Friday, December 29, 2006

Sugar Plum Faeries

I am Jewish by faith and heritage but my dad just loved the Christmas tree, the presents and the feast so we celebrated on one day instead of eight each holiday season. I grew up with the best of both worlds. My grandparents celebrated Hanukkah with a menorah and we celebrated Hanukkah with a beautiful tree. Tradition, heritage, history and presents all in one holiday.

Christmas was just a few days ago. I celebrated the seasons with my closest friends, traveling from one house to another during the day. The first party was spent with Research-Geek and her husband at his mother's home. Christmas dinner was large with a roast and a ham and lots of side dishes. The main entree, the roast, was perfect, browned and crispy on the outside and a beautiful rare on the inside. R-G had made Yorkshire Puddings to go with, light and yummy puffs of air. It's always a treat to me to stand beside someone and watch them learn and grow more adventurous in the kitchen. When I first met R-G, she was shy in the kitchen but willing to learn, try and do anything to make a new meal. A few years back she had asked me about steak, how do you take a nice piece of meat and grill or pan sear it to perfection? The timidness I understand. Who wants to take a $12 New York strip steak and end up with shoe leather? It can be intimidating making that first one. We exchange a couple of emails and she began cooking. Since then, she and I have been exchanging recipes back and forth over email, offering each other the newest dish we tried and adored.

When she said she was making the roast and Yorkshire Puddings, I was both proud that she was taking this giant step and a little scared for her. When I arrived at the house, it already smelled of the heavenly beef. A short while later it was ready to come out of the oven and rest. As we were both looking longingly at the roast, I asked her how she had prepared it. First, she tells me, you ask the butcher for a nice roast. Then you asked the butcher the best way to prepare it. She does live near one of the best butchers in town, Valenti's. And he did give her excellent instructions. That roast was good for seconds and thirds, each time with a bit of Yorkshire Pudding. We spent the afternoon eating, drinking and opening presents.

After that tasty feast, I went on to Stavra's for dessert. There was bread pudding with a caramel sauce and fresh whipped cream. Bread pudding is one of those things for which I quest. I'll try bread pudding on any menu whenever I see it. I'm always looking for the perfect batch. For me, excellent bread pudding has crunchy sides and a few peaks of crunch on the top then gives way to a smooth and creamy center, a little more than pudding, almost like the center of really good French toast. I think the best puddings have golden raisins and hints of cinnamon and nutmeg. Stavra's was all those things. She served it warm and the aroma wafted from my plate. It was smooth and sweet with a little crunch around the edges where the sugar had caramelized the bread. was lovely.

Stavra has a way with Christmas. Everything she does is beautiful to lay eyes on and delicious to eat. Each year she makes cookies for all her family and friends. I love to bake. She and I go back and forth about who's better. I say she is, she says me. After this year's basket of cookies and truffles, I think she wins hands down. When I walked in for dessert, she handed me a bamboo bowl for me to take home. It was full of bags tied with ribbon, each labeled with the name of the delectable treats inside. I almost dove in then, not wanting to waste a minute before tasting a bit or bite of each little treat. I managed to hold off for a while but later in the evening she dug through the bowl and pushed a bag my way saying to try that one first. It was a milk chocolate caramel with Fleur de Sel. It was smooth and creamy, chocolaty, with just the nicest saltiness.

After the first one I started digging through the bowl myself. There were several truffle, I think my favorite was the Dark Chocolate Orange Chipotle. That had a bang at the end...after all the other flavors faded, the chocolate, the orange....bang...smokey chipotle heating my throat. Yummy! I also found a Pistachio Cranberry Dark Chocolate. That was fun, flavors and textures popping out of the chocolate all over the place.

