Sunday, December 28, 2008
For some of us, the holidays mean warm fires, plenty of presents, mistletoe-covered kisses, and frosty windows in big rooms smelling of pine.
For others, the holidays mean stressful travel, freezing weather (and the bad hair that comes with it), cracked skin, and anxiety so strong it forces you to eat three times the calories you should.
This year, I'm in the latter camp. In fact, I think I've been in the latter camp for the better part of my adult life, but I bet that's true for most people past the age of twelve.
Anyway, over the last couple of days, I've eaten a lot: pizza, filet of beef (in the end, we decided to have it), creamy dressings, hunks of cheese, all manner of cookies, nuts, chips, and chocolate. These are things I typically eat in abundance at this time of year, in an effort to distract my emotions and attempt to keep warm. Of course, all I'm really doing is making myself sick, but this is how New Year's resolutions are decided upon, isn't it? As in, "I shall never eat three pieces of mushroom pizza plus half an eggplant parmesan in one sitting, ever again."
I think I'd be ok if the majority of this eating excess ended with Christmas. Unfortunately, for me, it seems to continue until February, which is when I feel that the "festive times" are finally over. So as I pass from one holiday to the next at this time of year, I tend to cling to some edible vice along the way. And like beers on Sunday, this food becomes the balm I need to make the transition - from Thanksgiving to Christmas, from Christmas to New Year's, and from New Year's to Valentine's Day - a little bit more palatable.
This season, my transitional vice is toffee. Sweet, magical toffee. Some angel or elf brought it to our house a few weeks ago, and now it's all I can do not to eat the whole tub. It's buttery and crunchy, with a touch of chocolate and a little salt. I am completely addicted. I bet it shoots 300 calories into my body with every bite but I don't care. And yes, I am worried that offering this recipe will cause you to hate me for the weight you're going to gain, but here it is. And remember, this is what New Year's resolutions were made for. We can all start salad-and-diet cokeing it in March.
Thursday, December 25, 2008
My Christmas post is perhaps not quite as light as my others, but I could think of nothing else to put up here today. I wrote this story a few months ago, hoping I could get one of the big newspapers to publish it. Sadly, I was "dissed and dismissed" (as my friend Winona would say) by all of them. So it seems to me that it must have been meant to go right here all along. Merry Christmas, Daddy.
My Father's Christmas
By Catherine L. Barker
If he had to choose, I bet my father would have said that party mix was his favorite Christmas treat. Even though he loved the filet of beef that we had every year – not a Christmas dinner went by when he didn't say, full of pride at the head of our big table, "You can cut it with a fork!" – it was the party mix I made for him that lit his face as bright as our tree.
My mom always protested. "Cath, try not to put too much butter in it. And don't use any salt! It's already got too much with the pretzels." I would nod dutifully to her out of respect for her wishes, but I always managed to rationalize that a little extra butter slipped in for my dad would be ok. After all, it was Christmas.
This was my father's favorite time of year. It always left me bemused to watch him haul out every last tree decoration and seasonal bibelot, wondering how, with all of his kids grown up, it could still be to him the most wonderful time of the year. To me, it felt a little strange to get up in the morning and unwrap presents in my nightgown as an adult. My siblings – especially the older ones - felt the same way I did, but we always played along because there was nothing like the look on my father's face when he handed us a gift and watched us read the tag: " To Catherine. Love, Holly." This was a game he never grew tired of, and it never ceased to make me love him even more. The gift that time was a picture of Audrey Hepburn from Breakfast at Tiffany's.
The abundance of presents and grown-up "children" in our pajamas embarrassed me more and more every year, but last year I felt a little bit at ease. My sister was pregnant, and her rounded belly reminded me that next year, there would be a baby in our house – a little boy my dad could hold while he read The Night Before Christmas and prayed for snow.
But while we hoped for the joy that the baby would bring, we quietly worried about my father's health. He was diagnosed with cancer at Thanksgiving, and his heart was in need of an operation. Still, we celebrated as always – with presents everywhere, at least two trees, filet of beef, and of course his party mix. We were brave, and we prayed for better times next Christmas, when my father would get to see it through the eyes of his grandchild.
