Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Hang On to Your Stomach—It’s Tomato Aspic!

I bet you’re thinking I’ve lost it now!

Well, I haven’t. I had to try it—yes, “it”—the one dish that has come to signify, more than any other, the culinary atrocities of the twentieth century—the ultimate in savory gelatin recipes: Tomato aspic.

Haven’t you been curious? I certainly was. I’d never had aspic before!

Of course there are a ton of recipes; this one looked pretty good.

The basic idea is something like “V-8 Jell-O.” Or you could say it’s like a Jell-O shot inspired by a bloody Mary, minus the vodka. In the case of this recipe, it’s not made with Jell-O, however—no fruit or sweet flavor. It’s made with plain powdered gelatin.

Some tomato aspic recipes don’t use any creamy ingredients in the gelatin construction itself, and these look something like solidified tomato juice. (If you can go by the pictures in old cookbooks, anyway.) Tomato aspic is considered a “salad,” just as potato salad is considered a “salad.”

The noncreamy recipes usually call for you to serve the tomato aspic with mayonnaise as an accompaniment, as the “dressing” to this “salad.” I tried this technique earlier, when I made that cucumber-lime-Jell-O salad, and I found it pretty hard to choke down. I’m not that big a fan of mayo!

But this recipe includes the “dressing” in the “salad.”

Have you ever stirred together your Pace picante sauce and some sour cream? Or if not sour cream, cottage cheese? I know, I know—it’s not exactly haute cuisine, but it is great with tortilla chips when you’re doing the couch potato/television thing. Or the graduate-school thing. Okay: the salsa/sour cream combo is a lot like this aspic—in a word, delicious.

So this is a vintage recipe from the thirties; I am quoting it from pp. 28–29 of Betty Crocker’s $25,000 Recipe Set: Featuring Recipes from World Famous Chefs for Foods That Enchant Men (Paris: Société des Cuisiniers Internationaux and the Gold Medal Home Service Department, 1933).

Without further ado . . .

Chilled Tomato Salad

3 cups canned tomatoes [I used a 28 oz. can of diced tomatoes]
3 tbsp. sugar [I used a tad less—the idea is to cut the acidity of the tomatoes]
2 tbsp. onion juice [I used grated onion]
2 tsp. salt
Dash of pepper
2 tbsp. gelatin [I used Knox]
1/3 cup cold water
1/2 cup chopped cucumber
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped green pepper
1 tbsp. grated horseradish [I used Yoder’s prepared]
1 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup whipping cream

Method—1. Cook tomatoes with the seasonings 10 minutes. 2. Soak gelatin in cold water and dissolve in hot tomato mixture. 3. Cool and add vegetables chopped rather finely. 4. Whip cream until stiff; blend with mayonnaise and then blend with tomato and vegetable mixture. 5. Pour into lightly oiled ring mold, or individual molds, and chill. 6. Unmold the salad onto crisp lettuce and garnish with pimiento. Amount—Serves 12. Note—The dressing is in the salad. For a Valentine Salad, it can be chilled in heart shape mold and garnished with pimiento hearts.

Here’s how I chopped the veggies: I peeled the cukes and quartered them lengthwise. Then I chopped them pretty thinly, so each piece was one quarter of a thin round. The celery was cut lengthwise, then sliced thinly against the grain, so that no piece was wider than about a half inch. I also sliced the green bell pepper into fairly thin pieces.

Sue’s mom gave us some wonderfully dainty old individual Jell-O molds, and the aspic unmolded well (be sure to use all the unmolding techniques that fifties housewives learned in their home ec classes: apply a thin coat of vegetable oil in the mold before filling; then to release the Jell-O, dip the metal part in hot water for a few seconds, then gently wiggle the edges free with your fingertips, and finally release the suction with a knife). (There are lots of places to learn the secrets of unmolding Jell-O perfectly.)

Monday, December 27, 2010

Maybe They’re Hansel and Gretel

The antique dolls I told you about yesterday remind me a little of Hansel and Gretel. I wonder if that’s who they’re supposed to represent? Or maybe they’re just a boy and a girl; their outfits don’t seem quite Tyrolean enough. Maybe they’re not even German!

At any rate, Hansel and Gretel are very big in Germany during Christmastime. Here’s a YouTube of the famous and lovely Abendsegen (“prayer”) duet from the opera Hänsel und Gretel (Engelbert Humperdinck, 1893).

Lyrics follow, should you wish to sing along!

Abends, will ich schlafen gehn,
Vierzehn Engel um mich stehn:
Zwei zu meinen Häupten,
Zwei zu meinen Füßen,
Zwei zu meiner Rechten,
Zwei zu meiner Linken,
Zweie, die mich decken,
Zweie, die mich wecken,
Zweie, die mich weisen,
Zu Himmels-Paradeisen.

