There are times in life when, for brief moments, everything seems perfect in the world. One of those times, for me, was one late summer afternoon on my honeymoon, sitting on the upstairs patio of a café overlooking a busy outdoor market. There was chilled, slightly fizzy white wine on the table, and a small tray with salami, olives, and bread. I remember the long, flowy skirt that I was wearing, and my new husband sitting across from me, a mischievous smile on his face.
I tried not to grimace as I took a second swig of rakija from the tall plastic water bottle. I winced slightly, but then smiled and was met with chuckles and applause. I don’t usually drink straight booze at lunch, but I couldn’t refuse, not just out of politeness, but also out of curiosity. As the warmth of the homemade moonshine spread through my body, I looked toward my boyfriend’s grandfather for approval. The snow-haired man who I was told “only puts his teeth in for pictures,” flashed me a toothless grin that told me I’d crossed some sort of threshold of acceptance. He was entertained by how obliging I’d been; taking a swig every time he nudged me playfully with the bottle. We did not speak each other’s language, but I didn’t need a translator to understand that his cajoling was a sincere attempt to make me feel welcome. Despite being an American, if I could handle the drink, that meant there must be some Croat in me somewhere. MORE
“First you add the crushed fenugreek seeds,”
I crinkled my eyebrows and frowned, clueless.
“What?” I asked. My mother pointed at a small tin cup filled with the seeds. She pinched a few and I heard the crackling and popping of the oil as she threw them in the pan. The long process that is dinner in my home had begun.
It’s springtime. The April rain is falling, the flowering trees are in full bloom, and the quintessential seasonal ale know as saison is hitting the shelves at the local beer store. The production and consumption of these dry and earthy beers are so intertwined with the seasons that their moniker “saison,” simply translates to “season” in French. These ales are typically refreshingly dry for daytime refreshment yet still spicy and complex enough to serve as contemplative night-time sippers. From humble beginnings, this style has become a darling of modern craft brewing. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
“Oh no!” I heard my friend shriek from her kitchen. Had a mouse just run across her foot? Was an oven mitt on fire? Did someone put too much soap in the dishwasher? I couldn’t quite tell, but the loud slamming drawers and cabinet doors sounded rather serious.
“I can’t find it anywhere!” She came running back into the room, her hands full of various utensils. “What about a knife? Or maybe scissors?” she asked with a puzzled expression. “Do you know how to uncork a bottle with a fork?”
With March 17th just around the corner, it’s time to start planning the St. Patrick’s Day menu. Tradition states that one eats corned beef, boiled potatoes and steamed cabbage on this greenest of holidays and most years, my household has followed suit. It’s a meal towards which I look forward each year, as I’ve found that there’s really no way to go wrong with tender beef and soft, floury potatoes (particularly when they’re served with a dab of grainy mustard).
It’s not until you get to the cabbage that I find myself balking in the face of tradition. I don’t think it does it justice to the cabbage to boil or steam it into submission. The end result develops a palid, near-grey complexion and ends up tasting horribly bland and watery. There are better, more delicious ways to tackle cabbage and make it fit into the framework of your St. Paddy’s celebration.
There’s nothing romantic about February. In most of the northern hemisphere, the shortest month is also the dreariest: a gray, wet, slog through yet another winter month, with spring a little too far away to offer much hope. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that some of the world’s most madcap celebrations take place in the February gloom: Mardi Gras and other pre-Lenten bacchanals tend to fall in this month, and the young men of ancient Rome celebrated Lupercalia mid-February by running naked through the streets and slapping young women with strips of leather.
Between the middle ages and the industrial era, St. Valentine’s feast day had something of this carnivalesque character in England, though more restrained. February 14th was one of several feast days that offered a brief reprieve from the grind of work and prayer, and the celebrations were playful, giddy, perhaps even a little irreverent. Unmarried village men and women played fortune-telling games to divine their future mates; one such game involved dropping names into a box and drawing out the name of your “valentine,” or the person Fate was disposed to match with you. Songs were sung, small gifts were exchanged.
Growing up, my two sisters and I chanted loudly for foods most kids would grimace at. Lima beans in a stew of tomato paste and water, crushed garbanzo beans, chopped parsley. And the sounds that came from our mouths weren’t exactly words, but garbled attempts to pronounce the Arabic dishes we craved.
“It’s mmmmjuddara,” I said, of the traditional aromatic lentil and rice dish called mujadara (which has several alternate spellings), “As in mmmmm, yummy.”
“No, it’s juddarrrrrrra,” my sister replied, rolling her Rs.
