Archive for the ‘Holidays’ Category
After a brief absence, here’s a small post in honor of Earth Day. My composition students gave presentations for extra credit today. The theme of the class is the Science and Technology of Green Living. All semester we’ve studied photo-voltaic panels, hydrogen fuel cells, horizon scanning, and LEED certification standards. For Earth Day, we decided to step away from science and technology and focus solely on “Green Living.” For a potential 5 points worth of credit (applied to the paper of their choice), they could perform one of the following activities and give a 5 minute presentation explaining the connection between their activity and one of the themes of the course. They could:
- Cook and eat a “healthy” meal with friends
- Give up meat for a month (I made the assignment one month ago so they had some time)
- Grow an edible plant from seeds
- Go on an environmentally responsible fishing trip
- Raise livestock in their dorm
That last one was a joke, but someone took me seriously. I wonder how many week-old chickens have seen the inside of this building? Well, now, at least four. By the way, she didn’t literally raise livestock in her dorm; her family has a small farm.
Most of the students who participated cooked a “healthy” meal, although their idea of what is healthy is not exactly the same as mine. A couple of them used meat substitutes to make spaghetti or sloppy-joes. EEEKKK! One student gave up meat but doesn’t think that she will change her diet in the longterm, even though she learned that she could reduce her carbon consumption by 5 tons per year if she continues to go “meatless.” Her friends think she’s crazy to go without meat for even a month.
When I gave the assignment, Jim worried that my students would present me with 5 tons of radishes since I made the mistake of telling them how easy they are to grow. Alas, that didn’t happen. Only one student succeeded in growing produce from seed. She did bring in some radishes, but only two (and seedlings at that). That’s okay — Mimi and I are growing radishes in our container garden and are looking forward to having a “radish party” when the crop comes in, sometime next month.
Of the students who participated, all will receive the full five points except for the young woman who went fishing, caught a fish, and then let the poor beast die without cleaning or cooking it. Talk about missing the point! I’m tempted to give her zero points, but I suppose I’ll throw one at her for the effort. I’d rather throw the fish.
For my part, I’ve joined a state-wide CSA and will receive my first box of produce on Tuesday. I’m very excited to see what GrowAlabama sends. I’ll cross my fingers for radishes.
Happy Earth Day!
Our Snowy House
I always have a backlog of recipes that I want to try, but sometimes a recipe just leap-frogs over all the others and demands to be made immediately, like this one from Deb at Smitten Kitchen: Chocolate Soufflé Cupcakes with Peppermint Cream. I saw it posted on the SK website earlier this week, quickly made a grocery list, and then bid my time–we don’t usually make desserts unless we have a bona fide reason to do so. Fortunately, snow fell on Friday, and snowfall in Alabama absolutely must be celebrated. I believe it’s state law.
Snow Fell on Alabama
Falling snow puts me in a contemplative frame of mind. I feel compelled to try to appreciate every aspect of it, to understand its beauty in a meaningful way — to have a mind of winter, if you will. Then the rarity of the experience registers — I live in Alabama, after all — and I want to celebrate, to gather my loved ones around me, build a happy little cocoon of domesticity, and keep out the literal and figurative cold. I crave those small, wintery indulgences: a crackling fire in the fireplace, a bowl of warm soup, and something rich for dessert.
I don’t think this is exactly what Wallace Stevens had in mind.
Yesterday, I managed to enjoy all of my indulgences save the soup, which I’ll make tonight. The cupcakes, in particular, were perfect for my mood: a little bit dark with a hit of sweetness. Like Deb, I’m not usually a fan of flourless chocolate cake, but this recipe gets the flavor and texture of a flourless dessert just right. Similar in taste to really good brownies, the cupcakes are light and airy.
The best part of flourless chocolate cake is that there isn’t anything to stand in the way of a powerful hit of chocolate flavor, ingredients like, well, flour. Still, a lot of these desserts resemble nothing more than chocolate sludge with neither taste nor texture to recommend them.This recipe is very different, however. You can see from these photographs that the cakes rise up to lofty heights in the oven.
