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Archives for Tradition

St. Valentine Prep: Aphrodisia

Feb
9
2009

Your words are my food, your breath my wine. You are everything to me. ~ Sarah Bernhardt

It’s nearly St. Valentine’s Day when a young chef’s thoughts turn fondly to foods that will spike the libido. In fact, Valentine’s Day is one of the two biggest days of the year for restaurants (the other being Mothers’ Day). If you’re planning on going out to dinner next Saturday and haven’t made reservations yet, it may be too late. Personally I prefer the intimacy of preparing (or sharing preparation) with my loved one. Then pile the dishes in the sink, toss a towel over them, and settle in for an evening for two.

It’s not surprising that we associate food with love. Eating is second only to sex in it’s sensuality, because like sex it involves our senses of taste, smell, touch, and sight. That being the case, it’s not surprising that over the centuries humans have turned to various foods to arouse and stimulate. The Romans considered asparagus and eggs to be aphrodisiacs (separately, not together).

For the most part, reputed aphrodisiacs fall into one of three categories of magic. The first group are what you might term spiritual aphrodisiacs. By eating a Tiger’s penis you take on the strength and virility of the tiger, the same applies to eating a pig’s testicles.

The second group are associative, the Aztecs associated chocolate with the fertility goddess, Xochiquetzal and the Greeks considered sparrows to be stimulating because they were favorites of the goddess Aphrodite (the root the word “aphrodisiac”).

But by far the most common aphrodisiacs are forms of sympathetic magic – foods presumed to have an effect because of their resemblance to human sex organs. Oysters, figs, strawberries, peaches, and epithelial orchids are all said to resemble female genitalia (you have to slice the fruit open to get the effect).

On the male side, I mentioned asparagus above as a symbol of the phallus, but in that same category also fall leeks, carrots, ginseng, bananas, and parsnips. Avocados are said to resemble testicles – in fact the name “avocado” comes from the name of the tree, Ahuacuatl, which means “testicle tree.” Nutmeg falls into this same category.

There are a few genuine aphrodisiacs. Testosterone affects the libido of both men and women. Anything that increases dopamine levels increases libido – cocaine falls into this category. Chocolate contains caffeine, a stimulant, and phenylethylamine, which does have a mild libidinal effect, as well as theobromine, which affects the pleasure centers by emulating serotonin.

So, if you’re planning on cooking your own romantic dinner this Valentine’s Day, here are a few suggestions from my cooking and recipe site, Seriously Good. Bon Apetit!

Oysters Shooter
Rack of Lamb
Glazed Carrots with Mint and Lemon
Leeks with Anchovy Butter
Pots de Crème

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 11:10 AM | Permalink

Christmas Past

Dec
22
2008

It was still dark when I woke up for the third or fourth time that night. I reached under my pillow and pulled out my mother’s little folding travel clock with the fake alligator hide and opened it to view the green-glowing hands and numerals: 4:45 a.m.!

We were under strict instructions to not wake my parents before 5:00, so I lay there. Christmas was hell.

tourtierreA few minutes later my sister came into the room and I got down from my bunk bed. We sat on the floor whispering until it was one minute to 5:00. Then we woke my little brother and headed for my parents’ bedroom.

Dad got up and went to make sure “Santa Clause was here” while we waited impatiently on their bed. He returned with good news and we dashed for the living room.

About 8:00 the folks started making breakfast. Dad made biscuits while Mom made cream and chipped beef (for some reason this was a common Christmas morning breakfast). There was certainly jam to go on the biscuits, and hot chocolate. We may have had cheese grits as well. And then we returned to our toys and books.

Everyone took a nap and then we started getting ready for the party. Mom and Dad always had an open house on Christmas Day and they put out an impressive buffet. There was roast turkey from Christmas Dinner the night before along with two or three mustards, two or three breads and rolls, mayonaise, cheeses, and similar sandwich fixings. Dad had cooked a ham earlier in the week and he sliced that up too. I don’t recall when it began, but for years my job was making sausage balls and there would almost certainly have been spiced nuts, Chex mix, and crudities. Mom filled a large glass bowl with Ambrosia set out the leftover cranberry relish. I seem to recall a Waldorf salad as well.

Then, of course, there was Dad’s eggnog that he began making on Thanksgiving weekend and then finished (by adding the cream) on Christmas day. This was always a major hit. Mom’s Bourbon Cake and Dad’s fruit cake would be crammed onto the now-groaning board somewhere, and about 2:00 people would begin arriving. For the next four to six hours the house would be filled as people arrived and left and the food gradually disappeared.

My parents continued the open house tradition long after we’d grown up and moved away, but eventually it devolved to just family and then sort of petered out.

Although none of my immediate family is religious and the event is now much lower-key than in erstwhile years, we all still celebrate Christmas every year as a time when as many of us as possible gather together and remind ourselves that we’re a family. We still usually have Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve. This year I’m hosting it and my sister is coming down from Virginia.

