A Vacation of the Mind
Despite the promise of warmer weather later in the week and a recent visit from the city-dwelling boyfriend, I have the winter blues as bad as if it was January 26th and not March 26th. I get out my cookbooks and page through lists of ingredients searching for the culinary equivalent of a trip to Mexico.
In a former life, when I managed the largest retail cookbook selection in the U.S., I’d frequently sell books to people not because they were interested in cooking so much as they were interested in going places. They wanted to be transported somewhere through imagined exotic tastes and textures, without having to leave the comfort of their own kitchen.
While I’d actually much prefer jetting off to the rainforest, I must resign myself to my present encampment at 8500 feet with a 20 degree wind-chill. If, like me, you’re stuck just where you are, here are my suggestions for a vacation of the mind and of the palate.
Winter is about heavy, thick, comforting foods, rich sauces and braised meats. What better way to imagine distant beaches than the fresh ocean taste of ceviche? A traditional ceviche requires very fresh fish (large flake and meaty, like snapper or bass), or lovely shellfish like shrimp, so splurge and buy something that has not been frozen at Whole Foods or your local market. You can even use octopus if you’re feeling adventurous. I once had a seafood salad on a beach outside of Rome that tasted of the sea; the flavor of tender briny fish filled my mouth and my memory with a pleasure that remains to this day.
For the best ceviche, always use fresh ingredients, from the lime juice to the white onion, chilies, and cilantro, and don’t over marinate the fish. I like to add avocado for texture and service with really good tortillas, and, of course, a lusty Mexican beer.
à la Romana
When I was in Rome, I tasted the freshest food I’d ever had. Even the simple 3 or 4 ingredient dishes felt alive on my tongue. Most memorable was the pizza I had in Rome: Thin, chewy crusts, delicately topped with tomato and basil, and finished hot out of the oven with peppery arugula or translucent slices of prosciutto. The secret is not only in the freshness of ingredients, but in the ovens: most pizza in Italy is cooked in a wood fire brick oven, and oh, the difference it makes.
You can make your own version with a gas grill. Even if it’s too cold to stand outside, it’s easy enough to get the grill really hot and slip the pizza onto a grilling rack. Try using the upper tier of your grill and turn the pizza half way through. For more smoky grill flavor at the table, try seasonable vegetables like artichokes halves or whole asparagus. Simply drizzle each with olive oil and sprinkle with kosher salt.
I have a memory of a Hemingway piece where he’s fishing all day in the hot sun, perhaps in Spain. The descriptions are pared down and laid bare, and yet he effortlessly evokes the goodness of eating outside, how sensual an experience simple hunger and simple food can be. In the story, Hemingway and friend place four (yes, four) bottles of white wine in the river while they fish and return to drink the icy wine some hours later, paired with a roasted chicken they tear with their fingers, and a good baguette with strong cheese. After, they doze in the sun. Whenever I think of eating outside, I think of this meal, which is elemental and satisfying.
There are plenty of places all over the world where once the weather warms ups, people make their way outside loaded with blankets, a bottle of wine, and a basket of lovely food. When I want to invoke the memory of eating outside, I make buttermilk fried chicken. It’s the first food I made for the city-dwelling boyfriend on our first date at the Farmer’s Market in Boulder. We drank Prosecco and nibbled on juicy fried chicken with a baguette and some goat cheese and heirloom tomatoes we’d bought at the market.
And yes, afterwards, we dozed in the sun.
Happy Travels!city-dwelling boyfriend