I love food. Eating it, preparing it, reading about it- you name it and I'm all over it. Back in the U.S. I could spend hours browsing through Williams Sonoma, Sur La Table, and La Cuisine thinking about the perfect meal prepared and presented in just the right dish. Now I satisfy these urges by browsing on line. Its not the same but its the best I can do at the moment. I subscribe to an obscene number of cooking magazines-as of late favorites include Fine Cooking, Cuisine at Home, and Saveur and attempt to cook at least one new recipe a week. Sometimes it happens and other times it doesn't but I try my best.
I show my love for friends and family through my cooking and I must admit I'm a pretty good cook. Food tends to play a central role in my life. No matter how busy we may be, we try to we sit down to a real, home cooked meal each evening. If Glenn and I are going to be out, I make sure Sidney has a freshly cooked plate on the table. Back in Norfolk we were a part of our neighborhood cooking club and regularly invited friends and co-workers to join us for dinners. To me, the more people around the dinner table, the merrier it is. Here in Tirana I bake batches of banana bread on a weekly basis to distribute to co-workers at the Embassy. For Thanksgiving we had 23 people join us around three tables. We are required to entertain in our home and I spend hours planning just the right menu. Sit down dinners, working lunches, and larger scale receptions are all a culinary challenge that excites me.
When I am cooking I am in my element. Our house in Norfolk had a gourmet kitchen complete with three ovens. In D.C. we were regulated to a galley style kitchen that made cooking a challenge. Here in Tirana we have two separate kitchens that combined are merely adequate. To me the space isn't what is important, its the planning, execution, and consumption of the meal that matters.
One of the things I love the most about traveling is the opportunity to try new foods. When we first arrived in Albania I quickly set out to cook using the local ingredients and eagerly tried all of the local specialities that were presented to me. Food here is different than what I was used to and while most of it is good, after nine months, it is all beginning to taste the same to me. Dinners out, whether in "fine dining" or more informal restaurants, are all beginning to taste the same. Restaurant menus read like novels but three quarters of what is listed is never available and what is, is always the same. Everything seems to have a distinctive "Albanian" taste. This isn't necessarily bad, but it just doesn't excite my palate.
Outside of Italian, ethnic foods are essentially non-existant in Albania. The new Carrefour stocks a small section of speciality foods that includes Old El Paso taco mix but without jalapenos to accompany the meal it just doesn't feel like Mexican food to me. A local restaurant lays claim to having an Albanian-Mexican menu but everything I've eaten there tastes more Albanian than Mexican. Chinese food is equally uninspiring- a qofta in a sweet red sauce is not the same as a true sweet and sour dish.
For the past fews days all I've been thinking about is the foods and flavors I just can't find here. Last night I even dreamed that I was back in the States eating my way through my favorite foods- a honey habanero burger from Kelly's, the Orchard Sandwich at Tailgate Picnic, and cider donuts from Atkins Farms. A CNN clip on cupcakes has me thinking about lemon blossom and chocolate hazelnut cupcakes from Georgetown Cupcake.
I try to introduce familiar flavors through my own cooking but it isn't always met with success. A good Thai curry is always a hit in the Brown household and mine has been known to rival that of Thaiphoon but my inability to find fresh lemongrass here leaves the dish lacking. Even a basic grilled hotdog is not the same and all of the seasoning in the world leaves it lacking the special flavor of a hotdog from Wasses'. I did make a semi-successful Chinese sweet and sour pork dish a few weeks ago but after two hours of cooking it didn't even come close to a dish you would find at Peking Gourmet Inn. My crab and artichoke dip- copying Old Ebbitt Grill's very own recipe- did not even begin to compare to what I could make with fresh crab from the Chesapeake Bay. All of the love in the world cannot make up for the lack of key ingredients.
Alas, I now find myself thinking about food all the time. I think it is the mere fact that I can't access these tasty culinary delights that has me thinking about them all the more. What is a girl to do? I don't have the answer but I'm off to go make a cheesecake. I'll follow my trusty old recipe substituting an Austrian brand of cream cheese for good old Philadelphia and hope the results will be the same as they were back home.