So, I was minding my own business, reading other people’s blogs, and not posting on my own, when I noticed over at Haverchuk, that Michael had twanged me with a meme.
And not just any meme, but a meme that is damned hard to answer.
He wants me to tell him what my ten favorite foods are.
I mean, first of all, what is meant by “food.”
Is a food a completed dish, or an ingredient? Is it something that grows on a tree, comes out of animal, swims in the water, what?
What is it?
If it is a completed dish, I don’t know how I would answer, so I decided that I was going to talk about my ten favorite food items in their purest light–as unformed ingredients.
And so, in no particular order, we come to the list.
Berries have been a passion of mine since childhood. I have always loved them, and I cannot easily choose a favorite among them. Blackberries come close to edging out strawberries, but then, when we grew strawberries in our front yard at our last house, there was nothing better than walking out the front door barefoot in the morning, and picking a handful of berries to go with the morning coffee. They were sweet and sunwarmed, filled with the fragrance of spring. Zak had never tasted anything like them. I love nothing more than to pair strawberries with rosewater (rosewater enhances all of the berries, in fact) in a sour-cream based ice cream. When they are in season, strawberries are my favorite food.
But then, blackberries come into season, and my fickle tongue longs for their wine-dark juices, and their sour-sweet kiss. As a child, I labored long afternoons picking gallon upon gallon of wild blackberries for my Grandma to make jelly, braving thorns, mosquitoes, poison ivy and copperheads. I never felt that the dangers were too great–those shimmering jars of jelly kept the flavor of high summer alive all the long grey days of winter.
Blueberries, when truly ripe, are complex in flavor and call to mind the scent of violets, tinged with the sharp sour note of lemon. This summer, as I made batch after batch of blueberry scones and muffins and baked blueberry cherry pies, I came close to forgetting about the other berries.
When I am finally enamored fully of the charm of blueberries, along comes the delicate fairy princesses of the berries–raspberries. So sweet, so fragrant–like flowers, like trickling melodies, sweet and tart and blushing plump with lip-staining juice. These roseate beauties with their silvery sheen are best alone, though they are delicious in tarts with crusts as delicate and fragile as butterfly wings–a fitting cup to hold the sweetest primrose of the bramblefruits.
Cherries have always been my favorite fruit, favored even over all of the berries. Sour cherries, to be precise. I love to eat them raw, but they are best in pies, or in the fragrant and incredibly flavorful Persian dish, albalu polow–basmati rice cooked with tiny lamb meatballs, almonds and sour cherries. Their season is short, and there are few farmers who grow them, but to me, one pound of sour cherries is worth more than five pounds of dark sweet cherries. (Though, in truth–I like those, too.) I have never outgrown my childhood fascination and adoration for sour cherries, and I don’t think that I ever will–I believe that I will always love them, more than I love the flesh of fowl or beast, and I cannot say why that is. It must have been because I have always prized strong flavors over delicate ones, and sharp, sour flavors over sweet. (I used to drink pickle juice and eat lemons when I was little. I had to sneak it past my Mom, who was certain I was going to damage my stomach in some way, but I loved sour stuff to the point of even taking slugs of vinegar when she wasn’t looking.)
Tomatoes are a gift from God.
They quenched my thirst many late summer days, while working on fencelines or hoeing weeds from the potato patch. They would wait in the blazing sun, shaded by thier dull, toothy green leaves, softened by silvery fuzz, their scent calling me. I used to carry a salt shaker to the garden when I worked and when I got thirsty, I’d pick a tomato, dust it off on my shirt, bite it, and then sprinkle salt on it, then bite it again.
Sun-warmed juice would explode into cascading flavor, a waterfall of sweetness followed by the sharp teeth of sour that bit back at my tongue and the roof of my mouth.
I am allergic to tomatoes, but I eat them anyway. They sometimes make me break out around my lips into tiny hives. They stay for an hour or so and then fade back into my skin harmlessly. I remember in those days, the reaction was more severe, and my lips, cheeks and chin–anywhere that the juice dripped–would become inflamed with welts.
I ate them anyway, knowing that I could no more turn down the temptation of a tomato than God could keep Eve out of His tree.
I never saw being thrown out of Paradise as a curse or a punishment, either. I think that God made that tree for humans to partake of as a gift.
Just like those warm August tomatoes that quenched my thirst so long ago.
Bacon is one sort of flesh to which I cleave most strongly. I grew up eating bacon that my grandparents cured and smoked themselves. Thick cut slices of pig belly, streaked with deep reddish lean meat and creamy white fat, sweet with the flavor of maple sugar and brined in the bite of kosher salt, were my favorite breakfast on the farm. Of course, I never quite understood the irony of Grandma’s insistence upon using kosher salt in the brine for their bacon and hams, but now, knowing how much Zak adores good bacon, I giggle and think of his declaration that it would be “sacrilicoius.”
The bacon of my childhood spoiled me, and now I eat no bacon that isn’t thick-sliced and country style. Preferably raised on a local farm and smoked over hardwood. Those thin weirdly cherry red strips of bacon in the grocery store are not to be tolerated in my kitchen–not when there is pig fat that has been treated right and proper to be had.
Nothing is better than blueberry pancakes with bacon than waffles with bacon. Unless it is french toast made from whole wheat currant bread with bacon and berries and local maple syrup. That is, indeed, a divine taste sensation.
Garlic is another flavor I took to right away. It was love at first smell, then love at first taste, and finally, love at first sight. I grew familiar with garlic much later in life–few of my family used much of it in cooking. Aunt Nancy used some, being as she grew up in Providence, Rhode Island among the Italians and Portuguese, where the scent of garlic and herbs defined the neighborhood. To my young palate, the taste and smell of garlic were redolent of my Aunt Nancy. They reminded me of her, her warm laugh and her lovely cooking.
