Let it be released from the mind

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Vacation for a few days, but never from cooking

It was nice to have a few days off and not actually go anywhere. It's a strange thing for me, because I never take vacation to stay home. Many people do, but I think that's just the biggest waste of time. The way Christmas fell on a Tuesday though provided an ideal excuse to take another day on Friday and fully enjoy the season. D and I kept it simple--enjoy each other's company and make the holiday memorably relaxing. It was a nice alternative to what seems like year after year of chaotic Christmases. We spent it with friends and family all on seperate occasions. We had a pho dinner party, where I concocted a pho broth from oxtails, charred ginger and onions, fish sauce and star anise to name a few ingredients. For those unfamiliar with pho you garnish the soup with flank steak, bahn pho noodles, and copious amounts of fresh herbs like cilantro, basil and mint. My favorite part are the fresh chile peppers and additional sriracha hot sauce you can add until your nose waters. I made a Gingerita to complement the meal--sugar is melted in lime juice and steeped along with lemongrass and ginger and then mixed with tequila (glorious!). Next time I make it I will temper the lime juice a bit as it was a bit too hearty for the drink. It could have been lighter. We finished the dinner off with a lemon-bay leaf scented creme brulee. For my bridal shower my little cousin gave me a creme brulee torch set. Hey, three years ago it was the present to get. Regardless of it's usefulness it was that corny present that everyone was registering for. Today that might be a Magic Bullet, or an espresso machine I guess. The problem wit hthe torch is that you need a gas source, and I've yet to buy it. Several other times I've just broiled the creme brulee with the sugar on top and it's worked fine, but not this time. The sugar turned more gooey than crisp (I probably should've pureed it in a processor to make it finer), so the brulee lacked that crunchy glass top.

On Christmas Eve we had our best friends over for brunch which was fairly simple except for ebelskivers. It's a traditional Danish (Nordic, really, but I'll choose my heritage to take all the credit) breakfast pancake that is made in a special pan. They're quite popular these days, being sold at Williams-Sonoma even. Hail the Vikings! D decided to be the cooker of the "evil"-skivers and after a bit of crash/boom/banging he delivered several golden brown puff balls dusted with powdered sugar and filled with fruit spread. It was warm and poppable like a donut!

Lastly, I made a Julekage which is a long tradition for our Danish family. Mimi, my grandmother was the one and only person in our family who made this bread. The past several years since her stroke I have taken over the yearly duty, although my family is still shocked and ecstatic to smell the sweet almond frosting at Christmastime. I'm a bit overwhelmed though, because I just read on several sites as I was trying to find a good link to explain Julekage that people put cardamom in it. We have never used cardamom--I don't even know if my grandmother knows what cardamom is. Granted, she was a poor fisherman's daughter, so they might not have been able to afford such spices. To this day she won't eat fish (except for fish sticks) because the family would eat only his leftover fish from his trips on the North Sea. I will have to try this cardamom one day when I actually make a Julekage for myself, as well as use the dried up pieces for french toast--ooo la la...

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The smell of ground round in the morning

Starting around the age of 6 or 7 I became the official gravy tester. The esteemed role allowed me to stand range-side and determine if the gravy for our family dinners was properly seasoned. With a small spoon, I would carefully dip then cool and taste. I loved that job, and it probably was one of the few small things that my mom did to encourage me to love food and love cooking it.

This past weekend, I wish I had been the official gravy tester. The largest vat of gravy I have ever seen was being concocted in a giant kettle at DC Central Kitchen. Combining fellow from my work and friend cooking clubs, I brought together 8 beautiful girls to cut, portion and flip for 4 hours of community service. DC Central Kitchen made volunteering fun and easy. About 35 people met on Saturday morning and worked from 9-12.

The gravy was but one piece of the salisbury steak puzzle that we constructed for shelters around the area. Through our various tasks, we made about 3,000 meals which would be parceled out that day. Despite the five vegetarians in our group, half of us were instructed to dole out bloody meaty hamburgers for four straight hours. I was very honored and impressed with the veggies ability to handle raw beef product, considering the typical aversion they would have to it. Knowing that they were giving much needed protein to hungry people obviously helped them look past the bloody sacs of ground chuck. Our job was simple...seperate the meat patties and put them on a paper-covered baking sheet to go into the oven. 2,700 patties and 4.5 hours later we were done. I will eliminate the occasional sprays of blood from opening the packages (Bloody Mary is an accurate name) and the slippery floor mishaps. While I waited for new trays, I longingly watched Freddy stir the vat of gravy with a giant wooden spoon. I would've been excellent at that job. Something to look forward to for next time. Kelly & Meryl then cooked the patties and helped repackage them for larger deliveries. 3 other friends worked on cutting onions for 4 straight hours. If Martha isn't a pro with a knife now, she may never be :) Many of you say "cutting onions--I'd much rather slap beef patties", but surprisingly they didn't sob like I saw them doing when Zoolander lost the walk-off (seriously sad part).

The time flew by and I had a great time with some of the best friends in the world. I truly love these wonderful people, and am thankful for the moments like we had this weekend.


Friday, December 07, 2007

Take some time

I know the holidays drain time and energy out of most households. I've heard it before, and I get it. In fact, after having my own household now for several years I see how the stress of the holidays can affect even the most demure individual.

As a teenager I began to hate the holidays because I felt like it had turned on my family. The television and the shopping centers declared Christmas the happiest time of the year. It was a time when all family and friends would come together in a big circle, hold hands, and sing carols. You would celebrate with everyone you ever saw, even strangers at the mall. Growing into a teenager I saw the ugly side of Christmas. Piles and piles of holiday cards sat in rows across the coffee table. Toppling over with negative energy, they were my mother's nemesis during the long month of December. The last minute shopping for all of those people that aren't family but still need some sort of gift of appreciation--the cards' partner in crime. Battling the traffic at the local shopping mall and the main drag of our town. The tension builds with each layer that I am adding to this complex network known as Christmas.

I had such a fond view of Christmas as a child. The BHG in me actually enjoyed homemade crafts that shined with holiday spirit and joyousness. Deep down, I'm not corny like that sentence, but I did enjoy the concept of people coming together, rejoicing in one another, and wishing each other peace and happiness. Who could disagree with that--beauty, love and friendship wrapped fully into one month of the year?

That being said, take a second and look past the rolls of wrapping paper, the cookie sheets, the buche de noel and the eggnog. One of my biggest pet peaves of the holidays have to do with what my mom hated most--holiday cards. Each year, she painstakingly wrote and signed at least a hundred cards. With each one, she struggled to determine how much she should write, what story she should tell. Half of the people she didn't even much like anymore honestly. It's harsh but true. And yet, she spent hours wishing them a joyous season and happiness over the coming year. When I began doing holiday cards 3 years ago, I kept the list short. I've added to it, deleted from it. I keep it short so that I can put a little bit of D and I into every card. I do care about the people I send them to, and I want them to know that. It didn't take me more than two hours one night in front of the TV to finish all of the cards, and I wrote a personal note in every one of them. Not that the prose I insert in every card is extremely poetic or inspiring, but it comes from my heart. With each card that I write, I think about the person and their family, and the relationship I'm thankful to have with them. I don't think you can do that when you use labels for my address, and a preprinted card that is void of any pen or personal marking. I love to see pictures of your children--and the entire family for that matter, which so often get left out of holiday cards--but I would love to see some reflection of effort.

I will continue to keep good spirit and cheer, despite those around me with the humbug mentality. I believe that Christmas can be more than a gift-giving festival, and a little more about quality time and love for one another.