Evenings, when I go to sleep,
Fourteen angels with me keep,
Two stand at my head,
Two at the foot of my bed,
Two are at my right hand,
Two are at my left hand,
Two in covers tuck me,
Two at morning wake me,
Two that point the way to rise
To heaven’s paradise.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Grandma’s Dolls

I don’t know about you, but we’re still doin’ Christmas around here. We put up the decorations about mid-December and will leave them up through Epiphany. Of our old holiday decorations that had been Grandma’s, last year I told you about the Knecht Ruprecht, the Weihnachtspyramide, and the preponderance of fruit and fruit baskets on her “Christmas tree.” This year I’d like to feature Grandma’s dolls. As long as I can remember, they’ve been associated with the tree (the “tree” is actually a Weihnachtspyramide, a “Christmas pyramid,” but we call it a “tree” for convenience). When I was little, Grandma always hooked the dolls to the front corners of the tree. And she continued to display them this way to the end of her years. Here’s a picture of Grandma and the Weihnachtspyramide taken around 1969. You can see the dolls at the two sides at the base. Since we’ve become caretakers of the tree, we’ve moved the dolls to a different position of honor: They stand together under a glass dome on the small table that was used as an altar when this building was a church. (Did I tell you our house used to be a church? . . . But that’s another story.) Positioned where they are now, the dolls are the first thing you see as you come up the steps to the second floor. As Grandma did, we put them out every Christmas. They are very fragile. I try to handle them as little as possible. I honestly don’t know what’s holding them together! . . . Love, I guess. One of the reasons we still have the dolls is that when Grandma was little, she wasn’t allowed to play with them. They were too “nice.” She had another doll to play with. In this picture, taken about 1910, when my grandma was about five, she’s holding the doll she was allowed to play with, and you can see one of the two dolls I’m telling you about attached (as I’ve mentioned) to a front corner of the Weihnachtspyramide. By the way, my dad says we still have the doll she played with, too. He and mom have it at their house. Here’s a detail of a picture taken around 1915, where the two dolls were standing on a platform beneath the table holding the Weihnachtspyramide. At the right is the dolly she played with. Grandma would have been about ten when this picture was taken. We have other old pictures of the Weihnachtspyramide, and in some of them the dolls don’t appear. Each year, the tree is different. Maybe when her boys were young, Grandma kept the dolls safe in a box. Boys can be kind of rowdy, of course. Well, there’s not much more to say, except that I know very little about dolls. I wasn’t interested in them when I was little, and I don’t know much about the collecting scene, except that it exists, and that there are about a million dolls for collectors to collect. If you’re reading this and know something about these types of dolls, I’d love you to contact me. Are they German antique dolls? I’d like to learn more about them. Yes, I imagine these fragile dolls are probably “worth” a zillion dollars to collectors, but of course we’re not interested in selling them. They belong to the family. They go with the tree.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Silent Night

Good evening! And Merry Christmas. I was wanting to tell you something really profound this evening, about time and wintertime, hope and peace and love, but after an evening of chopping veggies and preparing for tomorrow's feast--and after enjoying some eggnog and stollen . . . the spell has come over me.

We woke up to snow this morning! We are having a white Christmas. Fortunately, the roads aren't bad, either!

This is how I like Christmas trees the best: at night, when they enrapture me with their radiant, warm light. As I write this, the Weihnachtspyramide glows, just like it always has, and a part of me glows along with it.

I would tell you more, but it's time for us all to get to sleep: "You know, Santa won't come if you're still awake!"

So I leave you with this scene. A quiet room, the glowing tree, the cats curled up.

All is calm, all is bright.

* * * * Merry Christmas, everyone. * * * *

(Psst: If you're unfamiliar with our "weird" Christmas tree, see this post from last year.)

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Date Nut Bars: A Christmas Classic from “Ann Pillsbury”

A few posts ago I told you about Sue’s mom’s Christmas cookies. Just a day after I posted it, the postman brought us a box containing . . . Sue’s mom’s Christmas cookies!

Oh, joy!

Here’s the first one we chomped: Date Nut Bars!

They’re cakey and chewy and a little crumbly. Not too sweet. And they look great, too.

They’re ex-cel-lent with coffee and tea!!! (Three exclamation points = Big emphasis!)

Mrs. F. says to double this for a 10×15 inch pan, or a 9×12. And yes, you’ll want to make plenty.

Date Nut Bars

“Developed by Ann Pillsbury.”

“Easy and quick to make! Chewy and moist to eat!”

“Makes 2 dozen.”

Bake at 350 degrees for 25–30 minutes.

Sift together into a large bowl:

3/4 c. sifted Pillsbury’s Best Enriched Flour*
1/2 t. double-acting baking powder
1/2 t. salt


1 c. firmly packed brown sugar; mix well.

