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Mata Family’s Homemade Mac n’ Cheese

Few foods generate as much nostalgia for me as mac n’ cheese. The tenderness of the noodles and the creaminess of the sauce always transport me back to elementary school dinners, where my mom would make Kraft mac n’ cheese to my younger brother and I’s delight. Although I have always enjoyed eating mac n’ cheese, it wasn’t until about five years ago that I started preparing it from scratch for Thanksgiving. During my childhood, no one in my Ecuadorian family ever considered incorporating this dish into our Thanksgiving menu. I found this odd at one point, since we always prepared American classics like turkey, mashed potatoes, and sweet potato casserole. After researching several mac n’ cheese recipes on the Food Network website, I finally suggested that this delicacy become a new Thanksgiving staple in my household. Since then, mac n’ cheese has sparked multiple smiles and intense satisfaction among my close friends and family members every year on the fourth Thursday of November.

I believe that the key to crafting a perfect holiday mac n’ cheese is starting with a roux. A roux is a thickening agent that combines flour and butter to form the base of sauces. Hence, I begin cooking mac n’ cheese by melting butter in a saucepan on low heat and gradually adding spoonfuls of flour, mixing the contents of the pan continuously with a whisk. Once the roux has turned into a paste, I add heavy whipping cream and stir vigorously until all clumps of flour have evenly disintegrated into the mixture. Next, I generously season the thick heavy cream with salt, white pepper, garlic powder, and a hint of paprika or chili powder for a subtle kick. I then add multiple types of cheese to the seasoned sauce. Shredded cheddar is a must, given its strong flavor and memorable contribution to mac n’ cheese’s orangey-yellow color. Integrating the cheddar cheese never fails to excite me because it brightens up the sauce’s initial plain white shade. In the past, I have also stirred in gruyere, parmesan, gouda, and even pepper jack cheese for an additional savory bite. The sauce is ready to firmly stick to the pre-boiled macaroni noodles once its consistency is not excessively thick, but also not runny: When poured over the macaroni noodles in a baking dish, the cheese sauce ought to smoothly descend from the saucepan at a medium speed, indicating proper thickness.

Before beginning to make the bread crumb topping, I allow the sauce-coated macaroni noodles to cool down, after which I sprinkle more shredded cheddar cheese on top. After forming a layer of shredded cheddar cheese on top of the noodles, I combine panko bread crumbs, melted butter, salt, pepper, parmesan cheese, and red pepper flakes to create the topping in question. After finalizing this mixture, I ensure that every inch of the baking dish’s top layer is covered by seasoned bread crumbs and parmesan cheese. Following this final addition, I enter the mac n’ cheese in the oven, leaving it in at 350 degrees until the shredded cheddar and parmesan cheese on top have fully melted and the bread crumbs have turned golden brown. Although numerous peeks at the oven are somewhat required to prevent burning, the finished product is such a glorious sight that my hard work invariably feels worthwhile. 

Serving this mac n’ cheese every Thanksgiving dinner always attracts a plethora of compliments, given how delightfully creamy the noodles are and how perfectly crunchy the bread crumbs are. The flavors of the cheeses blend together seamlessly, allowing one to appreciate the savory punch that freshly shredded cheese provides to the dish, in comparison to the artificial cheese found in the Kraft product I grew up consuming. Apart from watching my close friends’ and relatives’ faces light up while eating this mac n’ cheese, I myself enter a state of elevated happiness when I indulge in it. Every single bite of this mac n’ cheese reminds me of the culinary sophistication I can accomplish by taking the time to make it. Further, I think about how this Thanksgiving side dish continues the satisfaction I used to feel when eating Kraft mac n’ cheese, though its flavor and texture profiles are astronomically more impressive. Overall, my loved ones and I are highly content that this form of mac n’ cheese graced our collective Thanksgiving experience, since it successfully builds on the wonder of a beloved store-bought product.

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In the Spirit of Spontaneity: Dining at Oscar Wilde NYC

I have never been one for spontaneity. In fact, I try my very best to avoid it. I conduct my days with a planner, multiple to-do lists (both physical and digital) and a perfectly color-coordinated Google Calendar to ensure that my life goes according to plan. But on Sunday, when my roommate, Carson, asked me if I’d like to join her for an under-24-hour trip to New York City, something changed. An adventure that would require me to skip classes, buy last minute plane tickets from Logan to JFK, and, of course, scramble to make dinner reservations, seemed to override my love of planning and preparation. Carson needed to obtain a student visa from the Danish embassy for her study abroad plans next semester, and, desiring a travel-partner, extended an invite to me. We escaped Boston College’s campus in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, for the bustle, glamour, and anonymity of the city.