Then sink down into themselves when taken from the heat.
They wind up with neat little depressions in their centers, wells that simply must be filled up with something luscious. Peppermint cream is just the thing.
It even looks a bit like snow.
The Snow Man
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
I am a latke
And I am waiting
for Chanukah to come
I’m not sure what to say about a song written from the point of view of a latke, one who is waiting for Chanukah to come in order to be…eaten?
It’s a bold move for any song writer.
I do appreciate the inclination to sing about latkes though. Who wouldn’t want to sing about something so delicious? Grated potatoes and onions fried up and eaten with apple sauce. I think I hear a song coming on.
Frying is not a cooking technique that I perform very often for obvious reasons. The prospect of using 2 cups worth of oil is daunting, but frying food is actually quite easy. Once I get past the guilt of doing it and the fear of burning down my house, I find frying food enjoyable — relaxing, even.
Here’s my favorite recipe for latkes. For lagniappe, I’ve included a recipe for apple chutney.
What? Did you think I meant the song to be lagniappe?
4-5 large russet potatoes
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/4 cup of matzoh meal
1 tbs. all-purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
2 cups olive oil
Preheat oven to 200 degrees and place a rimmed cookie sheet inside. Using a food processor, grate the potatoes. Put them in a colander in the sink and drain for about 10 minutes. You may need to press down on it with a clean kitchen towel in order to get your potatoes very, very dry.
In a very large bowl, gently mix together the grated potatoes, onion, matzoh meal, flour, egg, salt, & pepper just until you feel like the ingredients have come together. It’s usually easiest to do this with your scrupulously clean hands.
Heat oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Measure out the potato mixture with a 1/4 cup measuring cup. Drop measures into the oil. Cook no more than 4 latkes at a time. This will take a while, but it’s very important not to overcrowd the pan (the latkes will steam, not fry and being oily, mushy, and generally unpleasant). Fry until the latkes are golden brown on one side; carefully flip them over and brown the other side. Remove from oil.
Drain latkes on a plate covered with paper towels. Transfer those golden potato pancakes to the oven until you’re ready to serve. The classic accompaniments are applesauce and sour cream. In addition to these, I like to make an apple chutney.
2 apples (Braeburns, Pink Ladies, or Honey Crisps work well), peeled cored, and cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 tsp. of mustard seed
1 tsp. crushed red pepper
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 cup apple cider
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
Bring all of the ingredients to boil in a heavy saucepan. Simmer for 20-30 minutes, uncovered, or until the apples are soft, but still retain their basic shape. Makes about 1 cup. Can be made 2 days ahead. Serve at room temperature.
In the past couple of weeks, I’ve come across two different recipes for Pimento cheese spread, which must surely be an indication of our difficult economic times. Certainly, pimento spread has the kind of kitsch-value that might make it popular during the holiday season; namely, it’s tasty, cheap, and red. You can’t call it special though. It is, after all, made from cheddar cheese, mayonnaise, and bottled red peppers. Even made well, pimento cheese spread is still reminiscent of a really bad day in the school lunchroom.
Not all cheese spreads are so pedestrian.
Liptauer – a Hungarian spread that is also tasty, cheap, and red — fills a similar culinary niche, but it’s more interesting than pimento cheese spread could ever be. Think of it as pimento cheese’s exotic second cousin — the edgy one with the old world accent, the one with international kitsch-value.
True, it does have a rather prosaic foundation: cream cheese. It really takes off from there though to include ingredients like cornichons, capers, Dijon mustard, and garlic. Some recipes even call for anchovy paste.
