Three Little Words

In a recent burst of culinary enthusiasm, I decided to unleash my inner Latina by whipping up a Mexican fiesta, complete with fresh guacamole, salsa, fish tacos, refried beans and a sweet, slippery flan. (Ancestral Disclaimer: I possess not a drop of Hispanic blood, but I believe there is a sexy Chicana residing deep within my soul. Her name is Velvita Montecombo).

Compiling the selected recipes from Epicurious, I added all the ingredients to my weekly shopping list. There were some exotic components that I’d never heard of before so, while I’m familiar with almost everything in the produce department, I wouldn’t know a tomatillo from a Tommy Mattola.  It was clear I’d need some professional help on this expedition. With list in hand, I drove to the supermarket.

While perusing the peppers, I recognized bells, jalapeños, and pepperoncini…but beyond that, I was out of my depth. It was then that I sought out the produce manager.

“Excuse me,” I said, “Can you tell me where the habaneros and tomatillos are?”

He pointed, in a vague way, toward the bulk vegetable section. Now, right off the bat, I could tell we were going to have a rocky relationship. You see, unless I’m asking an Irish Setter where the ducks are, I expect words in response to my queries, not pointing.

“Over there?” I asked, giving him another opportunity to articulate.

He nodded his head in the affirmative, still remaining silent (although he may have grunted – I’m not sure).

Walking to where he gestured, I discovered a small cardboard box filled with a hodgepodge of peppers. There were round red ones, long green ones, short green ones, long red ones, round green ones…you get the picture.

 

Peter Piper Picked A Peck Of These

Peter Piper Picked A Peck Of These

“These?” I called to him. He ignored me, which got me (and Velvita) feeling caliente – and not in a good way. I sashayed up to him (Velvita sashays) and asked, “Can you come over here for a minute, please?”

He looked put out, but followed me nonetheless.

“Are any of these tomatillos?” I asked again.

“The green ones.” It speaks!

There were no fewer than three completely distinctive varieties of green vegetables in there.

“Which green ones?” I pressed. “They’re all different.”

“The green ones,” he repeated.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, our uncooperative produce manager was finding it impossible to utter those three little words: I. Don’t. Know.

Funny thing about the phrase I don’t know…it’s like a multi-purpose magic wand. Not only is it a free pass for getting out of answering questions (lawyers hate it, because where can you go from “I don’t know”?); but it’s also a valuable time-saver for the person on the receiving end (unless you enjoy a spirited wild goose chase now and again).

Rather than tango any further with Mr. Nohelpatall, I turned to my trusty iPhone and searched Google images for “habanero and tomatillo.” Voila! Not only did it immediately solve my problem, it taught me two things: 1) Habaneros are the same things as Scotch bonnets and 2) one day it will be necessary for computers to replace humans. Otherwise, salsa will become extinct.

I showed him my phone and said, “In case you’re interested, these are what they look like!” Velvita can be a little bitchy.

I bagged my peppers, shot him a derisive glare and huffed off.  He couldn’t have cared less.

Next stop, the aisle dedicated to garbage bags, plastic wrap, and cleaning supplies. I had recycling bags on my list, but couldn’t find any. Since I’m a glutton for punishment, but also an eternal optimist, I enlisted the help of another store employee.

“Excuse me, do you sell recycling bags? I don’t see them.”

“Yes,” he said. Words! I was hopeful. “They’re over there.” He pointed to an enclosed section at the front of the store. The sign above the door read, “Recycling Center.” It’s where people redeem their bottles and cans.  Hmm…

“Are you telling me that’s where you stock recycling bags for purchase?”

A blank stare on his part. A heavy sigh on mine. Here we go again, I thought.

“Um, yeah?” Haltingly answering my question with a question did not come across as certainty.

Even though I knew better, I went to the recycling center. Of course, there is nothing for purchase in the recycling center, ever.  Google couldn’t help me out with that one, so it was Amazon Prime to the rescue.

It’s so refreshing to know that I can go to Google, Epicurious or Amazon, with complete confidence. I’ve never searched for a brisket recipe and had Epicurious answer me with one for quiche. If Google doesn’t have what I’ve typed, it will help out by asking, “Do you mean gobbledygook?” And Amazon will help me narrow down my search by suggesting “gobbledygook in All Departments? In Music? In Books? Etc.” And if I ask for something they can’t find, they will tell me in no uncertain terms.

Why don’t (won’t) humans do that?