Blend in, and mix thoroughly:

2 well-beaten eggs
2 T melted butter

Stir in:

1 c. walnuts or pecans, chopped [Mrs. F. uses pecans!]
1 c. dates, cut in small pieces

Spread in well-greased 11×7 or 9×9 inch pan.

Bake in moderate oven (350 degrees) 25–30 minutes. While warm, cut into bars. If desired, roll in confectioners’ sugar before serving.

* “If you use Pillsbury’s Best Enriched Self-Rising Flour (sold in parts of the South), omit baking powder and salt.”

A Few Notes

Mrs. Ferber got the recipe from a vintage Pillsbury cookie cookbook from the fifties: Pillsbury’s Best Butter Cookie Cookbook, volume 2. Hers is a well-loved and well-used cookbook! You can find copies of the publication for sale online.

Originally this cookbook was only 20 cents a copy, but now it and volume 3 of the same book are selling for $10–13 for a decent copy. (Hey, Pillsbury! Maybe it’s time to think about a special vintage-reprint edition, with all the same cool artwork, typesetting, and recipes, just modified slightly where your products have changed?) (I mean, look what Better Homes and Gardens recently did—they’re offering a glorious facsimile edition of their 1950 Picture Cookbook! What a cool thing, huh?)

Not thinking I was ever going to quote it for anything but my own use, I didn’t copy the recipe word-for-word. So Capital “T” means tablespoon; lowercase “t” means teaspoon. The original had that kinda stuff spelled out. I did copy the important points of the recipe. It’s from p. 36.

By the way, I’m pretty sure that “Ann Pillsbury” is a myth, like Betty Crocker, Aunt Jemima, and Mrs. Butterworth. (Duncan Hines, however, was indeed a real person!)

Finally, my blog-formatting skills don’t allow me to reproduce the unique and helpful two-column typesetting pioneered in the original publication. If you can find a copy, you’ll see it’s pretty neat.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Reclaiming Xmas

[Note: I was thinking I shouldn’t post this, since I’m afraid it seems “snarky,” but Sue convinced me to post it. She thinks most people really do not know this stuff!]

Hey, folks! I’ve decided I’m tired of people getting all worked up about the word Xmas. The Facebook campaigns; the chain e-mails: “No more ‘Xmas’! Let’s put Christ back in Christmas!” Et cetera, et cetera.

I’ve been suspicious of these complaints, first, because my grandma used “Xmas” as an abbreviation, and by cracky, there wasn’t a more Christ-loving woman you could ever know. I don’t think for a minute that she meant to belittle Jesus with “Xmas.” My folks use it, too.

So here you go: Look it up in a reputable dictionary, such as Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate. There, you’ll find:

Etymology: X (symbol for Christ, from the Greek letter chi (X), initial of Christos Christ) + -mas (in Christmas)

Date: 1551.

Whoa! Check it out: 1551 is waaaaay before even Grandma was born! “Xmas” has a long, long history! The sixteenth century? That was during the Renaissance! “Xmas” wasn’t something a bunch of hippies and atheists invented in the sixties!

A word’s etymology is its linguistic history; it tells you how the word developed over time, and usually, it gives you a hint to its nuances of meaning, its connotations. So: “Xmas” literally does mean “Christmas.” No one is being “exed” out here. It’s just an abbreviation that a lot of us are quite grateful for during this, one of the busiest times of the year.

There are bona fide, completely appropriate uses for Xmas. Like when you’re in a rush. Or when you’re writing on the side of a box. Or when you’ve only got so many letters and so much space on the sign.

(Or! When you’re texting!)

So let’s quit judging and punishing innocent people for using a time-honored abbreviation! (’Tis not the season for punishment!)

The “-mas” part, by the way, comes from the Old English mæsse, which means “mass” or communion service. So Christmas literally means “Christ’s mass”—the feast day where we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. If there’s one part of the word “Xmas” that’s askew in our culture, it’s the second part: Because it seems most American Christians (well, at least the Protestants, anyway) don’t take communion on Christmas Day. Seems they’d rather spend the day with their families.

Another thing: Christmastide is, by definition, “the festival season from Christmas Eve till after New Year’s Day or especially in England till Epiphany.” (The weeks prior to Christmas constitute the season of Advent, which is characterized by waiting, wanting, expecting, hoping. Google “Advent candles” and “Advent calendar” for more insights.) (Honestly: Christmas means more, if you celebrate the season of Advent before it.)

Now, let’s review what Epiphany is, because it will clear up another common holiday misconception. Epiphany has a specific meaning in the Christian religion, plus it has a generic (lowercase) meaning.

