Sunday, December 20, 2009

Holiday Traditions

Everyone has a Christmas tradition or two that they follow faithfully, be it leaving a carrot out for Santa's reindeer, a special ornament for the tree that has to go in just the right place, or a favorite carol that simply must be sung on Christmas Eve (that's "O Holy Night for me in any case).

My family and I are very big on Christmas traditions, some sentimental and some from the lunatic fringe. My father has to watch the movie "It's a Wonderful Life" on Christmas Eve after we return from church. He also managed to convince us that "Santa" would much rather have a ho-ho and a diet Pepsi instead of milk and cookies. And we could always tell which presents "Santa" wrapped, since those were the ones covered in at least 70 pieces of tape, versus the ones from my mother, which were always pristinely wrapped.

We are also very proud of our "ugly" tree. Every ornament and knick-knack from all four children are prominently displayed, including, but not limited to, a green pipe-cleaner ball covered in glue. Some have a much nobler sentiment, like my grandfather's favorite tin soldiers who now hang alongside old baby rattles that my mom just could not bear to part with.
But over the years, new traditions have developed as well, not all of them limited to the family circle.

Three years ago, my roommates and I thought it might be fun to have some girls over for cookie decorating. We broke out a little white wine and icing and enjoyed a couple hours of gossip and sugar highs. Now, people expect this party and have planned accordingly. My roommate literally takes off the night before to bake dozens of sugar cookies from scratch, and then the night of, we make our own icing and go nuts with the decorations, be it sprinkles or red hots, M&M's or food coloring.

To be honest, my cookies suck, at least from an aesthetic standpoint. I just don't have the touch or patience to make beautiful, intricate, clever designs on five different snowmen like my friend Kate. But I enjoy it nonetheless and hell, the cookies taste delicious in the end, so that keeps me happy enough. Plus, it is the one chance we all get to bond as friends over the holidays, no high heels required.

I have found that Christmas dinner is a mixed bag from a lot of people. For Vronsky, it is Thanksgiving redeux, with tons of people and at least two hams. Some people are too wiped out to prepare anything elaborate and they just have leftovers. My family and I fall between the two: we make our own pizzas.

It is certainly not very high-brow, but it is a way for all of us to get in the kitchen together and enjoy both cooking and eating together. And this way, no one person (usually my mom) gets saddled with all the work while everyone else plays with their new toys.

Home-made pizzas are the best. We sautée our own ground beef, select the best chorizo to use in lieu of pepperoni, and have an abundance of onions, mushrooms, olives, sweet peppers, and home-made marinara sauce. I like to load up on the veggies and do just a light layer of ground beef. I love the chorizo, but I prefer that plain with a bit of manchego cheese and Rioja while watching Snoopy and the Peanuts' Christmas special.

My dad and brother on the other hand, load theirs up so thickly with chorizo that their pies take twice as long to cook and are usually burned on the edges, but they say that is how they like them. My mom goes light on the cheese, and my sisters are mushroom fanatics.

Whatever toppings do not make it on the pizzas are parcled out to the pugs, who deserve a little holiday treat as well. The aroma of the baking pizzas are torture for them and we want to make sure they feel included in the holiday cheer, especially since we made them wear those reindeer ears for the Christmas photos.

However, this is what I actually hope to find under the tree. Cute enough to eat!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

William Grimes: Personal Hero

There is nothing I can say about this man that does not come through in this great New York Magazine article that follows him throughout a weekend. Grimes is a former New York Times food critic and book reviewer (he gave one of Pegasus' titles a rave review and that book is still hot, thanks to him), and he is the author of Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York, which is certainly on my Christmas wish list.

Read and be inspired! The man grows his own kale, makes his own Vietnamese-style sandwiches, and has home made coffee-cake every morning, for cryin' out loud!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Santa baby

I got the new Williams Sonoma catalog in the mail yesterday afternoon, which is my guilty pleasure right after the Zingerman's catalog and those weird little SkyMall catalogs you get in the airplanes. I mean, a statue of a giant Yeti to put in your front lawn? Or a scalp massager that also cuts onions? How can you resist?

So, upon browsing through this catalog while waiting for the subway, I saw a few things that I'd love to see under the tree:

An All-clad Gourmet double-burner grill
A new sauce pan or three (in smaller sizes, please, since I have a lot of larger ones)
And I am actually in need of a new pepper-mill

However, there was one thing that caught my eye in this catalog, but not because I particularly want it: there was a whole spread devoted to tools and gadgets to help make baby food. And I'm talking serious stuff. Special silicon trays with "baby food sized" indentations so you can freeze all the heirloom produce you lovingly pulped for your little budding gastronome, who is probably much more interested in what is going on with their diaper than anything you are cooking. Yet they actually have a thing called a "babycook" which is a tiny little steamer and puree-er all in one, and it is not cheap.

