"How did you learn to cook Cuban food so well?" a client asked at a tasting party I was catering. She had just tried my picadillo in miso spoons.
"I'd love to say something glamorous, like I learned to cook with a great chef in Miami, but truthfully, I dated a Cuban for a few years," I answered, laughing.
I thought about my girlfriend Marie sautéing onion, bell pepper and garlic, then adding hamburger meat, olives, raisins and tomato and simmering until the kitchen smelled like Cuban heaven, drinking a full bottle of red wine before the meal was even served, as all the while I screamed, "Raisins in chopped beef?! Really?"
"This is how my tia makes it," she said, shushing me. The sweet and the salty were so sublime that I've been tossing raisins in meat ever since.
Later, when the client tasted my codfish fritters, she asked, "And where did you learn to cook bacalao?"
"Two years with a Dominican," I answered, thinking about the first time I tried to cook salted cod. I was just 18 and salt cod was a strange and exotic new creature to me. I had seen the slabs of stinky dried fish in markets in East Flatbush, but when Nina's mother served me bacalao in onion, tomatoes and garlic, I was reborn.
I decided to surprise Nina with a salt cod supper, and after soaking the dry fish in water for a few hours, served her what tasted like a mound of fishy salt.
"No! No! " She reprimanded me, "You have to soak in water overnight, change the water twice and then boil the fish."
When the client tried my jerk chicken, she looked at me inquisitively, and I laughed.
"Three years with a Grenadian in the '80s. ..."
I had never even tasted curry until Ally introduced me to her family's wondrous Brooklyn backyard barbecues where four generations of family sat in the yard sucking the curry off crab shells. She indoctrinated me into all things West Indian, especially Jamaican jerk chicken. It was a far cry from my mother's Yiddish Hungarian cooking.
When I served the client German steak tartare, she said, "And what part of the Caribbean did this come from?"
"Bavarian Amazon from the early '90s. What can I say? I'm a culinary slut!" which cracked up the entire table.
The tartare came compliments of Heidi, my six-foot-two German girlfriend, who showed me how to mix cubed filet mignon from Schaller and Weber in Little Germany (what we called the little hood in the Upper East Side back then) with capers, onion, Worcestershire, mustard, cracked pepper and raw egg.
"Great steak tartare is better then sex," she explained, devouring handfuls of the concoction for breakfast one day.
I shook my head. "Raw beef for breakfast!" It was tasty, but I still opted for oatmeal. It was 9 a.m.!
I'm not saying that everything I cook came from someone I dated. After all, my Yiddish, Hungarian and white-trash cooking came straight from my mother's idea of love food.
But that is what I'm saying. No cookbook, no school is ever going to give you quite the same experience as trying something that starts with, "This is how my grandmother makes it."
My romantic food explorations are over now; I share my life with an Italian beauty from Bensonhurst. Family supper at her sister's house is rarely less then 20 people, and those meatballs, wow, how does she get them that moist? But that's a story for another day.
Jerk chicken brochettes
Cut, let's say, 1 pound of boneless chicken breasts into inch cubes and marinate in Jerk toss.
In your food processor drop, a few chopped scallions and one good plop of chopped onion, and 1 (or two if you are brave) chopped hot pepper like habañero or scotch bonnet. (Make sure to wear gloves with the hot peppers, or you will be so sorry the next time you scratch your eye or go to the bathroom. Trust me on that one.) Puree and then add a drizzle of malt vinegar, a drizzle of dark rum, 1 pinch each of dry thyme, ground allspice, ground cinnamon, ground nutmeg, ground black pepper, 1 shot of soy sauce and a good drizzle of olive oil. You can adjust the seasoning to your liking with salt, but I prefer to salt the next day. Marinate your chicken in this overnight, and then grill on a stovetop grill or an outdoor grill. I like to serve this on skewers with mango chutney for dipping. Sometimes I add fresh ginger or lime juice, sometimes I add brown sugar, depending on my mood.
Heidi's Steak Tartare
Heidi taught me that the better the steak, the better the tartare.
So going to the grocery and buying hamburger meat is not going to give you nearly the same experience as going to your butcher and having him cube filet mignon for you.
Start with about a pound of cubed or ground meat. In a bowl, mix a handful of capers, 1 plop of minced white onion, red onion or shallots, 1 egg yolk, a drizzle of Worcestershire, a plop of Dijon mustard and a drizzle of olive oil. Stir in the meat, and add salt and ground pepper to your liking. Optional: Toss in a handful of chopped parsley. Tartare enthusiasts often throw anchovy into the mix, and that's fine if you like it. You will also see the raw egg sitting on top of a molded mound of tartare, too, but I personally think that's gross.
I like to serve this on a great potato chip or sliced baguette crouton. A nice rye bread with sliced cornichons would also rock the house.