I don’t know.

Not A Clue

Not A Clue

 

A Perfect Pairing

Recently, my husband and I celebrated out 22nd wedding anniversary.  When people learn we’ve been married that long, they carry on with like we’ve just discovered the cure for psoriasis or something.  But to us, 22 years doesn’t seem like a big deal.  In fact, by our families’ standards, we are rookies.  Hubby’s paternal grandparents (who both lived into their 90’s)  celebrated their 63rd wedding anniversary.  My own parents have been united (unified?  unionized?) for just over 60 years.

My parents on their wedding day.

That’s a long time.  Can you imagine owning the same pair of gloves for over 60 years?  Now imagine belonging to another human being for that length of a time.

Lower those hackles, people!  I know, you winced at my use of the words “owning” and “belonging,” but just what do you think marriage is anyway?  I’ll explain: it is a contract…a binding one.  Breaking that contract is usually very difficult and extremely expensive.  If it weren’t such a big deal, it would be as easy to extricate oneself from a marriage as, say, a gym membership.  Oh, wait a minute…

Ok, let me rephrase that:  Even though it is easier to “uncouple” from your spouse than it was for me to part company with Equinox Fitness (a maddening story for another time), you should consider yourself “locked in” like a long-term mortgage.  And I mean this in the best of ways!

To celebrate our 22 years together, Hubby and I invited our friends Jonas and Vanessa to join us for dinner at a restaurant called Blue Hill at Stone Barns.

What’s that you say?  You’ve never heard of it?  Those in the know simply refer to it as Stone Barns.  It’s one of those farm-to-table joints, and practically everything they serve comes from the fields, and the coops, or the pens.  There are no menus.  Instead, you’re given a little Field and Pasture booklet, which lists the things that are in season for every given month.  Then, you are offered two meal choices: “Grazing, Pecking and Rooting” which consists of many little plates (and I do mean many), or the “Farmer’s Feast,” which offers the same amount of food on fewer plates but with larger portions.   Both are designed around that day’s harvest.  Both selections can be ordered with food alone, or with wine pairings.

While mulling over our choices (the whole table must agree to have the same plan), Jonas and I ordered cocktails.  He wanted a cucumber martini, but was told cucumbers were out of season (they’re not faking it at Stone Barns).  I wished I had brought one with me.  Is that a cucumber in your evening bag, or are you just happy to order a martini?

After a brief confab, the four of us decided to be grazing peckers.  Since Jonas and I were already working on our cocktails, we two opted to graze with wine.  Then we nominated Hubby & Vanessa to be our designated drivers.  They agreed, and so our culinary adventure began.

While taking in the beautiful dining room, our first course arrived.  We were served, what looked like, four little maroon buttons.  Four.  Each one was about the size of a quarter.  They turned out to be beet jerky.  No, that is not a typo.  It was jerky made of beets, not beef. And it was delicious.  If you’re not a beet fan, well, too bad for you because beets are in season and we were served lots of them, in many different forms.  Jonas is not a great lover of beets (or he would have ordered a beet martini), but he still liked them…pretty much.  Vanessa is an accomplished cook.  In fact she has her own catering business.  So she could probably figure out how to make beet jerky, but I don’t think Jonas will be requesting it anytime soon.

While we were enjoying our “buttons,” the sommelier gave Jonas and I our first pairing.  Now, I’ve ordered wine pairings before and I know the drill: savor that pour, ‘cuz you ain’t gettin’ no more!  Not so at Stone Barns, my friends.  Jonas emptied his glass before the course was over and somebody was there lickity split to refill it.

Following the jerky, we munched on kale and cabbage chips, suspended in this weird contraption that looked like a tree.  Yum!

Kale & Cabbage Sitting In A Tree...

Kale & Cabbage Sitting In A Tree…

After that, the vino kept flowing and the plates kept coming. And everything was incredible.

At one point, our server came to our table and brightly suggested, “Let’s take a walk.”

I immediately assumed I had been talking loudly enough to warrant removal from the premises – like I said, they were not being stingy with the wine.  I stared blankly, first at the server and then at Vanessa, who just shrugged.  Hubby informed us that we were being relocated to dine in the kitchen for a course or two.  Sweet!  Why were we invited to go into the kitchen?  Who cares?!  I’ve learned never to question those little perks life occasionally throws your way.

The kitchen was buzzing like Grand Central Station.  It looked like something out of a stylized, swanky movie – shiny and bright, filled with young, good-looking people (and not just because I was sporting a pair of wine goggles).

