Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Adventures in Mole

There are a lot of great food traditions in a lot of different cultures, but few have captured my imagination like Mexican Mole sauce. (Pronounced mo - lay). I first experienced great mole sauce in Chicago at a little place on North Clark called "Nuevo Mexicano". Their mole was second only to their margaritas and I am sure that one only made the other that much better. I never thought much about making this interesting sauce until I left Chicago. After all, why make it when I could go get it and the whole great experience I had around this sauce and restaurant? It's my treat. I currently have the same thinking around Chicken Makhani. Why make it when I can get orgasmic Makhani at "Thali of India" right here in Rochester? Besides, each of these foods take some real effort.

So a few years ago, I started dipping into making a mole sauce. It is interesting to find that there as many varieties of mole sauces as there are Mexican grandmothers. The core is pretty much the same - peppers and a sweetener, often in the form of chocolate. After a couple of different varieties, I have settled currently into one that is in a Mexican cookbook by Marlena Spieler. Here is what it says (Instructions in bold are my additions):

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
MOLE POBLANO

Ingredients:
3 Fresh Mulato Peppers (I think peppers can be varied to some degree)
3 Fresh Mild Ancho Chiles
5-6 Frech Anaheim Chiles
1 Onion, Chopped
5 Garlic Cloves, Chopped
1 lb ripe Tomatoes
2 Corn tortillas, preferable stale, cut into small pieces
pinch of cloves
pinch of fennel seeds
1/8 tsp each of Ground Cinnamon, Coriander and cumin
3 Tbsp lightly toasted Sesame seeds or tahini
3 Tbsp. flaked or coarsely ground blanched almonds
2 Tbsp. raisins
1 Tbsp, Peanut butter (Optional)
2 Cu. Chicken Stock
3-4 Tbsp. Grated Unsweetened Chocolate (Hershey's Cocoa Powder)
2 Tbsp. Mild Chili Powder
3 Tbsp. Vegetable Oil
1 Tbsp. Lime Juice
Salt and Black Pepper

Directions:
1. Using Metal tongs, toast each chili over an open flame for a few seconds until the color darkens. Alternatively, roast in an ungreased frying pan over a medium heat, turning constantly for about 30 seconds.
2. Place the toasted chilies in a bowl or a pan and pour boiling water over to cover. Cover with a lid and leave to soften for at least one hour or overnight. Once or twice lift the lid and rearrange the chilies so that they soak evenly. (Make sure to turn off the heat when you add the water).
3. Remove the softened chilies with a slotted spoon. Discard the stems and the seeds and cut the flesh into pieces. Place in a blender. (Do a quick blend)
4. Add the onion, garlic, tomatoes, tortillas, cloves, fennel seeds, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, sesame seeds, almonds, raisins and peanut butter if using, then process to combine. With the motor running, add enough stock through the feed tube to make a smooth paste. Stir in the remaining stock, chocolate, and chili powder.
5. Heat the oil in a heavy based pan until it is smoking, then pour in the mole mixture. It will sputter and pop as it hits the oil. Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occassionally to prevent it from burning. Season with salt, pepper, and lime juice, and serve.

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I rolled these with cheese into some corn tortillas and baked them in the sauce for 20 minutes at 375F. I would love to spend an afternoon with a real abuela and see how this sauce was made before the age of blenders. There must have been a lot of soaking and hand mashing involved. What struck me in making this great dish is the fact that I already had every ingredient in my kitchen sans the corn tortillas. They are pretty much all the same ingredients I use to make Thai food. Go figure...

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Gefilte Fish

by Elizabeth Cherny

This story begins right before Rosh Hashana - the Jewish New Year. It’s the generational story of a family tradition that was started by my late grandmother and was continued by my mom until she, too, had passed.
   
It was the first year without my mom, and for me it was the time to face the reality and to make the decision: to keep the tradition alive, let it go, or just make a dinner to bring family together?

I was on the phone with Bella, a friend of mine for twenty years. We first met when we just arrived as refugees to this country, with four hundred dollars in our pocket and without knowing what will happen to us next. The time and life that we all shared in the suburbs of Chicago made us more than just friends; we became a family. Our children, not even us, made such a strong statement.
   
With the holidays around the corner, Bella and I were talking about what we will make for the dinner.

I don’t remember who asked first about gefilte fish, a very important dish that has to be served at such a time and, without it, it would be not considered a Jewish holiday dinner.

These days when everybody is busy, you can buy the fish ready to serve. You can order it with delivery an hour before the dinner and it would be okay. But, when the woman of the house makes the fish at home, only then is the meal considered to be a holiday dinner!

The fish, the gefilte fish, becomes the center of attention, the subject of the conversation, a main dish, no matter what else would be served that evening.

There we were, two friends, two women who grew up by traditions with traditions, talking about holidays and talking about gefilte fish. Who asked whom first and who said next, I don’t remember but it was close to this:

“Bella, what would we do with the fish?”

“I thought about it, but I don’t know, yet. Do you know how to make it?”

“I think, if I would start making it, I would remember. I didn’t do it for a long time but I can try,” I said, not even thinking where it will bring me and us. “Do you know how to make it?”

“Well, when my mom used to make the fish I tried to be there, some place around, mostly in her way, so mom would look at me and say, ‘Please, Bella, do me a favor just go and do what ever you want to do, don’t try to help me. I am  fine to be here by myself. I can still take care of this. Your time will come, don’t worry!’ So, I would happily leave, but I saw what she did and some of it I do remember…Lily, what, if we tried to make the fish together?” she asked me. “You remember some and I remember what I saw. Let’s do it?”

“You’re serious, aren’t you?” I asked my friend.

