Category Archives: Food

Christmas Passed

My first experience with Christmas wasn’t until I was in high school. Sure, I knew what it was and it was hard to deny its presence once the pumpkin patches turned to tree lots, but I only had a high level concept of the event gleaned from beloved TV specials and movie classics like A Christmas Story. I imagined it was something like a combination of a Thanksgiving Day feast, a well-stocked birthday party and a ride on “It’s a Small World” (with slightly less repetitious music). Whatever it was, it sounded awesome and I wanted a piece of it.

I realized I was on a different life path when my mother would make her annual trip to our elementary school to embarrass the crap out of me and my sister,… or, from my mom’s perspective, “to share ethnic diversity” in the form of potato latkes with our Christian / Catholic counterparts. Turned out we were the only Jews in the entire district so my mother saw it as her duty to spread the word of God and try to make Hanukkah sound cool. Not an easy sell down on the school yard.

Historically Hanukkah was more of a minor festival, somewhere between Easter and Groundhogs Day. It was meant to celebrate the miracle of a deep fryer that kept the home fries cooking for over a week while the chosen people hid under their table trying to wait out some particularly persistent Mormon missionaries that came knocking at the door. Ok so maybe the fryer was an oil lamp, the table was a temple and the Mormon’s were Maccabees, but you get the idea. The telling of this tale is not nearly as catchy as “the birth of our lord and savior”. The first Christmas would become such a defining moment that we would change our very measure of time from that point forward. The first Hanukkah,… they may have invented shadow puppets, who knows, I wasn’t there, but you see the disparity; Hanukkah is like the Coors Lite to the rich thick Guinness of Christmas.

My parents tried to up the game and keep up with the gentiles. We got some blue string lights and decorated a Hanukkah bush. My dad, being the handy electrician, made a 3 foot wide menorah with light up candles that we would set in the front window, just in case people were wondering where that one crazy Jewish family lived. Like all Jewish (American) parents they would try to play up the fact that we got eight nights of presents while our friends only got one.   That might sound great in theory, but think about Christmas morning when you’re faced with a pile of presents and then have to wait so everyone can take turns opening one present at a time. Imagine the torment of waiting your turn,… now imagine opening just one single present and then being asked to wait entire day before you can open another; That would be Hanukkah. To make matters worse a lot of those early presents were nothing to write Santa about, they were either necessities such as socks and underwear, or just plain sucky gifts like coloring books with some B-list cartoon characters like “Dastardly and Muttley”. I can remember waiting all day for the sun to go down so my mom could light the candles and then waiting again after dinner for the candles to finally burn out. Then, and only then, were we ready for the big event. We’d retire to the family room as my mom dug around in the closet for a suitable present du jour. The day long torment and anticipation culminated in this one exciting moment; “Yay, my very own Hot Wheel! I’m going to sleep. Wake me at sundown”.

Don’t get me wrong I do have many fond memories of Hanukkah as well. The Sunday brunch that my mom would host with fresh bagels and an assortment of weird salads and Jell-O concoctions that were all amazing together. Teaching my friends how to gamble with the dreidel and eating the chocolate gelt (coins) as we played. The few times when the final big present was a trip to King Norman’s Toy Store at the mall and we got to pick out our own present.

But still I always wondered what lay behind the curtain, how did the other half,… or the other seven-eighths live? I got to see the aftermath growing up, going over to my friends’ houses following the big day while still on Christmas break (before schools changed the name to “Winter Break” so as not to offend). They all had amazing piles of loot to show off, not to mention a healthy dose of candy and other random leftovers that still littered the living room days after the tree had been pillaged. Everyone was happy in the post-holiday glow. Everything about it seemed magical, and a night much better spent then our traditional Christmas Eve of Chinese food and a movie. “Wanna see my Hot Wheel?”

When I was in high school, one of my friends, Pat invited me over to experience their family ritual. Pat was the youngest of four kids, and each of his siblings was married or engaged by this time. Combine that with a couple of grandkids and a few other friends and relatives and you got one very full house. For them Christmas Eve brought the sentimental exchange of gifts between family members, opening all of the presents under the tree. On Christmas morning Santa would leave a fresh batch of special bonus presents to round out the holiday.   It was a warm, cozy, boisterous night filled with love and laughter. It was everything I’d ever dreamed off, with one small exception; as welcome as they made me feel it still wasn’t really “mine”.

