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Fridays are for Pad Thai

After academically strenuous weeks, there is nothing more enjoyable than treating yourself to irresistible take-out. Thai cuisine particularly awakens my taste buds, never failing to satisfy a (weekly) craving for spicy food. At the beginning of my freshman year, I explored the UberEats app and searched for a restaurant that delivered one of my favorite dishes: Pad Thai. After carefully reviewing my options, I decided to order the Blazing Pad Thai from Four Spoons Thai Inspired Cuisine & Bar in Newton, Mass.. Since then, I have been hooked on this culinary whirlwind of a dish, ordering it almost every Friday evening.

My routine on Friday night is to plan out my assignments for the weekend, lie down on my bed, pull up UberEats on my phone, and order the Blazing Pad Thai with shrimp from Four Spoons. I am then immediately notified that the delivery will take about 45 minutes and I wait, impatiently though excitedly, for my meal to arrive. Once the container of Pad Thai finally sits on my desk, I open it and steam rises, overcoming my dorm room with the smell of garlic and chiles. Twirling my fork into the rice noodles and taking the first bite always gives me a rush, as the delicate and starchy noodles absorb the Four Spoons special sauce so beautifully. Every component of this dish ties together perfectly, creating an array of flavor and texture. The noodles and tangy sauce are stir-fried with eggs, chives, and Thai basil. The scrambled eggs melt in your mouth, the chives establish a strong onion flavor, and the Thai basil incorporates a fragrant pop. Topped with fresh bean sprouts and salty crushed peanuts, the dish employs a multifaceted crunchiness that complements the noodles’ soft texture. The pieces of shrimp mixed with the other ingredients are tender and juicy. What makes the sauce one of Four Spoons’ specialties must be its pungently aromatic taste, since the chiles and paprika consistently create a wonderful explosion in my mouth.

When I sit down and peacefully dig into Four Spoons’ Blazing Pad Thai on Friday nights, I am reminded that crafting spicy dishes that are not overwhelmingly hot is difficult. At first, the chiles in the sauce might make you break a sweat, but the neutralizing bean sprouts and sponge-like shrimp pieces even out the heat. The peanuts, chives, and eggs complement the spiciness with rich, savory accents. Basil ties the whole dish together, with its strong flavor reflecting that of licorice in the best way possible.

At the end of each academic semester, I am usually ready to return home to Florida, however, I recognize that I will not be able to order the Blazing Pad Thai at the other end of the east coast. Although this reality saddens me, it emphasizes the uniqueness of this meal and reminds me that I love this dish because of its originality and specific execution. There are not many food establishments that I regularly order from via UberEats as a college student, yet Four Spoons has been a staple for about two years now. Whether I am digging into Blazing Pad Thai by myself or surrounded by friends, it is always an honor to encounter true culinary talent when my soul needs it most. Over holiday breaks, I miss Four Spoons’ Blazing Pad Thai, which contributes to the anticipation of returning once breaks are over.

Freshman year was a pivotal time in my life, away from the comforts of home, including the food I was used to. Discovering Blazing Pad Thai from Four Spoons prompted a new culinary tradition in my life, paving the way for years of appreciation for a dish that seldom fails to fulfill my longing for skillfully prepared spicy food.

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Essays

Tapas Reflect Barcelona’s Captivating Essence

Traveling to Spain always attracted me growing up as I have Spanish heritage on both sides of my family and because the country itself exudes vibrancy, cultural richness, and culinary excellence. My Aunt “Lulu” and younger cousin Marcel are based in Barcelona, so I frequently pictured how enjoyable it would be to visit them and explore the city with their guidance and recommendations. I was never able to see this dream become a reality until summer 2016 when my parents gifted me a month-long trip to Barcelona for my fifteenth birthday. To say I was excited would have been an understatement. To visualize the wonder of a city for so many years is one thing, but to know that you are actually going to see it for the first time with loved ones is utterly thrilling and almost overwhelming. Traveling alone for the first time on an eight-hour flight intimidated me, but certainly did not overcome the joy I felt about immersing myself in Barcelona.

Barcelona is obviously the best place in the world to try tapas, and eating this type of cuisine was undoubtedly one of the highlights of my trip. Native to Spain, they are a culinary staple in the country and are served in numerous restaurants there. Tapas are small plates of savory foods, like snacks, which can be served either warm or cold. They come in many different forms, each bursting with flavor and leaving one wanting to try more. Looking back, it strikes me that so many of the specific tapas that I tried during that marvelous summer reflect unique elements and characteristics of Barcelona as a city.

Perhaps the most recurring tapa that I consumed while in the region of Catalonia was jamón serrano, or serrano ham, a dry-cured meat. Frequently served in extremely thin slices on top of crispy baguette pieces, serrano ham’s deep salty essence is a reminder of Barcelona’s rich history. The aging process for serrano ham can sometimes take years for optimal taste, highlighting the sense of tradition and dedication that goes into crafting this intense yet delicate expression of pork. 

