I’ve never met a food I didn’t try — and almost none I didn’t like. I’ve tasted natto in Japan (once was enough), eaten ensete in Ethiopia, drunk pombe out of a communal bowl in Tanzania, supped on haggis, neeps and tatties in Scotland and dined on cold cherry soup in Germany. I’ve traveled all over the world and though I may not speak a country’s language, its food always speaks to me.

Not the haughty haut cuisine of foodies  who oooh and ahhh over vegetable spumes, food constructs or plated meals that looks like minimalist drawings. I’m a democrat when it comes to food.  I don’t speak cuisine.

Peace Corps Volunteers, current and former, and just those who have traveled, know that there is a food out there in the world that has been calling your name since you were born, that you didn’t know existed, and didn’t realize you’d been missing until you tasted it.

Mostly, I just love food — the  thinking about it, the conceptualizing of a meal, the shopping for it, the preparation, the presentation, I don’t even mind cleaning up.

This column is about  that food, that fruit, meat, vegetable, dish or dessert you’d crave if you were a native, whether it’s candied bacon a friend from Milwaukee grew up nibbling or Japan’s favorite summertime treat, kakigori, ice cream covered in shaved ice covered in Crayola Bright colored syrups.

Akidinia, a.k.a. loquats.  That was my initiation.  I came across it as a young bride living  in Beirut. For a whole year I saw akidinia on dessert tables at Lebanese dinner parties, small, orange, oval fruits, usually floating in a bowl of ice water. Looked like a small apricot, I thought, perfectly ordinary looking and, I was told, very common.  I cursed myself repeatedly for that wasted year once I tasted one.  The texture of a perfect peach, a single smooth seed at its center, acidic flavor like the tang of a dried apricot.   Paradise.  Akadinia was simply delicious. I’m forever on the prowl for them here in the U.S. where they are an expensive, specialty fruit.  When I get them, which is rare, I usually eat them fresh, but I know a half dozen recipes for jams, tarts, even one for a Chinese cough syrup made from akidinia.

Of course, now that we’re all part of the global village, there is no reason to encounter a food in its native land.  Immigrants from around the world have made their homes in almost every major U.S. city and even its smallest towns.  Everywhere there are grocery stores that specialize in someone’s food from “back home.”

Across the land now there are Vietnamese pho noodle soup, taquerias, (taco shops,) pupuserias, (shops that specialize in the flat corn meal cake stuffed with cheese or meat and slathered with hot pickled cabbage from El Salvador), Ethiopian restaurants galore and, a recent discovery for me here in Washington, D.C., a Korean cake shop that serves  bubble tea, the spiced tea drink with pearl tapioca (bubbles) that originated in Taiwan.

This is a food forum with me as your host.  So while I’ll write about food — some exotic and unusual, some pedestrian and familiar as Mom’s apple pie-recipes, history, origin, about how to pick the perfect melon, specialized cooking equipment and utensils  (and how to concoct your own if you don’t have a salamander or Cuisinart at hand) but I’ll also answer your questions.

There is nothing like a little story to go along with food and I will be dishing those as well as encouraging you to share yours. Best chocolate dessert. Best lamb stew. Best cherry cobbler. You name it, you tell it.  Afterall, storytelling and food started out together when we cave dwellers gathered together around the fire at the end of the day to see what was in the pot or on the spit and hear how it came to be there.

So here’s a little story — and a recipe — about a wonderful Italian liquor that I met up with years ago and have been making as a holiday gift for friends ever since.

Some years back, on one of those significant birthdays, I found myself with some friends from my Peace Corps days on a car trip down Italy’s Amalfi coast, a serpentine stretch considered by many to be Europe’s most beautiful coastline.

To see it well — its picturesque villages clinging precariously to cliffs high above the Mediterranean-there’s got to be sun.  But from the moment we left Rome, we had nothing but rain.  Dripping rain, pouring rain, misty rain. When we arrived in the village of  Positano on St. Catherine’s Day to celebrate  my actual birthday, the air was full of water and the sky belligerent. St. Catherine is my patron saint and so, despite age, skepticism and a certain reluctance about praying for a shift in the weather (think about all the farmers who want rain), I sent up a plea for sun.

The sky lightened but remained overcast during our lunch.  When dessert was cleared, the waiter, who the friends had asked to bring something special as a birthday surprise, brought out three glasses of yellow liquid on a tray. Limoncello, he announced, setting them down. The sky brightened. Homemade from lemons right up there in the hills, he said.  At that moment, the sun came out, not for long, I admit-returning to the car a half hour later, the sky broke and torrential rain lashed down — but for a brief moment, there was sunshine, not only above and around us, but in the sweet-tart, lemon-scented liqueur in our glasses.  Limoncello (lee-mohn-CHEH-loh ) is a popular summer drink in Italy and has become well enough known in this country that you can buy  commercially- made limoncello. I can’t vouch for these usually alarmingly bright products because ever since the Amalfi coast I’ve made my own limoncello for mid-winter blues, gray spring days  or to celebrate bright summer afternoons.  The recipe below is simple, easy and requires only  rudimentary kitchen skills — and patience (like 80 days) — before you, too, can be pouring Italian sunshine into a glass.

Limoncello

30 lemons
½ gallon of 100 proof vodka (you can stint on this with a cheaper, lesser proof if you want)
A sharp knife, vegetable peeler or zester
A clean, wide-mouthed 2 quart glass jar with a lid.  (I use a Ball lidded jar that has a wired top and rubber seal.)
A simple syrup made from 4 cups sugar and 4 cups of water  (You won’t need this for 40 days, but it’s here to let you know that it is part of the recipe)

Scrub the lemons under hot water to remove any pesticides or wax that may be on them.

Pour half the vodka into the jar.

Using the knife, vegetable peeler or a special tool called a “zester”  remove the peel, avoiding any of the white pith.  The peel you remove is called “zest.” (Some people recommend scraping the peel if there is even an iota of white on it because it can make the finished product bitter, but I’m not so orthodox.  I haven’t found that a tiny bit of pith hurts. Just try to get the yellow and not the white. )

Drop the zest  into the alcohol as you go.  (Don’t collect the zest and put it into the alcohol all at once.  You want to capture the lemon oil in the zest in the alcohol so that it flavors and colors your limoncello.  You lose some of that zest if you don’t drop it into the vodka right away.  I’m orthodox about this.)

Once you’ve got the zest from the 30 lemons in the vodka, you’re done  for 40 days.  Close the top.  Put it some place dark and room temperature (not cold) and leave it alone. Don’t stir, don’t shake.
(Juice the lemons you’ve now got and use it to make lemonade, lemon pie or lemon sorbet.)

After 40 days, make the simple syrup. Combine the sugar and water together and cook until it’s about the consistency of cough syrup. Let cool completely.

Bring out the zest/vodka mix. The liquid should be bright yellow and the zest pale.  Add the simple syrup, add the other half of the vodka and put it away for another 40 days.

By the way, if you’re impatient and taste the limoncello before the final 40 days are up, you will think that you’ve wasted 30 lemons and a half gallon of decent vodka. Patience. The longer it sits, the mellower, more elegant it becomes.

80 days now have passed since you began your limoncello.  Strain it into the bottle of your choice.
Enjoy . . . at room temperature  in liqueur glasses after a meal,  chilled over ice with a sprig of mint, splashed into champagne, over ice cream or as a flavoring for puddings and cakes.

Till next time . . . all best.

— Karen DeWitt