Thursday, February 10, 2011

MY CRAFTY VALENTINE

Valentine’s Day and romance are terribly mismatched. For singletons, the notion that life only works in pairs hardly inspires sentiments of love –quite the opposite in fact. Meanwhile, couples feel an inordinate pressure to be “romantic” (defined in the narrowest of terms) on command. No matter what your relationship status, Valentine’s Day plus romance is a losing equation.*

That’s why I prefer to interpret February 14th as Midwinter Crafts Day. As a kid, all I needed to celebrate Valentine's Day was a new box of crayons, a package of doilies, and some heart-shaped stickers. With these tools, I could make every kid in my class the most magnificent card and a bevy of other lacy confections.

So enthralled was I with the cupid motif, I even threw a Valentine’s Day party in third grade. I draped our walls with cut-out hearts, puffs of clouds and rainbows. (To an eight-year old in the early 80s, all things revolved around the rainbow). Mom bought me a paper centerpiece which fanned out into a 3-dimensional heart made of crepe paper. And, for my piece de resistance, I served my famous yogurt dip.

Miraculously, Jeanne saved the recipe which I found tucked into my recipe box:

Yogurt Dip

Mayo

Plain yogurt

Garlic salt

Dill weed

Parsley flakes

Wooden spoon

Mixing bowl

Take a jar of mayo and bowl. Put in 3 scoops of mayo, then put 3 scoops of yogurt, and mix. After that put in 1 shake of garlic salt, then mix. Take a shake of dill weed and mix. Then a shake of parsley flakes and mix. Put in frig [sic] for 5 minutes.

By publishing this article, I hardly am suggesting you should try this at home. I mean, How gross does this sound???

Despite the inexplicable large amounts of leftover dip, the Valentine’s Day soiree was a success. And I am sure that my mom appreciated the midwinter diversion. When I think about it, Valentine’s Day and crafts are the perfect combination. What else can you do in the dead of winter —when the snow has lost its luster—but stay home and do something kitschy?

This affinity for midwinter crafting comes in handy when the Valentine’s/romance equation seems particularly unfair. During a bleak winter in college, when I was miserably single, I found respite with my my stepmom, Margie, who taught me how to line a basket with pink fabric. In the depths of a bad relationship in my 20s, my girlfriend and I made heart-shaped cookies, frosting them black and white.

My daughter perceives Valentine’s Day through a similar lens. A few years ago, she got a packet of horrid heart-shaped strawberry marshmallow candies, and decided they would be perfect for a Valentine’s Cake. She then decided the only person capable of such a lofty endeavor was my best friend Amy, a professionally-trained baker. As it turned out, Amy served only as sous chef. After constructing our Betty Crocker chocolate cake, my daughter pulled out the marshmallows instructing Amy to “round out the sides.” We had no idea what she meant, but as the picture shows, the results were gorgeous –if not edible.

Valentine’s 2011 is shaping into another crafting extravaganza. We’ve already created our doily/sticker confections. And the kids have been angling to make a chocolate soufflĂ© recipe they saw on the TV monitor in a taxi cab. I have no idea how to make a soufflĂ© (my son tells me it's easy peasy), but maybe we’ll give it a shot.

As my mother showed me many years ago, allowing kids to unleash their midwinter muse may be the best Valentine they’ll ever receive.

*Full disclosure: My husband’s most romantic gesture came on Valentine’s Day. After only two dates, he surprised me by sending flowers to my office with a shy –but genuine—note. Each year, when he repeats this act, I view it as a quiet nod to where we began. No need to cut that off, honey!

Friday, February 4, 2011

SWAN SONG FOR FOOTBALL CHILI

As a New York football fan, I could not give a Chinese New Year rabbit’s foot about this Sunday's game. Packers or Steelers. Who cares? All I know is that 2010 marked the second year in which the Giants spectacularly imploded in the late season.

Luckily, I’ve got Cooking With Jeanne’s Chili Swan Song to save me from crawling into a womb of self pity.

Even to football fanatic Mom, the Super Bowl was really just an excuse to eat ridiculous amounts of snacks and try out new chili recipes. Over the years, these versions included Cincinnati, vegetarian, and a five-alarm chopped steak one that remains tattooed in my memory.

