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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Christmas Wrap Up (NPI)

*BURP* It was a good holiday.

I'm still recovering from this bug, so I didn't have much energy for Christmas, but I got through it pretty well. I spent all of Monday baking. I made my Triple Chocolate Pudding Pie to take to my brother's and then made a Heath Bar Pound Cake for the party last night. It was a Bundt cake. I managed to get it to fit the pan. I'm learning.

I was already exhausted by the time I got to my brother's place in the afternoon. I didn't have energy to do much more than eat. He served a very nice cheese tray first and then added a plate of smoked fish to the appetizer table. A little while later I looked to the kitchen and noticed at least two one-pound containers of sorpresata. I ran into the kitchen screaming, "You've been holding out on me!" and proceeded to grab several slices. He told me if I had just been patient he would have put out the tray with the roasted peppers and sorpresata. I don't know what took him so long. He had the fish out forever.

He made linguini with clams and shrimp for an entree along with a yummy sprial ham. Side dishes were cheese grits (for a northern family, we eat a lot of cheese grits on holidays) and some roasted root veggies that my mother made (carrots, parsnips, new potatoes, and fennel). My sister in law made a beautiful pear tart, but I was too full to try it.

Kevin and my mother and I went riding during the day on Christmas (horse people are a little nuts) and in the evening we were invited for dinner at the home of one of my mother in law's good friends. I brought the Heath Bar cake to that (recipe can be found in Lisa Yokelson's book Chocolate Chocolate). Our hostess made a huge roast beef and cornish hens with a wild rice pilaf. We also had sweet poatoes and garlicky broccoli and cauliflower. When our hostess brought out the roast, one of the guests said something like, "Wow. It looks like Rachael Ray." AAAAAAAAAAGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!! Why are there people on this planet who would consider a comparison to Rachael Ray's cooking to be a compliment? If someone said something like that about my cooking, they would probably be thrown out of the house. The recipe turned out to be one from Tyler Florence. Well, I have always said that he's Old Reliable when you need a good basic recipe. A few people brought desserts, but mine was the only one that was homemade. I get bragging rights!

Hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas filled with wonderful food!

Friday, December 21, 2007

My Least Favorite Holiday

What's a seafood hater to do?

It's tough to grow up in an Italian family and have to deal with Christmas Eve when you just can't stomach seafood.

Is there any seafood I can tolerate? Sure. I can eat tunafish out of a can if it's very cold and covered in condiments. I can handle fried clams (you can fry your shoe and it will taste good). I have tried (and the emphasis is on tried) to handle foods with anchovies mixed in. Just because I can tolerate it doesn't mean that I enjoy it.

Growing up my maternal grandmother was the worst. She wasn't much of a cook to begin with. (The cooking, including the Italian cooking, was done by my Irish grandfather believe it or not. It was he, and not my grandmother who gleaned the wisdom of my Italian great-grandmother's old-school cooking.) Despite her lack of skill in this department, she would often commandeer the menu on Christmas Eve. She had it in her head that it HAD TO BE ALL FISH. She took it almost as religion. My brother tells me when my great-grandmother was still alive that she would often make other meatless dishes like homemade manicotti. My grandmother felt that since 7 fishes weren't practical for her to cook or for my family to eat in one night, whatever was on the table had to be fishy. She would make pasta, but it would be her mother's version of spaghetti aglia e olio. (My grandmother was born in the US and learned to speak Italian through her native-born parents and grandparents, who were uneducated Napoletani. Grandma always called it something like, "A-ya OI") It didn't just contain garlic and oil though. It contained anchovies. Grandma made me eat it because I could manage to choke it down. She also made tuna salad just for me -cold and covered in mayo, onions, and relish. Since she made it just for me, I was required to eat it.

Grandma was definitely weird about the fish. I can still remember how during Lent she felt that no meat on Friday meant I had to have fish on Friday. She would feed me a tuna sandwich. I don't know why I couldn't just have some meatless pasta.