The Barcelona Cathedral was one of the sites that I encountered while roaming the streets of Barcelona with my aunt and cousin, and it took my breath away upon a simple gaze. This building is a Roman Catholic, Gothic cathedral that was built between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. The distinctive style of architecture embodied by the Barcelona Cathedral reminds one that the (roughly) 800 years for which this building has been standing have only enhanced the impressive nature of its unique, intricate design. Similarly, serrano ham’s extensive dry curing process proves essential for developing its concentrated flavor.

Patatas bravas is another tapas dish that I savored during my visit and which reflected the city of Barcelona itself. Patatas bravas are fried potatoes with a spicy garlic aioli drizzled on top. The potatoes are crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, brought to life by the explosive tang of the bravas sauce. Eating patatas bravas in Barcelona means allowing spice to introduce another dimension of culinary delight to potatoes, which can be boring to eat if not accompanied or seasoned properly. The bravas sauce’s bright color, a combination of pink and orange, encapsulates the energized tones of red, orange, and yellow spread throughout Barcelona’s landscape. Exploring Barcelona means walking past countless buildings that consistently display these colors, radiating even more when hit by the summer sun. Dim colors rarely catch one’s eye when roaming the city, but rather a scenery of crimson, tangerine, and pastel yellow inspire one to revel in the beauty of travel and culinary appreciation. Patatas bravas show that a blank canvas (like potatoes) can be enlightened by a daring kick (spicy garlic aioli), much like the colorfully vibrant city of Barcelona.

Heading over to Barcelona, I did not expect the Spanish tapas dishes I tried to visibly and flavorfully capture elements of the city’s physical appearance and history. Apart from treasuring time spent with family members that live an eight-hour plane ride away, I learned during my trip to Spain that cultural foods like tapas do more than just utilize specific native ingredients. They magnify the splendor and essence of the city they originate from.

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Plantains Breed Delicious Creativity

According to the Observatory of Economic Complexity, one of Ecuador’s top exports is bananas. In fact, Ecuador was the world’s largest exporter of bananas in 2019. When reflecting on Ecuadorian cuisine and its significance to me, I cannot help but fixate on one ingredient that graces a multitude of dishes: the plantain. Plantains are a type of banana characterized by their starchiness and firm texture. From maduros to patacones to bolones to tigrillos to chifles, plantains can be prepared in so many different, scrumptious ways. Ecuador is the South American country where my family is from, meaning that I have been there multiple times in my life and enjoyed the food of my culture alongside close relatives. Throughout the course of several years, my appreciation for plantains has drastically increased because of the creativity which Ecuadorians implement when crafting plantain-based delicacies. The particular delicacies which I most enjoy when visiting Ecuador are the bolón and tigrillo mixto from Café de Tere in Guayaquil, Ecuador. They are mouth-watering dishes that I look forward to eating with my loved ones every single time I travel to Ecuador. I cannot leave the country without doing so; it’s that simple.

Eating at Café de Tere is always a planned event that my grandmother and uncle help facilitate. We typically select a specific day to eat there, and on that day they drive me to this esteemed restaurant where we never fail to exchange laughs and smiles while recounting old, humorous memories over a spectacular breakfast. Upon arriving and parking, we head over to the ordering area outside and wait in line until our turn arrives. Café de Tere is such a popular culinary destination in Guayaquil that long lines are seldom unexpected. Routinely, I analyze the horizontal and bright yellow menu above my head, though I know exactly what my order will be once the cashier calls us forward: a bolón and a tigrillo mixto paired with orange juice. After placing our order, we make our way to an empty table outside and excitedly anticipate the arrival of our food.

Perhaps one of the reasons why I deeply savor plantains in the form of bolones and tigrillos has nothing to do with the dishes themselves, but the memories associated with eating them at Café de Tere with my grandmother and uncle. The restaurant’s outdoor setting allows us to relish in the blissful heat and breeze of Guayaquil. Before our food and drinks are even placed on our table, we have the opportunity to catch up with one another. We observe how busy the restaurant is and discuss how Café de Tere grew from a small business to an Ecuadorian empire; it’s inspiring to reflect on how well-prepared, culturally authentic food knows no limits when it comes to success. Café de Tere’s beautifully chaotic environment allows one to enjoy their food even more, given the restaurant’s bustling and community-based nature. Café de Tere’s sunshine yellow aura increases one’s excitement to eat plantains—the menu’s fundamental ingredient.

Eventually, our tray of food is brought to the table and my eyes meet the bolón and tigrillo mixto I ordered. Bolones are made by boiling plantains until they are tender and then mashing them to form balls or dumplings, which are then fried for a crispy exterior. White crumbly cheese is typically added to the plantain mash, which makes for velvety bolones once they are finished cooking. When I take the first bite, I experience the crunchiness of the outside and then immediately taste the simultaneously sweet and savory flavor of plantains. The smoothness of the mash merges wonderfully with the gooey consistency of the cheese, almost melting in my mouth. The cheese itself provides the dish with a pinch of saltiness, which contrasts with the aforementioned sweetness of plantains. The tigrillo mixto accompanies the bolón in a heavenly decadent fashion. 

