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AlPaella2019a
May 28, 2019

Cooking & Dining My Way Back from Cancer

By Al Giordano

My renewed passion for cooking was inspired by three months of 2017 in which radiation and chemo treatments for cancer made it impossible for me to eat.

During that period of torture, I found myself drawn to television programs about cooking and food, the pantheon of celebrity chefs – from the kitchens of Emeril Lagasse to Nancy Silverstone to the travels of Anthony Bourdain to the reality shows like Master Chef and Top Chef to the Netflix series like Chef’s Table and the fascinating four-part documentary, Cooked, narrated by the author of its book, Michael Pollan.

It’s amazing how much more one thinks about doing something when he cannot do it himself. Although I could not eat I could still cook, and held some large dinner parties where friends came from far and wide. Unable to taste my dishes (to burn out the cancer the treatment also charred the taste buds, which thankfully came back later) I had to learn to rely more studiously on the senses of smell, sight, tactile touch and even sound – listening to ingredients on a fire really does tell a lot about whether a dish is ready or not – to get the desired results. Working around the handicap sharpened my culinary skills or at least the attention I paid to such details. I began reading cookbooks and the mountain of information now available online of recipes and techniques.

In a world where working people have less and less time to cook, the chefs have become king and queen. Want to serve a rice biryani? You can pop onto YouTube, do a search, and watch a chef in a turban prepare it in a language you don’t speak but by studying his hands you can pick up his technique, how he orders the ingredients, measures the spices, and infuses the dish with some heart of his own.

I should also mention that for 13 years prior to 2016 I had been a vegetarian (one of those who also ate seafood) but began experiencing a powerful craving for meat that I didn’t know at the time my body was seeking to be able to fight the cancer I didn’t yet know existed. I fell off the meatless wagon when cycling past a KFC in Mexico City (it’s always some asshole named Sanders!), the wafting, greasy aroma floated to my nostrils and I locked the bike on a light pole and succumbed to a chicken sandwich – with bacon on it. That was it. Then I cooked some pork chops in my kitchen, with mustard, garlic, black pepper and a splash of white wine, and, well, my long vegetarian journey had come full circle. And for the past two years I choose to believe I have cooked and dined my way into remission (I’m not out of the woods yet but here I am).

About a year ago a friend who had been to one of my dinners mentioned there would be a paella cooking competition near the state capital to benefit a local charity, and would I like to enter it? I prepared a Paella Algueresa, a dish invented in the Sardinian village of Alguer, where during the Crown of Aragon in the 14th and 15th centuries (when the Catalonians of Barcelona and environs invaded much of the Mediterranean – yes, they did once run the developed world, which they never stop reminding you about) some of them craved paella but, the story goes, there was no rice on the island. So they made their paella instead with a small, round pasta known as fregola (think of a slightly larger Israeli couscous). I based my dish on a classic Barcelona mixed paella (with seafood, meat and the traditional spices of saffron and smoked paprika among others) but with orzo pasta instead of rice. More than 300 attendees sampled the dishes. I was pleasantly surprised when they presented me with the trophy: a paella pan with the award details scrolled onto it, which now graces the wall in my real-life kitchen.

Last week I returned to the same event to defend my crown. I made a perhaps more ambitious dish I called “Paella Scampi” with the classic Italian-American garlic-lemon-butter-parsley flavor bomb, lots of shrimps and crabs – including soft shell – and Tuscan style baked pork belly. Instead of adding saffron to the dish I prepared a saffron aoili, along with an Italian gremolata, to serve with it. I didn’t win the trophy this round but I did enjoy the experience and seeing all those nice people and chefs I had met a year ago. The community of chefs is a lot like that of another club I belong to: musicians. They’re all so crazy and also talented. My kind of people.

I’ve always cooked. When at age 10 my suddenly single mom went to work I, as the oldest of five, regularly had to cook for the little ones. When at 13 I fled to live with my grandparents – in an apartment where ravioli with red sauce, sausage and meatballs was the centerpiece Thanksgiving dish and any turkey was merely a side plate – I picked up some Old World skills there. At 19 I became co-owner of a collective vegetarian restaurant (but, truth be told, I was more a rainmaker for its music nights than chef) for a spell. And the last almost quarter century in Mexico has exposed me to the freshest ingredients year-round and some of the most ornate and ancient cooking techniques that exist on this fine earth. Still during most of my year the kitchen always took a back seat to the other workplaces of life.

So, now in recovery from cancer, cooking is a bigger part of my life than before. Since I have to eat every day, I make it a daily mission to have some fun with it: I love to visit food markets, ask a lot of questions, get to know the shopkeepers, write down their techniques, invent recipes, create variations on those of other chefs, test them, work on my plating, snap some photos of the dish, feed my friends and neighbors, not for money, but for pleasure. And here in my virtual kitchen at Organize & Win – because we humans do not live on politics alone, please god no – I’ll share some photos and stories and also, only for subscribers who are logged in, recipes and techniques. I’ll take culinary questions and invite you to share your tips, too.

All dietary preferences are welcome and respected here. The world is too big and diverse to debate them or pit them against each other. Politics is for the main pages of this platform.

Welcome to my kitchen. It’s here for you when you just want to sit around as we rustle up some grub, have a cup of something that makes you feel good, and warm your hands and soul around the hearth. That’s how our species evolved. And we do need to keep evolving.

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