There is a fairly long list of things that I enjoy, an even longer list of things that I’d like to throat punch, or curb stomp, or…you get the picture…but the list of things that I LOVE is significantly shorter. I’m talking about things like, I love being in love with my wife. I love when the dogs get playful and act like goofs. I love standing on the flying bridge of a ship at flank speed, I love being in the fireroom making that ship go flank speed. I love flying a plane. I love that moment when you cry, “FISH ON!” and the fight begins. I love a well-made, working firearm. I love an old, even rusty antique firearm for the history it represents. A beautifully made blade is a glorious thing. These things all get an emotional reaction from me, sometimes to the verge of tears. I love, LOVE good food. My wife and I are both big-ole foodies. That is, quite simply, a central part of who we are. We like cooking, eating at good restaurants, sometimes even eating at bad restaurants. We both inevitably turn to food tourism in any new place – where are the great restaurants? Where are the holes in the wall? Where are the places the locals eat? And especially, where are the markets? I can’t speak for her here, but if I could spend my life exploring new places through the cuisine and agriculture, I would, in a heart-beat.
I just finished watching Anthony Bourdain travel about Istanbul eating and, who knew, Istanbul is an amazing food destination. Like Bourdain, I figured Turkey was about meat on a stick, and maybe yoghurt…but it’s so much more. He hit this place where they serve lahmacun, Turkish pizza. Actually, it is probably a pre-cursor to what we think of as modern pizza, but I don’t know that for certain, and I’m not doing the research tonight. It was a beautiful thing, the shot of the cook putting the lahmacun in the wood-fired, brick oven, fire and smoke pouring up the sides of the bricks and over the domed roof – amazing photography by the way (another of my loves) – I really got emotional. I wanted to be there, to smell the way it smelled, to join in the eating of it, the talking about the eating of it, and the eating of it again when we ordered a second one! While Bourdain will eat things that I personally wouldn’t and have no interest in – brains, most sweetbreads, squid ink pasta, etc. – I have to thank Bourdain in particular for many of the wonderful foods we’ve eaten in the past few years, and for the places we’ve sought out. My wife is now addicted to Cacio e Pepe – Pepper and Cheese on pasta…a classic Roman dish – because Bourdain visited a restaurant in Rome that served it. She has now eaten Cacio e Pepe in Rome herself and loves it. It was on his show that I first saw deep fried anchovies served with only a slice of lemon and eaten whole…I don’t remember where he was, but we were on the Island of Ischia when we had that meal. We were in sight of the Castello Aragonese at a little restaurant cattycorner to the fish monger, where the fisherman, his boat docked not 100 yards from the store, had delivered the box of anchovies not even an hour before. We watched the waiter as he crossed the street and bought the box of anchovies, bringing them back to the restaurant. These are not the limp, salty, nasty things that you get here in the U.S! So don’t even go there. You do not know whether you like Anchovy or not until you have had them literally jump from the ocean to your plate! They were salty, they were crispy, they were fishy in the way that only truly fresh fish could be – not in that ‘been sitting in the store for five days” way – in a truly, amazingly good way… Damnit! Now I want anchovies! There was the time in Rome, walking back to the apartment that I glanced into a sandwich shop and was brought up short by the Porchetta in the window. Here we had a whole, deboned pig, wrapped around spices and herbs and then cooked over an open flame until the skin is crispy and the meat tender. Bought by the kilogram and turned into sandwiches or just eaten out of a bag like popcorn…savory, tasty porky popcorn. Porchetta is … I don’t even know how to describe it…it’s like good sex, really, really good sex. You are satisfied, tired and ready to nap afterwards, but so looking forward to the next time. I miss porchetta! To top that off, the lahmacun from tonight’s show has me hankering to go to Turkey! Or just make Lahmacun – that’s gonna happen soon! But it was not just the lahmacun, it was the lamb roasted in a pit in the ground over coals, then hunks of it being cut off and placed on fresh bread, the skin puffed up like chicharon. It was the real shish-ka-bobs on bread that has been freshly grilled and had the meat juices cooked into them. It was certainly the breakfast…dear Gods, the breakfast of eggs, lamb sausage, fresh made flat bread, yoghurt, tomatoes, cucumbers, tea and coffee…this list goes on and on and on. Thank you, Tony! Thank you! Our culinary lives are living vicariously through you.
That’s not to say that we don’t have a rich culinary life to begin with. Last week I smoked my own bacon – while not a particularly successful affair – it tasted more like salt-pork than bacon, we learn even from our mistakes. At least we got two pounds of home-made smoked salt-pork out of the deal; it’ll be great for beans! Next time, it will be perfect…well, at least better. I smoked a brisket that was excellent, made homemade sriracha that is way better than store-bought (Sorry Mr. Tran, it is!), there is a brisket in the fridge right now brining for corned beef and possibly pastrami. We pickle and can our own food, make our own pasta, infuse our own liquors and even make our own lemoncello. We even grow our own food, this year only peppers and tomatoes, but every year it’s a little different in our little suburban farm. Hell, I even bake my own bread on occasion. We dream of a farm, and self-sufficiency – or at least as much self-sufficiency as possible someday. Is it wrong that I dream of raising Araucana hens and raising heritage pork? We’d call the place Green Eggs and Ham Farm! -Araucana lay green shelled eggs…in case you didn’t know.
