What is a perfect food? Something so good that it makes you sit up, your taste buds surprised, delighted. Something that is perfect in and of itself, something that when on a plate or in a bowl really doesn’t require embellishment. Something delicious. Something that when it has been absent from your diet, you long for. Something you would travel an hour or more to eat. Here are 10 perfect foods. Enjoy.

Pork

Someone asked me this year to name the one single food I would choose if going onto a deserted island – the island being magically supplied with a never ending supply of fresh whatever you choose, and equipped with the means to cook it.

Without thinking, I chose pork.

Chops, roasts, ham, sausage, bacon, cracklins, hocks, feet, so many delicious cuts and ways to prepare them.

Oh my, did I forget whole, whether cooked in the ground or turned on a spit. I’ve had pig both ways, and they may be some of the most delicious meat treats on earth.

Growing up, I hunted. Wild pig, or boar, tastes different than the domesticated animal we mostly eat. Variety.

I would still happily choose pork as my deserted island food. Pork is my # 1 perfect food.

Chili Relleno

A Poblano chili, fried, stuffed with cheese, battered and fried again, topped with a ranchero sauce.

Ingredients matter. Pick good chilis, good cheeses, and don’t forget the sauce. Salsa or a simple tomato sauce will not do. A good ranchero sauce will permanently stain clothing, it looks like a tomato sauce, but pepper, chilis, herbs and spices lurk beneath the surface, and the flavor is at one complex and delicious, bringing heat but not too much.

I have had Chili Relleno just a handful of times that makes you sit up and take notice. Often, they are limp, soggy, indifferently sauced; but in the hands of some cooks, this can be one of the best foods.

I like a chili relleno that has enough firmness, just a bit of crispness, that the shell can be pierced with a knife and ranchero sauce can be poured into as well as on top of the chili relleno.

Manna. Amazing. Each part, just okay, but together, the sum is so much, exponentially, better than the parts. The search for the perfect chili relleno can become an entertaining life quest. If you don’t have long to live, I’ll give you a hint: the best Chili Relleno I have ever tasted was in the least likely of mexican restaurants in Millbrae, CA.

Good hunting.

Blackberry pie with vanilla ice cream

I wrote in an earlier entry about my first attempts at a fruit pie, they came this year. I made three perfect blackberry pies from fruit freshly picked, and served it with a premium vanilla ice cream. Three entire pies were devoured in under 24 hours.

My pie when cut maintained it’s shape. The fruit filling was perfect, neither too wet nor too dry; my pie crust was flaky, yet sturdy. Each slice of pie looked delicious.

Two things are critical when making a great fruit pie; use fresh fruit and make your own crust.

Cioppino

This was my favorite dish growing up. Thanksgivings in northern Californian Italian American households often featured a great crab cioppino instead of a turkey; or if both were served, the turkey would remain largely untouched for Friday sandwiches while pot after pot of cioppino were consumed.

Cioppino is said to have been created at Alioto’s restaurant on San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. It may have started there, but they do not make the best cioppino.

Needless to say, my mother made the best cioppino I have ever tasted. An Italian American fisherman’s stew, similar to a bouillabaisse, it features a HOMEMADE tomato sauce, white fish, clams, shrimp, and crab, lots and lots of dungeness crab. Cioppino without dungeness crab is not cioppino, just a fisherman’s stew.

On my mom’s passing I recreated my mom’s recipe (a family secret), but I ran into Guy Fieri who shared a recipe with a huge licorice twist, using lots of anise.

This is a dish that can have as many different recipes as cooks, and all are good, many great.

The best restaurant cioppino I have ever had was at Fontana’s in Cupertino on Steven’s Creek Blvd. Perfect meal at Fontana’s: ceasar salad (I know it is not Italian), gnocchi al pesto, and cioppino; served with a bottle of Ruffino Chianti Riserva Ducale, Gold Label. Hint, unbutton your top pant button when sitting down, that’s a lot of food.

Gnocchi al pesto

The best Gnocchi I’ve ever tasted were made by the wife of one of my dad’s business associates. My dad ran the mechanic’s shop for a garbage company in Santa Rosa. One of the partners, when vacationing in Italy, met and married an incredibly young Italian girl. Old enough to eventually bear him a son and daughter, when she came to the United States she could not speak any English.

Margarite could cook though. Taught by her mother, aunts, and grandmothers, Margarite cooked 9 course lunches for the garbage company partners and their male sons. After lunch, the men would retire to the bocce court to smoke cigars and drink grappa, while Margarite cleaned the table and did the dishes.

One of the dishes Margarite made was gnocchi al pesto. Gnocchi are little potato dumplings, light fluffy, delicious, hand formed. Pesto should be a blend of basil, garlic, Parmigiano-Reggiano, pine nuts and olive oil, however some people get cheap and try to substitute a Wisconsin parmesan cheese or walnuts. Combine freshly made and boiled potato dumplings in a coating of pesto and oh my God. I still remember the first time I tasted Margarite’s gnocchi as being revelatory. Food can shock and delight and surprise.

