Food. It nourishes the mind, the body, the soul. It brings people together like nothing else. People linger longer in the kitchen and around the dining room table than anywhere else in the home.
When I travel, I enjoy trying new foods. I find it invaluable to learn the phrase “what do you recommend” in every language. Most of the time, this works out rather well and I’ve discovered some truly delicious meals. Other times… let’s just say that sour lung, steak and kidney pie, and cold bread soup are not things I will be ordering again anytime soon.
Food is often one of the travel experiences that remain with us long after we’ve returned home. When we travel, it’s all about experiencing something new. Then we return home, seeking the familiar in our favorite dishes.
I love talking to people about food. You learn so much about where a person has been, and who they are from their everyday food choices. You gain insight into the culture they come from by the traditions associated with special meals. Most people are passionate about one food or another. Coming from upstate NY, I have some very strong opinions regarding food. Iced tea should be unsweetened, donuts should be old fashioned, apple cider should be served everywhere in the fall, and the best maple syrup comes from NY. Where someone grew up is imprinted on their food choices, look closely, eventually you will see it.
Growing up in a rural area of NY, I developed a palate for comfort food that my husband terms “typical American”. When I want a taste of home, I whip up a batch of macaroni and cheese, spaghetti and meatballs, meatloaf, roast chicken, pot roast, or chicken gravy served over biscuits or pancakes. When my husband feels nostalgic, he whips up a batch of tomato sauce, baked macaroni, peppers and onions, or heads out for Chinese food.
I find that people are always open about the recipes that are special to them, and willing to share stories of food, if not their favorite recipes. They become a cultural ambassador, sharing what is most delicious from their home, the most treasured part of their holiday celebrations. Who doesn’t like to share and try their favorite holiday traditions with friends?
My cookbook contains more than recipes. It is a complete map of our travels. You can trace the journey of our family in the stories associated with the foods we have collected. Some of my favorite memories, my most cherished times are gathered under the dust of flour, found between the stains of oil. These well-worn pages connect us to where we have been, and the people who have gathered around our table. For me it is the kitchen – and the dining room where the link to the past is always the strongest.
I was thinking about this the other day when I was making one of my family’s favorite dishes – Paella. An admittedly odd go-to meal for a girl who grew up in a place where tacos were considered exotic. But before we moved to Germany, we lived in Key West.
Although I never grew to truly love Key West, it didn’t take long for me to develop a fondness for the delicious Cuban food we found there. Even today, my mouth waters when I think of the Cuban coffee, breakfast sandwiches, and Cuban sandwiches of Five Brothers. We would often walk to their small corner deli on the weekends for a special treat.
A take-out staple for us while we lived there was paella. There are several good Cuban restaurants, but our favorite was El Siboney. The paella was delicious, but we also loved the croquettes, and developed a taste for plantains and yucca. I have yet to master the croquettes, plantains and yucca are difficult to come by, and the sandwiches remain a distant dream, but I can replicate a fairly decent paella, and so it is through paella that we are transported to the sunny days we spent in Key West.
Cuban Paella is a bit different than Spanish paella, mainly with the inclusion of ham. In Key West, we enjoyed adding fresh lobster tail into the paella as well. Or rather my husband did. I was never fond of the abundant fresh lobster found in the Keys.
This one small dish holds several years of memories, good and bad, mingling with the flavor of saffron and turmeric. When I take a bite of the smoky rice dish, I linger for a moment among the palm trees, or return to the New Jersey restaurant where we ordered the Spanish version of the dish, every time we visited.
Although the children love paella, their true comfort foods are German. Five years in Germany, and it is Schnitzel that soothes their souls. They have managed to order it in every country we have visited thus far. Another special meal for them is an oft-repeated weekend meal. No Sunday morning is complete for them without Weißwurst und Brezeln – white sausages and pretzels, a very Bavarian meal that will be difficult to replicate elsewhere. Another dish that tops their list of comfort foods, German style spaghetti Bolognese.
It’s not just the places we’ve lived that have shaped our palates. Often, it’s the people we have met along our travels who’ve given us some of our favorite dishes. Another of our family favorites is “sticky pasta” (known to everyone who does not live in my house as pasta carbonara). While most versions feature cream, this one is heavy on the olive oil. I was taught how to make this dish when we invited a friend for a meal, and he ended up bringing the ingredients for this dish, while sharing many other tips and dishes common to his native Italy.