The generic meaning of epiphany is “appearance” or “manifestation”—with a connotation of “illuminating discovery” or a striking new understanding or perception. It’s a kind of revelation, a sudden grasp of an idea.

The Christian Epiphany is an official church festival day, commonly celebrated on January 6, to commemorate the arrival of the Magi (the Wise Men, the Three Kings), who had been seeking the Christ child. See, it doesn’t make sense to think of the Wise Men arriving at the manger scene only minutes or even hours after the birth. You know the song: “We three kings of Orient are; Bearing gifts we traverse afar. Field and fountain, moor and mountain, Following yonder star.”

There have been years when I set the Three Wise Men far away from our Nativity Scene in order to represent this idea: The babe is born, and the kings are on their way!

See Matthew 2:1–12; no dates or specific travel routes or times are given. (Thank goodness! One less thing for Middle Easterners to fight over!) Indeed, Matthew doesn’t even say how many “wise men from the East” there were—we just infer that there were three because three gifts were mentioned. (Pretty flimsy evidence, methinks! But it makes for a tidy story, doesn’t it, with none of the complication or awkwardness that arises when two people accidentally bring the same gift! “Oh, you brought myrrh, too? Dang, that’s what I brought!”)

Anyway, by tradition, January 6 is the day to commemorate their arrival in Bethlehem, their beholding the infant Jesus, and their giving the very first Christmas presents.

So, using the dates for Christmas and Epiphany, let’s count how many days elapse before the Wise Men’s arrival—December 25 to January 6 . . . Twelve days!

Hey, it’s the Twelve Days of Christmas! Holy smokes—and here all these advertising weasels and media numskulls have been leading you to believe that the “Twelve Days of Christmas” are the last twelve shopping days before Christmas!

See, now the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” makes more sense—you can see how it could be a tradition to dole out your Christmas presents over the days leading up to the Wise Men’s arrival, since they’re the ones who brought the frankincense, gold, and myrrh.

So now that we’ve had our own little epiphany, here’s a modest proposal: How about all the people who are so het up over the use of “Xmas” turn their energetic indignation against the horribly materialistic distortion of the Twelve Days of Christmas, also known as Christmastide, the time between the birth of Jesus and the arrival of the Magi?

Yes! Feel free to spread this post around. I’d love for this to “go viral.” Let’s reclaim Xmas, and reinstate the Twelve Days before Epiphany as the “real” Christmastide!

(And while you’re at it? Next year, don’t put up your Xmas tree so early: If you leave it up through Epiphany, maybe the Wise Men will get to see it!)

Eggnogged Eggs, and Other Things to Do with Extra Eggnog

I used to have this problem with eggnog: Sue and I would always buy a quart of it, and then we’d each have a few small cups of it while we decorate the Christmas tree, or whatever, and then the rest of it would sit there in the refrigerator until it needed to be thrown away. (You know: Before it develops the ability to walk away on its own!)

Well, I’ve fixed that problem in recent years by using “nog” creatively as a flavoring ingredient in dishes that usually would take just milk. Yes, it’s got more fat than your standard 2 percent, blah, blah, blah . . . but I hate throwing away food. It’s a frugality thing. It makes me feel guilty to throw out food.

So here is one of my favorite ways to use up extra eggnog: scrambled eggs!

(By the way, note the lovely carton of Central Dairy Egg Nog: they haven’t changed the package design for as long as I can remember! I love the artwork! It easily dates back at least to the late 1960s.)

I don’t need to give you a recipe here—you just make regular scrambled eggs, only you use eggnog instead of the usual milk (or water). It makes for creamy eggs that are indeed rather sweet. I usually garnish with a bit of nutmeg. Or I’ll whisk some extra nutmeg into the eggs, and then garnish with freshly chopped parsley.

These are really, really good! Sue loves them.

They go well with our usual decadent Christmas breakfast—say, with good Burger’s ham, and with a slice of Christmas stollen. (By the way, my picture shows pieces of two stollens: one from Aunt Carole, which is about as healthy and low-fat as a stollen can be, and one from my sister-in-law, Karla, which is much more traditional. Both are awesome!)

I also like to serve grapefruit halves for Christmas breakfast. (I garnish them with a Maraschino cherry and with a drizzle of some of the cherry juice instead of plain sugar.)

This is all pretty sweet, but not overly so. The “eggnogged eggs” and the ham are sweet-salty, and the grapefruit is sweet-sour. Even the stollens combine sugary sweetness with the richer sweetness of candied fruits.

More Ideas

This morning, I made our oat bran muffins with eggnog as the liquid. Yeah, I added some extra nutmeg, and I even threw in a little rum! For extra appeal, I included a little handful of carob chips. Sue said the muffins tasted like candy. Wow!

And of course, you could make pancakes with eggnog, too. Then you wouldn’t need to add butter or use much syrup. Just some cooked apples would be enough.

