But, I am going to do it again anyway, because I told Kirk I would. Besides, this time, instead of my favorite foods, I am going to tell you about my ten favorite dishes, which is infinitely more difficult.
It is more difficult, because I love all food, and nearly any dish in the world can be my favorite, depending on what season it is, what the weather is like, how I am physically feeling at that time, what I have eaten recently and what kind of mood I am in. Frankly, I am certain that as soon as I commit these ten dishes to paper, or as it were, to electrons, the list will change. However, I refuse to edit it after it is done, so what you readers will get is a snapshot of which ten dishes I most love at a singular point in time on this day in January 2006.
It is the best I can do.
Oh, and one more thing–these are not ranked in any particular order. I can’t do that. I draw the line there. These dishes are in the order that they came to my head, and that is where they are going to stay.
Hot and Sour Soup is an enduring favorite, even if I have only been eating it for about twenty-three years. My father mistrusted Chinese food when I was growing up, so I didn’t have any until I was in high school and was introduced to it by a pair of friends. But, it wasn’t until I went to college and discovered The China Garden restaurant in Huntington, West Virginia, that I tasted hot and sour soup.
It was love at first sip.
It didn’t matter to me that I had no bloody idea what most of the ingredients floating about in the soup were. What mattered was that it was peppery, chile laden and sour, and unbelievably good. Huy made fantastic soup. By the time I was working there, after I left my first husband, I mostly lived off of that soup. Mei would sell me a quart at the end of the night for a quarter, and I would buy two quarts of it, carry it home, and then sit on the roof of my porch to look at the stars and drink soup, and ponder the meaning of freedom.
Of course, then, we moved away, and I couldn’t get Huy’s soup very often anymore, so I was forced to learn to make it.
And I did. After I learned to make soup like Huy’s, I played with the recipe, adding galangal and lemongrass, which changed it considerably, though I think, for the better. Now, people tell me I make the best hot and sour soup they have ever tasted.
Mine is good, and it might raise the dead, but Huy’s–his is the soup that tastes like freedom.
And freedom is better than resurrection any day.
I have already written about lasagne at length, but I can still add a few words here, anyway.
One thing that you will learn by reading this post is that I am not wedded to one single version of a dish being “right.” I mean, sometimes, only one certain flavor will do–like when it comes to King Crab Rolls, only the ones from Sushi King in Columbia, Maryland, count. Only those, and no other, can satisfy my craving for king crab, tobiko, rice and crispy bits of tempura batter. Nothing else will do. Sorry.
But with most of the dishes listed here–there is no one variant that pleases me. They are all good. (Unless they are just badly cooked or from a cardboard box or something.)
Lasagne is like that. I never really make it the same way twice. Never, ever. There are just too many ways to enjoy it. Too many pastas to use, too many cheeses, too many fillings–why should I limit my palate to one version of lasagne? It makes no sense.
I like the way my Mom makes it, with pepperoni, mushrooms, sausage and ground beef in the sauce, and a fairly plain ricotta filling. I like the way that most Italian-American restaurants in Providence, Rhode Island make it–very basic, very plain, very, very good. I like the way a Greek friend in high school’s Mom used to make it–as a bastard love-child between moussaka and lasagne–noodles layered with cinnamon-scented ground lamb and tomato sauce with slices of roasted eggplant and peppers, melty feta cheese, and a custardy bechamel on top.
In fact, I like that one so well, that now I have recalled it, I might have to haul off and try to recreate it, because it is sounding pretty damned good to me right now.
Okay, now that I have said that I am pretty easy-going about my favorite dishes, and that I don’t believe that there is any one “right” way to make them, I am going to turn back around and make a liar of myself.
There is one exception to that rule, and that is Mom’s potato salad.
Yeah, I mean, I will eat other potato salads, even my own, and they will be okay, I guess. But most potato salads are too sweet (Who puts all the sugar in the dressing, and why? What the hell is up with that?) or too mustardy (Whe dressing should be pale yellow, not blazing dandelion-colored!) or filled with sweet pickle relish (Which is nasty snot-colored stuff straight from Satan and belongs in no self-respecting potato salad.)
