Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Dinner with Hanukkah Latkes

We are home again for the holidays, this time sharing a Christmas dinner with another family. For complicated interfaith and interstate reasons, we usually spend Christmas and Hanukkah with "just" the five of us. Family is too far, or don't celebrate; friends have other commitments. We try to create home-spun traditions for our kids, making each holiday special. We make latkes at least once for Hanukkah during the eight nights. For Christmas, we often plan an elaborate menu, even though it can seem a little silly to conjure up a hug feast for the few of us. It's especially silly if my dearest, say, wants to make a goose and the kids don't really appreciate it. This year we were lucky enough to land a few friends, who also happen to be interfaith and who have been similarly stranded without family for Christmas dinner. We are really looking forward to setting a holiday table with our friends, lighting the candles and cherishing our good fortune.

P.S.: Cook's Illustrated has a really good latke recipe, copied here.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Best Cookbooks of 2008 and the Only One You Really Need to Make Family Dinner

The wonderful thing about beautiful cook books and impressive food blogs is that they celebrate good food, made at home. They can inspire, and encourage, you to try new things. Food porn jokes aside, it is great entertainment to leaf through a wonderful cooking book. Food and foodie blogs with those great photos are fun and useful in different ways. Search-able recipes on the Internet is the ultimate convenience as you try to figure out what to make for dinner on the fly. The bad thing, of course, is feeling intimidated by the complicated steps or ingredients and/or feeling like your own cooking can never live up to that standard.

This is one reason I have a renewed appreciation of Mark Bittman, both his books and his Bitten Blog. I used to feel like his books were a little too dumbed down. But our old Mark Bittman "How to Cook Everything" cookbook tells a different tale. Its pages are literally falling out of the binding and it is held together with old cooking grease and string, stained and strained from frequent use. Writing this blog and listening to parents who want to have family dinner but don't know where to begin, I have to recommend his cookbook as a great place to start. It's really is the only cookbook you need. Use his book and take his advice, like the French chef in "Ratatouille":
Anyone can cook, and everyone should.
Short-cuts, simple steps, and quick cooking tips are the way to make cooking everyday work for busy families. Plus, unlike so many of the recipes that pop up on, you can really count on him. Nothing spells home-cooking disaster more than a "quick & easy" recipe that turns out to be inedible. Get down the basics, then added flourishes, steps, or new ingredients to keep it interesting. Bittman's new revised edition will be under our tree this year and will again be pressed into service. (Here's a review from Cookbooks We Love, to show I'm not the only one who feels this way!)

A quick round-up of other recommended 2008 cookbooks or blogs to give or to treat yourself to, especially if you already own and use Bittman!

Best Blogs for Foodies, Tara Parker-Pope, NYT Well Blog, 12.12.08
Bon Appetit's Blog Envy, List of great food blogs, 12.08

Best Cookbooks of 2008 from:
Project Foodie: Baking
Cookbooks for Your Holiday Gift List, Tara Parker-Pope, NYT Well Blog, 12.02.08
Food and Wine
Al Dente Blog's report on Amazon's 2008 List

And in the "No Excuses" category:
So Your Kitchen's Tiny. So What? Mark Bittman, NYT, 12.13.08
Anatomy of a Minimalist Column, Mark Bittman, NYT Bitten Blog, 11.17.08

Monday, December 15, 2008

Holiday Parties at Home

Hooray! We are throwing our "not-so-annual" holiday party, and quite a few friends are signed up to come. Every couple of years or so, we feel up to the challenge and throw open the doors. This year, a party seems especially needed: The economy is in the tank, everyone's worried where the bottom is, and at least some of us wondering if our children will re-live the 1970s recession that branded our psyche. I always felt a little bonded with my Depression-era Grandfather in my basic fear that good economic times can't last. But, really, I don't need to re-live his past. He tells a story of dreaming that one day he would save a rich man's daughter from being hit by a street car. His hope was not to get the girl, but that the rich father would offer him a job as a reward. He also tells a story about being paid to house-sit empty houses for the bank, which seems a little too eerie nowadays.