There was so much food and it was all incredibly delectable, but I knew I’d never be able to remember it all.  So, I wrote some of it down.  We had:

 

Pig's Liver with Chocolate and Mini Beet Burgers

Pig’s Liver with Chocolate and Mini Beet Burgers

  • Pig’s liver with chocolate (Seriously!  And seriously awesome.)

 

  • Teeny tiny beet burgers (with the smallest sesame buns you’ve ever seen)

 

  • Schpeck fresh pea puree with lime (I don’t know what this means either, but it’s what I typed into my iPhone.)

 

  • Beet tartar with quail egg (I told there were lots of beets)

 

  • Smoked trout with crème fraiche and borscht (more beets anyone?)

 

  • A very special beer that only occurs in nature every 17,000 years!  Apparently the malt grains ferment in the fields because the humidity is only just so every 17,000.  Huh?  How would anyone know what happened 17,000 years ago? But again, mine was not to reason why.  Mine was but to drink that crazy, refreshing beer.

 

  • Kohlrabi tacos with carrot salt (FYI: carrot salt is a game changer)

 

  • Venison
We ate off of bark. I swear to God.

We ate off of bark. I swear to God.

Then, on top of all this, dessert was served.  There were merengue worms, white chocolate eggs filled with something sinfully rich, truffles, honey drizzled ice cream and much more!

Dessert Extravaganza

By the time the meal ended, over five hours later, we were stuffed and I was a wee bit tipsy (and by “tipsy” I mean “blotto”).

Jonas was none the worse for wear and proved it when the check arrived.  With the swift precision of a striking cobra WHOOSH he grabbed it before Hubby knew what happened.  We tried to argue, but our dear friends would not hear of it.  Now, let me tell you, this was far beyond generous.  A meal like that doesn’t come on the cheap.  In fact, to fairly reciprocate on their anniversary, Hubby and I will have to gift Jonas and Vanessa with a vacation home in the south of France.

I look forward to our next visit to Blue Hill at Stone Barns.  Oh yes!  We shall return, but next time, I will skip the cocktail and limit myself to two glasses of their fine wine.  And I will bring a cucumber in my evening bag, just in case they’re out of season.

My parents today. Still belonging to each other.

My parents today. Still belonging to each other.

 

 

Fibs, Lies and Chinese Turkey Rolls

The stuff of dreams.

New parents can be pretty amusing as they rattle off all the things they will never do with their children.  Some declarations are honorable: I’ll never serve fast food to my kids!  Some are sensible but unrealistic: I’ll never let them stay up past ten o’clock on a school night!  Some are control-freaky and horrible: Unless they get straight A’s in high school, I won’t help pay for college!  And then there’s my personal favorite, the sweet: I will never lie to my kids! 

Inside, I chuckle.  After all, how cute that they have such high ideals.  It’s like a four-year-old announcing she’ll invent a time machine when she grows up.  You wouldn’t tell her that time travel isn’t possible because why disabuse someone of a lofty goal?  Also, who knows?  If a kindergartener, back in 1960, told you that you’d be reading this on an all-purpose electronic device that also makes visual phone calls, sends mail, plays movies, and puts all the world’s knowledge at your fingertips, you might have dismissed him with, “That’s very nice, Stevie.  Now go clean your room.”  But he would have been right.

So, I just smile when I hear these assertions that they won’t lie to their kids, because I know that this is actually the very first lie of many, and these parents are telling it to themselves.  For example, somebody bought all those Elf On The Shelf toys last December.  What’s that you say?  You don’t consider that lying?  It’s just a playful fib?  Oh.  I see.

I’m not judging you.  Oh no, no, no!  I just want to give you a teensy little reality check.  And I don’t mean to be a spoilsport.  The truth is, I don’t see anything wrong with traditions that lead children to imaginative play, like believing in magical candy-bearing bunnies, or fairies bartering cash for teeth.  In fact, I love them.  And I concede that there’s certainly a distinction between a fib:  Keep making that face and it will freeze that way, a white lie: The supermarket was completely out of ice cream, and a downright whopper: Your real father is an exiled prince.  For his own safety, and ours, I can’t tell you who he is.