Just as important as the memories contained in the foods that we eat, are the rituals associated with it.
Holiday rituals are certainly cherished, but it is within daily and weekly rituals that we create the sense of home. When I was growing up, my mother frequently made bread. As a child, I loved to wait until it was just cool enough to cut, savoring every bite the warm bread covered with melting peanut butter.
Living in Europe, where bread is cheap, plentiful, and better than I could possibly dream of making it, we have our own weekly tradition. Every Friday, we make pizza, taking turns punching down the dough, shaping the pies and adding the toppings. We top off the evening with fresh popcorn and a movie. It is an end of the week ritual we all look forward to. This provides us with continuity, a touchstone for the week, something that remains the same, no matter where we reside.
I have found that creating ritual is especially important for us as a “nomadic” family, for it is within these repeated tasks that we create the home that travels with us. Because home is always changing, we seek out the familiar, which we find in the kitchen, in our favorite foods.
What are your go-to favorites?
Here is a small collection of some of my favorite go-to recipes
This recipe originally appeared in Parent Magazine:
- 2 links chicken sausage (6 oz.), halved lengthwise and sliced
- 1 tablespoon canola oil
- 1 cup chopped red and green sweet peppers
- 1/3 cup chopped onion
- 8 ounces cooked peeled, deveined shrimp, halved lengthwise
- 1 8.8ounce package cooked brown rice (1-1/2 cups)
- 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 1/4 cup reduced-sodium chicken broth
Cook chicken sausage in hot canola oil over medium-high heat for 2 minutes or until browned, stirring occasionally. Stir in peppers and onion and cook until tender (4 to 5 minutes more), stirring occasionally. Stir in shrimp and cook until it curls (1 to 2 minutes), then stir in rice, turmeric, and broth. Cook for 2 minutes more to heat through.
I’ve tweaked it and personalized it quite a bit since then. These days, I use chorizo instead of chicken sausage, which I sauté in olive oil with bite size pieces of chicken. I use thigh meat when I can find it, but I also use breast meat. I add a lot more shrimp to the dish, and I don’t use brown rice. When I can find pre-seasoned paella or saffron rice I use that. When I can’t I use whatever rice I have on hand and add turmeric, cumin and saffron to it as it cooks. I also add bits of chopped ham and peas. When I have fish in the house, I throw that in as well. One of the things I love about paella, is that It is a dish that lends itself well to experimentation, so add what you have on hand – it always turns out delicious.
Sticky Pasta (AKA pasta carbonara)
- Your favorite pasta, boiled al-dente in generously salted water. We prefer rigatoni, but any pasta will do.
- 1 whisked egg yolk per person
- Smoked bacon, Pancetta, or smoked ham cut into small chunks
- Olive oil
- Red pepper flakes
- 1 clove garlic per person, roughly chopped
- Parsley – dried or fresh
Begin boiling water, while water is boiling, coat pan generously with olive oil – as I was told, when you think you have too much, add a little more. Saute the bacon with red peppers and garlic until lightly roasted – take care that you don’t burn the garlic. Add dried parsley to mixture.
Drain the pasta, add to the bacon and olive oil, turn off the heat add the egg yolks and toss. Serve garnished with fresh parsley and parmesan cheese.
This is the best recipe I’ve found for German style Bolognese sauce. It tastes just like we order it in the restaurants! http://www.marions-kochbuch.de/rezept/4293d.htm
It’s in German in the link, but the ingredients and directions are as follows:
- 1/2 onion
- 30 g Carrot
- 20 g Celery
- 10 g butter
- 20 g Chopped smoked ham
- 1 Tbsp. Olive Oil
- 150 g Ground beef
- 2 cans tomato paste – the tomato paste cans are quite small in Germany, it’s about the size of one US tomato paste can
- 1/8 L Red Wine
- 0,1 L Beef Broth
- 4 Tbsp. Milk
- Salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
- 1 Tbsp. oregano
Peel and dice the onion. Peel and dice the carrot and celery, saute all in a pan with butter and the ham. The recipe calls for a second pan to fry the ground meat, but I fry it all together in one pan, breaking up the ground meat as I go. Once the meat is cooked, add in the tomato paste, then de-glaze with the red wine and broth. Next add in the milk. Cook on a low temperature for at least an hour, stirring occasionally. Add in the spices toward the end. Or do as I do and throw it all in just after I’ve added the milk and let it sit in the crockpot on a low heat until I’m ready to serve it over spaghetti