Or, you could decorate your bowl of oatmeal with a bit of eggnog, the way you might add milk or cream.

Or! You could have a lot of friends and family over some evening for Christmas cookies and conversation. That’s another way to use up a quart of the stuff!

. . . Lots of possibilities! Now you never again will have to pour chunky old eggnog down the drain!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Sue’s Mom’s Awesome Christmas Cookies!

Okay. Here is something we can all agree on: the awesomeness of “Mom’s Christmas Cookies.”

You know what I mean—it’s when your mom makes at least, oh, a half dozen different types of cookies, and makes them in abundance. She always makes the favorites, the traditional ones you “can’t have Christmas without.”

And then, because she loves baking so much, each year she usually tries out at least one new cookie recipe, or a variation of an old one, just for fun. Sometimes these receive such an enthusiastic response that they’re added to the list of “must-haves.”

So there’s a cookie platter available all winter long, replenished by the dozens of cookies in tins and plastic tubs out on the back sunporch.


Sue’s mom is one of these holiday bakers. Now, she doesn’t make many of the cookies I personally find necessary for the holidays—lebkuchen, billy goats, “animal cookies,” orange balls, springerle. Mostly German-ethnic stuff from my family.

But she makes her own set of “regulars” that are just as necessary to her family as leppies are to mine, and she shares abundantly with Sue and me. Over the years, naturally, most of her cookies have become “Christmas must-haves” for me, too. I guess that is one of the benefits of being in a marriage with someone: You not only gain a second family, you also gain a whole new set of Christmas cookie traditions!

Let me introduce you to some of her Christmas cookies!

First, her spice cookies! Yes, they look kind of like ginger snaps, but they’re not crunchy at all—no danger of chipping a tooth on these! They’re soft and chewy. The ingredients include brown sugar, molasses, cinnamon, cloves, and ginger; you chill the dough, roll them into balls, then dip in white sugar before baking briefly. Mrs. F. always makes them to perfection!

Sue’s brother-in-law has always adored these, and Sue’s brother in South Carolina and one of his sons, I hear, raid the box of cookies Sue’s mom sends them, picking out the spice cookies, then squirreling them away like hoarded treasure. It’s Mark and Michael’s hands-down favorite. Good pick, guys!

These are incredibly tasty, though not cloyingly sweet. There’s something tangy, almost salty about them. Is it the molasses? The baking soda? Anyway, as Sue described them, they’re “a yearly absolute-can’t keep-them-on-the-plate favorite.”

Here are some “jubilee jumbles”—also chewy, but more cakelike and with crushed pecans inside. So good! Brown sugar, white sugar, evaporated milk, vanilla, and chopped pecans are the flavoring ingredients. And that’s a burnt butter glaze: browned butter plus powdered sugar plus evaporated milk. My mouth is watering just writing this.

Sue’s mom makes candy, too. She’s the queen of fudge, and she usually makes several types—Sue’s partial to the peanut butter fudge; but the black walnut is good, too. And of course, the straight-ahead chocolate. And there in Ohio, those chocolate-dipped peanut butter balls known as "buckeyes" are de rigueur, too.

Then, there’s the white-chocolate peppermint bark, the preparation of which calls for you to pound up candy canes! I really have to watch myself with this one, folks.

But here’s my real weakness: the peanut butter kisses. Also known as peanut blossoms. Uh-oh! I literally have to have people move the cookie platter away from me when there are peanut butter kisses on it. I know, that’s really bad. . . . But these cookies are really good!

The recipe was probably invented in the Hershey’s Corp. test kitchens, but man, whoever invented this recipe deserves a medal.

Other favorites are:

“Delectabites,” also known as “pecan puffs,” crescent-shaped nut cookies coated with powdered sugar;

Oatmeal cookies without the raisins. Mrs. F. has always hated raisins, so she makes raisinless oatmeal cookies. This year she used chocolate chips instead. There were no complaints about it!

“Honey bunches,” also called “haystacks,” an oats-coconut-flour-brown sugar-butter-and-honey concoction; and

Date nut bars,” from a vintage Pillsbury cookie cookbook—chewy and nutty and dusted with powdered sugar. A beautiful celebration of The Date.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Where I Am Right Now

I guess it’s happened, folks: I haven’t felt like posting recently. I mean, I’ve been writing blog entries, but I haven’t been sharing them with you.

No—it’s nothing to do with you. It’s me. I created this blog, in part, as a way to help jockey myself out of my depressive mind-set. The idea is, I’m trying to focus on things that I like, or even love, and maybe that will help me to like my life—myself—better. Feeling depressed is a habit, I know, so writing here, regularly, is a way of retraining myself to see the “bright side” of things.