“Yes, I am. What do we have to lose? We will spend time together and, who knows? Maybe between the two of us, we would remember and we would have our gefilte fish on the table.”

“Well,” I said, “let’s do it. I still have pots and pans for all of this. In some of them, my grandma used to cook and we called them ‘The Golden Pots.’ They are from my old home.”

“We can’t use your stuff,” quietly said my friend. “I am sorry, but we can’t. They are not kosher.”

For a brief moment, I was so excited that I forgot that my friend keeps kosher and you can’t mix and use anything that is not kosher in the house.

“Well, what can we do?” I asked her with the all excitement gone. “Too bad, my friend, that you don’t have pots to cook the fish.”

“I have. I do have the pots in which my mom made the fish.”

“Great, so what is the problem? We will use yours. What the difference?”

“We can’t use them, either” Bella replied in a very apologetic voice.

“Why not?” I asked her, not understanding what she is talking about.

“They are not kosher, either,” she answered quietly.

“What?” I think that as much as my friend’s voice was quiet, mine was loud. “What?” I repeated myself. “You are telling me that your mom’s pots, where she cooked the fish for all the holidays through all the years, are not kosher? Bella, what then is kosher, if not your mom’s pots and pans?”

“Please,” said my friend, “don’t be so upset with me! I know. I know, I understand why you are so upset, but I can’t use them because they are not kosher.”

Well.  I couldn’t stop, so upset I was with such a statement. I knew her mother. I knew the woman whose life was nothing but devotion to my friend and to her family, whose love was so unconditional that to me refusing her pots was an insult to her life.

“Well, my friend, let me tell you,” I said in the same very upset and loud voice, “you had better go to your shul and talk to your Rabbi.  Go and tell him how upset I am and ask him what else can be more kosher in life than pots where your mom, your Jewish mom, in the best meaning of the world, cooked gefilte fish.”

“Ok, I will do it.”

“Promise?”

“Yes, I promise you.”

The time passed by and in two weeks Bella called.
   
“I have the news for you,” she said as she started laughing. “We have kosher pots and pans for the fish!”

“What do you mean by this?” I asked.

“Well,” she continued to smile and started telling the story. “I did go to the Rabbi and told him about our conversation. He listened to me and then he said that the pots we brought from the old country are made from such material that it is almost impossible to bring them to the cleaning condition so that they can be called kosher.  But, he promised to talk to another Rabbi who may have a solution. So he called in a few days and said that another Rabbi cannot also make such a decision and that Rabbi needs to talk to somebody else.  I don’t want to make up or to say more than I know,” she continued the story, “but I think the question was brought to the Rabbi from the Rabbinical Court. Well, they told me that, considering the circumstances and my wish, they can make a special cleaning for these pots and pans and they can make them kosher.”
   
My friend was happy and continued laughing telling me the ordeal it was to make it happen. I was listening to my friend, holding tears and thinking about life at large, about all the twists and changes we went through. The gefilte fish that was made by our grandmas in the old country and our moms coming to a different continent and bringing the pots and pans for the special cooked fish, the gefilte fish.

I thought of the tradition that was kept by our ancestors in the country where everything and anything Jewish was forbidden. I thought how they kept it all and without words and explanations, taught us something very special: to keep the tradition alive, no matter where the destiny will bring our families and us.

I thought what our moms would say. Would they smile, or just quietly shake their heads? Our moms, who were watching and listening to us from above. So, we cooked! We cooked gefilte fish the way it was made centuries ago, the way it was made in our homes, and the way we saw and remembered.

In my friend’s large, brand new kitchen that was built before the holidays and was expected and blessed as a kosher, on the new stove in all its’ shining glory, was standing an old, big pot full of gefilte fish - the same pot that was brought from the old country and in which my friend’s mother used to cook the fish before this special day!
     
The most kosher pot in the world!

When holiday came and our families and children were sitting at the table, we told them this story: the story of memories, the story of love and the story of a tradition we all wish and hope they will continue after us.

The memory of scent

I love how a random aroma can transport me back to another time. When I first walked into my new local library, it was as though I had entered my beloved library back home. The scent of old books and papers...nothing like it. There's only one aroma in my house that does that for me, every single time.

Sesame oil.

When I pop open the bottle, I must put my nose right up to the spout and take a deep, lung-filling whiff. That's always followed up by a quiet smile, as the memories come flooding back. When I was about eight, my oldest son's age, my dad took up Chinese cooking as a hobby. We lived in an old Chicago Bungalow, and in the unfinished basement there was a tiny little gas stove. He would cook down there, keeping the heat and oil splatters out of our miniscule kitchen...and ensuring that little kids didn't get underfoot and burned. Once he mastered complex stir-fries, he moved on to our favorite, Hot and Sour Soup. He perfected a recipe that included a drizzle of sesame oil on top, the heat releasing its nutty scent.

It brings back the memory of being young and carefree and happy, with a dad who loved to experiment in the kitchen and share that with his family. We had delicious food, and dinners around the table, and leftovers I'd have for breakfast in the morning. No, really, I did. My sons don't get it either. It brings back the memory of recreating my dad's Hot and Sour Soup recipe in college, going to the only Oriental grocery store in Normal, Illinois to get the precious ingredients. Filling my pit of an apartment with the warm aromas of soup and sesame oil.

With one whiff, the scent of sesame oil transports me back to all those times. Better than any time machine.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Lamb Meatballs and seafood

So I decided to do something new and different for dinner. I took some spices; smoked paprika, ground ginger, cumin, fennel seeds, garlic and a few other things, mixed it into the ground lamb and made small little balls. Added that into a crock pot with hot olive oil, garlic, onions and mushrooms. Let that cook for about 10 minutes. Then added some chimichuri sauce; I know, a bit of the Latin flavor. After another 10 min added the shrimp, and calamari with some dried up rosemary. Cooked that for 10 more min and done.

