December 15, 2017

Advent in Calendar Form

It’s the holiday season, that magical time of year when strings of white lights ring trees, tinsel in all colors of the rainbow experiences its annual heyday, and everyone seems to be just a little bit nicer.

The “holiday” in my holiday season is Christmas, and I find that I go through phases of the degree to which I embrace the season. Some years I dive headlong into celebrating, and some years I quite happily let everyone else’s festiveness carry me forward to January 1. This time around it’s decidedly the former, likely because Aran and I have a new abode in our near future, and a wedding to plan for some months after that. (What? I didn’t tell you about our engagement??) There is some serious nesting happening, and embracing the tree decorating, treat baking, and drink imbibing all seems to be required activity.

In preparation for the acquisition of a Christmas tree and the official launch of my holiday season, I pulled out the plastic bins of ornaments, lights, holiday cards, wrapping paper, ribbon, more pairs of Christmas socks than one person should own, and an odd assortment of red candles. It’s at this very moment every year, the one when I start to rifle through the bins, that I come upon my Advent Bell. Much like the traditional Advent calendar, the bell has a treat for each day of the month leading up to the 25th and Christmas. (As an aside, the timing of this discovery can be slightly problematic. Stumbling upon it early in December = more happy, treat-filled days. Conversely, finding it late in the month = more sad, treat-less days.) Though traditional in function my bell is unique in construction, having been made by my grandmother many moons ago. The bell is definitely showing its age – the paper of the typewritten message at the top is beginning to crack and the yarn is headed to a fatal fray – but I prize it all the same. You’ll note that I use Hershey’s Kisses for my countdown, which are slippery little buggers and difficult to tie on to the bell. Gram was no fool: In my time with her she always used the much-easier-to-affix hard candies. Either way, I love that I’m carrying on her Advent tradition.

Beyond just the bell, I’ve always been a fan of Advent calendars. Each day a window to open, something behind it designed to surprise and delight. Interesting (though not terribly surprising) that we have retained the general concept of Advent – a period of time leading up to the celebration of a Major Occasion (aka the birth of Jesus) – while disconnecting the secular activity from its religious roots. No doubt there are many who cringe at the variety of Advent calendars that stray further and further from the religious tradition, but I’m more of a mind to embrace the diversity. There are a couple of examples from this year’s crop of Advent calendars that I found particularly compelling, and you probably won’t be shocked to hear that they’re food and drink-centered.

The first came by way of my friend, Darlin. At one point I must have rattled on about the aforementioned Advent Bell – or maybe even shared a Kiss – that now “Advent calendar” and “Alix” are irrevocably connected in her mind. This year that connection manifested itself in the sharing of this fantastic electronic Cookie Advent Calendar from Saveur. It is exactly what it sounds like: a new cookie recipe for each day, including December 25th. Spectacular! Not that I’m going to bake a new batch of cookies each day, but how fun to click on the numbered square each morning and see what new delight awaits. I am tempted, however, to try the December 7 offering: Caramel Crumb Bars. Double topping of caramel and crumbly butter streusel? Sign me up.

After a hard day of baking, what could be better than a holiday-appropriate beverage? The drinky team at Belltown’s Rob Roy and bartender (and all around clever guy, if you’re a fan of his blog and tweets, as I am) teamed up to create the Cocktail Advent Calendar. In concept it’s much the same as other Advent countdowns, but because the medium is liquor I’m even more of a fan than usual. The idea is that for each day of the month, bartenders at Rob Roy will be pouring a different concoction, giving us license to drink terribly sweet cocktails like The Godson, with absolutely no dirty looks from anyone behind the bar. Drink up, my friends!

Picnicking with William Shakespeare

If you’re like me, you receive the brochure from the City of Seattle at the beginning of the summer – the one with all of those great summer activities like concerts at City Hall, or dance lessons at Freeway Park, or the Night Market at Hing Hay Park in the International District – and you set it in a Very Important Place to be perused and those great summer activities calendared… at some later date. Or Seattle Magazine’s June 2011 issue of “Summer Cravings,” which should have been my roadmap for the summer because of its food focus and tips on all sorts of different places to eat in Seattle and further afield. I have the best intentions for all of those things, and yet somehow summer seems to slip away with too many activities left undone and food left unsampled.

I am pleased to report that due to the diligence of my SO, one of the things that DID happen this summer was Shakespeare in the Park. It has been on my radar for what seems like forever, but I just never got around to doing it.

