The Condiment Queen Reigns Supreme

~By Kate H. Knapp

My fascination with refrigerators began long before I can even remember. While Santa was delivering Barbies and My Little Ponies to my other seven-year-old friends, I received a working mini fridge that was the perfect addition to my playtime kitchen. It kept my plastic veggies and fruits ever so crisp and fresh. But the one thing it was lacking was an array of condiments.

My parents’ refrigerator was always filled to the brim with leftovers, but what I found most intriguing was the sizeable collection of mustards, horseradishes, jellies, chutneys, and ketchups. Sitting on the fridge door, each jar held secret ingredients I had yet to understand and my young mind found hours of entertainment sampling the often overlooked, yet crucial, accompaniments. Even on those rare days when the fridge was bare, the condiments remained steadfast and were always on hand to create something satisfying. One of my favorite sandwiches growing up was simply horseradish and mayo on white bread.

When I finally got a fridge of my own during my first year of college, I made sure that I was well equipped with all the condiments any sandwich, meat, or piece of toast would require. I browsed the grocery store like a sommelier looking for a fine wine, filling my cart with honey, hot and spicy, Dijon, and yellow mustards; apple butter; rhubarb, raspberry, and apricot jams; mint sauce; horseradish; mayonnaise; Tabasco; rice vinegar; and of course ketchup (Don’t even get me started on salad dressings and maple syrup). I don’t recall buying anything but condiments on my first visit to the store, but I felt like my dream that began so long ago in my childhood bedroom among my E-Z bake oven and Snoopy Sno-Cone Machine was finally a reality: My very own fridge (even if it was rented, olive green, and built in the ’60s) was stocked and ready to meet any food challenge.

My obsession with delectable accompaniments continues to this day. My ex-boyfriend went as far as to create Mustard Day, a holiday each year on which a different mustard miraculously arrived in the mail for us to sample. This became my all-time favorite holiday, because I never knew when I was going to be graced with a new and unique condiment from somewhere around the world. And though the relationship ended along with the holiday, my love affair with condiments is still worth celebrating each and every day.

As I get older, my fridge resembles my parents’ two-sided Kenmore more and more. My sparkling clean shelves that used to hold a jar of cornichons alongside a few staples are now filled with Tupperware and tin-foil dishes, the cheese drawer is a disaster in Swiss and goudas, and my veggies are stacked on top of one another like performing circus elephants. The one thing that remains the same, however, is the side door, where each condiment jar is lovingly arranged, bringing harmony to the chaos, and a damn fine touch of taste to an otherwise dull dish.

***

Places to find Condiment Must-Haves for any Respectable Fridge

* Mount Horeb Mustard Museum: The Arran Original Whole Grain Mustard Seed is an all-time favorite.

* Stonewall Kitchen: Raspberry Peach Jelly, Fig and Ginger Jam, Peach Amaretto Jam, Sundried Tomato and Olive Relish, Maple Pumpkin Butter, Artichoke Pesto, Balsamic Fig Dressing, and more.

 *iGourmet: Features too many to list, but you can also find recipes to use with your favorite condiment.

Wake Up and Smell the Kimchi

~By Kate Sitarz

Learning to yield chopsticks with (some) refinement took around 2 months 5 days, or about 7 meals’ worth of dropped bulgolgi with a side of soy-stained ego. Developing a keenness for kimchi involved innumerable obnoxious grimaces and a forced taste bud evolution. Getting over kimchi breath required 3 packs of gum, a new toothbrush, and, eventually, indifference.

But adapting to a kimchi fragrance permeating in the house with a Febreze-like blanket of persistent perfume? 불가능한—out of the question.

After a half-year of dating, Joshua and I found an apartment and agree on all the essentials: never leave the sponge in the bottom the sink, always put the toilet seat down, and keep the heat at a money-saving (yet non-pipe-freezing) 60 degrees.

But after 8 months we can’t seem to figure out what to do with the kimchi.

So there it sits, on the top shelf of the fridge, surrounded by a mini fortress forged by Arm & Hammer in an effort to keep the food below uncontaminated. Yet not even multiple Ziploc bags and yards of doubled-up saran wrap (under, over and around the lid), can keep the smell—akin to a pickled subway station—from permeating the house. Upon opening the front door, it greets us with a thick, penetratingly pungent earthy aroma slicked over with a layer of fermented juice. It hugs our quasi-Korean home in a fragrant cabbage embrace. And it dives deep into my stomach, creating acidic swells of nausea.

