Fried Green Tomatoes, Sort Of

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Fried red and green tomatoes with a few pieces of fried, unctuous chicken skin for garnish ….. yum ……

When I was 14 years old, I read a book called Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café by Fannie Flagg. It opened my eyes for various reasons.

For one, it was a mainstream account of a burgeoning and joyful lesbian relationship, which at the time, I had absolutely no knowledge of. I like to think it started the seeds of framing in my mind to accept the fact that everyone in the world would not always be a carbon copy of me and that would be okay, because, folks, LOVE IS LOVE.

For two, it showed me the power of stories. The entire narration is basically centered upon a middle-aged housewife named Evelyn who visits a woman in a nursing home weekly just to sit by and silently receive and witness another ill woman’s stories about her life that have long come to pass as she enters the years in which she will finally succumb to the inevitability of death. It branded within me, the idea that stories shared are nuggets of gold, and feeders of empathy, and bridges that build worlds I still, excitedly, have yet to know.

But the third most resonant thing for me was in the title. Fried Green Tomatoes. Ha? Who would eat unripe tomatoes? I was particularly fascinated with this culinary item and put it on my “to-eat” list, which had been boiling in my teens, ever since I went to my best friend Sylvie’s house one night and had frog legs and red wine at fifteen, proffered by her French chef father at midnight after returning from his post at one of the most iconic French restaurants near my childhood home. The whole experience made me reek with the redolence of difference and what that can do, as in shoving a wedge into reality, for a person more accustomed to Midwestern casseroles and all things cheese.

In any case, the first time I actually tried fried green tomatoes was at a down-home BBQ place in the low-nethers of Boston with an ex-boyfriend who insisted on getting the catfish and hushpuppy combo. I agreed, but also ordered a nice side plate of the fried green tomatoes. It was weird taking a train to a tony side of the famous Paul Revere city, only to duck into a shanty that held a mass of people slinging fish and grease to eat upon picnic tables thrown out for the occasion, yet we did. Everything was great, but my favorite was the fried green tomatoes, served fluffy with a coating that was crunchy yet allowed for the inner juices to roam without sogging in every single bite. Hard to explain. But I will try. A touch of crunch hits the teeth, followed by a warm sensation as the acid from the tomato swarms, then all get embroiled in the coating’s sweet embrace.

So, that was my experience, the one I was going on in my annals of lovely meals. But then, the Cute Gardener stepped in. Last night, I entered the kitchen and saw his pre-ripe tomatoes on the counter. Are you making fried green tomatoes, I asked. Yes, his answer was swift, but his body demeanor proved otherwise, I could tell he was trying to figure out the rest. Cornmeal, I stated, and I have milk in the fridge.

What resulted was a magnificent array of purple tomatoes and green unripe unknowns – each smothered in the same batter which felt like a blanket wrapped around the tongue before the inner juice, exquisite itself, put out a world of its admiring taste buds. YUM, I gave up the rest of my bacon-laden gnocchi, and even the remains of a phenomenal salad just to stuff my mouth with whatever spare part I could of those fragrant and soul-affirming deep fried tomatoes.

Soothing Sukiyaki

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This year in Los Angeles has been a strange one weather-wise. It seems like summer never fully arrived until winter, which was warmer than usual. Now we are experiencing cold grey days and scattered rain as we supposedly transition into the rites of spring. The garden is behaving like a tempestuous child whose normal schedule has been thrown off kilter by irresponsible parents. Indeed, Mother Nature has been acting like a woman in her middle-pause years. In respect to all this sudden erraticism, we’ve been eating unusually, interspersing items from the yard with an eclectic mix of ingredients from the Asian markets, which always seem to have a bevy of exotic produce, meats, and fishes with which to experiment.

When people typically think of Japanese cuisine, their thoughts often roam to sushi, rice, and other seafood centered preparations. They oftentimes think of elegance and exquisite presentation, subtlety, and artistry, which are all traits that quintessentially describe the general cultural aesthetics of the Japanese. Aesthetics put in place over a century ago during the Edo Period when the country was under the rule of a shogunate, closed off to the rest of the world, and quietly cultivating an identity that would be admired and emulated globally as a bastion of all things creatively refined. In the Mejii Period when Japan opened its ports to worldwide trade, Western influences introduced a variety of new possibilities for the Japanese in art and food and many other sectors of society.

