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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.

While we were visiting a friend in his home (lucky us, he had invited us for one of his fantastic brunches), he asked about the purple string beans:  Do they, he wondered, taste any different from the green ones?

It is a good question.  Purple is an unusual color in the vegetable garden, second only to blue in rarity (is there any blue comestible other than blueberries?).  And while color is not always an indicator of flavor—the taste of red and green apples is not that different, for instance—it can be, especially when the color difference is due to ripeness, or lack thereof.

The answer to our friend’s question, though, is:  No; the purple string beans taste more or less the same as do the green ones.  In fact, as the beans cook, the purple fades away, leaving only the familiar green tint.  This is because heat and loss of acidity (due to dilution in neutral water) break down the anthocyanins that produce the color purple.  Chlorophyll, the green pigment (and component of photosynthesis), is apparently more stable.  (If we grow the purple string beans again next year—which is likely—I might try cooking a batch in vinegar or lemon juice to see whether that preserves the purple color.)

That matter resolved, I’ll ask my own follow-up questions:  What about the other vegetables growing in our garden?  Does their color dictate the flavor?

Well, as an indicator of ripeness, sure.  An unripe green tomato has a vastly different taste compared to a ripe red one.  We don’t grow them here, but apples (and most other fruits) exhibit this property.  It should be noted, however, that not all vegetables change color as they ripen.  Eggplant, for instance, starts purple and stays purple throughout its growth (and even its blossoms are tinged with purple).

But what about different colors of ripe tomato?  Do the yellow and orange varieties have a different flavor from the traditional red ones?  How about tomatoes that are green when ripe?  Furthermore, are the differences in flavor, if any, due to the color or is the color just an indicator of the difference?

Answering the last question first, I think the color is merely an indicator of a difference in flavor and not the cause of it.  The various colors of tomato do have varying flavors but the variations are due to different levels of sugar and acidity.  And as noted above, pigments react very differently to acidity.  Typical red tomatoes are relatively high in acidity so acid-resistant pigments like carotenoids (of which lycopene is the most common in tomatoes) will dominate their color.

At the other end of the spectrum (in both flavor and color), orange, yellow, green and purple (sometimes referred to as black) tomatoes are sweeter in flavor, a result of their being lower in acid.  Another consequence of higher pH is that pigments less resistant to acid, such as the anthocyanins, can survive in their colored state and contribute to the tomatoes their distinctive hues.  In other words, the pigments act as a natural litmus test to visually signify flavor.

This is only a quasi-scientific analysis but it makes sense, at least for the tomatoes.  In addition to the tomatoes, we also planted different colors of carrots, radishes, beets and bell peppers this year.  To my taste buds, the red and white-striped Chioggia beets tasted the same as the Touchstone Gold and neither tasted any different from the typical all-red variety.

Similarly, there was only one significant difference between the taste of our Quadrato d’Asti Rosso (red) and Orange Sun (guess) bell peppers and the common green variety.  The peppers we grew tasted less grassy, a flavor component that I can only call “green”.  This is a good thing because that grassiness usually puts me off bell peppers.

Our radish crop was not sufficiently successful to make an assessment of their flavors but the carrots, which flourished a wide rainbow of colors, also yielded an array of flavors.  The orange were the most typical (no surprise there) while the yellow and white were woodier and the purple were sweeter.  The range in flavor was not quite as great as in color or as stark as with the tomatoes but there was definitely a correlation.

Several branches of one of the Aunt Ruby’s German Green tomato plants have blackened and shriveled.  They didn’t look like they were going to get better (e.g., by watering or spraying with bug repellent) so I clipped them off and discarded them.  Could this be the blight that I have been reading horror stories about?  Or perhaps some other tomato disease?  The plant looks fine otherwise and is producing fruit.  I will keep an eye on it (and head to the internet for research).

We were away for a few days (visiting friends at their summer getaway in New Hampshire) and, of course, the zucchini and crookneck squashes grew in both size and number.  Can they sense when we are not paying close attention?  Fortunately, there was an easy solution to our sudden wealth of ripe summer squash:  We sent some of them home with Rachel’s parents, who were watching the garden (and the cat) for us.

The last row of carrots and turnips is taking a long time to mature.  Like the beets, they prefer cooler temperatures in which to grow and slow down during warmer weather to conserve their strength and water.  As a result, however, the cauliflower plants in the south row, closest to the carrots and turnips, are getting crowded out by the bushy greens.  The cauliflower plants in the north row are not doing much better; the leaves of one of them were lunch for somebody (not us).

None of these Brassicas has shown any sign of producing curds.  Spy Garden gave up on hers more than a week ago (see her July 21, 2013) and if ours looked as good, I’d be happy.  Apparently, cauliflower is difficult to grow (that’s only a small consolation) and like many vegetables, it does not enjoy hot weather, especially in its early development.  This is the only vegetable we did not start from seed this year so it is not a big loss.  Maybe we’ll try it again next year from seed.

I had been holding my breath, not wanting to say out loud (or in writing) that we have not seen any striped cucumber beetles this year.  But sadly, Rachel found one on a squash plant this afternoon and shortly afterwards I spotted two hiding inside a cucumber blossom.  Almost needless to say (if it were needless, I wouldn’t say it), we terminated the little buggers without delay (and one must be quick; cucumber beetles are expert at avoiding capture).

And speaking of cucurbits, is that powdery mildew I see on a crookneck squash leaf?  Please tell me it’s not.

Yesterday evening, we arrived in Hawaii for the start of a weeklong vacation.  I’m not expecting any sympathy but it’s a long trip, especially coming from the east coast.  The distance is almost as far as Australia is from the west coast and takes most of a day to cover.  We left our house a little after 4:00 am and, after changing planes twice (an unfortunate downside to flying from our nearest airport) and driving for an hour, arrived in Kapalua shortly after 6:00 pm (11:00 pm at home).