It was actually pretty good. Had some rice on the side. The only thing I would do is add some tomato paste and a touch of cinnamon into the meatballs to give it a little extra.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Sometimes staying in is better then going out!

We had guests over on Saturday the 7th and I made some sushi. My daughter took the pictures until she got sick with a temperature and fell a sleep. So here is what we got...






Start with rice,













then yellowtail, salmon, tuna, cucumber, avocado,













tempura shrimp,













eel, crab,













red and green caviar,













and most importantly spicy mayo...













Roll it...





and then you get these...


and also these...

Unfortunately, I don't have pictures of the whole feast, because as I said the photographer got sick, but she did wake up for the most important part -- Four hours, 15 rolls, 120 pieces of sushi later... It was probably too much, but I did enjoy making it, and it seemed everyone loved eating it... It beats going out anytime!

Bird Bird Bird, the Bird is the Word

T-minus six days to my very favorite holiday, the one that recognizes gratitude with a roasted flightless bird. Granted, between me and that day there is a 14 hour drive to Iowa from Colorado, but that's what ya gotta do. I love Thanksgiving. I love that it hasn't been commercialized, I love that there's a parade and my husband and I can critique the bands (once a band director, always a band director), I love that it's a holiday that has a day following it simply for recovery. My kind of day.

Funny thing, though, is that I don't like to cook. Sigh.... Yes, it's true. My name is Jen, I contribute to two different food-related blogs, and I don't like to cook. Eat, yes. Cook, not so much. But Thanksgiving is different. I have the whole day, in fact several days, to prepare food. I'm not the only one cooking. And if it doesn't turn out, I can drown it all in gravy and everyone's happy. And if the gravy is lumpy, then let them all eat pie! Pecan. Hot. With ice cream.

It got tougher last year when it was the first Thanksgiving that I had to eat gluten-free. My husband's world famous stuffing suffered mightily from the terrible gluten-free bread we used. I wept, for I usually want to bathe in that stuffing it's so good. We tried again at Christmas and it was a little better, but not much. I have high hopes for this year since finding a wonderful bread mix (Bob's Red Mill, I love you. Mwah!).

We have a few traditional foods, but not many. The bird. Stuffing. Cranberry sauce, the kind with the lines (for easy slicing, right?) AND homemade. Apple salad...yes, it's healthy on this day even though it's covered in Cool Whip. Sweet potatoes. Pie. My husband must have his spiced apple rings or the day is a depressing failure. Anything else for the groaning table varies depending on what recipes caught our eye that year. And everything must be gluten-free.

Parade, lounging around in yoga pants all day, mouth-watering aromas from the kitchen, the gleeful voices of cousins pounding on one another...this is Thanksgiving.

Even if I do have to cook.

Le Menu - Bon Appetit!

Occassionally, dinner guests come into my kitchen and spy the weekly menu posted on the white board hanging there. Typical reactions:

"Wow!"
"You are too organized!"
"You have a planned weekly menu? OCD?"
"Control Freak!"
"Weirdo!"

So maybe the last two are my interpretation of their reactions, but it often comes across that having a menu is a novel idea. But I am here to tell you, it is one of the best things we do at our house. We are a bit loose about the schedule of it, and some weeks we don't do it at all. That's ok. Often on a Friday night over take-out or on a Saturday morning, my wife and I will pore over our cookbooks and recipes and create the menu.

Why do we do it? Obviously, good food is important enough to me that I am compelled to write about it, so that 30 minutes of effort taken once per week is compulsory. Some meals can't just be thrown together and, frankly, many of those type of meals aren't that good or good for you.

Also, when shopping for groceries, the trip has a newer purpose. I am not picking up our normal list of snacks, we are preparing for shrimp and leek risotto. I am not hobbling together a bunch of ingredients that will sit in my cabinets for months, I am creating an oustanding goulash.

Also, in some ways, this weekly menu creation feeds my frugality. The first step we take is to really scan our cabinets for what we have in the house. We try to use items in stock first. Lots of squash? We are planning squash stews and sausage and apple stuffed acorn squash and pumpkin pies. Four of five pounds of sushi rice left? I am planning fried rice or stir fry or some other risotto (Sushi rice makes much better risotto than arborio, by the way).

Making a menu helps us make sure that we are eating a balanced diet too. I am a carnivore and my wife is a starchivore. So I make steak every Tuesday night when she's out and she cooks pasta/potatoes every Thursday night when I'm out. We try to limit the number of red meat meals and try to make sure we get enough vegetables at EVERY meal. This just doesn't happen well without planning.

Lastly, our menu is a guide and not the law. Despite all of the OCD cracks, it's rare that we make it through the week and follow the menu exactly. It is so nice to come home from work and have some sort of plan for dinner - at least a list of known options. I have all the ingredients because I shopped for them already - with my weekly menu.

Despite people thinking that I am crazy, everytime someone looks at our menu at least one item stirs them to come back to our kitchen.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Really, Real Food

About five years ago, I was stretched out on my couch late at night suffering with a bout of insomnia and dozing through several horrid old early 80's movies like they currently show on WGN. As I passed by PBS, I was caught by the image of an old man on tractor in Illinois plowing a flat, empty field. The narrator, son of the tractor-driver, spoke of the hardships of family farming in the midwest during the 70's and 80's. The show was called "The Real Dirt on Farmer John", the story of the Peterson family and their farm outside of Caledonia. I was riveted by this all-American family story and their struggle with independence and their passion for the land.
As the story turned into the 1990's, what happened next astounded me. Farmer John launched a new business model for his farm, the Community Supported Agriculture project (CSA). Basically, John turned his farm into an old-fashioned diversified organic farm, then sold shares of the crops to city folks in advance. Each week, "subscribers" received a bushel share of the crops that ripened during the growing season. Not only did the farm make out, by sharing the risk with the shareholders, but the consumers made out by getting fresh from the farm organic produce cheaper than they could get at the store. The whole idea excited me.

