November 11, 2012

This Tastes Like Home

I was sitting at the heavy antique dining room table at my great aunt Carol's farmhouse in Western Massachusetts. She runs an apple orchard and cider press on her farm, and stepping past the stone walls from the street towards the farm is like stepping into another era. As you turn away from your car, you arrive into an older, quieter, stunningly beautiful New England. A time and place where apples come first, where they are grown and treated with care and love and transformed into apple cider, apple butter, apple cider vinegar, apple sauce and superior apple cider donuts. 

When you step away from the farm into the farmhouse, you seamlessly enter the kitchen of a centuries old homestead with stone floors, worn wooden walls and aged windows. There is usually a pot of something bubbling on the stove, a box of something sweet on the counter, and a collection of jars and wooden spoons and speckled ceramic bowls near the stove. It smells like Thanksgiving, regardless of month.  

The historic farmhouse, built in the New England "saltbox" style.

If you are so lucky to be invited over for a meal -- lunch on a cool fall day, you can only hope, when the cider is in season -- you'll find the food fits the farm and the house with seamless grace. When I visited this fall with some family, we were greeted with a meal of kale soup from the garden, salmon and avocado pressed sandwiches, salad, apple sauce, horseradish hummus, cornbread and, of course, apple cider. It's not that the food is old-fashioned, like the house. It's not that the food is based solely on apples, though they do make an important appearance. It is that the food, like the house and the sturdy stone walls and the orchards and the old red barn, is rustic, for lack of a better word. Simple, wholesome, and well placed in the New England countryside. (It is also perhaps the envy of every dimly-lit restaurant in Brooklyn.) And the food fits the place. 

The table at Carol's farmhouse. 
The truth of the matter is that many homes have foods that fit their personality, if not as apparent -- or perhaps unique -- as the food at Carol's farm. For me, it's hard to place my finger on exactly what tastes like home for me. And I suppose that, in this time of transition in my life, moving from college to New York City to upstate New York City, Boston and now, finally, back to New York City for good, "home" isn't always an easy thing to define.  But when you enter someone else's home and are a guest at their table, you can look on their style of cooking and the way it fits the home with a better frame of reference. Your grandma's food always taste like -- being at grandma's house. Your food at your neighbor's totally disorganized house is always prepared a bit -- extemporaneously. Food, as it should, tastes like home -- and it tastes like the home where it's made. 

When I'm at my home in Boston, home cooking means one thing. It often involves big bowls of pasta, lots of vegetables, and a slightly nicer version of parmigiano than I'd use when I was at Wesleyan (the recipe below for shrimp and radicchio pasta fits that bill). Sometimes it involves juicy steaks, which I love, but which I rarely cooked at school or on my own. To be honest, I'm not sure I can place my finger on what makes my home cooking "home" to me. I can tell for other people, but it's harder for me to say for myself. 

I guess I'll just have to invite you over for dinner, and you can tell me.

Shrimp and Radicchio Pasta
Serves 4

When I'm at home in Boston, I love shopping for unlikely produce at the grocery store and finding a way to combine it into a big bowl of pasta. Here, lemony shrimp and sautéed radicchio pair up -- and taste just like home. 

-1 medium, round head red radicchio 
-2 tablespoons butter
-3 teaspoon olive oil
-1 pound raw shrimp, peeled and deveined 
-1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
-2 cloves garlic, minced
-2 tablespoons chopped parsley 
-zest and juice of 1 lemon 
-1/2 teaspoon chili flakes (optional) 
-1 pound dried pasta (long pasta like linguine, or short pasta like penne, will both work well) 

1. Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil.

2. Prepare your radicchio. Split the head of radicchio through the stem. Using a sharp knife, remove the white, triangular stem that extends into the center of the radicchio from each half. Slice each half into lateral 1/4 inch strips, and set aside. 

3. In a large, sided skillet, melt butter and 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat (this may seem like a lot of fat, but you'll want it once everything is mixed together with the pasta). Add the shrimp, season with salt and pepper, and saute until just cooked and pink. Remove to a bowl and keep warm.

4. In the same skillet, add the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil and heat over medium-low. Add the onion, saute 2-3 minutes, then add the garlic and saute a minute longer. When it is fragrant, add the radicchio and cook, stirring frequently, until it is soft and wilted, about 5 minutes. Add the parsley, lemon zest, chili flakes and salt and pepper. Remove from the heat. 

5. In the meantime, cook your pasta in the boiling water according to package instructions. Remove and drain well.

6. In a large serving bowl, combine pasta, cooked shrimp and radicchio. Mix in lemon juice, and additional olive oil if it seems dry. Though Italians would turn up their noses at mixing seafood and cheese, a touch of grated parmesan does well by this dish. Serve and enjoy.