I love chocolate, almost more than I love breathing in and out, but it was one of the cookies that got me. Cinnamon Snow Bites.....just linger on the words....Cinnamon...Snow...Bites..... They sound like some old fashioned cookie that my grandmother would have made a long time before I was born. One just happened to jump out of the bag into my hand. It smelled lightly of cinnamon. I took a bite, then a bigger bite. It was perfect. It was moist but had a nice crumble. Cinnamon morsels dotted the cookie, not too many, not too few. There were hints of sugar and spice all melting into the buttery goodness. The first words out of my mouth, the only words I could describe this cookie with, were, "It tastes like Christmas, everything Christmas is, everything Christmas should be, in a cookie." It was amazing. There were a lot of other goodies in that basket. Not a bit of it went untasted and all of it was downright delicious, but the Cinnamon Snow Bites stand out to me. That was a flavor I will tell my family about when I get old and grayer.

This Christmas will hold a special place in my heart. It's the first one I spent on my own and exactly as I pleased. I'm seeing my family soon, after the New Year, to celebrate with them, but to spend the holiday with good and dear friends, I cannot think of a better way to end this year and a begin the next. Thank you, my friends, and Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Sushi - 130 Million Japanese People Can't Be Wrong

I just left Stavra at the curb in front of her house. As she got out of the car she told me to write more in this blog, that she wanted to read more. I said I was working on an article now and that it would be about cookies. As I pulled away, I realized that the cookie article would have to wait a few more days. I simply must tell you about the feast we had tonight.

I have heard a lot about sushi. I have even had one or two pieces of what was said to be sushi, but I hadn't had sushi, real sushi, good sushi, until tonight. I happened to have the evenings off this week between Christmas and New Years so planned dinner with friends for each night. Thursday was sushi with Stavra, Dan and Lenny. Stavra and Dan had started tasting sushi here in town a few years ago. During dinner, Stavra began telling Lenny and I how it started for her. Dan chimed in, saying he had had similar experiences. Both started with supermarket sushi. Let's face it. We live in the middle, no oceans anywhere nearby, not even a decent fish monger in town. It's hard to get a nice piece of fresh fish here. Stavra said that her first bite of sushi was strange, it was a weird flavor. She knew somewhere inside her that she should like it, but maybe something wasn't quite right. She tried again later, this time at a sushi place, and realized then and there that the supermarket sushi had been bad sushi, that there is a world of difference between what you get in the deli case and what you get when you sit in front of a sushi chef, preparing fresh for you your hearts desire.

We are sitting at a table at Wasabi sipping hot tea, chatting and waiting for our sushi. Dan and Lenny had come for the all-you-can-eat, attempting to put the sushi chef to the test. Stavra had in mind a few favorites of hers that she wanted to have again. I had looked at the menu online earlier in the day. I thought I was having pork with a fruit sauce and maybe, just maybe, a piece of sushi. I am very finicky about fish and have reserved my fish meals to only when I'm on a coast. Earlier in the day I believed it was going to be hard to convince me to try a full meal of sushi. What do I know? Stavra and I are looking at the picture menu laying on the table, trying to decide. There was a picture of the pork dish. Once I saw it I struck that from my order. I started looking at the noodle dishes. Stavra had recommended the udon and the yaki soba looked good too, but still, those just didn't sound right to me that night. I had been looking at the sushi. Was I ready to try something so different from what I am used to? Was I prepared to take the plunge, go all out? Screw it, I'm going to order sushi and nothing but.

Stavra started us off with appetizers of Shumai, shrimp dumplings that looked like small opening flower buds, and Tempura. Both were delicious. The dumplings were delicate and sweet with a lovely texture, soft and chewy. The tempura was light and crisp, just as it should be. Since Dan and Lenny were ordering for the all-you-can-eat, they had a rainbow of sushi literally landing in front of them throughout the evening. Dan ordered the Rainbow roll. And it was a beautiful thing to see. All the colors laid out in rice, fish and veggies. I was beginning to appreciate the subtle beauty and charm of sushi. Our boat was next on the table. I had ordered the Clayton roll and the Shogun. Stavra chose the Yellowtail and the Spider. The Spider had tempura shrimp in one tail end that actually looked like a menacing spider. The Yellowtail was small and delicate. It had a sweet fish flavor that I had not experienced anywhere but near the ocean. It was perfect. I began on the Clayton roll. On my first bite I was shocked and surprised and completely hooked. The Clayton roll is tempura batter with spicy mayo and masago rolled in rice, then a very nice thin piece of tuna, peppered and quickly seared, laid over the top. The pepper and the spicy mayo gave the whole roll a smoky quality, warm but not overly spiced. The tuna was perfect, seared on the outermost edge, then rare to raw getting closer to the rice. That first bite was one of the most interesting mouthfuls of delicious that I had ever tasted. It was a masterpiece of flavor and texture that I will not soon forget.