But recently it’s been kind of rough, and I’m having a hard time feeling clever or hopeful or optimistic.

Those of you who know me well know that I’ve more or less been able to keep blogging even while I’m “slogging,” and for the most part I’ve been able to keep the tone celebratory here in this virtual space where I can indeed be virtually upbeat.

And I apologize for polluting my lovely, happy blog with my whining. Maybe tomorrow I’ll have something happier to write about.

Usually I’m not the kind of depressive person who gets especially blue over the holidays—though I know a lot of people do. But no: usually, Christmas and New Year’s are okay for me—maybe it’s because it’s a time of year that I generally know what to do (apart from my usual anxiety about trying to figure out what to give people on my list—my giving is usually more in the form of “doing” as opposed to shopping, so I’m a huge failure when it comes to buying presents).

(This year it’s especially hard, with my “freelance” business being worse than usual. Also, both of the checks I was anticipating this past month got held up somehow. These were for projects that kept me busy for months with all pay deferred to the end. And to have both of my invoices somehow not even get “into the system” until this week? Ouch. I feel crapped on, even though I know it’s nothing personal against me. But hey, being broke at Christmastime is just not . . . optimal. If you’re wondering where the “annual lebkuchen post” is, well, take a look at how much candied fruit costs!)

So all my self-doubts are back again. What am I good for? Apparently not freelancing! And in the job market, I find I’m breathtakingly inexperienced in anything “computer” and simultaneously way too old in a market filled with fresh college students. I’m thinking the only job I could get is at a grocery store or something. Phi beta kappa! This should be funny, right?

I’ve been profoundly sad the last few weeks. I’m sure my close friends are all sick of hearing me complain—indeed, I’m sick of this, too. I’ve tried doing the usual Christmassy stuff, such as attending Christkindelfest, but I couldn’t even stay there very long. I couldn’t sing. I choked on the lyrics “joyful and triumphant,” and I decided to just leave. If you went, I hope you had a good time; there are always so many delicious goodies there to buy . . .


When I’m having a hard time figuring out what to write, when I’m feeling behind and need to get “caught up,” when I feel like my stories aren’t reflecting what I really feel, I usually can rely on “Here Is Where I Am Right Now” to get me back in synch with reality, so I can move on to something current.

So here is where I am right now: I’m sitting in the living room typing. It’s really cold. I just got finished cleaning up some stuff in the basement, including the cat boxes. Soon, I’ll see what I can find in the fridge for lunch, and I’ll try to figure out what to fix for supper. I will clean and straighten the second floor today—the part of the house that company sees—in preparation for putting up the Christmas tree. Also this afternoon, I will check the mail, again, to see if any paycheck has arrived.

And that is where I am right now.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Red Cabbage with Apples

Now that I’ve told you the Red Cabbage Story, I guess it’s time to share my recipe with you. Red cabbage is perfect for the Christmas dinner table, even if you’re not German. First, I mean, gosh, it’s so pretty!

Red cabbage is a terrific alternative to the ubiquitous sauerkraut that is generally served with “German” meals in our country. If you’re planning a Germanic dinner with bratwurst, sauerbraten, rouladen, or some such; and with a starchy side of potatoes or spaetzel; then red cabbage can complete the “trinity” quite nicely. The sweetness of the cabbage especially complements pork dishes, the way fried apples do.

It’s not rocket science to fix this, though you do need to shred the cabbage. If you have a lot of time, you could schnittle it up with a sharp chef’s knife. But I use a Joyce Chen mandoline—it’s not the Rolls Royce of kitchen equipment, but like my trusty Honda Civic, it works fine. With this and all shredding devices, you need to be very careful not to slice off parts of your knuckles, fingertips, fingernails, etc. (Trust me, it’s easy to do, and it happens very quickly. I’m just sayin’. . .)

To shred it, I quarter the red cabbage first, then start shredding from the top part of each quarter, where the leaves are the loosest, then work my way down to the core. Again: be careful.

One time I had some cooked red cabbage that had been “shredded” with a food processor on “pulse”—the cabbage had been turned into dots of confetti instead of thin little shreds. It tasted okay, but the texture was pretty horrible.

Some recipes for cooked red cabbage—even ones from fairly reputable cookbook publishers—say to add the vinegar while you are cooking the cabbage. And I’m telling you: Don’t try it.

It’s just like when you’re cooking beans: If you add a bunch of salt, or acidic ingredients, or alcohol (red wine, for instance) at the beginning of the cooking, you only lengthen the cooking time. Pickled veggies get their “crunch” from vinegar. So adding vinegar before your red cabbage is tender only makes it stay hard, longer. So don’t do it. Tough cabbage isn’t any more fun than tough beans!

I repeat: Cook the shredded cabbage in just a bit of plain water, first, and then add the vinegar at the end. Got it?