For more than two years following the airing of this show, I kept my eyes out for something similar in my area. Then, one day I saw the flier. Porter Farms had a CSA that delivered to my area. $350 for 22 weeks of fresh produce - usually around 10 lbs per week. Since then, I have found other types of CSAs including those that produce fruit and some even that provide meats and dairy. Now there is a whole website devoted to promoting CSAs nationwide.

Cheap, fresh produce alone sounds like a great deal, but it is more than that. We get more produce than our family typically eats in a week. So we make it our mission to work it into every meal. Only vegetables that are in season make it into the bag and we find ourselves feeling very connected to the growth cycles of our food in this way. Lettuces early on. Tomatoes in Augus. Squash and Cabbage in the fall. We get a newsletter every week with our food. I learned about the airborne fungus that wiped out cucumber crops across the northeast. I learned how the cold summer we had this year kept tomatoes from ripening and how most of their crop was lost.

We are connected to our food in a new way, and in some ways, we are more connected to our earth.

P.S. Earlier this year, I was given a book that really made me think about this idea of supporting local agriculture called Deep Economy by Bill McKibben. My recommendation is to skip the first chapter entirely. The rest reads like a man's earnest pursuit to find out more about his food chain. I just picked up the more recently released book, In Defence of Food by Michael Pollan and I am looking forward to checking in regarding this book as well.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Grandma Who


My fathers mother, Grandma Donahue, that's who! She is the one who instilled in me the love of food. And not just any food — the-made-from-scratch kind of food. I barely remember my Grandmother buying anything in a box or a can. But what I do remember is that anytime Grandma Donahue was around you could bet you were going to learn to cook!

For many years when I was young my grandparents lived in Florida. When we went to visit, we always had homemade pies, fresh fish and papaya juice made from fresh papayas. When my grandfather died in 1971 my grandmother moved back to Youngstown to be near our family. Anytime we spent with Grandma, we spent hours cooking and baking. She spent time teaching us to make chicken broth from a whole chicken (eww!) and some water. While the broth took it's time cooking, we learned to make dough for the homemade egg noodles that went in to the soup. We mixed, rolled, cut and dried all our noodles. If that project was done, we went on to make homemade pizzas. And of course, every meal needed a dessert. We learned to make apple pies and apple dumplings, starting with a good, rolled out homemade crust and filling or rolling it with lots of fresh cut apples, cinnamon, butter and brown sugar.

My grandmother also brought her love to cookies in to our home. A great tradition that she started with us at a young age was making sugar cookies. We watched and helped while she made enough dough for all four of us. Each of us was able to roll out our dough and use her tin cookie cutters to create all sorts of shapes: circles, diamonds, snowflakes, a snowman and a gingerbread man. While the cookies waited to go into the oven, you could add your own touches with the green and red sugars. Grandma also made all the homemade frostings for an even extended sugar high! Every holiday, be it Valentines Day, St. Patricks Day, Halloween or Christmas, my girls and I are busy baking some sort of sugar cookie in honor of Grandma Who.

The Tamales That Bind

One thing about growing up in a traditional Mexican family is that the Mexican family is a matriarchy, despite all the machismo bullshit that characterizes it. Matriarchs run the family and they have a potent arsenal they use to full advantage, food.

Food is the heart of the Mexican family and has a mystique all its own. Cooking in a Mexican family is more than an act of feeding the family. Cooking is an expression of love and caring and eating the food is an expression of appreciation. Mexican mothers pour their heart and soul in every meal they create and we know it. If they can’t buy you everything you want, at least you will always have good food made by the hands that love you and with a taste you can’t find anywhere else. The meal is one of those things that bind families together and sharing it as a family is one of those rituals that stitch the family together and embed us with lifelong memories of hearth and home that we struggle to recreate for the rest of our lives.

One ritual that stands out above all the others is that of making and eating tamales. Tamales are a traditional celebratory food typically made during the holidays when the whole family gets together. One of the reasons they are used for family celebrations is that they take a long time to make and because you’re feeding a large group with over 100 tamales, you need everyone’s help in making them (typical of Mexican families, women are usually the ones who cook them). The men are left to do man stuff while the children hang out in the kitchen watching the whole thing unfold before them.

The family begins gathering the night before when the various matriarchs get together, under the tutelage of the grandmothers, to begin preparation. First there is the masa (or dough) to make, then the filling, then the softening and laying out of the corn husks, then assembling the tamales, then the steaming while other dishes are prepared. In order to have tamales ready for the family to eat on Christmas morning, the process begins the night before and goes on through the whole night.

But the process is more than an assembly line. It is the bonding among the women that happens as the art of tamale making is passed from one generation to another. Recipes are passed down, spices are tested for the right flavor, consistency is taught and everything is made by hand, the slow way. In the midst of spending the whole night getting the consistency of the masa just right, the preparation of the meat just right, the salsas to just the right bite and potency, the women share life stories and histories together, motherly advice is passed on, problems are talked through and all the while the women are aware that with their hands they are creating a special meal filled with love and the bonding they are experiencing for the entire family. It’s as if that special cross-generational bond occurring at that moment becomes a secret ingredient in the tamales. You can almost see the passing of the torch from one generation to another occurring as the younger women absorb the knowledge and secrets of the older ones. The children sit by or run around and eagerly try to lend a helping hand (the boy children just try to annoy the girl children who think they are becoming women by helping).