After many years of spending Christmas with my maternal grandmother, my paternal grandmother began complaining that I never spent Christmas with her. (Dad tended to oraganize the holidays for his side of the family and they tended to be post-Christmas celebrations.) I said, "Let's start a new tradition. We'll have Christmas Eve with you and Christmas day with Grandma Callahan." She loved the idea.

Grandma Tess is a Italian and she's a traditionalist, but she was never one to believe she would go to Hell for breaking tradition. She is also one who HATES to see me not eat. That woman would swallow Drano before she served me a meal of things I could barely tolerate a few bites of. She loves seeing people eat lots and lots and lots of food. Christmas Eve at her house did indeed consist of fish, fish, fish, fish, and fish, but there was also pasta and even CHICKEN.

Grandma Carol has passed away and Grandma Tess is over 90 and living in a nursing home in quite poor health, so Christmas at Grandma's is a thing of the past. The grandchildren have been taking on more of the holiday responsibility these days. My brother is doing Christmas Eve this year (and the entire family is coming just like they did at my place on Thanksgiving) with everyone taking Christmas off. (Have no fear, Kevin and I were invited for dinner at the home of some close friends of his family.)

My brother has assured me that he will not make me eat fish on Christmas Eve. I'm curious to see what he will serve. My brother is a good cook (and quite the grillmaster) and shares my sense of adventure in the kitchen. My sister-in-law is even better. She's an aspiring pastry chef (she has her eye on the French Culinary Institute, which she hopes to attend once both the kids are in school) and her Colombian roots means she makes some pretty fantastic Latin specialites. Her empanadas are to die for. I know dessert will be my domain though. I've already been requested to make another one of those chocolate cream pies I made for Thanksgiving.

Hmmmm...I wonder if she'll make empanadas for Christmas Eve.

I hope they're not fish empanadas.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Converting Your Cravings into Dessert

As I stated in my last blog, my lingering illness has killed my ability to taste much and has upped my cravings for starchy foods (and I'm normally a carniverous protein craver). I was really aching for some kind of sweet roll or bread on Tuesday. I had nothing in the house, but there is a decent bakery on my block, so I braved the cold to go and out see what they offered.

I had been hoping they would have challah bread or some of their crumb-topped sweet rolls, but they were out by the time I got there. I spotted something interesting on a back shelf though and asked what it was. I was told it was a coffee ring. They had a cinnamon raisin one and a cinnamon almond one. I also got a few strange looks for not knowing what it was. Cut me some slack. My brain is foggy!

I took home the almond one and tore into it. I cut myself a very large chunk. After a few bites that I was unable to taste, my desire for more of it diminished. I'd had enough.

Now I was stuck with a big portion of leftover coffee ring. What to do with it?

Have I mentioned lately how much I love remaking leftovers?

I mixed 2 cups of milk with two eggs, a half cup of sugar, a few shakes of cinnamon, and a half cup of amaretto. I tore up the remaining 80% of that coffee ring and soaked it in the egg and milk mixture. I poured it into a buttered baking dish and baked it at 350 for 45 minutes.

I brought my Amaretto Bread Pudding to work yesterday. It was quite popular with my coworkers. I was glad I bought that coffee ring in the end. I may have been tired of it eating it as it was, but it made over beautifully.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Musings on Comfort Food

I had planned a blog about the wings I had made for a party on Saturday night. I had come up with what I hoped would be a butt-kicking, Thai-inspired recipe that contained fish sauce, rice vinegar, brown sugar, and lots of sriracha. The wings came out a little lackluster (too sweet) and I stayed at the party less than an hour because I was just too sick.

I have been laid low by the worst bug I've had in a long time. I've suffered from everything from a bad cough, to a headache, to a high fever, to an unrelenting leaky-faucet nose (I went through 3 boxes of tissues in 2 days) in this past week. Food means very little to me because I can't taste a thing.