Morganna loved garlic from a much earlier age. I remember taking her with me into a Middle Eastern grocery store when she was a toddling two-year old with golden hair and dark brown eyes. I carried my purchases up to the counter, and set them down. She saw next to the counter, a large basket of fresh garlic, and quick as a rabbit lunging for lettuce, her hand darted into the basket and plucked out a huge head of garlic. She stuck her face right into it, breathed deeply and said, “Aaaah. Darlic. Mordanna love darlic. Darlic, darlic, darlic.” She then proceeded to half stick the head up her nose to sniff it again.
The proprietor of the store smiled hugely. “Do you really like garlic, little one?” he asked. “Oh, yes,” she replied, still sniffing loudly, the garlic pressed to her face. “Mordanna loves it. Makes everything Mamma makes taste dood.” (She had trouble pronouncing “g” at the time. She is much better now.)
I ended up buying that head of garlic and she carried it all the way home and then carried it all through the house, sniffing, as if she were an eighteenth century lady sniffing at her tussie-mussie.
Chiles are also a fairly new obsession. I always liked spicy food, but I didn’t learn to love the chiles until I went to culinary school and came under the tutelage of the local Thai chef who truly taught me to appreciate the burning joy of capsaicin.
Now, I have over twelve varieties of dried chiles in the cupboard and six types frozen. I put them in nearly everything, including chocolate truffles and brownies. I even like them in ice cream. I am not quite addicted to the burning sensation they impart, but I cannot help but love the sizzle, the tingle, the boost of endorphins that comes with the dance of fire on the lips and tongue.
Chocolate , on the other hand, is an old obsession. As old as I am, older than I am–I think it comes to me through my father’s genes. The love of chocolate is strong on his side of the family, and some of us are even obsessed enough to try and make the ultimate fudge or the best truffle, or the greatest brownies in the world. It is something we all strive for–to unlock the dark mystery of chocolate.
We dream of it, we revel in it, we sing to it, it sings to us and through us and we use it to create masterpieces. It seduces us, and through us, it seduces others–I have a brownie recipe that has gotten me several wedding proposals.
I even accepted one of those proposals, though somewhat later than one might suppose.
And we are still married.
And, here is the kick of it–Zak doesn’t even usually like chocolate.
Ah, but what is an individual’s indifference to taste in the face of pure alchemy?
Oh, and here is the hell of it–I am allergic to chocolate, too.
But–I bet you could never guess this–I eat it anyway.
It doesn’t seem to do anything to me, so why worry?
Cheese has been another long-time gustatory soulmate for me. And yes–I am allergic to several cheeses which I absolutely adore, and one which I have grown to abhor.
But I have no one favorite cheese. There are too many delightful ones for me to choose one–it would be like choosing a favorite cat or child or exact shade of a color. It is impossible.
The creamy nutlike sweetness of Camembert, and the flaking salt sharpness of aged Chedder are equally worthy of praise. Emmentaler and Edam, Gouda and Gruyere, Haloumi and Havarti are all beautiful beyond compare. Sharp and tangy chevre crumbled over roasted beets is heavenly, while the milky richness of fresh mozzerella is beyond compare when paired with achingly ripe tomatoes and fresh basil with a drizzle of peppery olive oil.
The blue-veined cheeses are my bane–I love them, all of them, but I am allergic to the mold that gives them their lovely marble colors and distinctive flavors. And unlike my allergies to chocolate and tomatoes, which do little if anything at all, blue cheeses make me wretchedly ill, so much so that I do not indulge in my passion for them at all anymore. And I must also take care that any brie I eat does not have penicillium mold used in the rind–I am deathly allergic to that mold in particular.
The cheese that I abhor–the one that I am allergic to–Velveeta and its processed cheese food brethren. It, too, makes me beyond ill, so I avoid it. I no longer even crave it, thankfully.
Basil is an herb that I can eat as a vegetable and be happy.
It is sweet, it is spicy it is redolent of all that is green and good in this world. It is the grassy color of peridot and emeralds, I wish my eyes were the same color and its scent draws bees to swarm over its pale flowers, thier little furred backsides writhing in joy as they jostle to sip its licorice-tinged nectar. Butterflies love it, too–I have gone gathering great bouquets of basil in the garden–wedding-bouquet-sized bundles, and gone trailing a train of butterflies through the yard on my way to the kitchen to process it into pesto so I can freeze it for winter.
It pairs naturally with garlic, it swoons to be near olive oil, and it loves its heart-friend tomato with a passion that is enduring. It is equally at home with the fire of chiles and the salty funk of fish sauce, kissed with ginger and shallots.
It is my best beloved herb.
Finally, we come to salmon.
The king of fish and the fish of kings. The wisest creature in the world, according to the druids, there is no more flavorful a fish than the salmon.
In culinary school, I had to poach a whole salmon and present it “bellevue,” meaning, “dressed beautifully.” My partner and I shaped the lovely fish so he appeared to be leaping from the tray, and we decorated him with scales made of cucumber and radish.
No one touched him, because our classmates didn’t like salmon.
The only ones to partake of him were my chef and I–and we ate a pound or so each, but he was a large fish, so to my heartbreak, we ended up throwing most of him away.
What a waste.
I have often said, that I hope that after I die, I could be reborn as a grizzley bear.
There could be no better life.
Swimming in cold water (I prefer swimming in cold lakes, ponds, streams and oceans to nice warm beaches and heated swimming pools. I have no idea why. Maybe in my last life I was a bear), fishing and eating as much salmon as I could hold, then chasing it down with ripe blackberries.
That would be the life.
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