As the tamale ingredients are ready to be put together into the finished product, each one is handled with care. Each corn husk must be perfect and free from tears, they are laid out flat and the masa is applied to the inside in even strokes. Every tamale gets a generous portion of filling and sauce spread evenly throughout to make sure that nobody gets an imperfect or unsatisfactory one. They are then perfectly rolled and hand tied with a string and a simple knot. Each one is perfection and carefully and lovingly prepared. At around 3 in the morning, they are arranged standing up in the steamers and left to steam while the women clean up the kitchen and prepare the table for breakfast. The kids have long since pooped out and were put to bed by various women. Now the real talking can begin while they prepare the beans, rice, potatoes, and anything else they need for the morning.

In the down time while the tamales steam, the real juicy stuff is talked about. There is a lot of laughing and giggling and one or a few of the ladies will take a quick nap. It’s one of the few times you can see all the women of the family together and exchanging life’s lessons. Grandmothers, aunts, cousins, daughters, wives, from 80 years old to 20 are all there in the kitchen sharing and bonding.

All of that bonding is expressed in the tamales. As the men and children wake up or start arriving from their own homes, the sweet and meaty scent of the tamales wafts through the house like an open invitation. Everyone starts gathering in the kitchen, the women are scurrying to get all the plates and glasses and utensils laid out.

As the voluminous greetings of the men begin to reverberate through the house, you can almost feel the energy mounting. Everybody is here. The anticipation of the tamales is building. The men have waited months for a tamale occasion and know the women have been working on them through the whole night. Over a hundred tamales, beans, rice, handmade tortillas, potatoes, chiles, red sauce, green sauce, mole sauce, nopales (cactus), and anything else you can think of has been put together while we were all asleep. The women are tired but look none the worse for wear having spent a spiritual night of bonding while creating a meal of love together for the whole family.

As the men and the children sit down, we are giddy with anticipation as the women scurry about getting everyone served. Most of them already sampled everything before the men got there so they are not starving like we are. The men relish the attention being given to them by their mothers, their wives, their aunts, their grandmothers, and their nieces. The women are waiting in anticipation for the men to taste their first tamale and exclaim their appreciation with wide eyes and wide smiles.

The tamales are not only delicious they are creations of love and effort. The women are seeing the fruit of their labor in the glee and cheerfulness of the entire family gathered together by the tamales. The matriarchs are proud to have passed on their tradition to the mothers of the future and that their families are at that moment bound together by their special talent and the special ingredient, their love for their family. Everyone is aware of the work that went into them and the appreciation is boundless.

The men, despite their machismo, know that they are nothing without the women who care for them and can get together to perform such a culinary feat for them for this is a special gift of family that no broken family can recreate. For the young women who learned that night, this is a moment of transcendence from a girl to an accepted equal among the matriarchs. For the children, it’s a special memory of seeing the women of the family work as one proudly through the night, the wisdom of the old passed on, the special bonds shared and seeing the men of the family utterly so appreciative and happy for they know that by eating the tamales they are partaking of the tremendous love and care that was cooked into each and every one of those tamales and because of that love and care, they are the most delicious tamales they have ever had.

For that moment, the whole family is one big harmonious loving unit, the warmth is imprinted on every child’s memory, when everyone is happy, laughing, smiling, happy to be together, bound together through the delicious and tender tamales exuding that special ingredient of love and warmth and that the mothers of the family, the matriarchs, are the ones responsible. They are the key to keeping the family together and the tamale is the symbol of the love required to keep the family together. From that point on, eating a tamale alone is almost sacrilegious and doesn’t taste anywhere as good as when the whole family is together under the loving watchful eyes of the matriarchs.

And if you do have to eat one alone, the spirit of the matriarchs is always there with you; grandma, momma, and your favorite aunt. Maybe that’s why tamales are the ultimate Mexican comfort food.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Verve: A New Energy in a Gritty Cleveland Corner


One of the things I miss most about living downtown is my leisurely weekend strolls tradition with Sonia: to the lake, near the tulips (w/ Bettina), to Starbuck's or even the time we snuck into the Cleveland Convention Center and explored every corner of that fascinating building. For those who don't know, it was Sonia's invitation to dinner one Spring evening two and a half years ago that led to a walk near the Q the night of the Cavs last game of the playoffs that set off the events for the script.  A very talented medical professional, Sonia is a creative at heart and her curious soul has propelled us into all kinds of city adventures - she notices what others don't - and this time it was a new restaurant that opened on the corner of Carnegie and East 14th.

We wanted to have lunch and initially decided on sushi, but after passing by Verve, tucked away under a large CSU billboard, we, ok, I, took a u-turn in the middle of a four lane street and we parked in the adjacent parking lot. When we entered Verve, we immediately sensed a new energy, an energy that didn't feel very Cleveland. Unlike the social restaurants in the Warehouse District or the commercially successful East 4th Street gastronomic mecca, with its open, industrial and minimalist feel, large windows overlooking busy Carnegie and sophisticated and professionally-dressed customers filling almost every white tablecloth covered table, Verve felt more like it belonged in (dare I say it?) Chicago.

Sonia and I were seated right away by the nice hostess, who also took my raincoat. Our waiter approached us quickly and provided the menus, that listed items like Verve Fries (hand cut potato with sausage gravy),  Roasted Onion and Garlic Soup (w/grilled fontina cheese bread) and City Chicken (crispy pork and applesauce).  The restaurant menu is like an album of classic 60's rock songs covered by your favorite 90's bands: you recognize the titles, but Verve puts its own spin on things.

