Articles in Family

Fried eggs in olive oil. Credit: iStockphoto / Aleksandar Georgiev

Once in a great while I stumble across a new way of doing things in the kitchen, sometimes as the result of carelessness. For instance, I was boiling some small unpeeled potatoes recently, having salted the water as usual, then wandered off, only to return to the kitchen where I caught a slight whiff of food on the verge of burning.

When I checked my pot I saw that all of the water had boiled off. What remained were potatoes that had crunchy skins and, as it turned out, tender and delicious interiors. When I tasted them I realized that the salt in the water had penetrated so that every bite of the potato was perfectly flavored and the crusty skins delectable. They reminded me of potatoes that had been cooked on the grill, but without the fuss of lighting fires and dealing with charcoal and its accompanying gray dust.

I am thinking about cooking this dish again, but have no idea how long it will take for the water to boil away. So I have devised a plan: I will situate myself in the kitchen along with a good novel — “War and Peace,” perhaps — and be sure to stay put while the potatoes cook, and I will pay attention to how much time goes by before the potatoes turn into the delicious dish on which I stumbled. I want to avoid ruining the potatoes and wrecking my pot.

Hot dogs, beyond the long bun

Another time, when preparing lunch for my husband, I found in my freezer one lone hot dog bun that was scheduled to hold two hot dogs. (He prefers that combination while I would be happier with one hot dog and two buns, being the bread-lover that I am.)

Hot dogs on a round bun. Credit: Barbara Haber

Hot dogs on a round bun. Credit: Barbara Haber

While I usually avoid putting any sort of bread into the microwave, I popped in the frozen bun thinking I would retrieve it in seconds and then toast it before squeezing in the hot dogs. I must have been distracted and set the microwave time in minutes rather than seconds because when I finally retrieved the roll, it had the look and texture of a block of wood, and I instantly dispatched it to the garbage can.

I still needed something for the hot dogs and could only find a plump-but-frozen hamburger bun. This time I was careful to let it thaw on its own before toasting. Then I was delighted to find that, with a bit of surgery, two hot dogs fit perfectly into one round bun. On the surface, you wouldn’t think that such a discovery would require a couple of advanced degrees, but this story does have a moral. Sometimes we are so conditioned to go along with conventional thinking when preparing a dish that we can miss a tasty or useful variation. Just because hot dogs are traditionally served in a long bun, why can’t they be served in a round one? And must we always fry our eggs in butter? How about olive oil? Speaking of which, the best boiled lobster I ever tasted was provided by a friend in Maine who served it with a fabulous warmed olive oil instead of the conventional melted butter.

Meatloaf, with whole allspice

I experienced another kitchen error years ago when preparing a meatloaf for a weekday family meal. My recipe involves a pound of ground beef, a grated raw potato, a grated raw onion, an egg, salt and pepper, and I was in the habit of studding the top of the dish with whole black peppercorns before it went into the oven. But one time I mistakenly reached for a jar of whole allspice instead of the peppercorns, and, unaware of this error, lightly tapped in six or seven over the top of the loaf before starting the cooking process. When a delicate fragrance soon filled my kitchen, I became mystified, for it was a subtle aroma not usually associated with meatloaf, which, after all, is hardly an exotic dish. When we sat down to dinner, everyone loved the new taste that had transformed my old standby recipe into something a little unusual, and ever since I have been using allspice whenever I make meatloaf.

Young chefs cross the invisible line in the kitchen

While I find such innovations delightful, in part because of their accidental origin, I am dubious about the deliberate attempt, especially by young chefs these days, to create new dishes by throwing all sorts of ingredients together.

Bacon, kale and salted caramel are the latest trendy foods to pop up with alarming regularity. In thumbing through new cookbooks, I spotted recipes for bacon in caramel corn, in s’mores, and sneaked into the streusel for an apple pie, all of which struck me as unappetizing. I found a kale recipe for what was dubbed a “green bloody Mary” because instead of tomato juice, it contained pulverized kale. A better name would have been “vampire bloody Mary,” since I like to think that vampire blood is green. All of these treatments are novelties that do not necessarily add to the taste of an altered dish. I must say, though, that I am more forgiving about the liberal use of salted caramel as long as it’s being added to a dessert and not to mashed potatoes.

To be sure, many deliberate innovations are delectable. Delicate pizzas made with bits of tender chicken and a touch of pesto, instead of gloppy red sauce and greasy melted cheese, come to mind. So does the combination of chocolate and hazelnuts, discovered by an ingenious Italian whose country makes the delectable gianduja, one of my all-time favorite confections.

Still, I like best my happy accidents, and do hope there will be more to come.

