Shriveled salamis in string webbing, hanks of sausages and sheep's milk cheeses fill the coldcase at Reseda's Preboy Market. But what's what and what do you do with it? The cheese, for example: Can you eat it with crackers? Fruit? Do you cook with it?
We're out to buy dinner for eight in the ethnic markets of Reseda, but here, at our first stop, we're already stumped: How do you pick out food when little looks familiar?
Preboy owner Lubou Vaisman, it turns out, is all too happy to give us an impromptu education. Never mind that a man has come in right after us and is waiting to order. Cheerfully, stretching her Russian-inflected English to its limit, Vaisman instructs, giving us tastes of whatever we want. Of the two cheeses, she recommends the one that's less salted: "It's wonderful in a salad with cucumbers, white onions, tomato," she says, handing us a sliver. Indeed, it's creamy, milder than goat, smoother than a feta. We're sold.
Oblivious to the man fidgeting behind us--she's on Reseda time--Vaisman offers us slices of a pale smoked pork product. "Very delicious," she says, "Dipped in beef blood." To be polite, we taste it . . . and ask for half a pound, sliced thin. When she returns the remaining meat to the case we read the label--why, it's just Canadian bacon!
We smile apologetically at the waiting man and ask the shopkeeper to suggest a good dry salami. She selects a French one, Florette de Lyons, and gives us a taste. She's right; it's dry, hard, aged, full of flavor. "Half a pound, please."
We might have asked about the various caviar in tins and the smoked fish that look like they're made of metal, but the man behind us is pacing, stopping only to drum his fingers on things. Besides, we now have our appetizer (a cold-cut plate) and a salad. Or at least part of a salad. As we leave, the man orders in rapid-fire Russian.
We have our foot in the door now. Excited, we plan our next moves: We need to finish shopping for the salad. Should we have another salad? What kind? And we definitely need bread.
At the Freedom Bakery, the barbari is still warm from the oven and only $1 for a yard-long loaf. At the Produce Club for salad makings, we carefully select a long, dark English cucumber. Red and yellow peppers are a bargain at 69 cents a pound. True, each has a small imperfection, but nothing that can't be cured with the flick of a knife. There's nothing wrong with the Japanese eggplant. Forget a second salad. Grilled vegetables will look beautiful. We can almost see the buffet before us.
At Reseda Bakery we buy iced cakes, one filled with fresh grapes and custard, the other with apples and cinnamon. We also grab a stollen, the first of the season. This buttery bread is flecked with candied fruit and filled with marzipan. A formidable block of brown bread tempts us, but Liane Schneider, the owner's daughter, shakes her head. "People need to work up slowly to such powerful doses of fiber. This loaf weighs 4 1/2 pounds and contains 80% rye chops (whole rye grains)." We pass.
At the Bangluck market, an array of fresh fish on ice is displayed in crates. A large sign hangs above a bank of deep-fat fryers: "You Buy We Fry." For those of us who grew up thinking fried fish meant fish sticks, salmon croquettes and fish and chips, the display is daunting: all those bulging eyes and toothy jaws.
We reject orange rock cod (the fish with the buggiest eyes), sheepshead and carp for pure ugliness. Some we can't even identify. Finally, we just ask the young man behind the counter what's the best fish to fry?
He recommends true red snapper and striped bass. We take one of each. He cleans and scales the fish for us, rinsing them often with a pressurized spray of water. Then, he plunges them, heads and all, into the deep fryer.
So far, so good. But how to serve them? We turn to the Thai woman next to us. "What do you do with the fish once it's fried? Do you put a sauce on it or . . . ?"
"I like to eat it plain, just as it is," she says. "But my husband, who's Vietnamese, likes to eat it with lemon juice and a fish sauce with chiles." She then marches us down to her husband's favorite fish sauce, Hon Phan Thiet ($2.79). "It's a little bit expensive," she says, "but it's not so salty and there's a lot of it." We grab a bottle and duck over to the produce section for chiles (serranos) and lemons. We also nab crisp green onions and tsoi choy, similar to baby bok choy, for our grilled vegetable platter. Our fish is ready now, wrapped in aluminum foil and stuck into bags. It smells heavenly.
There is no question where to go for carnitas. In the back of the Corona X, there's a small taqueria where pork is fried daily. A pound of carnitas, a sack of corinas (snack-size tortillas), and we have tiny tacos. We don't want to buy canned salsa and don't have time to make it. No problem. The taqueria sells its own fresh salsas, $2 for a large cup. We buy some of each: the fiery red and the subtler green.
Our last stop is Miller's Marketplace to fill in the gaps. We pick up some cilantro and fresh limes for our tacos, some cracked green olives and plump purple Kalamata olives for our cold-cut platter. And while we're at it, we add some clusters of big, red grapes and ripe Bartlett pears to our basket.
We have an hour before the guests are due, and except for grilling the vegetables, there's no cooking to be done, only assembly.
This is what our guests found: Russian salad, French salami, Mexican carnitas, Thai fried fish, Iranian bread, Greek olives, German cakes . . . and Canadian bacon. They thought we'd plundered the world.
No, we said, just Reseda.
1/2 medium onion, chopped
1/2 cup cilantro, coarsely chopped
1 pound carnitas
3 dozen corinas or snack-sized tortillas
2 limes cut into small, squeezable wedges
Mix chopped onion and chopped cilantro in small bowl. Set aside.
Chop carnitas into 1/2-inch chunks. In skillet heat carnitas by stirring quickly, until hot. Warm tortillas on hot griddle or over direct flame. Place 2 tablespoons of carnitas on doubled tortillas.
Garnish as desired with onion and cilantro mixture, lime juice and red and green salsas. Makes 18 tacos.
Each taco contains about:
215 calories; 684 mg sodium; 56 mg cholesterol; 11 grams fat; 13 grams carbohydrates; 16 grams protein; 1.05 grams fiber.
This salad is so easy, it's done in a minute.
1/2 pound sheep's milk cheese cut in 1/2-inch chunks
2 cucumbers, peeled and sliced
3 medium tomatoes, halved and quartered
1/2 medium white onion, thinly sliced
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
Freshly ground pepper
In bowl combine cheese, cucumbers, tomatoes, olive oil and red wine vinegar. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Toss. Makes 6 to 8 servings.
Each of 6 servings contains about:
189 calories; 479 mg sodium; 34 mg cholesterol; 15 grams fat; 8 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams protein; 1.06 grams fiber.
The Bangluck Market fries whole fish with no breading or seasoning . The result is delicious--moist, unadulterated fish that's great with a little fresh lemon and even livelier with chile-spiked fish sauce. Don't worry about the fried fish cooling off between the market and home. If you keep it in foil, it stays quite warm for an hour or more.
THAI FRIED FISH WITH SERRANO FISH SAUCE
4 to 6 red and green serrano chiles, thinly sliced
2 (2- to 3-pound) whole fish, fried
Mix 1/2 cup fish sauce with sliced chiles in small bowl. Place fish on platter. Garnish with lemon wedges. Serve with chile-enhanced fish sauce. Makes 6 to 8 servings.
Each of 6 servings contains about:
139 calories; 973 mg sodium; 40 mg cholesterol; 3 grams fat; 3 grams carbohydrates; 24 grams protein; 0.54 gram fiber.