After Sonia and I ordered soup and a few salads, I excused myself to go to the ladies room. First,  I noticed that instead of "men"/"women," the doors were marked with framed photos of gender-appropriate children. Very clever and cute. Once inside, in the mirror I also realized that all this time my sunglasses were on me - not on my head, but on my face. I felt so pretentious and silly and took them off,  thinking that, perhaps, the staff was being so super nice to both of us because they thought I was someone far more important than I really am. (It was either the sunglasses or my continuous photo-taking with the iPhone.) But, then, perhaps something about Verve, and the aura of "important discussions happen while people eat our soup" resonated in the subconscious and allowed me to play dress up.

For dessert, Sonia and I split a slice of a chocolate torte, pictured here. The presentation was wonderful, the texture a little dense, but, then my dear friend and I felt like a little escapism that dreary, late-October Midwestern afternoon and Verve certainly delivered. On an intersection sandwiched between the highway ramp, a busy driving street, a church and a three-story white storage building that, with its gorgeous large window arches, since first moving to Cleveland I've wanted to own and convert into a giant creative loft, this new restaurant is filling a void in a part of town that's just one block away from the country's second biggest theater district.  Verve's vitality is just what the doctor ordered. Even Sonia would agree.

More than omelets and tea

Go with me here. What's the first thing that pops into your mind when you hear "Denver Cuisine?"
  1. Omelets
  2. Rocky Mountain Oysters
  3. Denver has cuisine?
  4. Boy, that game last night against the Steelers was brutal!
Let's try another one. What's the first thing that pops into your mind when you hear "Boulder Cuisine?"
  1. Home of the Vegan Lifestyle
  2. Tea
  3. Boulder has cuisine? Can college kids afford cuisine?
  4. Damned pot-smoking dippy hippies, get off the lawn!
While some of this is indeed true, trust me when I say I wouldn't be happy living out here if there weren't some tasty places to dine. I grew up outside of Chicago, and my parents' hobby was trying new restaurants. I'd rather go out for a nice dinner with my husband than anything. Unfortunately, we seem to be raising small monkeys instead of young boys, so we don't get out as often as we'd like...but I digress.

There are wonderful places in Colorado to eat. I've been out here 12 years now, have had many memorable meals, and not one has included an omelet or deep fried bull testicles. There's The Fort west of Denver, which is the place to take a date...or the in-laws. Fancy-schmancy restaurant, specializing in Old West cuisine, with a killer view of the lights of Denver from the foothills. Is seafood more your thing? Try Jax Fish House in Boulder (which will be our next dinner out). What? Seafood in the mountains? Dude, yeah. The kitchen is run by Top Chef Season 5 winner Hosea Rosenberg. There is also a wide variety of little joints beloved by regulars; you need only to ask a local.

Now, the question is, "Jen, do you really go out that often?" Nooo...I wish; see aforementioned young monkeys...erm... children. We save dining for adult time, and take full advantage of a fantastic week in February. Denver Restaurant Week (also known as cheap week to eat out), is the week that we suck it up, get a couple of sitters and hit the top restaurants on our "to try" list. Restaurants have a set menu, priced at $52.80 for two...and not just the inexpensive items on the list. They showcase some of their best meals; it's the only way we were able to dine at The Fort a few years ago. It started a few years back and was such an stunning hit that many restaurants participate for two weeks, and the list of restaurants grows every year. I highly recommend planning a ski trip around Restaurant Week. I may eat rattlesnake that week, but certainly not bull testicles. A girl's gotta have limits, you know!

Denver may not have a signature item, like Chicago's deep dish pizza or hot dogs (ooh...I could go for one of those right now), but this is a food town. Just a very quiet food town. If people came here and realized how beautiful the weather and town and mountains were AND we had good food, no one would leave. Come to think of it, that might explain all the California license plates...

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Memories

Often I hear people talking about their love of a song or some music because it is tied to a certain memory. I have that with food. Take this staple Fudge Shoppe cookie from the Keebler Elves. Frankly, it is nothing spectacular. Basic Chocolate. Basic Cookie. But I LOVE them. I spent a lot of time with my Grandparents on my father's side while growing up. My Grandpa often ate these morsels and washed it down with a Pepsi. To this day, few things are as satisfying as this silly combination. Funny how these things don't often transfer.

My wife's family goes on and on about this family tradition they have of these little fried potato dough chunks called Knefles. They have a flavor akin to a potato pierogie but are much starchier. It is one of the few foods that actually has the feeling of rocks settling in my stomach.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

We Just Want to Find a Place to Eat: A Short Story with Food as Its Theme



Currently teaching a screenwriting class at the local college, I keep asking the students 3 questions:

1. Who is your protagonist?
2. What does he want?
3. What is his obstacle?

Without these key ingredients, there is no story. Perhaps an anecdote. But no story.

This past Friday, Daniel and I embarked on our favorite Cleveland journey: dinner and a movie. Usually we head east to the Cedar Lee, which quenches our thirst for films not targeted at 18-year-old boys.  Prior to watching the grown up / indi / foreign films, we tend to have dinner at the local Thai place and, if the film ends early enough, we then head to the Starbuck's on Cedar / Fairmount to discuss the main characters, plots points, story, etc.  Little did we know, that on Halloween Eve, we'd end up as the characters in someone else's tale.

Because the Capitol Theater, run by the same management company as the Cedar Lee, has just been renovated and is closer to my West Side home, we decided to meet by the marquee and give the old / new film house on West 65th and Detroit a try.  Unknown to us, having a meal prior to the evening showing of "Where the Wild Things Are" was not going to be easy.  No, it was going to be ridiculous.