Tigrillo mixto can be described as a deconstructed bolón, since it takes on a different form though it shares a few of the same ingredients. Tigrillo mixto also involves the mashing of boiled plantains and the inclusion of white crumbly cheese, though it is not served in the shape of a ball. Specifically, butter is heated on a pan and the plantain mash is added to that pan. Afterwards, the white crumbly cheese is stirred into the plantain mash. Once the cheese has softened, whisked eggs are incorporated. The eggs, once delicately scrambled, create a creamy and irresistible plantain mixture. Pieces of fried pork belly provide the finishing touch to tigrillo mixto. I transfer a morsel of this plantain, cheese, pork belly, and egg scramble from the plate to my mouth with a fork, watching the cheese expand before my eyes. The fried pork belly counteracts the creaminess of the cooked egg yolks with salty and crispy accents. Tender, scrambled egg whites establish another dimension of texture to tigrillo mixto, complementing the smoothness of plantains. The acidity of the orange juice wonderfully cuts through the starchiness of plantains.

I understand why bananas, and hence, plantains, are one of Ecuador’s highest exports: people from all over the world must crave the creativity and depth of flavor that plantains make possible in dishes like the bolón and tigrillo mixto. Plantains have the undeniable ability to reward gastronomic imagination and to spark a variety of ideas that exquisitely come to fruition. For those who value the combination of tradition and ingenuity in food like me, I cannot think of a better ingredient to appreciate than plantains. 

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Where Leadership and Almond Croissants Unite

It was a regularly scheduled Thursday night Zoom meeting for the Emerging Leader Program (ELP) at Boston College when almond croissants appeared on the horizon of our conversation. ELP is an organization for freshmen that helps build leadership skills through service and education. The program is overseen by Boston College’s wonderful Assistant Director for Leadership Development, Katherine Waxstein (affectionately known as “Kat”), while alternating groups of ten sophomore facilitators help guide and advise the first-year students. For the last eight months, I have had the privilege of serving as a sophomore facilitator for ELP. One of the features of ELP I most appreciate is its implementation of constant and intentional reflection, which never fails to spark meaningful discussions.

Every Thursday night from 6-8 p.m. this past year, the Leadership Team has gathered on Zoom to discuss programming updates, forthcoming events, and the general implications of our roles. We start every meeting by sharing our “highs and lows,” the best and worst moments/experiences that stood out to us from that week. This activity provides us with the extremely beneficial opportunity to catch up with each other, which allows us all to be on the same page and work effectively together. During one fateful Thursday meeting in the fall semester, Kat shared a high that irreversibly impacted me: she mentioned that every weekend, she visits a bakery in Boston where she orders an almond croissant. Eating an almond croissant at this bakery, she told us, has become an enjoyable ritual of her adult life. At that point in time, I had not yet eaten an almond croissant, but I internalized her words and decided that I eventually wanted to.

When I returned home to south Florida for winter break, I was ready to indulge in the flavorful array of food that my hometown had to offer. My mom eventually brought my attention to a new bakery that opened in town, Bonjour French Bakery and Cafe, tremendously praising its authentic French sweets. Trusting my mom’s judgement, I drove to Bonjour, where I was greeted by a cozy, vibrant, and welcoming French atmosphere. From cheesecake to crème brûlée to lemon pie, the desserts on display were an abundantly glorious sight. The time had come for me to choose what I wanted to try from this esteemed bakery, and I was at a loss: every single baked good looked fresh and visually stunning, like it was made with love. When my eyes lingered on the almond croissants, though, I immediately knew what my taste buds were going to encounter. I purchased one almond croissant to-go, and quickly headed home to take my first bite. Remembering Kat’s high from several weeks prior, I was ready to finally experience what she so thoroughly savored.

Photo Courtesy of Playing with Flour.

Based on mere appearance, the almond croissant was a joyous sight. The dough sported a striking golden shade, completely risen so that you could see each layer build upon the other. Powdered sugar elegantly accentuated the croissant’s color, mimicking the finest snow. The toasted almond topping tied every element of the croissant together, reminding me of its fundamental ingredient. Actually tasting the almond croissant, however, completely transcended the state of awe I was in solely based on its presentation. The crust had a buttery and almost savory flavor, accompanied by a crisp and flaky texture. Within the crust lived a delicately-risen dough, layered with care and flaunting deep buttery notes. Perhaps my favorite element of this croissant, though, was its creamy and decadent filling: almond paste. Evenly distributed across the entire croissant’s interior, the almond paste was smooth, rich, and balanced. The nutty flavor paired beautifully with its sweet undertones, both of which contrasted pleasantly with the saltiness of the croissant itself. The toasted almonds on top skillfully reinforced the flavors of the almond croissant, and introduced a pleasant crunch. Overall, the pastry was a magnificently scrumptious medley of almond flavor, bolstered by harmonious textures and subtly sweet accents.