After briefly catching up with the friends we’re vacationing with (and who are generously sharing their timeshare), we went to bed around 8:00 pm.  Complete exhaustion has helped us adjust to local time (five hours earlier than at home) but the loss of a normal day is a surreal experience.

Still, I’m not complaining.  Hawaii is a beautiful place and the weather has always been nothing less than ideal in my experience.  It’s at about the same latitude as the Caribbean but it always seems balmier and, somehow, more welcoming.  Being out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean (as opposed to being nestled between North and South America as the Caribbean is) makes it perennially breezy and warm (and not oppressively hot and humid).  Of course, I’ve never been here in the summer.

In fact, I made my first trip to Hawaii in the winter of 1989 (Rachel spent the summer of 1983 in Lahaina but that’s her story to tell).  Rachel and I had survived our first year in Oberlin, Ohio and had treated ourselves to an island holiday (we were there for Christmas and New Year’s).  Ohio was in the middle of a cold snap and when we took off from Cleveland Hopkins airport, the frigid air was 14 degrees below zero.  When we arrived at the Kahului Airport in central Maui twelve hours later, the ambient temperature was a sultry 86 degrees.  A diurnal range, for us, of 100 degrees!

On the shuttle ride to our hotel (in Kaanapali to the northwest), the radio played, “Aloha Friday, no work till Monday”, which would have been a fitting welcome even if it had not been Friday (it was).

In an article in this month’s (i.e., November’s) Bon Appétit, the writer Michael Chabon describes his family’s Thanksgivings as having never been bound by geography (“Michael Chabon Reminds Us That Thanksgiving Is Where the Meal Is”).  His clan has no permanent host or default cook and each year they do something different (and non-traditional in the strictest descendents-of-the-Mayflower sense).  That got me thinking about the nature of the Thanksgiving holiday and the roles of Guest versus Host in its celebration.

Lately, I consider Thanksgiving to be a stay-at-home holiday, a day when I would need a very good reason to go someplace else.  For many years now, we have been hosts to a small number of guests and we cook a fairly traditional meal.  After much trial and error, we’ve gotten to a point where we can get several dishes on the table, most of them still hot (sliced turkey, for instance, cools off very quickly), at more-or-less the appointed hour.  It is heartwarming to be able to say that for a few of our friends and family, when they travel over the river and through the woods (quite literally), it is to our house that they go.

But this has not always been the case.  When I was a kid, hosting the Thanksgiving get-together was shared primarily by my parents and by my maternal aunt and uncle.  The venue would alternate between our house and theirs but the guest list remained fairly constant and large:  my family’s six, my aunt and uncle’s seven, and my maternal grandparents.  As my siblings and cousins got older, the crowd swelled with the addition of new spouses and—a few years afterwards—nieces, nephews and cousins once removed.

When I left home for college, I continued to be a guest at the Thanksgiving meal although when it was located at my parents’ house, I would assist in its preparation.  This remained true after I met Rachel (being at Cal at the right place and time is something I am eternally thankful for!) with each of us visiting our own family for the holiday.  (One year, Rachel celebrated with the family of her then-boyfriend, but let’s speak no more of that!).

My last year as an undergrad, though, my two roommates and I took our first stab at hosting and cooking a Thanksgiving meal.  We scheduled it for about a week before the actual holiday—when most of us would be traveling elsewhere—and planned a menu based on our collective family traditions (there was a good deal of overlap).  We gathered our recipes, made several shopping trips (we probably never had so much food in that apartment) and spent the entire day cooking.

I don’t remember where we got tables and chairs we needed to seat the eight people who joined us that night (all of whom brought a dish to add to the menu) but we managed to fit everyone in a diagonal arrangement crossing the kitchen and living room.  The meal was a huge success, everybody ate and drank until filled and all were happy they came.  We were thankful to have them.  We all ended up guests at our respective families’ formal dinners but we got a healthy taste of what hosting the event felt like.

I didn’t try hosting Thanksgiving again until a few years later when Rachel and I were living in Oberlin, Ohio (Rachel was a professor at Oberlin College).  The first year we were there, we spent Thanksgiving with her parents (it was a welcome dose of the familiar during a period that was marked for us by tremendous change, both cultural and personal).  But the next year, Rachel’s parents and brother came to us—a road trip of at least eight hours duration—and we spent the holiday and most of the weekend together.  Once again, we planned, shopped for and cooked a traditional dinner.  It was a very satisfying—even if stressful—experience.

When we moved to New York City, the following year, we spent the first few Thanksgivings with Rachel’s parents.  At first, we assisted with the meal preparation—making us both host and guest—but soon, we had commandeered the kitchen and were cooking the entire meal.  We were on our way to becoming the traditional Thanksgiving hosts even if the meal was not always completely traditional (for the several years that we ate vegetarian, our menu included everything you’d expect except a turkey).  The only thing we needed was our own home in which to do the hosting and that followed after a few years (the story of which is fodder for separate posts).

And so, fast-forwarding several years, we have become one of the more constant elements of the Thanksgiving holiday.  But we have no delusions that this is any indication of stability or a resistance to change as Michael Chabon might fear.  For one thing, while our menu is usually based on a traditional template (turkey, dressing, potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce and something green), it is different every year.  And although we usually act as hosts, we can be enticed to experience the holiday as guests and to partake of—and be enriched by—what constitutes tradition in other families’ homes.

The only thing that is truly constant and will never change is that we are thankful for our wonderful families and friends and grateful for every opportunity we have to share a meal and a few moments of togetherness with them.