So it was that last Sunday afternoon, three of us were camped out on blankets at Discovery Park in Magnolia, having arrived early to stake out our territory. We were there for a performance of Antony and Cleopatra by the actors of GreenStage, one of a couple of different Shakespeare-in-the-Park-performing groups in the area. GreenStage and Wooden O put on an impressive number of performances, something like 70 shows all the way from West Seattle, to Mercer Island, to Redmond, to Lynnwood. Even with minimal staging, this talented troupe from GreenStage managed to put on an utterly engaging show – and that’s saying a whole lot given the 2+ hour length and especially hard ground under our picnic blankets.

Which brings me to one of the great joys of things like outdoor theater, movies, and musical performances: The picnic aspect. I confess that it’s a big part of the appeal for me, and I embraced the chance to fill our retro picnic basket with tasty salami, Leyden cheese hoarded from a visit to the James Ranch in Durango, CO (thanks, Dan and Becca!), freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, and summer salads. Food eaten in the out-of-doors always seems more interesting, and the act of organizing it all into a basket and packing it off to be laid out on a blanket in the grass, makes it even more so for me.

Although this particular salad didn’t make the cut for Sunday’s performance – no time for hot oil and puffing of maifun noodles – it is an excellent candidate for your next picnic. I don’t know its origin, just that it was a favorite of my mother’s and thus appeared regularly, especially in the summer. As a result, Maifun Salad also figures prominently in my childhood memories, though for many year as this mythical, too-hard-for-me-to-contemplate kind of recipe. I’ve no doubt that it was the hot oil required for the noodles, but after much cautious practice dropping a small piece of un-puffed noodle into slowly heating oil to test its readiness I got over that fear.

From then on I started making it really quite often, so often that I finally had a friend say in response to my offer to bring something to the potluck, “Are you bringing your Foon salad?” (In what I hoped was a hopeful tone rather than a resigned one.) But the funny thing about it was that having never seen the name written, I think that my friends always heard me saying I was making “my Foon Salad” rather than “Maifun Salad.” And forever after that’s how I think of it whenever I spy the card amongst the others in my recipe box.

The chicken and shrimp make this more of an entrée salad, and the maifun noodles themselves are just plain fun. As for the iceberg lettuce I know it’s not fashionable, but it seems to be just the right variety for this recipe. I’ve often thought to make this dressing and use it for other things – it’s wonderfully tangy – but somehow for me it only ever appears when maifun noodles are involved.

 

Maifun Salad

 SALAD INGREDIENTS

1 qt. vegetable oil

5 oz. maifun noodles (available at most grocery stores)

1 whole chicken breast, with bone and skin

1/2 lb. shrimp, without head and tail, cooked

1 head iceberg lettuce, sliced in thin ribbons

3 green onions, sliced

2 stalks celery, sliced

1/4 c. toasted slivered almonds

4 T. toasted sesame seeds

DRESSING

1 T. ginger, minced

1/4 c. sesame oil

1/4 c. rice vinegar

6 T. sugar

1 t. salt

1/4 t. pepper

1/4 c. lemon juice

1. Pour entire container of vegetable oil in a large pot. (A stock pot is ideal because of its size and shape). While the oil heats over high heat, break the maifun noodles into approximately four or five large chunks, depending on the size of the container. Test the heat of the oil by dropping a single piece of maifun into the oil: If it puffs up right away the oil is ready. Working quickly, drop a batch of maifun into the hot oil, wait a few seconds for the maifun to puff up, flip over to ensure that the top side got its share of the oil, then remove with a slotted spoon. Place on paper towels to soak up a bit of the oil. Once you have cooked all of the maifun immediately move the hot oil off the heat so it starts to cool. (Once cool, the oil can be poured back into the container from whence it came and thrown out, or reused if you happen to have a vehicle around that runs on such things. This is Seattle, after all – you never know!)

2. Heat the oven to 450 degrees. Rub the chicken with a bit of olive oil, then sprinkle with salt and pepper. In a cast iron skillet on the stove, sear on all sides, then roast in the oven for about 20 minutes; set aside. (Or, forget this step all together and use one of those handy roasted chickens from the grocery store. And don’t feel bad about the shortcut, either!) Once cool enough to handle, pull the chicken off the bone, discard the skin, and cut into bit-sized pieces.

3. Put the maifun noodles in a LARGE bowl or two large-ish bowls and break into smaller pieces. Then add remaining ingredients (chicken through sesame seeds) and combine.

