Wednesday, April 23, 2014



Today’s word on food is Blood

I walked into our restaurant kitchen and I inhaled an aroma I’d known before I knew it’s name. It was blood. It spiraled me back in time to a grocery store where my mother shopped. She carried me in there before the age of three and slung me from hip to hip while she selected our food and put it in the cart. By the time I was five I knew the owners names; Mr. and Mrs. Petersen.

Though small the store was pretty amazing for the time. They had a full butcher case that Mr. Petersen personally manned. He had a box of sawdust that he used to toss like chicken feed onto the wooden floors to sop up the blood that fell off his knives. A vibrant produce section lined one whole wall of the store. It relied on the area’s farms and orchards. Though the fish choices were few they were fresh Great Lakes fish. There was even a baked goods cabinet by the check out area. Mrs. Petersen added in her own home-baked Greek specialties that lent a sense of exotica to the rural store in our town. We were up in farm country, just fifteen miles south of the Wisconsin border. It was close enough to a bigger town for my Dad’s auto business to be viable … but also close enough for him to speed home each night in the summer to walk my sisters and me up and then down two steep, hills for a swim in our lake before it grew dark and the mosquitos came after us. The blood smell in my restaurant’s kitchen took me back to all of that. And then… it hurled me forward … to Spain.
Saturdays in markets all over the world bustle with energy. At Barcelona’s famed ‘La Boqueria’ market on a sun-drenched September morning my wife Janet and I felt as alive and excited as we might have if we had been walking into Woodstock in 1969. 

We entered under the archway of the market and soon confronted a meat case. It was a jaw-dropper. It was called “Despojos Selectos” and it was all about the “off cuts” of meats. A pretty young woman … no more than 22 … attended the stall. She looked South American and I asked her where she was from. 

“Ecuador”, she smiled, pointed at her chest and said, 'Ana’. We took in the view in the stall. It was hard to grasp the totality of it at first. Each item in this otherwise ordinary meat case held products you simply do not see in most of America. 

It was as if a butcher took apart whole animals, saved the familiar cuts we see in meat cases back home for some other purpose, and arranged these cuts in that cold case. They were raw, fresh, and a carnal as meat has ever looked. From there my eyes scanned…EYES…still in a bony head, and huge testicles, (maybe not for a cow but by human standards, huge!), bulbous kidneys and a whole, deep-royal burgundy colored liver hanging on a sharp steel hook. 

A sign hung over that. It read, “carne cula”. Anna smiled again and even did a half turn and pointed demurely to her own. I hid my smile. There were intestines, cheeks, and what seemed to be wide arteries that were attached to a heart. I asked a woman about them and she pointed to various parts of her small, old body to help me understand where on each animal the parts came from. She made the animal’s most typical noises to clarify the species. 
I asked Anna what the square block of muted red “butter” was in the case...knowing the answer before it exited her full lips. 

Sangre”, she uttered...adding, “blood”. 

And smiled once more.

I’m Norman Van Aken and that’s my Word on Food ©.

