Dec 24, 2010

Grandpa Jack and Aunt Julie are Coming! And Here's What's Cooking.

The boys are at Christmas pageant rehearsal. One of my sons is Herod. I guess someone has to have that role . . . be assured, they're casting against type. Mr. Dream Kitchen is installing The Big Electronic Present (to avoid unpleasantness tomorrow). I've got cranberries bubbling on the stove, scenting the kitchen.

This is just a quick post to tell you what our Mediterranean-inflected Christmas menu is.

Slow Roasted Leg of Lamb with Pomegranate Glaze and Red-Onion Parsley Relish, From Paula Wolfert's The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen. My sister in law is bringing sumac for this from Penzey's. She lives near the Pittsburgh store. Have never made this, but I trust Paula. She even autographed my book, back when Philadelphia did The Book and the Cook. Back in the day.

Minted Baby Peas (frozen, from Trader Joe's--no need to get fancy with everything)

Smashed Red Bliss Potatoes with Garlic--again with the easy

Spinach Salad with Broiled Preserved Lemon (sounds harder than it is

Mixed Olives from DiBruno's

Down East Cranberry-Apple Pie, from Richard Sax's Classic Home Desserts (the first edition! Half the pages are stained by now). We'll serve with vanilla ice cream.

Peace to you, dear readers.

Dec 13, 2010

What Do Cheese Straws Have to Do with Sylvia Plath? How to Have a Holiday Book Exchange

Warning: James' Joyce's no-quotation-marks trick is used here, for no good reason. Please don't be confused.

If you've never experienced a white elephant book exchange, I'm truly sorry for you. Because they're insanely fun if you're comfortable with the other partygoers. Everyone wraps up a book that they don't want any more and then you just pick one out of the basket. The tricky part comes when everyone has donated books by David Sedaris or Nicole Krause and you've donated Shopping the North Carolina Furniture Outlets. (No, that wasn't me!) Or Thomas Pynchon's Mason and Dixon. (No, not me, either!) Then again, no need to admit your donation if no one saw you furtively sneak your gift in the basket. My donation, this year, was Crossing to Avalon: A Woman's Midlife Quest for the Sacred Feminine. (I'm sorry but I hate the humorlessness and grandiosity of archetypes). Anyhoo, here's the quick rundown, because I know you have a lot of things to do (note that this is the Liberal Overeducated Suburban Moms' version of a white elephant exchange):

Once the chitchat about music lessons, college applications, and the latest divorces abates, and you are well into the cranberry martinis, you can really get down to it.

Jonathan Franzen's Freedom: What about it? Is it really worth reading? Completely, ventures the hostess. It's a great doorstop, suggests another. She adds, it's about us--I don't want to read about us. Says your friend the radio producer, Patti Smith's memoir isn't that great; it's too precious. You say I know what you mean, but I sort of liked that she can be that way. She says, you should read Keith Richards' memoir--it's great. He's a smart guy. Smarter than you think. The books are all opened and then haggled over. Someone gives away Nicole Krause's A History of Love to the only person in the room who hasn't read it yet. But the receiver of David Sedaris' Holiday on Ice is not going to give it up. Ever. You are all jealous of her. The book you get, An Irish Country Christmas, sounds awful, and you manage to trade it for Her Husband: Hughes and Plath, A Marriage, by Diane Middlebrook. Rather different, eh? You're really looking forward to reading it, but it sounds more like an after-Christmas January blues kind of book. What with the affair, the divorce, the suicide, and all.

The last book picked, that truly no one wants? Glenn Beck's novel The Christmas Sweater. Each page has a curlicue border around it, which is enough to turn you away if not for all the other things about it that turn you away.

You bring Cheese Straws to the party, from where else but The Essential New York Times Cookbook. You should have doubled the recipe, because they are scarfed down and your dear family cannot partake of any leftovers. Says one one of the ladies, Where I come from you are judged on the quality of your cheese straws.

Dec 10, 2010

The Future is Here: Remote Oven Repair!

Our oven's brain is back. Its control board blew a couple days before Thanksgiving. (But of course!) We called our local appliance guys, an amiable father-son team. They pronounced gloomily, "Thermador stopped making these control boards. You'll have to get a new oven."

