Food Rituals: Part One

We all have them, whether they are buying a snickers bar at the grocery store with your last quarter or making the fratuda dusa (probably Piedmontese for frittata dolce or “fried sweet,” a kind of fried semolina) at Thanksgiving.
My own food rituals include not only the enjoyment of seasonal food (first asparagus in spring! or making a meaty cacciatore over creamy polenta in winter), but food pairings and the incredible pleasure of building a menu. Food rituals, like any ritual, help give meaning to our lives, and they help us pay attention to each other and to our stories about ourselves and to the cycle of the year.
Seasonal food
There are certain things I look forward to in the change of season. Right now, it’s rosemary roast chicken with garlic mashed potatoes, a harbinger of cooler months. When I finally make this dish, pulling down the 6 quart Le Creuset dutch oven that sits on my fridge all summer, I know that fall has arrived. I also like to make roasted tomato soup with the harvest of summer tomatoes, can it, and keep it for the first deep snow, when, yes, I will eat it with grilled cheese. In the spring, it’s asparagus and artichokes, which make me think of the fresh greens of summer and a return to lighter eating, providing a jolt of green energy to get me out in the garden and ready for the growing season. When you eat seasonally, you align yourself with the natural order of things and the cycle of the year—this leads to more grounded living.

Food pairings
I’ve always had an intuitive sense about what foods go together. At first, I thought everyone had this, but then I’ve been served things like fried hotdogs and scrambled eggs with cheese, and bean chili made with grits and flavored with cinnamon. Some people just don’t get flavor. Some food pairings are classic and obvious, like basil and tomato, rosemary and potatoes, truffles and potatoes, corn and crab, beef followed by chocolate, spicy tastes paired with sweet, while others are less so. Chopped basil is great with salmon, for example, (as is any kind of chile rub mixed with brown sugar) and pork and sweet potatoes or butternut squash if fabulous. The key to food pairings is that the sum of the two ingredients together–whether one is a spice flavoring an ingredient or you are putting two dishes side by side–must produce a third thing; something more than a flavor or a taste—it’s an experience that uncovers a new sense of what it means to taste. In short, it’s what I call a whole food experience; instead of hitting one note, the food pairing causes flavors to be experienced in a range, a kind of symphony of taste, where notes, while noticed, work in conjunction with the whole.

Off the top of my head, here are some basic food combinations to try: peach, basil and aged balsamic; white bean with lemon; cranberry and squash; corn and lime; strawberries, red onion and spinach; pork with mango; pork with greens; beef with blue cheese; salmon with basil; trout with rosemary potatoes; brussels sprouts and ginger root or apple juice; lemon and Parmesan cheese with kale or chard; balsamic vinegar, red flaked pepper and cauliflower; apples and blue cheese.
Menu building
When I start thinking about a menu for a dinner party or a book club, or for a date, I first consider season and what kind of shindig I want to throw. Will it be boisterous? Contemplative and quiet? Romantic? For something sexy in spring, I might serve a simple grilled pizza (margherita is my favorite) and finger food like gorgonzola dolce stuffed figs to start, along with red meat (cooked rare, of course) and a simple mixed green salad with shaved parmesan, drizzled with good olive oil and balsamic, followed by chocolate and strawberries or ice cream. While I’m making the menu, I’m thinking about color and texture and different kinds of tastes. You want to hit a range of notes. If it’s romantic, you’ll want to be eating with your hands, and you definitely want something a little bloody on the plate, and lots of red wine. If it’s a dinner in February and winter seems endless and cold and terribly lonely, I’d serve a spicy red Thai curry with shrimp and sweet potatoes with red quinoa for texture, paired with a sweet cinnamon apple chutney and a nice hearty zinfandel to make everyone feel warm and safe and loved. For dessert, something creamy and comforting, like flan or crème brule made inside sugar pumpkins. In the fall, I like to highlight and enhance harvest flavors–green chiles, corn, peaches, squash, tomatoes–by roasting them. Roasting helps me start thinking of winter and it concentrates the last of the summer’s bounty.

In the end, making food is like writing or making art. I don’t go through check lists of things—texture: check!, color: check!—instead, I let the idea of food and what I want it to do swim around in my subconscious. If it’s big dinner party, like my annual Fuck T.S. Eliot party in February, I look at recipes, I write down ideas, and then I distill what I want. If it’s an impromptu dinner for a heartsick friend, I open the fridge and build from what I’ve got. It doesn’t always take a huge amount of time, but trusting my instincts and what I know, the results are usually pretty damn good.
I’ll post the recipe for roasted tomato soup and for roast chicken with garlic mashed potatoes on the recipe page. If there are other recipes you want, please let me know.

Also, check out Part Two of Food Rituals on the Food Duels page.

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