© 2014 Norman Van Aken

Tuesday, April 22, 2014




Today’s word on food is ADOBOS

Writing my radio show brings me to some words that have a kind of aural personality. Latin-Caribbean cuisine abound in them; yuca, mofongo, fufú, boniato and the ultra-sensually sounding … guanabana are all legal prey to my pursuits. Today’s show is on the word adobo
Sounded out it as if someone was doing a short drum beat on your desk. Ba-bump-bum. Try it. A-dough-bo …. Ba-bump-bum.
Adobo means spice rub or marinade, and the particular recipe we include on the WLRN website was inspired by ones introduced by African slaves brought to Bahía in Brazil in the 17th century. But the actual birthplace is of some confusion and disagreement … There is little arguing that the Filipino’s have claimed adobos as their national dish. But it is adobo’s flexibility that allow this. When this transoceanic traveler met the foodstuffs of Asia … soy sauce found its way into the party. The talented chef … Edward Lee now of Memphis was raised by his Korean grandmother in Brooklyn has a recipe in his fine cookbook, “Smoke & Pickles” for an Adobo Broth in which he poaches chicken as a preliminary step to finishing them to crispy perfection by a frying method. The broth has no fresh chilies. It’s payload is delivered via soy, vinegar, water, sugar, garlic, bay leaves and crushed red pepper flakes.
The grandmother’s of the world seem to have endorsed crock pot cookery. I have been in the home of a Filipino “Granny” who thought I worked too hard sometimes … and offered to share her slow cooked version of Adobo Chicken. She layered bone-in chicken thighs in her crock pot with a zippy mixture of onions, soy sauce, granulated sugar and rice wine vinegar and went off to play cards with her neighbor lady friends. A few hours later she offered it up with a side of fluffy white rice. She popped each of us an ice cold beer and I was a happy man!
In Spanish cuisine the flavors are informed by olive oil, vinegar, garlic, as well as various herbs and spices. When it got to the New World … chilies climbed aboard and that is how I most commonly make and use adobos. 
The one I make most often is a wet kind of paste. It makes for a messy but fun way of cooking! I rub it on chicken, steaks, veal chops and even some of the more meaty fish before the thermal aspects of cooking starts … and most often I sear it to push the flavors deeply into the food and then finish it by roasting where the heat is more in a ‘surrounding’ mode. This also helps prevent the adobo from getting bitter which could happen if the searing were prolonged. When I make our home-made chorizo sausage recipe I massage my Adobo Paste in with the raw pork and pork fat to create a major jump in flavors. After studying my friend Ed Lee’s cookbook a bit more I might adobo rub a chicken versus his broth… and then fry the bird up. I might even take one more recipe he offers by serving it with a ‘Dipping Sauce’ made by simply mixing a ratio of maple syrup, fish sauce, soy sauce, lemon juice and habanero chilies. Yes I will! Can’t wait to get to Memphis to try his in person. 
Spice rubs have become a big deal and many home cooks and backyard grill enthusiasts boast about their secret rubs and spice mix elixirs. Want to trump the boys and girls in your hood?  Make Adobos. Don’t tell them how easy it is. Ba-bump-bum
I’m Norman Van Aken and that’s my Word on Food ©.
© 2013 Norman Van Aken

Sunday, September 1, 2013


Controversies over the birthplace of certain dishes are part of the spice of life and landscape of any cuisine. A spirited discussion revolves around the origin of ceviches. This seafood favorite, made of raw fish and/or barely blanched shellfish marinated in citrus juices and laced with various adornments many maintain, was bestowed upon the world at large via ancient Peru.
Or not…

Perhaps the most romantic story holds that ceviche was invented so that an Incan emperor, high up in his Andean citadel in Cusco, could enjoy fresh fish despite his remote location from the sea. The fish, caught on the Peruvian coast, was first marinated in the tart juices of the native tumbo citrus fruit to preserve and flavor it, then carried by runners…
known as chasquis up to the hungry emperor.

Another story attributes the invention of ceviche to Peruvian fishermen, who would bring with them… tumbo juice infused with chile peppers. They would pickle some of their catch to feed themselves during their long stretches at sea. 

Or was Polynesian voyagers, traveling across the ocean to pre-Columbian Peru on wind-driven reed rafts, who introduced the notion of eating marinated raw fish; the custom was common in their Pacific island homes.

Peruvian food scholar Juan José Vega, who has studied the influence on Peruvian cuisine of the Moorish slave cooks who arrived with the Spanish nobility in the sixteenth century, offers yet another theory. In his version, the slaves introduced to Peru a dish called sei-vech, made of fish marinated in the juice of ceuta lemons, which they brought with them from the city of the same name out of North Africa… North East of Morocco and planted in the New World.

Working with Peruvians and visiting their markets and restaurants has given me a different understanding of the delicacy of a properly made ceviche: I used to think it should be made the night before it was eaten… or even longer... Instead, I now think of it more like sushi. Sushi and sashimi are, after all, eaten raw Many ceviches are best nearly so… learning is never ending...

I first tasted ‘Conch Salad’ (a ceviche to be sure) in Key West, when I was engaged in the often insane business of opening a brand-new restaurant. One afternoon back then, a large shadow obscured the tropical light that spilled through the kitchen screen door. (It was like when you are skin diving in the ocean and a big fish swims behind you.) Then came a man’s voice. It was a booming bass, but singsong as well, with Bahamian inflections: “Hey. Hey. I’m Frank, the Conch Salad Man. I’ll sell you the world’s best conch salad.” 

He pushed open the screen door and came into the kitchen, holding a big white pickle bucket brimming with conch salad. With a paper cup, he scooped up some for me to try. I tipped back a mixture of finely diced conch, tomatoes, red onions, Scotch bonnets, bell peppers, celery, citrus juices, and herbs. The flavors of the sea were in there too. 