I went on to try the Shogun roll. Deep fried lobster salad, tobiko, asparagus, cucumber and avocado served with sweet wasabi soy broth, wrapped in rice then nori and all done in tempura, quick and light. I hadn't had nori before this. It reminded me of a mouthful of sea water that I accidentally took in while swimming in the Atlantic as a kid. It was salty, although not overly so, slick and textured. I closed my eyes for a second and could see my grandmother waving from up the beach and could hear the gulls crying. Then the flavors of the lobster, tobiko and asparagus began to move to the front. It was mild and crunchy, sweet and salty, the perfect blend of flavors and textures. While it didn't take me by surprise as the other had, it did win its place in my mouth, its subtlety moving across my tongue and into my sense, slowly stirring my mind with pleasure. After the first few tastes, I dug in with the heartiest of appetites so pleased with my newest discovery.

We ate and talked, laughed and watched as Dan and Lenny continued through the list of nigiri and maki sushi still attempting to eat their fill. This was a fabulous feast. Surrounded by good friends, glorious food and steeped in culture, I had an experience that I will treasure for the rest of my days.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Ah....The Holidays

I'm still stuffed. We had The Dinner finished and eaten four nights ago and I still can't look a real meal in the plate.

Each year my friends, Research-Geek and her husband, throw a Christmas Party for our dear friends. We eat, exchange gifts and watch a Christmas movie or two. This year we were eight for dinner. Sometimes we are more, never less. Usually the food prepared is finger food and appetizers. R-G's husband makes this great sandwich with crusty bread, meat, cheese and onion heated in he oven. Sometimes he makes a ham and we all cut and pick off of it as the night goes on. None of us stand much on ceremony and we all love to eat good food.

This year, however, we decided to do things a bit different. We thought it might be fun to do a formal dinner, black tie optional (an option no one chose this time around claiming the tuxedos were all at the cleaners). R-G and I met a few weeks ago to plan the menu. We wanted the flavors of the season to come through, warm rich meats, root vegetables and warm breads. We brought ideas, a cook book and a magazine to lunch one day and poured over all the yummy treats we saw. We decided on two appetizers, rumaki with water chestnuts and salmon pizzas, two entrees, turkey with gravy and an herb stuffed pork loin, four side dishes, stuffing, green beans with lemon and hazelnut, sweet potatoes, and squash cassoulet and one desert, a honey cake topped with toasted almonds. Oh, and let's not forget, one can of cranberry jelly plopped on a plate, with can marks and all, in a solid lump. Some traditions never die.

We had our menu. Now we needed a plan. Google has a documents and spreadsheets feature that was perfect for sharing all the information between the two of us while planning. Yay, Google! I started a spreadsheet for the ingredients, kind of a shopping list for us, then another for the equipment we would need, and then the final sheet, a cooking schedule. I also added all of the recipes to a document so we would have easy access to them without having to pull out cookbooks or try to remember an original recipes while in the heat of battle. R-G arranged things with the butcher for the pork, panchetta and bacon. I already had the turkey so we were set for the entrees.

We planned our shopping for the day before the feast. Little did we know that a winter ice storm would hit the night before. But did it stop us??? NO! We forged on, meeting for lunch at a great Irish pub downtown. From there we headed over to the farmer's market, hoping that at least one farmer would be there. We were in luck. There was one farmer. Only one. And his stall was loaded with all the goodies at excellent prices. He had gorgeous pears and apples at 2lbs for a buck. Really, everything was a buck, the only difference was how many pounds you got for your dollar. I made a mental note of where his stall was and planned on going back many times in the future.