I’m planning to serve a Quebecois (French Canadian) savory pie known as a tourtière that is traditionally eaten at Christmas. My mother has quit making the Bourbon Cake, it simply became too much effort for a woman in her late 70s (now 80s), but I took over the tradition and so we’ll have that for dessert.

I also mailed each of my siblings a huge slice of Bourbon Cake. It’s not the same as having all of us gathered for the holiday, for the open houses of my childhood, but at least we’ll all be able to share a taste of our Christmases past on Christmas Day.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Traditions, Again

Nov
24
2008

It’s not even Thanksgiving yet, but I’ve been concentrating on Christmas for over a week.

It isn’t that I’m particularly enamored of Christmas, in fact I prefer T’day, but even as a cook and a writer and a food writer I have to plan for holidays. I had to create, test, and write up Thanksgiving recipes for my CookingforTwo site back in early October and I’m finishing off Christmas now. I also have to consider my blog, Seriously Good, and how it relates to the holidays. Then there’s my work as a consultant with ChefsLine, and this column.

RecipeEven as a kid Thanksgiving was the beginning of Christmas for me, as it is for so many families. For us it wasn’t a mad battle with traffic and shoppers on the day after, but rather preparing the first three items in our Christmas feast: Eggnog, Fruitcake, and Bourbon Cake.

One of my earliest memories is of standing beside my father in the kitchen as he made his eggnog base of eggs, whiskey, and sugar. I must have been six or seven at the time, because I remember the silvery bowl was almost as big as I was. The bowl shrank over the years, as I grew, but in the beginning it was huge. I also clearly remember the tintinnabulation of the metal beaters against the metal bowl.

The base, once made, was poured into a small, antique, terracotta butter churn, covered with cheesecloth, and placed at the back of the pantry to age and mellow. On Christmas Eve my father would mix a portion of the base with whipped cream and we would have a toast – even we kids were permitted a small punch glass of ‘nog although, of course, these days my parents would likely end up in jail if anyone found out.

Dad also made the fruitcake on Thanksgiving weekend. It was actually a pretty good fruitcake as such things go. But when it came down to it everyone, except possibly my father, preferred the Bourbon Cake my mother made that same weekend.

The Bourbon Cake was passed down from her mother and my guess is the recipe is at least 100 years old. It could well be older. It’s a dense butter cake with raisins, nuts, and spices and like Dad’s eggnog and fruitcake it ages for a month and gets a weekly dose of bourbon. As children we were permitted a small slice, as adults we limit ourselves to a small slice: It’s that rich and that alcoholic.

The Bourbon Cake has become too much work for my mother. The batter is thick and heavy and she no longer has the strength, suppleness, or stamina to make it: I’ve inherited that task (made much easier with a stand mixer) and this coming weekend I’ll be making the cake using my mother stained note card. Between now and Christmas, I’ll carefully tend the cake, providing weekly does of bourbon, before finally cutting it into sixths and mailing the huge slices to my family and, if she’s lucky, my editor.

I’ve made Dad’s eggnog on occasion, but he also continues to make it sometimes so eggnog at Christmas is less predictable but always welcome. As for Dad’s fruitcake… well it’s gone if not forgotten.

Our traditions link us to each other and the past we share with our family, our friends, our ancestors, our culture. Whether those traditions are religious or sectarian, familial or cultural, they provide context for our lives and a framework for defining our selves. The acquisition of new traditions , the modification of those we know and love connects us to our current reality.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Solace

May
5
2008

I’ve known Nelson my entire life. He and his wife Bernie were friends of my parents and I have been part of my social landscape from the day I was born. Although my siblings were fond of them, I think I especially liked, even loved, them and the liking was mutual.
RollsLast Friday Nelson died from cancer. He was pretty sick and at 82 had led a long and useful life and, I’m fairly sure, a generally happy life: There were too many smile lines in his face for him to have spent much time unhappy. I’ll miss him just as I’ll miss Bernie when her time comes. But life goes on and part of life is celebrating those who’ve died, so tomorrow I’ll be going to a memorial service for Nelson.
Here in the South many of us celebrate deaths by cooking and eating. The custom isn’t universal, but it is common. People bring bean casseroles, chicken and dumplings, macaroni and cheese, and pots of greens. They fry chicken and make biscuits and mold jello salads. They bake brownies and cookies and cakes and pies. There’s lots of sweet tea and coffee to wash the food down.
Folding tables are set up and paper plates and napkins and plastic forks and knives and spoons are laid out and the tables are loaded down with everything that is good and wholesome and gives us comfort.
People would stand about in couples and small groups, sometimes speaking soberly and sometimes laughing and joking and sometimes crying. Kids would run about under foot sneaking cookies and glad the service was over
These days, sadly, the fried chicken is too often the Colonel’s and potato chips replace the potato salad. The cookies come in a plastic package and cokes are more common than tea.
But the core of the event remains – a gathering of friends and family to celebrate someone’s past life and our own life with that most fundamental, elemental, and ancient of human social events. We gather to break bread.
So I made rolls.