Even though leadership and almond croissants seem like totally unconnected entities, they actually share several characteristics. As a participant and facilitator for ELP, I have learned that leadership is multilayered. It is much more than taking the initiative in a group project or speaking up first when presented with a question; leadership is about serving others, being a role model, staying true to your values, and holding yourself accountable to growth. In a similar fashion, almond croissants are certainly not just plain croissants with a few almonds sprinkled on top. The almond paste filling and the powdered sugar topping elevate this baked good to a point at which earthiness and sweetness delightfully merge. Leaders––like almond croissants––are multidimensional. 

Not only have almond croissants become one of my favorite hometown treats, but they have also taught me something valuable about life. Food offers more than just satisfaction for your stomach, or time to share with your family. Although these are important things, it is also imperative to recognize just how reflective food can be of personal endeavors. Since I have started college, leadership has become a passion of mine. Growing in this area involves motivating and guiding others to be the best versions of themselves, which has not only developed my own confidence but the confidence of those around me. Leadership is comforting, yet challenging; serious, but also light-hearted. It can be demanding, but exponentially rewarding. Leadership–in all its complexity–has grown close to my heart, likely contributing to my decision of purchasing an almond croissant at Bonjour Bakery and Cafe back home in Weston, Fla. Kat’s “high” inspired me to indulge in a baked good that proved to be tremendously fulfilling and enlightening, much like leadership itself.

Cover Photo Courtesy of Jeanie and Lulu’s Kitchen.

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Pumpkin vs. Apple Pie: A Battle?

No Thanksgiving food coma is properly induced without a generous slice(s) of pie. Americans eagerly anticipate Thanksgiving every November, and there is no question that food is a heavy, if not a quintessential, factor of the holiday. There’s turkey, stuffing, mac-n-cheese, sweet potato casserole—the dinner table seems endless. While reflecting this year on what I particularly look forward to eating every Thanksgiving day, I kept thinking about the one dessert that seldom fails to make it on the menu: pie. Now which kind is my favorite, you might inquire? That’s my dilemma: I do not know

Of all the things I treasure most about food, variety sits at the top of the list. Pie, specifically, can be prepared in a seemingly unlimited number of ways. When crafting this pastry, no fruit nor filling fails to disappoint—at least in my opinion. However, when deciding what my preferred type of pie is, my mind reaches a deadlock––pumpkin or apple? Both hold special places in my heart and my taste buds. In order to reach a solid conclusion about which one takes the throne, I have to engage in analysis. What qualities do both possess that I so thoroughly enjoy? Why is it so difficult to make a choice? Let’s discuss, shall we?

Image courtesy of Simply Recipes

Pumpkin pie is unmistakably decadent, unquestionably a Thanksgiving favorite. When you dig your fork into a slice of pumpkin pie, it’s quite mesmerizing to see your utensil glide through the smooth filling and gently cut through the flaky crust on the bottom. Upon having your first bite of pumpkin pie, you immediately get a wonderful kick of spice: a splendid mix of cinnamon, nutmeg, and ground ginger. Pumpkin pie spice generates a lovely sense of warmth in your stomach, acquainting your taste buds with the pop of flavor that instills life into a dish. The focus of pumpkin pie filling is pumpkin puree, of course. The taste of pumpkin transports you to a state of autumnal paradise, characterized by pleasantly sweet and robust notes of flavor. Key to creating the creamy texture of pumpkin pie filling is sweetened condensed milk. Already delightful by itself, the sweetness of the condensed milk complements the pumpkin’s natural sweetness while also infusing the filling with a wonderfully-rich consistency. The pie crust’s importance need not be overlooked, as it provides a buttery and crisp contrast to the smooth filling, rounding out your eating experience with balanced textures. Indulging in custardy pumpkin pie is always one of the highlights of my Thanksgiving meal, as it never fails to deliver a powerful punch of seasonal deliciousness.

Apple pie offers a different eating experience in several ways. To be frank, apples of any kind are always enjoyable to eat because they present a fantastic combination of natural sweetness, acidity, crispness, and juiciness. These elements are perfectly embodied in apple pie. Apple pie filling is a bit more tedious to make than pumpkin pie filling, but it’s completely worth the effort. Medium-sized apple wedges are seasoned with cinnamon, nutmeg, ground ginger, and brown sugar, which collectively add a dimension of spice to the sweetness of the apple slices. The filling is never complete without two key ingredients: lemon juice and flour. These might not automatically come to mind when thinking of apple pie, but they make a significant difference in the final product. Just a tad of lemon juice brilliantly accentuates the acidity of the apple wedges and the spices seasoning them while the flour acts as a thickening agent, merging with the lemon juice and moisture of the apples to create a sturdy sauce that binds the entire filling together. If baked correctly, the apple slices retain their firmness and equally showcase a tender and far-from-crunchy texture. The luscious spice sauce coats the apple wedges evenly, preserving the apples’ inherent sweetness and acidity while skillfully incorporating moisture into the pie. Since apple pie is typically baked with crust on the bottom and on the top, the first bite of apple pie opens with a buttery crunch and gradually moves on to a satisfactory freshness from the apples and warmth from the spices (strikingly similar to pumpkin pie). As a dessert, apple pie represents an unmatched fusion of tanginess and sweetness, of fresh produce and rich flavor.

