Savoring the 612

The spice of life


I’ve been traveling a lot lately. Over the last nine months, I’ve been on an airplane more times than I have in the previous 15 years. The trips I’m taking typically involve seminars and training on new lines of kitchen equipment, not necessarily gastronomic voyages of discovery. Though after 30 years behind restaurant stoves, the opportunity to see the country – even if it is mostly its frontage roads and office parks – is a welcome adventure.
I do, however, lament the food on many of these trips (the less said about that, the better). So when I arrive back in the 612 area code, usually one of the first things I want to do is prepare a meal of food I actually want to eat.
Being an American male of a certain age, my desire to access flavorful, fresh food in on-the-go settings – particularly food that is at minimum benign to my cardiovascular system and waistline – has become the White Whale to my forlorn Captain Ahab. Don’t get me wrong. Snobbery deferred - I’ll crush a grease burger with so-called ‘cheese’ of questionable origin any day of the week, just not EVERY day of the week.
Road cuisine in the U.S. of A. seems to be subject to The Jim Jarmusch Rule (originally applied to his filmmaking):
“Fast, cheap or good. Pick two, cuz that’s all you’re going to get. If it’s fast and cheap it’s not going to be good. If it’s good and cheap, it’s not going to be fast…” et cetera.
Despite the fact that Minnesota’s own Jorge Guzman has an outpost for his exceptional talents in Dayton, Ohio – a restaurant called Sueño – my colleagues and I were only able to make one night’s dinner of its inventive, flavorful menu and superlative service. The remainder of the trip’s meals were rife with hapless proteins of dubious provenance and heartbroken side dishes languishing in puddles of commercial butter substitute. Suffice it to say that after five days in central Ohio, I craved fresh vegetables and bold, layered flavors.
I arrived back in South Minneapolis hell-bent on therapeutic stove time in our home kitchen. As our college freshman daughter was home for spring break, I decided on a family favorite – coconut vegetable curry over brown rice with a hefty fillet of center-cut organic salmon.
As I arranged my ingredients and implements, I noticed that my wife, Lisa, had finally hung a spice cabinet in our kitchen that she had rescued from an antique store on 50th and Penn Avenue a few weeks earlier. The cabinet was an adorable piece of Americana. Three shelves of cedar covered by a flat, hinged door and a modest flourish of scrollwork on top.
Bolted above the cutting board of my work station, it had been stripped of its original mottled varnish and sanded down. Lisa had painted it in two lovely shades that complemented the design of our kitchen, as well as a pair of Moroccan salt and pepper jars my sister gifted us 20 years ago.
Curry is built the same way one builds all of life’s truly important things: the right layers in a thoughtful order on top of a solid foundation.
The layers I needed in this case were no longer in the drawer an arm’s reach from my cutting board; they were in the rehabilitated work of art staring down at me. I opened the door to the cabinet and browsed through the shelves, looking for my Madras curry blend, cumin, paprika, ground ginger, toasted chilies… My chef’s brain looked past the sweet gesture Lisa had made by filling the shelves with my spice library and immediately made plans for organizing the flavors by geographical region, then in alphabetical order – a sort of gastronomic Dewey decimal system.
Mentally filing away my intention to organize the cabinet to my personal specifications at a later date, I drizzled avocado oil in a saucepan over low heat and added minced garlic, fresh ginger and diced onions, stirring them together until they were dressed in an even sheen. While the distinctly exotic aroma of that Ayurvedic trio began to bubble and crisp in the pan, I reflected on Lisa’s decision to pursue real estate as an occupation rather than interior design – which she had originally intended.
The little touches that hang on the walls throughout our house, or hold our office supplies, or augment shelves and furniture, are certainly functional and easy on the eyes, but overall, as parts of a greater whole, provide a sense of calm and well-being in our home; one visitors regularly compliment.
I would say it’s because that is the sensibility with which Lisa finds these ephemera. Her discoveries aren’t born of a transactional deadline or a signed-and-dated agenda; they simply speak to her while she gives herself time to indulge her heart in environments that comfort her.
When the onions began to turn translucent and brown a bit, one at a time I shook out contents from the dried spices I had culled from the cabinet into the pan and stirred them into the mix. As they toasted a bit, I stirred – unleashing their aromas into the kitchen. What I smelled and would taste was robust, but it wasn’t rounded. An acidity seemed to be missing. It wouldn’t work as well if added later in the form of lime juice or rice vinegar. I recalled that while looking for the spices I knew I had, that Lisa had also included a shaker of taco seasoning. Perhaps inspired by my trip to Jorge’s dining room in Dayton, and maybe because I knew I wouldn’t have to explain to a paying customer why I had dared mix the sacred flavors of two ancient cultures from opposite sides of the Earth, but mostly just out of a sense of ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’, I flipped open the cap to the shaker and doused the masala with about a teaspoon of Old Mexico.
An hour later, after fish sauce and chickpeas and lime juice and coconut milk and vegetables had simmered, the brown rice had steamed and the salmon had taken a short ride in the oven until pearly pink and tender in the middle, Lisa and I sat down to the fruits of my bewonderment.
“Wow, babe! This is one of the best you’ve ever made,” Lisa gushed after the first spoonful.
I let her know that her and her work on the spice cabinet were mostly responsible. She paused and gave me a quizzical look.
“How’s that?” Lisa asked and spooned up another helping.
“You keep helping me to rediscover all the good things I forgot I have.”
Without looking up from her bowl, Lisa blew on her curry, grinned and asked, “You’re just noticing that now?”


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