Feature Story

Breakthrough Meals
Some of the foods we thought we hated—until a dish changed our mind.

As wine critics, we tend to pride ourselves on our broad tastes and openness to new flavors. But when it comes to food, there are things that took a lifetime for some of us to appreciate.

SILKY SAWARA

It’s not that I didn’t love fresh sardines, grilled on an open fire at fiestas in Galicia, served on a slab of a baked potato. But mackerel was different.

Between the oily texture of the flesh and the scent of low tide, I avoided what seemed like a garbage fish for years. It wasn’t until a sushi chef slipped some saba onto a bed of rice and passed it over to me that I had my first joyous taste of mackerel, whether or not I knew it at the time. He just called it saba, cured with salt and vinegar, with the fresh clarity of the sea.

Soon enough, I learned its true identity, as well as its cousin, Spanish mackerel (sawara). Clearly, freshness and care made the difference, but by acclimating to saba and sawara as sushi and sashimi, I have also developed an affection for more rustic preparations of mackerel. There’s a Japanese grocery, Katagiri, near W&S’s NYC offce, that sells four slices of saba to go, and I’ll often take this home, sear it and enjoy it over rice. Recently, they had a cleaned, whole mackerel, which I took home and pan-roasted with garlic and ginger. That’s something I never would have eaten years ago… —Joshua Greene

SICHUAN STYLE

I grew up in a small town in the middle of New Jersey with a boisterous Italian American family. Thanksgiving was an all-day affair with two feasts—the lasagna first (both cheese and meat versions) and the traditional turkey later on. One Thanksgiving, however, the lasagna was different: it had this bland, pulpy vegetable in it. From that day on, I thought eggplant was a travesty that ruined any Italian dish that it touched. Chicken parmesan? Yes. Veal parmesan? Of course. Why in the world would you swap out one of those meats with eggplant? I never bought it, I never ordered it, I wanted nothing to do with it.

But one day, at a Sichuan restaurant, I let my chef-friend order the eggplant in spicy garlic sauce that she swore by. After my red-oil dumplings and hot pot, I needed a vegetable. So, I extended my chopsticks, grabbed a piece, and was surprised to find it delicious. It was sweet, salty, full of garlic, with an umami heat—flavors I thought eggplant could never offer.

Now, at Wine & Spirits, eggplant is a must-have for our staff lunches from La Vie en Szechuan, and I will eat a healthy portion. Maybe one day I’ll give eggplant parmesan a chance. —Rachel DelRocco Terrazas

HAUTE BRASSICA

I knew it was going to be a long night when I would walk into the kitchen and see a pot on the stove filled only with one inch of water and a steamer basket inside. Broccoli was coming—stinky, mushy, steamed broccoli. I would race my dad and sister to the table to take my pick at the smallest stalk and proceed to push it around my plate, mash it and try to hide it. No one was allowed to leave the table until it was eaten, and every dinner with broccoli turned into an epic negotiation. “I will eat the tops of two stalks if I don’t have to eat the trunks.”

When I went to culinary school, broccoli was often a side during family meal but rather than steam it, we threw the florets on a sheet pan with some salt and a drizzle of oil and into the oven it went. Budding culinarians, we would sometimes forget about the broccoli and it would come out of the oven a tad more than singed. This is when I fell in love—add a little lemon zest and a new food addiction was born. When I work as a private chef, I often make this as a side, with the addition of slivered almonds and Parmesan cheese. —Deanna Gonnella

GATEWAY GUACAMOLE

I wasn’t exposed to avocado until the tender age of nine. My cousin and I were helping our aunt with “make your own sushi” night. As we were slicing it up, I could feel the ripe parts squish between my fingertips and butter knife. My initial thought was: Ick. After finishing the prep work, my cousin snuck a small piece for herself and relished it. I, however, was apprehensive to taste it, until she pressured me to.

I’ll never forget that fatty oiliness and lard-like sensation spreading across my tongue. Texture-wise, it reminded me of durian—my traumatized impressions of durian, at least. It was disgusting. And it made my throat itch.

As much as I wanted to spit it out, I put on my big-girl pants and finished it; “We don’t waste food in this household,” as my mother would say. After that initial exposure, I distanced myself from avocados like a Snitch from the Seeker (+10 points if you got the Harry Potter reference).

It wasn’t until much later that I interacted with avocados again—this time, in the form of guacamole and chips. I’ve forgotten when and where this happened, but the crunch of the chip with the guacamole on top—sweet, spicy, salty and tart—was refreshingly enjoyable. When I found out it was just mashed avocado with some extra stuff thrown in, my eyebrows rose incredulously. Avocados! The very thing I shunned from my youth!

Having tasted avocado now in different forms, it’s safe to say I’ve made my peace with the fruit. And to prove skeptics wrong, I made some bangin’ guacamole three weeks ago as a side with a dry-aged steak from Eataly. And it. Was. Delicious. —Vivian Ho

SIMMER DOWN

I had no idea where they came from, but the beans were absolutely delicious—smooth and buttery, with a sweet, earthy flavor. They had been sitting in an unfamiliar casserole dish in our fridge. “What is this and where did it come from?” I asked my husband as I scarfed the remains down. “Charles brought them over. He said they are limas.” I dropped my fork. I hate limas. My dad, a Southerner, loves them, and served them often when I was growing up—mealy, nasty-tasting, institutional green–colored things. I texted Charles, who confirmed they were limas. Frozen, at that. The difference between his and every other bowl of limas I’d ever encountered? A little extra attention, in the form of a long simmer with a generous glug of olive oil, smashed garlic cloves and some herbs and spices, and the juice of half a lemon squeezed over it before serving. I can no longer say that I hate limas. Only that I didn’t know how to treat them. —Tara Q. Thomas

OFFAL KNOWLEDGE

I thought my knowledge of food and my rudimentary French would get me through most menus, until I was having lunch in Burgundy one afternoon in 2008 and encountered andouillette on the menu of a restaurant in Volnay.

I assumed that this was going to be some variant of the smoked andouille sausage found in Louisiana-inspired fare—I assumed, further, that the Cajun version had probably been styled after this one, so I was in for a treat. Even the winemaker I was dining with commented on my fortitude for ordering it. I was feeling very adventurous, until I cut through the casing.

Instead, I got what remains for me one of the great mysteries of French cuisine, a sausage so resolutely fecal I could barely swallow a bite of it. I’m sure there are gourmands who adore this tangle of intestines encased in intestine, but this, to me, was over the line. Worse, I was meant to carry on a conversation with the winemaker, and do so without gagging. I don’t remember how I made it through lunch, but I didn’t manage a second bite.

For four years I swore off organ meats, until I got a Standard Poodle puppy, Louie, and started to buy chicken hearts by the pound, which served as a garnish to his kibble. One night I took a handful of hearts, marinated them, then threw them in a hot skillet. They were delicious, and the only thing they tasted like was chicken. Since then I’ve more or less recovered and now eat tripe, liver, kidney and tongue with a hearty appetite—but I’ll never order another andouillette for as long as I live. —Patrick J. Comiskey

illustrations by Vivian Ho

This feature appears in the print edition of the Fall 2018.
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