The Gleeful Gourmand: November 2010

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Thanksgiving Memories

When I was a kid growing up, my family would make the trek every Thanksgiving to my father’s childhood home in Moundsville, West Virginia. It’s almost impossible for me not to think of West Virginia when I think of Thanksgiving. Though the 8-hour car ride was tough, it was well worth it, especially as we wound our way through the mountains soaring and painted in their fall hues. Deer carcasses littered the sides of the roads, but that was just ordinary.

We would pull up to the front of my Grandma Hazel’s house, light blue with its slate stone steps leading up to a great front porch. She always had a pot of vegetable soup bubbling on the stove for us, and slices of white bread for making sandwiches. It was a big deal for us to have white bread since wheat was always the order of things at our home. Another thing my mother allowed us to have that first night as a treat: Diet Coke.

Grandma Hazel was the epitome of unconditional love and grace. I never once heard her raise her voice to anyone. In a multitude of cousins, I was the only girl, and I shared a special bond with her. She was also an excellent home cook – the type who never used a recipe, but made everything by sight, smell, touch, and taste. She would rise on Thanksgiving morning around 4 a.m. to put the turkey in her oven down in the basement, its door held closed by a chair wedged under its handle. When we finally came downstairs for breakfast, she would already be cooking for the crush of family about to descend on her house. My mother would jump into action helping her, and one by one, our favorite dishes would be created. I wish I could list all of those great dishes, but I know for sure there was mashed potatoes, both pumpkin and apple pies, and our family’s favorite: noodles.

These are not the kind of noodles one might think of when they think of pasta. Though the dough shares the same properties, these noodles (simply called “noodles”) are as wide and thick as a finger, and thrown into a huge pot of boiling chicken broth, seasoned heavily with salt and pepper. This simple, easy dish doesn't look like much, but oh – the taste! Like creamy dumplings, but better. Slightly firm to the first bite but completely tender on the finish. This dish is legendary in my family.

In those days, the family would descend, and my brother and I would play with our younger cousins until we sat down to eat around noon. We would feast as though we’d never seen food in our lives, and then we’d all help with the dishes, finally retreating into the family room where my Uncle’s pipe would fill the room with its spicy aroma. The cousins would play out on the front porch, taking turns on the swing until about 5 p.m. Then we’d all troupe back into the kitchen, and out would come the entire meal again. And we’d all tuck in as if we hadn’t just gorged ourselves a few hours earlier. Dishes would be done again, and family members would stagger out into the crisp fall night, bellies distended.

When my Grandma Hazel passed away when I was in the 8th grade, it was a blow to all of us. Thanksgivings from then on were spent with my other grandparents in New Jersey. But there was one similar thing on their table: the noodles. My mother had secured, all those years working side by side with my Grandma Hazel, the recipe for the noodles. And suddenly the noodles took on a whole new life. Suddenly we were not the only ones who dreamt lustily of them when the air grew cold.

My father passed away a month after I graduated high school, and that was the year that my mother passed the torch to me. I was now the keeper of the noodles and all their grandeur. That first Thanksgiving without my father was so difficult – Thanksgiving was his favorite holiday. But having those noodles on the table was a comfort. Everything changes, but that dish has remained constant.

I still make the noodles for my family. No matter where we are: Here in Virginia, or even in Hawaii with my husband’s family. My brother even made them in Baton Rouge when he and my sister-in-law couldn’t make it home for the holiday. The noodles are always on the table wherever we are.

As I make the dough, knead it in my hands, and send flour flying all over the kitchen and myself, I feel honored to be a part of something so simple, yet so binding.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Books to Make Your Taste Buds Come Alive!

I’ve mentioned before that some of my favorite books revolve around food. I firmly believe any book can be made better by delectable descriptions of what the characters are eating. Food in a book changes everything: the mood, the dialogue, and the sense of scene. Maybe you’ve seen the sidebar at the right – “Tasty Readings”. These are my all-time favorite books (so far) that accomplish this well.

My recent addition is Richard C. Morais’ “The Hundred-Foot Journey.” It tells the tale of Hassan Haji, an unlikely gourmand who goes on an epic food journey through his homeland of India to a small provencal town in France, to Paris. Born into a family whose lives already revolve around food (they own a small restaurant and run a lunch-delivery service), he finds himself seduced by French cooking, and thus follows his rise to culinary fame.