After a quick 45-minute flight spent admiring the glitter of city lights over the landscape, we touched down in New York. We were on a mission: cram as much into our schedule as possible. With that, I scoured my favorite app, OpenTable, for any sort of dinner reservation for two in Midtown. My search requirements included buzzwords like “trendy,” “young crowd,” and “quick bites,” which conjured over 100 results in a matter of seconds. Driven by the spirit of the Irish playwright, Oscar Wilde (located at 45 W 27th Street) opened in 1933 and pays homage to its namesake as one of the most prolific writers of the Victorian era. Knowing that I’d be studying at Wilde’s alma mater in the spring, Trinity College Dublin, Oscar Wilde was an easy choice. With a few clicks, our reservation was set.

After we trekked a mile through the biting cold air of the city, we arrived at the Oscar Wilde restaurant-front adorned with bundles of Christmas lights illuminating its doorway. The cutting chill of a November evening was abated by the gust of warmth as we entered. The cacophony of jazz music and chattering patrons welcomed us in as the young hostess showed us to our table. New York City’s longest bar at 118.5 feet, topped with Italian white marble, reigns over the space. The walls are artfully crowded with avant garde pieces: oil paintings, portraiture, and roughly 26 clocks all curiously set to 1:50PM, which, after a brief Google search, we realized was the time of Wilde’s death.

Gently sipping on a “Northern Nightingale” concocted with tart Sombra Mezcal and sweet orange and lime juice, I perused the small “New-American” menu. The short selection consisted of small plates which perfectly complemented our appetites and table space, as the restaurant was crowded with young professionals getting drinks with coworkers. We happily decided on crispy calamari, chili lime fries, and tuna tartare to split between us.The sweet, tangy spice of the french fries and the crispy freshness of the calamari was an elevated bar treat. The tuna tartare constructed with a buttery, rich, raw tuna, complemented by the earthiness of sesame oil and crunch of puffed noodle strips was the star of the night. Upon the shining white marble, engraved with Wilde’s aphorisms––“be yourself; everyone else is already taken” and “you can never be overdressed or overeducated”––plates were cleared and fall semester memories rehashed.

Carson and I eat dinner together almost every night in our apartment on Commonwealth Ave. and yet this communal experience of food, changed with the spontaneity of our trip to New York and pure friendship, was a restorative and transformative experience. Amidst the bustling patrons, I felt my friendship with Carson grow deeper. Regardless of the fact that I have slept only four feet away from her for almost three years now, there is still so much of her personhood and our friendship to explore. As I close the fall semester, knowing that many of my closest friends, including Carson, will be spread across the globe studying at numerous universities, I felt that this moment of reflection insured for me the closeness and necessity of these friendships, no matter where I am in the world. It was dining at Oscar Wilde that actualized my love for adventure and connection, especially over delicious meals with friends. 

Cover Image Courtesy of Oscar Wilde NYC

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Essays

Manifesting an Italian Dinner Night

One day I was scrolling through my Instagram feed when I stumbled upon a pasta sauce ad that caught my eye. Usually, I skip right past sponsored content, but this was different. The ad pictured a bird’s eye shot of a dinner party with a bowl of spaghetti and meatballs in the center of the frame. The guests happily scooped noodles—the thickest I’ve ever seen—and meatballs onto their plates. Immediately, my craving began. My mouth salivated. The meatballs seemed to shimmer in the setting’s moody, yellow light, and the noodles made me want to sink my teeth into a forkful. This simple, ten-second ad had induced a deep desire—a craving that boxed noodles and jarred sauces could not satisfy. I wanted a bowl of homemade spaghetti and meatballs with an authentic tomato sauce. After replaying and unmuting the ad, lively Italian dinner music played while the clinks of plates and background voices added to the ambiance of the video. As staged as the setting may have been, the lighting and the environment felt real, and my craving for spaghetti and meatballs evolved into a need for more. 

I wanted to have an Italian dinner party. 

I only heard about these dinners from my Italian friends and had seen them in movies, but I knew exactly what I wanted. Traditional Italian dinner parties center around the idea of reconnecting with friends and family over the shared love of food. Having enough food to serve the large company of people in attendance is pivotal to these parties. I’ve heard that these kinds of dinners have a start time but no end and can last for hours so long as the conversation (and food) is good. Alas, the only problem is that I’m not Italian. With spaghetti and meatballs on my mind, I went over to my friend’s place to hang out. 

“What’re you thinking about?” Izzy asked as she opened the door, immediately recognizing my deep concentration.

“I want to have an Italian dinner party,” I blurted out, almost stunned at my response. “I want spaghetti and meatballs. The real homemade stuff with homemade pasta sauce. But the only problem is we don’t know any Italians.”

Izzy stared back at me with a blank expression, then shifted her face to a look of confusion. “You do realize I’m Italian, right?”