Whole Wheat Beer Bread
2 tsp instant yeast
1 tbsp sugar
12 oz warm beer
2 1/4 c whole wheat flour
1 1/2 c bread flour — separated
1 1/2 tbsp butter — melted
2 tsp salt
1 ea egg
1 tbsp water
Using the paddle attachment on a stand mixer, thoroughly combine yeast, whole wheat flour, 1 1/4 cup bread flour, 2 teaspoons salt, and sugar. Add butter to warm beer and, with mixer running, pour beer into dry ingredients. As the dough forms swap paddle attachment for dough hook.
Knead for six minutes at medium speed. The dough should be slightly sticky but should clear the bowl. Add additional flour if needed. Dump dough onto a floured board and knead another minute or two until dough is fairly smooth (it won’t be as smooth as a pure white bread) and resilient. Allow to rest 5 to 10 minutes.
Clean and dry mixing bowl and spray with a nonstick spray. Shape dough into a ball and place seam-side down in bowl. Spritz top lightly with cooking spray and cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let rise until doubled in bulk – 60 to 90 minutes.
Punch down dough and turn out onto floured board. Lightly knead dough and form into a flattened ball. Allow to rest five to 10 minutes.
To make a loaf, shape dough into a rectangle that will fit in a 9″ x 4.25″ greased loaf pan. Cover and allow to rise until doubled in bulk.
To make rolls, using a dough scraper cut dough in four equal quarters. Set three quarters aside and cover. Shape remaining quarter into a flattened ball and divide into four quarters. Shape each quarter in to a ball and place on a parchment-covered baking sheet. Flatten each ball. Repeat for remaining dough, cover, and allow to rise until rolls double in bulk.
Heat oven to 425F for loaf or 400F for rolls.
In small bowl, beat together egg and water. Brush loaf or rolls with egg mixture and bake on middle oven rack. Rolls will need about 25 minutes, the loaf will need about 40 minutes. Monitor closely to avoid overcooking.
Cool on a wire rack.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Finding Comfort

Jan
28
2008

Colleen is a solid middle-aged mid-westerner of Anglo-Saxon stock who’s favorite comfort food is kimchi. Right, kimchi, the potent fermented Korean vegetable dish. In fact, she makes her own. So how did someone from Kansas end up loving such an exotic dish?

Colleen’s father served in Korea and fell in love with kimchi there. Returning to the states he couldn’t find it and started making it himself. Apparently none of her family will touch it but he got Colleen hooked and the two of them would sit at the kitchen table and eat it on saltine crackers while the rest of the family fled the room. To this day kimchi and soda crackers bring back those special times she and her father shared alone. Comfort.

This is comfort food. It evokes memories: experiential, emotional, and even spiritual. A Swanson’s Chicken Pot Pie reminds me of my mother dressed up, wearing makeup, and smelling wonderful. Those pies were our standard supper when she and my father went out in the evening and I confess I still occasionally buy one in order to relive, if from a great distance, that memory

In Serious Pig, John Thorne writes:

That time lingers in my mind as ‘the chowder summer.’ It was the start of my life-long love affair with the dish. The fragrant aromas of clam juice and milk mingling together still evoke not only the dish itself but the whole experience: the driftwood I had carried up from the beach and sawn myself, now crackling in the fireplace; the chowder full of clams I had just dug, cleaned, and prepared, and potatoes I had carried back three miles from the store, heating in the big battered pot on the propane stove.”

.

When I shared an off-campus house with two other guys a frequent dish was something we called Grunt. It was ground beef, sautéed onions, and onion soup mix served on rice with sour cream — a poor student’s version of Beef Stroganoff. I still fix it on occasion, and when I do hear the Moody Blues and Firesign Theater in my mind.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper, host of “The Splendid Table” on NPR says,

“There is nothing, absolutely nothing that pleasures me more than a bowl of pasta and tomato sauce. When I want to reach out with all my love to my husband, a dish of pasta and tomatoes is almost always in my hands. When I am worn out and the world isn’t such a nice place to be in, I make tomato sauce and pasta. When time is short but dear friends must be fed with joy and not pressure, I make pasta with tomato sauce.”

We tend to think of comfort foods as having some link to our childhoods, and often they do, but some come along later in life, perhaps that sweet and sour chicken you and your spouse ate right after you were married when going out to dinner was an event, even if all you could afford was the cheap Chinese joint down the block. Or possibly, like Colleen’s father, it’s the Kimchi you shared with your daughter and no one else.

I made clam chowder last night which led me back to Thorne’s essay and, in turn, to thoughts about comfort food. My favorite comfort food is Choucroute, my mother made it when I was a child, but since then I’ve made it on the first cold and rainy day of each fall. It not only links me to my childhood, but has since then become a reminder that when each year inevitably begins to decline into cold and darkness, there’s still food and warmth, hearth and home, somewhere buried inside a child needing comfort. As I relish the porky goodness and pungent savor of my favorite food I know this winter too shall pass. I find comfort in that thought and the food that evokes it.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

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