Then there are lies of convenience.  These are the lies we tell to save us time, aggravation, or to avoid an awkward conversation for which we are unprepared.  I knew a mother who, when asked the purpose of a certain feminine hygiene product, told her prepubescent daughter that they were shoe inserts used to prevent sore feet.  Then there was the father who gave such a cursory explanation about the birds and the bees, that his 8-year-old son asked, “Next time mommy lays an egg, can I see it?”

It was one of these convenience lies that sent me on a wild goose chase for nearly 25 years.  Here’s how my odyssey began:

Could you fib to this little face?

When I was a little girl, I wasn’t a terribly fussy eater as long as everything you served me was turkey.  Turkey was my favorite and the only “meat” I’d eat.  No matter where my parents took me, turkey was on the menu (or so they said.  I couldn’t read.).

Once, on a visit to New York City’s Chinatown, we stopped at a restaurant for lunch and my parents ordered for me.  When the food came, I was served a warm, bready, fluffy orb, flat on the bottom, and about the size of a softball.  It was golden brown in color with a delicate sheen to its crust.

“What’s this?” I asked my father.

“Turkey,” he said.

I bit into its soft, chewy exterior to discover the most delicious, sweet, moist turkey I had ever tasted.

Thus began my quest for the elusive Chinese Turkey Roll.

When I became old enough to read, I searched the menu of every Chinese restaurant for turkey rolls.  I never found them.  As an adult, I’d ask waiters, “Do you have those rolls?  You know the ones I mean – they’re soft and kind of shiny?  They have turkey in a sweet sauce inside?”

Waiter: “You mean pork bun.”

Me: “Um, no…not pork.  Turkey.”

Waiter:  “No.  No turkey.  Pork!”

This is how it went every time.  They didn’t have what I wanted, so they’d try to sell me on pork buns.  Even though I’d never had one, I knew pork buns weren’t what I craved.  Give me Chinese turkey rolls or nothing.

I once asked my father if these rolls were some sort of delicacy, or if the restaurant in Chinatown made them as a specialty, or if he remembered the name of the place.

“You want to ask me what we ate for lunch 15 years ago?  I don’t remember what I ate for breakfast today,” was his response.

Fast forward to 1986.  I was working as a research director on Wall Street and living on my own in Brooklyn.  My downstairs neighbor, Olivia, called me one night to invite me for dinner.  When I arrived, a deliciously pungent aroma welcomed me at the door.

Olivia greeted me with a hug, “You’re in for a treat!  I was in Chinatown today and picked up lots of goodies.”

After brewing a nice pot of oolong for us, she served our first course: scallion pancakes.  I’d never had them before, but my taste buds had come a long way since I was little. Now I tried new foods all the time (however, turkey was still my favorite).

The pancakes were crispy on the outside, tender on the inside and had a sweet oniony flavor.  We dipped them in a dark sauce that was salty like soy, but slightly sweet and tangy.  Yum!

Then Olivia brought a platter to the table.  It was piled high with, what looked like, smaller versions of my gastronomic Holy Grail.  But I’d been disappointed before, so I checked my excitement until that first bite.  Gently lifting one to my mouth, and hoping against hope, I took a tentative nibble.  And then I heard the voices of a cherubim’s chorus.

“Olivia!  You have to give me the name of the place where you bought these turkey rolls!”

She tilted her head and gave me a quizzical look, “Turkey rolls?  Those are pork buns.  You can get them anywhere.”

Anywhere?

My ecstasy was tempered by the knowledge that my father’s fiction had deprived me of over two decades’ worth of pork buns.  Add to that the embarrassment I felt replaying all the times I’d grilled restaurant employees about those non-existent rolls (sometimes I did this on dates!).  It’s like going into Home Depot and demanding a flying carpet because you just know they really exist.  And when the salesman tells you there are no such things, you think he’s stupid and he thinks you’re crazy.

So parents, next time you tell that little white lie, please don’t forget to straighten things out somewhere down the road.  Yes, my father fibbed about the turkey.  Was that the end of the world?  No.  Did he inadvertently spare me from years of eating something that, let’s face it, would not have made for the healthiest of diets?  Yes.  And in the grand scheme of things, there are worse outcomes born from parental subterfuge.  I could have been that bride walking down the aisle with panty liners stuffed into her shoes.

I danced all night. Thank you, Stayfree!

I danced all night. Thank you, Stayfree!

My New Lover

I’m going to do some things in today’s post that I’ve never done in this blog before.  For starters, I’m going to tell you what really gets my motor going.  I’m going to get specific.  And I’m going to name names.  Brace.