One new dish that came out of this exposure to the rest of the world was sukiyaki. In a largely Buddhist culture, meat had been previously forbidden yet the West brought an introduction to using things such as beef and milk in their cuisine. Sukiyaki, prepared in the nabemono (Japanese hot pot) style, consists of thinly sliced and simmered meat alongside vegetables and other ingredients in a shallow pot of soup made with ingredients such as soy sauce, sugar, and mirin. It is shared directly from the pot and was originally a celebratory meal for the annual end of the year drinking parties in Japan.

The Cute Gardener’s version at our supper table was served in cast iron, swimming with creamy strips of steak, garden radishes, yam noodles, carrots, baby king mushrooms and cubes of soft tofu. Although not on the occasion of a drinking party, it was the perfect antidote to the colder weather that also soothed our souls, and yes, paid great homage to the blending of all things East and West, a yummy cultural exchange.

Just Another Friday Night (aka, This is How We Roll)

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When I met the Cute Gardener (oh, going on about six years ago now), one of the most delightful things about him was the fact that he didn’t like to celebrate birthdays or Valentine’s Day or other so-called “special” occasions. He felt that every day should be great, and why should we designate certain days to take a break out of our lives to revel in happiness when we could just live happy? Well, that fit my M.O. to a tee, which is why we are super compatible. I am the girl who forgets your anniversary but will buy you a souvenir on a whim in Mexico because it reminds me of you for no reason at all, other than I love you!

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So, this means that pretty much every night is a reason to celebrate existence. Most nights, the CG cooks for me, as readers of my blog diligently know. But the one time a week that I cook, I go all out. Complex recipe… Multiple store shopping…. ¼ of one month’s budget in one day expended. That’s traditional. The only thing that gives me a little grief in those instances is that I have to plan a whole meal around one item that originally grabbed me. Sometimes I see a starter I want to make, or a dessert, and then I have to go through the mental machinations of figuring all the rest of the components out. As an artist, that kind of strategy isn’t exactly something that flows.

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So, I was delighted this week when I could just say to the CG that I wanted to make a salad and he could say to me in return, “Fine, I would be happy to stay outside and smoke some meat without having to worry about side dishes in the kitchen.”

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We may have found our groove. Because what resulted was an incredible night of my favorite kind of funky, fatty grilled lamb alongside a superfood-esque, co-opted panzanella salad and our equally beloved petite sirah from Santa Barbara’s Jaffurs winery.

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Panzanella Salad with Asparagus Instead of Tomatoes for Two
(adapted from a Food and Wine recipe)

Ingredients:

  • 2 large eggs
  • Four thin slices of peasant bread, torn into 1-inch pieces
  • 1/8 cup plus 1 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for brushing
  • 1 lb. asparagus
  • 1/8 cup red wine vinegar
  • Salt
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • 1 cup packed young mustard greens (ours were vibrant right from our garden!)
  • 1/4 small red onion, thinly sliced
  • 1/8 lb. pecorino romano, crumbled
  • 3 small radishes, thinly sliced

Preheat the oven to 350. Put the eggs in a saucepan of water and bring to a simmer over moderately high heat. Simmer for 6 minutes. Drain the saucepan and fill it with cold water. Crack the eggs all over and let stand in the water for 1 minute. Peel and thickly slice the eggs; the yolks will be barely cooked but not runny.

Spread the bread pieces on a baking sheet and brush lightly with olive oil. Bake for about 12 minutes, until crisp.

Meanwhile, in a large pot of boiling salted water, cook the asparagus until just tender, about 3 minutes. Drain, cool and cut the asparagus in half lengthwise.

In a small bowl, combine the 1/8 cup plus 1 tablespoons of oil with the vinegar; season with salt and pepper. In a large bowl, toss the asparagus, toasted bread, greens, onion and cheese. Drizzle with the dressing and toss. Garnish with the eggs and radish and serve.

