The most important cooking tool in Jennifer Hardy's drawer might be her passport.
After falling in love with Italian cuisine during a semester abroad in Torino, Hardy came home and tried to replicate the dishes and flavors she craved in her Buffalo kitchen.
"The little street I lived on had a bakery, a shop where a little old man sold fruits and vegetables, another woman had dairy," said Hardy, who was a 19-year-old University of Dayton student at the time. "So I would make my way down the street each day and just stop, and visit, and pick out ingredients, come back and cook."
The experience became a souvenir with lasting value. "I fell in love with the culture," said Hardy, The News' Cook of the Month. "That's why when I came back, I started taking recipes or dishes I had over there, trying to replicate the flavors, trying to replicate the ingredients, which sometimes is hard to do here."
Then she started looking elsewhere on the world map. "I try to hit about three countries a year. I'm one of those geeks that has a map and puts little pins in it," Hardy said.
So far, she's been to 23 countries, and her appetite for new experiences, tastes and dishes hasn't been satisfied. How much of her travel is driven by her hunger to explore far-off cultures and bring back their flavors? Half? "Easily," she said with a laugh.
Besides Italian cuisine, the food she cooks for husband Brian Fabian has also been inspired by the eggplant dishes of Turkey. Those were joined by ham hocks, braised in beer by Fabian, after they returned from an expedition to his ancestral Poland.
Her first attempt at making duck prosciutto followed a visit to her sister's place in France. "My brother-in-law had made it when we were visiting, and I said, 'This is so good, I have to make this.' "
And she did, curing the poultry for two weeks in her basement. "It was great," Hardy said. "I geeked out, took a picture of it, and threw it on my Facebook."
Hardy chose a squid and bacon tapas to share with News readers because it fits her criteria for home cooking: simple dishes, fresh ingredients.
"My mother used to spend hours and hours in the kitchen. Still does," she said. "For me, it was what can you make that's delicious and quick with just a few ingredients, and bring out a lot of the flavors?"
For the calamari with bacon, Hardy ended up adjusting a Bobby Flay recipe, she said. But the inspiration came from a tapas plate she enjoyed in Seville, Spain. Lots of people are averse to squid because they had a bad experience with it, Hardy said.
"If you get a bad piece of calamari, it's overcooked and it's chewy. Nobody wants chewy squid," she said. "That's the secret of cooking calamari: Just don't overcook it. It needs like 30 seconds after it firms up."
Countries coming up soon on her to-eat list: Greece. Then Albania, ancestral home of her father's mother's family.
That sense of exploration and earnest imitation continues at home when they go out to restaurants, Hardy said, including favorites like Oliver's, Torches and Bistro Europa.
She enjoys "looking at a menu and saying, 'That looks really good, I can make that at home,' then coming home and trying it, experimenting with flavors and finding new things," said Hardy. "I don't like to make the same thing over and over."
> Calamari with Bacon Tapas
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 ounces pancetta (can substitute slab bacon)
6 calamari bodies, about 2/3 pound
3 large cloves of garlic, minced
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons Italian parsley
Slice pancetta or slab bacon into 1/4 - to 1/2 -inch cubes. (Delis can cut you one thick slice to chop at home.) Slice the calamari bodies into 1/2 -inch rings.
Heat olive oil in pan over medium high heat. Add pancetta or bacon and cook until almost crispy, about 3-4 minutes.
Reduce heat to low and let the pan cool down before adding the garlic or it will burn. Stir continuously to make sure the garlic doesn't burn, about 1-2 minutes. Turn the heat back up to medium and add the calamari rings.
Cook only 1-2 minutes, until the rings become opaque and firm, and flare a bit. Season with salt and pepper, and stir in chopped parsley.
Remove from heat and serve immediately. Makes about 4 appetizer portions.
> Fennel and Orange Salad
1 fennel bulb (with fronds)
1/2 medium red onion
3 1/2 oranges
10 Calamata olives, pitted
Salt and pepper
4 tablespoons olive oil
Slice the stalks off the fennel bulb and reserve the fronds. Slice the fennel bulb paper-thin (a mandoline helps) and add to a glass bowl. Slice the red onion paper-thin, and combine with the fennel.
Peel 3 oranges with a knife, making sure to remove the white skin between the peel and the flesh. Remove just the flesh of the orange, by slicing along each of the dividing sections. Add to bowl.
Slice each olive in half and add to the bowl. Squeeze out the juice of half an orange, and season with salt and pepper. Dress with olive oil. Garnish with the fennel fronds and toss ingredients together.
Let sit for 10-15 minutes before serving so the flavors marry. Toss again before serving. Serves 4.
> COOK OF THE MONTH/JENNIFER HARDY
Name: Jennifer Hardy
Mouths to feed: 2
Go-to instant meal: Pasta with vegetables
Guilty pleasure: Guancianale/pancetta