However, even with its more exotic flavor profile, Liptauer is, at heart, a traditional food that is best enjoyed on chunks of rustic bread, with pints of dark beer, and in the company of friends. I’m not sure that the same can be said for pimento cheese spread. So, to kick off the holiday season in the correctly kitschy way, here’s a recipe for–
2, 8 oz. packages of Philadelphia-Brand Cream Cheese, room temperature
8-10 cornichons, chopped finely
5 tablespoons capers, rinsed, drained, and chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon sweet Hungarian paprika
2 teaspoons caraway seeds, toasted and crushed with the back of a large, heavy knife (or in a mortar & pestle)
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 tsp. anchovy paste or one filleted anchovy, chopped finely (optional)
Salt & Pepper to taste
Olive oil, for drizzling
It’s not traditional, but a sprinkle of Spanish smoked paprika tastes and looks great on top
In a large bowl, use a rubber spatula to thoroughly combine the cream cheese through the salt and pepper. Transfer to a small bowl with a tight-fitting lid. Chill thoroughly. Can be made three days in advance. To serve: Remove liptauer from the refrigerator and leave at room temperature for about 30 minutes. Just before serving, stir and adjust the seasonings; transfer to a serving dish (if necessary); drizzle with olive oil and garnish with smoked paprika. Liptauer tastes best on chunks of rye bread.
This Friday evening, Jews around the world will celebrate the first night of Chanukah with menorah lightings, blessings, and foods that honor the miracle of the oil.
Technically speaking, I am not Jewish, but this year my family will observe Chanukah anyway. In the past, I’ve made latkes and left it at that. My head told me that this was as much as I could do, that I didn’t have a right to this holiday, but my heart disagreed. This year my heart won, and I’m looking forward to celebrating the holiday for the first time. More than anything else, I want to do justice to the traditions of the holiday, traditions that I readily acknowledge to be borrowed.
Because I am borrowing them, I want to treat these traditions with great care and respect. Above all, I want to avoid observing the holiday as some kind of religious tourist: “Oh, look at the pretty little menorah–how quaint, and wouldn’t these latkes would be delicious with bacon?”
No, to the extent that I am able, we will try to celebrate Chanukah as a Jewish family would. Every evening at sundown, Mimi will wield the shammash candle and light the menorah, while I sing the ancient Chanukah blessings in Hebrew. And, after studying Kashrut dietary laws, I’m planning 8 nights worth of Kosher meals.
This is the most obvious way for me to understand Jewish traditions. Food is an amazing inroad to culture, maybe none more so than Jewish culture, which is, of course, scattered all over the globe. In addition to theology, the preservation of ancient Jewish values and traditions seems to be concentrated in food and recipes, things that can be stored in the memories of peoples and individuals, treasures carried in the mind. In her work, The Book of Jewish Food, the great Claudia Roden evokes this idea when she writes:
Every cuisine tells a story. Jewish food tells the story of an uprooted, migrating people and their vanished worlds. It lives in people’s minds and has been kept alive because of what it evokes and represents.
I’m interested in celebrating those “vanished worlds” during Chanukah this year, partly because I sense that my own ancestors may have once been citizens of these lost worlds. I’d like to try to recover some of richness of Jewish tradition for my own child and — who am I kidding? — for myself.
So, with our friends Tom and Angie and their daughter Lydia, Jim and Mimi and I are going to have a little party on Saturday night, the second night of my first Chanukah. We’ll light the lights and enjoy the evening with foods that honor the star of the Chanukah celebration — olive oil — and dear friends. And then we’ll head out to Opelika’s Victorian Front Porch tour, a celebration of a very different sort.
Here’s the menu. Except for the latkes and the liptauer — foods I’ve been making for years — the dishes come mostly from the Sephardic tradition since I’ve been reading a lot about Sephardic cooking lately (more on that soon).
Orange Marinated Olives
Rosemary~Cayenne Roasted Nuts
Liptauer with Crackers
Latkes with Apple Sauce & Sour Cream
White Bean Salad with Lemon and Cumin
Fennel & Orange Salad
Olive Oil Lemon Tart
Chocolate Chip Cookies
Vin du Maison
As a side note: Tikkun magazine and the Network of Spiritual Progressives co-sponsor a webpage dedicated to exploring the holidays of many of the world’s religious traditions. Their Chanukah Guide is available on this page and is a useful resource for non-Jews who may be interested in respectfully observing the holiday.
Alas, Thanksgiving is over. Our leftovers are nearly finished, and I’m hearing holiday music in the coffee shop and all the stores. We’ve turned the corner.
