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.
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.
Paella is the signature meal of Spain, a national pride, and yet almost no one fully agrees on what it is or how is should be made. It is a controversial meal for many reasons… starting with the simple fact that it is a huge shallow pan loaded down with complex and expensive ingredients which completely vary from home to home, town to town, restaurant to restaurant, and from region to region in Spain. Paella in Madrid is very different from that in Seville. But at the same time, like Bouillabaisse from France, Paella is a classic meal so identified with the soul of the country that it naturally comes laden with emotion, memory, tradition, pride, and a sensory longing for the authenticity of the time and place of one’s upbringing.
Sometimes we steam the mussels we gather on the coastal tidal pools north of Santa Cruz in two copper Cataplana pots, which are made in Portugal. They are wonderful devices… hand hammered copper pots by Portuguese artisans. They have a tin lining inside and are held together like a clam shell with metal hinges, and they sit directly on the flame. The history of the Cataplana is obscure, which is excellent news for me because, as a dramatist, I can tell a good story about the legendary Cataplana that feels true to the time and place it was first recorded… which is the Algarve region of Portugal… and best of all, no one knows if I made it all up or not.
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.
This is the best tofu meal I’ve ever tasted, hands down. The neutral flavors of the tofu soak up all the exotic spices, like the Chinese black vinegar, the thick dark soy, the mysterious Shoaxing wine and the umami bomb Szechuan fermented chili/broad bean paste… all of which makes the tofu glossy when stirred together with the deeply flavorful wok seared ground pork shoulder.
With all the startlingly fresh and evocative flavors of the best Thai street foods, this festive tasty feast will easily feed a crowd, who are likely hovering around the BBQ. Seared over flames, whether gas BBQ, charcoal or wood coals, these meatballs are literally packed with all the ingredients that make Thai food so irresistible… lemongrass, coconut, mint, fish sauce, lime, peanuts, cilantro, ginger and garlic… and rice noodles to soak up all that goodness. They are umami bombs wrapped in crunchy lettuce. Basically Bangkok in the back yard.
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.
I searched many years for a stuffed grape leaf that was mind blowing… and I never found one. I wanted Dolmathakia that was exploding with the flavors of Greece… lemon, dill and garlic, Greek oregano and mint from the hills above Santorini, and spicy sausage that tasted handmade. One day our son Tyler came home from having dinner with his buddy down the street, and he spoke with wonder about the stuffed grape leaves he had been served by that Lebanese family. So of course we went straight over there and asked the cook for the secret of her grape leaves. She reluctantly revealed the secret ingredient, after much imploring…
I grew up in a time and a place where the possibility of experiencing exotic or umami infused cuisine was just about zero. The little town in Illinois I come from had 500 residents, a couple of coffee shops, one family restaurant specializing in deep fried food, and was more than an hour from the closest big city. But when I still a little kid, I began to realize with a kind of amused bewilderment, that other people didn’t seem to be tasting food quite the way that I was.
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.