Flash in the Pan 

A Haitian meal

Eating Haitian food won't directly aid earthquake survivors, and it isn't a substitute for sending cash or other forms of assistance. But eating Haitian for an evening is a way of paying attention to a brighter side of Haitian life, and can be a valuable reminder that there is more to Haiti than suffering.

Already, citizens of the world are catching up on their Haitian history and learning that long before the quake Haiti was the poorest nation in the western hemisphere, and one of the most environmentally degraded, politically oppressed and violent, too. If the disaster helps focus attention on this sore spot, perhaps someday we'll recognize a silver lining to this tragedy.

Whether you're breaking bread together, taking a meal to a sick friend, or learning about another culture through its food, eating can be a bonding experience. So while our thoughts and support go out to the people in Haiti, how about a virtual trip there via an evening's victuals, to remind us that Haitians deserve respect as well as help? While Haiti's experience under French rule did much to set its tumultuous trajectory, a country could do worse, from a culinary perspective at least, than to be colonized by France.

Our first dish, in fact, bears a vague resemblance to the French dish duck a l'orange. It's called griot, a word that also refers to West African minstrels. Griot the dish is pork marinated in sour orange juice and then browned—a sort of pork a l'orange, if you will. It's one of the most treasured dishes of Haiti, and very rare in a country where pork is a luxury.

Sour orange, one of griot's key ingredients, isn't as easy to obtain as simple oranges gone bad. Sour orange is a distinct fruit in the orange family, and if you can get your hands on some, by all means do. Alternatively, Goya markets a sour orange marinade called Naranja Agria. Otherwise, limes can be used as well, or a mixture of lime and orange juice.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ARI LEVAUX

If using fruits, cut them into quarters and squeeze the juice into a bowl. Save the peels.

Cut 2 pounds of pork chop or pork shoulder into half-inch cubes and toss the cubes in salt until they're coated. Stir the peels of the squeezed fruit in with the salted meat, so the zest from the rinds can permeate the meat. Let it sit for half an hour.

Now rinse the meat cubes under cold water. Place them in a pot and cover them with the juice. Add a sliced jalapeno pepper, a teaspoon of thyme, a quarter cup of chopped scallions (or onions), a quarter of a bell pepper, diced, and a few sprigs of chopped parsley.

At this stage, some recipes will tell you to marinate overnight, but as one seasoned blogger notes: "All Haitian grandmas will tell you that if you want your griot right away, you got to take the proper measures for that."

In other words, you don't have to marinate it overnight to meet authentic Haitian approval.

Add just enough water to the juice to cover the meat and seasonings, and simmer until the chunks are soft enough to push a spoon through—about 45 minutes.

Remove the pork chunks from the pot and slowly fry them in oil until nicely browned on all sides. Then add the onions, parsley and peppers that remained in the pot, and a quarter cup of the liquid, stirring occasionally. When the liquid cooks off, turn off the heat. Serve the griot with cornmeal porridge, prepared as follows:

Bring 8 cups of water with a teaspoon of salt to a boil and whisk in 2 cups of cornmeal. Keep whisking until all lumps disappear. Add crushed chile flakes if you wish. Simmer for 15 minutes, or until the grains are no longer crunchy. As it cooks, add water if necessary, and be vigilant with a scraper so nothing sticks to the bottom. When the cornmeal is soft, cook until it's as thick as oatmeal, stir in a tablespoon of butter or olive oil, and pour into a wide, shallow dish to cool. Cut into pieces and serve.

There are a lot of flavors going on in this meal. Griot, like the African minstrels of its namesake, is a storyteller. It sings a harmony of dissonant notes: the pungent heat of the jalapenos, the sour and sweet penetrating acidity of the citrus, the richness of the pork and its satisfying brown coat. The porridge's creamy and subtle corn flavor carries the griot, and creates a wonderful juxtaposition of flavors and textures. It's a pairing so complete that once you start eating them together you aren't satisfied eating one without the other.