Some pseudo-punk kids saw us looking out of place and recommended the coffee shop across the street. With bright lights and a warm wood interior, it looked friendly enough, but Daniel and I craved dinner food, thus we walked right past the pleasant aroma corner shop. We then saw a sign for a family type restaurant and as we approached the sign, realized the location itself was a closed art gallery. We then crossed the street where we saw a pub and agreed getting a burger wasn't so bad. But as we walked near the door, and peeked in, the narrow dark interior, the several decade old absorbed stench of nicotine and the sole patron at the bar gave indication that perhaps the culinary skills were not to be trusted here.

Next, we headed in the western direction, as we spotted a Mexican dive. And for Daniel, nothing is better than Mexican food. For my educated, world-traveled and uber cultured friend, chips and salsa are the earth's most perfect food. In fact, this blog concept was named after him. As we approached the door to the Mexican restaurant, also brightly lit in contrast to the dark, mostly vacant street, we saw that the sign indicated an 8PM closing. It was 7:45. We hoped. We prayed. But when the owner walked up, unlocked the door and asked us if it's "to go" she might as well have yelled "No chips for you!"

Next, we meandered to the fast food places: a neighboring sub and pizza chain. Unfortunately for us, neither establishment had any seating room. And was filled with patrons of the most interesting appearances. Now, I lived my first three years in America in Chicago's housing projects. I also spent most of my college years riding the el, boarding and departing on stations in good neighborhoods and in shady ones. Street life does not frighten me. And if it did, I would never show it. Until this night.

With growling stomachs, frustrated by the lack of gastronomic choices in an "up-and-coming" neighborhood, on an unusually warm night - especially since, whenever Daniel and I go to the Cedar Lee, summer or winter, we always complain of how cold it is - we finally decided to bite the proverbial bullet, because, well, we needed a bite of something. And we saw the familiar arches that have, in a Pavlovian manner, given millions of us a sense of calm and exhale, especially on long cross-country road trips: McDonalds. "I guess we're having Big Macs tonight," said a happy Daniel. "I guess we are," I replied.

As we entered the standardly constructed location we could both sense that the clientele had reached its lifecycle ceiling: not in age, but in everything else; this was as good as anything would ever be for the adults and children dining in this particular fast food restaurant. It felt kind of sad, because, well, sometimes destinies are created and sometimes they are born into. This group fell into the latter. And, just as Daniel and I were going to order our Big Macs, my good friend, with his eyes wide open, signaled me to look at one of the patrons. As I turned around I saw a thug: tall, almost albino-pale, relatively young man, extremely overweight, wearing all black. But what I didn't immediately see was the large black gun in his right pocket. Ready to be used at any minute. Very quickly, Daniel and I exited the golden arches. And, again, we were back on our quest for food, with West 65th and Detoit as our obstacle.

The one restaurant that we noticed as soon as our adventure commenced was Luxe: bright signage, sophisticated glass with writing on it and packed interior. We initially wanted to avoid Luxe as a. we had no reservations b. we weren't in the mood to drop snooty restaurant money for a casual night. As we walked in, we were pleasantly surprised: a. they don't take reservations b. they could seat us within 10 or so minutes. And, about 15 minutes later, we had a wonderful table.

We ordered burgers - the cheapest item on the menu - no apps, no alcohol and two soft drinks. They must have loved us. The music was great, the food pretty good and yet, the evening's contrasting surprises continued: crystals chandeliers hung from the ceilings while, in place of tablecloths and napkins, the restaurant uses coarse, wrinkly dish towels. Given the evening's David Lynch like unveiling, I'll take dishtowels over a gun anytime.

As we exited Luxe and crossed the street we both commented on the very cool outdoor public benches: curvy and lit up from underneath, solidly situated in what are clearly new sidewalks. You can sit in this neighborhood. You just can't dine in this neighborhood.

Finally, we entered the Capitol Theater - beautifully redone, with a staff friendliness not yet eroded as it is at the Cedar Lee. We bought our popcorn and soft drinks and headed upstairs, to a beautiful 2nd floor lobby, complete with luxurious couches, a fireplace and vintage artwork. We proceeded to the small theater, what was once considered the balcony, and is now sectioned off from the main screen downstairs. Exhaling from the evening's adventures, we sat down.  And within a few seconds, didn't know if someone was playing a joke on us: the original cement, preserved, created the steps to the tiered seating and, like passengers on a regional jet, we both realized that the leg room is missing a good six inches. Not to mention no cup holders for our soft drinks.

At last, the movie started. A film about a little boy who creates a fantasy world on a desolate island, complete with war, happy music and giant monsters. Monsters who could eat that boy at any minute. How lucky for them.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Stirring up the past with Bubbie’s Old Country Honey Cake

Autumn’s well on its way and the glorious seasonal foods gently nudge the corners of the mind. Heeding the cue, grandmothers everywhere have begun to sort through recipes, old and new, in search of the perfect holiday foods for their families to enjoy.

Jewish grandmothers are no exception, pulling out their favorite traditional recipes for the fall and winter holiday months. Rosh Hashanah, or the High Holidays, which was celebrated in September, is a joyful occasion for celebration, often marked by having dinner with friends and family and passing on the traditional flavors to the next generation.

OY! So many decisions. Brisket or chicken – or both? Noodle kugel or potato kugel – or both? Matzo ball soup? Definitely. Apples and honey for a sweet year? Of course. And no traditional meal was ever complete without the sweet treat of Bubbie’s Old Country Honey Cake.

