Well, everyone, the cooking has returned. Are we excited? Get excited! Thank you to everyone who voted over the weekend. If you were to tally the votes now, I think Duck Ragu is actually the winner, but when I tallied the votes earlier in the weekend I had Fish Tacos ahead of the pack, so Fish Tacos are what I made. My indifference to the rules makes me the Florida of cooking blogs.
We will get to the cooking in a minute, but first, a rather bizarre story (which means lots of words, almost no pictures. Whoops!):
Saturday was the Mississippi Street Fair, an unexpectedly large and eventful party just down the street. We expected to spend a couple hours there at most, but ended up staying on Mississippi Street for over fourteen hours, which is a ridiculous amount of time to spend at one street fair. I’ll spare the details of the first seven or so hours, because I don’t want this blog post to be twenty pages long, but let it be known there was a surprising amount of run-ins with old acquaintances, we enjoyed many varieties of beer and street food in the hot sun, and people-watched Portland’s most beautiful and most bizarre. Pretty much exactly what you want from a street fair.
A rather large group of us settled in as the sun was going down in the patio set up on the street by Moloko, perhaps my favorite bar on Mississippi (for some reason, we’ve always called it “Moloko Plus,” and I am just now learning through the website that there doesn’t seem to be a “Plus” in the name, and now I am wondering where we picked that part up). Moloko (Plus) always has a great DJ, playing some really fantastic funk, soul, or hip-hop music on vinyl, so their patio was beginning to draw a huge crowd.
At one point, a dance party started that blocked traffic on the entire street. Kevin wanted to clear out a space around our tables for dancing, so we did, and then we tried to get everyone around us to join in on the dancing. The first group to jump in was a nearby trio, made up of two girls and one guy. I introduced myself to the nearest girl, a shockingly beautiful woman in a 1950s-style dress and apron, a clove cigarette held between her fingers, and she shook my hand and said her name was Refinement. I refused to believe her, and asked to see her ID. She showed me, I saw it was real, and I immediately realized she probably deals with people like me 100 times a day. “How did you get that name?” I asked. “Oh, just hippie parents,” she waved the question off.
A short while later, I found myself in line for Moloko’s lone bathroom, a line that stretched the entire length of the bar. Some guy stepped in line behind me and said, “Hey, I know a better, secret bathroom. You want to go?”
Now, this would normally be cause for alarm. But there are two things to know about me in this situation: A) I’ll always just go with whatever is happening, usually without thinking it through (when I was 17 I once said, “Okay,” to an enormously muscular homeless man who asked for a ride to a homeless shelter 20 minutes away while I was driving my mom’s BMW all alone — which I’m not sure she even knew about until now), and B) My Wisconsin sensibilities cause me to be immediately welcoming to any new potential friends (even if they’re huge and homeless and possibly want to kill me for my car). So, I followed this strange man to his “secret bathroom.” Of course.
Luckily, the “secret bathroom” was simply in a frozen yogurt store across the street, the only empty business in the area due to its lack of alcohol, which resulted in two private, spotless bathrooms. So, lesson learned: always follow strange men to their secret bathrooms. Tell your kids!
I returned to the group, raving about my insider knowledge of the street fair’s most prized location. “The froyo place?” Refinement asked, immediately deflating my sense of self-worth.
I was then introduced to Refinement’s “quarter-sister” (sorry, it’s a long story), Knowing. Where Refinement is reserved and contemplative and able to make you feel like she’s your intimidating big sister you’re desperate to impress, Knowing is animated and quick with a joke and immediately becomes your best friend. Extremely confused and intrigued by these names, I kept my cool and didn’t try to card Knowing, assuming these two get that from strangers all the time, desperate to prove that I’m not “one of THOSE people.”
Inside, I found Kevin in line for the bar, talking to a tall, thin guy with big, excited eyes, the third person we had seen with Knowing and Refinement. I introduced myself, and he told me his named was Centered. “Okay, what’s with the names?” I asked, completely rude. I couldn’t play it cool anymore. I had to know what was going on. What followed was maybe the most fascinating conversation of my life.
The family’s story isn’t my story to tell, and I don’t want to get it wrong or share personal details they don’t want me broadcasting over the internet, so let’s just say that their upbringing was described, at various times by all three of the siblings (or quarter-siblings) as either a “commune” or a “cult,” depending on who I was talking to. Whatever you want to call it, it was started in the 1960s by a man of dubious intentions who took the name Love and gathered other families and individuals on a large piece of spectacular property in up in Washington, where everyone shed their prior names, took up “virtue names” and burned all their forms of identification.