I celebrated my first Christmas about five years later when I’d turned 21. Appropriately it was spent with my first real girlfriend. We went out on a blustery morning to pick out a tree of our own. We decorated our tree together (something I’d never done before) as we drank hot cocoa in holiday mugs. I put presents under the tree. I listened to Christmas carols freely. I embraced the holiday.

After I was married there was no turning back. Christmas would explode all over the house on the first of December. I happily hung lights from the roof (at least as much as I could reach with a ladder), lined the windows and sprung for some festive lawn ornaments.   When kids came along they enjoyed both holidays; a sampling of Hanukkah throughout the week, including a traditional first night dinner of brisket and latkes with doughnuts for dessert and then a full Christmas experience with all the trimmings.

At this point I can’t imagine a year without Xmas. Even after the divorce, with some of the established customs disrupted and kids only appearing on alternate years, I still enjoy all the moments leading up to the big day. For me it’s not about religion; I celebrate the spirit of Christmas; peace on earth, goodwill towards man, all that sappy stuff. I don’t go to Midnight mass and I don’t have to trade in my mezuzah for a crucifix. I still love and respect my heritage and all that comes with it. But there are only so many times I can listen to the one Hanukkah song by Adam Sandler on the radio while I could play A Charlie Brown Christmas on a continuous loop. It warms my heart, and this is a time of year to share your heart with your friends and family in whatever way feels best to you. So Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night,… l’chaim.

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Baking Made Less Easy

Its starts with a simple thought; “let’s make cookies”. Unlike the vacuum of space where no one can hear your scream, the mere mention of cookies reverberates from every surface in the household until it sparks a small stampede of toddler toes. Sometimes I think they’re just part of the required baking equipment like a spatula or measuring cups; I need only to set down the Kitchen Aid mixer on the counter and turn around to find two new attachments hopping excitedly on either side.

Accepting that this will not be the efficient task I originally imagined we line up at the sink to remove a temporary layer of dirt from my volunteer assistants. I acknowledge that any attempts at full sanitation with be short lived, so we go through the motions mostly to encourage the concept of proper hygiene. We also have a rule regarding no touching and no coughing in or around the mixing bowl. Like Vegas, “What happens in your nose stays in your nose.”

The girls march back to their assigned step-stools with hands raised in the air like surgeons ready for operation. This is an appropriate state of mind because in the spirit of fairness every task must be precisely divided between them to avoid malpractice claims and disruptive hissy fits. One holds the whisk, while the other scoops the flour. Trade off, and the other whisks the flour while the first takes a scoop. One unwraps a stick of butter, the other unwraps a stick of butter. Crack one egg, crack one egg. I have specifically selected recipes with ingredients easily divisible by two. If your “Coco-loco Chocolate Chippo Cookie” calls for 1/3 cup of flour, it ain’t gonna happen in this kitchen, bucko!   And so it goes with tag team pouring and measuring right down to an even division of labor where one will lower and lock the mixer and the other will turn it on. As the plumes of flour settle about the kitchen so too do we settle into a predictable rhythm of sharing; taking turns fishing out egg shells and wiping off the sugar-coated counter surfaces to create the sugar-coated floor surface. Let it not be argued who was able to brush away more sugar onto the floor.

As we near the end of the process the real motivation behind my eager assistants becomes clear with our two important cooking concepts; “quality control” and “taster finger”. Quality control requires that key ingredients like chocolate chips and marshmallows be carefully scrutinized for taste and freshness. This requires a random sampling of say 3 to 30 pieces to ensure proper consistency. The “taster finger” is a related quality check on our resulting batter to prevent fingers (which are predictably dirty at this point) from plunging outright into the bowl. No sooner is the paddle attachment removed from the mixer than eager fingers descend upon it like a swarm of hungry piranha cleaning the carcass down to the bone.

As lips and fingers are licked clean (or dirty) and I prepare to start scooping out the cookies we proudly admire our shared creation. The grease smeared grins that spread across their faces more than makes up for the added hassle of managing these little cookie monsters; It was all worth it in the end. And just as I’m filled we a sense of fulfillment there comes the abrupt inevitable sneeze directly into the batter. Time to start again.

“Who wants to be the first flour scooper?”

