Has anyone ever asked you the classic foodie question? You know, the one that goes something like, “If you were stranded somewhere and could only eat five different foods forever, which would you choose?”
Of course, the location of said strandedness makes a big difference in the answer: juicy watermelons sound perfect for a lifetime on a desert island, but not so great in the snowy Arctic! Climate aside, it’s a great question to ponder, and one that we chefs seem to get quite a bit.
Depending on my mood, a few of my top five foods can change. Past winners have been winter squash, lacinato kale, brown rice, cannellini beans, and arugula. Or I’ll cheat with a broad answer like, “any fresh vegetable or fruit” or the generic “beans, grains, and veggies.” Sometimes I’ll answer with some of my favorite dishes, such as butternut squash soup, risotto, and lasagna. Or sautéed greens with cannellini beans tossed with pesto; kichari; a nice dahl over rice with cilantro mint chutney; tabouli; sourdough bread; arugula salad with dates and raw cheese with balsamic … the list easily gets longer than five!
Even though it feels totally unfair for a food lover to have to choose (kinda like asking a grandmother of 30 to pick her five favorite grandkids!) the list does really narrow down to three– assuming that there’s somehow an ample supply of fresh veggies and some beans to work with (again, I’m cheating!). As a matter of fact, having just come back from a three-day conference where high quality food was—shall we say—not a priority, I got to see once again how important these three foods are to my feeling balanced and nourished.
My big three? High-quality extra-virgin olive oil, high-quality sea salt, and high-quality white or green tea. While I can go almost anywhere these days and find a substance that goes by the name olive oil–even “extra-virgin”— and of course there are ample supplies of processed table salt and packaged tea, a closer inspection quickly reveals that all brands are, woefully, not created equal.
Why did these make my short list? For me, nothing beats the wonderful, warm feeling of a nice cup of white or green tea in the morning. I’m a big fan of using whole leaves and a tea strainer (versus a premade tea bag). A properly brewed white tea is actually not really “brewed.” The leaves do best when wilted: Simply pour some hot– not boiling–water over the leaves and then discard that water. Then pour fresh hot water (again, not boiling, as it will actually burn the leaves) over the wilted leaves and allow to sit for only 10–15 seconds. Yes, seconds! For each new cup, just continue to pour the hot water over the wilted leaves. A tablespoon of whole leaves yields two to three nice cups of tea. You can save the leaves for a few days and reuse them until their flavor is gone.
There are also many great books on the topic of tea, giving both the history and the story of how tea is grown and handled, and explaining the huge variety of teas we can choose from.
Speaking of great books, if you’re a fan of olive oil, like me, you absolutely must read Tom Mueller’s new book, Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil. It will motivate you to go to your best local gourmet food store and try a fine olive oil (preferably from large tins, which offer you the chance to sample before buying). As you start to play with tasting them, you may be surprised to find an enormous variety of flavors and feel of the oils. Just as a fine wine changes its flavor based on the food you pair it with, olive oil has intricate and subtle flavors that create not-so-subtle effects when paired with different foods. And olive oil is not just for sautéing! Actually, I don’t use my fine olive oils for sautéing at all, but instead use them as a finishing oil atop of dishes like steamed vegetables or cooked beans. This is where quality olive oil makes simple foods really come alive.
OK, now I know some of you are wondering about my choice of sea salt as one of my top foods. Although I almost never put raw salt on top of my food once it’s cooked, I find the secret to extracting the best flavors from foods (and assisting in their digestibility) is the delicate use of sea salt while cooking. Whole foods such as grains, beans, and vegetables have what I playfully call “flavor skins.” These are the cellular membranes around the food that need breaking down to make the food digestible, as well as to release the flavors. Adding a very small amount of quality sea salt, which contains many trace minerals that are lost in standard processed table salts, added at just the right time gets those flavor skins dissolved, so more of the foods’ natural flavors are available for you to enjoy. My belief is that food should never taste “salty” but that the salt should bring out or enhance the foods’ own flavor. Think of salt as the party planner: They help create the atmosphere for the partygoers to have the most fun possible, but they’re not the main attraction.
Two great reads on salt’s history and culinary uses are Mark Bitterman’s Salted: A Manifesto on the World’s Most Essential Mineral and Mark Kurlansky’s Salt: A World History.
I’d love to hear from you. What are your top five “desert island foods,” and why?
For your spring time enjoyment, start to play with the variety of flavored olive oils on one of my favorite bean salads made with French lentils. You may find it fun to see how the flavor of the salad changes subty by using different oils. Enjoy!!
french lentil salad
1 cup French lentils
2 1/2 cups water
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup red or green grapes, cut into quarters
1/4 cup feta cheese, cut into small cubes
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons minced red onion
2 tablespoons minced fresh mint
2 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
Place lentils in a sauce pot with the water and bay leaf.
Bring to a boil, then reduce heat, partially cover, and simmer until lentils are soft but still intact, 20 to 30 minutes.
Drain well. Remove the bay leaf and spread on platter to cool.
Transfer the cooled lentils to a large mixing bowl.
Add the remaining ingredients and stir gently until thoroughly blended.
Serve chilled or at room temperature.