New oven . . . new oven . . . new oven . . . the words rang ominously in our heads. Our oven has a downdraft venting system, because it's in our island and we need openness. The only other brand we could get besides a Thermador is a Jenn-Air. They're about $2,000, and we've only had the Thermador for seven years. We were hoping there were at least thirteen more years to go!

So my super smart Mr. Dream Kitchen looked up the model number on the web and found this amazing company,, in Austin, Texas. For $180 they fixed our control board, and if it hadn't worked, they wouldn't have charged us. This involved shipping it and hoping like heck we'd actually get it back. But we did, in just a few days.

We then had the local father-son team install it, but the dad really balked because he feared we would blame them and not pay them if it didn't work. I bullied him into it, in my charming way, and our gamble worked out beautifully. The proof is in the pudding, or in this case, the Chocolate Dump-it Cake that is cooling on the counter.

Dec 9, 2010

The Pimento Cheese Incident; Or, The Essential New York Times Book Party Comes to Philadelphia

I'm an Amanda Hesser fan from way back. I've read The Cook and the Gardener and Cooking for Mr. Latte. I've also read her husband Tad Friend's memoir, Cheerful Money.

So when I received an invitation to a food bloggers' potluck/book party for The Essential New York Times Cookbook,I shoved my other obligations aside to attend. We were asked to make something from the cookbook, or the old version, or the NYT itself. I decided to make Pimento Cheese, thinking that no one else would bring it. Too regional, and not an impressive culinary feat. I was introduced to this Southern dip/sandwich spread in Virginia, and have had a hankering for it ever since. North of the Mason-Dixon line, it seems the stuff is contraband.

The party was held at Audra Wolfe's house in West Philadelphia, where we were welcomed warmly. Audra and her sister write Doris and Jilly Cook. Victory Brewing Company sponsored the event, very nice. We started at the nametag table, where we tagged not only ourselves, but also the dishes we had brought.

I gazed hungrily at the table, where, packed tidily into a souffle dish, there already lay a nice wodge of Pimento Cheese. Derek Lee, of The Best Food Blog Ever, had figured no one else would make it, because it's Southern. We laughed (bitterly?) and someone took our picture. Since several other people had wandered into the party, friendless and alone, nervously clutching their beers, it was easy to bond with them over the food. "What did you bring?" and "Tell me about your blog" are simple, safe conversation starters, and we quickly loosened up. I met Ray and Melissa of Bathtub Brewery, and took home, with their blessing, a bottle of Bee Sting for Mr. Dream Kitchen. Got talking to Christine Burns Rudalevige, a food journalist who can be found here, Sarah of Sarahdares, "Livia" of no counter space, and met, briefly, the beet-carpaccio-wielding Albert Yee of Messy and Picky. I also met the organizer of the Philadelphia food bloggers' potlucks, Marisa McLellan, of Food in Jars, who's publishing a book soon. I'm going to guess it's about canning. Oh, and the excellent Tenaya Darlington of Madame Fromage.

What else was on the table? A cheese ball, cheese straws, mushrooms stuffed with duxelles, a spinach salad with preserved lemon slices, baked sweet potatoes with chipotle cream, and venison stew. And did I mention pimento cheese? Desserts included cranberry-pistachio biscotti, chocolate cupcakes with chocolate ganache frosting, brandied peaches with cream, cranberry upside down cake.

Amanda Hesser was there all the while, padding about in her Converse sneakers and looking rail-thin. Really, how does she do that? She demonstrated making Heavenly Hots, tangy light pancakes made with sour cream and cake flour. It was like eating clouds.

Another pimento cheese appeared on the table and I tried not to look at it.

Book signing time! I bought one, from a nice young man named Matthew, who works for Joseph P. Fox booksellers, my favorite bookshop in the city. Amanda had relocated to the living room sofa, and as I gave her the book to sign, I babbled on about the recipe for Country Captain and how my friend Oonie knew her husband Tad when he was a boy, bla bla bla. She smiled and laughed indulgently. And, in black pen, all lower case, she wrote: "lauren--hope this becomes a beloved kitchen companion--enjoy! all best, amanda hesser"

I suspect that this book party will be covered in the "Culture Diary" she is writing for the Paris Review. Will she mention the Pimento Cheese Glut?

