Monday, September 25, 2006

Home Cooking

With the onset of cooler weather, a new school year well underway and football on every other channel, it's hard not to think about fall. For some reason the first cool breezes bring me right back to high school - field hockey games, various anxieties from being in a different class, the anticipation of wearing all of my new clothes even if it's still too warm. The shift from summer to autumnalso affects the way I think about food. I was so excited to see squash in the grocery store that I bought one (butternut) to go with baked pork chops and broccolini.

Food from home has distinct tastes and feelings, combined with memory, comfort and an expectation for familiarity. My mom's steamed broccoli is better than mine, even though I prepare it exactly how she does. My grandma's Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur meals follow a traditional pattern, and there is something soothing in this consistency. These holidays coincide with the beginning of fall, when grilling slows down and there are different vegetables to buy at the grocery store.

I tend to eat differently at home, for the sole reason that I don't get the food on a regular basis anymore. I haven't even had brisket since my senior year of high school, and matzoh ball soup was something I've only eaten once or twice since I started college. My aunt's homemade challah is such a treat that I ate three doughy pieces of it, and was even able to ignore the raisins because I wanted to savor every possible bit.

My dad has been eating jerk seasoning on his grilled chicken for years, and he had just made a fresh batch on Friday when I came home. I don't think I've ever eaten my own jerk chicken, but I was happy to have a sweet, spicy chicken breast all to myself on Saturday. It's the kind of meal that needs little accompaniment - broccoli and fresh bread the perfect simple side dishes.

There are some very specific culinary moments that remind me of autumn in Pennsylvania. Seeing squash is one of them; another is biting into a crunchy, slightly tart apple. I happened to bring some McIntosh apples back from the Farmer's Market in Harrisburg, and it easily outshined any apple I've eaten in Richmond. I used to get excited about "locally grown VA Gala apples," but I can't trick myself into liking them when I know what I can find at home.

Wherever I am, fall brings back old feelings and familiar ingredients, promising that the end of summer shouldn't be mourned, because there are just as many cooking possibilities on the horizon.

Monday, September 18, 2006


I've been reading Anthony Bourdain's second autobiographical book, A Cook's Tour, in which he travels all over the world "in search of the perfect meal." In case you're not familiar with the author/TV chef, he wrote Kitchen Confidential, and has had shows on both the Food Network and the Travel Channel. Some of his food experiences make me cringe, while others make me crave very specific dishes. Pho, a Vietnamese noodle soup, is one of meals I can't get out of my mind since I read about it.

In one of the chapters Tony, that's what we used to call him in my house, and it's how he refers to himself in the book, eats pho for breakfast in a Saigon market. He describes it better than I ever could:

"Is there anything better to eat on this planet than a properly made bowl of pho? I don't know. Precious few things can approach it. It's got it all."

Last night I couldn't wait any longer to have pho again, and went to Vietnam 1, a small restaurant I hadn't tried yet. One of my favorite things about the soup is that it's served with a basket of fresh bean sprouts, basil, lime, and sometimes cilantro. I like to add all of those to the steaming bowl, along with plum sauce and that Sriracha chili sauce that seems to turn up in restaurants of all origins. Pho can have all different cuts of meat in it (among a variety of other items); I chose eye of round and flank last night, and they were delicious and tender. The soup is beyond's a wonderful layering of flavors that, as Tony says, is "spicy, hot complex, refined, yet unbelievably simple."

I'm not an expert on Vietnamese food, let alone pho, but it's hard to think of many meals that satisfy a craving the same way. One line from A Cook's Tour echoes my thoughts: "the whole experience is overwhelmingly perfect."

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Eating for the Sake of Others

A couple weeks ago one of my best friends from college and I were sitting around, talking, and sharing music with each other. My friend has a job which allows her to listen to her iPod all day, and she was playing songs from the four albums or so she listens to the most. When we started on some of my music, we discussed how differently music sounds when you play it for someone else for the first time. Especially when that person has musical taste you trust and respect. It's a separate level of judgement for a song, and you already know that you like it, but there's pressure on you when someone you know is being exposed to your current favorites.

After I'd thought about this for a little while, it dawned on me that sharing new restaurants or cooking with another person generates a similar feeling. When I cook for friends for the first time, or when I make something that my guest has never had, I try to analyze the food from another perspective. If I take visitors to one of my favorite restaurants, I worry about how they'll see it, and constantly wonder if I made the best choice.

Last weekend, for example, my grandparents came to visit me in Richmond, and they wanted to take me out for a nice dinner. My first instinct was Can Can, not only for the food but because it has such an exciting atmosphere, but my grandma wasn't overly thrilled with the menu because they serve a lot of seafood. I knew that my grandparents aren't so in to Asian or Mexican cuisine, and they've already been to the White Dog, so I opted for Italian. The options were even more limited because they came on a Sunday, but Edo's Squid is open - thankfully - all weekend. The meal went smoothly for the most part, and I was rewarded with my grandparents' praise of the food along with a hefty container of leftovers: sausage and pasta.

I had the same anxious feeling a few days ago, when I baked a cake that I don't indulge in very often (chocolate with peanut butter chips and chocolate peanut butter icing) to bring over to a friend's house. They have a comparable passion for dessert, so I knew that they'd eat it, but I still wanted them to enjoy it as much as I do. We ended up eating nearly the whole thing by the end of the night, so I didn't have to wonder how much everyone liked it.

It's difficult to try to inflence someone's tastes, but it's still fun to compare opinions and share personal preferences, whether musical or culinary.