Women often have to think outside the box to spice things up at home.  Well, I’m no different.  There was something I’d been fantasizing about, craving, and wanting for some time…to bring a pro into our lives.  When I finally got up the nerve to tell my husband, he blanched a little, but ultimately climbed on board and agreed to satisfy my longing.  Of course, I’m referring to the Vitamix Professional Series 750, which I asked Hubby to give me for Christmas.  He balked because it’s a pricey piece of equipment, but you get what you pay for (and, trust me, I am getting my money’s worth).  If you’ve never seen one, well…it’s really sort of a blender, but to call it that diminishes its fabulousness, as far as I’m concerned.

For the record, I’m not hawking this thing or getting paid to mention it.  It’s just that I’m in the mood…to share.

Diamonds, exotic vacations, and fancy cars make some women swoon.  Me?  I go bonkers for scullery gadgets.  I like the aforementioned fine things, too, but gift me with something shiny that plugs into the kitchen, and I get that certain kind of feeling all over.  You would be hard-pressed to come up with a culinary accessory that I don’t own.  I have juicers, stand mixers, pasta machines, espresso makers…all of it.  Oh, and just in case you’re getting ideas, please be advised: I do not share, lend, or otherwise allow the touching of my wares.  So don’t even ask me.

Anywho, before I enter into any committed relationship, I do my research.  I had been lusting after a Vitamix for several years, but since it runs about $700, I really had to want it and want it bad.  What first attracted me was its ability to make things hot (like soup) and cold (like frozen desserts).  How is this even possible?  As part of my investigation, I visited Sur La Table and started poking around.  When approached by the store’s manager, I began pumping him about the Vitamix Pro 750.

“Rather than tell you,” he purred, “Why don’t I show you?”

Uh-oh!  He planned to tantalize me with a demonstration.  Before he even started, I knew I’d be powerless against his seduction.

He produced a stalk of celery, snapped it in half and put it in the container.  Then he whipped out the biggest carrot I’d ever seen in my life.  He cut it into three pieces (just three!!) and placed them with the celery, then added about half a cup of apple juice.  Flipping a switch, the contents were reduced to a liquid within seconds.  I actually, audibly gasped.  Then, just to drive the point home, he let it run a little longer.  The contents became hot and steamy.  He gave me a taste.  It was like a soup my husband loves – a soup that normally takes over an hour to make.  I began daydreaming of all the things I wanted to do with that machine.  My reverie was interrupted when I realized a crowd had formed.  Strangers were watching.  I felt my cheeks get hot and flushed.

Already fully enrapt, I nearly collapsed when he showed me how to clean it.  He filled it half-way with warm water and added two drops of dish soap.  Running the pre-programmed cleaning cycle, which takes just one minute, it was sparkling (needing only to have the suds rinsed out).  No dismantling.  No screwing and unscrewing.  Heaven help me, I was a goner.

Since receiving this magnificent piece of machinery, I have used it every single day.  My All-Clad 7-Qt. Deluxe Slow Cooker is starting to get jealous, but I don’t care.  I’m in love.

Now, I’m going to do the second thing I’ve never done in this blog:  I’m going to give you a recipe.  It’s for my Carrot-Orange Soup, based on a recipe from the original Silver Palate Cookbook.  The ingredients are basically the same, but the proportions and method are mine. Here goes…

Anita's Pro 750 Carrot-Orange Soup

Anita’s Pro 750 Carrot-Orange Soup

 1 tablespoon of butter

1 tablespoon of olive oil

1 large Vidalia onion, peeled and cut in half

4 gigantic carrots, peeled and cut into thirds

2 cups chicken or vegetable stock (divided)

1 medium orange

1 cup orange juice

Salt and pepper to taste

 

Options:

 ½ cup toasted papitas (hulled pumpkin seeds)

fresh orange zest

2 teaspoons mild curry powder

1” chunk of fresh ginger (peeled)

Method:

In a large saucepan, heat the oil and butter over medium heat.  While waiting for the butter to melt, place half the stock, onion and carrots into the Vitamix  Pro 750 (if you’re using ginger, throw that in there, too).  Turn the dial to “1” and pulse about 5 times to pulverize the onions and carrots (some chunks might remain.  That’s OK).  Add the carrot/onion blend to the oil/butter mixture (if using curry, stir it in now).  Squeeze in the juice of the orange.  Cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes.  Pour the whole kit and caboodle back into the Vitamix, add remaining stock, and run the pre-programmed “soup” function.  When the machine stops running, stir in the orange juice by hand and divide into serving bowls.  Garnish with the orange zest and papitas.  I like to serve it with Glutino gluten-free Cheddar crackers. Makes 4 servings.  If you don’t have a Vitamix Professional Series 750, you’ll just have to get one, ‘cuz you can’t borrow mine.

