Saturday, December 24, 2011

MAKING THE DAMNED BRUSSELS SPROUTS


It’s 8:15am on Christmas Eve morning, and I am making the damned Brussels sprouts. This was my mother’s Christmas dinner assignment, her lot in life. No sooner had we unwrapped the presents, polished off breakfast, and poured a second cup of coffee, Mom would abruptly stand up to announce: “It’s time to make the damned Brussels sprouts.”
                                          
Mom’s use of the invective did not stem from some Scrooge-like malady. The problem was that the Brussels sprouts –a traditional dish with chestnuts— were somewhat controversial at my family’s Christmas dinner. Of the 40 guests, roughly half were strongly in favor of said Brussels sprout while the others were opposed. Both parties were particularly vocal.

Still, year after year, Mom made the Brussels sprouts and plunked them next to my aunt’s “damned twice baked potatoes.” Once you’ve been assigned to a role in a family, it’s nearly impossible to switch parts.

Since Mom has been gone, I have played the part of the Brussels sprouts.  In an attempt to skirt controversy and update our menu, I have experimented with various other dishes, my favorite of which is Brussels Sprouts Hash with Caramelized Shallots from Bon Appetit. However, this year I felt compelled to go to The Jeanne’s dish.

That’s because, after over forty years of hosting Christmas dinner, my aunt is passing the torch to my cousin Christine.  This is hardly a sad occasion. Christine is a magnificent entertainer and talented interior decorator as well. I’ve loved consulting with her on the menu and various guests. (We like to take in randoms for dinner). I am really looking forward to ushering in the next generation of family Christmases.

Yet, as a child, Christmas at Aunt Pat’s house was not to be believed.  She decorated every crevice of her gorgeous Victorian house, complete with two Christmas trees. There was an endless supply of passed hors d’oeuvres (You know how I feel about those!), three meat entrees, and bowls of chocolate candies strategically placed throughout the house. Because it’s our family, these Dickens-inspired scenes came with a healthy dose of farce. There was the year the cat hopped onto the table and its tale caught fire on one of the candles. Yes, that actually happened.

I once thought these parties were conjured out of air. Of course, that is hardly the case. My Aunt Pat poured countless hours and unbelievable amounts of creative energy into our celebration. Beyond the actual work, opening your home to 40 people for an entire day is a lot to ask. So while it’s hardly enough, I shall make the damned Brussels sprouts. It’s a meager thank you for all of those magical years



Brussels Sprouts with Chestnuts

1 pound of Brussels sprouts, trimmed
1 ½ cup beef broth
2 Tbsp of butter
1 teaspoon of sugar
1 cup cooked or canned chestnuts
Salt, pepper

Put the Brussels sprouts in a pan with the beef broth. Simmer  for about 8 to 10 minutes or until tender; drain. Melt the butter and sugar together in a pan, stirring unti golden. Add the chestnuts and cook until they are slightly brown. Add the sprouts and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally for about 5 minutes more. Season lightly and serve.


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Rewards of (Over)Sharing

Blogging is a funny thing. At times, I am repelled by this need to share stories with strangers. Who am I to think others should care? Why do we collectively want to share so darned much? At its worst, blogging is digital proof of the unparalleled narcissism that has taken hold of this era. Yuck. Yet, I've discovered that sharing (or oversharing, as the case may be)stories begets more stories. This can be incredibly rewarding. Since I have started Cooking With Jeanne, people have sent me some of their memories or my mother, while strangers have sent me similar stories about their experiences. Among the most poignant of these notes are those from my father. A retrospective person, my Dad has used this blog to discuss parts of his life (and mine too) that we never really touched upon before. Some are too personal to share, even for a blogger. However, his note about he and Mom's first Christmas is too funny and beautiful to lock away in my personal files. I'm sure many of you have similar memories of "Family Firsts." please, share away. To me that's the endgame, my reward, for blogging.
"Jeanne's first Christmas turkey happened in 1968.  Jeanne and I were together; I had just moved into the tiny apartment in New Haven.  Diane Datz (Mom's friend) was visiting.  The world seemed bursting with joy and promise. Jeanne undertook the turkey.  She had never done one before and was puzzled by trussing.  Datz advised sewing everything: wings to body, legs together and then to body, sewing shut the cavity for stuffing.  Not ony that but Jeanne used red thread.   While the bird was cooking, we made tree decorations from empty toilet paper tubes.  Lots of red paper and gold dangles. When the turkey came out, it was beautiful but looked like a tangle of red power lines. It was a lovely Christmas.  I got chivvied into buying a Christmas tree, a first.  It never stopped after that, just got to be more and more full of decorations, trees, cookies, lights.  Sometimes it seemed  a kind of obsession but it became part of Jeanne."

