Foodie Tuesday: Everybody’s Version is Different

As often as I post about loving comfort food, I seldom say clearly enough that I’m well aware everybody’s version of that idea is unique. Yes, we have familiar favorites that we’ve learned from our national, cultural, regional and communal environments, and those might well be generalized across towns or families. To a point. But the specifics vary with our own body chemistry, when it comes to allergies and the biology of taste buds, never mind the variety that comes from making choices.

That’s when it’s possible to slide from one leaning to another, even in what food sounds most comforting to me at the moment. Did I grow up surrounded by essentially middle class, white, middle-of-the-road, twentieth century American foods and preparations? Yes. Do I still think most of the stuff I grew up eating and drinking is delicious and comforting? Yes, I do. But it’s long since been joined on my hit list by a lot of other edible goodness that derives from cultures and kitchens far from those of my youth.

Learning to eat and prepare some of the deliciousness found in, say, Thai and Russian and Moroccan cuisines not only stretches my repertoire but trains my hungry brain to hanker for new goodness in addition to the comforts of my hungry childhood. Every unfamiliar regional or national cuisine, every dish, that I get to taste offers the possibility of further comfort foods. What’s it all mean? Most importantly, that I will never lack for something delicious that will bring solace and pleasure along with its nutrients, and may well continue to find new and enticing foods to add to my go-to list as life goes forward.

Photo: Tandoori Tastiness

Take a plateful of Tandoori chicken with Basmati rice, raita, coconut, dried fruit and cashews (and avocado, snap peas and carrots on the side), for example. Once you’ve had the marvelous and heartwarming masala that seasons a Tandoori meal, it’s easy to see what’s made that region’s cuisine so popular for so very long, and to think it’s a great idea to join the crowd.

Ha-ha-ha! I just realized I hit the Publish button on the wrong post. It’s Tuesday early this week! If it’s any consolation to anyone out there, it is already Tuesday in India, and I promise I’ll put up the other post tomorrow. Ta-ta for now, my friends. I have all night to dream about Tandoori chicken and anything else that makes me hungry for its comforts.

Foodie Tuesday: Not the Raw Prawn

It should be noted that while I prefer my prawns cooked in various ways, I would trust a sushi master to feed me uncooked ones without (as my Oz friend and colleague John taught me in grad school would be a less kindly gesture) either giving me or coming the proverbial ‘raw prawn‘. Old-school colloquialisms aside, it can be a great kindness to feed me well prepared prawns in a number of guises, as they’re not only tasty protein sources but well respected in a number of the world’s great cuisines. I’ve had the good fortune to live and/or vacation in a few places noted for particular kinds of prawns and shrimp, and when they’re ‘done up right’ I would be hard pressed to resist them as a top choice for eating.

In their compact and sturdy form they do lend themselves to skewering and grilling or to the great dive-in-and-get-messy kind of eating in a traditional Shrimp Boil or rekefest (the classic Cajun and Norwegian shrimp-eating parties, respectively), and I’ve certainly been served spectacular ones whole in dreamlike paellas, gumbos, cioppinos and other dishes. No complaints here! But when it comes to fixing things myself, I’m more inclined to think my fellow diners might like to be as lazy as I am, given the chance, and prefer most often to peel and devein shrimp and prawns before using them in my cooking. There’s no reason not to use the shells then and there for cooking up in a great batch of broth, of course, so I don’t see the necessity of wasting them, but I love to be able to eat meals unencumbered by the slowing process of dressing out the food unless it’s really a necessary part of the experience. Once the critters are cleaned, the meal prep is just as easy anyway, and if broth is on hand as a result, it’s the perfect base for an enriched soup or sauce in the bargain.

So what do I use these splendid shellfish for, finally? Nearly anything is good with such a sweet, clean taste and firm yet delicate texture. Shrimp puree, as I’ve mentioned before, is a fantastic binder for fish cakes because they don’t dull down the flavor like a starch binder (flour or crumbs, typically) would do, and though I haven’t tested it yet I’m certain it’d make a grand seafood soup or sauce thickener as well. But beautiful prawns deserve respect, too, in their unadulterated-yet-naked form, so they feature in a wide variety of dishes chez moi in addition to the aforementioned international classic presentations.

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Butter Prawns—my style—in Basmati.

Curries probably top the list hereabouts, mainly because both members of the household are fans of curry in a wide range of styles. Many classic Indian and Indian-influenced sauces and dishes, in fact, lend themselves beautifully to showcasing shrimp: butter sauce, mainly seen on American plates napping chicken, is one marvelous option, as are Tandoori-spiced grilling on a skewer, prawns biryani, and prawns simply seared in ghee and garam masala and served with fragrant rice.