Main photo: Fried eggs in olive oil. Credit: iStockphoto / Aleksandar Georgiev

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Dress up your New Year's feast with Beef Tenderloin en Croute With Mustard Sauce. Credit: Carole Murko

What does New Year’s Eve mean to you? Do you feel the need to party like it’s 1999? Or do you prefer an intimate gathering with friends? I have always looked at New Year’s Eve as amateur night. Somewhat of a forced party. I suppose that bias came from my parents’ attitude about New Year’s Eve. So, I seemed to avoid it like the plague.

But, admittedly, I always thought, maybe, just maybe I was missing out. Turns out the enjoyment quotient has less to do with the event and more to do with the people and your attitude. So with attitude adjustment in hand and a great group of friends, New Year’s Eve can be a splendid holiday to celebrate. What with the optimism of resolutions, or word of the year, or mapping out one’s desired feelings, it is indeed a time to embrace all that is new in 2015.

A New Year’s Eve get-together is a party or event that begins much later than most dinner parties. One of the things I learned from my mom was how to entertain simply and elegantly. For New Year’s Eve, a simple, yet sophisticated, do-ahead menu will allow you to enjoy your guests and ring in the new year with style. And in keeping with Heirloom Meals, I am sharing recipes that my mom, sister Jen and I have used, developed and refined over the years for various parties that we throw.

Easy Guac and Chips

Easy Guac and Chips
Picture 1 of 3

What's easier than Easy Guacamole, served with your choice of chips. Credit: Carole Murko

 Creative cheese platter — use several local cheeses, as well as olives, sliced fruit and nuts

Guacamole and chips

Beef Tenderloin en Croute With Mustard Sauce

Savory Sautéed Shrimp a la Jen

Arugula Salad With Mustard Vinaigrette

Mom’s Mystery Dessert

Prosecco

 

Easy Guacamole

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: none

Total time: 10 to 15 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6, as a snack

Ingredients

1/2 jar of your favorite or homemade salsa

2 avocados, smashed

4 garlic cloves, minced

2 tablespoons cilantro, minced

Juice of 1/2 lime

1 or 2 drops of Tabasco sauce, optional

Directions

Mix ingredients together and enjoy with chips of your choice.

 

Beef Tenderloin en Croute With Mustard Sauce

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes

Total time: 35 to 40 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

For the beef:

4 to 5 pound whole beef tenderloin, trimmed

1 to 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 500 F.

2. We like to oven sear our tenderloin, but you can also sear it on top of the stove. Rub tenderloin with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place on baking sheet and sear about 5 minutes per side, then reduce temperature to 350 F and bake for another 15 to 20 minutes. This should produce a spectrum of doneness from medium-rare in the middle to well-done on the ends.

3. Remove from pan, tent with foil, and let rest for about 20 minutes. Keep in mind: The beef will continue to cook. Once the filet is rested, you can slice it to desired thickness, about 1/2-inch thick for the en croute.

For en croute:

Loaf of french bread, sliced 1/2- to 3/4-inch thick

Extra virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.

2. Brush slices with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet in the middle of the oven for about 5 minutes until lightly toasted. Remove to a rack, cool and store until ready to use.

For the mustard sauce:

1/2 cup dry mustard

3 tablespoons distilled white vinegar

1 1/2 teaspoons sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

3 tablespoons water

6 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces

3 tablespoons fresh chives

Directions

1. Mix the mustard, vinegar, sugar, salt and water until it forms a smooth paste. Cover and let stand for about 10 minutes.

2. Put mixture into a double-boiler over simmering water and whisk in the butter until combined and smooth. Remove from heat and stir in the chives.

Note: Can be served warm or at room temperature. We put a small dollop on each beef en croute.

 

Savory Sautéed Shrimp a la Jen

Prep time: 30 to 35 minutes

Cook time: 5 to 10 minutes

Total time: 35 to 45 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

2 pounds shrimp, peeled, deveined, cleaned and dried

2 to 3 garlic cloves, minced

1 tablespoon rosemary, minced

1/4 cup parsley, minced

1 to 2 teaspoons crushed red pepper, to taste

1/4 cup capers

1/4 cup olive oil

Zest of one lemon

Salt and pepper to taste

2 tablespoons butter

Juice of one lemon

1/4 cup parsley, for garnish

Directions

1. Toss the shrimp with the garlic, rosemary, parsley, crushed red pepper, capers, olive oil, lemon zest, and salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate for 4 hours or overnight.

2. Heat butter until foaming in a large skillet, add the shrimp and saute until cooked, about five minutes. Pour into your serving bowl, toss with lemon juice and parsley for garnish, if you’re using it. Can be served hot off the stove or at room temperature.

 

Mustard Vinaigrette

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: none

Total time: 5 minutes

Yield: 1 cup

Ingredients

2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

Whisk together the vinegar and mustard until smooth and then add the olive oil, pouring in a stream to incorporate slowly, whisk until smooth.

Note: This dressing goes particularly well with a baby arugula salad.

