That’s Entertaining

I love to entertain, but I’m not much of a “party” person. I prefer modest gatherings of people who meet Anne Elliot’s definition of good company — “clever, well-informed people who have a great deal of conversation,” and are generally of a disposition to have themselves a good time.

I knew this, of course, when I decided to host my first Christmas party in a decade this past weekend, and was most pleased to develop a guest list of good friends who all had a few things in common: a love of making music, a personal investment in social justice issues, laid-back attitudes to housekeeping and personal comfort (which meant that they wouldn’t take much affront at the size of my living room), and a delight in good food.

The former meant that there was a great deal of conversation (particularly about labor, education, homelessness, housing, and religion), some fine singing (with accompaniment by the piano and the ukulele), and a generally cozy atmosphere, while the latter meant that I could indulge in some interesting new recipes. Apart from a few of my personal stand-bys, almost every dish I served was sourced from Food 52 – a new-to-me cooking community website that claims to be “helping people become better, smarter, happier cooks.” Yes, please!

The menu, for those curious about such things:

  • Hot mulled cider
  • Cranberry Apple Sparkling Punch (I used Forelle pears in place of apples for the ice floes)
  • Gingered Lime Punch (I replaced all of the lemon with lime, and made this non-alcoholic by subbing extra dry gingerale for the vodka. I used double the amount of fresh ginger for the syrup and didn’t strain the solids from the pitcher, which gave this a kick and kept it from being too sweet.)
  • Alton Brown’s hummus topped with toasted pine nuts and preserved lemon, served with fried pita
  • Assorted antipasti (my houseguests arranged the Peppadew peppers stuffed with whipped ricotta and honey, but everything else came straight from the olive bar at Whole Foods)
  • Vegetarian Lentil Chili (made with red lentils instead of brown)
  • Butternut Squash and Black Bean Chili (doubled the beef, substituted green chilis and ancho powder for the adobo)
  • A variety of breads for dipping, including a fragrant herb bread made by one guest, a sweet cranberry nut bread made by another, and custard-stuffed cornbread from Marion Cunningham’s LOST RECIPES
  • Rum Apple Cake (made with Brandy instead of Rum, thanks to my not knowing the difference, and with flour instead of almonds as we ran out of time for grinding)
  • Plates of sliced fresh fruit and simple cookies

Everything seemed to go over quite well with the guests, though I wish I’d remembered to refill the pitcher of Gingered Lime Punch half-way through the night. There wasn’t much leftover food — the vegetarian chili went home with vegetarian guests, those with the longest drives took the leftover fruit bread as their travel breakfast — but what there was has been put to good use: the remnants of cider and punch were reduced to syrup for pancakes, the sliced fruit and ricotta+honey sauce were perfect breakfast toppings for Irish oatmeal, and the cornbread became a decadent base for Monte Cristo sandwiches when served alongside warm soup. I’m going to poach the champagne-soaked pears and serve them over gelato on Thursday when my parents come to visit — provided they’re still firm enough to hold up. (If not, I’ll try my hand at a purée of sorts.)

If the success of a party can be measured by laughter and empty dishes, this one was tremendously so — even with all of the bittersweet musical theater songs sung on request!

Thanksgiving CSA

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This morning I collected my first “winter food box” of 2013 from Farmer Ted and the team at Windflower Farm in upstate New York.

I’m thrilled with the gorgeous fresh fruits and vegetables received just in time for Thanksgiving — golden potatoes, tiny sweet potatoes, carrots, red and yellow onions, broccoli and cauliflower florets, leeks, salad greens, winter cooking greens, butternut squash, a dried bouquet garni, apples, cider, and two-dozen fresh eggs.

A good portion of this will be used for a feast this Thursday, but I’m looking forward to turning the cider into apple butter, and the squash into soup.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Autumn Indulgence

I love to cook and bake. Along with that, it turns out that grocery shopping is the only kind of shopping I like. (Buying yarn is not “shopping”, it’s “investing in my happiness”.)

I don’t often purchase baked goods at market — I’d rather bake my own cakes and breads and cookies and muffins* — but I have one exception. If I’m out for a Saturday morning shop, lugging spices and teas and pet supplies and groceries around Morningside Heights before breakfast, I’ll purchase an apple bundle to savor on a bench in the park between the Farmer’s Market and home, counting on the ice cream not to melt while I watch a few lazy leaves fall.

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Wouldn’t you?

* I leave the pies to the rest of the ladies in the family, though. My pie crust is terrible.

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I like running. Finally.

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I like running.

That is impossibly weird to write, because a year ago I loathed everything about running. Even six months ago I only tolerated the activity, because it was good for me.

But now?

I dislike putting on the clothes. I struggle to find two hours in a day for the stretching and running and cooling down and being unable to move after working so hard and the longer-than-usual shower to stretch out the sore bits from just 35 minutes of exercise. I’m tentative about the first few minutes while trying to find a stride, which makes me anxious to start.

But I run with a smile on my face. When a big band tune pops up on my playlist, I fit fancy swing dance steps into my running gait. When a flock of starlings take flight from the baseball field in my park, I laugh. When RunKeeper announces my time and distance and pace every five minutes, I try to kick it up a notch with a serious sense of fun. When “Call Me Maybe” starts to play, the woman who hates pop music giggles and runs faster.