See, just when you thought I was easy-going and loved everything, you find out that I have one dish that I am a complete and utter food nazi over–and that is potato salad. (Yes, I am a southerner, you can now tell.)
My mother, like all southern mothers, if you hear their kids talk, makes the best potato salad. The difference between my mother and all the other mothers in the south is that mine really does make the best. All those other kids are either deluded, lying, or are too scared of the Wrath of Mama to tell the truth, because the truth is, my Mom’s is the best. No other potato salad will do.
And the hell of it is–she doesn’t make it very often. She never did make it too often, but she really doesn’t make it too much now.
Because it is a pain in the butt. Because she boils her potatoes whole, in their skins, to keep them from getting soggy. (That is rule number one for a good potato salad, which most people bugger up–avoid soggy potatoes.) Then, she has to let them cool enough so she can peel and dice them, into chunks not too big and not too small. She boils eggs, too (eggs must go into the salad eggs and potatoes are friends you know–without eggs, it is a salad made of lonely potatoes, and who wants that?), and chops them up. along with raw onion and celery, and sometimes green onion tops. (And when it is ramp season, yes, oh, yes, she will put ramps in it. I am drooling now, just thinking about it.)
Then, she makes the dressing–and this is what makes it great. She uses Helman’s mayonnaise (no other will do, and no Miracle Whip, you infidel freak!), French’s mustard (but only enough to give it a zing and to color the dressing a pale, buttery yellow), salt, pepper–and get this–pickle juice. Yep, pickle juice from hamburger dill slices. That is what makes the dressing tangy, pourable, tasty and good. No sugar. No pickles chopped up and none of that damned pickle relish. Just five things in the dressing–Helman’s, French’s, salt, pepper and Kroger’s brand hamburger dill slices pickle juice.
I can eat inordinate amounts of that stuff. And so can most of my cousins, aunts and uncles. Mom used to make it in the big roasting pan that we used for twenty-two pound turkeys at Thanksgiving, because if she didn’t, there wouldn’t be enough.
At our house, chili is a constant bone of contention between Zak and I.
I love chili.
Not only does he not love it, he generally doesn’t even like it. Most of the time, he tolerates it.
He makes exceptions for some of my derivations of chili–the pictured “Chupacabra” chili, he likes pretty well. It has goat, lamb, two kinds of beans and posole in it, in addition to tomatillos, onions, garlic and chiles. Lots of chiles.
But chili is another of those dishes that I am very democratic about. I like it every way except the way that they make in Cincinnati, which is gross beyond belief. Sweet chili with overcooked spaghetti, onions and cheese is disgusting. Sorry. No can do.
Chili should be thick.
It should be spicy-hot.
It should be redolent with cumin, garlic, onions and maybe Mexican oregano.
It should have cilantro in it. And maybe sour cream, and cheese.
It can have beans or not, and it can have meat or not. So long as it tastes good and isn’t sweet, I am not too picky on that point.
In culinary school, when I did my internship, some of my TA’s called me “The Chili Queen,” which to them, who were also chilihounds, was a title of great respect and honor. They called me this, because they could give me a pile of disparate ingredients, a bucket, steam kettle, or pot to cook in, and as little as forty-five minutes, and I could turn out a very respectable to downright tasty chili. I was the emergency back-up plan for whatever went awry, because they knew, that no matter what, they could come to me and I could make chili. (Or for that matter, gumbo, or any number of filling stews, but they liked chili best.)
By the time I was finished interning, I probably had made about fifteen different types of chili myself, and I liked them all.
Every now and then, I get a hankering for one of them for dinner, and Zak sighs and puts up with it, knowing that the next day, I will go out of my way to make one of his favorites, like Red Curry Chicken with Pineapple.
Fried chicken is another of those perennial favorites that I seldom will turn down if it is offered to me, and luckily, Zak agrees with me on it.
