Winter Solstice Casserole

solstice casseroleIt’s hard not to think of Christmas as the granddaddy of December holidays, at least in this part of the world, but allow me to remind you that there’s another, more (literally) astronomical occasion to celebrate this Sunday: the winter solstice. Have you all gotten your Saturnalia costumes dry-cleaned?

People have been celebrating the shortest day of the year ever since…well, since they were able to calculate that it was the shortest day of the year. Some pre-Christian celebrations included Scandinavians burning a Juul log to honor Thor (yep, that’s where the Yule log comes from), Mayans doing a terrifying if-we-don’t-break-our-ankles-this-will-probably-be-good-luck trick called the flying pole dance, and Romans crowning some poor schmuck as Saturnalian king and giving him unrestrained license until they killed him seven days later.

solstice, servedGiven the, erm, vibrancy of some of these festivals, it’s a shame that most solstice celebrations have dwindled to nothing. It’s still an important holiday in the pagan religion, but despite the impact of a phrase like “pagan ritual,” I read through a couple of them, and they seem mostly to involve pretty staid activities, like watching the sun rise or sitting in the dark while mindfully chewing bread.

So how should you commemorate the solstice? Invent your own celebration. I made up this solstice casserole—filled with winter vegetables, spiced with black pepper and nutmeg, and blanketed with a thin layer of snowy white cheese.

Winter Solstice Casserole Continue reading

You’re a Mean One, Missus Grinch

How I imagine Santa

How I imagine Santa

‘Tis the season! Bad traffic, angry crowds, mediocre renditions of Christmas carols by floundering rock stars, cinnamon-scented everything, and hard selling plastic crap to kids who believe in a fat elf lord with NSA-like surveillance capabilities. Oh the noise, noise, noise, noise, NOISE! Perhaps these shoes are too tight, but I need a drink.

It’s hard to reach for a beer this time of year without having a winter warmer pushed on you. Traditionally these beers are big on malt. The definition seems to be a bit nebulous regarding the spice issue. Many do without it, but some toss in frankincense and myrrh just willy-nilly and declare it a winter warmer. I find definitions in general rather claustrophobic, so I won’t fight that fight; instead I’ll just note that the spicy variety are pulling from the tradition of wassail, which is strong ales mixed and matched with spices — a tradition begun before hops were discovered to be the godsend they are. And a tradition celebrated in the holiday tune “Here We Come A-Wassailing,” best parodied in a 1980s claymation Christmas special with “Here We Come A-Waffling.”

It’s no secret that highly-spiced beers like pumpkin ale or Christmas ale are not my fave; I’ll leave the spicy stuff to the people who also think it’s okay to wear Santa hats in public for the full six weeks before Christmas. Instead I’ll continue to hoard cases of Sierra Nevada’s Celebration during the winter months as though those Jehovah’s Witnesses were right and the end-times are nigh…in which case I’d much rather be drinking a beer in a bar than sipping flat soda in the Kingdom Hall basement, but to each his own. Continue reading

Venerating the Bean: Winter Minestrone

minestroneAnd now allow me to praise a cookbook that I haven’t actually read. When An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler came out a couple years ago with its tagline of cooking “with economy and grace,” I thought it sounded kiiiiind of boring, despite the good reviews it was getting, and chose to ignore it. And then this weekend I was flipping through a food writing anthology and happened upon a chapter from the book called, “How to Live Well,” which, in my opinion, is such an eye-roll-worthy title that I almost flipped right past it. And then I realized what the entire chapter was about: beans.

It turns out that there’s a lot to be said about the humble bean, that darling of the Tuscans. Adler outlines how to cook ‘em, how to dress ‘em up, how to enjoy them, all in a tone that is straightforward but definitely not humorless. I was charmed. Knowing that Adler was an avid bean eater put me solidly in her court.

Another thing I liked about the chapter was that the recipe she gave for minestrone was incredibly elastic, because it’s supposed to reflect the season (and possibly your mental state, like a mood ring). Got some spring peas? Awesome. Winter root vegetables? Also cool. I tried my hand at the recipe this weekend, and the result was a thick, hearty vegetarian minestrone, perfect for winter. (And holy moly! That “whistling the skin off a bean” method she mentions actually works!) I’ll share the recipe I used below, but really, I suggest checking out the book and making that minestrone your own. And if you don’t have time for the whole book, don’t worry; I’ve already dropped enough Christmas hints that it will probably show up here again soon.