4. For the dressing, combine all ingredients and shake well or whisk together. Pour over salad and toss.

The New Normal

I was talking with friends the other day about how much each of us eats out, and it was accepted as common knowledge that the average is four times a week. Now that’s ANY meal, mind you, and not just dinner. After that conversation I started poking around on online message boards and such, and saw lots of posts that claimed to be in the range of that four times a week, somewhere in the 4-8 vicinity. Sometimes they didn’t count meals other than dinner, as though any eating that occurs before late afternoon is too free form, so shouldn’t be a part of their ultimate eating-out total. Or sometimes they wouldn’t count take-out, but given that the word “out” appears right there in the phrase I think that’s a bit of a stretch.

How many times a week do you eat out? And are you single, coupled, with kids, without, suburban, or urban? This is an entirely unscientific and unmoderated survey, I know, but I’m interested in the results.

What has influenced our choice to eat in or eat out, cook at home or have a meal prepared for us? Clearly, the economy of the last couple of years has made us think more about how we spend our money, and as a result likely we eat out less frequently. (Though as the economy starts to perk up, perhaps we’ll begin eating out more but less extravagantly. I loved the Best Seattle Restaurants 2011 feature in Seattle Magazine’s April issue, and the various budget dining tips. How to continue to enjoy all of the good stuff the Seattle restaurant scene has to offer without breaking the bank.)

As well as the economy, another factor that seems to point toward more in and less out is the increasing prevalence of an assortment of dietary restrictions. Those who might be gluten- or dairy-intolerant, for example, might choose to avoid the hassle of sifting through options in a restaurant and just cooking at home. Though at the same time, with the rise of dietary issues there has also been a corresponding response from restaurants, making it easier to find good options on the menu. Witness places like Volterra with wheat-free pasta upon request, and Tango with its entirely gluten-less menu. Or for the vegan among us, the vegan doughnuts at Mighty-O and what I understand to be the granddaddy of vegan restaurant in Seattle, Hillside Quickie’s.

One last piece of the puzzle to consider is the ever-increasing pace of our lives, which seems to push us in the other direction. I talk to friends who have to work more hours just to keep afloat in their staff-slimmed offices. Or others who have busy families, and spend a considerable amount of time shuttling kids to multiple activities so don’t have a chance to hang out around the dinner table. Or what often describes me, the person busy trying to fit in quality time with friends, time that more often includes a quick happy hour drop-by at a bar rather than a leisurely dinner party at home.

I haven’t seen your responses yet, but all of this thinking about eating out and I’ve come to the conclusion that I likely won’t do it a whole lot less, but I’ll work on doing it with more intention. Good food – or something crazy and different so you have no guarantee that it’ll be good – chosen with care and not just the default because I was too busy to pack a lunch. And more leisurely dinners with family and friends, please. That’s one of my very favorite activities – enjoying the company of interesting people over good food and drink. Even better if both are the product of my kitchen!

The Injera Connection

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately – for the last year, in fact – at the Eastlake home of the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. Luckily, I’m not the patient, but not so luckily, my mom is. My mother and sisters and I all marvel at what good care she’s receiving; if you have to have cancer, SCCA is one of the best places in the world to be treated. And I use the word “care” very intentionally, because it’s not just top-notch medicine happening here, though the doctors and nurses and nursing assistants are clearly highly skilled. It’s also the waiting area with the extraordinary view of Lake Union that makes you forget for a while why you’re there, and the volunteers who come around offering bottles of water and hand massages, and the cashier in the café who quite happily handed me a free latte when he made the wrong kind by mistake.

Don’t get me wrong, I know that we’re extraordinarily lucky to have access to this care. I know that not every facility has the resources to provide the kinds of things that SCCA does. I also know that I’m lucky to work for myself, and that my reasonably flexible schedule means that I can take my turn among the daughters spending time with Mom at SCCA. On the days I’m able to be with her, Mom and I fall into a bit of a routine: I’ll sit in the chair next to her and tap away on my laptop getting work done while she plugs in with an audio book on her iPod.

The nursing staff there is wonderful – chatty when you want to be and perfectly un-chatty when you don’t. When it’s the former we’ll fall into conversation about one thing or another, and on one occasion we got to talking with one of the staff about Ethiopian food and where to find the best in Seattle. (Meskel on East Cherry, in case you’re wondering.)  But things got especially interesting when she said who we really should talk to was her friend, Miheret, who works with her at SCCA. Next thing I know Miheret has stopped by to say hello, and the conversation turns to the making of injera, that wonderfully spongy bread that accompanies Ethiopian food and serves as the utensil with which one picks said food. When they first came to the Pacific Northwest, she said, the only way to make injera was with self-rising flour and it was making her family sick as anything. It was the teff that she was missing – a tiny tiny grain that wasn’t available here until relatively recently when they began cultivating it in Idaho. (This last bit was of particular interest to Mom and me, with our family’s Idaho origins.)