What I found so intriguing about this book was that it not only talked about French food, which is my favorite, but it also went into great depths about Indian food – something I know very little about. As a direct result, I am now dying to go out and try some authentic Indian cuisine. Morais is an excellent writer and does a superb job of educating and enticing with his story. His dedication to infusing the novel with both true-to-life Indian and French cultures is seamless. It is the type of book that I had a very difficult time putting down.

Here’s an excerpt to whet your appetite:

“I do remember that after I butchered the hares, I marinated the pieces in white wine, bay leaf, crushed garlic, malted vinegar, sweet German mustard, and a few crushed and dried juniper berries, for that slightly pungent and piney aftertaste. Suitably softened, the hare then spent several hours cooking slowly in a cast-iron pot. It was nothing grand. It was simply my take on an old-fashioned country recipe, fleetingly glanced at during a study session up in Madame Mallory’s attic library, but it just seemed right for a chilly and windy autumn night. The side dishes I prepared were a mint-infused couscous, rather than the traditional butter noodles, and a cucumber-and-sour-cream salad dashed with a handful of lingonberries.”
Morais, Richard C. The Hundred-Foot Journey. New York: Scribner, 2008.

I think my only complaint is that Morais ended his novel a bit too hastily. It felt like a very abrupt ending, with some loose strings that I would have enjoyed seeing tied up. Maybe not in a nice, neat package, but at least with some finality. Regardless, it is an excellent book, and I highly recommend it to anyone who loves reading about food, and a good story.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Culinary Nightmares

Culinary nightmares: I had one last night, and I'm not talking about in the actual kitchen. Nope, this one was literally in my dreams.

Let me paint you a picture: It starts with me in my kitchen, examining an angel food cake that has completely deflated on one side. I'm so perplexed, and I'm a little panicked because it suddenly occurs to me that I'm cooking for 8 business associates of my husband's; apparently big muckity-mucks. Or something. And I've prepared this incredible dinner. The table is set and looking gorgeous. But what's going on with this cake? It's okay, I will figure out something else to do with it. That's when someone (a friend helping me in the kitchen?) informs me that I've been mistaken this whole time. I wasn't supposed to cook for 8 very important people (again, who are these people??), I'm supposed to be cooking for 25. 25! They're supposed to arrive in exactly one hour, and they're expecting a gourmet dinner.

Now I'm completely freaking out. Not only can my dining room not accommodate anywhere near 25 people, but I don't have enough food. First I try to stretch what I've got, but when I see that failing, Buck and I find ourselves in the grocery store, shopping for stuff to serve. What we end up buying is the leftovers from my son's birthday party last weekend. Because nothing says fine cuisine like baby carrots, cherry tomatoes, ranch dressing and grapes. I decide to set it all up buffet-style, and if they don't like it, screw 'em. They can use trays and eat wherever they want. At least they will be eating something! Anything! And, of course, there's always the deflated angel food cake to serve. Just when I was reaching my peak of freaking out, I woke up. Phew.

In reality, I've never really had a culinary disaster like that. Sure, I've burned stuff before, but not to the point that it has to be thrown out. I've also burned myself multiple times, and cut myself frequently, but nothing major. No stitches needed. In fact, I think the only time I really ever truly screwed something up was when I was baking pumpkin bread for my youth group's bake sale many years ago. They failed to rise, and I had nothing left to offer. So I wrapped them up and labeled them "Pumpkin Flat Cakes".

And you know what? They sold.

Have any culinary nightmares, real or imagined? Leave them in the comments!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Happy 3rd Birthday, Buddy!

The other day I went out just before dinner to get the mail, which is kind of a hike since we live on a driveway with two other people. On the way back I was suddenly remembering my very first "walk" with my son. This must have been during his first week of life because I remember that Buck was home, and my Mom was still there. Buck and I wrapped him in a couple of blankets because the chill of Fall had finally started to set in that week, and we walked to get the mail. It was unbelievably slow-going because I was recovering from my C-section, and I also wasn't used to walking any distance with an infant in my arms. The sun was just starting to set, and I remember the colors in the sky were spectacular. I started talking to Liam, who was awake, about all the things outside there were to see: the trees, the different colored leaves, the sky, the animals. It was a magical moment, and one that I will never forget, because at that moment I remember thinking how impossible it seemed that he would ever be big enough to walk beside me and chat with me about those things I was talking about.