Vegetarian Winter Minestrone Continue reading

Fruitcake Memories

fruitcakeIt saddens me to think that fruitcake has fallen from such great heights. In medieval Europe, it was the epitome of luxury, chock full of the spices and nuts and dried fruit that could only be imported, for a hefty price, from the mystical Far East. A perfect birthday cake for Jesus, I guess. But in more recent days, it has become less a Christmas treat than a punch line. Here is a famous fruitcake joke: “The worst Christmas gift is fruitcake. There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other, year after year.” Johnny Carson said that on The Tonight Show, and it’s been downhill for fruitcake ever since.

I will admit that fruitcake, the actual foodstuff, has never made much of an impression on me. I don’t make fruitcake as a Christmas tradition and the few times I’ve eaten it during the holiday season have been less than memorable. But fruitcake as an idea…well, that’s a completely different story.

There are two beloved, imagined fruitcakes in my life. One is from the Truman Capote short story, “A Christmas Memory.” I force Jason to listen to me read this at least once every Christmas season, and out of kindness, he pretends that I’m going to make it to the end each time without crying. (I really am very good at doing the voice of Mr. Haha Jones, by the way). If you haven’t read the story, you should stop reading this right now and follow the link above and read the story already.

Less of a heartbreaker but no less dear to me is a memory that comes from Christmases more distantly past. Continue reading

Homemade Limoncello: Stupid Easy, Deceptively Impressive

Last February, ShannIMG_1540on and I walked to the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library to learn about the history of cocktails and, of course, drink a variety of them for free in the classy environs of the material evidence of Humanity’s learning.  The teacher was this dude Benjamin Zorn from Tooker Alley, and his lessons included a few free recipes.  So I took him up on the challenge and decided to make for the holidays and as a gift for my cousin Mitch’s engagement a batch of limoncello.

And, man, was it easy.  I’ve never brewed my own beer nor made rotgut in the tub, but I feel pretty confident that making limoncello is one of the easiest ways you can sex up the booze in your life.  And I’m pretty sure it’s one of the easiest ways to, say, make a unique gift to present to someone and garner ooo’s and ahh’s.  You’ll then inevitably get to drink some of that present, too.  Score.  It’s great for after dinner, sweet and tart and thick. Continue reading

Over the Liver, and Through the Veins

Happy Turkey Day!

Happy Turkey Day!

Over the river, and through the wood,
To my in-laws house we go;
We’re already late
I’ve forgotten our plate
And our gas is running low.

Over the river, and through the wood–
Oh how slow the traffic crawls!
Some jerk flips the bird
My swears go unheard;
So begin holiday brawls.

Over the river, and through the wood–
With wide open arms we’re met;
Please, no talk of kids
It’s all I’ll forbid;
On my vagina don’t fret.

Over the river, and through the wood–
For the family far and near;
I forget which cousin
is the republican
Toward talk of weather I veer.

Over the river, and through the wood–
Oh, what I’d do for a drink!
I check out the fridge
and want a high bridge;
I fear I’m nearing the brink!

Over the river, and through the wood–
Uncle Something winks at me;
Out in the garage
He’s fashioned a lodge,
We sip beer in his teepee.


The “Harvest Equals Party” Puzzle

wine queen

Have you met the Wine Queen?

The origin story of Thanksgiving is a little dubious, at least the most popular one that has a bunch of pilgrims and Indians sitting around eating turkey and smiling at each other. Better documented is the one that comes two centuries later, when Sarah Josepha Hale, a magazine editor and abolitionist, campaigned for a harvest celebration and day of thanksgiving, with hopes that it would make the country feel more united. Abraham Lincoln obliged her, making it a national holiday in 1863.

But we Americans are hardly alone in our desire to celebrate the harvest. Can you name which country offers up the delicious days of thanksgiving described below? In some cases, the festivals are specific to a city or region, so extra stuffing for you if you can name any of those.

