caramelized onions: There are very few things in the kitchen that smell as good as sauteeing garlic and caramelizing onions. It's amazing what a difference a little heat can make, transforming the harsh, sometimes bitter bulb into a sweet, nutty ambrosia. Caramelized onions have a lot of applications, but I like them best as a topping for grilled meats-- sausage, burgers, or especially steak. Trader Joe's used to offer small jars of caramelized red onions that made for a convenient and sinfully sweet steak relish, but Seattle stores stopped carrying it a couple of years ago. I immediately called the Trader Joe's near my parents in New Jersey and ordered a case. I ferry a few jars back with me every Thanksgiving, and will be very sad when they finally run out.
Trader Joe's Indian Relish: Crack in a jar. I'm sure this this tomato-based condiment has a zillion uses, but it never stays around long enough for me to discover them. A jar of this stuff with a bag of pita chips and I'm a very happy camper. Dip, munch, repeat.
saag: As a kid, few things would make me look forward to dinner more than when my mother would tell me creamed spinach was involved. Most kids hate spinach-- I still hate creamed corn, though I love all other forms of the kernel-- but for me it was always a comfort food. Too much Popeye, perhaps. But it wasn't until I was an adult that I discovered India's take on the dish and went completely over the moon. My childhood, boil-in-bag creamed spinach was loose and runny, but saag is tight, dense, infinitely creamier and spiced with typical Indian goodness. I could eat bowls of the stuff and come back for more.
baked sweet potato: Say what you want about the Lone Star chain of steak houses, but I will forever be in its debt for opening my eyes to the true way of the sweet potato. In my family, "sweet potatoes" meant a cloyingly sweet pureed casserole topped with melted marshmallows-- far too sweet to be a side dish, but not really a dessert either. I hated the stuff. Later I learned that whole sweet potatoes, oven-roasted and served simply, were divine on their own. But at Lone Star they top them with butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon, and they're something else again. I know, it sounds like I'm coming full circle on the sweetness issue, but served this way a sweet potato is sweet and savory, capable of holding its own beside a steak without sending you to the dentist to have molten marshmallow extracted from your molars.
fresh pineapple: The canned stuff is Stepford pineapple, suited only for topping a Boboli or adding tang to Mongolian stir-fry. The real thing, cut into spears or bit-sized chunks, is worth the effort required to extract it.
cilantro: Thanks to the lottery of genetics, for some poor souls cilantro tastes like soap. These sad misfortunate Untasteables should be pitied, for they can never know the sublime joy of cilantro mayonnaise, the fresh kick of a cilantro salsa, or the aromatic zest of cilantro-infused stew. Having cilantro on hand at all times was a major reason for starting my herb garden this year. Ironically, cilantro was already out of season at the time. But someday...
Greek salad: And I mean Greek salad. In Crete last summer, the Greek salads were a revelation. Yes, the feta was tangy and the locally-pressed olive oil was fruity and native oregano unexpectedly delightful. But the tomatoes-- oh, the tomatoes!-- were the true stars. A great Greek salad starts and ends with them, and Crete has them in abundance.
home fries / hash browns with Tabasco: First, let's get the definitions straight. Hash browns are shredded potatoes fried in butter on a griddle into a flat, crisp patty-like mound (if that's not an oxymoron). Home fries are cubed, previously-cooked boiled potatoes fried on a griddle or in a pan, often with onions and peppers. The consistency of the two are completely different. I've long enjoyed home fries, but it wasn't until a trip to Vegas that I had my first taste of hash browns. Hungry at 3 AM, we went to the Barbary Coast for their $1.99 steak and eggs. When they arrived, accompanying them on the plate was a side of hash browns. A friend immediately doused his with Tabasco. Intrigued, I followed suit. I haven't looked back. Greasy spoon breakfasts for me are now all about the crisp, tender hash browns and Tabasco.
gazpacho: There is a vast chasm of crushed expectations between bad and good gazpacho. When made well-- thick and chunky, fresh and lively, not swimming in an ocean of lifeless canned tomato juice-- gazpacho is one of the most wonderful things to eat in the summer. I got turned on to it in Barcelona, and a good bowl of gazpacho always makes me think of that spectacular city.
Amsterdam french fries: I suppose I should say "Belgian frites" but my exposure to them was in Amsterdam. When most people talk about getting turned on to something new during their post-collegiate backpacking trips in Amsterdam, if food's involved at all it's probably a brownie. But for me Amsterdam was defined by its frites stalls, where paper cones are filled with twice-fried potatoes and topped with your choice of a dizzying array of sauces-- mayo, ketchup, vinegar, peanut sauce, curry, and things I couldn't translate from Dutch and couldn't quite identify on my palate either. Simply the most spectacular fries I've ever had, and I got a couple of cones every day I was there.
potato knish with spicy brown mustard: Forget hot dogs, knishes are THE New York City street food in my book. The street knishes themselves are really nothing special when you get right down to it-- mashed potatoes in a breaded shell. But when the vendor slices them open lengthwise, like a sandwich, and slathers the inside with spicy brown mustard, it becomes transcendent. Upgrade the knish into a homemade delicacy with onions, pepper, and other herb/spice goodness... oy! I'm kvelling.
dry seared broccoli: First tasted at a Seattle restaurant called Bandoleone and not-quite-duplicated many times at home since then, dry seared broccoli is the best way I've found to enjoy one of my favorite cooked vegetables. The broccoli is seared in a pan and cooked along with peppercorns, red peppers, and garlic, then served in a chili-lime olive oil pan sauce. The description can't do the finished dish justice, but it's super-easy to toss together your own version at home and see for yourself. I could make an entire meal out of just this dish, it's that good.
Caesar salad: Fresh, real Caesar dressing, with anchovies and everything-- is absolutely essential. Add crisp Romaine, zesty croutons, and a sprinkling of parmesan, and that's all I need in a salad. Toss in a chicken breast, perhaps grilled with a nice garlic rub, and now you're really talking. Whole Foods used to sell their spectacular house Caesar dressing (I haven't yet tried their new bottled brand to see if it's the same stuff), and for a while it, and Costco romaine hearts, were a staple of my diet.
fresh-squeezed orange juice: When people ask me why I don't drink alcohol, my answer is that I just prefer juice. Orange juice is my lifeblood-- I go through it like paparazzi in Britney Spears' dumpster. Freshly squeezed OJ, preferably brimming with pulp, is the Dom Perignon of fruit juice.