Thursday, December 15, 2011

MID-WINTER MENU: 'DETOX' LENTIL SOUP


I’m a crazy holiday binger. Yes, I am that girl at the cocktail party hording Hors d’Oeuvres and cramming chocolates into her mouth. It ain’t pretty.  However, I just love miniature pastry-shrouded food that can be passed around on a plate. How often can I call such fun fare “dinner”?

Since I don’t plan on missing a single mini-quiche this year, I try to eat more sensibly in between parties, and maintain a solid exercise routine. I call it “Detox to Retox.”  

My favorite #detoxtoretox (Add a hash tag, start a Twitter craze!) meal is lentil soup. I found this recipe for Lentil Soup with Serrano Ham and Arugula in Food & Wine many years ago. I rarely bother with the ham and arugula, since the base vegetarian recipe is fantastic –one of my favorites to feed herbivores. Sometimes when I feel like serving this as a hearty dinner, I will add turkey sausage (I like Aidell’s brand, which you can buy in bulk at Costco and freeze).  However, today, in my post-party guilt, I felt the need to see a little green on my plate. I added some chopped kale, letting the leaves wilt when I reheated the soup in the microwave.

Ah yes, that’s the other thing I love about Detox Soup. She freezes and reheats like a charm. I usually make a giant pot and store the bulk for future lunches. 


Detox Lentil Soup
(Adapted from Food & Wine’s Lentil Soup With Serrano Ham and Arugula)
  1. 1 1/2 cups lentils
  2. 8 cups very hot tap water
  3. 1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  4. 2 medium onions, very finely chopped
  5. 3 medium carrots, very thinly sliced
  6. 2 celery ribs, thinly sliced
  7. 5 garlic cloves, 4 thinly sliced and 1 minced
  8. 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  9. Crushed red pepper
  10. Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  1. In a large saucepan, cover the lentils with the water and bring to a boil.
  2. Meanwhile, in a medium soup pot, heat 1/4 cup of the olive oil until shimmering. Add the onions, carrots, celery and sliced garlic. Cover and cook the vegetables over moderately high heat, stirring occasionally, until they are softened, 5 to 6 minutes. Carefully add the lentils and the boiling water. Add the tomato paste and 1/4 teaspoon of crushed red pepper to the soup and season with salt and black pepper. Cook the soup over moderate heat until the lentils are tender, about 20 minutes.
  3. Ladle the lentil soup into large bowls, garnish with the ham and arugula and serve.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

DON'T MESS WITH SANTA

Eight years, six weeks, and a handful of days into parenting, and it finally happened: My daughter no longer believes in Santa Claus. How this dreaded moment unfolded was particularly heartbreaking.

I was sitting with my children, waiting for a class to start when a woman, whom I like very much, said (to someone else) in a loud voice, “Can you believe a teacher was fired for telling the children there is no Saaaan….”

I snapped like a brittle gingerbread cookie.

“STOP TALKING NOW!” I shouted, practically leaping to cover my daughter’s ears. “I’m dead serious.”

The woman looked somewhat confused --an understandable reaction since we were waiting for Hebrew lesson to begin. (For a full explanation of this dichotomy, go back to last year’s Christmakah As We Know It.) Nevertheless, she apologetically bit her lip, silenced by my demonic display.