I understand the reasoning behind making your own baby food--more economical and you avoid any preservatives or artificial ingredients that might come with regular ol' Gerber food-- and yet this all just seems obsessive to me, even bordering on absurd. I'm all for giving kids a healthy and diverse diet. My parents were always leading by example and exposing us to new foods and never gave us "Lunchables" or nasty stuff like that--we got salami sandwiches with brown mustard for lunch, fresh plums and Asian pears sent over from my grandmother's backyard orchard in California, and we were eating sushi for family dinners long before it became trendy.

But when you do not even have teeth and your day revolves around soiling your own pants, I do not think you are in need of a culinary education just yet. But just to see if my opinions on "baby cook" where valid, I asked my mom, who raised four children who all grew up to be good eaters once they become fully functional.

She laughed out loud. "Make your own baby food? I mean, that's a nice idea, but babies don't eat food. Babies eat what is on the floor or whatever is covered in dog hair. Baby food is for smearing on their face, spitting up, and throwing against the wall." I think for a long time, my mom believed that maybe modern science had it all wrong...babies actually don't eat through their mouths, but rather absorbed the nutrients directly through their skin. Ha! If only...she does have a point though. You see a baby with food smeared all over its entire body, and boy, do they have a huge grin on their face. Sheer delight!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

I like coffee, I like tea...

I like the boys and the boys like me...or at least that is how the song goes. But seriously, a good strong hot beverage is a wildly underrated form of comfort. It is cheap, makes you feel better, and can cure everything from fatigue to a bad mood or a sore throat. I feel like coffee gets a bad rap, what with this alleged "caffeine" addiction we are all supposed to be afraid of.

Addiction schmadiction. One of the great joys of my morning is making a cup of French-pressed coffee. No Folgers insta-drip for me. I by whole roasted beans from Garden of Eden, Folgers, Trader Joe's, or even Starbucks if it comes down to it, have them specially ground to "coarse" and use my little French press religiously. It is actually much more economical than a regular Mr. Coffee, since you don't have to use a new paper filter each day, and the difference in taste is beyond compare.

For those of you unfamiliar with a French press, it is this little glass pitcher with a lid that has a mesh "plunger" attached to it. Put a few scoops of your favorite blend in the pitcher, boil some water in your kettle while you eat your cereal/dry your hair/primp, and once the water comes to a boil, pour over the grinds, let it sit, give it a stir or two with a spoon, put the lid on and push the plunger down which pushes all the grinds down to the bottom while the yummy coffee goes to the top. Pour and enjoy.

This coffee is so rich and flavorful, I haven't taken coffee with milk or sugar in years. It has a thickness to it that warms you to the bone, and a good french press will give you those foamy bubbles at the top of your cup. I cannot image starting my day without this little ritual, and if it makes mornings more bearable, what is the harm? I think what has given coffee such a bad rap is all the nasty frappachino blends laden with sugar and lord knows what else that are ubiquitous today, plus the fact that they sell for $7.00. A whole bag of coarse ground beans is at the most $12.00, and it lasts for months. And you can buy a great French press here for $23 and it will last you a lifetime.

On the more wholesome end of the hot beverage spectrum is tea. The good Chinese girl in me has taken my po-po's wisdom to heart. There is nothing that hot tea can't fix. Cramps or insomnia? Chamomile tea will relax your mind and your muscles. Detox or just need to slow down for a minute? Green tea will do the trick, and even cure cancer to boot (according to some). A nice cup of English breakfast or Earl Grey is a perfect way to break up the afternoon and help you get through those 28,349,723 emails that came in while you got up for 5 minutes to make a damn cup of tea. Ginger and lemon sooth a stuffy nose and sore throat, and Jasmine tea, besides tasting incredible, helps prevents cavities.

I had a good friend (who is now on her way to becoming a doctor) who suffered these insane bouts of nausea after a long night. Nothing we tried could settle her stomach, from club soda to toast to pepto bismol (UGH). But one night, I mentioned her troubles in passing to my po-po, who promptly told me to go to a Chinese grocery and find green tea with roasted rice in it. I knew that green tea/tea in general can help settle your stomach, and we had already tried tea for my friend, but she insisted that it was the rice that did the trick. Regular rice settles your stomach, so why not extract that magic property along with the healing power of tea? Plus, it gave the tea a nice nutty flavor that took away some of the inherent bitterness strong green tea, which I usually love but when you're already queasy, might be too much to bear.

