While I’ve never been one to pick favorites, there are a few foods I’ve eaten over the course of my life which still make me salivate at the thought. The following are at the top of my list:
Seared scallops. The white translucent protein crisped to a golden perfection on a cast iron skillet turned medium, the fleshy inside perfectly heated yet still opaque. The concoction of extra virgin olive oil or sweet cream butter with shallots and dry Riesling in which the scallops are cooked is where my devotion begins. The rich simplicity of the flavors, all so basic in their origins, gives me a sense of well being as well as decadence. All of this, as well as the inevitable showering of fresh lemon and sprinkle of sea salt and ground pepper, seems (however ludicrously) to honor the sea-creature; a ritual of earthly foods combined to create something heavenly. In the past, I have craved this to such a degree I’ve bought myself scallops with the intention of eating all six, or eight, of them alone at my kitchen table with no side dishes to delay my satisfaction. But this meal is at an all time high paired with roasted asparagus and crispy thick-bacon chopped to tiny bits and a glass of Pinot Noir or dry Pinot gris. I love this dish because as long as the scallops themselves are fresh, I cannot be let down. It is always a beautifully flavored affair.
Tender squid slow cooked in it’s own ink. This dish has a musky, earthy sweetness only the sea could deliver. I first tasted this Italian staple while stories high on a Venetian rooftop during a beautiful sunset, looking out over the southern part of the lagoon and the Guidecca islands. However— as I was lost in the romance of this seafood so delicate and ridiculously fresh, paired in such magical perfection with its own dark, saline-filled pigment reduced with stock, rosemary, basil, lime and tomato puree—this bright delicacy continues to be the highlight of my memory. I felt as if I had truly discovered what it meant to be Venetian, what it meant to live within the sea. At that moment, I considered myself a bit closer in understanding the area’s dark beauty, the undeniable perks of living somewhere that might require wading through knee high water for a trip to the grocery store
The tomato pasta sauce recipe my grandfather’s parents— Italian immigrants from the city of Lucca where they farmed mushrooms—passed to my grandmother so she could deliver the nostalgic dish after they set out as newlyweds. The simplicity is key, as are the little labors of love that distinguish it from any jarred variety, despite any similarities in ingredients. The perfect ratio of fresh garlic, sautéed onion and mushroom, sauce, paste, red wine and minimal seasoning—are only achieved through interval tastings throughout the cooking process. Aside from atop properly erect spaghetti, I will eat this sauce straight from spoon, or sopped from my dish with a fresh, dense rye bialy from the local bakery. Without fail, I always find myself transported through the lives of previous generations of my lineage. To imagine their same satification with this sauce, and the love with which they passed the recipe, creates an all-around meaningful and delicious culinary experience that I always come back to.
Despite all of the epicurean pleasures I’ve experienced from some great and ingenuous chefs far and wide, it is these simple, time-honored creations that stay with me, whose flavors my mind recreates in the instant of my recollection.