A Holiday Season Unlike Any Other!

2020 is about to end and I know that I can’t wait! I hear that collective sigh of relief from you all, as you wait with anticipation for the ball to drop — figuratively and literally, on what has been a pretty crazy, stressful and sometimes downright awful year. Through it all I drew my strength from my friends and family, but mostly from my friends who are my family. When I began to feel safe enough to start seeing my friends in person instead of virtually, it was such a great relief. I’ll never forget getting a call from my friend who said she was coming over. Now on a normal day that would seem well, normal; but in these crazy times I actually thought she was joking. Off to the store I went, probably in search of toilet paper, when I got a call from her saying “Where are you? Sammy’s in the window, now where’s the wine? I’m in the parking circle and you’re not home.” So I told her where the key was and where the wine was and that I’d be home in 5. What a joyous day! My first visitor in 3 months or so! We maintained our distance, sat at the table outside and just enjoyed being together after so many stressful months. My house became a bit like Noah’s Arc, they all came in 2’s, with an occasional 3rd, but no more than that! Food, cooking, eating and wine have always been an important bond with me and my friends, but never more so than during Covid. During Covid they escaped the city and came up to my suburban paradise (never thought I’d say that!) and for a moment all felt right. Of course we wore masks, sat apart and kept outside but we were together and it was amazing.

That takes me to today. We are now 9 months into this craziness and the holidays are here. Just when you thought it was getting better, we even had no more trouble getting toilet paper, it started getting worse. Warnings went up about social gatherings for the holidays and we were told to limit our personal interactions. 2020 just kept getting worse and well I just kept cooking, that was my therapy. The holidays was the time we could all depend on to get together. This year however, as we all know, is different. I decided that I would at least try to keep some of the traditions, even on a small scale, that I had enjoyed about the holidays. And for me that of course meant food. My family was not a very sentimental bunch but there were certain foods that were traditional for the holidays. I wanted to share some of them with you all, as well as some of the traditional foods that meant so much to some of my closest friends.

I decided after a lot of trepidation to go to my best friend’s house for Thanksgiving. It was only her immediate family and me. It was also her birthday and I really wanted to be there to celebrate. I decided that I’d bake a cake, but I wanted it to be meaningful so I searched through my mom’s recipes. Mom in my opinion made the best cheesecake ever. She used to say it was so rich and dense it would sink to the bottom of your toes! With it being Thanksgiving, I wanted something that spoke of the holiday and I found in her box of index cards, a recipe for a pumpkin cheese cake, woo hoo! Perfect I thought, and I took the recipe and made a few minor changes like adding bourbon, and made my own version — like a variation on a theme; the picture is below. BUT here is the recipe card for her ORIGINAL cheesecake; I can still see dad in the kitchen, mixing the cream cheese by hand. Check out her introduction to the recipe where she says “who can resist a cheesecake”. I love those little intros she wrote on her favorite recipes. I wanted to share her original one because that’s the one I remember her always making.

Next up is Chanukah, which of course as a kid meant presents, but it also meant latkes! FYI we ate latkes all year, large sized or small, but during Chanukah they tasted even better. Who amongst us can resist potatoes perfectly shredded with onions and fried in oil? In fact check out below on mom’s index card where she says they are “the closest thing to heaven”…Dad used to say grandma had stock in Planters Peanut Oil, the only thing she’d use to fry her latkes and all she’d have to do was tap the pan and they’d slide out on their own. We were traditional, no sweet potato, no beet, no way. Topped with sour cream only and it had to be potato, the starchier the better. Too wet, or too little starch and it will fall apart and no one wants that! We’d sit in the boiling hot kitchen as grandma would hand grate the onions and potatoes, and meticulously drain the liquid reserving the potato starch. Then she’d fry them to golden perfection. Later mom would do the same, in fact below is her original recipe card. On the first night of Chanukah this year, I had to have them so I made a little batch for myself. Really I think one of the best smells in the world, is the smell of onions frying and the house was filled with that scent. The next night the fry fest continued and I decided to make a batch of jelly doughnuts — my favorite food in the world! Yes I could have bought them but I really wanted to try my hand at making them as I had seen them on the Great British Bake Off. Paul Hollywood to the rescue, his recipe is perfect! 2 of my friends got wind of my making both latkes and jelly doughnuts and decided to come for a visit a few days later so I had to make them all again. Here we were in the kitchen at the table, where we belonged — socially distant and with the kitchen door wide open.

All for the love of pizzelle, is my next yummy holiday tradition. Ok well not my tradition because I never made them, but we were always gifted them during Christmas. My first introduction to this delicious Italian waffle cookie, was as a kid from the mom of a student of my dad’s. She would make us a huge plate of them and traditional Italian cookies. Delicate, beautiful and imprinted with her initials from the iron she had brought from Italy, these cookies lasted maybe a day before they were all gone. Now my friend’s dad makes them and always has a batch for me! His are laced with limoncello and are sweet and fresh and perfect with a cup of coffee. I invited them over for dinner the other night but only if he brought me pizzelle! As he sat at the table and watched me cook, I was forewarned that if he didn’t like the food I’d know it, he was not shy! I felt like I was cooking for my dad and started to get nervous, but after I put the plate of fish bathed in a lovely orange and olive sauce in front of him, I got the ultimate compliment when he had a second serving! I baked a holiday cake too, but true to his word, he didn’t like some of the cake and let me know it. He liked the cake but not the frosting, wanted another piece but told me to scrape off the frosting. He worked in many of the finest Italian restaurants in NYC and I loved sitting around the table and sharing food stories with him. Here’s a picture of his pizzelle with a coffee, and the fish dish and cake I made for him.