What the Dickens?!

Let is never be said that I am a Scrooge during the holidays.  But for some reason, this year, I just can’t seem to get my merriment on.

I first noticed it while picking out our Christmas tree.  Normally, I give the same attention to buying a tree as I do to buying a house.  Every year we wander the tree farm, circle back, and mark possible candidates before making that final cut.  This year, it took all of five minutes rather than the usual thirty.  Here’s how it went down:

Husband:  “How about this one?”

Me:  “Yeah, sure.”

We put the tree up as soon as we returned home and it stood naked in the living room for an entire week.  Finally, I strung lights on it.  Two days after that, I slapped some ornaments on with the same enthusiasm one normally reserves for dental work – I just wanted to get it over with.

At first, I chalked up my lack of interest to fatigue but, since I wasn’t busting my back with all the usual Christmas rigmarole, that was a lame excuse.  Perhaps I was depressed?  Since I’m not prone to the blues, that was unlikely.  Was I just being lazy?  Well, laziness is relative.  By my own standards, I did think I was being lazy, but that was only a symptom, not the cause.  I finally settled on my health as being the culprit.  I’d been fighting a cold for a few weeks.  Maybe it was getting the better of me.  So I decided to take a goodly swig of NyQuil, straight from the bottle, and go to bed.

In the middle of the night, I felt someone poking at me.  It was a young woman in her twenties.  She was wearing a shiny suit with big shoulder pads, chunky gold jewelry and enough Stiff Stuff in her perm to paralyze each and every follicle.

I jolted awake from my NyQuil stupor. “Who are you?”

“I am the ghost of Christmas past,” she explained.

Judging by her outfit, I’d say she was the ghost of Christmas 1983.

“Come with me,” she said.  “Touch my sleeve.”

The feel of her garment suggested a Qiana-rayon blend.  Now I was sure she was from the ‘80’s.

The next thing I knew, we were watching three women, sitting at a kitchen table, making ornaments from cornstarch and baking soda.  I quickly recognized them: my sister, my friend Laura, and me.  This was my first apartment, in Park Slope, Brooklyn.  Puffing away on cigarettes, we were having the best time shaping and baking and painting the ornaments, while watching It’s A Wonderful Life.  It was colorized that year, but we didn’t know it because our 12” TV was a black and white set.

“I remember that!  Oh, we had so much fun that day.”  I was delighted by the memory.

On the corner of the old kitchen table sat a stack of Christmas cards that I lovingly hand-addressed in calligraphy.  I remember pouring over boxes and boxes of cards, until I found just the right ones.  Drawn in black and white on the outer flap, was a picture of a brownstone.  The only touch of color was a green Christmas tree topped with a  gold foil star, visible from a second floor window.  Inside it read, “A tree glows in Brooklyn.”  I loved those cards and wished I’d saved one.

“There’s more to see,” said the spirit.

Next stop: Rego Park, Queens about 10 years later.  I was a newlywed.  This time my sister and I were in the kitchen baking Christmas cookies with my little niece.  Baking cookies with me had become a traditional holiday activity for my friends and relatives.

Rego Park Christmas

Rego Park Christmas with my sister and niece.

We only observed the scene for a moment before dashing forward to 1998 and the suburbs of New York.  There in the great room of our first house, with my 8-month-old daughter on my hip and a pastry bag in my hand, I was decorating gingerbread men, while my three-year-old son rolled out more dough, getting flour in his hair, his eyelashes, between the slats of the hardwood floors…  That year we had a holiday housewarming to celebrate becoming homeowners.  I baked about 300 cookies to serve and give as gifts.  Seeing it in this vision, I felt the same warmth and pride and excitement all over again.

Housewarming cookies

Housewarming cookies

In the corner of the room, outgoing Christmas cards were piled on the desk.  They were each addressed with an Avery inkjet mailing label and pre-printed return address stamps.

In the other corner stood our big, bushy Christmas tree, displaying many of those handmade ornaments from my Brooklyn days as well as new ones purchased from the store.

Turning around to see more, I found myself back in the bed of my current home.  My husband was out cold, and seemingly unaware of my recent time travels.

