A friend of mine once described her favorite childhood meal as a plate of fried pork chops, served with rice and sliced ice-cold tomatoes. Her mom would fry the chops in a cast-iron skillet, using bacon drippings and little else other than salt and pepper. They were always perfectly cooked, with a crust that would shatter into tiny, crisp bits whenever she took a bite. She’d alternate a forkful of rice with a bit of tomato, and another of pork, until it was all gone. That was a ritual she looked forward to, especially in the summer, when tomatoes were at their best.
My own favorites were many: chicken adobo (chicken braised with garlic and vinegar); pakbet or pinakbet (a vegetable stew that sometimes contained bits of dried shrimp); and kare-kare (stewed oxtail with vegetables and peanut sauce). When my family emigrated to the United States, I learned to love new things. My earliest American food memories include the aroma of sizzling bacon on a Saturday morning; steaks with just a hint of pink; and scoops of vanilla ice cream enrobed in a sea of chocolate sauce, surrounded by clouds of whipped cream.
Meals were always a simple affair at home. As an adult, I sometimes like to think that my love affair with food must have been passed on subconsciously in the womb. If only that were true. The reality is that when I was a kid, I hated garlic, most vegetables and spicy foods. Those favorites I listed above? They were okay as long as there wasn’t anything green on the plate. Ampalaya (bitter melon) was barely tolerable, even though its color would remind me of snot.
“Italian night” might have meant broiled pork sausage with peppers and onions, or Mom’s rendition of spaghetti and meatballs with Sunday gravy. Occasionally, it was spaghetti with white clam sauce. That too was pretty basic — canned chopped clams, bottled clam juice, and heaps of garlic and parsley. While I carried on with my dislike of “green and spicy” as a teenager, I woke up eventually. I don’t really remember when that change occurred, only that I no longer spent time picking out anything that remotely resembled cooked garlic while at dinner.
I have to laugh at my younger self now. I wasted a ton of angst over a whole lot of nothing.
Spaghetti with Garlic, Hot Pepper and Scallops
Adapted from “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking” by Marcella Hazan.
1/2 lb. fresh bay or deep sea scallops
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 tablespoon garlic, chopped very fine
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
chopped hot red chili pepper, to taste
1/2 lb. dry pasta
1/4 cup dry unflavored breadcrumbs, lightly toasted in the oven or a skillet (optional)
Wash the scallops in cold water, then pat dry thoroughly with a paper towel. Cut into pieces about 3/8th inch thick (or if the scallops are fairly small, leave them whole).
Put the olive oil and garlic in a saucepan, turn on heat to medium, and cook, stirring, until the garlic becomes colored a light gold.
Add the parsley and the hot pepper.
Stir once or twice, then add the scallops and one or two large pinches of sea salt.
Turn the heat up to high, and cook, stirring frequently, until the scallops lose their shine and turn a flat white. Do not overcook the scallops or they will become tough. Taste for salt and pepper.
If the scallops shed a lot of liquid, remove them from the pan with a slotted spoon, and boil down the watery juices. Return the scallops to the pan, turn them over quickly, then turn off the heat.
Toss thoroughly with cooked and drained spaghetti, add the breadcrumbs if using, toss again, and serve at once.
This recipe is sized for up to 2 people.
Time: About 30 minutes, including prep.