But I hate to leave the turkey behind. I love Thanksgiving, but have decidedly mixed feelings about the more commercial season that follows it, so I’m always a little sad as I wash the dishes after the big meal, a meal that seems so simple, straightforward, and lovely. What could be better than an entire day set aside to eating well and feeling grateful?
I’m going to try to keep the spirit of Thanksgiving alive this year by maintaining and expressing gratitude as often as possible during the next few weeks. To that end, I’d like to begin the season with a simple expression of gratitude to my friends and family. Thank you for sharing your time with me~such a rare commodity. Thank you for keeping me in your thoughts. I may not say it often enough, but I’m grateful to you all.
So, here’s a poem to inaugurate my season of gratitude.
Love Like Salt
It lies in our hands in crystals
too intricate to decipher
It goes into the skillet
without being given a second thought
It spills on the floor so fine
we step all over it
We carry a pinch behind each eyeball
It breaks out on our foreheads
We store it inside our bodies
in secret wineskins
At supper, we pass it around the table
talking of holidays and the sea.
I grew up eating cranberry sauce only once or twice a year. In fact, I thought it was available in stores only during the holidays so when I discovered that it could be purchased and eaten year-round, I became a bit of a cranberry sauce fanatic, eating it nearly every day for a couple of years. Ocean Spray, of course.
But then I encountered the cheery little berries in their pre-gelled state and tried out the extremely simple recipe on the side of the bag. There was no going back. Over the years, I’ve adapted the recipe a bit, but the sauce is still ridiculously easy to make and truly festive. It’s the perfect astringent accompaniment to the carb-fest that is the traditional Thanksgiving meal. It also provides a bit of a color on the plate, a small jewel among all that beige food.
This cranberry sauce is highly addictive, if I may say so myself. It’s my favorite part of the holiday meal, the only part of it that I cannot imagine changing or leaving off of the menu.
I’m not sure how much of the alcohol cooks out of the sauce, so I try to limit Mimi’s consumption, for obvious reasons. She’s none too happy about it and who can blame her? Still, a little bit is better than none.
1 scant cup sugar
3/4 cup orange juice
1 cinnamon stick
a pinch of salt
1 12 oz. bag of fresh cranberries
1 tsp. orange peel
2 tbs. Grand Marnier
Bring the orange juice, sugar, cinnamon stick, and salt to a boil in a large, heavy sauce pan. Add the cranberries and simmer on medium heat for five minutes, stirring occasionally. The cranberries will pop and thicken the sauce. Test for thickness. If you prefer a thicker sauce, let it simmer for an additional five minutes or so. Remove from heat. Add the orange peel and Grand Marnier. Stir and allow to cool. Transfer to a covered class container and continue to cool. Refrigerate for up to three days.
Mimi turned three years old yesterday. Today, we went to visit a Montessori school where she may attend preschool next fall. The years go by so quickly; she’ll be in college before I know it.
Her party was attended by her grandparents, who drove all the way from St. Louis to spend the weekend with us. Mimi was thrilled and so was I. It was a small party, with just her grandparents and parents. Dinner consisted of Mimi’s favorite meal: pasta with pesto (and steak, left over from Saturday night).
Mimi chose the cake this year since she now has a very refined sense of taste. She made a classic choice, carrot cake with cream cheese frosting, which I made using a barely-adapted recipe from Fine Cooking. I decorated the cake with strips of candied orange peel and little ladybug truffles filled with Valrhona chocolate, a favorite of Mimi’s from way back.
The ladybugs come from John and Kira’s, one of my favorite sources for chocolate gifts.
Jim carried in the cake.
Mimi blew out the candle as soon as he put the cake in front of her. We didn’t even have time to finish singing the requisite “Happy Birthday to You,” so we relit, sang, sliced, and then fell upon our pieces of cake. It was delicious! Good choice, Mimi!
We finished the evening with a rousing game of “Noise Maker Chicken.”
The object of the game seemed to be to make enough noise to blow the paint off the walls.
I think Da won.