After I apologized for my forgetfulness, Izzy quickly adopted my desire to host an Italian dinner party. 

“I haven’t been to one since before the pandemic,” she remarked, explaining to me how her Italian family used to host large parties that included her extended family and longtime friends. We sat down and made a list of people we’d invite. We settled on 18 people: three, six-man rooms. My room would bring the garlic bread, our friends’ room would bring the salad and dessert, and Izzy’s room would host and make the spaghetti and meatballs. A date was set for the following Sunday, and I could hardly wait.

The day before the party, Izzy called me over to help make the sauce. “The most crucial part of making this dinner authentic is the sauce,” Izzy said. 

We gathered together all the ingredients and got to work. I chopped the onions and garlic while Izzy prepared the tomatoes. She instructed me to saute the onions and garlic until they were fragrant, then let them simmer in red wine. We added in the tomato paste and tomatoes, and then mixed the pot. We topped it off with fresh basil, lemon zest, and some other spices.

“Nice! We’ll let this pot simmer for a few hours. We’re pretty much done for the day,” Izzy said proudly.

I was shocked. “That’s it?” I asked, confused at the simplicity. “How come we made it a day early then?”

Izzy chuckled, and happily shared her family secret. “The sauce isn’t done yet,” she explained. “Once the sauce has finished reducing tonight, I’ll leave it in the fridge overnight so the flavors deepen.” Izzy explained that tomorrow afternoon she will put it back on the stove, add more spices and salt as needed, and then complete it with the drippings from the meatballs. Once finished, the sauce will be rich, complex, and ever so delicious. 

The next day, I eagerly made garlic bread with my roommates. We timed it perfectly so that we would pull the bread out at 6:55 pm, and then immediately walk across the hall to Izzy’s room in time for the dinner to start at 7 pm. As I was welcomed into the room, I was met with the pleasant aroma of savory meatballs and the rich tomato sauce. I turned on the TV and put on a playlist of cliché Italian dinner music that I had curated earlier in the week, and chatted with my friends as they came into the room. We sat down at the long table, and ate our salad as an appetizer. Izzy served everyone heaping bowls of the handmade spaghetti she got from Eataly that morning, poured on the homemade pasta sauce, topped that with the meatballs, and finished them off with freshly-grated parmesan and a slice of garlic bread.

As I happily chowed down on my bowl of Italian deliciousness, my heart swelled. My desire for homemade spaghetti and meatballs had been fulfilled. Not only that, but I got to have an Italian dinner party. I fondly thought back to what started this all: that pasta sauce ad on Instagram. While that sponsored post might not have moved me to buy the jarred sauce—I can’t even, for the life of me, remember the name of the brand—it inspired this amazing evening. So to anyone reading this who wants to host an Italian dinner party themselves or take the leap into something unfamiliar, I say to you: fallo e basta

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Essays

The 12 Grapes of New Year’s Eve: A Symbol of Luck

The approaching holiday season reminds me of a tradition that my family celebrates every New Year’s Eve: eating twelve grapes as the clock approaches midnight. While at social gatherings with close friends, my family always fills up champagne glasses with grapes and distributes them to people, inciting the excitement that underlies this custom. I once considered this family tradition odd, even a little superstitious, but now through reflection I view it in a new light.

My parents always told me that eating each of the twelve grapes symbolizes good luck for every month of the year, so it is imperative that you do so while people are counting down the seconds before the ball drops, the clock strikes twelve, and the metaphorical “fresh start” begins. Now that I am older, I understand that grapes symbolize good fortune in some ways. Both red and green grapes, in their crispest form, are one of the most pleasantly sweet types of fruit. Upon biting into them, their juices burst in your mouth, quenching hunger and thirst simultaneously. All of these wonderful qualities make grapes improve my mood. It really is the small things that can significantly shift your appreciation for life. Beginning the new year with a positive state of mind is probably the biggest guarantee that you will accomplish your goals, or at least put forth your best effort to do so. What can possibly produce better luck than eating grapes on New Year’s Eve?

Apart from its tasty benefits, eating twelve  grapes before midnight every 31st of December builds togetherness among friends and family, fostering happy beginnings as we enter the new year. Bags of produce are opened, stems are emptied, and grapes are counted in a rushed but exhilarated manner. Passing along the fruit-filled champagne glasses is also a collaborative effort, as it is very important that every partygoer partakes in this tradition. Amidst this chaos, my family usually takes a moment to reflect on our blessings, which prepares us to receive the new year with gratitude. Furthermore, with glasses in our hands, we FaceTime family members that are not able to celebrate the holiday with us. This usually involves calling relatives in Ecuador, whom we miss dearly and want to wish a Happy New Year.

