December 20, 2011
If you’re Jewish—and maybe even if you’re not—there’s an excellent chance that you will eat latkes sometime before the end of Hanukkah next week (it starts tonight). I fully support this: Latkes are delicious. It wouldn’t be Hanukkah without them. (I’m going with a zucchini-potato version this year to fit in with my low-carb pregnancy diet.) But are you going to eat them all eight nights of the festival of lights? Probably not.
I’ve been thinking it’s time to throw some new food traditions into the Hanukkah mix. I have a few ideas to propose:
Have a fryapalooza. The reason latkes are so associated with the holiday is that they’re fried, evoking the miracle of the oil that was supposed to last no more than one night but lasted for eight. So why stop at shredded potatoes? Have a fried-food fest that would put the Iowa State Fair to shame.
There are at least two ways you could go here. One is down-home, with fried pickles from Homesick Texan; corn dogs from Average Betty (using Hebrew National wieners, of course); Paula Deen’s Southern fried chicken; and don’t forget your veggies—Grit magazine’s fried zucchini, perhaps. For dessert, if you and your guests aren’t doubled over with stomachaches by this time, may I suggest funnel cakes, those crispy fried dough treats dusted with powdered sugar? Moms Who Think shows you how to make them.
Another way to go would be a world tour of fried food. Mediterranean appetizers could include Spanish-inspired smoky fried chickpeas from Food52 or Italian fried olives from Giada De Laurentiis. Japanese tempura vegetables have a lighter, more delicate flavor than their Western counterparts; Leite’s Culinaria shares a recipe from Yotam Ottolenghi’s new vegetable cookbook Plenty (which I’m hoping Hanukkah Harry brings me). And, though less famous than the cheesy Swiss version, fondue bourguignonne, where pieces of meat are speared on a fondue fork and cooked in hot oil, lets your guests get interactive. Make your final stop in Israel for a dessert that really is a Hanukkah tradition, the jelly doughnuts called sufganiyot; Chow shows how it’s done.
Whichever way you decide to go, this fatty menu should probably be followed by a juice cleanse. Of course, you could always space these recipe ideas out over the course of the holiday instead of eating them all in one go. But where’s the fun in that?
Dip it, don’t fry it. There’s no rule that says oil is only for frying. In fact, as Italians and other people from around the Mediterranean have long known, some oil is just too delicious to waste by heating away its flavor. You could host an olive oil tasting party with quality oils and slices of good bread, then follow the tasting with a meal of salads and other dishes that highlight the star ingredient. Kim Vallée and Fine Cooking magazine both offer suggestions for pulling it off.
Eat a miracle (fruit). Unlike the Passover story, which requires the whole Haggadah to explain, the Hanukkah story is told succinctly by the dreidel, the spinning top with four sides spelling out in Hebrew, “A great miracle happened there.” Although the name has more to do with marketing than divine intervention, so-called miracle fruit is pretty neat anyway. Miracle fruit is a West African berry that temporarily alters the way you perceive flavors, turning everything sweet—even something as sour as a lemon—for a while. It’s similar, though much more dramatic, to what happens when you eat an artichoke. The berries are available frozen, dried or in tablet form, or you can buy seedlings and grow your own. You could turn the evening into a game, serving an array of foods, some with bitter or sour flavors, and asking blindfolded guests to guess what they are.
December 16, 2011
Children—though by no means all of them—tend to be fairly picky eaters. Most expand their culinary horizons as they get older, but a few people hold fast to limited diets of safe, familiar things like chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese. My friend and co-worker Niki is one of them.
You know that queasy, I-can’t-bear-to-watch feeling you get watching a show like Bizarre Foods, as host Andrew Zimmern slurps down fried worms or rotten shark meat? Niki feels that way about foods that most of us consider perfectly edible, like eggs or raisins. She has a byzantine list of rules for what she is willing (or, more often, not willing) to eat: No cooked fruit. No “out of context” sweetness (which she defines as anything other than dessert). No cookies with nuts. No soft fruit. No dried fruit. In fact, hardly any fruit other than apples. Cheese only if melted. Tomatoes only in sauce, and then only without chunks. No eggs. No mayonnaise. (Her version of a BLT is a bacon and butter sandwich.)
Everyone has a few popular foods they dislike—the first piece I ever wrote for Food & Think, about my distaste for the ubiquitous herb cilantro, is still one of the blog’s most commented-on—but Niki’s list is so long and inscrutable that she has become a source of fascination to our other co-workers and me.
It turns out scientists are fascinated, too. Researchers at Duke University have been studying picky eating as a bona-fide disorder, with “selective eating” being considered for addition to the next version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, due out in 2013, according to the Wall Street Journal. Although the causes of selective eating aren’t yet known, there appear to be some patterns: smell and texture are often more important than flavor, for instance. A possible link to obsessive-compulsive tendencies is being explored.