The reason why it is so difficult for me to make a decision about my preferred form of pie is because pumpkin and apple pie each carry strengths that the other lacks. 

The smooth custard of pumpkin pie is simply not present in apple pie, though the latter offers an expansive variety of texture that pumpkin pie does not. It is virtually impossible to compare pumpkin and apple, as they only share sweetness: pumpkin has a pungent flavor while apples are subtly acidic. Despite their differences, pumpkin and apple pie are both extremely important menu items for me because their very entities radiate comfort and, as stated earlier, warmth. Thanksgiving is a holiday based on togetherness with family and friends, on giving thanks for the blessings that you have been granted, and on appreciating the way that food can symbolize the emotions associated with human connection. Resembling the way that family and friends can provide the comfort and warmth needed to endure these challenging times, pumpkin and apple pie do the same through their shared spices and overall delightfulness. If you asked me now what my favorite Thanksgiving pie is, then (after careful thought) my answer would be simple: both. Though that may seem like an inconclusive response, it is wholly honest. Both pumpkin and apple pie are Thanksgiving essentials in my book, it is impossible for me to make a choice. They are distinct enough to satisfy a craving for variety, yet they share an unmovable place in my family’s Thanksgiving menu. I cannot wait to indulge in both types of pie later this month, surrounded by my loved ones. Why should I have to make a choice in the first place? Why not both?

Cover photo courtesy of Taste of Home

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A Personal Take on Food Network

As a kid, Food Network was my second Disney Channel. Immediately going for the couch and turning on Food Network was an essential part of my after-school routine years ago. For as long as I can remember, I have been drawn to the kitchen. The creativity and care behind cooking intrigue me. In the grand scheme of things, meals are culinary visions that have come to fruition. What’s better than a network that consistently broadcasts these ideations? 

Giada at Home was energizing, yet relaxing. Chopped was an inspiring thriller. Worst Cooks in America was informatively hilarious. Something that I have always appreciated about Food Network is that it does not limit the scope of food. Its shows are hosted by a broad range of people who represent different cuisines and diverse personalities. The channel is a haven for culinary education and caters wonderfully to those who are interested in expanding their skills in the kitchen. My love of food is greatly attributed to my long-founded respect for Food Network. 

Two predominant categories characterize Food Network: one-on-one shows and competition shows. Both of these categories are uniquely valuable and provide viewers with distinct viewing experiences. One-on-ones are typically the most personal. They feature chefs who craft recipes while speaking to the audience, instructing viewers on following specific recipes. Helpful tips, step-by-step instructions, and reassurance permeate these programs. They are largely informational and, in my opinion, mainly meant for viewers watching at home to replicate the dishes they see on screen. Though not as entertaining as competition shows, one-on-one content is probably best for those who are trying to learn new cooking techniques. Barefoot Contessa and Giada at Home, examples of this Food Network genre, are shows in which the chefs/hosts address the audience as if they were friends absorbing their detailed suggestions. 

Photo courtesy of Barefoot Contessa

Competition shows differ tremendously. The dynamic of competitions typically follows a template––contestants are gathered to battle against each other for a grand cash prize. A fundamental component of competition shows are time limits, which elevate the intensity of battle and captivate the audience amidst chaos occurring on screen. Contestants are usually tasked with speedily preparing a dish with some sort of common theme or unifying element, which all participants are to abide by and individually interpret. The hosts of these shows are usually chefs themselves and provide knowledgeable commentary or instruction while the participants are frantically cooking. 

For example, Chopped successfully entices viewers by emphasizing both the harsh time constraints provided and the obscurity of the “mystery basket ingredients” which contestants are required to incorporate into their creations. The main purpose of competition shows on Food Network is to shed light on culinary determination; contestants on these shows sign up for personal reasons, whether it be to validate their careers, garner funds for their restaurants, or learn more about the art of cooking. Competition shows engage audience members by portraying heightened concentration among contestants, spontaneous creativity, and hunger for victory. By watching competition shows, I have learned that properly preparing a dish requires extensive precision. Judges are essential to competition shows, as they ultimately decide the winners of challenges based on performance. With their refined palettes, judges in this genre inevitably pinpoint the flaws or shortcomings that they observe in the participants’ creations. Minor mistakes send contestants home, reminding viewers that cooking is an art: in the kitchen, success mandates care and attentiveness.