His saltwater-stained heavy black glasses were held on with fishing line. His hands were thick and meaty, scarred and callused from heavy labor. He wore canvas shoes, military-style pants, and a white T-shirt. A long gold chain around his neck drew attention to a nasty scar that ringed his collarbone. When he scooped out more salad for each of the cooks and waiters working in my kitchen that day I became a fan. 
Ceviche… it’s cool.

I’m Norman Van Aken and that’s my Word on Food ©.
© 2013 Norman Van Aken

Thursday, July 4, 2013


You may be making plans to celebrate our day of "National Independence" from the once “Tax Mad” English by having friends and family over for backyard parties. Possibly your menu will be featuring one of the all-time icons of American gastronomy, "The Great American Hot Dog".

When most of us think of hot dogs I think we purposefully agree to block out what's actually packed into the dog's casing. I have heard there are lips possibly in them... but what else? What stray parts or otherwise unsellable organ meats might be ground within the neat little capsule of fatty goodness? Never mind! We intentionally and forcefully disconnect the logic valve to our brain stem's regulator regarding health (ugh) and allow the id to run the show when we commence to eat Hot Dogs.

True confession. I eat 'em. Rarely. But I do. I crave them more often than I eat them. But there are times and places for that snappy, chewy, gut-lust satisfying experience. I’d have one… and maybe two if is a National Holiday with a “Sweaty Betty Blonde.” That is a beer before I get in trouble! An unfiltered Bavarian-style Hefeweizen just to show I’m not making this up! 
Good beer if you can find it. 

I never eat in the fast food restaurants that clutter the globe now. And it is not because I'm ‘too good’. It just doesn't satisfy the necessary and even rational (!) pre-qualifications I mentioned a moment ago. It doesn't make my id rev. Something warns me… if too many folks go to something… that something is probably very very wrong. It’s the same as my ‘Supermarket Best Seller List of Literature’ theory. I think I’ll have another Sweaty Betty Blonde and move on. 

When one fires up to cook Hot Dogs at home I feel compelled to offer one basic rule or maybe two. They must be cooked on a grill and given a nice char! Wienies bobbing in liquid are ridiculous. The fat inside that sausage needs to ooze out to the surface of the dog and sweetly caramelize in the heat of the moments. And since caramelization and said sweetness are present... Rule 2. No freaking KETCHUP! Hot Dogs are to be anointed with mustard. They need that TANG. 

And sometimes they need even more.

There is a hot dog vendor down in a section of Miami where English is expendable who may have created the ultimate and most definitely not “AKC registered” dog.

First he puts a freshly cooked (grilled!) hot dog on a lightly toasted bun. (onion bun for me). Then he adds some ketchup (I forgive him for this one violation if I’m too slow to stop his flying hands) and then the tangy goodness of mustard. 

Hold on! He's just started to walk this dog. Then he adds a big dab of mayo, then fried sweet onions and pickle relish. 

Then he adds cold diced, fresh, sweet pineapple and then he puts the dog on a plate and takes some spicy-salty potato chips between his two cupped hands and rubs them back and forth over the dog, showering the now besotted canine with crunchy-fatty shards of bliss.

If it were a fireworks display I think we'd all be saying, "Awwwww" right about now. 


I’m Norman Van Aken and that’s…. My Word on Food ©.
Copyright © by Norman Van Aken, 2013

Note: I have a weekly radio program on WLRN-PBS and WLRN.ORG 91.3 and 91.5 FM. This is my script copy of a recent show. But they are also meant to be LISTENED to so jump on to WLRN.ORG and search for me or for "A Word On Food". 

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


See my Twitter page for a picture of the American Flag snapping in the Illinois December wind.

Stark, blackish telephone and utility poles punctuate the somber white fields. Snowplow cleared highways frame those fields in another geometric manner. Heavy trucks create a sonic corollary of this quiet morning pageant.

Yesterday we fulfilled nostalgic childhood flavors stopping for a much fantasized about Italian Beef Sandwhich from Portillos, a place much grander than our typical place for such cravings but good all the same even so.

After more icy driving, a favorite pub stop and visiting we rejoined family for a "never fail to visit when in Lake County"; Bill's Pub in my hometown of Diamond Lake. 12 of us gathered around the famous, flat, thin-crust crispy pies.
My wife, Janet is from this same place and she is the ultimate arbiter of how Bill's measures over the years. She was only willing to give one thumb up last night... but we will try again in three nights or less I'll bet!

Now it is time for a look at some of what Chicago has to offer us that may be new to us!