With such a limited diet, people with the disorder sometimes find it hinders their social lives or even careers, not to mention the potential for nutritional deficiencies. But if it’s a disorder, is it curable?
Niki is giving it a shot. Although her friends and family have long become accustomed to her quirky preferences, I think the recent attention to her diet at work has caused her to think more about why she feels as she does. A couple of months ago, on the way to lunch to celebrate her 39th birthday, I commented (probably insensitively, in retrospect) that maybe when she was 40 she would start trying new foods.
She decided to do me one better and start that very day. At lunch she ordered her first Bloody Mary—a bacon Bloody Mary, so that there would at least be one ingredient she knew she liked. It didn’t go over well.
But Niki persisted. She resolved to eat a new food every day until her 40th birthday. She started a blog called Picky Niki (with the tagline: Choking Down 365 New Foods) to chart her results. So far many of the foods have bombed, but she has discovered a handful that she can tolerate, and a few she really likes. If she sticks with it for the rest of the year, her repertoire will have expanded considerably.
As for me, I will try to be more understanding of her predicament and stop the teasing. I admire what she’s doing, and truly hope it opens up new possibilities for her. And maybe I’ll even give cilantro another shot. Yecchh.
December 12, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing, we asked for stories about holiday foods that make your holidays. This is a rich subject for Smithsonian and its readers; we have run stories of holiday lefse (and other time-consuming traditional foods), lutefisk, rice grits, sugar plums and the great debate over whether latkes or hamantaschen are the perfect Hanukkah food. Susie Tilton, who has written for Inviting Writing about mysterious greens called cardoons, starts us off with a story about mysterious cookies called… something. She blogs at Sweetie Petitti.
Pasquale’s Italian Wonders
By Susie Tilton
My parents have a Christmas party every year without fail. Even now, with my dad well into his 80s and my mom not far behind, they are making copies of the song book; my mom is practicing the carols on the piano; and the freezers are filling up with party foods.
The highlight for me, for many years, was made the day of the party. My dad, Pasquale, would crank out sheets of sweet dough in the pasta machine. He would then cut the dough with a fluted pastry cutter and fry it in spirals. He would pile the pastry spirals up like a pyramid and cover it in warm honey and nuts. We called it shca-te-la. And therein lies the problem.
One year, when the Internet was still young, I decided that I was going to make them. My dad’s recipe had no name. So I started researching. It is nearly impossible to find anything on the Internet when you have only a phonetic spelling (of a foreign language, no less). I couldn’t find another recipe, history, photo or anything on these things. I am sure it is because we didn’t pronounce the name like most Italians would. My family is from a small mountain town in Puglia, Italy, and the dialect is unlike any other in Italy. There is a lot of French influence in the region, and even many Italians have no idea what people from there are saying! I live in a close-knit community with a fair amount of Italians, so I got on the phone and called the Italian who owns the grocery, the Italian who owns the liquor store and the Italian who has the pasta market, to no avail. They all wanted to help, but when I said shca-te-la, they drew a blank. But I got my dad’s recipe, so I went to work and renamed the pastries Pasquale’s Italian Wonders.
On a recent trip to my ancestral town in Italy, I met the most amazing people. The language barrier was still an issue, but when I said shca-te-la, eyes lit up. They knew exactly what I spoke of! The spelling is schart’llat, which returns no answers in a Google search (although I intend to change that with a blog post), and it is similar to scallidde, a pastry found in some more southern areas of Italy. The pastries were made in spirals as a symbol of approaching heaven, and they are indeed heavenly. I have decided that having the proper name is reason enough to crank up the fryer and make a batch this holiday. But we decided that naming them after Grandpa Pasquale will be the new tradition!
November 30, 2011
Being pregnant during the holidays has its pros and cons, I am discovering. On the upside, I’m counting on getting some maternity clothes for Christmas or Hanukkah, sparing me an expense that would otherwise be an annoyance (after all, I’m only going to wear the stuff for a few months).
On the downside, though, expectant mothers are told to avoid a whole roster of foods that can carry some sort of risk to the fetus: cold cuts, unpasteurized cheese, high-mercury fish, eggs that aren’t cooked through, and the list goes on. After sushi and sunny-side-up eggs, the thing that I am missing most this season is being able to have a glass of wine or a celebratory cocktail. That beer my husband and I are home-brewing? Off-limits for now.
So, lately I have been getting acquainted with a part of the menu I used to ignore: “mocktails.” Going beyond the usual soft drinks, some bars and restaurants are starting to get creative with their nonalcoholic beverages—good news for pregnant ladies, designated drivers, people younger than 21 and anyone else abstaining from alcohol.
I got my first taste of mocktails as a little girl, ordering a Shirley Temple on those rare occasions when my family ate out at a real restaurant. Even though I never saw an adult drink one of these sugary concoctions, I always felt very mature ordering one. It had all the trappings of a grown-up drink: multiple ingredients, a flashy name and, most important, a maraschino cherry garnish.
