Return Again

We lost my Great Uncle Harry this year. He really was great. He always had a fun story to tell, or a perfect song to sing. He was a vegetarian and for decades built these wonderful, multilayered Dagwood sandwiches for Shabbat breakfast. We were all lucky enough to visit Uncle Harry and Auntie Julie about two months before he died, because we went to a family reunion in London right around New Year’s. We flew in from Boston; Sylvie, Miriam and Leo flew in from DC; my Cousin Larry and Ashley flew in from New Jersey; and my dad came in from Jerusalem. It was Sylvie’s idea, really. She wanted the kids to meet the British relatives before it was too late — a good call on her part.

Weinbergfest

We were only in London for a couple of days, but we were able to score a table at NoPi. We ordered every vegetable dish on the menu, and a perfect piece of fish. I had a kumquat and passionfruit mocktail and rhubarb Eaton mess. It was everything I wanted it to be. Pro tip: They only have two high chairs in the whole restaurant, and no changing table in their amazing mirrored bathroom, so plan accordingly.

Lilli and I caught something on the plane on the way over, and because I was 20 weeks pregnant and had no immune system, I couldn’t really do much touring. Or stand. Or make conversation. But Rich did get to see a real football match with my cousin Jonah. By the time I made it to my doctor’s office on New Year’s Eve, my temp had spiked to 102.8F. But the trip was still well worth it, and I really miss my Cousin Jenny. Hopefully we’ll get to see Jonah soon; he is in Philadelphia for the year studying at Temple and drinking American beer.

Nopi

It was never the right time to talk about finally eating at Ottolenghi’s restaurant, because it never felt right to talk about Uncle Harry. But it’s Day of the Dead on Sunday, and I’m looking forward to joining my friend Tania and her family for her holiday, so it seems appropriate to honor Harry, as well Rich’s Uncle Tommy and Auntie Ruthie and his professor Svetlana Boym, all of whom we lost far too soon this year.

If I find my blanched almonds in time, I’ll be making this horchata for the occasion. It’s a traditional Mexican sweetened rice drink, and it has become my litmus test of whether a Mexican restaurant is worth my time. Aleza introduced me to the beverage when we stumbled into a real hole in the wall in Williamsburg. This was in 2002, back when there were still holes in walls in Williamsburg.

mirrored bathroom

This particular recipe is from the Ultimate Nachos cookbook, also the cookbook for these pickled red onions I use all the time. The drink is vegan, and you need a blender and an overnight to make it work. Sure, it’s really meant for a hot summer’s day, but I think it will also work at the ofrenda.

Horchata from Ultimate Nachos by Lee Frank & Rachel Anderson

Ingredients

1 cup long-grain rice, rinsed and drained

1 cup blanched almonds

4 cinnamon sticks

1 quart water

¾ cup sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

2 cups ice cubes

Ground cinnamon, to taste

Ingredients

Put the rice, almonds, and cinnamon sticks in a blender. Blend the mixture into a powder.

Add the water, sugar, and vanilla and blend for 90 seconds.

Chill the mixture overnight in the fridge.

Strain the liquid into glasses over ice cubes and serve, sprinkled with ground cinnamon to taste.

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In a Jam

I must admit, I was getting worried.

Purim is fast approaching – it will be here on Wednesday night – and I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to fulfill the four mitzvot – commandments – that are prescribed for the holiday. I know I could take care of the first three, no problem:  listen to the megillah, the Scroll of Esther which tells the miraculous story of the holiday; attend a feast; and give tzedekah, charity. Now, the fourth mitzvah, making and delivering shaloch manot baskets, is probably my favorite mitzvah of all 613, and things are going to be tricky this year with the whole back thing.

The baskets must contain at least two types of ready-to-eat foods, and I deliver them the day of the holiday. (Yes, I take some vacation to take care of that task.) I love the making of the baskets, and given the proximity of Purim to Easter, finding fun baskets is never a problem. I love gathering the foods – usually some fruits, nuts, candies, a little nip for the 21+ crowd, some chips, and, of course, my homemade hamantashen. But, as I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m a little slower in the kitchen these days, and the making of the dough, the rolling, the cutting. Well, making the hamentashen seemed like a very exhausting, almost daunting task this year.

This afternoon, Sara made sure I don’t have to worry anymore. We had been plotting for a few weeks to make this blood orange and pistachio tort, and, while we were already in the kitchen, she made the executive decision to make hamantashen at the same time. (OK, I had been hinting pretty strongly about the idea and she got the hint.) And little E helped us make the cookies. I assured Sara that making hamantashen, along with challah, is one of the best baking projects for little ones so there would be no child labor laws broken.