So 14 years ago Miheret embarked on a mission to perfect the recipe for her own injera, one made with teff that would be healthy for her family to eat. She makes hers with brown and ivory teff, as well as the starter, water, fenugreek, and a little thyme, and not self-rising flour and barley, as with other injera. Magically, we happened into Miheret’s life just as she was putting the finishing touches on the recipe, and starting to share the fruits of her labor with friends and family. Ever so graciously, she offered to bring some to me, all I had to do was call her a couple of days in advance so she could prepare the injera for me and we could settle on a time to meet. I also came away that day with a small sticky note of ingredients and directions for making two dishes to go with the injera, one with cabbage, carrots, onion, and pepper, and one with lentils and more onion. When the day came early this week that I picked up the injera from Miheret she had also included a bit of the berbere spice mix, something I’d read about in my quest to find a lamb recipe to go along with my vegetables. Quite thoughtful of her, because when I’d looked at various recipes for the mix they all seemed dauntingly complicated for my weeknight meal.

But the thing of it is, the meal I assembled from Miheret’s injera and berbere spice mix, and a Sunday night of cooking with Aran, and a Wednesday afternoon of cooking with Mom, was less about the food and more about the connections that food represented. The fact that we were able to share this meal with family and friends was what I loved about the experience. I am grateful that Miheret and her colleagues at SCCA take such good care of my mother, care that has extended beyond the building and right into my kitchen. That connection continues, too, because when she handed me the injera Miheret also invited me into her kitchen to learn a bit more about cooking Ethiopian food. I can’t wait – and I’m already thinking about what food tradition I can share with her.

The Elderflower Face-Off: Round II

Guess what? It turns out that there are several different elderflower liqueurs in the marketplace, some of which are showing up on bar shelves and challenging the dominance of local favorite St-Germain. You might remember that back in December I did a taste test of St-Germain against one of the competitors – Thatcher’s – and the upstart came out the winner in that particular competition. Shortly after, I heard from the U.S. distributor that in fact St-Germain, as an artisanal liqueur, has a determinate shelf life and thus loses some of its luster when sitting on a bar shelf for some amount of time. After comparing the look of a new bottle with the old I saw that he was quite right, and that they are two very distinct colors. Given the fact that I now had two different bottles of St-Germain, had done one test with the Thatcher’s, and also been given another bottle in the elderflower family, Pür Likör, it seemed only fitting to convene another taste test.

The details: four bottles, two rounds, eight ready and willing testers. The first round consisted of a blind tasting of each of the four liqueurs, all on their own: old St-Germain, new St-Germain, Thatcher’s, and Pür Likör. For the second round we took the top two vote-getters from round one, then tasted those head-to-head.

And who could taste all of this liqueur without a little sustenance to go with? Kalamata olive and goat cheese on fingerling potato rounds, and Chicken Marbella for all, with homemade Kit Kat Bars to finish.

So who the heck won, right?? Turns out that the St-Germain was a bit sweeter than the Pur Likor, though the two were fairly similar. Neither tasted at all like the Thatcher’s, which some thought had a bit of a soapy taste and all agreed had a unique smell (rose water?) before you even got to the taste. The two winners from round 1 were the old and new St-Germain, and the overall winner after round 2 was the new St-Germain, so it would seem that this group was on board with the most popular of the elderflower liqueurs around town.

But given that Thatcher’s had won in December’s tasting, it seemed only fair to whip up the same cocktail used in Face-Off #1 to see if indeed St-Germain was the winner in cocktail form and not just sipped on its own. So back we went to the Gypsy, complete with gin, green chartreuse, and lime juice. And guess what? St-Germain did it again, winning 7 of 8 votes.

Though if you’re a real fanatic – and I only count myself as one on certain occasions – you might say that the Thatcher’s paired well with the Miller’s gin used in Face-Off #1 and the St-Germain paired well in the Cascade Mountain Gin used in Face-Off #2, because in each case the tastes were quite complementary. But if you’re not a fanatic and just want to have a single good bottle of good elderflower liqueur in your bar, St-Germain is the way to go. But make sure to drink it with some expediency… 

[Photos courtesy of David Franzen]