The best restaurant gnocchi I have tasted is at Firenza by Night in San Francisco’s North Beach.

Lox and bagel

I was a little hungover after spending a night out with friends at the Whisky on Sunset in West Hollywood last week. I got in my car and went in search of breakfast and found the Bright Spot in Echo Park. Close to ordering sausage and eggs, I saw the lox and bagel plate and surprised myself by ordering it instead of the pork plate breakfast.

I am so glad I went with the lox and bagel. The lox was fresh and generously portioned, affixed to the lightly toasted bagel with a schemer of cream cheese. Wonderfully briny caper berries were scattered on top of the lox. Sliced cucumber, sliced tomato, and sliced red onions, along with a small pile of alfalfa sprouts came on the side and I used some of each for each bite.

The capers providing a sea saltiness and the sprouts offering a peppery note, the cucumber and tomato, both fresh, married with the smoked fish, cheese and bread in each glorious bite.

This meal only works when the ingredients are fresh, otherwise it is just food, but what I tasted last week at the Bright Spot in L.A.’s Echo Park inspired me to return the following morning for a repeat, and to attempt to make it at home yesterday.

Veggie sandwich

There is no wrong here, but the more piled, varied, and creative, the better.

I love lettuce, spinach leaves, sprouts, tomato, cucumber, carrot, asparagus, beet, radish, pickle, onion, and olive on a Straun bread, or stuffed into a pita shell, with cheese, most often cream cheese, and maybe a little mayo. A sprinkle of salt and pepper. You can taste the healthy. Each flavor distinct. Fresh. Wonderful.

Kobe beef

I did a $200 dinner for one in Philadelphia at Morimoto, Iron Chef (both Japanese and American versions) Masaharu Morimoto has always impressed me with his cooking, and my travels allowed me to dine at his original restaurant. I went with the multi course chef’s tasting menu. I could describe the o-toro fatty tuna and caviar with bonito flakes and ponzu with fresh wasabi, the way the tuna, unthawed, just melted on your tongue into goneness. the pop of the salti caviar. I could teasingly describe the scallop carpaccio (I love scallops), thinly sliced scallops seared in hot oil, with yuzu and micro greens; or the broiled lobster and asparagus, the lobster dripping oils and all kinds of delicious. No I will not tease you with the supporting cast,

The star of the night was the Kobe beef. I have never in my life tasted beef so…beefy. It was like the essence of beef permeated every deliciously orgasmic taste of beef. Served with a foie gras sauce because it wasn’t already too effin great already.

Caprese salad

There are a few moments when you realize that the way you learned to do something is not the best way. My father’s zucchini was bitter, he allowed the garlic to burn, and I was never really a fan. Zucchini, almost anywhere else was better.

We’ve had tomato, and mozzarella, and basil, and olive oil,  and salt and pepper in our kitchen growing up. How did we not combine them into this simple, ubiquitous, and delicious Italian summer salad.

It was not until I was working for Windsor Vineyards, returning with Susan Johnson from a San Francisco trade show for the winery, having not eaten all day, that I tasted my first Insalata Caprese at Pomodoro in the Strawberry Town & Country Village in Mill Valley. I wanted to kick my own butt for not having made this before.

Simple and delicious. The only variables are the freshness of your ingredients. The fresher the better.

Cheesecake

I used to watch the Frugal Gourmet’s every new episode on PBS. Jeff Smith cooked with love. Food was the center of family and friend get togethers. Cooking was magical.

Imagine how unhappy I was when the man I watched each week, the man who wrote the cookbooks I bought, turned out to be a very flawed human being, a pedophile. Still, he has passed on, so let’s let go of the sin, and hold on to the sinfully delicious cheesecake.

Jeff’s New York style cheesecake recipe is the best I’ve ever found. Better even than Alton Brown’s cheesecake recipe.

The trick to stellar cheesecake is quality ingredients. I go to Traverso’s market in Santa Rosa for high quality Italian cream cheese when I make a cheesecake, I would never use Philly cream cheese in a cheesecake.

Do not use a store bought pre-made pie crust either. Make your own graham cracker crust too. It’s easy.

Making a cheesecake is a bit of a production, so I usually make between three and five. They don’t last long.

Once I made four cheesecakes and forgot just one ingredient: vanilla. I can not stress enough the importance of not making my mistake. It was an expensive and disappointing mistake. Quality vanilla is essential for a good cheesecake.

A good cheesecake should be tall, not flat, it should taste amazing and have a great texture. Each bite should reward the taster, and there is no such thing as too many bites.

Cheesecake, made correctly, does not need a topping of any kind. Cheesecake, made correctly, would be better than any possible topping. Cheesecake should be served unadorned. Fruit can be served on the side, as an accompaniment.

The best restaurant cheesecake I have tasted came from Katz’s Deli and Bar in Austin, TX. At least a pound, as big as your head, as delicious as any you will find.