Asian at Home

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One great thing about the American melting pot is the way our immigrants and our refugees have introduced us to the cuisines of other cultures. In cities like Los Angeles you can find within any random sampling of urban blocks anything from Syrian to Mexican to Vietnamese to Israeli to African food. We have unbelievable choices in the things we eat and better yet, ethnic markets are now commonplace so that we can try to make those savory Lebanese labne kabobs or that tangy Thai Thom Ka Gai soup at home. Also, we don’t need to adopt the American diet we grew up with just because it was what was served to us growing up in the childhood home. My kitchen cupboards are an interesting fusion—one peek into them and you might think I was a third East Indian spice, a third Planetary Herbalism and a third Armenian.

One of my favorite things to enjoy is Asian at home, (and no, I’m not talking about the Japanese Cute Gardener). In the old days before my palate was properly aged, I was a big fan of onion pancakes cooked in Chinese restaurants. Over the past year, spurred by an L.A. Times article touting seven places in the San Gabriel Valley with the best versions of those, the CG and I began an onion pancake hunt. After a few unsuccessful tries (yes, at one of the article’s restaurants) we came to the conclusion that they just weren’t all that good. In concept, yes, but in orchestration they tended to be too hard, too thin, too dense, too absent of green onion, or too oily for our liking. Which brings to mind one of the recurring conversations in our household about the difference between authentic and good. Something might very well be authentic but if you can make it better by stepping a wee bit off tradition than why not do just that? We often wonder why chefs in various cuisines aren’t that compelled to improve on old standards.

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In any case, I was still craving the kind of onion pancake I used to love so I bought a pack of frozen, raw onion pancakes from the Chinese market and decided to experiment on a simple lunch time wrap. Not only were these pancakes a one hundred percent improvement over the restaurant ones, they were simple to make. You simply take the flattened disk from between the fruit roll-up reminiscent cellophane and put it into a hot pan for two minutes per side. It fluffs up in a nice, flaky, and soft buttery (!) fashion. I like to grab some bitter greens from the garden for a one-minute sauté in the same pan, and sometimes if there is left over ground meat in the fridge like pork, I will throw that in the pan too. Then I squeeze a zigzag of hoisin sauce on the pancake and spoon the filling in and fold it in half to look like a Chinese taco. This dish goes wonderfully well with fragrant oolong tea.

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These pancakes are good all by themselves as well. So good that I had been making regular trips to the Chinese market just to buy them. Imagine my surprise when I found them in the frozen aisle of Ralph’s last week in a new large section of foreign foods. At least in the food sphere, we know how to be properly grateful for the richness our immigrants bring.

Caviar Holiday Bookends (+If Eggs Were Clouds)

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For many, this holiday season has been blighted oddly by election malaise. Prior to Thanksgiving, the temperament of the masses had vacillated between surreally high or devastatingly low due to the tempestuous climate surrounding the race for president seen in particularly vicious battles between campaigners, the public, the parties and then eventually even our own families and friends. It has been a weird time to be an American and for some, to even consider what that still means within a contemporary context. So the idea of celebrating Thanksgiving came with a strange tone this year.

The Cute Gardener and I decided to bookend Thanksgiving with tiny food rituals that mean something to us so that we might celebrate, in the least, the things we are grateful for within our own relationship. Because despite what is happening in the rest of the world beyond the walls of our own home, we have it really good and don’t want to take that for granted. One of the things our love revolves greatly around is the intimate sharing and eating of food.

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For a year, a small bottle of luxurious caviar powder and a tiny jar of bottarga from our favorite Beverly Hills purveyor Petrossian, have resided in a kitchen cabinet, only to be brought out randomly yet judiciously for use as an expensive garnish on dishes we deem worthy. We decided to take those two beautiful ingredients to the living room coffee table this year to create our own finger foods that don’t quite fit into any of the three regular daily meals.

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Before Thanksgiving we knew we didn’t need a full dinner, as we’d be getting plenty of carbs the next day. So we filled a bowl with Terra Chips made of roasted root vegetables and had fun deciding whether the caviar or the bottarga went better with various chips atop a dollop of sour cream and sometimes a meaty flake of smoked salmon. Our verdict after many crunchy bites washed down with dry champagne? Yukon white potato chip with sour cream and bottarga!

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After Thanksgiving while enjoying a morning of college football on the couch, I re-imagined a dish we’ve tasted at Petrossian before that is called Egg Royale, or what I like to call “If Eggs Were Clouds.” I found a recipe online and was stunned by its simplicity.