Despite their differences, both Food Network styles embody the passion that food entails. On virtually any show on this channel, you find people who love being present in the kitchen so much that they feel compelled to share this profound enjoyment on a large platform. Whether you diligently take notes as Ina Garten explains her grilled cheese’s special ingredient, or you hold your breath as Bobby Flay hurriedly plates his entrée on Iron Chef America, it is obvious that Food Network shows are collectively meant to illuminate the innovative nature of gastronomy. On this channel, food is utilized as a vehicle for creative expression, and it knows absolutely no limits. What kept me so engaged with Food Network as a child, I believe, was the fact that I learned something new every single day. One day, I found out that pasta water is a thickening agent in sauces, another day I was instructed on how to dice an onion. The constant learning that I experienced endowed me with the insight that one never stops gathering knowledge about food. Nifty tips, recipes, and techniques know no boundaries. 

Photo courtesy of Entertainment Weekly

Presently, I do not watch Food Network as often as I used to. I attribute this unfortunate decreased investment to my busy schedule, which involves less time to keep up with what’s new on the channel. However, I still keep up with Worst Cooks in America because of how humorous (and empowering) it is to watch clueless recruits grow as cooks and acquire new skills. 

Reflecting now on the impact that Food Network has had on my life, I can confidently say that the channel has taught me just how influential food is. By that, I mean that food has the power to touch the lives of so many people. The reasons behind food’s vast influence are the various individuals who can approach it their own way. As I alluded to before, assorted cuisines and differing personalities encompass food’s interpretation. Food Network shows represent such a wide array of cooking styles that audience members are bound to find at least one show on the channel that is relevant to their own cooking styles or kitchen experiences. On another note, watching shows that explore unfamiliar cuisines propel viewers to expand their realms of taste and share newfound recipes with family and friends. Tuning into Food Network means immersing yourself into a world of gastronomic spirit and divergent perspectives. Throwing yourself onto a couch and dialing the channel number on your remote is only the beginning: Food Network is a mindset changer.

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Home is my Mom’s Lasagna

Culinary bliss, in my perspective, is defined as a moment of gastronomic euphoria. When in a state of gastronomic euphoria, one revels in the delight that food can ignite. As a person, I consider myself to be extremely detail-oriented. Whether it be through sight, smell, or taste, my attentive nature seldom falters. Unfortunately, this heightened sense of observation causes me to automatically pinpoint shortcomings or deviations of preference when it comes to food. When taking the first bite of a dish, I immediately determine if it appeases my palette. Before eating, my stream-of-consciousness always poses the question, “Will this meal be a hit or miss?” Lasagna is a masterpiece that undoubtedly transports me to a state of culinary bliss. Always a “hit,” lasagna is my absolute favorite meal to savor. 

Italian cuisine, in particular, satiates my taste buds like no other. Chicken parmesan is always a treat when in the mood for poultry and fried calamari is a gift of the sea. Within this realm of food, pasta is a culinary star. Its delicate texture and ability to soak up flavor cannot be overlooked! 

Photo courtesy of The Spruce Eats

Pasta has the undeniable ability to complement the various sauces that could accompany it. Creamy sauces enhance the richness of pasta; the acidity of tomato-based sauces beautifully cuts through pasta’s starchiness. Lasagna explores both of these dimensions. Béchamel sauce, the buttery and smooth white sauce that is typically used in lasagna, indeed highlights the richness of the layered noodles. Blanketing your taste buds with a subtle savory pop, béchamel sauce is a crucial component of successful lasagna. On another note, the tomato sauce fused with ground beef takes your taste buds in a completely different direction, heightening your meter of enjoyment. The tomato paste usually added to the tomato sauce provides a strong concentration of tomato flavor, emitting subtle acidity while also bringing out the saltiness of tender beef. 

The cheese in lasagna fosters intense satisfaction. Shredded mozzarella layered between the noodles functions as an adhesive, yet it also melts in your mouth and contributes a subtle hint of sweetness. Ricotta is another type of cheese that lasagna champions, also sweet and soft. My preferred way to eat ricotta in lasagna is when it is mixed with sliced basil, given that it acts as a vehicle for this herb to permeate the dish with aromatic freshness. Parmesan cheese is an ingredient that ties the entire dish together. Sprinkled on top of lasagna before entering the oven, parmesan cheese’s nuttiness and salty bite facilitate harmony amongst the meal’s components. While baking, the parmesan cheese forms a golden crust on top of the dish, balancing gooeyness with crunch. Once out of the oven, the scent of lasagna is pleasantly pungent and overwhelmingly inviting. The driving factor behind completed lasagna’s delightful scent is the dried oregano sprinkled on top before baking. Finished lasagna visually begs to be eaten. From the golden shade of the crust to the sight of texturally diverse layers, the dish is simply irresistible. 

