when every meal feels like the first time
The other day I was reflecting on memorable food experiences: the dishes that never disappoint at favorite restaurants (can I get an amen for the roasted rice cakes @ Momofuku?), exotic meals in foreign lands, unusual but interesting flavor pairings, and of course, those first times you taste something that rocks your world. Like that other “first time,” such experiences can be seminal moments.
Growing up in a tiny western New York town, practically a galaxy away from the food mecca of Manhattan, my future foodie’s palate was woefully underdeveloped and underexposed. While there were, and still are, lots of good cooks in my family, their culinary exploits at the time rarely ranged beyond standard meat-and-potatoes type fare: pork chops and apple sauce, beef stew, sloppy joes, roast beef on weck, goulash, and my childhood favorite, beef stroganoff. My nose still perks up at the thought of the delicious aromas that would escape the bubbling crockpot my mother often used. This type of cooking was about comfort and practicality, far from the realm of “cuisine” so accessible to middle-Americans today thanks to the likes of Iron Chef, Top Chef, and their ilk.
Although it felt like cruel and unusual punishment at the time, I’m sure that my father’s unrelenting insistence that my brother and I at least try everything on our plates (and refusal to allow us to move from the table until we’d done so) is partly responsible for the adventurous palate I have today. Luckily back then, I was just sneaky—and angelic—enough to get away with dropping a few hated Brussels sprouts down the toilet after stealing them away from the table in my pockets. My pocket disposal strategy was certainly less messy than my brother’s more melodramatic gag-vomit scheme, although his methods were equally successful in achieving the end goal of not having to eat a hated food (in his case, eggplant Parmesan).
Growing up, I recall lots of lazy Sunday mornings, with plenty of time for sleeping in, watching cartoons, and doing pretty much anything that didn’t involve homework. My parents would be drinking coffee in their bathrobes, while my father lorded over the newspaper, doling out sections as he saw fit. Every now and then, he’d abandon the paper and make his way into the kitchen to cook up a super-sized brunch-for-one (although sometimes he could be convinced to make extra) that always had one essential component: grits.
You see, he was a southern boy, trapped in my mother’s yankee hometown in upstate NY. Back in those days, my mom did nearly all the cooking, grilled beast notwithstanding, so anything that managed to draw my father into the kitchen surely must have been the holy grail of breakfasts. Perhaps these meals were his way of reclaiming those southern roots; but I bet it was also simply a matter of knowing how well his belly would be rewarded for the time he put in at the stove.
This was one of my favorite, go-to dishes all summer long, but it’s got potential year-round. Thank you Mark Bittman for yet another simple and tasty recipe.
Recipe: Vietnamese-Style Portobello Mushrooms – NYTimes.com.
A few tips and tweaks:
- Pan: apartment dweller that I am, I don’t have a grill, so I use a hot grill pan on the stove.
- Herbs: I tend to have cilantro around more often than mint, so that’s what I use.
- Oil: I use canola instead of peanut.
- Marinade: more time in the marinade means more flavor, so I let the mushrooms soak it up in the fridge for at least an hour, sometimes up to three.
- Serving: I serve the mushrooms over rice (usually white, but jasmine is probably better), and more importantly, save the marinade and pour it over the rice before serving. LOTS of extra flavor that way.
I was a poutine virgin when this plate was offered up to me at the Food Cart Festival in Portland, OR. I wondered about poutine in the same kind of mildly curious and slightly incredulous do-they-really-eat-that way that I once wondered about “chicken-fried steak.”
As with my brief foray into Texas-style gluttony, two bites and I knew all I ever needed to know about poutine.