Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Culinary Synesthesia: Lobster Tails & Radicchio

Pan fried Lobster tails and Radicchio with oyster mushrooms, grape tomatoes and white rice.

I have to share something I ate last night that kind of blew me away.  It encapsulates the great affinity I have for certain foods because it includes some of the foods I have come to intensely love, but once intensely hated (or, worse, was completely ignorant of).  It is also unique in that all the foods on the plate hold strong emotional ties for me, harkening me back to my days of studying Romance languages and the random but fateful encounter I had with Proust's A Remembrance of Things Past.

I was a sophomore in college set on a Romance Language degree track.  My French teacher, whose name I don't and could never recall, brought up the concept of Proust's Madeleine.  With it, she introduced the idea of Synesthesia - the thought that a smell, sensation or taste can emotionally transport you to a specific time or memory in the past.  The whole notion thoroughly intrigued me and stayed with me, leaving lingering and permanent curiosities about what my own "Madeleines" might be.  Surely for some they are experiences - like riding with the top down in a convertible, smelling someone's perfume, or sleeping with an old blanket.  But surely also, mine must be culinary as I make so much of my emotional attachment to food.

So many foods we eat and love or hate are a question of attachment and relation.  They invoke either distaste and bitterness (literally near-gagging), negative memories (being forced to eat your Brussels sprouts as a child), or a sudden transport back to happy times.  Without expecting it, last night, this plate temporarily became my Proustian Madeleine.  Not that I could eat it every day, nor that it's my favorite dish in the world, but that all its components have meaning, are linked to vivid memories that hold keys to who I am.

It all started with a plate of white rice.  Matt was going to be at a company dinner (no doubt dining on the many-splendid delicacies offered at The Oxford, here in Denver).  I was sick of eating leftovers at home and decided to splurge and buy myself two petite Lobster tails.  From there, I let this recipe and my refrigerator and its shockingly inspired contents guide the way...

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Culinary Synesthesia: Lobster & Radicchio
Some of the things I love, and some I loved to hate - until I loved them, of course :)

Ingredient 1: Half a head of Radicchio
The first time I ever tried radicchio was in 1998 in a picturesque Friulian village, at a small bar called - of all the unromantic things in the world! - "Mickey Mouse."  I didn't have much spending money but on occasion I did treat myself to what was one of the few good, edible things at Mickey Mouse (besides their patatine con salsa rossa, of course): An Italian Insalatona.

While I erroneously labored, for quite some time, under the impression that the word was spelled "insalatonna," with the "tonn[o]" at the end referring to the prerequisite tuna fish that the salad at Mickey Mouse was comprised of, I eventually realized that the "tona" part actually denotes an augmentative suffix at the end of certain Italian words.  And in this case, it differentiated this salad as something one would have as a "main course" rather than just a side salad due to its larger size.

The salad was, of course, amazing.  In and of itself it reminded me of a million things: 

- tuna fish in salad recalled my mother's love of tuna salad and my thankfulness that, unlike hers, this one did not contain raw celery (one of my few nemeses) 

- a hard-boiled egg recalled early years spent at my grandmother's house boiling eggs and eating them together

- loose corn kernels brought to mind a simple farmhouse salad I once ate at a dairy in the country in Denmark after a beautiful bike ride

-the simple red-wine-vinegar-and-olive-oil dressing inspired me, as this was one of the first times I'd ever mixed my own vinaigrette, and a lifelong affair officially commenced 

- the "mesclun" that comprised the "meat" of the salad reminded me of my father, who, as a chef, often used to bring mesclun home for us to eat, inspiring unmeasured amounts of awe in me to the tune of - how can we literally be eating leaves?!  The idea of it - of foraging, of food as a part of nature, not just something at a supermarket, seemed too amazing to be true, and never left my mind thereafter.

But also in that amazing salad was a strange reddish purple lettuce, something I'd never tried before, something that went beyond the often euphemized (and often by the British, actually) "pepperiness" of Arugula, or the soft bitterness of Frisee.  It was Radicchio.  And when I took that first bite of it, I absolutely, positively, vehemently hated it.  

I felt wronged.  How could this beautiful salad be sullied by that nasty, unnecessary purple thing?  I diligently went through and picked it all out every time I ever had an insalatona after that.

It wasn't until very recently - about a year ago - that I suddenly intellectually decided that my hatred of radicchio was nonsensical.  How could someone who delights in so many bitter things (Campari, Gin, many wines, and some olives, wasabi, among them), truly hate radicchio?  So I bravely purchased some and decided it wasn't actually bad.