I should have known what I was up against. The famed fermented Korean dish made with napa cabbage, radishes, cucumbers or some other such vegetables is the ubiquitous staple of numerous soups, stews, pancakes and rice dishes, and is served as a side with any and every meal. Born in Korea, Joshua has kimchi in his blood (and, yes, often on his breath). It’s a warm, welcoming, even comfortable scent—until you can’t remove it from clothes or get it to crawl out from its hiding place under the sheets, between the cushions and within the curtains. It fills the space between floorboards and seals the cracks between window and sill.

Like a good vintage that develops more complex flavors over time, kimchi acquires as stronger scent as it ages. Naturally, the more potent it is, the stronger the seasoning. And no matter how many windows are open or how many odor-eliminating candles are lit, there’s no match for the kimchi cloud. The smallest puffs of wind return the smell back inside as if to say, “Yeah right.”

But despite all my irritability toward a kimchi-scented apartment and inability to accept it as an adopted child, there’s enough fondness to render me incapable of stashing it away in its own minifridge. In the dank basement. Two dark floors below.

It’s like a permanent timeout for a food that would likely feel ashamed if it could understand its veggie odor. I picture it’s apologetic face, blushing red from embarrassment—or is it the red chili flakes?—with a helpless frown. “But I’m high in fiber and low in calories … ” it weakly offers before retreating back to its dimly lit corner.

Forums dedicated to eradicating kimchi’s lingering scent all come to the same conclusion: kimchi fridge. Whether it’s a dedicated fridge or a fridge specifically crafted for the odorless stashing and preserving of the fermented food, Korean moms everywhere agree on a separate receptacle. (Of course, the real Korean moms probably don’t notice—or care—about kimchi stench. Decay? Mold? Bring on the kimchi jjigae!).

Alas, I am not real Korean. Instead I eagerly clap my chopsticks in anticipation of the day I stop noticing the smell (though I’ll settle for a sustained toleration). In the meantime, I refresh the baking soda and reassure myself that by harboring tubs of one of the world’s healthiest foods, we’re making our home a healthier, albeit stinky, home.

Recipe for a Perfect Meal

~By Kate H. Knapp

In those quiet moments, when life is taking a long overdue nap, I find myself contemplating my perfect meal. I have been fortunate enough to have several in my life, where everything—freshness, flavors, company, comfort, atmosphere, lighting, and sound—aligned to create something that reaches beyond euphoria and makes even the most curmudgeonly of angels grin.

My mind always returns to these savory moments because I’m enthralled by the equation, which brings together each element seamlessly. I envision the perfect meal like a recipe, where each of the ingredients must be measured precisely to make sure the final product is more than just edible, but is also oh so memorable. A great meal should awaken all of your senses. It should, like a conductor of a fine symphony making glorious music out of silence, satisfy your subconscious appetite. This is the hunger that goes much deeper than our basic instinct to eat for survival; it’s a craving you do not even know exists until the moment it is sated.

The question is, however, how much of each of the above ingredients is necessary for such a successful experience?

My perfect meals range from a divine duck confit at a Parisian restaurant to my mother’s custard on a cold winter’s morning in her kitchen, so I am at a loss for the common thread. Granted, the actual food, whether it comes from a gourmet kitchen to street cart, is always delectable, but would I enjoy it as much if the atmosphere wasn’t as fitting? For instance, would that duck taste quite as succulent if I was dining in a noisy subway instead of a street-lit café in the Montmartre? I have half a mind to believe it wouldn’t … and each bite of that delicious duck was a religious experience.

At a recent meal at an incredible restaurant in New York City, I was once again transported to heaven. I noticed, however, that as I was falling deeper and deeper in love with my dish (and my companion), the people around me were less enthusiastic. Some nodded in approval, but there was little in their demeanor to prove that what was laid before them was as life changing, or at the very least memorable.

This is where once again the equation throws me into a loop and sends my idle mind a wandering. The food was the same, the atmosphere the same, lighting and sounds all the same. The only difference was in our company. Could it be that who we were dining with would have such an impact on a meal? Well, as my grandmother would say, the proof is always in the pudding, and it did indeed seem to be the case with this particular meal.

Still, the one constant that can never change is that the food must reach beyond the average. It doesn’t matter how beautifully decorated a restaurant is or how intriguing your dinner companion may be, if the food tastes like the same food served at a drive-thru, it’s going to be disappointing.

With this in mind, I have come to the conclusion that if I was going to treat this like a recipe, I would say to create a perfect meal you need one part exceptional food, three-quarter parts great company, two-quarter parts atmosphere, and a good dose of humor. This is not guaranteed science, however, and prone to variation much like the way altitudes affect how you bake: You might end up with a fallen soufflé even when you mixed all of the ingredients properly.

