Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A Time to Eat ...

The sausages were the last ones. Not sure why, but mom and dad always made sausages at the very end of the cooking day. We lived in this 3 bedroom, maybe 1000 sqf apartment, on the 3rd floor of this high rise, with stores at the ground level – it’s what’s common back in Eastern Europe, I guess, for city living. And they would cook, every day, 365 days a year. Even when we went on vacation – it had to be somewhere with a kitchen.

Around Christmas, they would buy a whole pig, or maybe just half, whatever they could afford that year. And the animal came with everything – guts and feet and all. About two weeks before Christmas or so, they would stuff the intestines with ground meat and spices. And we, kids, helped. Mom and dad would spin the handle on the sausage making machine and my sister and I would form them, and twist the intestine at equal intervals. I remember this was always done at night. I think it might have been because it was such a messy job, the kitchen was unusable after this! But I could be wrong!

Then, we would dry the sausages in the cold winter air, on a laundry line, in our balcony, till right at Christmas, when we would fry them. But this is how the Christmas cooking marathon began!

Nowadays, although I shortened the cooking time, and I made a lot of adjustments to eat a bit lighter,  I still make what by American standards is considered a lot of food around The Holidays. I don’t buy a whole pig, or even half. Matter of fact, except for the HoneyBaked Ham, I don’t have any pig at all! But I still cook till the fridge looks lopsided. Mom and dad, however, are hardly impressed with my amounts! They have three fridges and a freezer, and they stuff them full around this time. They might make anywhere between 20 to 45 courses of food, for the whole week between Christmas and New Years – depending on how many people are announced to show up.

My “minimarathon” of cooking lasts for about 2-3 days, compared to their “weeks”. And this makes me feel lazy!

Following a suggestion of a dear friend (also Eastern European buddy who knows what I am talking about – maybe?!), I have written this post, to summarize at least my Christmas menu this year. There is a new one for New Year’s but let’s eat Christmas first!

It started on Saturday morning, on the 22. From back in the day of my single life, I have always had a get together for my friends the week before Christmas or so. I have no family around, usually, and I know everyone does, so I try to "see" them before their family obligations kidnap them "the day of". 

For this pre-Christmas gathering, I do try to make mostly "American friendly" foods. No pig's feet or guts in the menu. This time, it was not all homemade foods, either: I did get some help from the store, in the form of some mini-quiches that you just bake for 15 minutes or so to warm up! Those things are the best! Any store might have them, but I get the party size boxes, at Costco. 

Let's call this "semi-homemade" (sorry, Sandra Lee!): these are turkey smokies wrapped in turkey bacon. Yes, you can tell the difference, but they are delicious nonetheless! Took maybe 20 minutes to wrap these and another 20 to cook, maybe?!

A Christmas tradition: HoneyBaked Ham sandwiches, this time in croissants.
Need I say more?!  I believe that mustard, mayo or other condiments ruin this sandwich, so I serve it naked! You spoil at your own risk if you use all this other "stuff". 

Fingerling potatoes medley, with herbs, garlic, green onions and (turkey) bacon. All you do is wash the potatoes, cube them, toss them on a cookie sheet with the above ingredients and olive oil, salt and pepper, and roast them in the oven till the potatoes are soft. This was the side for the ham sammies. 

I had two pots of soup, too. They were both hearty, but very different: the first one was a Southern potato and bacon soup, which was passed on to me by my lovely Virginia best friend. She knows her recipes of slow cooking onions and bacon in the Dutch oven, let me tell you. This soup is a winner if you want sometime rich, starchy and comforting! It cures whatever ails you!
 The second one came from a former NC co-worker, and it was an Indian chili - almost at the other end of the spectrum from the potato soup: several kinds of beans, corn, ground meat, peppers and onions spiced up in tabasco sauce. So good for cold winters! 

The meal was complete with my husband's shortbread cookies, which, no matter what he says, they are delicious! No pictures of those ... but trust you me - they are insane! Also, what's a Christmas party without the eggnog?! It was delicious, if I say so myself. 

I seem to be copying recipes from everyone I know, and I make the eggnog somewhat similar to one of my NJ friends: I pour it in  a bowl and I mix in vanilla ice-cream and lots of nutmeg! I don't whip it, or anything - I just let the vanilla scoops float till they melt. Then, I add the rum right when I am getting ready to drink it, right in my glass! This way, the rum doesn't "evaporate". The richness of the ice-cream (like you needed more richness, right?!) makes it so smooth and warming ... just coats you inside. 