Now, I don’t know about you, but once I’m awake, I have trouble getting back to sleep.  So I went downstairs for a glass of water.

On my way to the kitchen, I walked past our Christmas tree.  Even though I still have some of those original cornstarch ornaments, none of them are hanging from its branches.  Nor are the dozens of others that I’ve collected throughout my adult life.  This year, I grabbed the first storage box of ornaments I saw and only those made it onto the tree.

We moved into our current home, a 19th century Victorian farmhouse, back in December of 2005.  That year, I went crazy with the decorating.  A neighbor said, “It looks like Santa threw up in here!”  And it did.  Not a single surface or nook was spared.  It was cheerful and festive for as far as the eye could see.

I’d scaled way, waaaaaay back on the decorating this year. The wreath on the front door was thrown together about three days ago with ribbon and some plastic holly I picked up at the drugstore.  But at least it fairs better than the giant wreath on the barn, which is completely bare.  Not even a bow to sass it up a little.

There are no cookies in the kitchen, no Christmas cards to be mailed.  The happy little snowman village, which I normally display on the kitchen mantel, is nowhere in sight.  No Christmas countdown calendar.  No jolly mural drawn on the kitchen blackboard.  Nope.  There is just a little bit here, and a little bit there.  If you pass by my house, you wouldn’t just wonder if we celebrate Christmas, you’d wonder if the house is currently vacant.

As I looked around, I had to admit something to myself: I completely half-assed our present Christmas.  But there is nothing I can do about it now.  Christmas is just days away.  It’s too late.  Heaving a heavy sigh, I decided to take some more cold syrup and go back to bed.

Just as I managed to drift off to sleep again, a little girl popped up from beside the bed, all excited and bubbly.  “C’mon!  C’mon!  Come see!”

I took her hand and she led me back downstairs.  As we passed the living room, the lights and tinsel were almost blinding.  Every branch was jam packed with glittery ornaments, both old and new.  There were so many packages piled under the tree, wrapped in shiny paper and bows, that they covered half of the floor.

In the kitchen stood an older version of myself.  I was baking cookies with three of the most adorable little children I’d ever seen.  They were calling me TaTa (my family nickname), and we were all laughing and carrying on.  I could tell they were my grandchildren and was overcome with the most intense feelings of love.  The kitchen mantel was alive with the bustling little snowman village and from the window, I could see the barn, lit up like a used car lot, giant decorated wreath and all.

This is my vision of Christmases yet to come.  I know I will eventually get my merriment back on, bake the cookies, send the cards, decorate the dog, and so on and so forth.  For now, less is more and I’m OK with that.  So I’m taking the pressure off myself, making a cup of tea and heading to the couch to watch Christmas in Connecticut for the umpteenth time.  But before I do, I’d like to wish that all of your holidays are filled with joy, wonder and spirit (whether they be induced by over-the-counter medication or just the pure love in your heart).

Merry Christmas from SNORK!

Merry Christmas from SNORK!

What’s Cooking?

Whenever I watch cooking shows on television, I’m always amazed at how foolproof the recipes seem to be.  It’s the same thing time and time again…the chefs chop and dice lots of ingredients, they stir and toss and sauté, plate and taste…making it all look so effortless.  When they sample the food, their reactions never vary – closing their eyes, they make that scowling “yummy face” and proclaim, “Delicious!”

I love watching Martha Stewart.  She’ll dip her fork into a dish of something I can’t pronounce, take a bite and say, “Oh, it’s perfect!” or “Yes, that’s exactly how it’s supposed to taste!”  Just once, I want to see her take a bite, close her eyes and say, “Mmmm…nope. I don’t care for it,” before dumping the whole damn thing in the sink and spitting into a napkin.

These days, I know my way around a kitchen, but I didn’t get here without plenty of disasters.  My mother is a culinary artist, but never shared her skills with me.  She cooks the way a mafia hit man works…alone.  Whether this is an old Armenian trick to make us forever dependent, I’m not sure.  But I can tell you this, if she needs your help, she’ll ask for it.  Otherwise, stay out of her kitchen.

So, prior to striking out on my own, I couldn’t do much more than make a sandwich.

When I finally moved out of my parents’ home, my sister and I took an apartment in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn.  It was just like Sex In The City, except it wasn’t sexy, or really “in” the city and we couldn’t afford fabulous wardrobes, or $1,000 pairs of shoes, and neither of us had billionaire boyfriends – but otherwise, it was exactly the same.