I suppose as my husband would put it, I was “overreacting.” You could even argue that I was downright rude. Since I genuinely like this woman, I felt a little bad. Not that bad though. Nobody messes with Santa.

Just as I was about to burst into tears, my daughter swooped in and began hugging me, mumbling: “Mommy, it’s OK. It’s OK!!!” Clearly, she was not the traumatized party in this scenario.

Apparently, my daughter had quit on Santa long ago, but was keeping up the charade for my benefit. She learned that behavior from me. As I wrote last year, Mom went to her death bed eerily refusing to deny Santa’s existence. “You never know,” she would say breathlessly, “You never know.”

I intend to do exactly the same.

“Why?” you might ask. The myth of Santa is hardly honorable. He exists to encourage us to lie to our children while spending money we don’t have. A struggling single mother once told me that she did not want Santa getting the credit for the incredibly hard work she put into buying her daughter gifts. I cannot deny the truth in her thought process.

Nevertheless, when I woke up on Christmas morning as a child, a palpable magic hung in the air. It really and truly wasn’t the presents themselves. On those mornings, the tree always seemed to glow preternaturally, and my house felt like a castle. For a brief moment, a quiet fell upon my family; we shared a fleeting sense of bliss. Christmas had come and the day lay before us, full of promise and the joy in being together.

Even when I stopped believing in Santa that feeling clung to Christmas morning like thick snow. In later years, the magic came from knowing we had carved out time and money to celebrate as a family. Yet, to me that magic was still synonymous with Santa.

My daughter and I have yet to acknowledge the moment Santa was outed. We seem to have struck an implicit understanding to keep the charade going. Maybe she is just looking out for her little brother or doesn't want to risk not getting presents. But I like to think that, like my mother, there’s a tiny part of her whispering: “You never know. You never know.”

What's your opinion? Why do you or don't you live the lie?


Wednesday, December 7, 2011

FISH CASSEROLE WITH CHARD AND SWEET POTATO

While the kids ate their usual fare, I played around with this New York Times recipe for Halibut, Chard, and Potatoes Casserole. I had all of the key ingredients except my potatoes were sweet –not a good combination with tomato sauce. My mission became: How to replace the tomato sauce with another liquid that would keep the fish from drying out? With the help of Everyone Into the Kitchen, I added white wine and a touch of chicken broth. I also realized that the other antidote to dried-out fish is covering the fillet completely with chard and leeks (or whatever else you may use). The result was a delicate, moist fish cooked with very flavorful veggies. (And I got to read the newspaper while it cooked!)

Ingredients:

1 lb thick white fish (I used black bass because it was available at the Farmer’s Market. You could also use Halibut or Hake)

2 large sweet potatoes, sliced into very thin medallions

2 leeks, diced

1 large bunch of Swiss Chard (I had to subsidize chard with some spinach)

1 to 2 Tbsp of olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

½ cup white wine

¼ cup chicken stock (or fish stock, if you have it)

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Toss sweet potatoes with olive oil salt, and pepper. Layer on bottom of heavy lidded Dutch Oven. (I tried to lay mine really flat.)

3. Heat up 2 tsp of olive oil in skillet, cook leeks and remove half from pan. (Put them in a bowl, I suppose)

4. Add Swiss Chard and cook until wilted. I often end up adding a little more liquid –in this case chicken stock—and cover the pan. Add a dash of salt and toss.

5. Remove Chard from pan, and let cool. Then chop coarsely.

6. Spread half of Chard mixture over sweet potatoes.

7. Wash, dry, and season fish with salt and pepper. Place fish on bed of Chard. Spread the rest of Chard mixture over fish.

8. Sprinkle remaining leeks on top of the whole thing. Pour in white wine and chicken stock.

9. Cover tightly and bake for one hour.

NOTES:

· Also toyed with sprinkling pine nuts on the top and then baking uncovered for last fifteen minutes. Give it a try and let me know how that played out.