But he died in July of a heart attack, and was gone before any of us had a chance to ponder the thought.
Now as Christmas approaches, the thought of presents and pajamas is almost too much to bear. But his grandson, Jack, is eight months old, and he needs all of the lights and stories and magic that my father gave to us. So we will laugh, and we will cry, but most of all, we will remember my dad and how special he made Christmas with his little games and unwavering excitement, year after year.
I'm not sure that we'll have filet. It seems too celebratory, somehow, and too sad without him here to slice it with a fork. But I will make my party mix. And I'll sneak in extra butter, knowing that he would want us to smile and dance, and wear our pajamas and allow the anticipation – of snow, of presents – to warm our lonely hearts, and remind us that he's near.
Larry Barker's Party Mix (adapted from the original Chex Party Mix recipe)
3 cups Corn Chex cereal
3 cups Rice Chex cereal
3 cups Wheat Chex cereal
1 cup mixed nuts
1 cup pretzel sticks
1 cup Cheerios cereal
6 tablespoons butter or margarine
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1.5 teaspoons seasoned salt
3/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
Heat oven to 200 degrees. Place butter or margarine in large, ovensafe pan (I use a glass lasagna dish) and set pan in oven on middle rack. Once butter or margarine has melted, remove pan from oven and add Worcestershire sauce and seasonings and mix well with a spoon. Add cereals, nuts, and pretzels and mix well so that everything is coated with the sauce. Return to oven and bake for 15 minutes, then stir. Repeat this process three more times, and then pour party mix onto paper towels laid out on the counter. Allow to cool for about an hour before serving.
PS: Photo from the Chex website
Monday, December 22, 2008
Look, I'm Catholic. But anyone who knows me even marginally well knows that I have a crush on all things Jewish, especially the food (Hi, have you noted the name of my blog?).
So naturally, I wanted to write the perfect Hanukkah post. But there were some problems. Number one, I didn't go to the latke-making demonstration last night that was supposed to be the subject of this segment (which also means I don't have my own photo and had to borrow one from Zabar's). Number two, I wanted this perfect post to be up, shining bright as candles on the menorah, on the first night of Hanukkah--oops. Number three, I am prone to guilt (see first sentence) so nothing I write to commemorate the Festival of Lights will ever be good enough.
However, I'm going to feel even worse if I don't write something to acknowledge one of my favorite holidays, so here we go.
As I mentioned before, I was supposed to go to a latke-making demo last night at what is arguably the coolest synagogue ever. And on top of that, the chef running the show is semi-famous. But no, I decided I was too tired, too busy to fit it in to my Sunday evening, and so now here I am--feeling bad about my inability to commit, and about the fact that I don't have a latke recipe to share with you.
But...anyone who deals with guilt on the level that I do knows about the magic secret that saves the day and gives you a way out, and a way forward. It's a word. One, beautiful word that begins with R. That's right, my friends. RATIONALIZATION. And I came to mine about five minutes after I decided to skip the event last night. Here's what I said to myself: "How cliche to go watch someone make latkes on the first night of Hanukkah and then give away his recipes, pretending to know what I'm talking about. It makes much more sense to just write about how much I love them, and how I crave them every year at this time, and then ask you to send in your secrets, because I have much to learn." Ahh, that's better.
So come on. Tell me how you prepare these symbolic, golden patties of fried potato-y goodness. I like them with sour cream, but is applesauce more authentic? Please, help me out--I want to make some for Christmas!
PS: Did I spell Hanukkah right? I never know...
Saturday, December 20, 2008
Food and boys are two of my favorite things. I like them both separately, and sometimes, when I combine the two, the results are off the charts. (Occasionally, the results are not so good, but that's another chapter.) I have found that the best way to achieve that off-the-charts effect is to date a chef.
At least for a little while.
For a foodie girl like me, going out with a chef is major coup. You can talk about food for hours and nobody gets bored. You eat and drink together all the time. You watch cooking shows. You shamelessly geek-out about the merits of squash and expound on the pleasures of parsnips. It is glorious. And then, he bakes for you.
My chef and I dated years ago, and the relationship was over before it really got started. But we kept in touch, and then last winter we had a little rerun. And it was during that short spell that he made me the most delicious pie I have ever eaten. It involves a custardy cream, chocolate, graham crackers, and loads of butter--all things I would take a bath in if I could.
