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.

Bean Counter

I don’t know how and I don’t know why, but a few months ago I was invited to a liquor tasting. Although I do enjoy a nice gin and tonic — Hendrick’s with a muddled cucumber, thank you very much — I am really not much of a drinker, and especially not now with the reflux. But the sound of a night of free alcohol and free appetizers was too good to turn away, so on a random Tuesday night I found myself in a function room at the Hotel Commonwealth in Kenmore Square.

I honestly don’t remember names of any of the liquors I tried: I gave my card to a woman sampling a beet infused alcohol and talked tattoos with a man from a whiskey distillery in Brooklyn.  There were lamb sliders, and chicken wings the girl next to me described as “the best” she’d ever had, and there was a great cheese platter. If memory serves, it was from Formaggio Kitchen, and it had some really nice examples of American cheeses: Humboldt Fog goat, Maytag Blue – you get the picture, good cheese. Someone accidentally forgot to put spoons in the dishes for the local honey and candied nuts that were placed on the side of the cheese – and when I told this story later to Rich, he was a little embarrassed that I’d actually asked for them to track down the spoons. I personally think it would have been a shame if the food they’d meant to serve got tossed in a wastebasket at the end of the night, but that’s just me.

Now, there are two things common at these free events: attractive women doling out samples of the free product, and lots of fun swag given away that has been labeled with the name of their good.  The Icelandic vodka company had messenger bags; I scored a salmon pashmina (yes, pashmina!) scarf from the Italian orange-flavored liqueur. (I just want to make clear that I am not not saying the names of the alcohols because I don’t advertise products on Cheap Beets, but because I honestly don’t know what I was drinking that night.)

And then there was the vanilla-tinged scotch. I was schmoozing with the beautiful woman doling out samples when a couple of people approached the table and asked if they could help themselves to free t-shirts. “Of course!” she replied. “Help yourself.” Now, I hadn’t noticed the t-shirts on the table, but what I had noticed was the display the company had her set up. I was standing in front of a glass jar brimming, and I mean brimming, with whole vanilla beans. There must have been at least 50 standing in front of me, and so I asked her if maybe I could have a few of the beans. (Yes, Rich was even more mortified by this part of the story.) She was a bit surprised by the question – I guess she was more used to getting asked for her phone number than baking ingredients – and I explained that vanilla beans are quite expensive and her bosses might not be happy if they were to disappear. She winked and said she’d look the other away; I grabbed not one but two beans and tucked them in my purse.

I actually forgot about the beans until the next day, when I was waiting for the bus and kept thinking someone was smoking a pipe nearby. The beans rested by my phone, so I had a gorgeous sniff of vanilla every time I got a call. They were still in my purse when I had my class that night. I showed my booty to my classmate the professional baker Joyce (she of the fudge cookie fame). She examined them and gave a sniff, and announced they were actually very good quality. She told me I could wrap them in foil and freeze them until I found a use for them, but she also suggested I make my own extract by sticking them in a small glass jar of vodka and forgetting about them for six months.

But what, I implored, should I bake with them? “Oh no,” Joyce shook her head, “baking with vanilla beans is a waste.” She explained that the only time vanilla beans should be used is in cold dishes. In almost every instance that a baking recipe calls for fresh vanilla beans, a teaspoon or two of extract can be used instead. “But don’t use that chemically fake stuff they sell cheap the grocery store!” she warned. “Always look for real vanilla extract from places like Madagascar and Tahiti.” Joyce said she actually buys hers by the gallon, which fluctuates wildly in price; she’s bought it for a low of $75 to a high of $124. It all depends on the hurricanes and stormy weather. The past few years have been brutal on the baking industry due to the astronomic price of vanilla extract. Who knew?

So the recipe I have for today – creamy rice pudding – can be made with a fresh vanilla bean, but why waste it on something that’s been cooked in a crock pot for hours? This recipe takes leftover rice and makes it into a sweet and creamy dessert. Quick tip: You can freeze leftover rice (or quinoa); it defrosts and heats up in a breeze. I tossed in a few cardamom pods and a scrape of nutmeg — mild spices that won’t upset the reflux. I always have dried cherries in the house from Ocean State Job Lot, but you can replace their appearance with more golden raisins. If you do still insist on using a vanilla bean for your baking, they sell whole vanilla beans in the gourmet section of Home Goods for a few dollars less than you’d pay at the store. My friend Sara takes a note from Mark Bittman and buys hers in bulk off of Amazon. But really, just use the extract.

And one last thing before I get to the recipe: I had mentioned a few posts ago I had some exciting news about a project I was working on. Well, I am pleased to announce my new column “The Four Questions” on JewishBoston.com. Each week I’ll be asking a Jew around town doing interesting things four questions (Passover joke, get it?). In the next few weeks you’ll see interviews with the Globe’s advice columnist, a politico, an ethnomusicologist and a personal chef. Please feel free to drop me a line if you know someone I should be interviewing.