Don’t despair. If every meal achieved perfection, we would never recognize those truly spectacular experiences. Just try to keep in mind that when those moments occur, and all the food stars come together to form an ideal dish and dining experience, we must not only savor each bite, but also take time to appreciate all of the main ingredients mixing together harmoniously.

***

Do you have an idea of what creates an ideal dining experience? What was your perfect meal? Please share any and all comments below.

The Measure of a Meal

~By Heather Ray

My daddy is a good cook, the kind who remembers all the ingredients and measures by instinct: another touch of brown sugar or yellow mustard or chili powder to perfect his irresistible caramelized sloppy joe, prepared for a family of four with “oh, about a pound and a half? of ground beef.” For years, he readied the Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners while mom was earning a second income.

My mom is a good baker, the kind who meticulously measures, taking great pride when she can find the time to make the spongecake, the filling, and the icing from scratch, making detailed notes on her recipes, “1990: Heather loves this – add more cocoa and halve the frosting next time!” and bookmarking the page in one of her too many cookbooks with a post-it.

They’d smile at the other and shake their heads, bemused, as the one measured in his palm and the other in her favorite ring of little silver spoons, Daddy with eyebrows raised in contemplation, sampling a spoonful, or Mom with eyebrows furrowed in concentration, consulting the instructions a second time. Between them, they always set out a good family meal.

I like to think that my own approach to cooking combines the best of both: researching recipes to understand the basic components and ratios and preparations, then imagining my own modifications and adjusting to taste – a tantalizing teaspoonful of almond extract in chewy chocolate chip cookies or a spicy hit of cinnamon and cayenne in rich chocolate lava cakes. But perhaps most importantly, I learned from both that the real key to any good meal is the family (whatever the nature of the bond) with whom it’s shared!

The Love of Cooking

~By Jaclyn Liechti

They say that women are attracted to men that remind them of their fathers, and I suppose in my case, it’s at least partially true. My father is a great cook, and I find this quality immensely attractive in the opposite sex. Growing up, I didn’t have the normal ideas of gender roles as other children because, while my mother was responsible for some domestic tasks like laundry and washing dishes, grocery shopping and preparing dinner fell generally into the domain of my dad.

I can’t say why I never learned to cook; but even after I moved out on my own my skills in the kitchen were just about maxed out cooking (and occasionally burning) grilled cheese and Easy Mac. So when I met Tj, and he told me he not only knew how to cook, but liked it, it didn’t take long for me to fall for him. I remember fairly swooning the first time he made dinner for me—salad, corn (my favorite vegetable), pasta with a homemade sauce, and chocolate-covered strawberries—and just like that, my heart was taken.

While we dated, there were a lot of things we did together, from mini golf to shopping to house parties, but my favorite times were the times spent alone, cooking together in the kitchen. Over the course of our relationship, we made grilled chicken parm and Cajun chicken. He was even gracious enough to tell me that the ricotta and reggiano parmesano mac and cheese and the over-cooked almond chicken with golden raisins I made for him were delicious (they weren’t).

Eventually, though, things ended between us, and I was left with an empty stomach and a broken heart. So for now, I’m learning to cook for myself. And the turkey burgers and Western-style scrambled eggs that I’ve mastered so far are enough to quell the hunger in my stomach, if not my heart.

***

Western Scrambled Eggs

Extra Virgin Olive Oil (about 2 tbsp)

Red Pepper (diced)

Green Pepper (diced)

Onion (diced)

Tomato (diced)

Dijon Mustard (about 1 tsp or to taste)

Salsa (about 2 tbsp or to taste)

Monterey Jack cheese

Eggs

Milk

Salt and Pepper (to taste)

Cowboy Hat

Add the olive oil to the skillet. Add the onions and peppers to the pan. Blend the eggs, milk, mustard, and salt/pepper in a small bowl. Add the tomatoes to the pan, and then the egg mixture. Add the cheese and salsa. When the eggs are scrambled, you’re done! Put on your cowboy hat and eat ‘em up, pardner 

Craving Confit

~By Kate Hamman

I crave duck like a newborn craves his/her mother’s milk. This need has gone beyond a simple pleasure and has now become a necessity. If duck is on the menu, in any form—confit, crispy, a l’orange, foie gras, shredded, you name it—I will undoubtedly do a little dance and order it with joy.

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when this love affair began. It could have been the first time my grandmother made her shredded wild duck soaked in Grand Marnier and currant jam; maybe it was when I first tasted foie gras, seared and served with a pomegranate sauce; or possibly it was the first time I smelled the rich aroma of duck fat and heard it bubbling and popping on a griddle. The moment itself isn’t important, because some of my greatest memories have been defined by this delectable poultry. I simply have to think of the word, and a rush of flavors and places spring to mind.

