The first time I had this classic Italian-American delight was in New York at the Feast of San Gennaro on Mulberry Street in Little Italy. It was a savory revelation, an umami bomb inside some awesome hot toasted and buttered buns. I was hooked for life.
Beginning in the late 1800s, the commercial fishing fleet out of San Francisco’s North Beach and Fisherman’s Wharf was dominated by Italian fisherman, usually from the port city of Genoa. But some boats were manned by a mix of fisherman from many other nations. Working side by side with the Italians were Portuguese from Lisbon, Mexicans from Baja, Spaniards from Barcelona, Frenchmen from Marseille, Chinese fisherman who had been in the city for many years fishing for shrimp, and there were even some highly skilled long range seafarers from Basque. Cioppino became so popular among the families in the bay area that it began to be served as street food for laborers along the wharf and by 1906, after the devastating earthquake, it was served in several restaurants in town. It is a classic San Francisco feast and always eaten with the wildly popular local crusty sourdough bread.
Anyone who enters the fray about which region in America has the best Pulled Pork is in dangerous territory. Passions run high about BBQ and smoked meats, and from region to region, there is fierce competition. That being said, I’ll dive in anyway. I’ve always liked salty sour tangy flavors more than sweet, so I’m naturally drawn to the vinegar based marinades and rubs of Eastern North Carolina versus the sweeter stickier tomato based BBQ sauces of Kansas City or Texas.
Everyone who loves crab cakes eventually gets to the big question… which are the best ones in America? For me, it comes down to two candidates… Commander’s Palace in New Orleans… and some dive I stumbled into along the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. They are very different but both were so incredible that the memory of them is indelible.
I had a close friend who was Cajun and he once took me to a small village in southern Louisiana where he grew up, not too far from the town of St. Martinville, famous for the statue of Evangeline, the High Priestess of myth and poetic legend among the Cajun and a powerful symbol of the Acadian diaspora. (The real person’s name was Emmeline Labiche, and the truth is better than Romeo and Juliet, but that’s a story for the next cookbook.) I had written about the Cajun people in a novel so I was familiar with their culture, food and society. One reason for my passion for Cajun food is that my mother’s side of the family has roots in the French Canadian community and thus…
Jambalaya is illusive at its heart. It is, in essence, a rice meal… but that’s just the canvas the Cajuns use to paint one of their masterpieces. The rice is there to absorb all the umami juices of the meats and shellfish and seasoning, and in some ways, this meal is the coming together of the two traditional factions of the Cajun people, the Rice Cajuns and the Bayou Cajuns. The Rice Cajuns are those folks who, early on in their resettlement, were able to acquire slightly higher land in the interior, on which rice flourishes. For the folks living on these farms, pork and chicken were just as likely to be on the dinner table as Mud Bugs, turtles and shrimp, which the Bayou Cajuns netted for a living. So Jambalaya is a meal that combines all the traditional strengths of the Cajun people, and finding the authentic ingredients is crucial.
When we were searching for a caterer for our wedding, we looked no further than our own savory kitchen and backyard BBQ. Inspired by a traditional Mediterranean marinade for fish that features many fresh herbs, olive oil and lemon, over time we had discovered that this was our favorite marriage of garden and sea.
This feast is a charred meat umami bomb straight out of West Texas, originally made in the 1800’s with beef strip steaks… in fact sometimes cowboys were paid in meat and not money. Those were tough times, and it was a harsh rugged job. So if you want to cowboy up, this is the real deal. Serve with salsa, sour cream, cilantro leaves, guacamole and warm tortillas. And several ice cold beers.
This feast comes from the heart of the North Country pines… northern Minnesota, the place where I did my real growing up, from boy to man, hunting and fishing in the wilds. This iconic feast, legendary among the native peoples who live there, is the essence of wildness. When you prepare the ingredients, and then feast on it, you can almost hear the cry of the loons out on the lake, in the dusk… and again at first light, as you ease your boat into the lily pads, casting for large mouth bass and northern pike. It is so deep in my heart that every scrap of my DNA cries out to be there again, one day.
On a winter’s evening in Central California, with the fireplace warming the house and lighting up the dining room, a creamy clam chowder is deeply satisfying. And the California twist on the meal, the baby asparagus, gives it a garden fresh quality that cuts against the density of the cream… while the oven roasted garlic and the smoked bacon brings the umami flavors to a sumptuous natural high. It’s like riding a 50 foot wave from Mavericks Beach… right into Boston Harbor.
One of the Father and Daughter rituals that Annie and I have in our wild savory kitchen, on special events and big family feasts, is to make Deviled Eggs as an appetizer. They were easy to learn to make when she was a girl and we both really love them.