Archives for posts with tag: social activities

We spent some time today planning our Thanksgiving meal.  The menu is based on tradition so there are not many choices to make.  Typically, our trusty-dusty recipes dominate although we will usually consider the variety of choices presented in the November food and cooking magazines.  Often, but by no means always, something new can be accommodated.

Not this year, though.  To work around work and travel schedules, we are having the main meal early—the Wednesday before—and taking it on the road.  We’re still the cooks, so everything must be made ahead.  Further—and, hey, no pressure—we’ll be joined by relatives visiting from out of town.  This is no time for experimentation.

We always start with the basics:  roasted turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy and cranberry sauce.  Then we add another starch, some variation of sweet potato casserole or a second stuffing (and probably, I should use the term dressing because we haven’t stuffed a turkey since 2001).  Yesterday’s New York Times Dining section (see “Essential Thanksgiving”) referred to this menu component as “something orange”, a clever characterization that they expanded to include macaroni and cheese.

(Serving mac and cheese on Thanksgiving is an interesting idea; many Italian-Americans I know include pasta as a separate course on Thanksgiving, which has always struck me as a good way to combine—or, dare I say, mash up—culinary traditions.)

We agree with the philosophy that there should be something green on the table to round out the menu both in nutrition and color.  In past years, we have prepared everything from Brussels sprouts, kale, and even an arugula fennel salad (although salads are my least favorite contributor from this group).  Most recently, we have been making green beans with walnuts in a lemon vinaigrette which is a perfect complement to the meal (the dish’s acidity refreshes the palate) and has the added advantage of being relatively easy and quick to prepare.

And then there must be dessert.  Most often, this is pie, pumpkin or pecan.  Some years, we add a second sweet, which may or may not be another pie.  This year, we decided to make a Polka Dot Cheesecake, a recipe developed by Maida Heatter and featured in an early issue of Saveur magazine.  The polka dots in the recipe are chocolate but we’ll make them pumpkin-flavored in honor of the season.  (Maybe we’re experimenting this year after all.)

I like to start the meal (while the turkey rests) with a small glass of Bourbon.  This is not my usual cocktail choice but the Bourbon and its perfect accompaniment of roasted, salted pecans are uniquely American.  Both items seem appropriate for Thanksgiving which, although not uniquely American (Canadians celebrate it in October), is in part a celebration of being American.

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The weather has been miserably, exhaustingly hot and humid, with almost no rain.  At seven days and counting, this is the longest heat wave (high temperatures over 90 degrees) that I can remember.  I have been making sure to water the garden daily (and the lettuce twice daily) to keep it as moist as possible.  Luckily, there have been no signs of dehydration or wilting so far.

One might think that the heat-loving tomatoes would be ahead of schedule and, in fact, all of them are tall and energetic, overshooting their cages by at least a foot.  But some things cannot be rushed.  In spite of weather conducive to accelerated growth, the fruits that have set are not ripening any quicker than they would under normal conditions.  Like it or not, we will have to wait until early August for tomatoes.

Still, two Sungold cherry tomatoes did turn from plain green to golden green, a sign of impending ripeness.  It was just in time for Rachel and me to use them in a ceremony celebrating our Silver Wedding Anniversary.  As noted by our celebrant, tomatoes are referred to as “love apples” in many languages and are said to possess aphrodisiacal powers; seeing them in our dreams signifies domestic harmony.

What better way for us to symbolize our growing together—both literally and figuratively—than to feed each other the first sweet tomatoes of our 25th year as a married couple?

Another reason to eat dinner in a restaurant occasionally, besides the expertly-prepared food, quality wines and convivial atmosphere (i.e., the fun of it) is that it is a good way to glean menu ideas and learn about unfamiliar ingredients (or familiar ingredients used in unfamiliar ways).  Tonight, at The Dutch in New York City, Rachel and I enjoyed a delicious spring dinner that highlighted the season’s early vegetables and provided inspiration for future meals at home.

We started with “Stracciatella Toast, Artichoke, Broccoli Rabe” (the menu employs the trendy practice of naming dishes with a terse list of components), which was basically a version of crostini or bruschetta (I think only native Italians know the difference).  A slice of rustic bread was grilled, topped with melted mozzarella and a jumble of fresh and sautéed vegetables.  It seemed both hearty and light at the same time.

We followed that with “Snap Pea Salad, Poppy-Tarragon Dressing, Green Garbanzo”, composed of the named vegetables as well as a mixture of leafy greens.  I’ve never seen green garbanzo beans before but will have to track them down.  They were like a cross between fresh peas and fava beans and added a similar bright green color, texture and flavor to the salad.  I suspect that they would make a tasty variation on hummus.

We could easily have stopped there.  We’ve been finding lately that after starters and/or a salad, our appetite is almost sated, especially if there has been wine and a bread basket.  The main dishes (which tonight were “Skuna Bay Salmon, Pastrami Spice, Crispy Potato, Beets” and “Colorado Lamb, Farro, Asparagus, Favas, Sweet Birch”) almost become superfluous and often end up in a doggie bag (although not this time).  And forget about dessert.  If we were to recreate this meal at home—and this is likely—we would limit the menu to the crostini and salad.

Restaurants, like food magazines and the fashion industry, are a bit ahead of the actual season.  For instance, our Sugar Snap peas are only at the seedling stage.  Professional kitchens may source their vegetables from southern suppliers or, if procured locally, patronize farmers who grow crops in greenhouses.  However they do it, I can’t say I mind getting an early taste of what is coming.  It extends the season and gives us time to prepare before our homegrown vegetables are ready for harvest.