We also made a stop by the spice shop while we were there. It always smells soooo wonderful in that little shop. There are two ladies working behind the counter who have been working behind that counter since I first visited the market 36 years ago with my parents. They know their trade. The first thing R-G found was Celtic Sea Salt and the first question she asked was, "what makes it Celtic?" And the reply, "It comes from the Celtic slat marshes on the shores of Brittany." Good answer. An ounce of this and a bottle of that later, we had everything we needed for the feast as well as some special items for ourselves. I picked up some candied ginger and cinnamon sticks for a treat closer to Christmas...and some of the salt, of course. We finished our shopping and went our separate ways for the night, R-G to pick up some chairs and me to bake the Honey Cake, both extremely happy knowing we were having a white Christmas.

The next morning, 9am, I joined her at their home to begin the preparation of the feast. We spent the day chopping, dicing, grating, sauteing, simmering and roasting. We started at a fairly steady but leisurely pace. The turkey went in, the stuffing was cooking, and the broth was simmering for the gravy. About half way into the day we also began the drinking, wine, a very nice red. As the day wore on, our speed increased a bit. I started to feel the rush of adrenaline that I get as I approach serving time. But everything was going as pretty much as planned or even early. I was very pleased with the way things were turning out. Meats were golden brown, the sweet potatoes were speckled with spices and glistened with butter and the gravy came out a luxurious, creamy deep brown ready to smother the turkey in rich goodness.

As our friends arrived bearing gifts, they were greeted with glad tidings, a glass of wine and heavenly aromas, as well as some yummy rumaki and a crispy salmon treats. We sat down to dinner first, leaving the gifts for after and desert beyond. The feast was divine, with everyone digging in trying a bit of everything we offered. We lingered over the table, some having second helpings, some just enjoying the conversation. We laughed as a couple of the guys tried to corral the cranberry jelly to keep it from slipping off the plate as they passed it around the table again, this time an on edge disk sliding perilously close to disaster.

After dinner, gifts were exchanged with an abundance of glee. It is such a joy to watch every one's faces light up as they open their packages. We moved around the room one at a time, each pulling from the pile in front of us, some ripping with abandon, others slowly unsticking each piece of tape. Eventually, we finished the unveiling, each now with a pile of unwrapped goodies in front of us, books, CDs, DVDs, more books, and other gifts, all special and unique.

We finished the evening with cake, coffee, and, this year, White Christmas in the DVD player. It was the perfect end to a perfect day. R-G and I have prepared meals together before, but nothing this extravagant. I can't think of a better way to spend a day than working in tandem with one of my closest friends creating something fine for the people we love.

Now.....what shall we do next year?.....

Monday, December 4, 2006

This One is for My Dad

My dad (step-dad, really) died over 18 years ago. He was in his late 30's when his heart failed him. He was a pillar of strength and knowledge. It shocked us that he should be undone by his own body.

My dad was a phood phreek. Computers and food. That's what he did. I'm pretty sure I got those bugs from him. I was 11 when he married my mom. Until then it was mostly the three of us girls, Mom, me and my sis, but his influence was there from the time I was 3 years old. Mom put herself through night school in the years when I was young so my sis and I were latchkey kids before the term became popular. Since Mom was home late after work and school most nights, she relied on me and Sis a lot. At first it was washing dishes, setting the table and making the salad for dinner. As we became more able, we helped with preparing dinner. I made an excellent PB&J and, later, a killer baked pork chop. But it wasn't until Mom & Dad got married that I started to pick up on his phreekiness.

He loved flavor. He never ate anything that didn't taste good. He never settled for fast food or flavorless package meals. Everything had to be the best flavor, quality, the freshest ingredients possible. When Breyer's was the "gourmet" ice cream, that was the only kind we had. He was so adamant about flavor that he insisted on organic growing methods. We had a tiny but extremely productive garden in our city yard. When I was 16 he packed us up, moved from the city, out to a small farm. We farmed about 2 acres of the 40 acres we lived on. In the spring we planted peas and beans and had wild asparagus. In the summer it was corn, tomatoes, strawberries, and more. We put up food all summer and into fall, canning and freezing our bounty.