 

Mom’s Mystery Dessert

Prep time: 10 to 15 minutes

Cook time: 25 minutes

Total time: 35 to 40 minutes, plus time to freeze (4+ hours)

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

Ingredients

2 cups packed brown sugar

2 eggs

2/3 cup of flour

1 cup chopped pecans

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 cups heavy cream

2 tablespoons brandy

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.

2. Coat a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with vegetable oil.

3. Mix together the brown sugar, eggs, flour, pecans and baking soda. Spoon the batter into the baking dish.

4. Bake for about 25 minute or until the tester comes out clean. Cool for about 2 hours.

5. Whip the heavy cream until soft peaks form and fold in the brandy.

6. Break the cake into small pieces and fold into the cream. Spoon the mixture into a clean 9-by-13-inch pan and spread evenly. Freeze until firm, about 4 hours or overnight. When ready to serve, spoon into goblets and serve.

Main photo: Beef Tenderloin en Croute With Mustard Sauce. Credit: Carole Murko

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Shrimp Pasta With Classic Vinaigrette is a specialty of teen cook Arieanna McKnight of New Orleans. Credit: Dreamstime

“It must be so easy for you!”

That’s what I hear from fellow moms several times a week. They’re talking about one of the biggest bugaboos of the working parent: the home-cooked family dinner. Because I’m a professionally trained chef, they think I’m immune to that end-of-the-day hustle to think up a new meal and get it on the table.

In many ways, it’s true. My professional training is a boon, but just as often I, too, am stumped after a long day working to figure out what my family might eat with minimal fuss or complaint.

The dinnertime crunch is a very real issue for many working parents. So much so that in September, Slate published an article reviewing the findings of a pair of sociologists who determined the home-cooked meal is a source of stress and angst for families — particularly for moms.

They came to this conclusion after studying 150 moms for 250 hours, focusing on 12 families in particular. In the end, they concluded home-cooked meals were under-appreciated and caused stress, especially for low-income moms who can’t afford fresh produce and have poor kitchen setups. Even those who could afford better were stymied by the ingratitude of their families.

In short, the study concluded the home-cooked meal as an idealized goal is nothing short of tyranny — particularly for the mothers who attempt to produce it.

A spate of responses to the Slate article came swiftly. The New York Times quickly published replies, as did a variety of culinary luminaries. The commentary ranged from disbelief to admonishment that cooking shouldn’t be — isn’t — so hard.

Family dinner should be a family effort

But I have a different take on the issue. I won’t quibble that cooking can be hard after a long and tiring day — especially when lack of skill or resources make it difficult to even begin thinking about what’s for dinner.

When you work full time, it’s hard enough to want to make your own meal, much less come home and prepare food for other people. I spoke with one mom recently who said she had the “luxury” of a caregiver to help with her young children after school while she was still at work. The best helper she could find could barely cook, and the best cook was hardly a caregiver. The end result was that she came home after a long day and began preparing a meal for her already-starving school-age youngsters.

And she counted herself among the lucky ones because she could afford the help.

So what’s the solution to the tyranny of home cooking for working parents?

Don’t do it.

That’s right, I said it: Don’t do it. Don’t make it only your responsibility to pick the food, decide on the meal and then cook it, because right under your very noses you may have the best kitchen helpers you could find — and they won’t charge you a cent.

They’re your kids.

Now, I’m not suggesting pressing your youngsters into child labor or giving them full responsibility for making the meals at home. What I am suggesting is giving them credit for being able to pick out good food and having the willingness to prepare it.

I heard this loud and clear in the three years I worked on “FutureChefs: Recipes From Tomorrow’s Cooks Across the Nation and the World (Rodale, 2014).” Over and over again I heard from parents who weren’t cooks themselves, who struggled in the kitchen, but had kids who had a passion for cooking born from living in our food-obsessed world.

One young man, Tyler Trainer, not only began cooking for his family but started a small catering business when he was in his early teens — much to his parents shock. “We don’t know where he got it from,” his mom told me.

This was true whether or not the kids were from affluent families. Among many great examples is Arieanna McKnight of New Orleans, who is from what she calls a “low-income” family. She got involved with cooking watching her father use what he had in the kitchen to create great meals. As a middle-school student, she joined an activist group that engaged young people in the future of New Orleans — particularly school food and food justice issues.

Working with kids such as Arieanna and the other 100 or so kids in the book, I realized that often the “tyranny” of the scratch meal is one self-imposed by parents, especially those with older kids who are willing and able to help.

Of course, in the end, every parent and every family has to figure out what works for them. Time and money constraints are not to be taken lightly. But programs exist to teach kids to cook and make great choices and even help families buy fresh produce at limited cost, although they continue to be an overlooked resource in winning the battle for home-cooked meals.

In my opinion, these programs are the forward flank of an American movement back to the home kitchen — a movement based on strength, knowledge, pride and joy.

Is there a FutureChef hiding in your house?