We constantly begged my grandmother for Syrian dishes like fateyer (thick, buttery dough stuffed with minced lamb and pine nuts), hushwi (Syrian stuffing made from rice, lamb, pine nuts and spices – most notably cinnamon), tabouli (salad of chopped parsley, tomatoes, and bulgur wheat), hummus, ma’moul (heavy Semolina dough filled with nuts and rosewater and dusted with powdered sugar) or one of our favorites, a mysterious dish called lamtung. One night I asked my parents what it actually was. MORE
I once heard that more avocados are consumed on Super Bowl Sunday than on any other day of the year. This is wrong: Super Bowl Sunday doesn’t touch the 14 million pounds of avocado consumed on Cinco de Mayo. Still, about 8 million pounds of avocado have reportedly been mashed into guacamole in honor of the big game in recent years—about 5% of total sales, nothing to scoff at so long after the crop’s seasonal peak.
Most of the avocados we buy to make a summer dip in the dead of winter are Hass avocados, grown in coastal California or, since 2007, in Mexico. (The avocado tree originated in Mexico and Central America, but those zones were closed off to U.S. importers until recently due to an apparently unfounded fear of fruit flies.) Avocados are technically in-season almost year round. The fruits don’t ripen while on the tree, so they don’t have the limited harvest window that other temperate-zone tree fruits have, and avocado fruits can mature all year in the hot, humid climates they prefer. But mature fruits are more sparse in midwinter than they are in the summer months, which is usually reflected in the grocery store price. MORE
Typically, I plan party food according to two basic rules: one, make it delicious, and two, present it in a discrete form that can be picked up and brandished in the course of energetic conversation without spraying crumbs or dip everywhere. But for New Year’s Eve, which I usually spend with a close cadre of friends, I am willing to break the rules for lucky foods. New Year’s style so often seems to highlight glitter and glamor: sparkling beverages, spangle and shine on the clothes, twinkling lights—but the food is down-home, humble but filling and delicious. I simmer black-eyed peas to creaminess with a ham hock in a slow cooker. I leave the pork out of the collard greens in case of vegetarian guests, but I caramelize the onions with a smoky salt and deglaze with wine to make this humble green a little more dressy for the occasion. Soft, round rolls and the various offerings of other guests finish off the meal. Napkins are required. When we eat, I recite a litany cobbled together from memory and the Internet: the green folds of collards represent paper money and prosperity; the pork is a nod to the forward progress of the pig, who can’t walk backward; the black-eyed peas are looking to the future. MORE
Every December I decide to make an English steamed pudding, and every December I don’t make an English steamed pudding. Why not? Plum pudding sounds like the most magical Yuletide dessert, rosy and succulent and full of plums. Then I pull out a cookbook, read the ingredients, and remember why I’ve never made one. Plum pudding is not rosy and succulent and plummy; is is black, alcoholic, and raisiny. This would be ok with me, but no one else in my family would touch such a dessert. Figgy pudding, packed with dried fruit and rum, would be every bit as unpopular. So how could I ever have a steamed English pudding for the holidays? MORE
When it comes to wine, we rarely consider its journey from grape to glass. Instead, we fixate on describing its characteristics, like fresh and fruity aromas, savory flavors or an elegant finish. Sometimes we complain that the complexity of a wine doesn’t correspond with the amount we paid for it. And far too often, we ponder the perfect food and wine pairings.
We readily use our senses of sight, smell, touch, and taste to evaluate the quality of wine, but we seldom consider the story behind that bottle. Every wine has a specific place where it was made and the greatest ones have the fingerprints of passionate and intriguing workers all over them. Just like knowing the roasted chicken you are preparing for dinner was raised cage-free or the organic apple you’re about to bite into isn’t covered in pesticides, hearing the details of any bottle of wine can absolutely make a difference in your enjoyment of it. At least, it does for me. MORE
When I set out to learn more about the source of the word turkey and some of its idiomatic variants, I had no idea that the research would lead me, well, on a wild goose chase.
Let’s start with the word for the bird. Turkeys are North American in origin; the domesticated fowl we raise today is the descendent of a slightly smaller wild bird found throughout the continent, though a cousin of this bird was domesticated in Mesoamerica long before Spanish explorers arrived. The Spanish called Mexican bird pavo, or peacock, after another fowl with spectacular plumage. Further north, English colonists thought the wild turkeys looked more like guineafowl, a small African bird that was imported to England through Turkey. Due to their trade origin, the guineafowl were sometimes called turkeys—and thereafter, so was the wild North American bird. In the nation of Turkey, as it happens, the bird is referred to as hindi, or from the country of India; in India, the bird is called peru, after the South American country; elsewhere in Europe, the turkey is known most commonly as “French chicken” and or “Indian chicken”—the latter generally refers to continental India. MORE
In the Cayman Islands, there’s chicken, and then there’s what the locals refer to as the “other white meat”: endangered sea turtle.
Most vacationers misunderstand and consequently avoid the native dishes on the island that feature turtle, but I wasn’t an ordinary tourist during the trip I took to the Caymans last month. I was returning to a place where I had lived as a young girl, and I longed for the distinct taste of turtle that marked my childhood. When my family lived there, dishes with turtle in them were a regular part of my diet. I ate the meat in stews and soups, as well as in the form of pan-fried steaks. Consuming turtle was the normal thing to do, and I never thought much of it. MORE