Every time I go out for a run, I realize what I’m capable of. I’m learning what markers matter — that it’s about how much time I put in and how steadily I work, not about how far I (can) run or how fast.

Three years ago I was so sick that I couldn’t climb a flight of stairs without passing out.

In April, I ran a 5k in agony, almost the last person to cross the finish line — which I couldn’t have done at all if my best friend hadn’t held my hand and coaxed me through the last mile.

Today I ran up six flights of stairs with my arms in the air, moving without a break for 30 solid minutes — even through the hyperventilation part-way through a hill. And I saw a gorgeous sunrise from the top.

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I like running. I am a runner. And I’m going to be a distance runner.

In January of 2015, I’m going to run the Walt Disney World Half-Marathon — because the happiest place on earth is the place to try what seemed impossible yesterday. This is my commitment post — I’m making it public so I can’t back out.

I can’t imagine wanting to.

I kind of can’t wait to lace up my shoes tomorrow.

P.S. Mom, you ask me what I want for Christmas every year, and I never have a real answer. This year I do: a package of super-cushioned low-cut running socks, and a subscription to Runner’s World, please. :)

Self-Care with Food

I’m not a big “feelings” person. Once upon a time I was, but now that I’m a grown up and have a quite privileged life that’s adjacent to a whole lot of suffering, I tend to just tamp down on the “feelings” side of things and get on with whatever needs getting on with. Or did, until 8 weeks ago when I first met my magnificent (if expensive) therapist, Sue, who is convinced that this “getting on with it” business isn’t making me very happy, and worse, will shorten my lifespan by 20 years from stress-related illnesses. Not on, brain, not on.

So now I’m trying to do more with the “feeling things” business. Which usually means paying attention to when I am smiling or teary or playful or pensive, and making a mental note of what’s under those feelings, and what excuse I’m using to brush them aside, and at least ask myself why. (There hasn’t been much answering.) There’s been a lot of writing. And a lot of running, because I can’t hide from my thoughts while I’m running.

But tonight, there was cooking. Because sometimes, making a whole mess of extremely simple but seemingly complex dishes is like an act of meditation that teaches me things while I don’t (really) notice.

IMG_0740 First up: Homemade Preserved Lemons, from a recipe shared by the team at The Bitten Word this morning.

Five lemons (because it’s what I had on hand after an extra trip to the market), a pile of sugar, a pile of kosher salt, some mortar-and-pestled coriander seeds, and turmeric.

Boiled for 12 minutes, lifted out with tongs, sliced, tucked into a pickling jar, brined, and put in the fridge. If it took 30 minutes I’ll be shocked — including clean-up and the bleaching of spilled turmeric-water out of the countertops. And the entire apartment smells of lemony goodness.

And if you’re asking, “but what was one DO with preserved lemons?”, know that my plan is to use them in my homemade marinades for packeted fish, as flavoring and/or toppings for hummus, as a substitute for too-sweet lemon curd on pound cake, and as an addition for salad dressings. And in two weeks, when they’ve cured, I’ll let you know how that turns out.IMG_0738

Next up: seasoned lamb to use as a topping for a hummus main dish in tomorrow’s supper plan.

This is, perhaps, my new favorite “easy” meal:

Whip up a bowl of your favorite hummus. (Dried chickpeas are currently sitting in my crock pot with water and baking soda, doing their thing so that the hummus can be assembled tomorrow night.) Serve it at room temperature spooned over a shallow plate and topped with a very warm (but not hot) selection of this “ground lamb and sautéed onions and toasted pine nuts” mixture. Offer a basket of toasted pita bread with olive oil and salt, and a light cucumber-and-tomato salad.

What makes the lamb topping work is the fact that the whole lot has been richly seasoned (read: drowned) in cinnamon and black pepper, so it sings with flavor and warmth. Amazing.

IMG_0736  And lastly, chai.

I have been addicted to Starbucks since I moved to NYC in 2009 — and possibly earlier than that. But in March of 2009, when I was living in a place where I only knew “work people” and didn’t have much of a social life because my job kept me hopping for 15 hours a day, Starbucks was a lifeline. First of all, the chai is made from heavily concentrated Assam-blended teas, so it’s quite strongly caffeinated. Then, the Starbucks mentality is “know your customer”, so within a few weeks the baristas knew my name and order and made small talk. Instant friends! (Good lord, talk about loneliness.)

Now? I’m getting a little tired of taking multiple coffee breaks per day. And I’d rather put the money I’m spending on Starbucks into a savings account for my someday-kid’s college savings account. So, I’m making chai at home. The Three Bowl Cookbook has a great recipe that I’ve adapted a little — a 1/2 gallon of very vanilla soy milk plus a mess of whole spices plus 7 tablespoons of earl gray tea (I know, it’s a leaf grown in China rather than a maltier Assam, but the bergamot and the vanilla do GORGEOUS things together, especially with clove and star anise). After straining and reducing, that yields 1-1/2 quarts of chai — which I store in the fridge in glass milk bottles — so that if my nephews ever come to visit me, I can teach them what Aunt Lissa’s “chocolate milk” is like.

And that is a lesson in Sunday night self-care. The kitchen is even clean, and breakfast is packed for Monday morning. Wow.

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