Popeye’s spicy fried chicken (and red beans and rice) is about the only fast food that I still will actually eat, and though it is greasy and godawful for me, it still tastes delightful. Fried chicken is one of those things I seldom cook, but probably should. A friend of mine and I once innovated a recipe that we called “Garlic Booger Chicken,” because we had marinated the chicken pieces overnight in buttermilk and garlic slices. The next day, when we fried it, we were too lazy to pick the garlic slices off the chicken before dredging it in flour, dipping it in egg and then rolling it in cornmeal. When we dropped it in the hot fat, the slices that had clung to the chicken pulled away and deep fried themselves. We fished them out, tasted them, and by damned, if those little garlic boogers were not the most delicioius things! They were like roasted garlic in that they were sweet, nutty and soft, but they had the beautiful crisp, deep fried outer coating that was from the gods. And they went beautifully with the fried chicken, so, that is how we both fried chicken ever after. (The only fried chicken better than it was my Gram’s–her secret was to add a bit of butter to the frying oil, and my Grandma’s–her secret was frying it lard. You cannot beat butter and lard in cooking, not even with garlic boogers.)
I haven’t made Garlic Booger Chicken in years.
I probably should rectify that situation, but I digress.
Fried chicken is one of those dishes that is cross-culturally satisfying. I have had it made by Chinese chefs and loved it, and I have had it made by West Virginia Mountain Mammas, and loved it equally. The Cubans of Miami make a pretty amazing fried chicken and the local grease pit fried chicken joint across town here in Athens, Miller’s Fried Chicken, makes not only fried chicken to die for, but real creamy chicken gravy that doesn’t come out of a jar.
The only fried chicken I categorically will not eat is KFC, because for whatever reason, it doesn’t taste good anymore. It just tastes brown. Like their gluey gravy tastes brown. Not chickeny, not meaty, just brown.
I don’t mind food to be brown, as these illustrations no doubt show, but they should taste like something other than just generically brown.
You knew that there had to be something sweet in here, right?
And if you read my first post regarding this meme, you already know that I am fanatical about sour cherries, to the point that I will eat them raw and unsweetened, right?
Well, no doubt you can guess that my favorite sweet in the world is Sour Cherry Pie. But only if it is a good pie, with a good all-butter or butter-lard or all-lard crust. And it is made with something other than that godawful, hideous red-food-coloring, corn syrup and tapioca-starch laden canned cherry pie filling.
That is one thing I won’t compromise on. No canned pie filling, ever. Ick. It is too sweet, which is the greatest mistake most pie bakers will make with sour cherry pies. They are SOUR cherries, which means they are meant to be sour, not sweet. If I wanted a sweet cherry pie, I would make it from SWEET cherries, not sour. Cherries come conviently pre-sweetened and not, take advantage of it and don’t you dare drown my precious sour cherries in cup after cup of sugar.
If you are going to do that, you might as well use that damned canned crap and be done with. Those poor sour cherries have already been lost–there is no use in visiting such horror on perfectly innocent, unsweetened fresh or frozen sour cherries.
As much as I like sweets, in truth, I like non-sweet food even better. Hence, the dearth of desserts on this list. Every year, when I was a girl, I got a cherry pie from my Grandma instead of a birthday cake, and every year my Gram or my Mom would make Chicken with Homemade Noodles for my birthday dinner. I wrote extensively about this dish back in December, and I don’t know that there is much else to say about it, except that I have yet to have a rendition of it I haven’t liked. I mean, it is a stewed chicken with tender, but still thick, hand-rolled egg noodles. How can that be bad? And when you serve it over a heap of fluffy, steaming hot, buttery mashed potatoes–how can your tongue not go to heaven?
Actually, I can see how it is bad–for the waistline. Double starch, butter, eggs, chicken fat, chicken–it all adds up to a dieter’s nightmare, but it sure does taste good. And if you only eat it once, maybe twice a year, or in my case now, every other year, you won’t die from it, and neither will your waistline.
Pot Roast is another of those childhood favorites that has come along into adulthood still loved, but not often eaten. If I ate pot roasts as often as I would like, I’d be as big as a house. But, I don’t, so I’m not, and all is well. But now and again, I just have to have a magnificent binge of a tough cut of meat cooked low and slow (or, in a pressure cooker, high and fast) until it falls apart. I gussie mine up a fair amount, especially compared to my Mom’s recipe which only included onion, bay leaves, salt, pepper and water–I am known to add wine, beer, garlic (very few dishes are cooked in this house without garlic–desserts are where I draw the line), chiles, herbs of all sorts, carrots, celery seed, mushrooms, parsnips, turnips–you name it, if I think it will taste good, into the pot it goes.
