I have always been fascinated by the Basque people, not just for their unique soulful cuisine, but also for the fact that no one really knows for sure where they come from or even where their language originates. Whenever folks go looking for the Basque origins, it turns out they were right there in their Basque Country homeland in the Pyrenees mountains all along, bordering both Spain and France, long before the French or the Spanish even existed.
For a long time, we have been passionate lovers of the fusion cuisine that spreads out from the South of India, across the Malaysian Islands, and is greatly influenced by nearby Thailand and Vietnam. Combining the coconut cream, saffron and warm aromatic spices of Southern India, the lemongrass, Kaffir lime leaves, tomatoes and vermicelli of Malaysia and Thailand, to the pork sausage and umami fish sauce of Vietnam, this amazing feast is one to remember.
This meal is real soul food from the heart of central Mexico and very different from the familiar restaurant style Tex/Mex cooking. Rebekah and I have been making this little feast for at least twenty five years… I think a good portion of our four kids’ DNA is made up of this family favorite. We always make two or three casseroles at once, and it makes endless lunches and dinners, and if frozen in the glass casserole dish, is an easy dinner for four any time you need it. It is hearty, healthy, spicy, addictive and deeply satisfying, a comfort food that is a real protein bomb… in which the flavors are both separate and yet married in a magical way.
In many way, the Creoles of New Orleans may be the most quintessentially American society of all, the original America fusion. Comprised of the descendants of the French and Spanish who were born in Louisiana, it later came to include all races and cultures that shared this general background. They were always a highly sophisticated people, many educated in Paris. The Creole opened the French Opera house in 1859, and the city of New Orleans became the opera capital of America. When I think of this meal, Red Beans and Rice, I imagine the steamy languid Sundays of the Creole world of New Orleans in the 1800’s, ham on the table and French wine to accompany that. And then on Monday, which was called Laundry Day throughout the South, they used the scraps and bones from Sunday’s ham feast, tossed in some Red Beans and seasoning, and as it bubbled for hours, the tedious laundry work was accomplished along with a savory lunch.
I first tasted this classic New England meal, appropriately enough, in the food hall of Harrod’s in London, many years ago. It was a revelation. It has a timeless wildness to it, that speaks of a life lived outdoors and long ago, and of the fireplace and hearth, the warmth of home in a rugged country. This is a meal created by rural working folks and those who hunted and labored in the outdoors and in the garden.
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.
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.
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 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…