My version as follows:

If Eggs Were Clouds
Serves 2
(a few perfect bites)

2 eggs
½ c. whipping cream
½ tbls. vodka
1 tbls. butter
salt and pepper
caviar powder

Freeze a small aluminum bowl and then in it, whip ¼ c. cream and the vodka till fluffy. Place in fridge.

Whisk together eggs and remaining ¼ c. cream and half a pinch of both salt and pepper until thoroughly blended. The longer whipped the better.

Take a heavy bottomed saucepan and heat on low. Place ½ tbls. butter in it and melt. Pour egg and cream mixture into it and then whisk constantly while still heating on low until soft, fluffy curds develop. When they start to develop, remove from heat and they will continue cooking. Put the remaining ½ tbls. butter into eggs and whip till melted.

Divide egg mixture between two cups, top with whipped cream and sprinkle with caviar powder.

 

 

Sometimes Cooking Is All About the Kitchen Sink

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When I was a teenager working at a frozen yogurt shop, a friend’s family opened a Mexican food counter across the street where I would buy my lunch. My favorite thing to order was the “kitchen sink” burrito. The concept was simple: the burrito would consist of any stray ingredients that were lying around at the time of my order, resulting in a massive flour tortilla bursting with surprise. Sometimes it would consist of beans, cheese, carne asada, lettuce and tomatoes. While other versions might be pork, fried chitlins, ranchero sauce, sour cream and black beans. It was a concept I enjoyed working into my later life as a cook – one that has also been popularized in shows such as Chopped where contestants are challenged to make food from whatever random assortment of items are found in a basket. In our kitchen at home, the Cute Gardener has become a master at this kind of meal, thinking up innovative fusions of creative cuisine toward the end of the week when our carefully planned meals from the beginning of the week have produced a fridge full of leftovers – odds and ends that inspire new dishes where randomness is key. The best part of this game lies in the way different cultures clash on the plate forging meals with no discernable origin; magically delicious combinations that would never exist in a recipe file or that might never be conjured from a regular chef’s strategic mind. To me, this element of discovery is one of the most satisfying things about being a home cook. Recently, the CG whipped up a shrimp stir fry that became an umami bomb in the mouth, something that we may never have the pleasure to eat again, composed of end of season tomatoes from the garden, stray vegetables in the produce bin, the remains of a bag of frozen shrimp and rarely used seasonings from the spice cabinet. We still don’t know what to call this part Vietnamese, part Indian, part Chinese, part Spanish taste explosion but it is worth noting for any brave readers who might want to attempt its recreation.

Kitchen Sink Shrimp

¼ pound split shrimp
¼ chopped onion
½ julienned turnip
3 cups sliced cauliflower
3 cups chopped yellow grape tomatoes
One bunch mizuna or other Asian green
1 egg
3 cups water
Olive oil
1 tbls. sage
2 tsp. Vietnamese crustacean seasoning salt
1 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. granulated garlic
1 tsp. dried Aleppo pepper
Salt and pepper
2 servings cooked jasmine rice

On high heat, saute chopped onion and julienned turnip in olive oil until soft. Add yellow tomatoes,  water,  sage, Vietnamese crustacean seasoning salt, cumin, granulated garlic, Aleppo pepper, fresh ground black pepper and salt. Reduce heat, cover and simmer until a cup of liquid remains. Uncover, increase heat to high and add cauliflower. When cauliflower is soft, add shrimp. Toss until shrimp turns orange. Turn off heat. Quickly stir in egg. Toss in mizuna with stems, chopped into 3-inch sections. Serve on jasmine rice.

 

Goat Cheese Puffs and Kir Royale

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We live in an age where convenience is king and attention spans have diminished to focus on a steady stream of 140-character sound bites and grab-and-go eats. Taking time to enjoy a meal or having a lengthy, real life conversation that extends beyond a thumbs up “like” on a Facebook post are going the way of the dinosaurs. A sit down meal, which used to mark a dinner with the family or close friends, is now a rare occasion involving copious amounts of preplanning and synchronization between the technologies and timeframes of various people all operating within distinctly individualized schedules. In an extreme backlash against all of this twenty-first century behavior, I am committed to make the moments that I eat actually mean something. And not something in the special way of birthdays or anniversary occasions, but special in the way that reminds me that life is in the ordinary hours. Life is right now.