Next up is Christmas and my best friend (for whom I had to make the latkes and doughnuts, so you know I must love her) wanted us to carry on a tradition she used to do with her dad — Chrusciki. More frying for me! I started to think I might have a new career working as a fry cook, and I felt like I was working one of those fried dough stands at the state fair, but no I was hard at work in a kitchen in suburbia. All kidding aside, we had a great time. Once the dough was made and shaped, it was my turn to fry them to perfection and add the powdered sugar. We got into a rhythm and turned out what seemed to be hundreds, if not thousands of these little fried sweets. Ok I exaggerate because we ate as many as we fried, so who knows how many were actually made! More sugar her mom would say and we’d make it snow all over them with powdered sugar. We were in the kitchen together cooking and laughing it was a perfect day. Her cousin who is an essential worker, a doctor who is now overwhelmed by the pandemic, was supposed to be there to help us but obviously couldn’t. I don’t live far so I made a special delivery for her, left it by her door, and after her shift she ate the entire batch in one sitting!

This holiday season is downright weird. Don’t tell me it’s the new normal, it may be new but it’s not normal, as I’ve said before. We might not be able to have large friends and family gatherings. Many of us will have to connect via Zoom. Food may not be as plentiful as before. And some won’t be able to gather at all for various reasons. This is a tough year, and I know that I am lucky, I have my health, friends and family and am so grateful for all of that. It’s not about how much you have, it’s about how you are able to enjoy what you have. For me cooking, being in my kitchen and sharing whatever I have with my friends brings me joy. It’s not about fancy ingredients, it’s about the love you put into it and the memories you make in the process. However you are celebrating this holiday season I wish you all health and happiness. And here’s to 2021!

What’s in Your Pantry?

I’ve been grappling with many topics in my head and trying to decide what to write about next. What came to me this morning was spurred by a column I read in the NY Times Food Section. The creator of From the Pantry, has decided to end the series which was created to help home cooks use what is in their pantries and turn those ingredients into fabulous, tasty meals. The column was created during the height of the Covid-19 Pandemic, when ingredients seemed to be scarce due to panic. I applaud her having created this column with its easy, readily accessible ingredients. I don’t want to seem overly critical, but we are still in the middle of a Pandemic and people are still at home and not dining out as much as they could or would pre-pandemic. She says that people are now dining out more — I am paraphrasing, and not in as much of a panic to stock their pantries. Here’s where I differ. And by the way, I will address dining out in another post but, right now I’d like to focus on cooking at home.

Cooking from our Pantries, Freezers, Fridges, what I call #PantryCooking #Freezercooking and #RefrigeratorCooking, is more important now than ever. Parents are stuck at home with their children, who are “going to school” virtually from their homes. Workers are stuck at home because they cannot go back to their offices, which have not yet opened up. From the Pantry’s creator says “cooking 3 meals a day is not as daunting as it once was” well tell that to the parent who has to make breakfast, lunch and dinner for the whole family every day, do their own professional job and supervise their child’s schooling. That parent doesn’t have time to shop every day for food. As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, my parents always kept a stocked pantry. Maybe they feared armageddon was coming, or it was a cultural thing or just a smart thing, but I too have a stocked pantry and not just out of Pandemic Fear. I don’t want to keep shopping! So I shop in my pantry. I live in the burbs and am lucky to have plenty of space — don’t judge!

As always I like to incorporate some of my recipes and food pictures. One night I looked in the freezer and saw that I had lamb chops so they became the inspiration for a dinner. I looked in the pantry and had some tandoori spices (you can use some cumin and coriander and paprika too) so I rubbed that over the lamb and then pan fried them — simple. I looked in the fridge and saw some carrots so I coated them in cumin and olive oil and roasted them — easy. Next I had some tahini and pine nuts in the pantry, mixed with a bit of lemon juice and put that over the carrots — yum. Finally there was some cauliflower that needed to be cooked so I mixed it with some cheddar and heavy cream and boom an easy gratin. All items were in the fridge and or pantry. Leftovers the next day were reimagined into tacos. I had some tortillas in the fridge, and made taziki sauce with cucumbers and yogurt, and topped all with feta crumbles and olives from the fridge — dinner reimagined.

I mention cooking with beans above and one of my favorite meals is actually made with a can of white beans — a pantry staple. Simple, chop an onion; onions are a pantry staple, cook in some olive oil, add some garlic and tomatoes and a can of white beans. Season with hot red pepper, salt and pepper and basil if you have it, cook for about half an hour until the beans are soft, keep adding olive oil to taste and keep it moist. To accompany the beans, I cooked shrimp that I had in the freezer in a simple lemon and butter sauce with a touch of leftover rose wine and boom you have shrimp scampi. An easy meal made with pantry items. And the next day, I used the leftover beans, added some chicken stock and a handful of spinach from the fridge and had a fantastic soup for lunch.

Soon most will not be able to dine outside; it will be too cold. Our kids will still be home and most of us will still be working remotely so we will have to keep planning 3 meals a day for home consumption. With our lives having shifted home I think it’s more important than ever to find ways to make ourselves comfortable and easy. So many people today are either unemployed or underemployed therefor, helping them find ways to use what they have already is still very relevant. We’ve pivoted inside and have had to adapt. In fact I think that for many, being home is more stressful than before, with more demands, and we must find ways to make our lives easier. So here’s to all the home cooks, I toast you! And remember to look in your pantry, fridge and freezer, there are meals waiting to happen. The meals don’t have to be fancy or made with many ingredients; it just takes time and planning!