But then, when the pie-haze wore off, things got rocky again. There were talks, there were tears (mine), and then there was the question--the most feared one of all to someone frantically trying to salvage a busted relationship: "Can we just be friends?"
Of course I said yes. He is, after all, a good person. But I had one condition--he was to perfect the recipe, modify it for normal (read: non-chef) people, and fork it over so I could publish it. I also asked him to take a picture of the finished product.
So here you go, everybody. This is the best pie in the world. It is rich, creamy, and crunchy. And you will lie about how much of it you really ate.
I call it, Let's Just Be Friends Pastry Cream Pie.
Graham cracker crust:
20 graham crackers
6 tablespoons butter
Preheat the oven to 350F. Break the crackers roughly with your hands and place them in a food processor. Pulse until finely ground. Add the butter until well incorporated then pack firmly in a 9" pie pan. Bake until golden brown, about 12-15 minutes. Allow to cool to room temperature.
Whole milk- 2 cups
Sugar- 1/2 cup
Cornstarch- 3 tablespoons
Unsalted Butter- 3 tablespoons
Vanilla extract- 2 teaspoons
Salt – 1/4 teaspoon
Place the milk, salt, and 1/4 cup of sugar into a saucepan and bring to a boil. In a heat-resistant bowl place the remaining sugar with the cornstarch, stir to combine. Add the eggs and stir until smooth. Slowly add 1/2 of the hot milk mixture to the eggs while whisking to prevent the eggs from scrambling. Add the egg mixture back to the saucepan and return to a boil while stirring constantly. Remove from the heat, stir in the butter, place in a clean container and place a piece of plastic film directly on the pastry cream. Allow to cool.
Heavy cream- 1/2 cup
Chocolate (65%) - 2oz
Bring the cream to a boil in a heavy-bottom saucepan. Break the chocolate into small pieces and place in a heat-resistant bowl. Pour the hot cream over the chocolate, allow to rest for a few minutes. Stir gently until well combined.
To assemble the pie:
Pour the hot ganache into the cool graham cracker crust. Place in the refrigerator and allow to set. Add the vanilla extract to the pastry cream and stir to combine. Pour into the pie on top of the ganache. Cover with plastic film and allow to set in refrigerator before serving.
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
I stayed home from work today, and spent the afternoon sick and feeling extra sorry for myself. Fortunately, I made it through with a little help from my friends Television and Internet. They took amazing care of me all day long.
Now I'm feeling better so without further delay, I bring you...another installation of The Hotline is Open!
This email comes from my lovely sister, Ellen:
It’s your brilliant sister here hoping YOU become a star and I can help. I have many questions to email you just about every month, if not once a week. My first is: how long do spices keep in the cupboard? I was making a Triple Chocolate Pumpkin Pie this Thanksgiving and the recipe called for ground nutmeg. I had the kind that you can grind from the little jar but I am fairly certain it’s going on 5 years old. Of course, I still used it and I couldn’t even taste it. I wondered, are you not supposed to detect the nutmeg in the pie, or is mine just dead? Thanks for shedding some light and perhaps proposing I clear out my spice cupboard.
First of all, since when do you make such delicious-sounding desserts? It's just so my luck that the one Thanksgiving we're not together (I missed you so much!) you make a chocolatey pumpkin pie. Um, can you shoot me the recipe? THANKS.
Anyway, on to your question. The short answer is that spices, like hamsters, do not live forever. So you have to enjoy them and play with them while they're alive, which is generally only for a few years.
Now I know someone out there is shaking a fist and screaming, "Spices do not last for years, lady!" But I think they do, so, hmph! Ok, just calm down fist-shaker and listen. First, you have to keep them in a dark, cool, pantry-type place. Second, they'll last longer if you store them in an airtight container--this is an excellent idea for whole spices like cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, and nutmeg. I'm not a big fan of dried basil, so I'm going to suggest right now that you throw that one away (I know you have some!) and never speak of it again. Nothing needs dried basil that badly. But other dried spices--well, we're kind of in herb territory now but whatever--like thyme, sage, and rosemary are wonderful, and they'll work fine for a year or two, particularly if you rub them in the palm of your hand before adding to the dish. That wakes the flavor up a bit. Plus it's kind of fun and weird-feeling.