Worked like a dream. Funny thing was, for the remainder of the time we lived together, only I had the magic touch required to make this tea that would cure my friend. Every other Sunday or so, I would hear her weak call, "Jess, can you make me the tea?" And even though all this entailed was literally boiling water, somehow I was the only one who could summon up the power.

I have about 10 different types of tea at my office floating inside my bottom drawer. Besides being the coolest person in the office, it has saved me through many a cold and grey afternoons. Buy in bulk at ethnic food stores, whole leaf if you can, (especially for Jasmine) although I like Celestial Seasoning's chamomile and "Sleepy Time" tea for herbal cups, available in all grocery stores.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Leave the gun, take the...pumpkin bread?

My sweet, lovely roommate got mugged the other night returning from a book club meeting (ah, hazards of hazards). That in and of itself is not funny at all. Actually, it is quite scary and serves as a reminder for all of us to be careful out there!

Being the hostess with the most-ess (or rather, the "best guest" since someone else was hosting said book club), she had baked two loves of pumpkin bread. One for the meeting, and one to bring home for us to nosh on while we watched the season finale of Top Chef.

So here she is, tra-la-la, walking to the subway stop way the hell up on 116th street, and a man comes up to her and tells her to give him her wallet. Knowing that it is proper mugging procedure to just give them whatever the hell they want, as nothing is worth bodily harm or worse, she slowly starts to reach into her purse, moving her arm in such a way as to inadvertantly display the plastic baggie with said bread inside it.

The man looks at it, looks at her and says, "Actually, I'll just have that." He then takes the bread and books it the hell outta there.

What?! I mean, this is awesome on a lot of levels, first and foremost being that she was safe, secondly that the trouble of having to replace her ID, credit cards, etc. was spared, and thirdly...pumpkin bread? I love it well enough, but who knew?

The lesson we can all take from this is: when venturing out into rough, sparsely populated neighborhoods, always carry prominently displayed baked goods.

I only wonder if my home-made pumpkin pie would have had the same effect?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Tickity-tack glory

I love Chinese food--white rice increases my life force, I could eat roasted duck until I am sick, and get double helpings of bok choy in garlic sauce any day of the week. When I was 4 and going through an extremely "picky" eating phase as a way of punishing my parents for having my sister, Amanda, the only thing I would deign to eat was...wait for it...sea food chow fun.

Needless to say, I was a bizarre child, but my fixation on classic Cantonese-style Chinese food has never left me. I am extremely fastidious about it, and the taste of kung-pao chicken or orange anything repulses me. It's what Taco Bell is to actual Mexican food.

The irony is, in a city of thousands of Chinese restaurants, it is hard to find one that isn't complete tourist fare or squarely in the take-out category, at least in my experience. Back home in DC, my family was devoted to Mark's Duck House, a loud, rowdy, sit-down brasserie that served amazing Hong-Kong style Chinese food. It even got my grandma's seal of approval when she visited, and I literally do not think that we have eaten at any other Chinese restaurant in ten years. It is Chinese food at its best, and I have yet to find a comparable place here in NYC. The fact that I actually don't speak any Chinese doesn't help matters.

However, I think my search might finally be making some progress. Tonight, Vronsky and I went to "Congee Village" down on Allen Street and it was fabulous. Neon lights call to you from three blocks away, and there is a waterfall as you walk in the door. It is Chinatown excess at its best, complete with multiple karaoke bars.

And clearly, the food matched up to the décor. The duck was excellent, although it was steamed rather than roasted, which is still my preference (the skin MUST be crispy!). The pot-stickers were nice and plump, the gia-lan (Chinese broccoli) perfectly sautéed, the scallops nice and juicy. Vronsky and I weren't hungry enough to get into any of the noodle dishes (sea food chow fun is usually my litmus test), nor were we able to try the soups or another vegetable dish, but I have confidence in Congee Village, and will be back for more.

However, I do not think my search for the perfect Chinese restaurant is over. The food needs to stick in my memory so well that I become a bottomless pit the minute I walk in the door. At Marks, for a family of six, we get: sea food bean curd soup, pot stickers, prawns, clams in black bean sauce, seafood chow fun, beef and gia-lan (broccoli), white rice, a half rack of roast duck, baby bok-choy in garlic sauce, plus five-spice pork and friend rice to go. Bring on the sweat pants!

And that entire meal is centered around the duck, which is picked clean off the lazy Susan in about 4 minutes by the Case clan. While the aforementioned steamed duck at Congee Village was nice, I am still searching for that perfect roast duck to center my experience. I think Congee Village is perfect for group dinners, as it has that fun-festive environment that really jives with a family-style meal, but I think the next on my list of restaurants to try is the Golden Unicorn. I went there for dim sum years ago, just a few weeks after I moved into the city and got hideously lost along the way and showed up so flustered and late that I couldn't really enjoy the food, which was cold by that point. Will report back with my thoughts in due course!