Shrimp Pasta With Classic Vinaigrette

Yield: 6 servings

This recipe first appeared in on “FutureChefs: Recipes From Tomorrow’s Cooks Across the Nation and the World” and was created by Arieanna McKnight of New Orleans.

Arieanna teaches cooking classes at Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools, or “The Rethinkers,” a program created in 2006 to help low-income kids be part of the discussion about how to rebuild the city’s schools in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The program focuses on everything from school safety to building architecture to school food reform and has been able to overhaul school lunch programs to be healthier and fresher using a school lunch report card, which assesses the quality of school food.

“I started out as a middle-schooler at the program and now I’m teaching other kids,” said Arieanna, 17. She said learning about and becoming an advocate for food justice is one of the most important aspects of her education with the program. Last year, the teen cooked with Taste of the NFL in New Orleans, a nonprofit that creates “parties” around National Football League events, with proceeds going to fight hunger in the community.

Arieanna said her greatest influence is her father, who works as a chef in New Orleans’ French Quarter. “I live in a low-income family and we don’t always have as many things to work with,” she said. “I’ve watched my father always make us something good to eat, even if he didn’t have regular ingredients. It’s taught me to be creative with what I have.”

Shrimp Pasta With Classic Vinaigrette is her unique take on a classic New Orleans shrimp pasta salad. She uses crab boil to give the shrimp an intense flavor. Because local and seasonal eating is an important part of how she has come to rethink food, she uses Gulf shrimp for this recipe.

Ingredients

For the vinaigrette:

2 cloves minced garlic

2 teaspoons minced shallots

2 teaspoons minced fresh parsley

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

2 tablespoons coarse-grain mustard

Juice of 1 lemon

1/2 cup white balsamic vinegar

1 cup extra virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the pasta:

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1 pound pasta of your choice

For the shrimp:

1 pound large Gulf shrimp, peeled and deveined

1 tablespoon crab boil seasoning (such as Old Bay)

For the garnish:

1 large tomato, diced

6 fresh basil leaves, cut into a chiffonade, for garnish (optional; see note below for directions)

Directions

1. Make the vinaigrette by whisking all the ingredients together in a small bowl. Set aside.

2. In a large pot, bring 4 cups of water to a boil over medium heat. Add the salt and olive oil. Add the pasta and cook to al dente according to package directions. (The time will vary depending on the type of pasta you choose.) Drain and transfer to a large, deep platter or pasta bowl.

3. Meanwhile, cook the shrimp by placing them in a medium saucepan with just enough water to cover them. Stir in the crab boil seasoning and bring the mixture to a boil. Cook until the shrimp turn pink, 3 to 4 minutes.

4. Drain the shrimp and add to the pasta.

5. Add the vinaigrette to the pasta and shrimp and toss well. Add the diced tomato, toss again and garnish with basil leaves, if desired.

Note: To make a chiffonade, stack the leaves of fleshy herbs (such as basil) or other greens on top of one another and then tightly roll them into a small cylinder. Using a sharp knife, cut the cylinder crosswise into narrow slices. When the slices are unfurled, you will have thin slivers of herbs or greens.

Main image: Shrimp Pasta With Classic Vinaigrette is a specialty of teen cook Arieanna McKnight of New Orleans. Credit: Dreamstime

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Khichuri, a soothing mélange of soft lentils, rice and vegetables, is the perfect Indian comfort food to accompany the arrival of cold weather.

Autumn in New York brings back memories — and the comfort food — of my monsoon childhood. A perfect evening for me is a walk in the rain or snow, finished off with a hot bowl of freshly made khichuri.

The bubbly one-dish meal is as comforting to me as hot mac and cheese to my children.

I grew up eating khichuri in the coconut palm and banana leaf-dotted landscape of eastern India. I fondly refer to it as the Bengali risotto, a soothing mélange of soft lentils, rice and vegetables.

When soup weather arrives, before I turn on the stockpot, I reach for the jars of colorful lentils. If you have not heard of or tasted khichuri, do not be surprised. Like most other classic Indian cooking, the true specialties are still the domain of the home cook. They are dishes that grace the everyday tables, beyond the boundaries of commercialization. Not party fare. But dishes to be savored with the family.

Food fit for the goddesses

For all its humble trappings, this dish is the complete balanced dish that is deemed to be the perfect offering for Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning, and Durga, the multi-armed goddess who battles evil. The Hindu gods and goddesses demand a proper meal as a part of their prayer sequence and appropriate ayurvedic fare.

It is usually light and simple vegetarian fare. A mélange of rice and lentils replete with vegetables, finished with hot seasoned clarified butter, fits the bill.

The khichuri’s simple list of ingredients, however, should not suggest that this dish has no protocol. At the heart of Indian regional cuisine rests fastidious, yet practical, rules that remain the domain of the home cook. So khichuri is as nuanced as any other traditional Bengali offerings, which tend to be simple, wholesome and specific in their making.