  1. During Chuseok, families travel to their family’s homeland and set up elaborate offerings of food called charye for their ancestors. They also sing, wrestle and eat freshly harvested rice and rice cakes.
  2. After the newly-pressed olive oil is blessed by a priest, everybody digs into a medieval-style feast at a local castle. (Seriously! A castle!)
  3. The Yam Festival (also called Homowo), at the end of the rainy season, is celebrated with singing, dancing, parades, offerings, and, obviously, yam-eating.
  4. At the annual Fruit Fair, people build elaborate arrangements of colorful fruits like rambutan and mangosteen and stage a parade with floats made out of fruits and vegetables.
  5. Locals celebrate Lugh, or the god of the sun, while making a potent potato-based whiskey called poitín.
  6. At a four-day festival celebrating the gods of sun and rain, people make a sweet dish called pongal out of rice, milk and jaggery (a form of palm sugar) and eat lentils to signify the year’s bounty.
  7. The harvest has always been a time when priests would bless the first grapes of the season, but more recently it has become a major province-wide carnival, with parades, fireworks and performances, not to mention the crowning of the Wine Queen.
  8. For Trung Thu, people celebrate the harvest moon but also their children (a different sort of fruit, I suppose). Children are told traditional fairy tales and given star lanterns and sweet treats like mooncakes.

Don’t click Continue or scroll down until you’re ready for the answers! Continue reading

The De-fennel-stration of our Vegetable Drawer

onion and fennel risottoOur CSA with Windflower Farm is totally awesome. For almost half the year, they load us up with delicious veggies, and they never skimp on the good stuff. Every once in a while, though, they throw us a curveball, like in one of our last shipments of the season, when they gave us a big ol’ bulb of fennel. Fennel looks kind of like a multi-snorkeled Snork and has a name that sounds like a scheming butler on Masterpiece Theater. Needless to say, the CSA fennel offering kicked around in our vegetable drawer for quite a while.

And then—eureka!—the NY Times cooking section laid a solution right in my lap with this recipe for Carmelized Onion and Fennel Risotto. When I started to make it, I realized that I didn’t even know what part of the fennel to slice, and I had to watch some YouTube videos to school myself. Basically, you just want the layered part of the bulb; you can make stock out of the rest of it, but it’s too tough to chew. That means that there was shockingly little fennel on my cutting board by the time I was finished hacking away at it. Would I even be able taste it in the finished dish?

Because it is in my nature to meddle with even the simplest recipes, I made a few changes to the NYT version. Continue reading

These Are a Few of My Favorite Things: Beer & Cheese!

That about sums it up.

That about sums it up.

As a pair, beer and I have been going strong for many years now. Few couples have experienced the same level of success we have. Over all it’s been a smooth ride, with only the occasional hiccup. But beer is not my first love! World, there’s someone else I want you to meet: cheese.

Cheese and I have been through a lot together: the Amish string cheese of my childhood, the Behold the Power of Cheese campaign in the late ‘90s, Papa John’s cheese sticks and the Freshman 15 in college, those little cheesy crackers with pecans my mom makes every Christmas that are as addictive, if not more so, than your standard crack.

For the longest time, though, I thought beer and cheese were incompatible, like those two friends you have that each think slightly less of you for liking the other one. I have never grown used to that sort of cattiness, having had the same loyal and honest friends since before I knew what beer was. So it was always with a little dismay that I kept the Jarlsberg tight in the meat and dairy drawer when I pulled an IPA out of the fridge. The manchego, too, waited for me to buy a cheap bottle of syrah. Why couldn’t we just all be friends?

Eventually I caved under the pressure of struggling to keep them apart. Dammit, you’re both such wonderful calorie delivery methods: just get to know each other! And lo, they got along swimmingly and the three of us have kicked some culinary ass ever since. Continue reading

Kung Pao Squash and Greens

kung pao!At my first job after college, there was a woman named Cynthia (a.k.a. Cyn-Bad), who, upon being asked what Chinese food she wanted to order, would always say, “Kung PAO!” and do a series of high-energy karate kicks. I believe she went on to teach first graders.

But I was always a little jealous of Cyn-Bad’s order, because takeout Chinese places almost never have anything fixed in a kung pao style besides chicken or maaaybe shrimp, so it’s a no-go for vegetarians. That’s why I was so excited when our friend Jeff (who, now that I think about it, would probably admire Cyn-Bad’s wicked karate stylings) forwarded us a recipe for Kung Pao Sweet Potatoes. What?! A whole new world of Szechuan deliciousness opened up to me.

I changed the recipe up a bit to match what we had on hand, which included a whole load of squash. As frequent readers of this blog might already know, winter squashes are really not my favorite vegetables, so this was a serious test, but the spicy sauce and the crunch of the peanuts helped that squash pass with flying colors. No doubt about it: it’s a meal glorious enough for a palace guardian, not to mention Cyn-Bad.

Kung Pao Squash and Greens Continue reading