I had had no idea what could out-do last year’s fillings, but Sara came through with homemade plum jam and blood orange marmalade.

If you’re not sure you’re going to have the time to do some canning between now and Wednesday night, there’s always last year’s recipes featuring pistachio, honey and cardamom and pine nut, honey and thyme.

Silent Night

My bicycle, a 1960s English three-speed we bought for $60 at a tag sale in my hometown, lives in the front foyer from roughly mid-April to early October. It lives in the basement the rest of the year, easing access to the front hall closet for winter coats.

I’m writing this in mid-December, and my bicycle is still in the front hallway, where I put it on Friday after I rode it home from work. It’s dark by the time I leave my office, and the bike ride home along the river has become one of the most pleasurable moments of my week. There’s a stillness to the air, and no matter how many cars pass me to my left on Storrow Drive, the world seems silent.

I remark on this quietness because it’s the reverse of my morning commute, which is always cluttered by buses, cars and trucks all fighting their way to get to work on time. I plan my day on my ride in, and even before I get to the river and the safe bike path, I’ve decided on what to cook for dinner that night. But on these tranquil evening rides, my mind is as still as the chilled air, and I breathe in and out as I gaze across the river into Cambridge.  I’ve tried to remember if evening rides home in the summertime were this serene. I can’t say for certain, but there’s something so lively about a warm summer evening, when it doesn’t even get dark until long past 8PM, that leads to me to believe the answer is no.

The weather this weekend was more seasonal for Rich’s family Christmas party, and the temperature barely broke 30 today. It finally feels like December, but the forecast says it’s going to be in the 40s tomorrow. I don’t want to give up my evening ride of solitude along the river quite yet, so I’ve dug up my long johns to wear under tomorrow’s corduroys.

For dinner tonight, we are having some odds and ends in the fridge: some mustard greens and white beans, and this leftover mushroom and walnut pâté from that holiday party yesterday. This is one of those recipes I mull over during my morning ride.

Rich’s wonderful Aunt Nance, who I always look forward to visiting at family parties, asked me for the recipe just a few minutes after I’d set our offerings down on the counter. This recipe can definitely be made vegan, using olive oil, but that velvety richness that had Nance reaching for the knife was from the butter. It’s always the butter, isn’t it?

There might be a butter crisis in Norway, but there’s been a sale on it pretty regularly at the market around the corner. I can’t help but buy a box if it’s going to save me $1.77 and I know it can all be frozen until it’s needed; sorry Sven. Rich has started to complain about the 10 lbs. of butter that falls out of the freezer every time he opens it up for an ice cube (“Think of the Norwegians, Molly!”), but I’ve decided to ignore him.

The mushrooms I used in this version are crimini (aka “baby bellas”), but white button mushroom will work just as well. I clean mine by wiping them down with a barely moistened paper towel; I’m really just making sure all the dirt has been wiped away. Besides the butter, I keep my nuts, including these walnuts I bought from Ocean State Job Lot, in the freezer, as it keeps them from spoiling.

Mushroom Walnut Pâté

Ingredients

10 oz. (1 ¼ cups) chopped mushrooms

1/3 cup walnuts

7 large shallots (approximately 1/2 cup), peeled and chopped

2 teaspoons fresh thyme

Unsalted butter

Directions

Toast walnuts for 7 minutes in a 350 degree oven or toaster oven. (You can put them in while the oven is preheating)

In a medium sauté pan, melt 1 Tablespoon of butter over medium heat and add the chopped shallots. Slowly cook them until they have gone from pink to translucent to brown; about 10 minutes. Shallots crisp very quickly, so if yours hits that point, remove them immediately from the heat. But don’t worry if they do, this has not ruined the dish. At all. Remove and set aside.

(I have to grab a second skillet for this next step because my trusty sauté pan gets a little too brown too quickly, but I can’t stop using it. You should be able to do this all in one pan, but if things look like they’re heading from brown to black, grab a second pan.)

Melt 1 ½ Tablespoons of butter in a sauté pan over medium heat, then add the mushrooms. Let them cook in the butter for a few minutes without disturbing them. After about three minutes, give everything a stir. The mushrooms are going to give off a lot of moisture, and just keep on cooking them in the butter. After a few more minutes, give them another stir. In about 8 minutes in, add in a little pat of butter, about ½ Tablespoon.

Cook the mushrooms for about 5 minutes more, by which time the mushrooms will have deepened in color and begun caramelizing. This is a good thing. Once the mushrooms are a deep brown, add a pinch of salt, the roasted walnuts, thyme and shallots. Cook about 1 minute more.

