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.
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.
This is one of Rebekah’s signature feasts and one of my absolute favorites. Everything about it is sumptuous and savory and exotic, even the clay vessel it’s made in. The word “Tagine” is used for both the vessel and the meal itself, and a Tagine can be made in a myriad of ways, depending on the available ingredients. This recipe calls for chicken but we have also made it with rabbit and lamb, both of which are fabulous. Rebekah cans the Meyer lemons in wide mouth pint jars and stores them in the refrigerator for about six months, or up to a year, before use. Over that time, as they preserve, the Meyer lemon skins become butter soft and creamy, and the salted juices thicken, developing an ethereal but penetrating aromatic liqueur which has the consistency of syrup. Along with the saffron, green olives, ginger and roasted peppers, they fill the house with an intoxicating fragrance.
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.
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 Creoles and 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.
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. We 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 beautiful rugged land called Sicily.
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.
Piccata is an Italian style of cooking in which either veal or chicken is pounded flat into cutlets, dipped in egg whites, dredged in flour and Parmigiano cheese, and then pan fried. Like all Italian cooking, very fresh and high quality ingredients are the secret. We find that Parmigiano Reggiano that has been aged two to three years makes a big difference, as well as extra rich chicken bone broth, free range air chilled chicken thighs (much richer tasting than chicken breasts), and high quality virgin olive oil. The combination of creamy young artichoke hearts and a lemony butter sauce make this meal a crowd favorite. And if that crowd is your family and close friends, this meal will be the one they barge back into the kitchen for… to ask for seconds and thirds, and most of all, for more sauce.
Tandoori turkey has been a part of our Thanksgiving family tradition for many years. We discovered this amazing recipe from Indian filmmaker Gurinder Chadha in the LA Times Food section. The smell of these exotic spices is always a sure sign in the Leekley home that the Holidays have begun. Originating 5000 years ago in the Indus River Valley, and later the Punjab region of India, traditional Tandoori cooking was done inside huge 5 to 6 foot high clay pots, which were buried in the ground with a charcoal or wood fire blazing inside, at the base of the pot itself. Tandoori pots are explosively fiery and hot, with smoke and flames belching out and the intense glowing heat sometimes reaching 900 degrees. The technique may be ancient, but the actual cooking technique is also very modern. The searing of the meat seals in the flavors and juices.
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 your incredibly aromatic kitchen. Seared over flames, whether gas BBQ, charcoal or wood coals, or you own oven and broiler, 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 backyard and your own wild savory kitchen.
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 have discovered that this is our favorite marriage of garden and sea.
The impression most Americans have of Mexican cuisine comes from the innumerable restaurants that serve the ubiquitous food often referred to as Tex/Mex, popularized from along the borders of Texas and Arizona… hearty and filling fast food like refried beans, tacos, burritos, and the melted cheese-smothering enchiladas. But a long ways from this food in both style and miles are regions in Mexico where the cuisine is light and elegant, haunting and sophisticated, with vivid fresh flavors in salsas with aromatic herbs and spices. There is still a focus on chilies, but there are at least fifteen to choose from, all subtly different from each other, from the fresh chilies like habaneros, serranos, and poblanos and the game changing smoked and dried jalapeños called Chipotle, to the aromatic and haunting dried chiles like ancho (dried poblano), guajillo and negro. There are restaurants in Mexico City that rival those in LA or New York, but for me, the epicenter of this cuisine is the region of Yucatan and the port city of Veracruz. I find this cuisine to be exuberant and startling, like a new found love.
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.
We searched many years for a stuffed grape leaf that was mind blowing… and we never found one. We 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 bewilderment, that other people didn’t seem to be amazed by food quite the way that I was.
This fabulous 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.
The three species of tuna that Americans enjoy eating the most are Albacore, Yellowfin (the Hawaiian word is Ahi) and Bluefin (the Japanese word is Maguro). Albacore is the lightest in flavor and texture, with large meaty flakes. The ubiquitous canned version is called “white tuna” but doesn’t come close to the flavor of freshly caught, which is exquisite. The word Ahi has become popular among restaurants because of this feast, Seared Ahi. Seared but left pink in the middle of the filet, it is the best of both worlds, crispy and explosively tasty and umami on the outside, and lush and sashimi on the inside. Bluefin is wildly popular around the world as sushi, called Maguro on the menu, and is the richest, most dense, and most expensive.
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.
This highly aromatic and spicy exotic banana bread follows perfectly after a feast of Jerk Chicken and Dirty Rice.