We’ve never done much to celebrate Easter.  Growing up, the focus was on a family get-together with a spotlight on the food:  lots of candy, of course, and ham for dinner.  But now I live on the opposite side of the country from my family and few of my friends observe Easter rituals (or those of Passover, either).  We rarely do a social gathering anymore or anything, in fact, that might be considered traditional.

One year, we spent the afternoon helping friends move furniture.  I don’t recall why they decided to do this chore on a holiday but once we got their vehicle loaded up, they headed off to deliver the cargo (somewhere, presumably, not closed for Easter).  That left us hungry for dinner but too tired to cook.

We decided to swing by one of the restaurants in town and because we didn’t have a reservation, we ordered a couple of pizzas to go.  While waiting for them to bake, we sat at the bar and I had a glass of wine.  The proprietress thought I might like one of the Pinot Noirs that is not usually sold by the glass but opened a bottle for me anyway.  That’s hospitality!  It was a delightful—if unconventional—way to observe the holiday.

Another year, we decided to go to a movie.  When we got to the theater (co-located at a shopping mall), we found it and all of the other stores shuttered.  Unlike Thanksgiving or Christmas, Easter seems to be the holiday when everything closes.  We ended up back home.

So instead of planning a formal gathering or going out, we’ve made Easter weekend a celebration of spring and the rebirth of the garden.

Last week’s New York Times Dining Section included an article about dinner kits, one of the latest trend in convenience foods (“Everything but the Cook”).  It’s an interesting idea:  After browsing menus on a website, the customer orders dishes online.   The next day, a box containing recipes and all of the necessary ingredients—pre-measured and individually packaged—is delivered to the door.  All of the prep work has been done but the customer does the cooking.  The concept falls somewhere between the traditional approach (plan, shop, prep and cook) and ordering in (choose, telephone and wait).  Services like FreshDirect and Peapod fall to both sides, providing either the ingredients (in normal supermarket quantities) or prepared foods (just like take-out).

Dinner kits have some definite advantages.  For people who feel they are too busy to cook, they can raise the quality of the food in a higher proportion than the additional time required to prepare them.  Less food is wasted because only what is needed for the recipe is included in the kits.  And the expansive selections and detailed instructions can help broaden a cook’s repertoire and increase cooking skills.  A dinner kit is also a relatively low-risk way to explore a new cuisine or ingredient.

Of course, one cook’s asset is another’s liability.  The cost of dinner kits is higher than cooking from the larder (no economy of scale) and is more comparable to eating in a restaurant.  The use of pre-packaged ingredients greatly increases the amount of packaging, much of which is not recyclable (I suspect that a lot of polystyrene is involved).  Pre-measuring makes the recipes less flexible—if the cook decides a dish needs more smoked paprika, he or she is out of luck—and means that the food is handled by more people, increasing the risk of contamination.  Further, depending on the cook’s baseline skill set, nothing may be learned from cooking this way.

More significantly, though, the dinner kit concept opens up a debate about what constitutes home cooking.  Few would argue that ordering delivery from a restaurant is any different from eating it out, even if the dishes arrive unheated.  But if they arrive unassembled as well, do they cross the line into the realm of the homemade?  Or is something lost from the home-cooked experience when half of the work has been done by others?

I think it is less a question of what is done and more about how it is done.  For example, a multi-course meal prepared from scratch might not qualify as home cooking if it is performed perfunctorily or without any thought for or involvement of the diners.  Similarly, a dinner out can have significance to and emotional resonance for the guests if the host puts some conscious thought into the choice of restaurant, makes an effort to add to its warm, convivial atmosphere and takes whatever other steps are necessary to insure a positive experience.

The key ingredient, of course, is love.  The more of it that is thrown into the pot, the less the other ingredients matter.  It helps to start the process with attention and thoughtfulness, in the same way that sautéing a mirepoix forms a flavorful basis for soup.  And adding playfulness, adventurousness, or even nostalgia can spice things up, whether it takes place in the home kitchen or at a restaurant.

We have a small vestibule—it’s about five feet square—at the east end of the dining room.  Its door opens almost directly onto the road and, with the exception of the pizza delivery man, no one ever uses it.  For the last two years, the door has served only as the portal to our adjunct herb garden which is located on a concrete stoop.  The vestibule itself has become a de facto storage room.

But we’ve decided to convert the vestibule into an office alcove in which I can do my writing and other work.  I don’t need much space—I do most of my work on the computer—so the vestibule’s small size should not be issue.  With a modest desk and some shelves, the room will provide the work and storage space I need while keeping the clutter that is inevitable with offices out of view of the dining room.

It’s proximity to the kitchen will be an added benefit (to get coffee and brain food, as Rachel would say) and because work and social hours rarely overlap, my work should not be affected by dinner parties or other dining room events (and vice versa).

The only downside to the plan is that we will lose the use of the door and as a result will no longer have easy access to the adjunct herb garden.  So another of our planning chores this spring will be to decide where to move the pots of herbs.  For instance, they may end up downstairs, in a corner of the back porch where they were located in 2011.

Or, we may move the herbs back to the patio where we grew them prior to 2011 (and where hardy sage, oregano and chives are still growing).  This location has promise due to its convenient location and will be better suited to growing in general once we remove some trees (see February 6, 2013).  We had abandoned this site due to lack of sunlight.

Either way, here are the herbs we’ve decided to grow this year:

  • Genovese Basil
  • Greek Oregano
  • Aromatic Rosemary
  • Extrakta Garden Sage
  • French Summer Thyme
  • Spearmint

All of these should be started from seed indoors (yes, soon).

After last year’s experience, we will leave the growing of parsley and cilantro to the farmers who have acres and acres to devote to it.