And, eventually, Refinement, Knowing, and Centered were each born, in roughly the same way all of us come into the world. Except they came into a world vastly different than anything you or I are familiar with. Their childhoods are filled with stories that at times fill me with intense jealousy, and other times leave me grateful for the things I’ve been given in my life. They grew up in one of the most beautiful parts of the world, on a large plot of land they all described as “paradise,” filled with waterfalls and gardens and spectacular nature all around. They were born into a large family, infinitely more dysfunctional (and, in many ways, more functional) than your own family, with all the benefits and problems that come from living in a close-knit group of 350. The community’s story is straight out of a novel, and it really does not sound real, filled with love, sex, betrayal, politics, disaster, hope, and virtually every other aspect of humanity. It’s an absurdly good story, and I’m desperate for one of them to write a book soon. They’d have a show on Oprah’s channel in ten seconds.
They were at the Street Fair as vendors, debuting the new line of goods created by Refinement and her mother (and once the website is up, I’ll gladly link to it so you can all order some). Centered was down in Portland to help work his sister’s booth, and it was also recently his 21st birthday, so I bought him drinks for the rest of the night, both to celebrate and to keep the conversation going. Because, really, these were three of the most interesting people I’ve ever met.
Unfortunately for them, they had to be subjected to every line of questioning imaginable from all of us for the rest of the night. At one point, Centered mentioned that a problem with their upbringing is that he can talk to a person for 30 minutes, only to walk away and realize he doesn’t even know the other person’s name, since he spent the entire conversation explaining his life. Keeping this in mind, I tried to tell him more about myself throughout the rest of the conversation, but, inevitably, it always came back to whatever questions I could think of.
We helped the three of them disassemble their booth and pack the car, and returned to the bar for “one more drink” (which turned into more than that, of course). Centered and I spent the next few hours on the back patio of Moloko, talking about, well, more or less everything, while Kevin fell asleep in his chair. At one point, someone mentioned I had a blog, and I had to explain this stupid thing, feeling like an unimportant fool next to these fascinating, beautiful people. After spending 5 hours talking about cults and growing up in a yurt without electricity, you feel pretty foolish when your story is, “I make fun of Gwyneth Paltrow on the internet.”
Eventually, the drinks took over and the conversation ceased as dancing began, even though we were all exhausted from a very long day. We exchanged phone numbers (“I’ll give you my last name so you don’t get me confused with all the other Centereds in your phone”), and I invited the three of them over for Gwyneth’s fish tacos the next day.
So, the next day arrived. We did the usual morning-after routine of piecing together the previous night’s events, filling Kevin in on everything he missed while he had been napping in the back of the bar. I texted Centered and Knowing and re-invited them to dinner, and they happily accepted. A quick run to the grocery store got me almost everything I needed (again with the two-store shopping trips, Gwyneth?), and I set to work prepping.
Fish tacos are easy, albeit slightly complicated due to all the toppings. Happily, I was able to even make the black bean variation Gwyneth has to cook for that little snob Apple, since Knowing doesn’t eat fish. So we’re getting the full Gwyneth treatment in this recipe! (And, actually, the fish tacos are made of five different recipes, all of which I believe are separately counted towards Gwyneth’s 150-recipe total. Score one for laziness!)
The first step was to make the Pico de Gallo, which seems easy on paper, but requires quartering a pint of grape tomatoes. Have you ever quartered grape tomatoes by hand? Don’t. It’s a pain in the ass, and it feels completely pointless. But I did it, cursing under my breath the entire time. We were off to a good start, clearly. Along with the tomatoes, I mixed some diced red onion, a little bit of fresh cilantro, sea salt, and juice from a lime. And that’s pico de gallo! Or at least a very, very simple pico de gallo.
Next I prepared the Salted Cabbage, which is almost exactly as it sounds: Cabbage, chopped or shredded, with a little lime juice and salt. Jesus, I forgot how idiotic this cookbook can be at times.
Very exciting. VERY beautiful.