11:59 p.m. approaches and everyone starts popping grapes into their mouths. As I look around at this time, I see people pause briefly for each grape that they ingest, wishing for something. Some may think that grapes are just grapes, and they do not promote good luck at all. However, witnessing earnest hope on family and friends’ faces while they’re eating grapes at a New Year’s Eve party really broadens my perspective about the power of collective belief and the wonder associated with hoping for good fortune upon entering the new year. Putting power into the grapes is an act of faith itself, as all of our hopes for the future reside in these small and crisp pockets of sweetness.

Once the clock strikes midnight at the gatherings I attend, everyone starts hugging each other and wishing their family members and friends a Happy New Year. With their palettes permeated by the sweetness of grapes, people bask in the joy of celebration with those they love and cherish. This spectacle is beautiful to watch, but even more enjoyable to partake in. Every New Year, I make a mental note to not only be grateful for the people in my life, but also for the drive within myself to pursue my goals. In some strange and yet beautiful way, frantically eating grapes before midnight approaches on New Year’s Eve orients my thoughts toward this thankful outlook. Perhaps this culinary tradition is considered lucky because it yields a force that motivates individuals to channel their inner determination. People might subconsciously honor this tradition because it sparks improvement and growth within them at the beginning of every year, which is a gift never wasted when entering new chapters in their lives.

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Lunch at Leonelli’s

This past summer, my family and I vacationed in Sorrento, Italy. Located on the Sorrentine Peninsula right by the bay of Naples, this town is famous for its fabulous lemons, beautiful landmarks, and, most importantly, its cuisine. What was supposed to be a two-week trip full of salt water and sun turned into one of the most unique food experiences I’ve had. This was not so much due to the food itself, but rather because of something much more important. Now don’t get me wrong, the copious amounts of fish and pasta we consumed were delicious to say the least, but they weren’t what made me eager to share my trip with everyone I know.

A couple of days ago, I was sitting in my dorm, looking back at the pictures I took during the trip. As I scrolled through my camera roll, I stumbled upon the pictures of some of the amazing meals we had eaten at the beach club, and I began to contemplate about what exactly made this food experience unique. After all, It was just food, I thought to myself as I continued to work on my lab report for microbiology. 

Italian food has always had a dedicated place in my heart. As an American immigrant from Sweden, I have gotten used to the Italian food served in the U.S. by now. American-Italian food is often full of a wide variety of ingredients and spices, which is vastly different from the food served in Italy, where each ingredient can easily be discerned from the other. 

When I arrived in Sorrento, I was surprised to see menus with mostly seafood. Traditional meat-based dishes like Lasagna and Spaghetti Bolognese were nowhere to be found. I soon learned that the seafood, or frutti del mare in Italian, serves as a staple in Sorrento and the neighboring cities along the Amalfi Coast. The food in Italy actually changes with its geography. Hence, typical dishes found at restaurants in Sorrento will differ from the ones in Rome or Venice, unless the restaurant is a “tourist trap” (as my mom likes to call them). Nevertheless, wherever we went, the food was always impeccable. 

Every lunch I enjoyed in Sorrento was so much more than just a plate of pasta. Leonelli’s Beach Club is a historical beach establishment located beneath a cliff in the middle of a beautiful natural bay. Dining there was a culinary experience that brought me closer to the original source of Italian cuisine. Although it wasn’t an up-scale restaurant with a Michelin star menu, the tables were covered with white tablecloths, the food was divine, and the view of the emerald-green sea with Mount Vesuvius in the background was surreal. The Frittura di Calamari, Antipasto di Verdure, and Gamberoni Grigliati became some of our family favorites; however my brother, Caspar, insisted that no dish could beat their Italian-style donut, Graffa. Of course, the pasta was always served al dente, and the simplicity of each dish brought out all the distinct flavors of the fresh ingredients. 

Our server Antonio, who ended up with us for all of the 12 meals we ate at Leonelli’s (yes, you heard that right), quickly proved the passionate Italian stereotype to be true. Each morning when we arrived at the Leonelli’s, Antonio would serve us a couple of shots of espresso and ask about our plans for the day. He was truly the most conscientious waiter one could possibly imagine. Antonio quickly became a family friend and soon enough we began to exchange insights and stories from our respective lives. It felt as though we were being welcomed into a big Italian family, which is something I had only seen in movies.

In Italy, everything moves at a slower pace. As in many other cultures across the globe, eating is best when done in the presence of family and friends. No one is in a rush to go anywhere, so there is plenty of time to sit-down for several hours to eat and talk with loved ones. As a college student in the U.S., it seems as though everyone is in a rush to be somewhere. No one has the time to really take in and reflect on the experiences they have and on the people they meet.

