Before leaving on a family vacation to northern California, my grandfather tucked a twenty dollar bill into my pocket and made me promise I wouldn’t tell my younger brother. I couldn’t have been more than seven years old and, newly fascinated with the sea after spending a day at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, I spent the majority of my money on several starfish in the museum gift shop. Their limbs were extremely delicate, requiring careful packaging to ensure they arrived home without breaking, and for years the starfish sat on a shelf in my bedroom, smelling of sea salt.
It’s a natural inclination to pick up mementos from our travels and, as a child, I gravitated toward keychains, stuffed animals, postcards, and starfish, but once cooking took hold in my life, my desires shifted to less tangible souvenirs. Newly armed with curiosity, a hearty appetite, and my favorite pen, I became a culinary traveler. Now, when every meal becomes an opportunity to gather inspiration, my suitcase carries home not only rumpled clothes and an unused umbrella, but a list of dishes I look forward to recreating in my own kitchen.
Some memorable meals are predictable, like the exceptional nine-course dinner I was served at The French Laundry last year. But it was followed by breakfast the next morning in a cozy cafe in Petaluma where I discovered the satisfying crunch of gluten-free cornmeal waffles. They were so good they made me grin, just as Thomas Keller’s oysters and pearls had the night before. The juxtaposition of an elaborate meal followed by a simple one served as a gentle reminder to keep my appetite open-minded.
Other meals sneak up on you in the most remote places. On a trip to northern Romania several years ago, my itinerary didn’t include seeking out the best new chefs, but I found myself enjoying a late-night meal and good conversation at a local Italian restaurant. An unassuming plate of garlic spaghetti comforted my body after a long day of travel, and a dusty glass of Romanian wine made from grapes that grew along the Black Sea opened my palate to a new region. My only regret is not buying a bottle to ship home.
Most recently, I spent a week in New York this October. And although I was traveling for business it provided some amazing and unexpected food experiences, including meeting the executive chef at the Waldorf Astoria, where our event was taking place. Lunches during the day involved walking to the nearest casual eatery with my colleagues to pick up food for our team, and for two days in a row we strolled to Rockefeller Center to order soup and sandwiches from Tom Colicchio’s restaurant, ‘wichcraft. It was a hot container of roasted tomato soup with melted Parmesan cheese gathering in clumps at the bottom of the cup that was most comforting on a cold fall day. Before going home, I also devoured a perfectly dressed salad at The National, with ribbons of fennel and chunks of poached salmon, and a crostini of curried cauliflower at The Smile in SoHo that I thought about for days afterwards. These meals gave me much to ponder on my flight home.
Tomato soup was the first dish I craved after arriving back in Los Angeles, and swirling a wooden spoon in my cast iron pot a few days later made me grateful for the gift of cooking, and its ability to forge connections between the places we’ve been and the people we’ve met along the way.
When your suitcase is filled with recipes, it requires you to be thoughtful, shop for ingredients, and stand at the stove, but this work can also transport you across town or across the globe with a single bite, making a faded memory emerge again for a brief, edible moment.
Spicy Tomato Soup
This soup is smoky from the roasted tomatoes and a bit spicy from the crushed red pepper flakes. Feel free to adjust the spice level to suit your taste. The parmesan rind adds depth of flavor, so if you have one buried in your fridge, now is the time to use it.
- 2 28-ounce cans whole peeled tomatoes (preferably San Marzano)
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Salt and freshly cracked pepper
- ¼ to ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 2 garlic cloves, chopped
- 1 brown onion, chopped
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 parmesan rind
- Vegetable stock (if needed)
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Gently pull the tomatoes from the can and slice in half. Place them on a foil-lined sheet tray; reserve the canned liquid. Drizzle the tomatoes with oil, salt and pepper; toss. Roast for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the tomatoes are tender and fragrant.
While the tomatoes roast, warm 2 tablespoons of oil in a stock pot. Add the crushed red pepper, garlic, onion, and 1/4 teaspoon salt; stir to combine. Cook for 5 minutes, or until the onions have softened. Add the tomato paste and stir, cooking for 1 to 2 minutes more.
Scrape the aromatics into a blender, along with the roasted tomatoes. Add 2 cups of the reserved tomato juice and blend until smooth; return soup to the pot. (If you need more liquid and have run out of tomato juice, add vegetable stock). Add the parmesan rind and an additional pinch of salt and a few cracks of pepper. Simmer for 15 to 20 minutes so the soup can heat through and the cheese on the rind can melt.