There was the small café in Paris’s tourist-centric Place du Tertre, which served a confit so tender, it melted like butter on a hot summer Arizona sidewalk. It was my last night in the City of Light, and I knew each bite was one closer to the inevitable return to reality. Nothing since that moment has tasted so bitter sweet.

The first time I attempted cooking duck breasts when I didn’t tip the pan properly when flipping, and with the sound of a sizzle and pop, I suddenly had severe burns on my right eye and cheek. Though the scars faded, the lesson remained, as well as the memory of how delicious that particular duck tasted.

My 28th birthday, when I made the solo journey to Montreal to dine at Au Pied du Cochon, specifically for its duck dishes. I sat at the counter, another year older, and watched as the chefs danced about the open kitchen in perfect rhythm. The air filled with a hearty scent of searing duck and the sound of a boiling hot pan coming into contact with thick lard. I watched in awe as though I was witnessing Michelangelo lying high above my head with paintbrush in hand. This meal helped soften the blow of inevitable aging.

There was the first getaway I took with my boyfriend to Maine, where we made a surprise stop in Portland to eat at the restaurant, Duckfat. I ordered the gooey, salty poutine—potatoes fried in duck fat and topped with cheese curds and gravy—and waited with baited breath to see if he was indeed the man of my dreams. With his expression at the first bite, I knew I was in love.

Because of these moments, I continue to be surprised by how duck is so drastically overlooked and underappreciated. I find it sad to think that so many people have missed the chance to taste a perfectly scored and seared duck breast served with a cherry-port reduction sauce; to experience the textural dichotomy of a crispy and, yet, at the same time falling-off-the-bone tenderness of confit; or to even know the simple burst of flavor of potatoes fried in glistening duck fat.

It is these flavors that have made me who I am today. This small bird has transformed my life in ways that I have yet to discover. And my cravings go beyond the need for its distinct taste, but also include the knowledge that each bite will not soon be forgotten.

Requiem for Raspberries

~By Marissa Neiderhauser

It is a memory so old and familiar that it is not really a memory at all. I don’t actually remember picking or eating raspberries with my grandmother. I just know that raspberries are forever inextricably linked with her. Seeing them in the store, hearing them mentioned, running the tip of my tongue along their seeds wedged between my teeth; all of these things make me think of Grandma J.  

As if the memory of eating raspberries with her, fresh picked from her backyard and doused in heavy cream and a hearty sprinkle of sugar happened too many times to form into a single memory. As if perhaps my very first encounter with raspberries, my first tart taste- so young I didn’t even know what to call them yet- was at Grandma’s house. Maybe, while cradling me against her pillowy chest she picked one for me from out of the prickly leaves slowly saying ‘rrraaaassssppbeeeerrrryyyy’ teaching me patiently the name for the blood red berry.  

Whatever the story, raspberries, for me, equal Grandma J.

Just over a year ago she died; the only grandparent that had still been alive to see me turn into a woman.  The only one who got to be here long enough to tell me how proud she was of me for sticking with my dreams and making them come true. 

I had known she would die soon, the last time I saw her, but as is always the case with births, deaths, and other major life events, it was far more intense than I could ever have imagined. It was as if I had been emptied out. As if my physical matter was suddenly less dense. I was somehow less myself.  I think the visceral depth of this loss, was not only due to the greatness of Mrs. Thelma Elizabeth Owen Jorgensen, but also to the way in which our relationship had developed- so early on, before my brain was established enough to put together the narrative that creates a memory. A relationship woven so deeply into the fabric of who I have grown into, such a deep and formative part of myself, that common words, colors, and smells are associated first with Grandma J. and second with what they actually are.

These kinds of losses change us a little forever,  as the strands of our carelessly woven lives unravel from their starting place until finally it is our turn to remove the thread of our story from the cloth. There are no words to express what people like this mean to us and how radically everything shifts when they are no longer here. We are lucky when we can still anchor them in our hearts with something so simple as fresh fruit. 

***

A Recipe for Remembrance

-A handful of freshly picked raspberries, gently rinsed in cool water and placed in a small bowl
-A healthy pour of heavy cream
-A hearty sprinkle of granulated sugar

Close your eyes and eat slowly, crushing the fruity flesh against the backs of your front teeth with your tongue, squishing the tiny seeds out along the sides of your mouth where they eventually will work themselves between your teeth, troubling you absentmindedly throughout a good part of the rest of the day. A memory that even when you aren’t thinking about it- it is there always in the corners of your consciousness.