These same elements—with slightly more sophisticated ingredients—form the modern mocktail. There are whole books of mocktail recipes aimed at pregnant women, including Preggatinis: Mixology for the Mom-to-Be, by Natalie Bovis-Nelsen (who blogs as The Liquid Muse) and Margarita Mama: Mocktails for Moms-to-Be, by Alyssa D. Gusenoff. The drinks have names like the Cosmom, the Baby Bump Breeze and the Swollen Feet Fizz.
Some mocktails are simply “virgin” versions of common cocktails, altered only by the omission of alcohol, or with a little seltzer, ginger ale or another ingredient replacing the booze. A Virgin Mary, for instance, might have tomato juice, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, horseradish and celery salt—everything but the vodka.
But there’s no need to stop there. Herbs, spices, unusual fruits and flavorings can all elevate a drink to mocktail status. One restaurant near me makes a drink with pineapple, lime and orange juices, seltzer and fresh basil leaves. Martha Stewart combines ginger syrup with sparkling cider and garnishes it with cinnamon sticks and crystallized ginger.
Ethnic markets and the international aisles of the supermarket are good places to look for other ingredients to play around with: tamarind (often available fresh or in juice or concentrate form at Latin American or Asian grocers) for a spicy-sweet flavor; rose or orange blossom water (at Middle Eastern markets); pomegranate syrup (ditto); or one of the unusual soft drink flavors from the U.S.-based Latino brand Goya or imported Mexican sodas (Jarritos is a popular brand), including Jamaica (hibiscus flower), pineapple and “cola champagne”.
The best part of going alcohol-free is that you won’t feel like George Foreman after the Rumble in the Jungle the next morning. Unless, of course, you’re suffering from morning sickness.
November 7, 2011
After a month of reconciliation stories, it’s time to move on to a new Inviting Writing theme. For November, we turn to the subject on many minds: Thanksgiving, with or without the capital T. Whether you have a story about the holiday meal itself, being thankful about something related to food, or edible expressions of gratitude, we want to hear it. Send your true, original essays to FoodandThink@gmail.com, along with a couple of biographical details (name, location, personal blog URL if you have one) before November 11. We’ll read them all and post our favorites over the next few Mondays.
I’ll get things started.
You May Find Yourself in Another Part of the World
By Lisa Bramen
Every so often I have a David Byrne moment. I’m referring to the Talking Heads frontman who, in the song “Once in a Lifetime,” asks, “Well, how did I get here?”
One of those moments was a couple of weeks ago, as I sat around a bonfire at the pig roast and potluck dinner being thrown in the parking lot of the local motel, eating deviled eggs and baked beans and listening to my neighbors discuss the merits of various forms of home heating—a frequent topic of conversation in these northerly parts.
Seven years ago, I was still living in Los Angeles, drinking appletinis or mojitos or whatever was then in vogue, in bars where the talk often centered on the machinations of Hollywood. I hated my job in advertising. I hated my life. So, as I chuckled to myself about the strange twists of fate that brought me to an aging motel’s parking lot on a frigid October evening, my follow-up thought wasn’t, as in the song, “My god, what have I done?” It was, “Thank God.”
The motel is one of only a handful of businesses in my small hamlet in the Adirondack Mountains. The others are a post office, an upholstery shop that doubles as a music and theater venue called the Recovery Lounge, and the library (not technically a business, I know). There used to be an antiques barn and a bakery that was open only on summer weekends, but they, along with about a dozen houses—including the home of the widow of late toy designer/theme park pioneer Arto Monaco—were destroyed when Hurricane Irene veered inland this August and caused the Ausable River, which runs through the center of town, to rise some 12 feet above flood stage. Thankfully, no one died in the flood, save a retired amusement park pony named Pickles, who was swept away in spite of the valiant rescue efforts of my neighbor. But in a community of less than 200 people, it was a major blow.
Still, having lived through larger catastrophes elsewhere—I was in college in San Francisco during the 1989 earthquake and in Southern California during the 1994 Northridge earthquake—I can say with confidence that no one does disaster relief like a small town. Since the flood, nearly every weekend has had some kind of aid event: a firewood donation drive, library clean-up parties, fundraising concerts. The potluck and pig roast was one of them.
I’ve lived in this place for two years now, and I already know far more of my neighbors than I did in any of the cities or suburbs where I lived for up to 10 years. These neighbors come from all different backgrounds, many quite different from my own, though most are good company around a bonfire. Many of them know how to do something useful in an emergency—wield a chain saw, fix a generator, bake a half-dozen pies. Quite a few volunteer on the local fire department or ambulance squad; they helped rescue stranded homeowners from the flood.
I sometimes miss things about city life—not least the availability of good, multi-ethnic food. But all things considered, I’m just fine with deviled eggs and baked beans. Even thankful.