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Three Step Diet

I marvel at the staggering number of diet programs that drape the book shelves and appear as rotating installments on the Dr. Oz show. It seems like the perfect money-making opportunity; you come up with a catchy theme or title, create a few healthy recipes and get a notable doctor or nutritionist to lend an air of credibility. I’m tempted to create one for the sole purpose of proving just how easy (and therefore ridiculous) it is. The only problem is my diet idea is so simple I can break it down into three simple steps just like they do on Disney Junior. It’s a challenge for me to fill an entire page explaining it much less an entire book, but for those of you who might want to save your money on all the other fads I’ll give you this one for free;

Step 1Eat Clean: You can also think of this one as ‘eat simple’. The closer to raw or natural something is the better it probably is for you. The more processed or chemically infused an item is the less of it you should be consuming. In general when you walk through the grocery store the clean and simple foods are those along the outer walls; meats, eggs, produce, dairy, etc. Of course there are also canned or frozen fruits and vegetables, as long as there are fewer than 2 ingredients on the label and the only process involves vacuum seal and flash freezing you’re good to go.

Step 2Eat Color: The rules are cumulative here, so the color has to be clean, simple and natural. Anything labeled “blue raspberry”, for example, doesn’t count. This means eating a pretty spectrum of actual fruits and veggies. When I was just out of college my roommate prepared a meal consisting of chicken nuggets, tater tots and barbecue beans,… the entire plate was shades of brown, and the thought of it still creeps me out and keeps me on the lookout for the rich greens, reds, yellows and oranges that occur in nature.

Step 3 – Eat Protein: Specifically eat more protein than carbohydrates. This one may be a more subjective point, but for me at least, an admitted carb-whore who wants to keep and build muscle I know I need to get in more protein. Since I seem to have no problem finding plenty of carbs to eat the challenge becomes making sure to end up with an equal amount, if not more, of protein then I do of carbs. And again being cumulative steps if I have a beige chunk of chicken or turkey I still need to make sure I find my color sources with other foods. Bonus points if I’m eating something like ahi that has its own rich color.

That’s it. A three-step diet in less than a page. Now I just need to fill about 100 more pages with nonsensical crap justifying the steps and touting their merits, search the internet for a weeks’ worth of meal planning, and find some lonely PHD to write me an impressive introduction and jacket endorsement and I’ll be set. I am so gonna be rich!

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Mean Cuisine

I would like to propose a new show for the Food Network; “Kitchen Swap – Iron Chef Edition” where top professional chefs and their picturesque TV kitchens trade places with random normal folks and their overused overpopulated suburban kitchens; Watch as Bobby Flay spends 25 minutes trying to find which drawer someone has hidden the good spatula in. Watch as he struggles to navigate the kitchen tripping over dogs and dodging Nerf bullets. Meanwhile watch as I casually prepare a full weekend brunch sipping a cocktail in the fully stocked kitchen with not a single interruption or distraction to be had. Ok perhaps more of a personal fantasy then a show pitch but it might help me to appreciate cooking again.

It had actually crossed my mind (albeit a quick sprint across the mostly vacant frontal cortex) to make this a cooking blog instead of a,… whatever this is. I could have been the next Pioneer Woman, minus the ranch, cattle and womanhood. I could have posted pretty pictures of culinary creations if I were actually capable of taking pictures half as good as the Pioneer Woman and if said creations weren’t just modified versions of stuff the Pioneer Woman has already posted.   “Ranch House Chili” lacks a certain credibility when coming from a computer programmer living in the suburbs. In all honestly I actually love to cook and have made a few recipes my own over the years or at least have waited out the fame of the original chefs enough to make my claims uncontested. The real problem comes in the form of 6 painfully picky eaters. I mean to the extent that 90% of their diet can be defined as ‘carbs and cheese’ with the remaining 10% being pure sugar. I can spend 3 hours preparing a delicious Coq au Vin only to have the kids push it aside in disgust and ask for seconds of the butter noodles I made as the side,… and then proceed to inform me, butter dripping from their chins, that the noodles would go great with frozen chicken nuggets, which in turn gets a boisterous roar of approval from the others, the very same boisterous roar of approval that my deluded mind somehow thought I’d hear for making the savory homemade chicken with a sauce reduction. “They’re both chicken for god’s sake!! Quit your bitchin and eat!” screams my inside voice, while my outside voice says with just a dash of bitterness “Fine! Eat your butter noodles, but don’t expect the Ranch House Chili tomorrow!” To which they respond with another boisterous roar of approval.

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