The first winter we lived on the farm, we had a snow storm that dropped 2 feet on us in the course of 3 days. We were stuck on our farm for 2 weeks. Thanks to my dad, we didn't worry a moment about whether or not we had enough to eat. We had a basement full of stewed tomatoes, plum preserves, frozen green beans and half a cow, free range of course, again, before the term became popular.

In the summers we would feast on Sundays. Dad would grill a giant chuck steak, 2 inches thick. Mom, Sis and I would make the sides, salad from our garden, home-made biscuits, steamed green beans or sauteed brussel sprouts. And Dad would make a giant pan of his barbecue sauce. He spent years perfecting that sauce. Trying different measurements and variations of herbs and spices to get it just the way he wanted it. Once he achieved it he finally wrote it down...on his usual recipe card, the inside of a panel from a carton of Winstons...teehee... I still have the last jar of sauce he made. Mom left it with me for safe keeping for a while.

He spent the same kind of time and energy on every recipe he created and more so on everything he did in life. He put his whole heart and soul into his work, his food and his family. I miss him as much today as I did the day we buried him. And I celebrate his zest for life with each new recipe I create.

I have been digging through our family recipes for the past few months, entering them into a recipe manager program, when I found two of his favorite dessert recipes. The first is Old Fashioned Marzipan. He made the best marzipan. It had a warm, sweet almond flavor with hints of cherry and rose. He made them into all kinds of shapes, some in candy moulds, some just with his hands. The other is Gingerbread. He liked his with peaches baked in, sweet and spicy.

Old Fashioned Marzipan

2 cups or 1/2 lb of powdered sugar
16 ounces of almond paste
1 tbsp strong rosewater and/or
1 1/2 tsp maraschino cherry juice
3 1/3 tbsp almond extract

Put all ingredients into a bowl and cut together with a pastry cutter until small pea size crumbs form. Knead with hands. Wash hands with soap and water often while kneading until mix is no longer oily. Shape and allow to dry. Once dry, paint with watered-down food colorings to decorate as desired. Store in an air tight container.


1 stick unsalted butter
2/3 cup sugar
1 egg
2 1/2 cups flour
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
3 tsp ginger
3 tsp cinnamon
1 1/2 tsp cloves
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup molasses
1/2 cup honey
2 cans sliced peaches
1 cup peach juice (from cans)

Melt the butter and add sugar and egg. Beat well. Sift the dry ingredients into a bowl. Combine the juice, molasses and honey into another bowl. Add dry and liquid ingredients alternately to the butter mixture while beating on low. Pour into a 10X13 buttered pan and cover with sliced peaches. Bake at 350F for about 55 minutes.

Please feel free to make both of these for your family and friends. Give credit where credit is due and please do not publish or produce either of these recipes for profit. Enjoy!

Sunday, December 3, 2006

A New York Feast

I so love to travel. I like to move and do and taste. The flavors of other cities are what I love most about travelling. Yes, I go to the museums, see the sites, shop, etc. But I also want to taste things that I can't get at home every day, experience feasts that leave imprints in my memories of those places.

I've spent time in most of the continental states, all but a few in the New England area that I plan on getting to soon. When I was a kid my family, Dad, Mom, Sis and me, would pile into our 1976 VW Microbus and travel cross country to camp in Idaho, Montana or the Dakotas to go rock hounding. Some of my favorite childhood memories are of waking up to the chilly morning air high in the Rockies in Motana and stepping out of our tent to the smell of bacon and eggs on the camp fire to greet us. Sure, I can get bacon and eggs every day if I want, but not so often cooked over an open fire on a cold morning in oh, so very Big Sky Country.