The general concept of the dish is rice and lentils, with vegetables such as cauliflower, potatoes and peas. The two preferred lentils are yellow split lentils (moong dal) — or orange split lentils, also known as red split lentils (masoor dal or mushoor dal in Bengali). The final spice or flavor infusion for this dish rests in the finish or the tempering, and while the yellow split lentils use fragrant spices, the red lentils tend to be designated for a finish of crisp caramelized onions.

There is also a preferred proportion of two parts lentils to one part rice, with the rice usually being either parboiled or the delicate kala jeera variety that is native to the Bengali region. I tend to stay away from the fancier basmati rice when making khichuri, but you are welcome to use it, if that is what you have in your pantry.

An adaptable dish — in the way it is cooked and served

In spite of it being a traditionally slow cooked dish over the stove, it can be adapted — with some planning —  for the pressure cooker and is also a perfect natural for the slow-cooker aficionado.

Despite being deemed a complete meal, there are accompaniments, varied in textures and tastes, but usually something crisp and fried. These crisp accompaniments range from the well-fried seasonal fish to assorted chickpea flour-coated fritters. Our favorite varieties at home are eggplant or a red onion fritter called piyanjee. The fritter offers a crisp foil to the soft gooey consistency of the khichuri, offering a balance of indulgence and texture. Another popular accompaniment is a spicy omelet known as masala omelet.

My personal favorite khichuri is the red lentil version, which is simpler than the others and more forgiving to variation. With fresh peas scarce in the winter, I usually add some frozen peas, and I love to use a sweeter, softer onion such as the Vidalia to add a greater touch of sweetness to this rustic dish.

A hot bowl of Khichuri, the Bengali risotto, is a complete meal itself. But its soft texture is often accompanied by crisp fritters. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

A hot bowl of khichuri, the Bengali risotto, is a complete meal itself. But its soft texture is often accompanied by crisp fritters. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Bengali Red Lentil Risotto (Khichuri)

(Recipe adapted from “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles”)

Ingredients
1 cup dried red split lentils (masoor dal)

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

1/2 cup short-grained rice (such as Arborio or kala jeera)

1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 medium-sized tomato, finely chopped

1 medium-sized potato, peeled and cubed

1/2 small cauliflower head, cut into small florets

3 to 4 green chilies, slit halfway lengthwise

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup frozen peas

2 tablespoons oil

1 medium-sized onion, finely chopped

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

1 1/2 teaspoons ghee (clarified butter)

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 to 2 bay leaves

Directions

1. In a large, heavy-bottomed pan put the red lentils and about 4 cups water and bring to a simmer over medium heat.

2. Add the turmeric and simmer for about 10 minutes. The lentils should be partially cooked but not mushy at this point.

3. Add the rice, 3 more cups water, ginger, ground cumin and coriander, tomato, potato, cauliflower, green chilies, sugar and salt. Simmer for about 25 minutes on medium heat, stirring occasionally. The rice and lentil mixture should be a porridge-like consistency (add more water if too thick). The texture is important. You do not want the rice to completely lose its integrity, however it should be softer than a regular well-made bowl of rice. Add in the greens peas and stir well.

4. While this is cooking, heat the oil in a wok or skillet and add the onion and cook on medium heat until soft and pale golden. It is important to cook the onions low and slow to let them caramelize.

5. Stir the onions into the rice and lentil mixture and cook for about 2 minutes.

6. Turn off the heat and stir in the cilantro.

7. Heat the ghee in a small skillet and add the cumin seeds and the bay leaves. Cook for about 40 seconds until the cumin seeds darken and turn fragrant.

8. Pour the spice mixture over the rice and lentils.

9. Stir lightly and serve the mixture hot.

Main photo: Khichuri, a soothing mélange of soft lentils, rice and vegetables, is the perfect Indian comfort food to accompany the arrival of cold weather. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

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Cape cod cranberries. Credit: Barbara Haber

You may find yourself far from home on Thanksgiving, even out of the country, as your work calls you away or alluring travel opportunities arise. Since this holiday is distinctly American and celebrated with family and friends, being away can bring on loneliness, but these feelings can be overcome, especially if you throw yourself into cooking a Thanksgiving meal.

Even before getting into the kitchen, I love this holiday because it is just about food and people. I don’t have to run around stores in search of gifts or listen to “Jingle Bells” and other tiresome seasonal tunes being played over and over wherever I happen to be. Religious services related to specific creeds are not part of the tradition either. That is important because the holiday is deeply American and includes diverse citizens who may have on their menus lasagna or egg drop soup in addition to the usual turkey and trimmings that have come to symbolize the feast.

Suggestions to ward off Thanksgiving melancholy

When far from home, especially outside the country, Thanksgiving takes on even more meaning just because it is so essentially American and has little relevance elsewhere. Here are suggestions for heading off forlorn feelings on this special day, with food inevitably playing a central role.