Bottom line: If you have a cupboard full of oldies, start pitching. Anything that makes you go, "Huh. I wonder how long that's been there?" belongs in the garbage. Just start over and restock, but don't go crazy and buy a spice just because the jar is pretty. Oh go ahead. I love pretty jars, too.
As for the taste of nutmeg in your pie, I'd really need to eat a piece to say for sure (this is a hint to make it when we're home for Christmas), but I bet it's supposed to be subtle. Nutmeg is a pretty powerful spice, and a little goes a long way. So, be careful not to use too much, and do make sure that what you use hasn't been in your cupboard since before we had the internet.
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
Yes, her name is really Winona but to me she will always be Rory. (She knows why, and if you're curious, go here to learn about our favorite show, also known as THE BEST SHOW EVER.)
No matter what her name is, though, she should always answer to Fabulous. Winona inspired me to get this blog off the ground, and now that I see she means business, I promise to start posting like a normal person.
Thanks to all of you Daddy Likey lovers who came by today. And, at the risk of sounding like a needy chick, please come back again! Make sure you drop in on my makeup girl and my shiny things girl, too
I love you more than chocolate cake, Winona! That's saying a LOT, you know.
Kisses to all,
PS: Thanks for letting me borrow the picture, Hershey's.
Thursday, December 11, 2008
What's funny is that I fancy myself the all-knowing food girl, yet my makeup girl knows more about it than I do.
At least when it comes to citrus.
And my, what a citrus she showed me. Has anybody ever heard of the cocktail grapefruit? I hadn't, until makeup girl brought me one and said, "eat this." It's a cross between a pummelo and a mandarin and my first thought was that it looked like a giant key lime. Same grassy green color, same smooth shiny skin. I held it to my nose and sniffed. Hmm. The scent is subtle and hard to define, but it's promising and pulls you in. (The proper way a man should!) I waited a while to have at it because I was kind of in love with how pretty it looked on my desk, a bright spot among heavy bird books and dictionaries.
Later in the day, though, I decided it was time. I tore away the pretty green peel (hmm, that zest would be great mixed into custard, showered over seafood, or hell, sprinkled on my morning oatmeal) and noticed that the white pithy stuff is minimal and the seeds inside the sections are easy to extract. The flesh itself is a pale yellow and it snaps and bursts when you bite in. My first reaction was "Oh! It's sweet!" and that was quickly followed by "Oh! But it's grapefruit!" I know that sounds stupid, but what with the green exterior and the initial sweet taste, I sort of forgot I was eating a grapefruit. Yet it does have that sour, getting-at-the-back-and-sides-of-your-tongue vibe which eventually hits and reminds you that this is in fact some sort of relative or off-shoot or SOMETHING of that fruity orb the French call pamplemousse.
Since I've only known about cocktail grapefruits for about four days, I haven't yet had a chance to cook with (or bathe in) them, but I do encourage all of you to try one--I know for sure you can get them at Trader Joe's. I tell you, it's the most interesting winter fruit I've ever found.
Not that I found it. Merci, makeup girl!
Thursday, December 4, 2008
OK. My sister has been hounding me for years to start a food hotline. The idea is, people with food and drink-related questions call me up and I give them perfect answers and save the day. Brilliant, right?
Well, instead of using my phone, I have now decided to use my blog as the place to take questions. So email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will do my best to rescue you from food and drink-related trauma.
Let's start with a question I just got from my buddy AD:
I was wondering what you might suggest for an after dinner activity in Cleveland Park. I know I am taking the very lucky young lady out to Alero for Mexican food and margaritas, but wanted to know your thoughts on after dinner fun?? Thanks and let me know.
I'm tripping over the phrase "the very lucky lady" but I'll resist commenting since that's not what I'm supposed to be focused on. So, let's get to your question. Ah, Cleveland Park. I lived there once upon a time, and I enjoy going back, mainly for after-dinner activities. So, here's what I'd suggest if you want to woo the special girl.