Lasagna has been a personal favorite for an extended period of time. It is in the comfort of my home where I am able to best indulge in lasagna, as my mom cooks it with extra care knowing that I love it. Every time I find out that my mom is making lasagna, a huge wave of happiness overcomes me. It’s quite ridiculous just how ecstatic I get to smell the oregano, to marvel at the golden crust, to take the first bite from my plate. Apart from the sadness of leaving my family behind, a concern that crossed my mind before moving to Massachusetts was how much I would miss my mom’s lasagna. My perception of successfully executed lasagna is informed by my mom’s interpretation of the entrée, crafted with so much patience and attention. When away from home, moments of culinary bliss are few and far between. While at college, I crave the culinary bliss that my mom’s lasagna produces. 

It has become a tradition to eat lasagna every time I visit my family at home in Florida. Acutely aware of how much I miss her lasagna, my mom never fails to receive me at home with the dish as soon as I arrive from Miami International Airport. My flights from Boston usually arrive around lunchtime, so I practically start eating as soon as I get home. After quickly transporting my luggage to my room, I join my family at the lunch table and watch my mom cut me a piece of her culinary triumph. The mozzarella stretches and the steam rises, indicating comfort and warmth. 

As I take the first bite, my thoughts center on the perfection of this dish. There are no errors, the lasagna is out of this world. My mom’s lasagna fulfills the mental criteria that I judge lasagna by: it’s savory, it’s sweet, it’s velvety, and it’s crisp. A year into college, I view lasagna a bit differently. Though it remains a favorite of mine, the emotions I associate with lasagna are new. The culinary bliss that I always treasure when indulging in it is now accompanied by appreciation for returning to a loving home. The euphoric moment is, after all, fueled by thoughtfulness and kindness. I would not change a single thing about my mom’s lasagna, just how I would not change a single thing about the care and receptivity of my home.

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The Multifaceted Beauty of Paella

Paella: a symphony of texture, flavor, and splendor. The culinary complexity of paella is unmatched, one’s taste buds go on a rollercoaster ride while indulging in this dish. Even though paella is a stand-alone meal, it is wonderfully intricate. My mother usually makes this recipe on warm summer days when the grill is practically begging for interaction. 

Throughout my entire life, I have enjoyed assisting my mother in the kitchen, whether it be slicing vegetables, stirring the contents of a pan, or seasoning the day’s protein. On paella days, I exult in helping with all three tasks. Before the action at the grill begins, it is crucial to engage in mise en place. This French term is widely utilized in the culinary world, and it means “to set up.” My mother and I evenly dice the red bell peppers and onions, sprinkle salt and pepper on all of the incorporated seafood, and slice the chorizo into fourths. After mise en place, crafting paella is a matter of assemblage at the grill.

First, we add long-grain rice to the hot pan and stir it for a while, along with olive oil, the diced red bell peppers and onions, garlic paste, and a key ingredient, saffron, which lends the rice mixture a color like pure sunshine. The time has come to add the seafood. From shrimp to scallops to squid to clams, the seafood in paella is the star of the dish. We transfer the heftily-seasoned marine delicacies to the pan where the saffron begins to transfer its rich and aromatic essence, taking its role as co-star. Once the shrimp turns pink, we submerge the contents of the pan in seafood stock, cover the pan entirely with aluminum foil, and close the lid of the grill to allow the rice to cook through. After about a half hour, the rice is tender and the time has come to add the pre-cooked chorizo. We let the chorizo warm up and become fully incorporated into the rice before the final step, which is to sprinkle a touch of salt onto the paella before serving.

Watching the grand paella pan make its way from the grill to the center of the dining room table is truly a magnificent sight. Before spooning the entrée onto our plates, my family takes a few moments to admire the masterpiece sitting before us. As the steam rises, we can smell the earthiness and sweetness of the saffron. The aroma of paella is spectacular, but the flavor is simply exquisite. As the combination of rice and seafood enters our mouths, we are immediately hit with the rice’s savory punch. Though the seafood offers the perfect bite, the shrimp, scallops, and squid eventually melt in our mouths. Seafood has a way of absorbing savory notes while also retaining its natural sweetness, a pleasurable dichotomy. The warmth of the dish engulfs our taste buds, providing us with intense satisfaction. The tenderness of the rice beautifully contrasts with the seafood’s firm texture. Paella, even by itself, never feels like an incomplete meal. As noted earlier, the dish is elaborate and multifaceted. Apart from the rice and seafood’s harmonious relationship, it offers the freshness of the vegetables, the spiciness of the chorizo, and the crunchiness of the slightly-burned rice at the bottom of the pan. When eating paella, our taste buds run in a million different directions. That’s the beauty of this meal. 

Paella is not the easiest thing to cook. In fact, successfully executing paella requires extensive organization and patience. However, the result is beyond worth it, and the process has its unique perks. Cooking meals can sometimes be frustrating because they can have various, seemingly unending components. Oftentimes, people have to worry about separately preparing sauces or side dishes. Although paella has an abundance of components, crafting it is a one-pan task. Once all of the dish’s elements have been merged in the pan, more effort is not required to complete your dining experience. Paella’s multidimensional nature makes for a well-rounded meal, no side dishes or sauce required. Once you have the pan sitting in front of you, your thoughts do not pose the question, “What else?” As soon as paella is introduced to your palette, your mind (and mouth) revel in complete satisfaction.

