Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Of Mince and Men, 2010

Dear Mouse,

I write to you on the Eve of the Eve of the New Year, from Washington DC! I'm on the top floor of a creaky old house where I'm living with a few other actors and designers all working on a show at this venerated institution, which is directly across the street. From my window I can see the dome of the Capitol Building, lit up against the cold December night. I am looking forward to an exciting and challenging few months here. If the first two days are any indication I believe this project will considerably expand my vocal range, my physical endurance, and my respect for the House of Atreus. Those crazy Greeks...

Since I've only been in DC two days working 9AM to 530PM (and, ok, basically in bed by, kind of, now) I havent yet even begun to explore this town, culinarily or otherwise. I'm told there's a lot to write home about, but those "in the field" posts will come later.

It's been a while since I posted, for all sorts of happy reasons involving a) an actual food journalism assignment that had to be completed (!more on that later) and b) of course, The Holidays.

So, let me just cut to the chase, which in this case looks like this:

Oh yes.
When I say "Mincemeat" you say "Pie"!
"Mincemeat" -
I'm waiting.
(I made this.)

I missed you ! (And the Boyfriend) over Xmas. It was both weird and wonderful to do this Big Holiday in such a new way this year. At first I was afraid. How will this work? You'll be in Florida, I'll be at Helena's place in Irvington... we won't be in NJ sharing the time-honored rituals of lost cognac balls, forgotten Buches, and enormous hams. It was new. And though tinged with nostalgia and some sadness, it was also ... kind of awesome.

I will not even attempt the full story of the delights that were packed into this beautiful little Yuletide-on-Hudson celebration. Helena and I had a 'production meeting' a full two weeks in advance to confirm the small guest list, plan the menus, and schedule activities. (The Date, by phone on Christmas Night: "It's like you bought an all-inclusive Irvington Christmas Package". Wearing my newly acquired Wolf Hat and sipping a hot toddy while preparing to watch Its A Wonderful Life, I solemnly nodded in agreement.)

All-inclusive indeed! It was a great hodge podge of everyone's nostalgic Must-Haves (Helena's grandmother's Divinity recipe, HBF's traditional viewing of "Home Alone"), plus bold steps all our own. To be sure, I made everyone listen to Dylan Thomas reading A Child's Christmas In Wales (a la Hart), but I also seized the opportunity to make a dessert I knew no one in our family would ever go for: the mince pie, which as you know I discovered in Ireland over Xmas 2007.

Going to bed on the Eve covered in flour and butter, I heard HBF on the phone downstairs to his family, expressing exactly the emotions I was feeling. On the one hand, he missed them, and was reminiscing about Christmas Past. On the other, he was suffused with joy and excitement at 'Christmas of the Future'. There's a significant moment in a person's life when a holiday turns from something that you Get to something that you are able to Give. And fact that The Mother was able to come up to Irvington!! to eat our food, open presents under our cracked-out tree, and sing "Grandma got run over by a reindeer" with us was ... well, I think I've said it all.

personalized, bedazzled stockings and songbooks

And you know what? The Mother ate a whole piece of mince pie after all. God Bless Us, Every One. And Happy New Year!!!


The Boo

PS I also made these cookies which were a big hit and you can eat the leftover lemon curd on your Christmas Morning gingerbread pancakes (we suggest one egg and a lot more milk)

Friday, December 18, 2009

Name that Object.

Dear Boo,


Top view. The text reads: La Cotta-Made in Italy. -LA SALUTE E NELLA COTTA-MARCHIO DEPOSITATO-

Inside is a hollow bowl of sorts, about an inch deep

side view, a little more than a foot from end to end.

I found some years ago when I lived in the old building on 17th street. There was a wicker table in the lobby that people used as sort of a trade post of sorts, leaving things they couldn't bear to throw out but didn't want any longer. A paperback, a small lamp, the vase that came with that flower delivery, and on one occasion when I was returning home from work, I snagged it, thinking it looked quaint and imagining it lending a certain rustic-y, shabby chic flair to the kitchen I fantasized about having one day--the kind of kitchen where there's room for hanging copper pots, a collection of colorful teapots, and enough counter space for something like this...thing.

Realizing quickly that I had no idea what to do with it, I put it away, and shortly thereafter, forgot about it. Then when I moved, I rediscovered it, decided I'd take it with me and figure out its purpose once I got settled. Of course it shortly got relegated to a cupboard over the fridge that I can't reach and I went back to forgetting all about it. Until fairly recently, when a certain tall person in my apartment discovered the underused cabinet and pulled out this...thing. He agreed it was way too cool to get rid of, and it must do SOMETHING, right?