By this point, Knowing and Centered had arrived at the apartment (Refinement stayed home to rest, seeing as she had to work in the morning), bearing a bottle of wine from the family vineyard, which was infinitely better than any of the boxed crap I had on hand. I told them I still had a ways to go, and they were entertained by Kevin, Sam, Brendan, and Lindsey, while I hurried through the last three recipes for this dumb dish.
I pitted and mashed four avocados, mixing them with minced white onion, fresh cilantro, lime juice, and salt, to make a very simple Guacamole that isn’t as good as the stuff my family makes. It was still tasty, but pretty uninspired.
Close-up guac! I don’t know whose finger is going into it, but that’s gross. Sorry.
I then realized I hadn’t even begun to heat up the safflower oil (over twice as expensive as all the other frying oils, of course) to fry the fish, so I dumped it into a heavy pot and got that started. I made the simple beer batter by combining flour, beer, salt, and pepper. I sliced my cod fillets into “finger-sized pieces,” and dredged them in the batter.
Now, Gwyneth doesn’t give many instructions on how to properly fry, and to the amateur fryer, dropping beer-battered fish into a bubbling pot of dangerously hot oil could be quite scary. Thankfully, I had received a deep fryer from my friends on my birthday a few years back, so I’ve had many chances to experiment and learn the best frying techniques through trial-and-error (with only a few oil-splatter scars on my hands to show for it).
Pro frying tip #1: Pat dry your meat, fish, or vegetables before dipping them in the batter or putting them in the fryer. The lack of moisture on the outside will both help the batter stick to the food better, as well as reducing the risk of splatter and mini-explosions from inside the fryer.
Pro frying tip #2: Let your batter chill for a while in the refrigerator. I don’t know exactly what this does, but it makes the batter stick to the food better. I guess it makes sense, if you think about it.
Pro frying tip #3: Test the heat of your oil by dropping a small bit of batter into the oil. If it fries up like it’s supposed to, you’re ready to go.
Look at that, actual cooking tips from the Danny/Gwyneth Project! We’re really growing up, aren’t we?
I got to work frying the fish, of which I had far too much, so this took a while. But I gradually got it done, transferring the now-crispy fish to a paper towel-lined tray to dry and cool. After that, I simply had to make the Lime Crema (what’s with the half-Spanish/half-English name?), which is Vegenaise mixed with lime juice, a combination that seems SO WRONG but is actually not that bad.
We warmed some corn tortillas, set everything on the table, and finally served dinner. You assemble a taco by spreading a spoonful of the lime crema on a tortilla, topping that with 2 or 3 pieces of fried fish, scattering pico de gallo and salted cabbage, and adding some guacamole. Easy!
Greasy, fried fish. YES.
The finished spread. This is when I forgot I was supposed to keep taking pictures.
And the tacos were actually pretty good. Not the most exciting or flavorful, I thought, but solid and dependable. At the very least, they’re a nice jumping-off point from which you can experiment with more exciting variations and toppings. And they seemed to go over well, I suppose.
Dinner turned into after-dinner drinks, followed by hours of conversation that went well past midnight. (And I’m realizing now that I took almost no pictures the entire night, because I was far too into the night to think about my camera. I didn’t even get a picture of an assembled taco! I am a terrible, terrible blogger.) Unfortunately, Knowing and Centered were once again subjected to our every question, but they appeared happy to answer most questions. My favorite story from that night was hearing how, when they were kids, they would occasionally get a toy from the “outside world,” which would become their most valued possession, actually burying them at night so no other kids could find them. When hearing stories like this, it’s hard to sometimes wonder if maybe these two people are just really, really skilled liars, to tell the truth. How could any of this be real?
But perhaps the most fascinating thing about our new friends is how we grew up in completely different circumstances — almost exact opposites, in fact — and yet ended up having a huge amount in common. In fact, Knowing may have the closest sense of humor to mine out of anyone I’ve met so far in Portland. And she grew up in a yurt, for Christ’s sake! Even without their unbelievably fascinating backgrounds, we’d still be more or less obsessed with these people. In a city where everyone is trying their hardest to prove they’re “unique,” Refinement, Knowing, and Centered are the real thing: completely unique, utterly unpretentious, open to all ideas and opinions, extremely quick-witted and fun, and just genuinely great people. Forgive me for gushing over them so much, but they’re an awesome reminder that no matter how different your life is from someone else, you can always find something (or a lot of things, it turns out) in common.
Maybe I can even find something in common with Gwyneth one of these days.