I do find myself wanting to eat though. My appetite and hunger are both diminished. While they do rear their heads from time to time, my cravings are so different from what they might be when I'm healthy. I have wanted things like macaroni and cheese, grilled cheese sandwiches, spaghetti with garlic butter and parmesan, lo mein noodles (good thing Kevin and I ordered Chinese over the weekend), and warm challah bread with butter. I'm not craving anything super sweet and I'm not craving meats the way I normally do.

This got me thinking about the nature of comfort foods. I have always had trouble defining "comfort food" for myself. I always thought of roast chicken as a great comfort food because parts of it are pleasingly high in fat, and it appeals to my base instinct of ripping into flesh. I love tearing into a whole chicken. Since I have had this bug, chicken doesn't appeal to me. I want starch and I want creaminess and fat. Comfort food is as much about texture as it is about taste . I can't taste a thing these days, but I want my food to feel a certain way.

I started to think about what foods I eat for comfort when I'm healthy, but mentally distressed. It's times like those when I go for the sweet ice cream, the fried chicken, and the stuffed pork chops. When my nose isn't stuffed, I want more flavor and am likely to crave spicy Chinese food or Thai or a nice zesty Italian marinara sauce on my pasta.

I want to pay more attention to this sort of thing in the future. It's quite interesting to note the things I won't most depending on my state of physical and mental health.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Put on Your Yarmulke...

Kevin's family has never really been into celebrating the Hanukah thing. I never really got the impression that he missed it. I think that marrying into a gentile family and having Christmas foisted upon him year after year has been getting to him. Lately he has been expressing a lot of desire to buy a menorah.

I don't know what we would do with a menorah. Kevin never went to Hebrew school, so he wouldn't know the blessing for the candles. We would have to just light a candle every night just to say we lit one.

I can't do a formal celebration, but I can at least do the traditional foods, so last night I attempted something of a traditional feast.

I made a roast chicken with an apricot glaze. I mixed apricot preserves with some red wine vinegar and grated fresh ginger and glazed the chicken with that after I stuffed butter under the skin that was seasoned with allspice and cinnamon. My meat thermometer actually worked when I cooked it this time. The chicken was cooked in time.

For a vegetable I went with my Jewish Holiday Standby of spinach sauteed in butter with dried cranberries and grated nutmeg. That was the easy dish.

The challenge is always the latkes. I am just not a good latke maker. I've tried a number of recipes and followed them to the letter, but I haven't had much success. My latkes are never as crispy as I would like them to be, and always heavier than I want them to be. This time around I tried this recipe. These looked intriguing because they had other flavors than just the potato going on. Kevin doesn't like applesauce or sour cream, so I really have to pack flavor into the latke itself. The recipe was very pancake-like, but I wasn't really thinking about how I'm not great at making traditional breakfast pancakes from scratch either. The pancakes still had somewhat of a heavy and doughy consistency, but Kevin thought they were utterly delicious. The man loves his potatoes no matter how you make them I guess (I am not a fan of poatoes myself). If he likes them, I'll make that recipe again. Flavor-wise I thought they were the best I've made, even they weren't so great not consistency-wise.

I made a special treat this year of doughnuts. Deep frying is another skill I have yet to fully develop, so this was really a challenge. I found this recipe, which is more like zeppole than doughnuts. It's been a long time since I worked with yeast (I have enjoyed making bread in the past, but I just don't have the time to devote to dough risings these days), so it was fun giving it a try again. My biggest problem with making the doughnuts was forming them. I had a hard time getting "rounded tablespoons" full. Many of my doughnuts were far larger than they should have been. The recipe was supposed to make 32 and I made 22. I was pleased that they came out crispy and light. Some of them were a little tough though. I'm not sure what I needed to do to prevent that. They were wonderful with the honey syrup on top.

I'm hoping to attempt matza balls in the spring for passover. I'm saving the schmaltz from whenever I make chicken for that purpose. That will be another culinary adventure.

Anyone have a Bubbe to lend me for help with Jewish Holiday cooking?