We did some online research, and asked our Italian-speaking cousin if he had any clues. So far I've come up with:

~ a terra cotta steak cooker (I find this very doubtful, but you'd be surprized how many people claim this) ~ an omlette pan of sorts ~ a grilled cheese sandwich press ~ a device by which one makes some sort of Italian flat bread
~ some sort of fireplace tool ~ a bed warmer, sort of hard stone hot water bottle.

Mostly, no one has any idea what it's for. Maybe it's not even a kitchen item. There's no brand or company name anywhere on it, and the only text on it says something about it not being patented...or something.

Right now it's sort of an objet d'art, displayed with the hopes that some day, some how, someone will walk into our apartment, spot it and cry, "Oh my god! You have a _________ !!" And then we'll know.

Maybe I'll have to take it on antiques roadshow.

Any ideas???

(A bewildered) Mouse

Monday, December 7, 2009

Fu Me? FuYu!! (Persimmons)

Dear Mouse,

Happy Winter! I give you... The Persimmon.

It's easy to think cold weather means saying goodbye to fresh fruit entirely. Oh sure there's the early-fall love affair with apples, and the Cranberry, the Gem of Thanksgiving, but in December one often finds oneself sighing, "Well, see you in July. Bring me some roots and tubers." And in a sense I support this.. no enormous, tasteless, genetically engineered, flown-from-far-away carbon footprint style berries for me. And don't get me started on bananas. I WILL get all Barbara Kingsolver on your A**.

But did you know... that there are fruits that dont find their footing (I just saw a pear with socks) UNTIL it's winter? IN SEASON NOW: beautiful, winey options like pomegranate or quince, tart citrus like clementine and grapefruit, chewy-candy dates and kumquats, and these lovely sunset-colored freaks that are the focus of this post.

Important to note: Fuyu Persimmons (squat and round) are more user-friendly - edible and sweet right when you buy them. Hachiya Persimmons (pictured above) are more quirky and apparently taste like sandpaper dipped in sherry unless they are perfectly ripe.

Saturday morning, I arose bleary-eyed and hungry after Joe's Pub to meet Mr. and Mrs. Poet for brunch at the Brooklyn Star, which I duly adored despite the lack of Bloody Marys on the menu. (Mm, warm apple griddle cakes). We then spent a cold, rainy afternoon in the kitchen, where we often find ourselves. Mrs. Poet, who is going to kill me for giving her that name, is a Fierce Foodie (AND backup singer, as it turns out). We sorted through Hanukkah and Solstice recipes for upcoming feasts while Mr. Poet hovered over his manuscript in the next room. Umbrellas dripped in the stairway, the sky turned white, and the first snow of the season came hurtling down outside.

This was not a setting in which I expected to make a new Fruit Friend-- a sunny, vibrant, orange one, at that. But somewhere between "What kind of cupcake goes with whipped brandy butter?" and "Do you want me to bring the bacon-wrapped dates?", she laid it on me. On a white plate between us and our coffee cups were a few clementine slices, and this:

"It's like a tomato and a mango had a baby. You'll like it."
I told you she was a poet.

Pushing aside the thought of eating something's baby (which, for real, we do all the time), I bit into it. And I have to say that description is pretty spot-on, except it's more harmonious than it sounds. It's not the bursting lushness of berry or the sunshine sweetness of mango or even the tart/bitterness you expect from winter fruit. (Here's where I wrote a whole "Up in the Air"-inspired analysis comparing a persimmon to Vera Farmiga's character and then deleted it - you're welcome.) The texture really is tomato - soft but sturdy - but with a subtle, barely-sweet flavor and a wistful, modest perfume. ("Wistful"?) By the last piece on the plate, I was all, "I'm gonna make me some salsa out of these things."

Or this chutney, which will be dressing our Winter Solstice Pork Chops. You can thank me later.


The Boo

Friday, December 4, 2009

With Thanks to Squanto, Who Taught Us How to Cut and Peel Fish*

That's me, in the metal hat.

Dear Boo,

I know Thanksgiving is at this point old news, and we're full swing into the Christmas/Solstice/Winter wonderland season (though the weather doesn't quite seem to have gotten the memo), but I have to take a moment to revisit since you and I (for the first time ever?? Is that possible?) didn't partake in the same feast this year and I feel I must catch you up.

It is at this point that I have to hang my head and cower in the corner for a moment to confess that I have no pictures to share. I know, I know! Quel horreur! Let me tell you, in a small attempt at defense, that a) the fact that the Boyfriend and I managed to get out of our apartment, with at least one pair of underwear and an acceptable shirt, on time, without missing our plane or getting into a taxi accident on the FDR (remember that?), after handing in midterms and closing my show and tying up loose work ends and and and, is a minor miracle. Thus, the fact that I realized on our pre-dawn walk to the subway that I had forgotten my camera is a tragedy, but not entirely unexpected. And b) when you're spending the holiday with your Boyfriend's family and meeting some of said family for the first time, constantly aiming your camera at your plate each time a meal is set out, or following your host around snapping pictures whenever the fridge is opened might not be the first impression you want to make. That said, for you, I would have done it gladly had my brain not turned to mush in the packing process.