Bubbie, (my grandmother of blessed memory) like many of our mothers and grandmothers, never wrote down her recipes. She used a bisseleh (a little) of this, a handful of that, and a glazel (glass) of whatever. Her liquid measuring cup was often a jelly jar glass or a glass left over from a Yahrzeit (memorial) candle. One thing’s for sure – this lovable, robust woman who always smelled of vanilla (a dab behind each ear made her irresistible to Zeidi (my grandfather of blessed memory) didn’t use standardized measurements. She baked instinctively, using her taste buds, experience, and love.

In honor of Jewish mothers and grandmothers everywhere, here is THE recipe – painstakingly remeasured for standardization -- copied down, step by step while she was still alive -- for Bubbie’s honey cake. Unlike the store-bought variety, which often tastes like fruitcake gone bad, this one’s moist, delicious, and easy to bake. It’s best the next day.

Bubbie’s Old Country Honey Cake

2 Eggs

1 Cup sugar

½ Cup oil

½ Cup honey

½ Cup nuts (optional)

1 Cup golden raisins

1 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. cinnamon

½ tsp allspice (optional)

½ tsp cloves (optional)

1 tsp. vanilla

2 Cups flour

1 Cup strong coffee (fresh brewed or 1 C luke warm water + 1 Tbs. instant coffee)

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Line large loaf pan with waxed paper.

3. Using electric mixer on high, beat eggs and sugar until they’re frothy.

4. Add oil and beat.

5. Add honey and beat.

6. Add baking soda, baking powder, spices, and vanilla.

7. Add flour, alternating with coffee and beat well on low speed.

8. Fold in nuts and raisins (optional) and mix well.

9. Bake 1 hour at 350 degrees or till top splits slightly.

10. Remove cake from oven and cool on rack.

11. Wrap tightly in foil until serving. Honey cake will stay moist for several days.

Enjoy!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Family Tradition

So I lied. The very day I posted about not having any traditions around the table, my annual package from Mom arrived including her famous Halloween cookies. These delights are peanut butter with snickers bars in the middle (see photo). These morsels highlight my love-hate relationship with food. Few foods becon to me like these cookies, and I could eat the whole package, surely made with three sticks of real butter, in one sitting. Instead, I pine away my entire day at work to come home and eat half-a-dozen or so. Unfortunately, they only last a couple of days. I am not sure that my cholestorol level could handle any more, anyway.

I am always very interested in other's special culinary traditions, especially ethnic. So please post some comments about them. I will take on finding them and trying them out. My mother also blesses our family with an old Norwegian treat each Christmas that was handed down from my grandmother on my Dad's side, Lefse. You will be seeing more posts about this in the future.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Feelings...talking about feelings...

Thanks for the invitation to collaborate on my second favorite subject. (Maybe even my third since buying my motorcycle.) Having sampled examples of the amazing red borscht, onion pierogies and napolean cake that Alex speaks of, I am fully knowing where she is coming from. There are some amazing ethnic traditions rooted deeply into food and at the dinner table. I hope she will share more about that as well as the food.

On the other hand, I don't feel like I have a tradition around the table, but there are a lot of feelings there about food, camraderie and love. Food is such a great analogy for our lives that I am going to take on exploring my humanity in cooking. Because frankly, as in life, I have a love-hate relationship with my food. It is more likely a love-love-hate relationship.

For instance, I cannot explain the deep sense of loss that I felt over my son's aversion to onions. Over the last number of years, it is a rare occasion that onions have been absent from any dish that I prepare or order or consumer. The blow was similar to my son taking root as fan of the arch-rival of my favorite football team. Can a son be disowned over onions? Are there other ingredients that can produce this response? What if he has a garlic allergy? I could even handle vegetarianism but not a garlic allergy.
Do others have this attachment to their food? When pondering the idea of food as a state of my being, ironically, garlic and onion are the sex life of my palate. Unquestionably important. I could survive without it (questionably), but the connection and spice that it adds to my life is immeasurable. A variety of foods have this context with me. Many things turn me on, gastronomically speaking, and produce a similar desire and passion within, but I find that often they are rooted in the flavoring of garlic and onion.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Welcome to No Chip Left Behind

Hi, everyone. Thank you for taking the time to visit.

The globe is going through a tough time.  So, while politics, economics and war continue to divide friends, coworkers and neighbors, it's food and music that anchor us as the universal truths. Who doesn't like a good meal? And, it seems like when I introduce folks, 90% of the time the topic automatically reverts to what everyone's been eating lately and where. Thus, all this brought me to the idea of creating the blog - combining a few of the things I love most - to eat and to write.

A few years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Anthony Bourdain and, several months later, Michael Symon - both talented, poetic and down to earth chefs who make a big gastronomic impact on our food pallets.  But my favorite chef of all time was my Grandma. She's been on my mind a lot lately, so I think she's channeling some of this energy at the moment. I miss her rich red borscht with sour cream, her grilled potato perogis with onions, (varenikis, in Russian) and her Napoleon cake - with layers and layers of delicate filo dough and her trademark cream.  I'm dedicating this blog to her.

But the purpose of this new creative journey is way bigger than one person - it's really all about you and your food loves. Do you grow your own vegetables? Do you go apple or mushroom picking? Have you discovered a recipe that others would enjoy? Are there favorite restaurants, chefs or food trends that you always have an opinion on but haven't developed the audience?

If "yes" to any of these, let me know and I'll add you to the contributor list. My hope is that there's lots of readers and lots of writers, from all the various continents, benefitting  from this experiment.  With our family and social circles scatterred all over the world, a hungry soul in Manhattan may want to know about the best paella in Madrid. And you get to tell us all about it.

No food related topic is off limits.

We survived. Let's eat!

- Alexsandra Sukhoy.