Umami

Yakitori Chicken

I’ve always thought of Yakitori as the Bad Boy cousin to Teriyaki.  He rides a Harley and he isn’t sweet, except in a kind of dangerous complicated way.  This feast is the bad boy of Japanese BBQ. These skewers of little umami bombs have a wonderful tension between deep soy flavors from the Dark Soy (we use the Chinese version of Dark Soy, less salt, more aging), the tasty fresh unique flavor of sake, the nutty sesame, and the complex layered sweetness of the mirin.

Italian Sausages with Peppers and Onions

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.

Cioppino

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.

Pulled Pork

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.

Malabar Shrimp

In India, on the western coast along the Arabian Sea, lies the city of Mangalore, with it’s ancient traditional cuisine of creamy spicy coconut sauces. I have very strong memories of watching cooks from that region, working as chefs in Los Angeles, throw whole mustard seeds into woks of smoking oils, seeing them pop and sizzle along with curry leaves tossed in and blackening, infusing the oil with powerful flavors. South of Mangalore is the state of Kerala, and all along the coast this Malabar Shrimp is a very popular street food and one of the local home cooks’ favorite meals. The proximity of the ocean with its fresh fish and seafood along with the spiciness from the pungent curry leaves and chilies highlight this traditional dish… and it’s beautiful to look at as well, because this little feast also has an amazing shimmering deep red color from the tamarind.

Crab Cakes

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.  

Sicilian Lemon Chicken with Green Olives and Capers

Early in the Tenth Century, the Moors of North Africa conquered Sicily and for more than 200 years they transformed the cuisine of this ancient, once Greek island. To this day, many of the classic Sicilian meals trace their origin to the highly sophisticated Moors, who brought with them oranges and lemons, rice and saffron, cloves and nutmeg, raisins and cinnamon, and crucially they brought couscous to soak up all those exotic flavors. I have always loved the aromatic and intoxicating spices and aromas of the cooking of North Africa, and this meal is a fusion of that exotic cuisine with this haunting and somehow tragically beautiful rugged land called Sicily.

Mapo Tofu with Spicy Pork

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.

Thai Lemongrass BBQ Meatballs with Rice Vermicelli

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.

Wild Rice with Roasted Duck and Smoked Sausage

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. 

Stuffed Grape Leaves (Dolmathakia)

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…

Thai Red Curry Duck with Pineapple and Cherry Tomatoes

This little umami feast explodes with flavor because of the wildly contrasting tastes… the rich deep dark pink meat of the duck breast match perfectly with the spicy red curry, and the bright sweet taste of the pineapple and the tomatoes contrast wonderfully with the richness of the coconut cream and the umami fish sauce.  It’s also addictive, like the best meals from Thailand, with the amazing fresh flavors of the lemongrass, Kiffir lime leaves, Thai basil, mint and cilantro.