So, I will be brief and say that my first Thanksgiving away from our family, at the Boyfriend's oldest sister's home in Virginia, was fun, relaxing, and fattening beyond belief. The whole family had warned me multiple times to bring loose waisted pants and resign myself to gaining about 5 lbs over the weekend. Added to the fact that the Oldest Sister and her Husband both love to cook, is the inherent nurturing role that goes with being the oldest and usually translates to comforting, welcoming, and caring behaviors including constantly feeding ones guests and relatives, as well as the Southern influence of the Husband whose cooking often involved a tremendous amount of butter, and let's not forget meat. The Oldest Sister put the kibosh on allowing us to count the pounds of butter consumed over the course of the weekend (about 50% of which was used on Thanksgiving day). A wise move.

(Food) Highlights would have to include:

1) The look of horror on the faces of the Boyfriend's three nephews when told I had never had a breakfast of biscuits and gravy before.

2) Of course, the actual eating of this dish, which, for the uninitiated, consists of a fresh baked buttery biscuit split open and smothered--absolutely annihilated, by a rich white gravy studded with crumbled sausage and chopped bacon. A side of home fries is a given, of course. My stomach literally didn't know what hit it, while my mouth slapped me upside the head for waiting 29 years to indulge.

3) Cocktail/appetizer hour around the island in the gorgeous and enormous kitchen that the Boyfriend warned me I would covet, and which included such tastiness as warm crab and artichoke dip, enormous shrimp grilled with old bay, and pita chips with tzaziki (we snuck in a few carrot sticks under the radar, possibly the lone raw vegetable I had all weekend. why bother, really?)

4) The iron chefesque cookoff replete with silent voting procedures judged impartially by Papa in which the Boyfriend and Oldest Sister represented Team Leftover Turkey Potpie and the Oldest Sister's Husband and I represented Team Leftover Steak Potpie, the latter of which I can proudly say was victorious (there were au gratin potatoes under the top crust. I mean, come ON.).

5) On the morning of our departure at 6am for the airport, we tiptoed downstairs to find individual egg and cheese on biscuits warming in the oven for our homemade breakfast on the road. FYI, If you're planning a trip to Richmond, I've got the perfect little bed and breakfast for you....

6) The O.S.H.'s Thanksgiving teriyaki green beans. In a banquet of the traditional stuffing, garlic mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes with pecan topping, turkey, gravy, and cranberry sauce, the green beans stuck out like a sore, asian-flavored thumb. Or so I thought. In reality they were the perfect addition, their salty/sweetness complementing a forkful of mellow mashed spuds and moist turkey. It perked up the triptophan-laden meat, went surprisingly well with the sourness of the cranberry, matched the garlic in the potatoes and balanced the sweetness of the yams. When I went back for seconds, I surprised even myself by going straight for the beans. And don't worry, there was still plenty of butter in them, so it wasn't just out of virtue.

I asked the O.S.H. for the recipe on I think three different occasions, in three different ways, and emerged each time with a list of ingredients but still really no concept of how to make it. I could attribute this to the plague of the home cook making their traditional holiday dishes which can now only be described as "some of this and some of that and you sort of taste it til it tastes right and then you add some more if it needs it." Or it could have been the gravy-addled fog I am only just emerging from.

Here's what I gathered: Maybe a cup of soy sauce and a cup of teriyaki (or was it less soy?), some sugar, maybe it was also a cup though that doesn't seem possible, boiled and reduced down. At some point corn starch gets added to thicken the sauce, and a couple of cloves of roasted garlic mashed and added in. I THINK softened butter gets added to create a thick sort of paste at some point. The beans are blanched--this I know for sure--and then tossed in a baking dish with the sauce and reheated through. Sorry, I know this isn't very helpful. Sometime soon, when I'm done with finals (will that ever happen??) I will experiment and come up with something more quantifiable for you. Or if you're drooling already (as I am as I write this), try it and let me know what you come up with.

Do YOU have pictures?? I want a recipe for the pomegranate martinis I heard rumor of....

On to figgy pudding!

The Mouse

*"I am thankful for Squanto, who taught us how to cut and peel fish" --The Youngest Cousin, circa age 8? in a book of thanksgiving made by his school, in which most youngsters mentioned their siblings, parents, puppies, homes, and favorite toys.