By the way, you will love how adding the vinegar at the end causes the cabbage to shift from purple to red. It’s really cool.

And of course, the apples are optional. I don’t think Grandma Schroeder added apples when she cooked red cabbage. But they are a nice touch.

Also, as you can see from the pictures, last time I made red cabbage, early in the cooking I threw in a handful of lovely, huge golden raisins I bought at an international market. They were a wonderful addition! (I’m not sure that black raisins would look as appetizing, however.)

And no, this is not an heirloom recipe, which is rather sad. I wasn’t interested in cooking when Grandma was still alive and still creating her wonderful meals, so I didn’t follow her around the kitchen with a notepad the way I should have. Alas.

So this recipe is essentially from one of my mom’s cookbooks. I’ve altered it somewhat, reducing the apples quite a bit, for one thing. Also, the book doesn’t specify the type of vinegar, but I insist on using apple cider vinegar. (And I’ve found that Heinz, as a matter of fact, is indeed much more flavorful than generic.) Grandma didn’t use red wine vinegar or any of that high-falutin’ stuff!

The book reports that it makes about six servings. When I have my big sauerbraten dinners for fifteen to twenty, I have doubled it, depending on how big the cabbages are at the store and how badly I want leftovers. Also, of course, how much cabbage people eat depends on how many other side dishes you’re serving!

In my family, it is customary for most people to take seconds of the red cabbage!

—Yeah. It’s that special.

Cooked Red Cabbage with Apples

Adapted from Bountiful Harvest, by Mary Beth Jung (Reiman Publications, 1994).

1 to 2 1/2 lbs. red cabbage, shredded (about 1 head)
3/4 to 1 cup boiling (or very hot) water

1 large cooking apple, sliced in thin pieces

3 tbsp. butter
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar

1 1/2 tsp. flour
1/4 cup brown sugar, packed
2 tsp. salt
dash of pepper

Put cabbage into a large saucepan; pour boiling or very hot water over, cover, and simmer for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the apples; cook another 10 minutes or so or until cabbage and apples are tender. Add remaining ingredients, stirring gently to combine, and heat through.

You can prepare for this ahead of time: I’ve added spaces in the ingredients list to show groups that can be prepared the night before your dinner and stored together: Shred the cabbage and put it in one plastic bag. Slice the apple, dash a little of the vinegar on it so it doesn’t turn brown, and store that in another plastic bag. Put the butter and vinegar in a little storage bowl and put in the fridge. Then measure and store the dry ingredients on the counter. This way, putting the dish together the next day is easy-peasy, a back-burner affair.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Red Cabbage Story

Here’s a story that’s just for you, about my great-grandparents Albert and Wilhelmina Thomas. They were my Grandma Schroeder’s mom and dad; they were married in 1885 and came over from Germany not long after that. I told you a little about them before.

I’m telling you this story tonight, because we just looked outside and noticed that snow is accumulating on the road. This is our first snow of the winter! And it’s miserably cold out there, with wind gusts up to 45 mph. I’m glad to be inside tonight. This is the perfect time to share this story with you.

This story must be from the 1930s or early 1940s, because Dad and Uncle Richard remember it, and Albert and Wilhelmina died, respectively, in 1942 and 1943.

Sometimes, though, when a story gets told and retold, you have to wonder how much of the story is a clear, direct memory, and how much has become “lore.” I’m not naming names, but some of us Schroeders are particularly marvelous storytellers, and sometimes you tend to add extra details to make a story more, um, colorful. . . . And what could be more colorful than the red cabbage story?

Let me refresh your memory on the setup. The Thomas/Schroeder family lived on the second and third floors of the house. The first floor was rented out to another family. When my dad and uncle Richard were boys, they and my grandparents slept in bedrooms on the third floor. My great-grandparents slept in the front bedroom on the second floor, and the bedroom across the hall from them was rented to a lady who worked for state government.

Anyway, apparently one night there was an argument. No one remembers what it was about, or who started it. But apparently it was between Albert and Wilhelmina. Deeply upset, Wilhelmina stomped off into their bedroom and locked the door behind her. She absolutely refused to come out. She was incredibly angry. Nothing anyone said could soften her up. She was resolute. The door stayed locked.

Oh my. What to do.

This was in the dead of winter, but Albert put on his coat and boots and tromped away into the snowy night. It was late. To this day, no one knows where he went. The family was wondering if they had to start being worried about him, now, too.

But he finally returned, stomping snow off his boots, swinging open the big wooden front door, ruddy from the cold, and with frost on his mustache. And he had with him a big, beautiful head of red cabbage. No one knew where he got it on such a cold, snowy night.