I have never seen this brand of eggnog till this year - but it is delicious. And no, you absolutely cannot tell it is low fat! No way! Absolutely recommend it! 

I took a break on Sunday, but then the cooking extravaganza continued on Monday, the 24th. A couple of people at work asked me whether I do Christmas breakfast or Christmas dinner. Well – I do both, and Christmas Eve dinner, too! But, again, this is nothing compared to how I grew up! Christmas is 3 full days back home, plus the Eve! So, we do three breakfasts and 4 dinners for Christmas, with some lunches thrown in between. Somewhat the same thing for New Years!

But let’s not digress!

So, on Monday (Christmas Eve, for those of you following), I cooked for “us” – meaning for my and my husband's Christmas Eve, Christmas breakfast and dinner. I'll have to warn you, though, this time things would get more adventuresome. I did squeeze in at least one Romanian mainstay or two! 

The day started with prepping for my Christmas breakfast casserole. This year, I made my bread - ground turkey - salsa - egg - and - cheese casserole. I always mix everything together the day before, and refrigerate it till before I put it in the oven. I always use my magic ingredient (coriander) for sauteing all my ground meats! 

This is the finished product, alongside a tomato and cucumber salad. It's a very, very simple recipe, but the salsa gives it the intricacies you'd least be expecting. 

One of the sides I made for the ham was my Romanian peas. The peas are fresh or frozen, and they saute in onion, olive oil and dill for a while. Then, I add tomato sauce and let them get soft. At the very end, I add crushed garlic and let them be, till they're ready to eat. They are very similar to Greek green beans, if you ever had those. 

This is the one dish I was craving painfully this year: turkey in aspic! I don't think there is one holiday, one birthday, one funeral, whatever ... in Romania without aspic on the table! This is just the turkey carcass boiling. The pot is full of water in the beginning. By the end of it all, it's about a third of the pot, and the meat comes easily off the bones. 

At the end of it all, you add a whole (peeled) onion and some chopped carrots to the pot, along with some extra non-flavored gelatin. You strain the soup through a colander in a Pyrex dish, and you pick just the meat and carrots from the pot, and add them to the soup. Put in the fridge (not freezer!) and in a couple of hours it looks like this. I forgot to say: at the very end of the cooking process you a add lot, and I repeat, an insane amount, of crushed up garlic to the mix! It needs to be supergarlicy - as garlicy as you can handle! 

I have this jar of crushed garlic in salty water on hand at all times in my fridge, because virtually every Romanian food except sugar cookies ask for garlic - I added about half of it to that third pot of turkey "soup". 

I try to make "something new" every year, and this was my new recipe, courtesy of Alton Brown, on Food Network: a "throw away" cheese dip. You look in your fridge for ANY kind of old cheeses. It could be aged, or fresh - it won't matter. Cut the rinds and old parts off the aged cheeses, and cube the good parts. Add any cheese, really (cream cheese, fresh goat cheese was OK for us!) and add butter, a clove of garlic, some fresh herbs if you have them and half of a cup (or whatever you think is right) glass of white wine. Mix everything in a food processor for about 2 whole minutes (needs to be really creamy!). Spread this on crackers and pass out! Let me tell you - Alton knows his stuff! 

Another tradition I copied from my NJ friends is mimosas on Christmas morning. We just cannot open presents without them! And really, with all this food and presents for excitement, no one will ever know how much you spent on that champagne! 

And what would Christmas, and any holiday, dinner or meal for that matter be without ... mashed potatoes! I can promise you, unless I have Alzheimer's, I will make these forever and again, right next to any meat, fake meat, non meat you can think of. This is an oath!  

After writing all these, I can tell you one thing: almost every person that has touched my life in any significant way, has left a food print in my kitchen! If you recognized yourself in any of these dishes it's because we shared a special time, and you will be with me, no matter how far I'll travel and no matter how long it'll be till you hear from me. 

Because of my family and their heritage of making not only food, but cooking such an intrinsic part of living, my heart will always be connected to those I love and those that love me back through the foods we share, on special times like Christmas.  

I hope you find some traditions of your own, in your immediate family, or even among your closest pals that you can enjoy, and share forward with those you love! 

Happy Eating Season, everyone. I hope everyone had a bountiful, flavorful weekend, and here's for more good food and good people, in the New Year, too! 

