A Few of My Favorite Things
July 5, 2009
Or, more precisely, ten of my favorite things. Making this list was harder than I thought it would be. For instance, how much of the list was I going to devote to spices or non-essential ingredients? Did these ingredients have to work together? Would this be an “if you were stranded on a deserted island…” list? What if I ended up devoting the entire list to cheese?
What this list has ended up being, however, is a list of foods that recur in my food life, continually influence what I order in a restaurant, or are things I’d just really miss if they didn’t exist. There are a number of food items that come up again and again on this list, such as garlic and tomatoes, that didn’t make the actual top ten, and I’m wondering if that means they should be here too. But then I realize the beauty of a top ten foods list. It’s inclusive.
Josh, having spent six months eating the real stuff in Italy, is certainly more of a connoisseur of olive oils than I am, but I do know a good thing when I’ve got it. Olive oil has the magical ability to transform anything. The bread they serve to you at restaurants? Boring. The bread they serve to you at restaurants plus a little bowl of oil and crushed herbs? Delicious. Broiled eggplant? Boring. Broiled eggplant brushed with olive oil? Delicious. Olive oil is also first on my list because it’s so integral to my cooking. It is a rare dish that wasn’t brushed with, soaked through, or sautéed in olive oil. It’s also first on my list, because it is often how many of my recipes start – a hot skillet drizzled with oil.
I love cheese. I love all cheese. In fact, I had a hard time not making everything on this list cheese (feta, blue cheese, and cream cheese were all serious contenders). But I love love love goat cheese. The first time I had goat cheese was in eighth grade French class, when our teacher brought a tiny log of chèvre to smear on chunks of baguette. I was instantly smitten. Goat cheese makes me think of ice cold water from country wells, rolling green hills, wildflowers, a crisp breeze cutting through a warm, Provinçal sun. It’s simple, cool, fresh, and breezy – the antidote to sautéed mushrooms or garlicky tomatoes and basil, the crown of a fresh baked loaf of bread.
When I’m not currently enamored with goat cheese, I’m doting on brie as if it’s an old millionaire uncle about to die. I like my brie soft, with insides the consistency of butter left to sit at room-temperature, and with a thin, mild shell that adds just the slightest pungency. One of my favorite meals consisted of freshly bought French bread slathered with brie and topped with cherry tomatoes, shared in the middle of the campus lawn one May evening during final exams. Where goat cheese is simple and fresh, brie is just a little bit complicated. It’s rich, sexy, versed in the trappings of high society, and pairs well with a dangerous glass of red wine.
What brie and goat cheese both share is an affinity for crusty bread, preferably the kind of crusty bread that’s been freshly baked and crisps when torn apart. Its insides are warm and yeasty and yield to pressure without becoming paper thin when pressed with a butter knife. Crusty bread is the ideal foil for any sort of tapenade, dip, or cheese, but also is delicious by itself, eaten on a long car ride until the whole loaf is gone.
If I’m having trouble deciding what to order on a menu, and I happen to see a dish with eggplant in it, that dish will invariably win. I love eggplant because it’s complicated, both in flavor, texture, and preparation. It’s easy to ruin – not cooked long enough, eggplant is an unfortunate foray into bitter chewiness, overcooked, it squeaks. Eggplant must be thoroughly oiled and cooked until opaque and should crush apart with the slightest pressure from a spoon. When properly prepared, eggplant is absolutely delicious. I love its versatility; from Moroccan tagines to roast-garlic infused tapenades to Mediterranean-style roasts of eggplant, feta, and tomato to eggplant parmesan, eggplant has the ability to work within a variety of cuisines and adapt their flavor while imparting its own silky texture, and rich earthiness to whatever dish it graces.
I rarely eat smoked salmon. Every now and then, when my wallet is feeling generous, I indulge in a pack of pale pink salmon, glistening and lined with white streaks of fat. I have my bread, my cheese, a thin slice of salmon and feel utterly refined. I just returned from a trip to Washington DC, where I dined at the News Café on a savory crepe filled with smoked salmon, crème fraiche and caviar, and I assure you, I stuck my pinky out the entire time.
I think bagels are a good follow up to smoked salmon, since most of the time, I eat my salmon on a bagel with cream cheese, capers, and maybe a thinly sliced sliver of red onion. A good bagel is slightly chewy, yet light with a touch of sweetness. It is the perfect base for cream cheese, ham and tomato, roast beef and cheddar, melted gruyere and gherkins. Not only are they deliciously versatile, but a toasted sesame bagel with plain cream cheese and a glass of ice water is the perfect hangover cure. So I hear.
Looking through some of my posts, eggs tend to come up often. Egg-in-toast, sautéed greens with egg and feta, quiche, French toast, scrambled eggs… Nobody seems to remember the TV jingle from a few years ago that went, “I love eggs, na-na-na-na-na-na-na, from my head down to my legs. Scrambled or fried, sunny side – I love eggs,” but it pretty succinctly sums up my feelings about eggs. Another versatile food, eggs are also essential in many things, especially desserts and baked goods. You can’t even make Funfetti cake without eggs. My favorite eggs, though, are organic eggs from free-range hens cooked over easy, so that intense orange yolk runs out over whatever it’s on and you have to sop up the last bits of egg with bread or home fries or rice.
Hands down my favorite herb. I’ve tried to grow basil countless times (I even name my basil plants), but they always end up dying – probably because my musty college dorm rooms don’t get quite the amount of sunlight basil requires to survive. Basil is essential in Italian cookery, and because I love my pastas and pizzas, I always try to have fresh basil on hand. I first fell in love with basil on a family reunion in Italy, when the herb grew fresh outside our window, and every night we’d make a salad of ripe tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, and basil drizzled with olive oil, freshly ground pepper and coarse salt.
Of course salt is on my list. People died for this stuff. I don’t personally use much salt in my cooking, but I absolutely recognize its importance. I believe that salt, like makeup, should be an enhancer rather than a concealer. Too much salt overpowers whatever you cook, but too little, and you notice something’s missing. Salt livens the flavors of vegetables, sauces and dips and brings out the juices of roasted meats and broiled vegetables. However, the best dishes with salt in them taste nothing like salt. Like olive oil, salt shapes my kitchen and my palate.