I've been to Toronto, but that's about it for crossing the borders so far. I went with my friends to a Sci-Fi convention. It was a great trip with much discovery and many memories I will hold for a lifetime. I was introduced to Single Malt Scotch in Toronto. Oh, my! And Marche: The Movable Feast. Now there's a place for an amazing breakfast. We went to 360, the restaurant at the top of the CN Tower. The food was marvelous from what I remember. That was the morning after learning about scotch. I do recall that the view from up there was amazing.

Some of my friends and I are planning a trip to Great Britain next year. We have a spreadsheet. Our trip is so that well planned. Yes, we are geeks. But it's what we're good at. Anyway, the couple I'm traveling with has been there so they have already scouted out the great places to eat. Woof! I can't wait to get going on that one....

I recently went to New Jersey for a two day training seminar on a new project I am heading up at work. New Jersey. Yawn. What's to do? My first night was Halloween. I had the best cab driver to the hotel. I had mentioned that I didn't think I would get to see any trick-or-treaters. It was a nice night, about 70F around 6pm and it was full dark. Since the price for that particular trip was already set, he decided to go off the usual route into some of the neighborhoods. I saw fairy princesses, loads of super heroes, a few witches and some mighty but tiny line backers. It was a nice way to spend the drive, slowly moving through the neighborhoods of Clark, NJ. Once I arrived at the hotel and got settled in it was well past time for a meal. Without transportation I was stuck with whatever the hotel had to offer so went to the restaurant. I almost never get decent seafood where I live so like to take advantage of it when I'm on a coast. I had the crab cakes with a Cajun sauce. They were light, fluffy and fully packed with delicious crab. Along with that was a portebello risotto with garlic and lemon. Now that was fine, heady with garlic and earthy mushroom flavor, brightened up with a hint of lemon. I had wandered down to The Valley Mill Grill in the Crowne Plaza without much hope and was very pleasantly surprised.

The next evening, the company hosting the training had arranged dinner for all of us at an Italian place in New York City, right in the heart of the Theatre District. I've been to New York once before for a long weekend of site seeing, shopping and eating. I managed to see a show on Broadway, my first and, hopefully, not my last. So a trip to Manhattan for dinner was about the best thing I could think of to do with an evening.

We went to a place called Carmine's. I was told it is a New York institution. And I now believe that. It is a warm, friendly place with beautiful dark wood walls, theatre curtains separating parties and pictures of New Yorkers hanging all over the place. We were shown to our table where bread and wine were already waiting. A short while later we were served salads, Caesar and Carmine's House. They brought 2 giant platters of both and started them at one end of each table. I took a bit of each and passed the plate down. I felt like I was in my Grandmother's dinning room during Passover with my whole family passing the plates of goodness around. Next was a deep dish pizza pan full of hot antipasto. There were stuffed mushrooms, asparagus wrapped with eggplant and sauteed, baked clams and a smallish serving of pasta with chicken and cheese. There was more wine, a light, lofty red that paired well with everything I had tasted so far.

Now it was time for the pasta course. I thought we were nearing done, but I was so wrong. We were served a rigatoni with sausage and broccoli on one platter and penne alla vodka on the other. Again, I chose small serving of both. Don't want to overdo it too early in the meal. The rigatoni had a bold flavor, using the ripest tomatoes available and an excellent Italian sausage. The penne was smooth and creamy with a mellow vodka flavor in the foreground. That sauce was inspired. It had body and soul, warmth and love poured into it.....And there was more to come.....Entrees of chicken scallopine with lemon butter sauce, salmon and an Eggplant Parmesan that was reaching toward the sky. MMmmm...then desert. How could the meal be complete without freshly made tiramisu and tartufo? And, again, we passed the plates filled with so many flavors down the table.

We talked and laughed and ate for hours. As I looked down the table at the end of the meal, I realized that Carmine's, with it's warm glow and intimate serving style, had just taken 25 strangers and turned them into friends for an evening. We weren't just customers anymore and the trainers were no longer only people I needed information from. The wine, the food and conversation brought all of us to a comfortable level of friendship that pushed our business aside for the evening. Thank you, Carmine's, for letting me taste a new experience with an old way of feasting.