In that spirit, our parties are very home-made and I try to keep an eye on the budget. I can never justify spending money to cater or even pre-order anything at the grocery store. It's more work, but I think the food and atmosphere are more homey and much better. There are ways to have your party and to save time and money, too. Some modest tips:

Roast a turkey or buy a pre-cooked ham. I actually bought a frozen turkey (half-price) right after Thanksgiving. I'll roast it the day of the party to have lots of food. A spiral ham is also a great choice. Guests can serve themselves and the leftover ham bone can go into a soup or beans.

Make soup or chili. It's very economical to make a pot of soup or chili; you can make it special with a few exotic ingredients or just a funny name. One year I made my Famous Christmas Chili. Obviously, cheap and easy, but it went over great, perhaps due to that witty name. You can serve it in coffee mugs to save buying bowls and also to cut down on spills.

Chips, bread, crackers, cut veggies: All of these are great filler for simple dips, salsas, cheese, etc. Any leftover veggies can be used for soup later.

Potluck. Ask friends to bring food or drinks. If you want more control, ask people to bring specific items (get a couple of ringers if you know Beth makes a mean beef stew) or use email/evites to have people sign up for certain dishes. Or try a theme: "sweet and savory," asking guests to bring one or the other, or pick a country and ask for regional dishes. It 's a lot of fun to try different dishes, and it definitely saves work and money for the host.

Specialty Cocktail or BYOB. For several recent parties, we've created a "speciality cocktail." It's usually an ordinary-type drink, but we make a batch of it and give it a funny name. It's very festive. I have smallish wine glasses that I serve these in. You save money because you are not stocking a full bar, just the special drinks served in modest portions. I'm thinking about doing a mulled wine and a mulled cider this year, so that my preteens can have a special drink that's not alcoholic. If it's clearly BYOB, people will bring their own and you don't have to guess and waste $$ on unwanted liquor.

Use the real thing. If you have enough real plates and glasses, use them! You'd be surprised how much money you end up spending on disposables. Sure, you'll have to run the dishwasher an extra time or two, but it really does seem special and nice to use real glasses and plates. Try to use small plates to make the food stretch.

Focus on friends and food. The point is to get together with friends; don't stress it. Searching for holiday budget tips today, I was surprised to find most of the tips were how to save money on decorations and goody bags. Please. Do away with all that stuff. Straighten your house, make sure there are a few places to sit or put down a drink, but don't go crazy with decorating. Everyone's going to be standing in the kitchen anyway, just wanting to talk and catch up. That's the gift you are giving yourself and your friends at a holiday get-together. Enjoy it!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Eat Local or Shop Local?

Today I was poised to do a "big shop" at my local food coop, but something came up and I had to do an errand in a totally different neighborhood. So, I stopped into my local butcher (Los Paisanos Meat Market) instead to pickup something for dinner. Instead of just getting chicken breasts, I ended up buying meat and other deli items that will probably last our family 4-5 days or so. The owner looked so happy over my big order that I thought he would kiss me. (He's an older guy in his 70s who likes to call the customers sweetie or gorgeous or young lady/man in that old-time Brooklyn way.)

Every time I go into this place, or any of the few local butcher shops left in Park Slope/Carrol Gardens area, I think, "I have to shop here more. I really don't want this place to go out of business." Not only is the food really good, but the experience is so personal. You can ask the guys how to cook something, or how much you need of a certain item for a family of four or a crowd. You know that the prepared foods, take-out and dining-out trends hurts these guys. If no one is cooking at home, no one is going to a butcher shop. Many butcher shops have adapted to have more ready to eat, or ready to cook fare, and that's good business. Several other customers were there to buy sandwiches, although at least one (maybe inspired by me?) ordered something to cook for dinner too.

There's a lot of food talk about buying local and buying organic, but in this economy, shopping local is important too. The prices I paid were comparable if not cheaper that the organic, locally-raised meat at the coop, but I'm helping a local business survive. Many places in the country can depend only on big supermarkets or Costco for their food. But there are little, family-run vegetable stores and meat markets quietly tuck away in many places, too. Support your local economy any way you can!

Shouts outs for Los Paisanos from