Monday, December 7, 2009

At the risk of sounding like a hypocrite...

....I have just discovered a great brand of canned soup. I know, I know, I just waxed poetic about the virtues of making your own chicken soup, and while I still hold that it tastes better to make your own (and healthier too), sometimes you just don't have the time or wherewithal to do so, and damn it, you want soup NOW.

Amy's Organic Soup is where it's at. It is sold nation-wide, even in my dinky little Associated Supermarket on 22nd Street. It is delicious and cheap, so stock up! I love that the ingredients are almost exactly in line with what it would take to make it at home (no MSG or tons of salt or other preservatives), and the serving size is perfect. For example, their cream of tomato: ORGANIC TOMATO PUREE, FILTERED WATER, ORGANIC CREAM, ORGANIC EVAPORATED CANE JUICE, ORGANIC ONIONS, SEA SALT, SPICES. Nice! This is versus, say Campbell's, which has high-fructose corn syrup, vegetable oil, citric and ascorbic acid, and a lot more salt.

It really lacks that "canned" taste, and has a great texture (not too liquidy, like a lot of pre-packaged soups. I am a big fan of the Creamy Tomato, Lentil, and Spanish Rice and Red Bean. They are a great pantry addition for any late-nights or sick days, when you need some hot comfort food but
can't necessarily leave the house for supplies to make your own chicken soup or juk. (Although to be fair, I am never without rice, chicken, and ginger...).

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

It's the most wonderful time of the year

Or is it? For a lot of people I know, the holiday season causes a surprising amount of stress, be it work-related (everyone is trying to get ten thousand things done before everything closes), socially, financially, and yes, gastronomically as well.

The stress of finding appropriate gifts (and not going broke while doing it) and balancing a social calendar (why does everyone I have ever known, socially and professionally, want to have holiday events on December 10th?), I can completely relate to. Yet people stress out about food during the holidays as well, be it what to bring to potlucks, what to serve at parties and dinners, and of course, how do I enjoy myself without putting on an additional 27 lbs?

However, I think food is the best part of this whole crazy season (aside from the presents of course), and I think it is a good time to experiment and try new things, be it new recipes, restaurants, or that strange h'or dourves being passed around.

As someone who does not have much of a sweet tooth, I am always a bit sad that a lot of traditional holiday treats revolves so heavily around cookies and candy. Not that a well-placed macaroon will ever go amiss, and my roommates and I throw a fab cookie-decorating party each year, but I have vowed to always provide savory treats versus another plate of cookies. After a sugar-laden party, when I come home at night, all I want is salt, salt, and more salt, to counter-act the sweetness of the evening.

A healthy munchie to bring to parties is Avocado Hummus. It is a nice spin on traditional hummus and tastes amazing. Plus, it is super easy to make and all you have to do afterwords is scoop it out of the blender and into some fancy tupperware or saran-wrapped bowl, grab a bag of pita chips or slice up your own pita bread, and you are set to go for any potluck, apartment fete, or secret Santa get-together.

You will need:
  • 1 large ripe avocado
  • 1/2 lb canned chickpeas, rinsed
  • 6 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 4 tablespoons tahini
  • 1-2 garlic clove, crushed
  • salt (to taste)
  • paprika
Cut the avocado in half and remove the pit, scoop out the flesh, and toss into the blender along with everything else listed above, minus the salt and paprika. Blend until creamy. Season with salt to taste, and then garnish with the paprika. You can even slice up some black olives to put on top, or some cucumbers and tomatoes. Yummy for the tummy, and if you do tomatoes, it is even sort of "holiday" colored.

I also really like chili come the winter months...a good base for the stomach, what with all that booze that flows during this time of year, and it is warm and savory. I also love to make a big vat of chicken soup to come home to late at night. It keeps in the fridge for a while and will help ward off any colds that always threaten to throw me off my game as a result of crappy weather and just plain-old exhaustion. It is so easy to make--just some chicken, onions, carrots, celery, salt, pepper, and noodles. WAY better than in a can and the smell it gives off while simmering is as relaxing as any massage or scented candle.

And when it comes to gifts, you can never go wrong with food, be it a basic spice collection, a wine or cheese or even pie club of the month, anything from, or even a nice country ham! ( has some nice ones) A ham might seem random at first, but for people with large families, feeding the entire brood can be daunting, especially when they all come home for the holiday break with rumbly tummies. Plus, ham is nice and salty--a nice addendum to those surgar cookies! Vronsky is sending hams to a lot of people this year, although if he sends one to me instead of something sparkly, he is going to be in for a roasting himself!