I think a delicious dish comes into being with a good amount of mysterious chemistry. Besides the dish’s ingredients, there are the unseen elements that the cook brings: her excitement and enthusiasm for the menu – how it marries gracefully with the season, the occasion, the ingredients that are at their peak of perfection, and the guests being entertained.
And then there are the cook’s feelings for her guests – I am making this almond cake for the man I love; I am making this fish en papillote for the couple who are exhausted from moving house; I am making this meal to share the taste of New Orleans, where I’ve just visited, with a friend who hails from Austin, Texas, and knows Southern food. I am preparing this food for those I love. I am excited to share my excitement with them. And to feed them.
My best tasting food is always made with enthusiasm for the menu and love for my guests. When I am happy to be seeing these friends, the food comes out divine. And occasionally it flops, but we manage to enjoy the evening anyway.
Eating boiled crawfish is a venerable but casual ritual in Louisiana. The sweet, briny flavors first waft in on the air; then you sit down and begin the ritual of breaking off the head, sucking its juice (some disdain this practice), pulling off the black vein that runs along its back (and some disdain this practice) and popping the tail into your mouth – juice running down the outside of your hand, while you lean over your mound of crustaceans piled onto newspaper, sitting on the screened-in porch. It tastes like a fresh sea breeze, salty, sweet, essence of Gulf of Mexico spring.
I was visiting a friend in New Orleans one April. Crawfish season. At Schaefer’s Seafood in Metairie, we stood in line with six or so others waiting while they finished boiling a batch of crawfish in the back. We lucked out with our arrival and went home with a paper grocery bag of hot, fragrant crawfish and a couple of pounds of bagged tail meat.
It’s a scene played out all over town. Part of the relish is that it is April, when the temperature is balmy, breezy, with clear, light blue skies and puffy clouds. New Orleanians enjoy these spring days like no one else, because being able to be comfortable outside is such a short season. Come May, more or less, you are sequestered into air-conditioned rooms till October.
I am making the next night’s dinner of sautéed crawfish tails, with wide, thin zucchini noodles and mushrooms. The Creole “holy trinity” of chopped onions, celery and green pepper gives a distinct flavor and is the base note of most dishes. I use a shallot, red pepper, garlic and green onions, on hand.
His stove is Italian made, stainless steel, small, with flat iron grates, gas powered, a decent cook’s best friend. When fired up, it heats quickly, responds immediately to my touch, my wish, the food’s requirement. His pots are heavy blue Le Crueset. The large skillet heats up; I am on alert. The olive oil warms; the minced shallots go in, soften; then the red pepper; finally the garlic and green onions. Cooking time is usually shorter than I think: I am on alert. The mirepoix softens and in go the tails, stir gently, lower heat, a splash of crawfish stock and white wine. In a couple of minutes they are done, sizzling and fragrant. The sautéed mushrooms and zucchini noodles are tossed in. We take our plates to the hunter green porch, to the vermilion Balinese batik cloth-covered table. The warm crawfish, infused with the mirepoix, has melded into the taste of sweet, opened-ended green onion and red pepper Creole goodness, permeated with love. My love for him, for New Orleans, for spring, and for this moment.
And man, is it good. A fresh butter lettuce salad dressed with olive oil is almost too much.
We enjoy our meal. But the lagniappe for me lies ahead: His best and oldest friend, playmates since age 2, shows up, unannounced. It is almost dark. I fix him a small bowl of the crawfish, and a small can of Coke. We talk on the porch; he eats. In between bites, eyes on the bowl, he murmurs, “This is good, Cah-rul (his New Orleans dialect sounds like my relatives from Hoboken). I am pleased to my depths. This native New Orleanian, who was raised on delicious, deeply satisfying food, approves. The warmth of my love, my excitement for these ingredients, these physical and unseen components commingled to create a symphony of a particular taste on a pleasant spring evening that three people enjoyed.
For the cook, deliciousness simmers in the delight of her guests.