Italian cooks, too, have given us a multitude of glorious ways to honor the delicious beauty of these shellfish, not least of all in a beautiful marinara sauce over pasta. If you want any advice or inspiration whatsoever regarding Italian cookery, you can’t do better than to visit my friend Chicago John over at his blog From the Bartolini Kitchens, and you can do your own happy swimming through all of his shrimp- and prawn-related dishes with a quick search there. But despite my reverence for John’s glorious and historically rich cookery, I have been known to dabble in my own variants at times, and think I didn’t do too much harm to the image of the Real Thing. One example of this would be when I make my version of prawns Fra Diavolo, which according to Signore Mario Batali is Italian-American anyway, so I have no compunction about further stretching the idea. For mine, I make a sauce of tomato passata with shallots, a splash of a nice, intense red wine if I’ve got one open, a squeeze of lemon juice, a good grind of black pepper, oregano, basil, and a hit of red pepper flakes, varying the amounts to the tastes of my fellow diners, and finally, warm the prawns in the sauce just until they’re pink and curling like a charming devil’s tail.Fra Diavolo can be a friendly little devil.You who love shellfish equally will know that I could go on rhapsodizing about them and the many ways in which to dress them up and swallow them down, but for now I think that that should be the end of this tale.

Foodie Tuesday: Getting a Menu Transplant

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Sticking to my ribs, yes, but maybe with the barbecue sauce twisted into a (Southern) peach chutney style to suit the Basmati rice alongside . . .

It’s not what it used to be, moving to a different place. The world is so much smaller than it once was! We talk via computer and cell phone as though we were sitting right next to each other–and sometimes when we’re sitting next to each other. Language and culture and history are all getting a good mash-up in this shrinking world where we live.

One genuinely wonderful aspect of this not-entirely-perfect scenario of homogenization is that we have access to so much that was once unreachable to everyone but the most extremely far-flung intrepid explorers and have commonalities that our ancestors could never have dreamed remotely possible. Not least of all, we can indulge in the joys of cuisines and ingredients from places we can’t even pronounce, let alone afford to visit.

Most of these regional, national, racial, cultural treasures, by virtue of being intermingled with and sampled by so many others to such a degree that sometimes it seems something learned from the Chinese by the Dutch traders and then passed along to their colonial outposts in the south seas, who in turn brought it along when they immigrated to North America, well, these ideas and arts and recipes have been so transformed along the way that they, like the initial message in the old game of Telephone, are utterly new inventions by the time the Chinese ever experience them again. And yet, in a happy twist, we who create and share the first iteration often fall in love with it and repeat and refine it until it becomes part of who we are, so it’s not wholly lost in the translation, either.

For someone who grew up in one part of the vast American patchwork of a country and experienced East Coast specialties, Southern cooking, Midwest traditions, and Southwest cuisine as being no less foreign in their ways to my Northwestern experience and palate, it’s always been a pleasurable study to try out the fabled deliciousness of Other Places. So while I’ve long loved Chinese and Dutch and Polynesian and Italian and German and Thai and Indian and North African foods of various kinds, it’s no less exotic and thrilling and delicious to sample the comestible culture of different regions of my own homeland.

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Fajitas today, quiche tomorrow . . .

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. . . but you only have to switch from a Coronita to a Trappist ale to suit the occasion, right?

Still, it’s been an entertaining and tasty part of the adventure of moving from Washington state to Texas that I’m experiencing Tex-Mex and Southern and cowboy cuisines in places of their origins and that’s mighty rich learning and dining, too. So I’m more than happy to indulge in all of those special items here anytime I can. But you know me, y’all: rarely do I go into the kitchen without bringing my own machinations and deviations to the party, so I am more than likely to emerge bearing platters and bowls filled not only with classic Texan foods but also with Texan foods as filtered through Washingtonian hands, perhaps with a hint of Chinese cookery here, Dutch baking there, Polynesia and Italy and Germany and Thailand and India and North Africa and all of my other palatable favorites making inroads and appearances whenever I see fit.

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A Texas-sized pork chop can also be cooked sous-vide, even if it’s getting classic Southern sides like bacon-sauteed sweet corn and coleslaw . . .

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. . . and if you want to shake things up a little in a more cosmopolitan way, you can always make the slaw a variant of Waldorf Salad while you’re at it by adding chopped apples and celery and sliced almonds . . .