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The Food Maven Diary


Zarela's Dinner Party

Read to the "tune" of Suzy, the society columnist.

In case you haven't heard, Zarela Martinez, the ravishing Mexican restaurateur and cookbook author, gives smashing parties, big and small, at her adorable East Side townhouse, one of the few remaining wood-frame buildings left in Manhattan. Last night (Sunday), to celebrate her mother Aida's birthday, she invited some of the city's food luminaries to feast on dishes from her upcoming book and PBS television show, both on the foods of Veracruz.. How old was the birthday girl, Aida Gabilondo? You know, ordinarily, I would never tell, but the great lady, a former rancher, is so proud that, at 83, her cookbook, Mexican Family Cooking, has just been re-published and was recently the number one cookbook recommendation on Amazon. You should read those rave customer reviews!

The feast started with two different Mexican-style tartletts. Well, I call them tartletts, but you know how these food people are. They demand you say everything in the language it's supposed to be, and with a good accent, too. So, technically, one is called a garniacha, which I am told can be different things in different places in Mexico, but in Veracruz is likely to be this base made of boiled masa harina, the lye-treated corn flour used for tortillas, mixed with pureed sweet potato, which is from the African heritage in Veracruz. It was topped with beans and diced homemade sausage in a dark brown sauce seasoned with chives, lime, and red onion. Yum! The other little pie-type first course is called a picada, which Zarela tells me is usually breakfast food, but works well at any meal. It was a tortilla with crimped edges holding a green sauce of tomatillo (did you know they are related to gooseberries, not tomatoes?) and avocado. Next came a chileatole, which is a generic name for a soup thickened with masa or a masa product. In this particular case, the chileatole base was a puree of spinach, parsley and two Mexican herbs, epazote and hoja santa. The masa product that thickened it were tiny masa dumplings.

As if we weren't now ready for the main course, Zarela then served a fourth first course. But who was counting? It was a handsome open omelet of mixed seafood, presented whole for all to admire, then sliced into wedges. Of course, everyone knows that Veracruz is famous for seafood, and that everything sounds more delicious in Spanish. I'm supposed to say it was a torta de mariscos. Ole! It came with a tomato sauce flavored with smoky chipotle chiles.

Just when we thought we might die and go to heaven from so much divine food, or at least that we would be served dessert, out came chicken thighs stuffed with pork and, well, I'm sorry to all you food people out there, too many other ingredients to mention.

I left after the birthday cake, but the rest of the feasters stayed and stayed, I hear. They were The New York Times' famous food reporter Florence Fabricant and her lawyer husband Richard; Jim Poris, senior editor at Food Arts, the glossy trade magazine, and his wife Betsy, who does something in marketing at Scholastic (you would have to have taken to bed in Monte Carlo not to know that Harry Potter is Scholastic's big deal these days); Regina Schrambling, who just happens to be one of the top editors of the Times' Wednesday Dining section, and her significant other, Bob Sacha, a freelance magazine photographer who should probably open a charm school he was so engaging. Raymond Sokolov, the culture editor of the Wall Street Journal, who you will remember has written more than a few cookbooks and food essays himself, was there with his wife, Johanna Hecht, who, I can testify from personal experience, is a wonderful cook herself, and gifted gardener, although she probably prefers being identified as a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Anne Mendelson, the noted food historian, cookbook editor, and cookbook reviewer for Gourmet magazine, was also at Zarela's table, as she often is because she was Zarela's collaborator on The Food and Life of Oaxaca, Zarela last book, and the new book, "Zarela's Veracruz." Paul Levy, the Kentukian who expatriated himself to Oxford, England eons ago, was there, too. Paul's claim to fame, besides having acquired a wicked Brit wit and being one of Great Britain's most important food writers, is that he coined the word "foodie," as in his book "The Foodie Handbook," which was a send-up of food fadism before it became absolute food fanaticism. Bob Harned, the archeologist and cabaret singer, and David Coiro, the portofolio manager, were there, too. They have no food professional credentials, but as Zarela always says, a good party always has a good mix of people. Besides, every cook needs an appreciative audience, and can those guys eat.

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