Transfer contents of the pan to a food processor, and press on. While everything is whirling, drizzle in enough olive oil to make the concoction moist, about 1/4 cup. Stop machine, give a taste, add more salt if necessary. This all should take about 15 seconds.

Serve immediately on toast, bread, crackers, etc. Or, refrigerate for up to 4 days — that’s a guess, I’ve never had leftovers of this around that long!

Dia de los Muertos

When pressed to name my favorite holiday, I’m a little hesitant to answer. We’ve just had an entire month of really terrific ones which involve really good food and spending time with my family (oh, and praying). Springtime also has some really good ones, but the truth is, the holiday which holds a special place in my heart falls on November 2: Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.

In Mexican-Indigenous tradition, there is a belief that our beloved ancestors and loved ones who have passed on – or returned to the source, as the Aztecs viewed it – come back to our world on this day. This return visit is celebrated with memories, blessings, good food and drink, flowers, candles, music, friends, family, and much more.  Every year, my Chicana friend and former neighbor extraordinaire Tania hosts a gathering at her home. Due to a new job she wasn’t able to host one this year, but I took piles of photos last year. I’m so happy to be able to share them with you.

Tania starts preparing for the feast long before the actual day. I’ve been lucky enough to join her and her family around the kitchen table to hand-stuff masa, a corn dough, into corn husks for tamales, a Mexican dish prepared for special occasions. She stuffs and folds hundreds of tamales, some vegetarian and some with chicken, which she then steams in huge pots on the stove. (Tania tells me that it’s traditionally made with lard, but luckily she is not an animal eater. Score one for the Jews!)

Tamales

On the evening of November 2, we arrive at her home. Bill, Tania’s wonderful husband, always prepares a trail of flower petals, which helps our beloved relatives find their way to the ofrenda, the community alter. The ofrenda is covered in pictures and symbolic memories; Tania always leaves out a cloth and water so our ancestors can wash their hands and do a little freshening up.

On top of the hundreds of tamales, Tania also prepares many more traditional Mexican dishes, including a mole, a chicken dish with a sauce made of dozens of spices including chocolate, chili and cinnamon; tomatillo salsa; nopales, an edible cactus; beans, rice; and of course, her father Oscar’s famous flan. Lots of flan, so much so that Rich and I would store eight or so in our fridge in the days leading up to the event. Our reward? An entire flan, just for us.

Chicken mole

Tomatillo salsa

Nopales -- cactus salad

Oscar's famous flan

As friends and family mingle and enjoy the Mexican feast, children spend time at the big kitchen table decorating sugar skulls.

As we finish up our meal, Tania gathers us around the ofrenda, shares words of wisdom, and invites us to share memories of our loved ones who have taken the long trip to join us for the holiday.

Slosh Hashana

Wednesday night marks the beginning of the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashana. Many of the traditional foods for the holiday, like apples dipped in honey, are sweet, symbolizing our wishes for a sweet new year. But my favorite food moment actually comes on the second night of Rosh Hashana. Not all Jews celebrate a second night, but those who do usually make a point of eating a “new” fruit – one that’s just come into season and we haven’t gotten to eat yet — so we can make the blessing shehechiyanu, giving thanks for the new and unusual experience.

Now my mom takes this as an opportunity to serve fruits that are well out of ordinary, like the golden star fruit or the dimpled passion fruit. But no matter what exotic produce she finds, there is always a pomegranate which my sister will have expertly deseeded in a bowl of water. Pomegranates, or rimonim as they are called in Hebrew, are in season right now in Israel, and have popped up in Jewish thought since Biblical times. They are ripe with symbolism; tradition holds that each fruit contains 613 seeds, which is the number of mitzvot, or commandments, in the Torah.

Most blog posts I’ve seen for Rosh Hashana offer a good apple dish or honey cake, but in honor of our second night tradition, I’m sharing a tasty cocktail featuring pomegranate molasses, honey and rum. You can find the molasses at most Middle Eastern shops for just a couple of dollars; I’ve heard that Whole Foods sells it as well. And while the rum isn’t exactly a symbol of the Jewish new year, it is sweet. Besides, if you’re hosting guests for both nights of Rosh Hashana, you might be ready to say shehechiyanu over a stiff drink.

Pomegranate Cooler for Rosh Hashana (with help from Martha Stewart)

Ingredients

1 ounce dark rum

1 tablespoon honey

2 teaspoons pomegranate molasses

5 mint leaves

Ice cubes

4 ounces seltzer

Directions

Stir together dark rum, honey, pomegranate molasses, and mint leaves in a small glass, crushing mint with the back of a spoon. Add ice cubes and top with seltzer.