Atomic Billiards: Yes, it's underground (something I generally bristle at) but it's also great fun. You can play pool, rock the jukebox (which I think is one of the best in town), drink beer (if she hasn't had too many margaritas), and I think they have darts, too. Or you can just lounge around and talk. Girls love to talk.
Aroma: There are no games to be played at Aroma, but it's a cool space and the bartenders are friendly. The lighting is low - something many girls appreciate - and the scene is laid back. One thing about Aroma that may not please some people is that you can smoke there. So make sure to factor that in to your extremely careful decision-making process.
The Uptown Theater: Right, this is not a restaurant or a bar, so what's it doing in my hotline response? Um, because a movie after dinner is always a fun idea - great for snuggling if you like each other - and anyway, they have popcorn and chocolate. Both of those count as food in my book.
Nanny O'Briens: I'm Irish so of course I have to recommend going to the local place that begins with O'. (There's pretty much one in every part of town.) While Nanny O's is a bit...untidy, it's also charming. The jukebox is one of those digital kinds and full of awesome tunes, both new and old. Of course the beers on tap are plentiful, and if you get hungry again, the cheeseburger is not bad. And sometimes they have live music, which can be totally fun or wildly annoying, depending on how many drinks you've had.
Hope this helps, AD. Let me know how it goes!
PS: Photo is from AD. FYI, ladies, he is not a doctor. But he is a doll.
Monday, December 1, 2008
Who loves Sundays? Nobody! OK, well maybe football (the American kind) fans do, particularly if your team is the Giants, but I have proof that even those people feel uncomfortable as the dreaded "day of rest" dawns and promises that Monday morning is what you have to look forward to next.
Enter transition beers! My brother - a Mega Giants Fan - invented this convenient coping mechanism years ago and I have to say from...um...experience, that it works pretty well. Especially when you're depressed! The idea is, you have a couple beers on Sunday evening while you're watching the game or the Simpsons or reruns of Gilmore Girls, and it's supposed to help ease your mind and trick you into feeling like the weekend isn't really O.V.E.R., even though it obviously is.
Now maybe it's because I'm a girl, or maybe it's just because I seem to like to spend money, but I prefer to take my transition beers away from my home, away from my TV.
For me, the place to go for TBs is my new favorite neighborhood bar, The Black Squirrel. It's on "the strip" in Adams Morgan. I was reluctant to go the first time. I was tired, it was cold, and I was in a blah mood--it was Sunday, after all. But my friend said I should try it, and when he told me they had a pretty good beer selection I remembered the TB theory and said OK. We walked in, took a little round table by the bar in back, and ordered Baltika beers. Yummy! After two of those, I left feeling buzzed and better. The lady who served us was so nice, and the heat worked. Major points. But I hadn't tried the food...hmm.
Since then, I have been back too many times to count (I don't do math so much), and I have eaten every time. To my mind, the best things on the menu are the fried calamari and the duck spring rolls. I know fried calamari is cliche, but The Black Squirrel makes it special. The "rings" are about an inch thick and they don't taste like tires. The chef makes them magically crisp with the addition of Parmesan cheese, and he tosses in fresh snow peas for color and a welcome cruciferous crunch. The spring rolls are filled with marvelous duck confit that is so juicy you don't need the uber-citrusy, chunky sauce that comes on the side. Bits of celery in the meat brighten it up and make your mouth think it's not as rich as it really is. Mmm. The fries are good but all fries are (or absolutely should be) good at a bar, and the french onion soup was deemed "ok but too much roux" by my friend who's a chef. I think it's tasty (if a little thick) but who doesn't like a bowl of beefy, onion-y goodness topped with a blanket of melted cheese? The burger is solid--less bun, more beef. The house-made bratworst is homey and delish if you don't mind gaining five pounds at one meal. But if you have that kind of attitude, you may not have the best time at The Black Squirrel, because this is a place where the food is made with real stuff like butter and salt and the beers are big and meant to be drunk and enjoyed.
So, people, here's what I say: Go to The Black Squirrel, and go on Sundays. The atrocious weekend crowd is gone. The food is good. The games are on if you care, and transition beers - I'll take mine from Russia - await.
PS: Photo from The Black Squirrel website