Sunday, December 09, 2012

A Multicultural Week

It started with Monday. As any new week would.
We had reservations for a food-and-wine pairing, at The Communal Restaurant   in downtown Provo. The winery that was featured was from Napa Valley, our favorite, and its name was Judd’s Hill . The wine maker was there, and it was a ton of fun to hear him energized about his juices! He should have been excited, too: they had indeed the first chardonnay that I didn’t hate, and that says something. Their reds were a bit way dry for me, however. But it is me, not them!  

The menu from our food and wine pairing

You’ll have to know a bit about the Communal. It’s this little, maybe 500 sqf place in downtown Provo, and all it has is three tables. Three huge tables, that accommodate oh, I don’t know between 10 and 20 people each. And you sit down right across and next to strangers and you feel just like you feel when you’re on a plane: stuck, that is: you’ve got a stranger; and some food, and two hours to spare. What are you going to do?! Ignore? Or participate?! 

The rabbit, cooked three ways, and the beef and beet dish. I had a hard time eating something as pretty as this!

We participated! We met some cool out-of-towners, in town for business, and some “neighbors” from Springville. Amazing that people who grew up around here would entertain the beautiful decadence of wine-and-good-food pairings. Thou shalt not judge.   

The food came in small portions, but it was so delicious. My favorite was the rabbit. Especially the roasted one. It reminded me of this rabbit onion stew mom used to make every fall when my dad’s uncle would bring us his hunted rabbits. So yum!

The beef was a bit … bloody for me, but then again, I am no good judge – I never eat it. The whole night was an experience – the food was gourmet and unusually delicious, not something you can get at any ol’ restaurant every day, and the wine was well paired and complemented it well. It felt like a trip to Europe for sure: good food, small portions, good wine and close encounters. Definitely not recommended if stepping out of your comfort zone is not your thing.

And then, there was Friday. We went out for my work team outing, to Texas Roadhouse. If there is such a thing as going to hell for killing beef, these people have the expressway ticket, let me tell you!

I know that for most Americans this is not a cultural experience, but it is for me. I have never seen this much steak on one table in my whole life! From our table top of 8 people, 6 got some form of steak, one got a form of burger, and I got the shrimp. I have no idea how people can eat enormous amounts of steak! I would want to look like Mr. Universe and demand my money back if it didn’t happen after so much red meat!

After the dinner, we went to the newest James Bond Movie, Skyfall. So, the evening ended nicely, with us being teleported from Texas, back to the Motherland, in England. It was one of the best Bond movies yet, according to the aficionados in the audience and … to my husband, too. It was really a lovely evening.

On Saturday, we first went to a traditional Italian pizzeria, Settebello in Salt Late City. I loved the pizza! I have never been to Italy, but it reminded me of Amsterdam Italian pizza – just thin crust and healthy tasting – chockfull of fresh cheese and tomatoes, with an aftertaste of burnt wood, from the real brick oven it just came out of . None of the goopiness and plasticness of the American pizzas. Mine was loaded with garlic. So much so that I had to chew some peppermint gum after it, so I won’t offend my concert neighbors! Pair that up with a nice, smoother than silk Italian pino grigio, and the dinner was amazing!

After dinner, we had tickets for the Utah Symphony, in Salt Lake City. I have not been to The Symphony for many, many, oh, too … many years. I enjoyed it like the fasting son enjoys the first sign of water after fasting for a long time in the desert! We watched a Debussy and Ravel concert, and it was amazing! I loved the fact that for two hours there were no violations by technology in the space of the elegant Abravanel Hall! No electronic instruments, not even the sight of an electronic panel monitoring the sound or the lights! Just pure music, old fashionedly played instruments and beautiful, masterful sounds. Just the way they have been doing it since … the invention of music, I guess! The piano player from France, played an entire piano and orchestra concerto from memory. No paper reminders! It was a beautiful and humbling escape. 

The gorgeous glass sculpture in the lobby of Abravanel Hall


Temple Square and the surrounding streets, as seen from inside Abravanel Hall


Waiting for the concert to start. 

When we got out, the city was wearing the winter coat. Snow, sleet and ice was frosting every corner of it! The usual 45 minute drive home expanded to 2 hours on Saturday night! The roads were slick and the traffic thick. (Rhyme not intended.) But laying down in bed, and looking back, we have no complaints. 

Welcome to Winter, and Happy Holidays, too, from SLC, UT!

I feel like I have traveled between California to France, and then England, back to Texas and yet back to Italy and France in the span of five days without moving so much more than 40 miles from where we live.
I love America. And the one thing I love her the most for is … that it allows for all of us, immigrants, to bring home to us, instead of make us travel to it. All this, while letting us explore what it has to generously offer on its own, too.