After remembering this I heard our front door open and looked up in time to see this little face peek out. Coming out onto the porch, Liam stood on the doormat and screamed "Hi, Mommy!" about a dozen times before finally screaming "I love you Mommy!" It melted my heart. We walk to the mailbox together these days quite often. Liam runs, jumps, throws acorns into the birdbath (a favorite game of ours), and examines every speck along the driveway. He is articulate, bright, beautiful, funny, and affectionate. He has never met a stranger in his life.

This past year of experiencing 2 has had its fair share of ups and downs. There have been times when I feel like we're seeing the light at the end of the tunnel on a certain issue, only to have him dash back in. He's out of diapers for good, but can't seem to make it to the toilet for #2. He's in preschool two days a week and having a blast, but also having some challenges as well, especially in areas that I thought we had already covered. His tantrums, thankfully, are still short-lived and far and few between, but they seem to have gotten more theatrical.

Despite all that, I know that I have learned a tremendous amount about him, but even more about myself. And if I am honest, my son, unknowingly, holds a mirror up to my face every day. There are days that I don't like what I see, and I'm not talking about wonky makeup or wrinkles. But I hold on to the moments that are sweet and remind myself that he's trying his best to get through this life too, and I have to try my best to help him do that. Because I know there will come a time when he won't be excited anymore to walk down a driveway with me to get the mail.

In the meantime, Happy Birthday, Buddy. Daddy and I are so incredibly blessed to have you in our lives. There isn't a day that goes by that you don't put a smile on our faces in some capacity. We love you so very much.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Would Madame Care For a Glass of Crushed Rock to go With That?

One of my husband’s favorite magazines to pick up on his way through airports is the Robb Report. It’s the kind of high-end luxury magazine that advertises private jets and yachts. It’s fun for a laugh to flip through and marvel at some of the homes, or in my husband’s case (and the real reason he buys it) to drool over the newest sports cars on the market.

Every year they put out a Host’s Guide for the holiday season that’s primarily made up of wine and liquor recommendations. It was flipping through this particular magazine a couple of weeks ago that we both just had to stop, laugh, and gape at what seems to be wine descriptions run completely amuck. We enjoy wine as much as the next person (Buck is really the one who’s read the sommelier books, and knows his stuff), but neither of us are snobs about it – we don’t even really let the wine “breathe”, unless by “breathe” it means the time it takes it to be uncorked and poured into a glass.

Last year, we saw several mentions in the descriptions of wine of having hints of tar and leather. That in and of itself was pretty funny, and well, just weird. Tar? Leather? Okay, to each his own, I guess. But then this year we stumbled across this description, and it seems that the weird has definitely been ratcheted up:

“Kapcsándy 2007 Estate Cuvée Red Napa Valley: The 2007 vintage captures the essence of the vineyard with its notes of crushed rock, damp cigar tobacco, graphite, and crème de cassis. ($135)”
Holiday Wine 101. Robb Report. 2010: 9.

Really? Crushed rock? Damp cigar tobacco?? All I could think of was some drunk guy flicking his finished cigar into a half-emptied glass of wine. I’m sorry, that doesn’t sound appealing in the slightest. And you want me to pay $135 for it? To drink gravel, wet tobacco and a rock slab? We thought it might be a fluke but from there on out the weird continued. More mentions of asphalt, granite, limestone, slate, and wild game. The descriptions are baffling. Are these wines being made by toddlers or pregnant women suffering from pica? Because honestly, those are the only people I know of who would know exactly what crushed rock tastes like.

Here’s one I can get behind, though the price is jaw-dropping: “Chateau d’Yquem 2007 Sauternes: With the potential to age up to a century, the 2007 vintage has glorious flavors of hazelnut and crème brulée enhanced by a wisp of nutmeg. Drinking this Sauternes can only be compared to sipping pure sunlight. ($600)” Holiday Wine 101. Robb Report. 2010: 18.

Now I’m really curious to know: Is this really what wine lovers want today? Am I missing something? I’m dying to have it explained to me. If you know, leave it in the comments!

P.S. – The next post will be a selection of Buck’s favorite wines right now, and what to eat with it. He didn't know I was going to recruit him to do that. He does now!