The one time a week when I cook for the Cute Gardener and myself is a time when I can slow down for a moment and reflect on what I want to convey with my efforts. I am not merely making a meal or a dish but crafting an experience that bubbles up from someplace inside of me first, borne of a feeling, and then crafted outward. It is not about flipping through a list of recipes but rather culling from an internal well, something conjured that tantalizes all the senses, rather than just the tongue.

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Recently, I finished reading An Extravagant Hunger by my ex-Stanford writing class teacher Anne Zimmerman. The book was a biography of the famous food writer MFK Fisher and something that rang true throughout Fisher’s life was her absolute commitment to enjoying food and drink, even if eating solo or making a simple lunch at home. It also made me recall all the meals I had read Fisher describe in her books that were accompanied at the end by Crème de Cassis, the dark red liqueur made from black currants, which had always given me a tinge of romantic fantasy in the gut but which I had never yet tried. I researched and discovered an elegant drink, the Kir Royale, which is made from floating fine French Champagne atop a few tablespoons of the liqueur and decided to build an appetizer course around this drink; one that would equally fulfill my many deep hungers that had been percolating in my mind regarding the making and sharing of food.

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Dorie Greenspan’s goat cheese mini puffs were the perfect solution. Made from her exquisite choux dough recipe and accentuated with a whipped goat cheese filling, the resulting clouds of herb-spiked goodness added a light and airy bite between sips of the heavier, sweet cocktail. I served the drinks in fine stemless  flutes on our everyday, ordinary coffee table as we came together at the end of a regular old workday, shoving unread stacks of newspaper aside to partake in our ongoing obsession with Game of Thrones. The juxtaposition of classy bites with our regular scheduled television programming made our evening special, with nothing more to celebrate other than our lust for life and enjoying the present moment with each other—and that in this day and age is becoming ever so priceless.

Toast Trend Transformed

 

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It’s National Dairy Month and what doesn’t taste better with butter and cheese? Last week Finlandia sent me some Swiss cheese and butter to try, giving me the perfect opportunity to experiment with the latest toast craze—a ramped up fad I had been avoiding like the plague for an entire year. Don’t get me wrong, I am an old and ardent fan of butter and cinnamon sugar on crisp toasted wheat bread or hearty rye broiled with a slim layer of almond butter but I was hard pressed to start shelling out $5.00 a plate for some burnt bread and smashed avocado as it started to spread tsunami style on the menus of all my local restaurants. Avocado toast was quickly becoming this year’s poached egg or charred Brussels sprouts.

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Now, armed with a gorgeous block of salted butter, some sliced Swiss that tasted more sharply aged and less waxy then most grocery store brands, and a tree in the garden bursting with fresh avocados, the Cute Gardener and I were determined to create an elevated version of toast that I could sink my teeth into without wincingly becoming just another slave to the latest food trend. I would create a base toast that could be used either on its own for a quick snack, or fluffed up for a fancier role such as pre-dinner appetizer or a lunch meal all its own. I started with a hoagie-style roll of puffy, hearty sourdough sliced in half and swathed with butter.

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After the bread broiled for a minute or so in the toaster oven, just enough to crisp the edges for a textural crunch like the best garlic bread, we generously layered it with freshly cut avocado slices. After adding the Swiss on top, we stuck it back into the broiler until it melted into a nice even bed on the avocado.

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We had our base. It was noontime and all we needed was a simple lunch so we chopped up some chives from the backyard and threw them on top as well as an elementally important dusting of black pepper. Of course, we But as we ate the delicious toast we imagined all of the other things we could add on top to accentuate the gooey combination of goodness in the future: lump crab or tuna salad? Tomatoes and basil or strawberries and caraway?

I look forward to our continual transformation of toast.