· Served the kids hamburger and hot dogs with the remainder of potatoes and some leftover cauliflower (They wouldn’t touch Chard cooked with fish). I know, I know…you are not supposed to cook two meals. I often do. However, I made it easier by simply roasting potatoes and veggies together. Writing this as they roast.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

COOKING DOES NOT A GREAT PARENT MAKE

When people read this blog, they often say: “You’re such a great mother. You cook all the time.” Ha! I laugh! I may, in fact, be a good mother but not because I cook. (Verdict is still out.) Like exercising and drinking wine, I cook solely for myself. For me, cooking is a vital source of creativity and personal enjoyment. It’s got little to do with my kids.

My mother’s most heroic period took place when she barely cooked at all. For one year, Jeanne raised us kids, dealt with the aftermath of a divorce, worked full time, took nighttime college classes at night, and cared for her dying mother. Did I mention I was an incredibly obnoxious, slightly rebellious teen? I get exhausted just listing it all.

As I’ve written in past blogs, dinner was often thrown to the wayside during these stressful days. So much so that whenever we ate a traditional meal, Mom would proudly exclaim: “Look, kids, we’ve got three things on the plate!” Most nights, we ate tortellini with veggies. Others it was Kraft macaroni and cheese.

My kids eat their fair share of mac and cheese too. My reasons, however, are not nearly as valid as those of The Jeanne. Usually they won’t eat the fancy stuff, and I don’t have the energy to (a) convince them that Artic Char is awesome or (b) invent a homemade, healthy alternative for them. So, while my husband and I dine on gourmet meals, the kids often eat garbage.

That’s not to say I don’t care about what my kids eat. I am aware of the child obesity epidemic; concerned about the health impact of too much processed food; and actively support the local food movement. However, eating is a deeply personal thing, and I have my own quirky definition of acceptable children's nutrition. In our house, Mom’s three-things-on-the-plate rule still applies. (My motto: “A vegetable on every plate.”) I also try feed them whole foods 65-70% of the time. The rest goes straight to the chicken nuggets fund.

Frankly, I am sick of hearing Militant Dietary Moms yammer on about their kids’ affinity for seitan and carrot juice. I want to holler back: “You win!! You win the Mommy Competition. Mazel Tov!” As a generation of women raised to believe we could ‘have it all’, we collectively suffer from the delusion that everything in life can be ranked. Alas, unlike GPAs and executive compensation, there is no ranking system for successful parenting, but there is for healthy food. For years, the FDA has provided pyramids and color wheels outlining the best way to feed your children. How easy to call that great parenting.

Personally, I think the hardest part of being a Mom isn’t feeding your kids, but getting to know them as they constantly change and learn about the world. (For instance, my five-year old son walks around rapping to himself and performing bizarre dance moves. Will he be the same at fourteen? Stay tuned.)

I’d like to think Jeanne taught me this lesson particularly well. Aside from serving as an amazing role model during those difficult days, my mom kept one thing constant: She talked to us about everything. She never tired of hearing about the most recent social drama in my life, nor did she hold back from sharing her unvarnished opinions (which normally annoyed the crap out of me). My mom always knew me.

That is the true gift of The Jeanne. More than the recipe, that is the fruit of this blog.

While my kids dine on more hamburgers and hot dogs tonight, here is what I will make for my husband and me: A pared-down rendition of the New York Time’s Halibut, Chard, and Potato Casserole. This Mediterranean recipe really spoke to me, but I only have sweet potatoes, which won't taste too good bathed in tomato sauce. Nevertheless, I am intrigued by the idea of cooking an entire fish meal on one pan.

Still haven’t figured out what the liquid will be to keep the fish from drying out. Suggestions are welcome. Be back soon.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

THE CYBER MONDAY VORTEX AND WHAT I ATE FOR DINNER

It’s happening again. Only a few hours into December 1st, yet I can already feel the centrifugal pull of Holiday Madness. For those of you blissfully unfamiliar with this sensation, I described the symptoms in great detail last year. For the most part, Holiday Madness symptoms include clammy hands, Jingle-Belled nerves, and a plastic smile involuntarily tattooed across your face.