When I came back to Texas, I felt rejuvenated. Eating in Italy is an experience unlike any other, and the people we met and the conversations we had during each meal are truly what made it so special. Simply eating the food won’t do much except please the taste buds, but being immersed by the Italian ambiance in the slow-paced environment with passionate people is what makes meals so unforgettable. Of course, Antonio played a big role in making us feel welcomed, and his passion for everything he did made us more excited to come back to Leonelli’s everyday (we even booked a trip to Sorrento for next year). Now whenever I go out to eat, I make sure to sit back, relax, and take in every part of the beautiful moment, just like an Italian would do. 

Photos courtesy of Leonelli’s Beach

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Beyond the Twenty-First Mile

Their voices echo through our apartment: 

“GOOOOOOD MORNING BOSTON.” 

It’s six o’clock in the morning and “Levitating” by Dua Lipa blasts through the sides of the TV. The music invades my silent slumber as a welcomed intruder. My roommates pile up on my bed, rousing my sleeping body awake. 

Today is the 125th Boston Marathon, otherwise known as Marathon Monday among Boston College students. While runners from all over the country trek down Commonwealth Avenue, some at record speeds, the students assemble on one side of the MBTA subway tracks to compete in our own marathon of sorts, that is, screaming, dancing, and laughing with one another as we cheer on the runners.

I awake before the sun, the air buzzing with excitement and anticipation for what the day will hold. I am in my third year at Boston College and yet, this will be my first Marathon Monday. Traditionally held in the spring, the Boston Marathon was canceled the past two years due to the pandemic. Today holds its long-awaited comeback. The morning mist rises from the asphalt-turned-racecourse on a crisp Autumn day as my roommates and I begin to fuel our bodies for the events ahead. The muffled roar of our Keurig draws us all to the kitchen. We watch the machine work overtime to brew hot cups of caffeine. We clutch our mismatched mugs, sipping our morning elixir with the hopes of getting a pseudo-runners high induced by ground coffee beans and sweet swirls of creamer. 

A few clicks and now the stovetop hisses awake; blue and orange-tipped flames dance around the bottom of a frying pan. We’ve been living in Unit 32 for three months now and have yet to discover how to ignite the front burners, relying solely on back burners for meal prep. Monday is not the day for stovetop concerns, however. We have marathoners to cheer on.

Along our countertop, we form a breakfast assembly line. I have been assigned egg duty with a unanimous vote by the women of Unit 32. One of my roommates, Zoe, whips together a sriracha-mayo condiment while another roommate, Caroline, carves into our slightly stale bagels, giving each one a browned crispy toasting. My third roommate, Carson, is there for moral support, counting me down with a “1… 2… 3… flip,” and announcing each egg as my “best one yet.” Executing the perfect 180-degree flip while protecting the fragile golden yolk, I craft over-medium eggs blanketed with a thick layer of bubbling American cheese. We playfully debate the proper schmear for our breakfast bagel sandwiches, with cream cheese versus butter first on the agenda. I opt for a light buttery coating over my everything bagel polka-dotted with sesame seeds and a generous drizzling of the pink speckled sriracha mayo. 

Photo courtesy of Fork in the Kitchen

Together we gather on our living room couch, pop music mingling with the crunching of toasted bagels and the gentle sips of hot coffee. Bagel in hand, roommates beside me, I look out on Commonwealth Avenue. With the perspective of two years as a college student and the anticipation of two more years ahead, I recognize the privilege I have in slow moments like these: enjoying a simple breakfast in my tiny apartment, embraced by palpable energy only a celebration like today can provide. As the excitement flows from the streets and into Unit 32, I  take this moment to slow down and share in a communion of bagel sandwich goodness before the runners rush by and the world watches on. In my moment of reflection, I am reminded of the power of Boston.

It has been eight years since the Boston Marathon bombing, and as we prepare to celebrate just how #BostonStrong we’ve remained, I reflect on the lives lost and terror experienced. But, gathered with friends who have bellies full of food and spirits to stretch 26.2 miles, I am reminded that through the strength of community, the city has regained its pace. It reminds me that we have a responsibility to bear this tradition proudly, that while we cheer on the marathoners at mile twenty-one, our energy carries them to the finish line. It reminds me of the outpouring of love and support that human beings share with one another. It reminds me that the human body accomplishes incredible feats and that the human spirit does too. 

It reminds me that Boston is back. It’s been 910 days, but Boston is back. 

Cover image courtesy of Fork in the Kitchen

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My Apartment Cooks Family-Smile Meals, You Should Too

Everyone has that one thing they can look forward to each day, whether it be going on their daily jog, seeing their friends, or even returning to their own comfy bed. I look forward to a good meal.

Food has always been the highlight of my day, keeping a consistent rhythm to my life. Every single evening I know that I can come home to a good dinner, thanks to a carefully crafted dinner schedule with my roommates. My apartment cooks family-style dinners, with enough portions to feed six people. It might sound daunting to cook for so many people, but it is incredibly helpful for three main reasons. 