 

 

Superhero Cereal

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Before we lived in this grand contemporary world where one can find a whole restaurant dedicated to the acai bowl, you had to have connections to people in the multilevel marketing world to access a taste of the superfood berry. I’ll always remember the nights in the early 2000s when I would head to my friend Stephen’s house before a night on the town or dinner plans out and we would share prized drinks out of his regal purple MonaVie container in the fridge. A couple we knew had become privileged distributors of the drink in America and they doled out cartons to Stephen and I to share as if we were co-owners of a child or a painting or some other highly valuable thing. We would pour the electrifying purple liquid into small shot glasses ice cold and feel something close to high with the buzz of its healthy goodness.

Now of course superfoods are everywhere, and in fact the word superfood may even already be a passé thing, kind of like probiotics and antioxidants. But acai is here to stay. No longer relegated to skeptical pyramid schemes, it can be easily found on the freezer shelf of every local grocer.

Until now, my acai lust has been centered on using the frozen, unsweetened packs of the berry slush as a smoothie additive. Not only does it provide the much needed slush element when I want to use fresh rather than frozen fruits and to my daily super shake, but the signature cool, mellow berry flavor provides a complementary and non-conflicting base to just about any ingredient. It also, unlike ice, doesn’t get watery.

But recently I have fallen for the acai bowl, which is like a smoothie cereal but more fun. The trick is to whirl the frozen acai with some kind of thickener like frozen banana, avocado or a favorite nut butter, which gives it some heft enough to sit in a bowl. Then the fun begins as you layer as many other ingredients as you want on the top. The combinations are endless and fun, promoting experimentation to find your favorite version. You also encounter some surprising taste delights. For example if you layer seeds, like sunflower or pepitas, atop your acai and then sprinkle honey over the seeds, they all stick together in a sort of sweet, chilled and chewy jerky that is ultra fun to eat.

My Latest Favorite Acai Bowl

1 pack frozen acai, unsweetened
1/2 frozen banana
1 tbls. almond butter
½ gala apple
½ c. frozen boysenberries

Blend all of this together for the base.

Top with:
1/8 c. sunflower seeds
1/8 c. pepitas
1 tbls. shredded, nonsweetened organic coconut
1 tbls. hemp hearts
1 tbls. chia seeds
½ c. sliced fresh strawberries
1-2 tsp. drizzled honey

My New Favorite BBQ Joint

 

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Mention the word BBQ to any red-blooded male and you are likely to open a Pandora’s Box of fervent verbal oaths on how to make the absolute best version of America’s beloved meat dish. And those opinions vary so vast and widely that “perfect” BBQ has been debated as far and wide as the lowbrow college football tailgate to a recent in-depth essay in the supposedly higher brow New Yorker called In Defense of the True ‘Cue. When I met the Cute Gardener, he was a confessed BBQ-aholic and had his own set of mandates on what kind of rub, smoke and meat were best suited to earn that hallowed title of “superior” on the good old palate of the USA. He preferred his seasoning dry rather than saucy, didn’t fancy all kinds of adornments, and eschewed many a restaurants’ claim to offering real BBQ if there was an absence of the honorable smoke ring between the charred edge of a cut of meat and its fleshier insides.

Our first four years together weaved together a chain of BBQ enlightenment. We found excellent down home pulled pork sandwiches on simple slices of white bread at a picnic bench strewn chain called Rudy’s in New Mexico. But a string of ensuing places in Los Angeles turned up nothing but bite after bite of failure. Trendy spots that offered real BBQ tri-tip and chicken and brisket were merely offering braised meats with soupy, oversweet or tangy sauces. The CG resorted to fantasizing about his earlier days in Kansas City and we agreed to basically eschew any sort of BBQ unless we’d someday in the future get down to those parts. Why deal with disappointment over and over again, he’d say, especially when one has truly tasted the best? There was only one problem, I had never tasted the best yet but who wanted to waste money trying in Southern California; we both agreed.

But one recent early evening in our own backyard inspiration hit and the CG pulled a rack of pork ribs out of the fridge that he had been marinating in a dry rub of his own for over a day. The simple yet deep rub of salt, pepper, paprika, garlic salt, onion salt, cayenne and cumin was further emphasized by a trip outdoors to the domed Weber where the meat was smoked atop coals mingling with bits of oak barrel and peach tree woods. The result was incredible juicy and tender BBQ ribs that oozed with flavor while boasting an immaculately pink smoke ring. I finally found my perfect BBQ joint after all.