However, I have discovered a new –and deeply disturbing— catalyst for the disease: Cyber Monday. I am immune to Black Friday. The promise of an inexpensive XBox doesn’t seem worth the effort of waking at 3am, risking mutilation in a stampede and –gasp!—missing first dibs on Thanksgiving leftovers. I once held CyberMonday with the same disdain. That is, until this year, when I paired this corporate-mandated holiday with charitable giving. A lethal combo.

My family has always been a big proponent of sponsoring Christmas for needy families. My uncle would pick up children’s letters to Santa at the Post Office, and distribute them to his friends and family. Then, on Christmas Eve morning, we would all convene to distribute the gifts through various neighborhoods in New York City. No one loved playing Santa more than The Jeanne.

Yes, we were noble indeed. However, like every other activity involving Mom and I, our Christmas Eve deliveries were more “I Love Lucy” than “It’s A Wonderful Life.” We drove all over the Bronx, inevitably getting lost, thus incurring the verbal wrath of many a Merry Christmas Traveler. One year, we accidentally mixed up the presents between two families. When we returned to correct the error, Mom was enfolded in a giant bear hug from a very thankful female recipient. Since this woman spoke only Spanish, Mom had no way of explaining the confusion. Nor did she need to. This family was happy enough with whatever was in their gift bag.

Today, I sponsor families through an organization called Stockings With Care. Not only do I adore the folks at SWC, but they run a far more efficient operation than my family. (Sorry, Uncle Will) So efficient, in fact, that our gift donations are due during the first week in December. Ack! Must start buying gifts for three children and have them wrapped (with my children acting as elves) by December 8th! Welcome Madness.

I then realized that the multiple CyberMonday deals arriving in my inbox could enhance my efforts to bring Christmas to our sponsored families. Granted, this epiphany arrived at 10pm, just two hours remaining in this special day.

Within a few minutes of surfing, I felt like I was in the middle of a really difficult math exam, the kind with those twisted word problems. “If Amy visits Website A, she will get a 30% discount and a donation to her favorite charity. However, if Amy chooses Website C, another wonderful organization will benefit and she gets free, fast shipping. Which Website should Amy choose?” A vortex of philanthropic, economic and logistical permutations swirled around me. That’s all a little intense for 11pm on a Monday night.

Then there was the technology, which I always screw up, prompting me desperately to shout for my husband. (If computers are in heaven, I am pretty sure I will be hollering “Jeff!!” for all of eternity. Lucky man.) Jeff, being the math guy that he is, spotted several problems with the billing. Apparently 30% off $300 does not equal a $12 discount. Who knew?

I closed my computer at midnight, bleary eyed and hoping to God I had ordered “Sleepy Time with Dora,” and not “Sexy Time with Dora.”

At least I got dinner right. With so many choices to contend with online, I relished cooking a go-to menu. Known as Spicy Chicken, this quasi-Indian rub is a favorite with my kids. This time, I introduced a little Swiss Chard into the mix, simply using the same to pan to create a deglazed sauce. Here’s how it works:

SPICY CHICKEN AND SWISS CHARD

Adapted from SuperFast Weeknight Dinners

1 Tablespoon olive oil plus one teaspoon for Swiss Chard

1 ½ teaspoons ground coriander

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon ground cumin

¼ teaspoon chili powder

1/8 teaspoon black pepper

4 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves

1 crushed clove of garlic

1 large head of Swiss Chard

¼ cup white wine

1. To prepare chicken, heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Combine coriander and next 5 ingredients (through 1/8 teaspoon black pepper), rub evenly over both sides of chicken. Add chicken to pan, cook 5 minutes on each side or until done.

2. Add one teaspoon of olive oil to same pan over medium heat. Cook for a couple of minutes. Pour in wine and turn heat to medium high, scraping bottom to deglaze. Bring to boil, and keep boiling until liquid is reduced by half. Add Swiss Chard and cover. Cook until wilted.

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