There is nothing better than sitting down to a plate of fork tender meat, meaning meat that you don’t need a knife to eat, that is filled with juice and flavor, with a plate full of vegetables braised in the meat broth, a pile of mashed potatoes, and a good swill of dark brown gravy thickened with a good roux brun. Well, there are things better than that, but as kids might be reading this, I will not go into them here, but there are few things better than good pot roast, vegetables and gravy.
And you know, I will tell the truth right here and now–the pot roast is all about the gravy. And while I adore beef chuck pot roast and lamb shoulder pot roast, and venison haunch pot roast, nothing beats a fatty bone-in pork shoulder for making gravy that will make your toes curl up with joy. Nothing, nope, nada, zip. Pork shoulder roast browned in a bit of bacon drippings, with plenty of caramelized onions, simmered with sherry and garlic makes the best gravy known to humanity. Gravy so good, you want to swim in it. Gravy so good, hell, you want to drown in it. Death by gravy is nothing to sneeze at.
I know I would go with a smile on my face.
My own personal decadence is a leftover meal from my childhood. Bits of leftover pot roast and gravy poured over fluffy white rice.
Oh, my. Just thinking of it is making me long for a plate of it right now.
I couldn’t admit to being a hillbilly without telling y’all how much I long for a bowl of pinto beans that have been cooked with a ham hock, with some cornbread to dip in it. I mean, by this point in this gargantuan essay of a post, y’all probably have figured out that I have not strayed far from my southern hillbilly roots–with the exception of hot and sour soup, most of these dishes are the classics of my childhood. I guess that I am in a nostalgic mood today.
But, even when I am not feeling southern or am wanting to admit to being a hillbilly at heart, I still love me a bowl of beans. Steaming hot and brown, surrounded with thick broth, topped with raw onions or scallion tops, they are pure comfort in a spoon. As is usual for me, I cook them fancier than the rest of my family, but I will not turn down their plainer cousins, either. If I smell them, I have to have them, and eating them will bring to my heart and stomach a peace that is eloquent of home, comfort and love.
And you can’t have beans without cornbread. Not only is it a case of instinctually pairing of complementary proteins, but they just taste right together. Beans are naked without cornbread, though in truth, I can eat cornbread without beans. I can eat cornbread just about any day, in any way. I can eat cornsticks, hot and crispy from the pan, I can eat cornbread cold the next day with butter. I can eat sweet cornbread and spicy cornbread and just plain old corny cornbread. I like it in all colors–yellow, white, red and blue, and I like it in all shapes and sizes.
I am very democratic when it comes to cornbread.
I am not just putting Chicken with Bitter Melon here for the sake of symmetry, though I admit that the poetry of it is aesthetically pleasing to me.
I have only been eating this dish for about a year, but it has rapidly taken its place in my palate as a favorite. It is a comfort food that I was not born to, and it is something that I find myself craving when I am troubled, or when I awaken deep in the dark watches of the night and cannot sleep.
There is something addictive about the flavor of bitter melon, that stays with me. I don’t know what it is–it is at once cooling and refreshing and invigorating at the same time. Combined with chicken and black beans, with browned onions, and it becomes a paragon of a dish, something so good that you cannot help but want to keep eating it long after your appetite is satiated.
Luckily, unlike pot roast swimming in gravy, it isn’t very fattening, so if I do overeat, I will not awaken the next morning and look in the mirror to be shocked by a sudden overnight growth into elephantine proportions.
Bitter melon is lyrical. It is bitter, yes, sometimes bitingly so, but it is also crisp, and tender, and sometimes just a bit sweet. Its texture is a poem, its color is a song, and I cannot imagine not loving it for the rest of my life.
I only wish I had not come to know it so late.
But, I guess that just means that I have to make up for lost time.
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