But the reality is, just as Haitian meals are more likely to consist of cornmeal porridge alone, your griot will probably run out before the cornmeal porridge. If so, consider slowly frying slices of the leftover porridge in oil the next morning for breakfast. It develops a crispy skin and nutty flavor that's surprisingly satisfying.

Perhaps once you've eaten their food, you'll feel connected to the Haitian people in a way that's different from the connection you felt when you sent money to an earthquake relief organization. It's a feeling of respect for the culture that created this amazing meal, rather than pity for the poor people whose pitiful world has come crashing down on their heads.

In the end both respect and pity are worth indulging. After you enjoy your meal, consider how far the money you spent on that pork chop could go toward the Haitian relief effort. Let's open our wallets as well as our mouths.

Ask Ari: Much ado about MSG

Q: Dear Flash,

Please tell me it ain't so! A while ago you wrote a column in which you actually appeared to be extolling the supposed virtues of monosodium glutamate (MSG). Since I regard MSG to be nothing less than evil incarnate, please explain.

—My Sore Gut

A: It's true, the anti-monosodium glutamate bandwagon is one of the few conspiracy theories I haven't signed onto. I don't understand how a substance made from two things we commonly eat—sodium and glutamate—could be evil incarnate. I haven't felt the effect myself, and I haven't seen any studies that support the claims that MSG causes these reactions.

MSG was first isolated from kelp, as a way of mass-producing the "umami" flavor that Japanese chefs have long known kelp broth to impart. Nowadays, most MSG is produced by cultivating the bacteria Micrococcus glutamicus on nutrient-rich media and concentrating and purifying its MSG laden waste product.

It's possible that something about this process does make people have a reaction to the product. It's also possible that some folks are allergic to it. But people are allergic to peanuts, too. Does that make peanuts evil incarnate?

Anyone who uses soy sauce or liquid aminos is adding sodium and glutamate to their food. Many cheeses and fermented products also have it. In fact, our bodies even synthesize glutamate. And sodium is a common component of table salt. And if you think combining the two harmless components creates a monster that's more evil than the sum of its parts, that's not the case. On contact with water, monosodium glutamate breaks apart into its two pedestrian components.

My gut feeling is that there is something else going on behind the kitchen doors of some Chinese restaurants that may explain the famous "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome" in the late 1960s that lead to the MSG witch hunt.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net.

Happiest Hour: Forest Lounge Steak House

Claim to fame: An unapologetic alternative to Missoula's more progressive, Suburu-driving, granola crowd. The parking lot is full of rusted Jeep Wagoneers and Chevy El Caminos. Blue-collar patrons wear grease-stained pants and dirt under their fingernails. And barflies aim to protect that heritage: a bumper sticker behind the bar reads, "Loggers, Miners, Ranchers and Farmers are the endangered species."

Another noteworthy sticker behind the bar: "Guns kill people like spoons made Rosie O'Donnell fat."

What you're drinking: A full bar offers a range of well drinks. Domestic drafts run $2.50 and a tall cold Busch will set you back $2.25.

Who you're drinking with: Almost entirely men in tractor caps, suspenders and flannel shirts.

click to enlarge Food_Flash1-2.jpg

What you're eating: Gizzards, "shrooms" and cheese sticks, along with four-piece chicken dinners complete with jo jos, garlic toast and coleslaw. A chicken dinner runs $6.50 any day of the week, while Wednesday night's $7.50 prime rib special lures employees of mechanic shops and truck stops across town, says Forest Lounge bartender Tuni Lefever.

Happy Hour specials: When a full meal with a couple of drafts sets you back only $10, Lefever says the Forest Lounge doesn't need a happy hour. "We're always happy," she says.

How to find it: Look for the parking lot full of rusted rigs at 3695 West Broadway. It's 2.2 miles from Russell Street as you head from downtown Missoula toward the Missoula International Airport.

—Jessica Mayrer

Happiest Hour is a new column that celebrates western Montana watering holes. To recommend a bar, bartender or beverage for Happiest Hour, e-mail editor@missoulanews.com.

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