As a housewarming gift, Mom and Dad gave us a microwave oven.  It was about as big as a compact car, and practically as heavy.   Microwaves were the newest, most exciting gadgets to hit the modern American kitchen since the frost-free freezer.  Everyone knew how to reheat a cup of coffee with them, or cook bacon, but not much else.  Ours came with a cookbook and a handy set of microwaveable cookware.  We couldn’t wait to get started.

Skip the lasagna.

Skip the lasagna.

To christen the new apartment, we decided to host our first-ever dinner party.  Flipping through the cookbook, we settled on the microwave lasagna recipe, which called for cottage cheese rather than ricotta.  This sounded very, very wrong but, against our better judgment, we followed the directions to the letter.  The end result was nothing short of revolting.  And it was cold in the middle.  And our guests suggested we order a pizza.  And we did.

It’s a general rule that one should never experiment with a new recipe when cooking for guests.  But I say, “If you can’t fall flat on your face in front of your friends, what kind of friends are they anyway?”

That lasagna debacle was my first lesson in “recipe skepticism.”  This comes from knowing what you like, what sounds wrong, and knowing what you hate.  Trust yourself before you trust the recipe.  But I’m a slow learner, so I still had to make many more mistakes before going with my gut (wink, wink – see what I did there?).

Another “recipe skepticism” lesson came when preparing Julia Child’s Veau (Veal) Prince Orloff.  By this time, I was a married woman, and wanted to do something swanky for my dinner guests.  At first glance, the recipe looked a little light on seasonings and I worried that it would be bland.  But who’s going to question Mrs. Julia Child? Certainly not  Miss Cottage Cheese Lasagna.  So I forged ahead.  The instructions read to finely chop mushrooms, place them in a clean dish towel, and squeeze out all their moisture.  Sounds easy, but half the mushrooms stuck to the cloth.  After 15 minutes of painstakingly picking them off, I lost my patience and ended up flapping the towel out the window.  To make a long story short, the veal turned out to be as bland as could be and I ruined some perfectly good kitchen linen.

Julia Child owes me a dish towel

 

Since then, I’ve become a little savvier when it comes to recipes, but I am still guilty of repeating one mistake over and over again – I don’t read them all the way through before I start cooking.  I look over the ingredients and, if they include things that I like, I go with it.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started to make my family’s dinner, laying out everything I need (or mise en place, if you want to get fancy), only to discover that some element of the dish has to be made a day ahead, or has to be chilled for 8 hours (or some other crazy time constraint I wasn’t banking on), while my brood sits at the table banging their knives and forks like rowdy convicts.

Worst still, I’ll be halfway through cooking a recipe before noticing those two dreaded words: special equipment.  I was once making blinis with caviar from the acclaimed French Laundry Cookbook.  It called for a tamis.  A what?  I ran out to three different kitchen specialty stores looking for one.  Nobody knew what I was talking about.  I finally figured out that a tamis is mesh strainer.  Pretentious much, French Laundry?!

Over the years, I have amassed plenty of special equipment.  Most of it is unnecessary, if you have an ounce of ingenuity in your veins.  For example, does anyone really need a banana slicer?  But I do love my immersion blender, which is a sharp, whirling blade on the end of a stick.  It lets you blend things in a bowl or pan.  You can blend without blending in a blender!  Oh, never mind.

Anyway, back to the recipes…Last night, I decided to make Beet Ginger & Coconut Milk Soup because my husband likes beets and I wanted to make a tasty treat for him.  I don’t normally cook with beets for two reasons: I hate them, and I have an all-white kitchen, so they make me a little nervous.  As usual, I did not read all the way through the recipe.  As the soup was cooking on the stove, I looked at the rest of the instructions and saw with an immersion blender, puree soup.  My heart stopped.  Who wrote this recipe?  What kind of madman would suggest that a home cook insert an immersion blender into a pot of roiling, boiling, never-get-the-stains-out, blood-red beets?  But I was already in too deep.  So I did it.  I immersed.  I blended.  I was being so, so careful not to splatter.  After I finished, the only thing missing from the kitchen was a chalk outline of a body on the floor.  It looked like a crime scene.

I gave the soup to my husband and said, “Unless you absolutely love this, you will never see it again.”  He took a spoonful, closed his eyes, made the scowling yummy face and said, “Mmm…uhhh…I don’t care for it.”

I dumped the rest in the sink.