Mom chose a good canvas upon which to experiment since chili is typically a pretty forgiving food. A member of the stew family, chili tends to incorporate new ingredient like a relaxed hostess welcomes uninvited guests; shrugging graciously and finding room at the table. As my cousin Christine once told me: “You really can’t screw chili up.”

Christine should know. Her chili placed first in our family’s legendary 1998 Chili Cook-Off. By some stroke of inspiration, my aunt and uncle decide to host a Sunday night dinner in which all guests were encouraged to bring their favorite chili recipe. We were then asked to blindly rate each entry based on a series of qualities, like spice, texture and overall flavor. The variety was staggering. One came loaded with sausage, another was ruthlessly spicy, and one was just really bland. When this lame version ranked poorly in our taste test, my 65-year old Aunt Betty Ann began to giggle like a preteen at a sleepover. “It’s from a mix!!!!” she confessed. All in good chili fun. In addition to chili, the table was well stocked with beer, salad, cornbread, and –mercifully—Bean-O.

Experimentation sounds fine and dandy, but I had no intentions of messing around with my swan song chili. After all, it’s the SUPER BOWL. So I turned to my go-to recipe, a loose interpretation of Silver Palate’s Chili for a Crowd. Usually, I remove several ingredients (Silver Palate is notorious for going overboard with ingredients), and add a bottle of beer instead of wine for bitterness. I also replaced the beef and pork with ground turkey and chicken sausage.

As I was mindlessly chugging along, I realized something horrific: I had browned the sausage but forgotten to add the meat. Quickly, I threw the meat into the pot of onions and sausage simmering in beer and canned tomatoes. Bad call. Now the meat would not brown at all, but would simply stew in the chili’s liquids. Taking a deep breath, I remembered a line from (let’s just say) my Mom: “It’s just dinner.”

I then proceeded to throw any ingredient imaginable into the pot. This included: a cup of wine, a heavy dose of Tabasco sauce, a dash of Worcestershire sauce, and some dried chili peppers. I went to bed wondering if Christine had steered me wrong. You can mess up chili, and I had three containers worth to prove it.

The next morning, I sent Jeff to work with a container of the dreaded chili and the following instructions: “Eat this, then tell me if it sucks.” He walked out the door wondering aloud if I was trying to kill him. But, apparently, I wasn’t. Jeff came home with rave reviews; I enjoyed it for lunch today; and, now, I am eagerly awaiting the response of our SB party guests.

Maybe I will forward this post to Eli Manning. Perhaps he’ll take comfort in knowing that there are some things you can’t mess up.

Swan Song Chili

  • ½ cup olive oil
  • 1 large onion (Vidalia)
  • 4 lb ground turkey or chicken meat
  • 1 ½ lb of turkey sausage (1/2 sweet, ½ spicy) in casings
  • 1 Tbsp ground pepper
  • 2 small cans of tomato paste
  • 4-5 medium cloves of crushed garlic
  • 1-2 Tbsp Chili powder, depending on heat of chili
  • Dried chilis
  • ¼ cup Dijon mustard
  • 1 tsp cumin seed
  • 2 Tbsp salt
  • 1 Tbsp dried basil
  • Pinch of oregano
  • 1 large drained canned tomato
  • 1 small diced tomato can
  • 1 bottle of beer
  • 1 cup of red wine
  • Worcester sauce to taste
  • Tabasco sauce to taste
  • 1 can of kidney
  • 1 can of black beans

1. Heat oil in very large pot, until glistening. Add onions and cook over low heat until tender (10 minutes or so)

2. Remove sausage from casings and crumble, cooking over medium-high heat. Stir often until browned. Remove excess fat.

3. Reduce heat and add pepper, tomato paste, garlic, chili powder, mustard, salt, and basil. Add drained beans, drained tomatoes (both kinds), and beer. Stir well and simmer, uncovered, for 15 more minutes.

4. Taste and correct seasoning.

5. Cook over low heat for 45 minutes to 1 hour.

NOTE: Chili always tastes better the second day.

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