Crock Pot Rice Pudding

Ingredients

2 2/3 cups milk

2 eggs, beaten

4 whole cardamom pods

1 teaspoon vanilla

½ cinnamon stick

1/8 teaspoon fresh nutmeg

½ cup white sugar

½ cup brown sugar

1/3 cup golden raisins

1/3 cup dried cherries

2 cups cooked rice

Directions

Combine all ingredients except for the dried cherries and golden raisins in crockpot. Add rice. Stir.

Cook in crockpot on high for one hour, stirring intermittently. After one hour, add the dried fruit, turn crockpot to low and cook for one more hour, continuing to stir intermittently. Enjoy!

Choppin’ Broccoli

Darn it, shoulda used extra-firm tofu.

I think Rich and I broke a holiday party record yesterday: four parties in nine hours. And the food. Oh boy, the food. Highlights include warm ricotta dip, fig and caramelized onions on parmasean tarts, Swedish meatballs, homemade marshmallows, roasted Brussels sprouts, two separate brie en croutes –all warm and melty with caramelized onions and cranberries spilling from underneath their puff pastry shells — a divine cheese platter and rich chocolate ganache cookies. I also drank some wonderful homemade merlot and was introduced to a fresh cranberry and vodka drink that needs further exploration.

So it’s no surprise that Rich and I woke up this morning still pretty full, and a little, just a little bit, grossed out by how much food we ate yesterday. So tonight I turned to my favorite dish I cook up when I think we need to hit pause on our holiday eating.

This recipe is adapted from Mollie Katzen’s Still Life With Menu Cookbook. I’ve found her original recipe to be too vinegary and lacking in soy sauce, so over time I have rejiggered it. She also calls for water chestnuts, which I never seem to have on hand, although last time I made this, I tossed in a can of baby corn. The dried black mushrooms are a pantry staple, thanks to Ocean State Job Lot. Tonight I added a block of medium firm tofu, although looking through the photos, should have been extra firm. Nonetheless, it still tasted great. The red chili flakes give it a good kick, so if you think it’s going to be too spicy for you, just use less than a teaspoon. Rich loves the extra kick and even adds Siracha sauce to his.

Broccoli and Black Mushrooms in Garlic Sauce

Adapted from Still Life with Menu Cookbook

Preparation time: 40 to 45 minutes (The actual stir-frying, once all prelimanaries are ready, takes only about 10 minutes.)

Yield: 4 main-dish-sized servings

Helpful hint: Put your rice on as you start to collect the ingredients, and it will be warm, ready and fluffy when the dish is done.

6 Chinese dried black mushrooms

2 cups boiling water

1/4 cup rice vinegar (cider vinegar will also work in a pinch)

1 1/2 cups water

1/4 cup (packed) brown sugar

3 tablespoons soy sauce

1/2 teaspoon salt

6 medium-sized cloves garlic, coarsely minced

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (more or less, to taste)

2 tablespoons cornstarch

2 tablespoons peanut or sesame oil

1 bunch broccoli (1 to 1 1/2 lbs.) stems trimmed and shaved, cut in 2-inch spears

salt, to taste

1 8 oz. can water chestnuts, drained and sliced, OR 1 can baby corn, OR 1 package extra firm tofu — the choices are really endless, and entirely up to you

1) Place the dried mushrooms in a bowl. Add boiling water, cover with a plate, and let stand at least 1/2 hour (preferably a whole hour). Drain the mushrooms, squeezing out all excess liquid. (You may wish to reserve the soaking water for soup stock.) Remove and discard mushroom stems, and slice the caps in half.

2) Combine the vinegar, 1 1/2 cups of water, brown sugar, soy sauce, salt, garlic and red pepper in a bowl.

3) Place the cornstarch in a small bowl. Add some of the sauce, whisk until dissolved, then return this mixture to the rest of the sauce. Leave the whisk in there; you’ll need it again.

4) Have all ingredients ready and within arm’s reach before starting the stir-fry. Place a medium-large wok over high heat for about a minute or two. Then add the oil. After about a minute, add the broccoli. Salt it lightly, and stir-fry for several minutes over consistently high heat, until the broccoli is bright grean.

5) Add the black mushrooms and water chestnuts, or tofu or baby corn, and stir-fry a few minutes more.

6) Whisk the sauce from the bottom of the bowl to re-integrate the cornstarch. Pour the sauce into the wok, turn the heat down just a little and keep stir-frying over the medium-high heat for another few minutes, until the sauce thickens and coats everything nicely. Serve immediately, over rice.