There are some particular categories I look for in food. I didn't sit down and create the categories, I just realized that a lot of what I hope for in a really good meal can be described this way. The categories are:
- New and extraordinary
- The Memorable Rediscovered
The new and extraordinary is pretty obvious. Eating something I've never eaten before that turns out really good satisfies me because deep in my heart of hearts I'm sure that there is some extraordinary culinary experience that I am missing. I guess this is the Casanova Complex, the inability to settle and establish a lasting relationship with a particular woman or cuisine for fear of missing something. Right now I am convinced that what I really need to do is travel Southeast Asia eating lots of food. Everything I read about Vietnamese and Indonesian cooking makes me sure that I am at risk of never having eaten something incredible.
Comfort food is the exact opposite. It's mashed potatoes and gravy, pumpkin pie, spaghetti sauce out of the jar. Sometimes comfort food can be elevated to new heights. I brine my turkeys, for example, and I think it makes a good food even more of itself. It's still turkey but instead of being dry, a brined turkey is moist and flavorful. But I also like the spaghetti sauce out of a jar, poured over browned hamburger. I ate it growing up. It's one of Adam and Bob's favorite meals. It tastes familiar to me and it makes my guys happy. What's not to like?
The extraordinary rediscovered, well, that's a funny one. I've had lots of memorable foods. Many of them were restaurant or person specific. My sister makes great pecan pie. I miss the gelato of Florence. My cook when I lived in China would occasionally make noodles with sesame paste and cilantro. He didn't do it often because it's the equivalent of boiling a hotdog and slopping it on a bun. It's fast, simple. You do it for your kids. But it was wonderful and nothing I've had here compares to the way it tasted there. Maybe it was the local sesame paste. Maybe it was the hot sauce he put out for us to add. I don't know.
The extraordinary rediscovered is tricky, though. Because like reading a favorite book from when I was growing up, sometimes it isn't really extraordinary. When I was growing up, my mother worked. Sometimes she would call and have me put on dinner. My repetoire was very limited. I could roast a chicken, make pot roast (my really major cooking skill) and make tuna and noodle casserole. I still like roast chicken a lot. I haven't made a pot roast in years, but I've had them. They hold up quite well. But like my sister, I remember tuna and noodle casserole. She loved it. I was not so fond of canned tuna (I had a stomach virus once and tuna was the meal I had before it hit--and for years I couldn't look at canned tuna.) Both of us made the mistake of fixing a tuna casserole. They're really simple. A can of condensed mushroom soup, some cooked noodles, canned tuna and peas. If you are feeling festive, you can crumble potato chips on top. It's pretty much the same recipe as green bean casserole and I had that recently and still loved it.
How could we ever have eaten one? I mean, it was beyond awful.
That's the problem with memory.
Last night Bob and I went to Pad Thai. It's one of our favorite restaurants. In the last few years there has been a surge of Asian restaurants that are more than take-out places. Pad Thai is one of those. It has carpet and a lovely bar and a wait staff in white shirts and black pants that carry trays. It's very decent Thai, spicy, but not as spicy as they eat in Thailand, although like most Thai restaurants it is heavy on variations of curry and stir fry. But it has a few noodle dishes, including the ubiquitous pad thai and mee grob. But last night we went and they had a new menu. On the new menu were Vietnamese spring rolls.
Many years ago, when I was an undergraduate, a Vietnamese friend made spring rolls for my boyfriend and me. He made spring rolls full of bean sprouts and shrimp and then wrapped them in rice paper and deep fried them. He deep fried without a thermometer, doing it by eye, which still impresses me. The resulting spring rolls were encased in a transparent cover that cracked under my teeth. They were incredible. Memorable. How he managed to do this in Athens, Ohio I have no idea. Where did he get the rice paper wrappers? It was more than twenty years ago so I'll never know.
So with trepidation and anticipation I ordered them, along with a bowl of pho. Pho is the Vietnamese national dish. A beef broth soup with noodles in which is floated slices of meat (in this case beef) and bean sprouts and basil. The broth is flavored with lemongrass, I think, and other good stuff.
The spring rolls came, with a sticky sweet tamarind sauce. They were coated in shell of crispy noodles instead of rice paper. They were small rather than large. There was no fish sauce for dipping sauce. But they were wonderful, and somehow, yes, although different in particulars, they were the thing I remembered. The skin cracked as I bit into them. And the pho was fragrant and tasty and wonderful. It was one of Those Meals. The ones where I have one of the three experiences and it was the rarest of the three, the Memorable Rediscovered. The server told me that the wait staff comes in and pre-orders the Vietnamese crab rolls so they can have them as part of their dinner.
Next time we go back to Pad Thai I hope to get past the appetizer and noodle section to see what else is new on the menu. But I may not.