About a week ago I suddenly had a craving for radicchio again after watching an episode of Chopped where it was served up to the judges grilled.  I did some research and found an utterly simple and sensational recipe for Roasted Radicchio and my life was changed forever.

Roasted Radicchio (1 head)

Serves 2

Preheat oven to 450F.
Quarter the radicchio, rinse in cold water, shake off most of the water.
Place on a roasting pan.   
Sprinkle with olive oil, salt, pepper and some dried thyme (very little).
Roast for 15 minutes (or until wilted).  
Serve warm or at room temperature, drizzled with good balsamic vinegar or simply lemon juice.
*For a variation, halve and include a few grape tomatoes.

Ingredient 2: 1 Lb of Oyster Mushrooms 
I have sung the praises of mushrooms before (here and here).  They have always been one of my favorite things to eat.  I admit to often sneaking a raw white mushroom at the grocery store as a child.  But I'd never had Oyster mushrooms until I met Matt's grandmother.  She makes them every time we go to her house for breakfast (yes, sauteed mushrooms at breakfast - my kind of meal).  I don't know what it is about the texture, the combination of flavors, but to me they recall a kind of meat - but better.  I had no idea that in the south of Italy, in the mountains of Campania, for generations Matt's ancestors foraged for mushrooms of a similar quality and texture, and that those mushrooms made up a large and delicious part of their everyday food.   
The other night I decided that some sauteed Oyster Mushrooms - in the perfect state of readiness from Whole Foods to me - would pair beautifully with the roasted radicchio I mentioned above. 

Sauteed Oyster Mushrooms
Serves 2

Separate the Oyster mushrooms (half a pound).
Heat olive oil in a pan (3tbsp or so) and perhaps some butter too.
Add the mushrooms once hot.  Add garlic (3 cloves, minced) and pepperoncino (crushed red pepper, to taste).
Sprinkle liberally with salt and black pepper.
Allow to brown on both sides, tossing occasionally.
Once all wilted and browned, serve warm or at room temperature.
Garnish with a juicy lemon.

Ingredient 3: Steamed White Rice (1 cup)
 As a mother I aspire to pass down my love for rice to my son.  I don't buy brown rice (unless it's a wild rice medley, but that's a story for another day) and I don't like it.  If I'm going to have rice I want it white and I want it steamed (unless I want it Mexican style, in which case I go all out with the Saffron or tomato sauce).
 Every week I make a pot of rice with extra to keep in the fridge.  I eat it at breakfast, lunch and dinner some daysIt is warm, soft and filling, and a wonderful receptacle for so many flavors.
 As a child I loved to eat it with soy sauce.  I had it with Sopa de Frijol (bean soup).  It was presented to me at almost every main meal (and often breakfast too).  Last night, my leftover rice was the perfect thing to soak up all the delicious olive oil and sauces that would come with the radicchio, mushrooms, and lobster tails.  I think my full-proof method of making good white rice is worth sharing.

Steamed White Rice 
Heat a pot on high heat and add the uncooked long grain white rice (2 cups).  
Add 4 cups of water.
Cover and allow to boil.
When boiling, reduce heat to simmer and cover.
Cook for 21 minutes. 
Allow to rest for 5-20 minutes on hot stove.

Ingredient 4: Two Petite Lobster Tails
I've written about Lobster at-length before.  It's funny to me that a food I had never really had before the age of 21 has become so closely linked with fond memories for me.  I become nostalgic every time I see lobsters featured in any show or sitting in tanks at restaurants or grocery stores (a rare sight here in Denver).
Yesterday while on a rare visit to the exorbitantly-priced but so appealing Whole Foods in Cherry Creek, I noticed that the petite lobster tails were on sale: two for $12.  Not a bad deal at all.  I snagged two and took them home with visions of succulent crustacean meat dancing inside my head.

After determining that all the previously mentioned iningredients would be part of this ad hoc gourmet dinner, I decided it was too cold to grill the lobster tails like I wanted.  So for the surf part to my already-made turf, I pan-fried the lobster tails (shell-on) in a garlic, crushed red pepper, butter, olive oil and white wine sauce.  I think that's actually enough of a recipe to go on :)  And, as always, I was sadly disappointed with how Lobster tastes when I cook it myself, which only increased the nostalgia for the $4.99/lb days back in the land of Ports.

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Voilà : Home, Italy, Mexico and Maine on a plate.

Take that Proust. :)

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