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Essays

The Power of “Pán de Yuca”

Although my parents immigrated to south Florida shortly after marrying, I consider Guayaquil, Ecuador central to my life origins. It is a place cherished by every relative I know and love, and the connection my family holds to Guayaquil is undeniable. Through my travels there, Guayaquil has revealed to me the fulfilling and transformative power of exploring one’s cultural roots. 

Flying from Miami International Airport to José Joaquín de Olmedo International Airport is nothing short of invigorating. Welcomed by family members that I do not get to see as often as I would like, I feel endless warmth upon arrival. Embracing my grandparents, uncles, and cousins at the airport is a moment that I look forward to every time we visit. While they rejoice in our return, we rejoice in their kindness. 

Food has always been a source of connection for my entire family. While visiting our relatives in Ecuador, we relish in the country’s delicacies. For my Floridian family, shared meals foster invaluable connections with our Ecuadorian relatives. It is during moments of culinary togetherness that we extensively savor Ecuadorian cuisine. 

Food has bonded me to my maternal grandmother, “Abuela Nini,” one of the people with whom I spend the most time while visiting Guayaquil. Staying at her home in the neighborhood of Entre Ríos, I hold sacred the love she continuously offers and the laughs she ceaselessly produces. Over time, I have noticed that she and I both view food as an outlet for intense satisfaction. We relate in that we not only acknowledge but cherish the power of flavor. For us, food is not fuel; it is one of life’s treasures. Therefore, eating with my grandmother is nothing short of wonderful. 

While visiting Ecuador a few years ago, I had a profoundly special culinary experience with my grandmother. For an afternoon during my stay, I accompanied her as she ran errands around town. After a few hours of productivity, I suddenly recognized my surroundings from within her car; we were minutes away from Entre Ríos. Hungry after a long afternoon, I suggested that we eat at a restaurant called Naturissimo. Accepting my request with a smile, my grandmother soon made a right turn into Bocca, a nearby plaza where the restaurant is located. Among a wide array of city-wide locations, this specific spot is preferred by my family. Naturissimo is an Ecuadorian franchise known for offering delectable “pán de yuca” and yogurt drinks. “Pán de yuca,” a beloved baked good in Ecuador, is often viewed as a staple of casual dining. The dish consists of cassava cheese bread, always served warm. Every time I encounter it at Naturissimo, my taste buds are enlightened by the spirit of South American comfort food. 

Entering the restaurant with my grandmother, I was immediately welcomed by the colorful paintings on the walls and the kind staff members. Behind the counter, there were several páns de yuca kept warm by insulated display cases. In addition to ordering some of these, we both selected raspberry-flavored yogurt drinks, which were similar to yogurt milkshakes. After paying, we decided to dine outside. 

Sitting across from each other at a round table, we began to indulge. The warmth of the bread in my hands significantly elevated my excitement. Pulling the dough apart, I could see the steam rising and the cheese expanding. Pán de yuca has a crisp exterior, so every bite begins with a perfect hint of crunchiness. However, the inside of the bread is extremely delicate. The bread’s interior is like a savory cloud, melting in your mouth with every bite. The nuttiness of the cheese and the starchiness of the cassava complement each other, producing a blissfully warm sensation in your stomach. That day, the sweet-yet-tart raspberry yogurt drink exquisitely balanced the pán de yuca with bursts of fruitiness, beautifully contrasting the bread’s salty notes. Sips of the cold, smooth beverage highlighted the comforting warmth of pán de yuca. 

In the past, I always wondered how my Ecuadorian roots specifically touched my life. As a south Florida resident, there are many differences between my lifestyle and that of my Ecuadorian relatives. Often, I would feel culturally detached while staying in Ecuador; visiting felt like I was stepping into a world drastically different from my own. 

While eating at Naturissimo with my grandmother that night, I witnessed the joy that eating pán de yuca and sipping on raspberry yogurt drinks produced in us both. The happiness that I felt inside reminded me of the times that I had eaten pán de yuca in Florida. It suddenly dawned on me that every time I ate this baked good at home, I would think of the endless love that I have for my relatives in Ecuador and how deeply I miss seeing them during the school year. Looking into my grandmother’s eyes, I realized that Ecuadorian cuisine not only allows us to bond, but it also fosters thoughts that mentally unify me with my Ecuadorian roots.

The warmth of the pán de yuca equates to the loving warmth of my relatives abroad. For me, exploring my cultural roots means consuming Ecuadorian food and valuing the lovely thoughts that ensue. The food that pertains to my culture touches my life by reinforcing the respect I hold for familial ties. The pán de yuca and raspberry yogurt drink at Naturissimo taught me that love defies distance.