Tonight I made a green fish curry for dinner. It is, quite simply one of my favorite things to make and eat. It looks like reactor fluid, but the taste is like what I imagine heaven to be. Spicy (not too spicy, it’s not a vindaloo), tangy, bright green curry in which one soaks a mild fish, battered and fried. I don’t think Americans really understand curry, and I honestly don’t claim to, but I am learning. Green curry right now is my thing, but there are red and yellow and who knows what other colors and varieties of curries out in the world. All a curry is after all is a variety of spices blended into a paste or powder, applied to some main ingredient. In India, from one village to the next, maybe even one house to the next, the curries are different. One could spend a lifetime just sampling curries and likely never taste them all. That does not sound like a bad life to me! Got vegetables? Fine, make a vegetable curry. Got Lamb? Ghosht Curry! Ghosht? That’s Indian for lamb – it’s quite literally the only Indian word I know because of my Ghosht Vindaloo addiction. Got fish? Fish Curry! Shrimp? Pork? Noodles? Watermelon (yes! Watermelon)? Curry it all! Got beef…well…o.k., hold on there hotshot….that wouldn’t be right now would it? Or would I??? We COULD call it Holy Cow Curry!
No…no…nooooo… I’m sorry… I just can’t help myself sometimes. No one should ever take me seriously. Look, I’m Mr. Politically Incorrect, Mr. Socially Insensitive and even I wouldn’t do that. To my Indian friends I say, Maiṁ māphī cāhatā hūm̐ , maiṁ ēka gadhē hūm̐ , lēkina maiṁ tumasē pyāra karatā hai! (and I pray to the Gods that Google Translate did that right!
But this story of variety repeats itself all over the world. The North of Italy cooks different from the south. The north of the United States cooks differently from the south. One side of Turkey has one cuisine, the other has another and there is a myriad of cuisines in between the two. China is the same, as is Russia, as is Africa, South America… our cuisines, influenced by our cultures, our environment, our religion all are mirrors into the souls of a people. Do you want to know a person, a culture, a religion? Share their food! It ranges from the Indian Brahma who supposedly won’t eat anything with a heartbeat – or even more extreme, that “breatharian” guy who won’t eat anything at all! – to the Cajun in the Louisiana swamps who has a recipe for every single living thing and some roadkill!
You do know the difference between a Yankee… I’m sorry… Northern zoo and Southern zoo right? A Northern Zoo will have a placard describing the animal in the exhibit, the Southern zoo will have the same placard with a recipe!
My wife and I count ourselves fortunate, even with our wanderlust; we live in one of the most amazing towns on the planet. I say that having visited a significant portion of the planet. I’ve eaten in Mexico, Canada, Australia (both coasts), Hong Kong (pre-China), Thailand, France, Switzerland, Italy, The Philippines and The Seychelles Islands. I’ve also eaten all over this great country. Just a couple of weeks ago I had a steak, mushroom and cheese sandwich from a lousy corner deli takeaway across from Carnegie Hall in New York City that almost brought me to tears. I went back to the restaurant and complimented the cook! Maybe I was just hungry, but I don’t think that was it, I think that was one of the best sandwiches I’ve personally ever had! But I have to say that Houston, and the surrounding area, has some of the, if not the best food I’ve ever eaten. The best meal I’ve ever had was in The Woodlands, Texas, a wild boar chop, two inches thick, grilled to perfection over fire… I have no memory of what it came with, but I do still have dreams of that chop! We have one of the finest French Restaurants in the state, if not the country right here in Humble, Texas. Chez Nous provides a level of service at the table, and a level of cuisine that is rare in any city. Much less a po-dunk place like Humble. We also have an amazing South American style grill just up the street – hmm…we haven’t been there for a while…need to rectify that… the bartender there makes the absolute best Bloody Mary I’ve ever had at a restaurant. The difference? The bartender infuses his own vodka with peppers – Lisa’s pepper infused vodka is better, as are Bloody Maries made with it. This is especially true since it’s made with peppers we grew ourselves!
There’s so much good food out there, I so don’t comprehend why people will tolerate bad food. Hamburger Helper – FEH! Manwhich – FEH! McDonald’s – FEH! Taco Bell – well…o.k. NO FEH! As much as I love me some tacos, Taco Bell is junk compared to Tita’s Taco House!
Sigh… I’ve kinda let this ramble on a bit, sorry, kind of a stream of conscious thing going on tonight… I blame that beautiful lahmacun and the fact that we’ve not been any place exotic for over a year now. I find myself pining to eat lemons in Ischia, or buy fish at Pikes Place Market, or have breakfast overlooking the Bosporus in Istanbul, or go fishing on the Mekong in Vietnam, or even eat some damned amazing Mexican food in a restaurant the size of a phone booth in Paris, France of all places – made by a fella from Brownsville no less who made the only Mole I’ve ever enjoyed!
There is so much of the world to eat out there; it’s hard being hungry for it!