First, family-style dinners save me so much time during the week. It is very convenient to come home from a busy day of classes to a hot meal ready to be eaten. Rather than scrambling to find leftovers in the refrigerator to eat for dinner, one of my roommates will be cheffing it up in the kitchen. You budget an hour of time once a week to cook for five others, and then you are rewarded with five cooked meals during the week. Sounds like a fair trade to me! 

Next, these family-style meals allow me to eat a wider variety of foods than I normally would. If I was left to cook for myself 7 days a week, I know that my diet would most likely consist of boxed mac and cheese, ramen noodles, and takeout pizza during my busy school week. Instead, I can rely on my roommates to choose what dinner I will be eating most nights. It is an absolute luxury to not only have dinner cooked for you but have the option of what is being served chosen for you. We all know the phrase, “I’m hungry but I don’t know what to eat,” and the family-style meal stops these words from being uttered into existence in our house. It’s always a joy to look at the whiteboard hanging in the kitchen and read what I’ll be having for dinner that evening.

Jon draws his inspiration from whatever he is feeling at the moment, generally trying to remain on the healthier side with a good amount of vegetables and proteins in his dishes. Just this past week he cooked a pasta stir-fry with an abundance of greens. Similarly, Jameson cooks mainly vegetarian meals, subbing meat for a plant-based alternative in his buffalo chickpea enchiladas and teriyaki tempeh. Andrew specializes in homestyle Asian cuisine, trying out new recipes from shrimp tempura and Cantonese steamed cod to simpler dishes like miso soup. Peter loves to cook and always makes a dish that he thinks will turn out delicious. How much time he has dictates what he’ll be cooking, if he has to study for an exam he might make a quick recipe like Sazon-seasoned chicken thighs, or if he has more time he might make a more labor-intensive dish like carnitas (which takes upwards of six hours to cook). Jason isn’t the biggest cook, so he might make a simple dish like grilled cheese or fried rice for the house. 

Like many of my roommates, I love to play around and experiment with recipes I find online. I cook every Tuesday, which is the one day of the week where I have only one class. I can then put time and effort into my dinners, whether it be replicating Babish Culinary Universe’s Swedish Meatball recipe or going rogue with a recipe-free creamy chicken and green bean dish. It is so rewarding to introduce the completed dish to my roommates, almost like I’m on an episode of Iron Chef. While I love the praise, I also cherish the feedback they give me. I always ask them what they think could be improved upon, and if they’d ever like to have it as a meal again. The whole part of being a chef is learning from others and consistently practicing and trying out new things. If I didn’t receive constructive criticism that my dish needed more salt or would taste better next time with spinach over green beans, I’d never improve as a chef-in-training.

Photo courtesy of Recipe Tin Eats

Finally, there is something sacred in the act of eating as a family unit. Having everyone assembled together for dinner each night helps us bond and catch up with one another. No matter how busy you have been that day or how many classes you’ve had, it’s nice to see each one of my friends around the table and chat over a good meal. While it might be hard some days to make the scheduled dinner time, the trouble is worth the reward of sharing a meal together. Eating breakfast and lunch alone or with one other person makes sense, but dinner is different. Dinner is not only about sharing food with friends but time with them. Environmental activist Laurie David famously said “a great dinner must include not only yummy food, but good conversation,” and I couldn’t agree more. Even if our dinner conversation consists of jokes in light-hearted conversation, time spent with one another is invaluable.

Eating family-style meals has become a custom in my apartment that I take pride in. Whenever I tell anyone that my roommate and I eat dinner together every night, I’m usually met with shock and admiration.

“That sounds so nice,” they always say. “I wish my roommates and I did that.”

To which I respond, you absolutely can.

Cover photo courtesy of Eat This, Not That

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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

Tables and Worlds Apart

Walking on the Marginal Way in Ogunquit after two years of being away makes me feel like I never left. There are fewer of us this year, with some cousins away at work and others deciding to forego the annual trip with the extended family for a more exciting vacation. Even though the crowd is smaller, I’m happy to be back.    

The sun begins to sink down as we set off on the mile-long trek towards Perkin’s Cove. There is a dazzling view of the beach from the path, with seagulls lazily coasting in the air and some beachgoers trying to take in the last few rays of the sun. We can even see some sailboats in the distance. The walk along the Marginal Way has its perks. The stunning views of the waves crashing against the rocks. The soothing crunch of gravel underfoot. Moving my legs after a day’s hard work while lounging in the hot tub starts to build up my appetite. I already know what restaurant we’re going to—Jackie’s is the only place to take large parties at the last minute—and what I’m going to order. One of my habits in advance of going to dinner is looking at the menu ahead of time. 

