings, not shifts - pull off a high-pressure lunch for food editors and writers from American and Canadian newspapers and magzines? Most of the raw ingredients are on hand, the staff agrees to rally, and the meal remarkably goes off without a visible hitch (but without the bells, whistles and hors d'oeuvres).
Gathered at the Parrot Club in San Juan for the Association of Food Journalists annual conference, we the eaters don't realize anything is amiss - although it seems odd that some waitstaff wear uniforms while others wear street clothes.
Rum cocktails in hand, we munch Caesar salad with mofongo croutons or slurp a rustic pork-and-potato soup, feast on chicken pinchos, seared salmon or churrasco (grilled skirt steak) - each with Latin-influenced sides - and share dulce de leche- or walnut-based cakes.
Then conference chairperson Heather McPherson, food editor of the Orlando Sentinel, circulates to breathlessly reveal the near-fiasco: "Next time you throw a dinner party and say you can't do it in 30 minutes, try 100 journalists and the most critical palates in 30 minutes."
Trevino later calls the mixup "a lot of fun" and commends his staff for not revealing signs of stress. "The guests can never know something's not right or up to par. The show must go on."
The Parrot Club, one of three Trevino restaurants on the same block in Old San Juan (a fourth opens soon in a nearby hotel), considers its mission "to take Latino into the nuevo millennium," and its menu is written in "Spanglish" - a fun hybrid of Spanish and English.
Trevino believes Latin cooking - with its devotion to plantains, yuca/cassava, achiote, cilantro and more - will become as popular as Asian: "I think what's going to make the Latin kitchen accessible to the home cook is really just exposure."
Watch Trevino cooking Latin-style food against Italian-oriented, New York-based chef/TV host Mario Batali in an episode of Iron Chef America slated to run in January. Look below for three Trevino recipes, plus more conference notes.
"Cooking is the best way in the world to live in the moment," freelance writer/author Alice Steinbach tells our gathering of food journalists. "When you cook, you have to live in the ticking moment ... I find it really wonderfully freeing to not be thinking about anything other than what to do."
It's a refreshing way to think about meal creation.
Steinbach, who won a Pulitizer prize for feature writing in the Baltimore Sun, has just published Educating Alice: Adventures Of A Curious Woman (Random House, $37.95) chronicling foreign journeys that include a cooking course at the Ritz-Carlton in Paris.
While Steinbach doesn't "clip recipes" and isn't a food writer, she loves to eat and read food stories that touch on themes of memory, comfort, culture, economics, class structure, sociological needs, psychology and body image.
She recommends two Web sites for food reading - www.egullet.com (the eGullet Society for Culinary Arts & Letters) and www.gastropoda.com, featuring the work of freelance food writer Regina Schrambling, formerly deputy editor of the New York Times' Dining In/Dining Out section.
Veteran food writer Mimi Sheraton of New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler and Time fame speaks to us about the state of restaurant criticism and her new book, Eating My Words: An Appetite For Life (HarperCollins, $36.95).
Although Sheraton has long since left the New York Times - she was critic from 1976 to 1983 - she is still best-remembered by Americans for her reviews. She quit what many consider a dream job after ballooning to 205 pounds and wanting to travel the world (not just one city) in search of food.
These days, Sheraton opines, chefs "cook for each other and for the press" and are pressured to invent creative sounding but not necessarily tasty food just to get attention.
Her engaging memoir (even for Canadians who are not devotees of the New York Times) is packed with half a century's worth of forthright observations.
Here's how Sheraton describes the types of people she enlisted to join her on undercover restaurant reviews:
The Reluctants, usually health- or diet-conscious women who tagged along for the glamour but barely touched their food, reacted in horror when told they couldn't request oil and butter-free dishes, and apologized (to their bodies?) in advance for what they were about to order.
The Grabbers, who ordered the most expensive items and often asked for a second main course.
The Guzzlers who quaffed the wine as though it was water, "making a second bottle an unnecessary expense."
The Indecisives, who took forever to order.
The Jokers who asked what would happen if they didn't order what Sheraton wanted for review purposes, or threatened not to share their food.
The Alrightniks, unstylish, suburban-looking friends who were unwittingly sent into snooty restaurants ahead of Sheraton to see how they were treated and seated.
Reviewers or not, most of us dine regularly with similar characters.
Churrasco and mofongo is to Puerto Ricans what steak and potatoes is to Canadians. So I devour this dynamic duo - skirt steak and plantain mashed with bacon - five ways in seven days on this Caribbean island during the AFJ conference (see www.afjonline.com for more on this food writers' group).
Torontonians know churrasco as Portuguese-spiced chicken. Puerto Ricans know churrasco as grilled skirt steak - a long, thin boneless cut from the plate area at the front of the cow below the rib and near the flank.
Juicy skirt steak has a fantastic beefy flavour. It is thin and pliable enough to roll up like a pinwheel. Its coarse grain makes it ideal for marinating.
There are two distinct muscles. The inner skirt weighs about 2 pounds and is more suited to retail. The outer skirt is favoured by foodservice because it's slightly smaller and more consistently sized. Unfortunately, Americans snap up most of the skirt supply for fajitas, among other things.
Back in Canada, the Beef Information Centre mentions skirt steak a few times at www.beefinfo.org, but tells me it can't be found in supermarkets. Look for it from the rare butchers who buy whole sides of hanging beef (not pre-cut beef in boxes) to cut themselves.
WhiteHouse Meats (in St. Lawrence Market and Leaside) sells skirt steak for $7.99 a pound. We prefer steaks that are 12 to 14 inches long, 3 to 4 inches wide, and 1/2-inch to 3/4 inch thick.
Skirt steak provides maximum pleasure for minimum effort - something Trevino used to his advantage when frantically making our AFJ lunch.
"It's part of the reason we could pull off 100 meals, because we figured most people would choose churrasco (as their main) and they did. I'm glad it was churrasco. I think if it was filet mignon or New York steak, it would have been a whole other story."
Puerto Rican chef restaurateur Robert Trevino believes that once home cooks are exposed to more Latin flavours and recipes, they will embrace it with gusto.