If you are cooking, be sure to invite friends and neighbors who are most likely to appreciate your efforts. American acquaintances far from home will be thrilled to be invited and so will locals who may be curious about the holiday and eager to participate in it.

How to adapt to a Thanksgiving meal abroad

When planning the traditional meal, be flexible about your ingredients, as you think through what is available. Do not expect to find a huge and reasonably-priced turkey outside the U.S. An American friend living in northern France shelled out a fortune on turkeys one year because she was entertaining other displaced Americans and wanted to serve familiar dishes. My thought would be to avoid huge expenses by dolling up what you have at hand. Get local chickens or ducks, but serve them with the holiday stuffing you love. As far as I know, sweet potatoes will be available in markets around the world, so this mandatory side dish can be pulled off, though possibly without the marshmallows, if that is your custom.

The traditional cranberries may be difficult to find. They are native to New England where Thanksgiving had its origins. It is no accident that Ocean Spray, producers of all things cranberry, is located in southern Massachusetts not far from Cape Cod. If you can’t find cranberries abroad, you may have to make a sauce or relish with other tart berries — gooseberries in England, lingonberries in Scandinavia, currants in many other places, figure it out. No need to be literal-minded in preparing the meal, and you might even want to be thought of as ingenious. Your reality is that you are in a foreign country while preparing a quintessential American meal. Dig deeper into the meaning of the holiday by remembering that it celebrates the harvest, and by using available local produce you can bring out the symbolism as well as the spirit of Thanksgiving.

To some, attending a high school football game Thanksgiving morning is part of the tradition, but you are unlikely to find that outside of the U.S. Check out the availability of a local sporting match. A soccer game might be fun, or better yet, if you really want to include a traditional Thanksgiving Day ritual, call up the Macy’s parade on YouTube. A full three hours of the previous year’s parade slicked up and beautifully produced by NBC is at your fingertips, complete with gargantuan floats, massive cartoon balloons and Broadway hoofers. It is uniquely American.

Navigating family tradition

Not to be forgotten is that Thanksgiving is a family event, and family relationships are generally loaded. In my case, whenever I got together with an older brother, no matter how old we were, we would revert to being 8 and 13 years old again. It took me years to realize his customary teasing was his peculiar way of expressing love. Importing a special relative to join your Thanksgiving away from home is a sure-fire way to transplant a key part of your tradition.

Short of that, create dishes that will remind you of certain relatives. I had an aunt, now gone, who every year would bring a bowl of creamed onions nobody liked. I sometimes work up a small batch in her honor, and still nobody likes them, but that’s what tradition is all about.

Finally, video calls now allow us to hook up with the voices and images of family and friends no matter where we are. While this way of exchanging excited Thanksgiving Day greetings brings comfort and happiness to some, others may find that the sight of unavailable loved ones just brings on sadness. To offset this, have in view an array of Thanksgiving Day pies, for I have never known a thick apple pie bursting with fruit and juice that failed to bring cheer.

Main photo: Cranberries can be especially difficult to find for a Thanksgiving away from home. Credit: Barbara Haber

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Smiling sugar skulls are a mainstay of Mexico's Day of the Dead celebrations on Nov. 1 and 2.

Many cultures around the world honor departed ancestors with holidays each year. Some feature altars. Some burn incense. But feasting is the common thread that runs through many of the celebrations.

The dead are part of that — with food offerings left in their honor.

In Mexico’s two-day Day of the Dead celebration — el Día de los Muertos — Nov. 1 celebrates the lives of departed infants and children. Nov. 2 honors those who died as adults. On both days, families provide the favorite food and drink of the departed.

In China, families set out plates of food during for their ancestors at the Hungry Ghost Festival. An empty place at the dinner table is sometimes left for an ancestor to join in the feast.

The Hungry Ghost Festival, which is thousands of years old, is traditionally celebrated on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month. Chinese families place ancestral artifacts on a table, burn incense and display photographs of the dead.

Remembering the dead with food, flowers and festive décor

Mexico’s tradition also features colorful altars to honor ancestors.

MexicanSugarSkull.com offers this detail on the offerings — ofrendas — that families set out on their Day of the Dead altars:

“They are decorated with candles, buckets of flowers (wild marigolds called cempasuchil and bright red cock’s combs), mounds of fruit, peanuts, plates of turkey mole, stacks of tortillas and big Day-of-the-Dead breads called pan de muerto. The altar needs to have lots of food, bottles of soda, hot cocoa and water for the weary spirits. Toys and candies are left for the angelitos, and on Nov. 2, cigarettes and shots of mezcal are offered to the adult spirits. Little folk art skeletons and sugar skulls, purchased at open-air markets, provide the final touches.

 

The Day of the Dead sugar skulls are an example of the festive way that the Mexican culture approaches death -- with an air of celebration as a way to joyfully remember departed loved ones. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

The Day of the Dead sugar skulls are an example of the festive way that the Mexican culture approaches death — with an air of celebration as a way to joyfully remember departed loved ones. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

Mexico’s Day of the Dead is believed to trace its origins to pre-Hispanic Aztec rituals. After the arrival of Spanish conquistadors, the celebrations were moved to coincide with the Christian holidays of All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1) and All Souls’ Day (Nov. 2).