I gathered my things, including the leftover pimento cheese (well--yeah!), Bee Sting, a few business cards, and the huge red beloved kitchen companion, said my goodbyes, and drove back home.

Tonight's dinner: Grilled Pimento Cheese Sandwiches.

Dec 1, 2010

Bone China

At Thanksgiving I like to use my grandmother's china with the green and gold design, even though the plates need to be hand-washed. They remind me of her. She would be pleased that I am using them.

We drink water out of my mother's cranberry-glass goblets. How she loved her cranberry glass. We use my Great-Uncle Fred's silver, which was given to him by a neighbor many decades ago. He and his wife Arline never used it because they already had a set. Fred said that he mowed this neighbor's lawn for many years, and that the silverware was a thank-you! This time of year, we also think of my late brother David and his November birthday. Next Thanksgiving, I want to put out a carved wooden box he gave me once.

My sons have birthdays the week of Thanksgiving; Will is nine and Jack is eleven. They never met my mother, Uncle Fred, or my brother David. They attended my grandmother's funeral when Jack was three and Will was one. If Jack remembers her at all, it's as a tiny frail lady with a vague but beautiful smile. I think of her as a strong, opinionated matriarch whose smile you had to earn. Sometimes it was worth it.

For Thanksgiving, we invited friends from the Shenandoah Valley, which is where we lived for eight years and had our children. Kathy and Scott are a conservationist and a photography/ design professor, respectively, both ardent lovers of their adopted landscape. Scott takes pictures of rivers, and Kathy protects the rivers and the land.

They and their children stayed for two days. My father drove down from Montgomery County for the meal. It was a busy place, with four kids running around. Legos everywhere. The fact that our oven was broken didn't ruin the day at all, thanks to generous neighbors. (Thanks, Marcia, Lori, and families!) The oven had died a couple of days earlier, so there was time to beg and plead.

Here is our menu:

--Cocktail: one part Campari, one part pink grapefruit juice, one part cranberry juice cocktail. Adapted from a Nigella Lawson recipe.

--White wine with dinner

--Green salad with homemade Roquefort dressing

--Fresh organic turkey, "dry brined" this year. Success!

--Buttermilk mashed potatoes

--Bread stuffing with herbs

--Giblet gravy

--Sauerkraut cooked in a cup and half of gin. Really. I got the idea from Molly Wizenberg. The kids liked it better than brussel sprouts. Don't worry, the alcohol is cooked away, leaving a junipery contrast to the sourness.

--"Eunice's Cranberry Chutney" provided by my friend Kathy

--"Myrna's Pecan Bars," also courtesy of Kathy. Don't you love the names Eunice and Myrna?

--Butternut Squash Spice Pie, instead of the traditional Pumpkin Spice Pie, because we have a huge backlog of squash. It was delicious but the color was drab. No one minded. I whipped some cream to put over top.

After everyone left on Friday, Mr. Dream Kitchen called his parents, Mervin and Marilyn, who have often come for Thankgiving in the past. His mother has had two strokes by now, and it's hard for her to travel. They came when each baby was born; cooking, cleaning, changing diapers, and nurturing all of us so well. We miss their warm presence.

Now the silver and china have been washed and put away. Just now, in the quiet of the empty house, I looked at the bottom of one of the green and gold plates. "Tyndale et Mitchell Co., Philadelphia, Pa.", it reads. Another mark reads "France." I learn that Hector Tyndale, in addition to running the china importing business, was a Union General in the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry. Just before the war, he had personally comforted John Brown's widow upon her husband's hanging. As an officer, he led his regiment in none other than the devastating Shenandoah Valley campaign, for which Grant had commanded, "Make all the Valley a desert."

Tyndale died in Philadelphia in 1880, as an indirect result of battle injuries. And six of his green and gold plates are here, in our cupboard. So beautiful, so old, so resilient, so fragile.