Taste is the soul’s smile
– Léo Ferré
Sweet, happy baby he was, an excited boy ready from the get go to grab onto everything life had to offer. By 11 months he was scooting all over the place, never having walked one step he took off running. Everything interested him, from the stuffed animals we offered to the boxes that they came in, from his building blocks to his socks and all that they could become in what was the magical playground of his mind. My old rickety spice and baking cabinet afforded hours of joyous playtime when mom’s back was turned and out would come the jars and packets, little fingers gleefully dipping into cinnamon and flour then curiously sucked on, tastes of bouillon cubes and dried herbs, little piles of grains and powders surrounding him on the floor, dust of these giddy taste tests trailing after him.
And food. He would sit happily in his high chair from the most tender of ages and taste. The snappy tang of fresh goat cheese, the bite of a clove of garlic, a perfect, bright yellow wedge of lemon causing his little lips to pucker as his teeth pricked each juicy teardrop of the flesh, sweet, gooey chocolate pudding, hummus or guacamole, he loved it all. Before he could even feed himself we would dip our pinky finger into sauces or anything creamy and smooth and push it into his mouth, onto his tongue and he sucked greedily, turning away at not one flavor, aroma or texture. We wanted him to experience food, the diversity of flavors, the scents that made the tastebuds tingle, the colors and the textures, the pleasures of the palate. We wanted him to fall in love with food. And he did. He grew up afraid of nothing, tasting each and every food that was placed before him. I remember my astonishment when he, still in pre-school, walked into the house after school and sniffed then proclaimed quite simply “red peppers!” And indeed there were red peppers roasting in the oven. Or him standing at a buffet table, 6, maybe 7 years old, wolfing down spoonfuls of hummus and baba ganoush.
Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are
– Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
This week is La Semaine du Goût, The Week of Taste, in France. La Semaine du Goût is celebrating its twenty-first year of educating children and adults alike about food and taste through special school programs and menus, public workshops and cooking demonstrations by well-known chefs, not to mention all of the restaurants who are offering special menus this week to honor this important event in an effort to bring new taste sensations and food awareness to the French, encourage the discovery of la diversité des goûts et saveurs, diversity in taste and flavors.
I have always been fascinated by flavor, how different flavors and textures interact in the mouth. My childhood was filled with freshly picked strawberries, prickly on the outside, meltingly smooth and sweet on the inside, and tangerines, their bitter oil spurting into my face as my thumb cracked into the skin, their heady scent hinting of the sweet tartness of the fruit.
The bitterness of a pink grapefruit before I would sprinkle it with the sugar that would balance out the strong flavor and crack in between my teeth and sweet, fruity peaches, crisp watermelons, or scavenged coconuts broken open on the driveway, teeth scratching across the white meat. My simple childhood lunchtime sandwiches became a playground where I would blend the sweet and the salty, the smooth and crunchy. Going to a restaurant with my parents allowed me to discover new flavors like seafood cooked in rich, tangy wine sauces or smothered in garlicky butter, southern stews chock full of beans or Greek casseroles, each trip an exciting prospect. I was enthralled with all that was out there in the world and I wanted to taste it all!
And we have raised our sons with a world of food, offering them all the flavors within our reach: American, French, Russian, Italian, Moroccan as well as Indian, Vietnamese, Thai and Middle Eastern among others. We travel the world in our kitchen, at the markets we visit, in the countries we have taken the kids to. Open their eyes by titillating their tastebuds, teach them healthy and whole, local and fresh but teach them culture and history as well. Teach them to appreciate what they have before them, each mouthful, each meal and instill in them the desire to discover and enjoy.
I was looking for a flavorful yet simple meal to make for dinner last night, something that would take few ingredients and even less time yet one that packed a punch. This simple, elegant pasta dish is bright with lemon, the chicken is crispy and tender, and the whole dish made my tastebuds dance. It was satisfying yet light, soulful yet bright and fresh. Nothing better.
LEMON CHICKEN PASTA with peas
For 2 – 3 people
12 – 14 oz (350 – 400 g) raw chicken tenders (aiguillette) or skinless breast
3 Tbs freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 Tbs olive oil
1 medium to large-sized garlic clove, peeled and minced or crushed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
9 – 10 ½ oz (250 – 300 g) fresh linguine, pappardelle or your favorite pasta
A few tablespoons flour seasoned with salt and pepper for dusting the chicken
Olive oil for browning
3 medium shallots, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 cup (250 ml) chicken broth
Juice of 1 lemon, about 3 – 4 Tbs
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup fresh or frozen peas, optional
A few tablespoons chopped fresh coriander leaves or flat-leaf parsley
Begin this dish early in the day if preparing for dinner or the night before if preparing for lunch. Clean, rinse and pat dry the chicken and cut into very large chunks (I sliced the aiguillettes into two. Place all the chicken in a bowl just big enough to hold them all. Pour the 3 tablespoons lemon juice, the 1 tablespoon olive oil and the minced garlic over the chicken. Salt and pepper , stir so all the chicken is coated in the liquid, then cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator to marinate all day, overnight or at least for several hours. The chicken marinated like this will not only be infused with lemon flavor but once cooked it will be tender and moist.
Once the chicken has marinated, take the bowl out of the fridge and remove the chicken pieces from the marinade. Start a pot with water for the pasta. Salt the water once it comes to a boil.
Heat up about 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet. Toss the chicken pieces in the seasoned flour to coat then shake off the excess flour. Once the oil is hot, add the chicken (you may need to do this in batches as you do no want to crowd them) and allow to cook until the pan side is golden brown and crispy. Turn the pieces over to brown on the other side. Add more olive oil to the pan as needed. As the chicken pieces turn golden brown all over, remove them to a plate.
Cook your pasta in the salted boiling water as you prepare the chicken and sauce. Keep watch over it and drain it when it is done. Place it in a large serving bowl.
Once all of the chicken is browned, quickly and very carefully wipe out the skillet with paper towels then add a couple more tablespoons of olive oil to the hot skillet. Add the chopped shallots and garlic and, tossing and stirring, cook them until they are wilted, tender and caramelizing around the edges, about 2 or 3 minutes. Carefully pour the chicken stock and juice of one lemon over the cooked shallots and garlic. Salt and pepper. Add the peas and lower the heat to allow the broth to simmer for a few minutes until the peas are cooked and tender and the broth and juice are reduced to about half. Carefully add the chicken pieces to the broth just to heat through.
Pour the sauce with the peas and chicken over the cooked pasta and toss gently so the pasta is sauced and the chicken and peas are evenly distributed. Sprinkle the chopped fresh coriander or parsley over the top to toss as you serve.