Not just a Mexican holiday anymore

Today, Day of the Dead has grown in popularity far behind the borders of Mexico and Latin America. The traditional observance from central and southern Mexico can now be seen in Día de los Muertos imagery and art around the world.

You can purchase just about anything you need for your own Day of the Dead celebration. From sugar skull molds to authentic Mexican Día de los Muertos folk art pieces, which are sometimes used as an altar decoration by celebrants.  The happy skeletons are shown doing many different things, from cooking to selling wares at the market. There are even skeleton mariachi bands. Families will purchase the colorful skeletons that depict activities their departed family member enjoyed in life.

Creating Mexican calaveras - the sugar skulls that are omnipresent in Day of the Dead celebrations - is an easy holiday activity for families. Youngsters get as much joy out of decorating the skulls as their parents do.

Creating Mexican calaveras – the sugar skulls that are omnipresent in Day of the Dead celebrations – is an easy holiday activity for families. Youngsters enjoy decorating the skulls as much as their parents do. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

Making sugar skull decorations is very simple, using only three ingredients and a mold. The fun part is decorating them. I recruited my 7-year-old daughter and her friend to decorate the skulls. The kit came months ago, and my daughter had been bugging me since the day it arrived to make them. Not only was it a fun activity, it gave me a chance to talk about honoring our ancestors and remembering them in a fun — not sad — way.

I encourage families to make the skulls together, even decorating the skulls to resemble the deceased in their families and extended families.

Día de los Muertos Sugar Skulls

Prep time: 10 minutes

Drying time: 8 hours

Yield: 5 medium skulls

Ingredients

For the sugar skulls:

3 cups granulated sugar

3 teaspoons meringue powder

3 teaspoons water

For the royal icing:

1 pound powdered sugar

⅓ cup water

¼ cup meringue powder

Gel paste food coloring, assorted colors

Directions

For the sugar skulls:

1. In a medium bowl, mix the sugar and meringue powder.

2. Sprinkle the water over the sugar mixture.

3. Using clean hands, knead the mixture until all the sugar is moistened and it feels like wet sand. Make sure there are no lumps.

4. Pack the mix firmly into the sugar skull mold.

5. Carefully invert the mold onto a baking sheet or piece of cardboard.

6. Gently tap the mold to release the sugar skull from the mold.

7. Let the skulls dry for at least 8 hours to overnight.

8. Decorate the skulls with royal icing.

For the royal icing:

1. In a stand mixer, beat the icing until it makes stiff peaks.

2. Divide the icing and use paste food coloring to make assorted colors.

3. Using a piping bag, decorate the skulls as desired.

Main photo: Mexican sugar skulls for Day of the Dead celebrations. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee 

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The Cooking Times They Are a-Changin'. Illustration Credit: iStock

Cook or chef? If asked, chances are most of us would opt for cook. But what does that mean? Cooks cook. Chefs cook too. So what’s the difference? Most obviously, chefs are men who cook in, and for, the public, while the rest of us labor away as unsung heroines (and a few heroes) on the domestic front to please family and friends.

The heavily masculine world of chefs has its roots in the military model formalized by the French in the 17th century. The chef de cuisine —  the “head” of the kitchen —  literally commanded the meal. So too in the modern restaurant that emerged over the 19th century; the chef gave the orders that lesser mortals carried out. The movement toward professionalization over the 19th century excluded women. (The iconic 1987 food film “Babette’s Feast” is totally off-the-mark. No woman would have been a chef in a top Parisian restaurant in the 19th century. Even today there are few.)

When we look closely at what chefs actually do, we may be astonished that “mere” cooks undertake many of the same activities. Perhaps cooking and “chefing” differ less than the fancy white chef’s toque would have us believe.

A continuum from cooking to chefing

In reality, from cooking to chefing is a continuum. The more foods involved, the more elaborate and complex the preparations, the more people involved as staff and consumers, and the greater the pressure for innovation, the closer we come to chefing. The more extensive the division of culinary labor, the more leadership and management skills come into play. It is not by chance that the restaurant kitchen is still known as a “brigade” and that “Yes, Chef” the only possible response to the kitchen commander.

Priscilla Ferguson argues that the explosion of talk about food has blurred the lines between the plain and the fancy.

Priscilla Ferguson argues that the explosion of talk about food has blurred the lines between the plain and the fancy.

But the domestic cook uses many of those same skills — even if she has no one to order about. Just think about what is involved in putting together an elaborate meal for a special occasion or special guests say, a birthday party for 10-year-olds or an anniversary. The cook knows that time spent at the stove is the least of her tasks. She becomes an Executive Chef for the occasion, commanding the meal, setting the menu, ordering the food and seeing to the pleasures of a demanding public. Such a meal requires skills, time, energy and imagination. You may not be a chef, but you certainly are chefing.

