Last Thursday I was delighted to find gorgeous poblano peppers at Andrew’s Farm stand at the Yarmouth Farmers’ Market. Shining with earthly energy, they reminded me something that a Mexican chef once taught me: September through November is the best time of year to cook chiles en nogada. It’s a Mexican classic: deep fried poblano chili peppers stuffed with pork, thyme, apple, and plantains, and topped with walnut cream sauce, fresh parsley, and pomegranate.
A sculpture on display at Filament Gallery in Portland, Maine, memorialized one of Jamaica’s great cooks. Her likeness is carved out of wood, sanded and polished with butcher’s wax. Her lips are closed in an understated smile of sublime satisfaction, as if saying to her numerous children and grandchildren, Mmm. Look what you’ve become. One of those grandchildren is the sculptor, Alva Lowe.
The last time I attempted to make Polish dumplings was a disaster. I was at our family’s Christmas Eve party. Thirty people were dipping pretzels into honey mustard, shrimp into cocktail sauce, and getting drinks from the bar. My mom was running the kitchen. The white fish was in baking dishes ready to be put in the oven. The ends of the beans were picked; the sauerkraut was bubbling.
Growing up in Argentina, Valy Steverlynck came from a family of not-so-great cooks. “At dinner,” she explains, “the meal would be set up with an announcement that the named family member actually produced something that was edible.” Aunt Nina was the exception. She was the only one who could really cook. Once, when Valy [pronounced like “volley”] was seven or eight years old, she smelled heaven coming from the kitchen.
A cooking lesson with an immigrant is like love. It comes when I least expect it. This time I was getting my teeth cleaned. The accent I was listening to was my dental hygienist’s, Sanja Bukarac, her golden green eyes upside-down next to her face mask: “How about next Friday?” Turns out, she is not only the best dentil hygienist I’ve ever had – not a moment of discomfort – she also grew up in what used to be Yugoslavia (the part that is today Bosnia and Herzegovina) and would be happy to teach me how to make her favorite meal from her childhood: burek, a meat pie wrapped in phyllo dough.
I’m into peanuts these days for a handful of reasons. I recently learned how to cook an awesome peanut soup from Ghana. Soon after learning that, I happen go to a professional peanut conference in Napa Valley. I sat next to – I’m not kidding – a VP of Peanut Butter. He works for Smucker’s. Nice guy. Scientists basically told us at the conference that peanuts are little vitamin pills. A couple days after I get home, my Bolivian friend offers to teach me how to make her favorite soup, sopa de mani. Guess what mani means. Peanut. I’m like, what thuh...why are peanuts suddenly coming at me from everywhere?
If I'd been given a surprise test, a world map with directions to fill in all the country names, I would have missed Azerbaijan. (It’s above Iran, next to Armenia, and under Russia.) Tarlan Ahmadov and his wife Zemfira, two generous and kind-hearted people who immigrated from Baku, Azerbaijan, seemed grateful for the opportunity to give me an introduction to their homeland by way of sharing their favorite meal.
The bus had been bumping over potholes through the night in the Andes mountains of Bolivia. A young couple, Rommy and David, were traveling from her hometown to the capital where she was to have an interview at the U.S. embassy.
Portland resident Bill Dilios taught me how to make his favorite dish from Albania, kotopita. It's like chicken pot pie, but with filo crust and an epic story inside. It starts after World War II in a village called Politsani.
I assumed only the uber-wealthy, the ones with oceanfront mansions, three brand new luxury cars, and live-in housekeepers, were the people to donate entire libraries to towns – usually after they’re dead. That was until Panee Muncharoen, a single mom living in a modest inland home, taught me how to make pad Thai and incidentally, that real wealth doesn’t have anything to do with having granite countertops.