We all chat as we huff and puff along the crowded and narrow path. I laugh along with my cousins as we blink the sun out of our eyes. Somehow, I always manage to leave my sunglasses back in the hotel room. 

And then, in the distance, the restaurant appears: we complete our journey and sit down, stomachs rumbling and hands eager for menus. The “kids,” or everyone under 30 by now, and the adults are at their respective tables, just like it has always been. 

I agree to split mussels with my cousin Erin, and I order the shrimp scampi as my entree. When the appetizers arrive, I can finally fulfill my stomach’s demand for food. Erin and I bring up the same topics of work and school as we pry open the shells and devour the briny mussels. Our parents at the neighboring table howl with laughter as some uncle draws out yet another “Seinfeld” joke or an aunt relates a story from work. The younger generation will never understand the “Seinfeld” references, but they manage to come up at every family gathering. And without fail, at least one person manages to order a cranberry juice with seltzer. 

There is always something interesting about the great divide between the tables. Most of my cousins are adults by now, with the two high schoolers lingering behind. The waitresses set a variety of plates down, including my shrimp scampi and a plain hamburger for my younger cousin. The twenty-somethings flex their actual adulthood with gestures for a refill of pinot grigio. Even with the age gaps at the kids’ table, some things tie us together in a way that solidifies the few feet of space between parents and children. The confusion surrounding dated television jokes is just the beginning of our bond.

As an only child, my cousins are the closest thing I have to brothers and sisters. They’re around my age, working through the same things that I am. The kids’ table is for those of us who are still figuring out our lives. The people that we grew up with but don’t really know. The people that are sometimes like my siblings, yet those who I feel like I constantly have to catch up with. Sometimes we don’t know what’s going on in each other’s lives, and sometimes the cousins are the only people I can confide in. All this because we share appetizers and pass each other bread.

As we wind down to the last few bites, I’ll share some laughs with my family. After all, it’s our last night of vacation. A celebration of hard times being over and a promise to stay with one another through the hard times ahead. We fill our stomachs with pasta and seafood and too many rolls, but I’ll always be hungry for more moments like these. I bookmark this feeling in my mind. When my only responsibility is to dine and converse and enjoy the view. And when I’m missing the blend of intense Red Sox discussions, rants about college, and the next new struggle of being a teenager, I’ll open to this page again. 

Categories
Essays

On Trying to be Cheesy

Trader Joe’s knows what they’re doing when they place the cheese aisle on the far-left of the store. Innocent shoppers cross the room like they would the page of a novel, wheeling their carts to the side. Instantly they are stared down by wheels and wedges of spoiled milk. Of course, this level of spoilage isn’t spoiled in the conventional sense, it’s actually highly desirable. Try to avoid the cheeses, turn and distract yourself with neighboring shelves of bread in every form, and they just bore holes into your back accusingly. The chunks, in their varying states, indignantly ask: what were you planning on eating that with? 

My fifth grade teacher used to quip, “Fake it til you make it!” This was puzzling to a troupe of eleven-year olds; it was as if she commended lies. Then again, the way I approach cheese could be interpreted as fake. When it comes to my relationship with the acclaimed dairy product, I often absorb the reactions of others and reflect them. In a way I’m acting. The more often I act, though, the less work it is to take on the role.

Aunt Jen and Uncle Ralph are only a few years younger than my parents, but they act like they grew up in a different era. Well-travelled and liberal on every level, they latch onto trends even before my sister and I discover them. It makes sense that they’ve been preparing charcuterie boards since I was a child.

Their first apartment, a corner property on a Philadelphia block bordering the Eastern State Penitentiary, was decked out in modern touches. They always had the same soap––Aveda Rosemary Mint––and it glistened white when you pumped it into your palm. Their sink faucets were beaming silver, their tabletop sleek, black granite. And each time we came to visit, a wooden board or ceramic plate would be centered sophisticatedly on said counter. Atop it would sit a pot of jam or honey, a cheese or three (probably from Reading Terminal Market) and at least two types of crackers. And meat! Sometimes pre-sliced, greasy pink circles that smelled pungent and left residue on whatever stylish serving tray they’d selected. Sometimes straight from the fridge with the wrapper rolled up around its sides. Aunt Jen devoured slice after slice, so I knew the circles must taste better than they looked and smelled. I trusted her. 

At home, we have cheese in one shape: rectangular prisms. As a child, vacuum-packed blocks of cheddar and Muenster were all I knew. I never paid much attention to cheese (maybe this unfortunate visual was the reason why). Every time I half-heartedly went to top a Keebler cracker with a slice, for little reason other than this was what I saw everyone else doing, I would hesitate with the butter knife poised in the air. “Which one is this again? Is it strong?” I’d ask. Sharp is the word I was searching for.