The contemporary food world is incomparably varied — from high-end restaurants bent on innovation to the neighborhood diner —  so the hierarchical model, even for the professional kitchen, is only one mode. Is there an ideal balance between cooking and chefing?

The answer depends on the moment, the place, the occasion, the company. Cooks and chefs find their place on the continuum from the ordinary to the extraordinary, the unseen to the spectacular.

The worlds of cooking and chefing have never been closer than today. As I argue in my recent book, “Word of Mouth: What We Talk About When We Talk About Food,” the explosion of talk about food in the past quarter century has blurred the lines between eating in and eating out, between the ordinary meal and the extraordinary feast, between the plain and the fancy.

From blogs to television shows and even films – think of Remy the rat as chef in “Ratatouille” —  food talk diffuses ideas, techniques and savoir faire beyond the professional sphere. All this talk brings the chef and the cook ever closer together. We cooks may not be chefs, but we sure do a lot of chefing.

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A selection of cookbooks from the 1950s and 1960s. Credit: Emily Contois

In the 1950s and 1960s, the food industry churned out a veritable buffet of newfangled food products with recipes to match, uniquely combining foods such as peanut butter, pineapple and Velveeta in a single dish. Such odd recipes made their way into the American culinary vernacular as the food industry sought domestic applications for food preservation technologies and products created during World War II.

Laura Shapiro tells this tale of convenience foods in “Something From the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America.” Through recipes printed on can labels and the back of boxes, in free pamphlets and branded cookbooks, the food industry sought to instruct housewives, who were initially leery of these new convenience foods, on how to cook with them, at every meal and for every audience. As Shapiro argues, rather than being rooted in any particular gastronomic tradition, “packaged-food cuisine” was its own invented culinary phenomenon, aimed at promoting specific food products. As a result, these recipes often recommended flavor and ingredient pairings that were unusual, to say the very least.

I’ve rounded up a selection of such recipes, drawing from cookbooks such as “Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book,” published in 1950, and Campbell’s “Easy Ways to Delicious Meals,” whose revised edition made its way onto bookshelves and into kitchens in 1968. Are these product-pushing recipes inventive or insane? Do they provide an unexpectedly right combination of savory and sweet or do they completely miss the mark? Are they surprisingly tasty or downright gross? You be the judge.

Recipes

1. Beans & Franks Chiquita. A simple recipe designed for a child to make, this dish starts with chopped onion cooked in butter (or margarine), then mixed with a can of beans and franks in tomato sauce. To this mixture, one adds the “Chiquita” portion of the recipe: sliced canned peaches, sliced bananas and a touch of nutmeg.

2. Beef Fizz. Described as “sheer wizardry as a pick-up,” this “refreshing” beverage recipe calls for a can of condensed beef broth mixed with a half cup of club soda and garnished with lemon.

3. Hawaiian Sandwich. In this recipe, which I alluded to in the intro, Velveeta “gets party-fancy” with “a really exotic flavor combination” that is “easy to fix and dramatic to serve.” Slather toasted bun halves with peanut butter. Then add a well-drained slice of pineapple and a slice of Velveeta. Bake or broil until the cheese melts, then top with a maraschino cherry.

 4. Marvelous Milk. While many a mom has cajoled a child into drinking her milk by stirring in a long squirt of chocolate syrup, how about beating in a mashed banana and a few drops of lemon juice?

5. Saucy Susans. If you’ve grown bored with basic biscuits, try this recipe, which substitutes tomato juice for the milk, resulting in pink-hued pastries. Bake the biscuit dough stacked in pairs with a slice of cheese sandwiched between to produce a breakfast-y version of grilled cheese and tomato soup.

6. Sunday Morning Sausage Ring. Perk up your weekend breakfast by combining 2 pounds of pork sausage with a couple of beaten eggs, some grated onion, bread crumbs and chopped parsley. Pack this savory concoction into a 9″ ring mold. Bake for 40 minutes at 350 F, taking out halfway through to pour off excess fat. Fill the ring with “Eggs à la King,” a soupy mixture of quartered hard-boiled eggs, cream sauce, canned mushrooms, chopped green pepper and pimiento, and paprika.

7. Wedgies. Don’t worry. Underwear-related social torture is not involved in this appetizer, but it is a “cake” made entirely from processed meat and cheese. Start with softened cream cheese and season it with minced onions or chives and a squirt of mustard. Spread the cream cheese on slices of bologna and then stack slices on top of one another like a layer cake. Then “ice” the tops and sides of your meat cake with a spreadable cheese. Decorate as you like with sliced olives. Chill, cut into wedges and serve.

Main photo: A selection of cookbooks from the 1950s and 1960s. Credit: Emily Contois

 

 

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