Carmen is the biggest cheese-lover I know. She can describe a wide variety of types and flavors, using their beautiful, exotic names which stretch vowels in ways I’m not used to. I comb my memories for any vague semblance of what Camembert might look like while she gushes about its flavor profiles. 

The most common time to find Carmen with a block of cheese is after dinner. Anything you eat after a full meal must be something you really love––at this point in the evening, I’m usually thinking about what form of chocolate sounds best. Not her. Carmen will crouch down to scan the lower level of our fridge door, which we have mutually agreed upon as our cornucopia of cheeses. She peels the plastic back from smoked gouda or white cheddar and cuts chunks or slivers off, depending on the type of day she’s having. I try not to stare while she chews absent-mindedly and spins around the kitchen, delaying her responsibilities for the evening. 

I once attended a charcuterie photo shoot. I helped select cheese, and then stood by and helped with whatever menial tasks I could. Most of my assistance came in the form of moral support (also in the form of behind-the-scenes polaroids).

We started with old reliable Joe and his trading stand in Brookline. Everyone was grabbing fruit and nuts and spreads, and the cart was steadily filling up, but I hesitated over every suggestion that popped into my head. I stayed mostly silent, and nodded along when anyone named a cheese product that they loved. I remember picking up Havarti, the fanciest cheese I had any experience with at the time, and searching for words to describe its rich depth. 

“This one is really good… it’s kinda sweet?” That was the best I could come up with. 

I neglected to mention that I’d made a dessert variation of a grilled cheese sandwich with it, swapping pound cake for bread and incorporating raspberries, mascarpone, and chocolate. There was a chance that the Havarti wasn’t even sweet, and I was recalling the chocolate and cake. It didn’t matter, because my partners-in-charcuterie were distracted anyway. I was poised to defend my selection, but they were dimensions away, visions of luscious pre-dinner spreads dancing in their heads.

In America, the only cheeses which we label as sharp are cheddar. Sharpness, when applied to flavor, is defined as “pungent or biting in taste.” What mysterious process could turn milk sour, but leave it safe for consumption? The answer is time.

Coagulation is a scientific process at the heart of cheese production; its products are liquid whey and solid curds. Curds are pressed into shapes which are then aged for a set period. The more time that the bacteria and coagulant have to form compounds within the curds, the more intense a cheese’s taste becomes. The unpredictability of this flavor range may explain my ambivalence toward cheese––I can never be sure exactly what I’m in for.

High School Musical’s final installment offers several bonus scenes, and one of them incorporates a line that has been etched into my mind ever since I watched it at eight years old. Troy offers Gabriella a strawberry, but she turns it away. He’s unfazed, and holds it up to her anyway.

“This might very well be the best strawberry in the whole world,” He says, staring at her with eyes that rival the innocence of a newborn chocolate lab. The face that captured the hearts of a generation. Troy’s next words come to me in the most random of instances, far more often than I’d care to admit: “But you wouldn’t know it, because you’re not gonna eat it.”

Charcuterie actually has nothing to do with cheese. The word itself is of French origin, and can be interpreted in two ways. One, as the definition of a store dedicated to the retail of these meats. Two, as the combination of two words, the first (chair) meaning flesh and the second (cuit) meaning cooked. Generation-Z has now commandeered the term, for better or for worse, and transformed it into a trend. In America today, charcuterie is misconstrued for any assortment of foods that fit together aesthetically, gastronomically, or otherwise. All one needs is a board/plate/flat surface and slanted stacks of food. I’ve seen arrangements of chicken nuggets and sauce containers mislabelled as “charcuterie.” 

Aunt Jen and Uncle Ralph have two girls, both younger than me and both with more developed palettes than I. They’ve eaten escargot in Paris. Mira, seven years my junior, loved avocado even before I knew what it was, much less how it tasted. Little Lexi once threw up because she ate too much salami off of a charcuterie platter. Both girls, like their mother, are cheese fiends. 

The French do most things better than Americans, and sharing cheese is one of them. A proper meal has a whole course devoted to cheese, falling just before dessert. The goal here is to maintain camaraderie around the table, to keep the joyful momentum going before reaching the finality of rich sweets. Also, wine is a motivator. Wine-and-cheese pairing is a faultless combination.

That being said, one can assume that if your hosts are pulling out a platter of cheese after dinner, this is a sign that they want to prolong their time with you. The minutiae of the cheese course offers even further opportunities to express affection for those you’re with. The mere act of slicing cheese is a perfect example: ideally, you should cut each sliver in the shape of the cheese’s given form, so that each person is left with the same ratio of cheese to rind. 

The first time I sat nestled on the couch with Mira and reached for a sliver of Manchego instead of spreading fig jam on a cracker, I was momentarily shocked. Then again, I’ve always heard that we are an average of the five people we spend the most time with. It just so happens that all of those people, for me, happen to be cheese lovers.