He knocked on the door of their bedroom and spoke quietly to Wilhelmina, and in a moment she opened the door a little bit. He showed her the red cabbage—and her anger immediately dissolved. Or, as the story is often worded in the retelling, she “forgot her anger.”

You know what it was. It was the pure joy of a perfect, beautiful vegetable. I totally understand, because there have been times I’ve almost wept with joy in a lovely, well-stocked produce section or farm market.

And also: it was Albert’s sweetness—that he was willing to go out in the bitter cold and somehow obtain that big, perfect head of cabbage for her.

And it was the comfort that he knew her so well that he could be confident this gift would turn her frown upside down. That’s love, you know.

Yeah, we’ve had Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and all that, but as for me, I’m going to keep the Red Cabbage story in mind when I think of gifts this year.

And each time I make our annual holiday sauerbraten dinner and present the big dish of cooked red cabbage, I remember the wintry gift that melted the anger of Grandma Thomas.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Cheese Haven, Port Clinton, Ohio

Though we live in Missouri, Sue and I make it at least once a year to Cheesehaven—preferably before the holidays, so we can stock up on goodies for our entertaining. And in our checked luggage, we always smuggle back to Missouri a couple pounds of extra sharp, ten- or eleven-year-old white cheddar, some smoked fish, and a bierwurst.

(When we’re in northern Ohio, we also try to make it to the Vermilion Farm Market, which I’ve told you about before.)

Why am I writing about northern Ohio, in a blog by a Missouri gal? (1) Because it’s where Sue’s from, and we go there often to visit her family. It’s part of our life, and this blog is about our shenanigans. (Yes?) (2) Because northern Ohio’s a great place to visit. (3) Because I’m trying to reinforce a general point, here, about celebrating local businesses and local flavors. (4) And because the Midwest isn’t as lame and homogenized as the TV makes it out to be.

To be honest, the first time I saw a billboard for Cheese Haven (though the logo closes it up as “Cheesehaven,” I think it’s technically two words), I figured it was some kind of tourist-trap cheese outlet filled with lots of ultraprocessed and rubbery, flavorless cheeses for the masses. And lots of nightmare salty jerky. They’re right on a highway exit! In other words, because I read Gourmet magazine and watched the Food Network, I figured I was more classy than Cheese Haven.

I was wrong. There are treasures at Cheese Haven for every culinary taste, from the common to the extraordinary. And if you are looking for some local specialties, you can find them here. (Well, okay, if you’re vegan, you’re probably out of luck. But I digress.)

Here’s What They Carry

Cheese, and lots of it. I’m partial to the aged white cheddar, but there is much more. They’re famous for their smoked cheese, and they have a large selection of flavored types (salami, garlic, hot pepper, and caraway cheeses, for example); standard varieties such as Swiss, Colby, bleu, Gouda, Muenster, and Brie; and a growing list of imported cheeses. They usually have samples available (though I don’t think you’re supposed to make a free meal out of it).

Sausage, meats, and smoked fish. Their beef snack sticks are quite popular, and these make “Slim Jims” seem like parts of a brine-soaked old shoe. Which is to say, the beef snack sticks are actually quite meaty and delicious.

They carry a full line of deli meats, but perhaps the most notable is the store’s own bierwurst, which is made locally for Cheese Haven, using a family recipe that’s been used by the store since it opened in 1949. (It reminds me a lot of the Hott & Asel “baloney,” or garlic sausage, that my own neighborhood association has had made up, based on another vintage recipe, and sold as a fund-raiser.) I think the bierwurst is just the kind of thing you need at your New Year’s Eve party.

And the smoked fish is something we don’t get much around here in Missouri. Until I went to Cheese Haven, the only smoked fish I knew was the raw-looking salmon type—basically lox. But this is the dry-smoked stuff, and although it looks rather creepy and mummified, it is absolutely delicious! It’s intensely flavorful. It’s generally local fish from Lake Erie. Cheese Haven always has some kind of smoked fish available, though the types vary by season. The smoked catfish, for instance, is only available in the spring.

I particularly love the smoked trout and salmon. When I’m feeling decadent, I’ll make a quick pâté out of a bit of it (crumbled) beaten into some cream cheese and chopped shallot. Triscuits really love that kind of thing!

Condiments and relishes. Here again, it’s local. They sell their own brand of mustard, made in the store, as well as the complete line of Woeber’s mustards (from Springfield, Ohio). They also sell “Perfetto” marinara sauce from Sloopy’s Sports Café, a popular area restaurant. And there are jams and jellies, salsas, hot sauces, relishes, and pickles. And pickled eggs!

Wines. Cheese and sausage lead naturally to wine, and northern Ohio is a major grape- and wine-producing region. There are several small wineries on the Lake Erie islands and on the mainland, producing decent reds, cool, rich whites that make you truly appreciate the very soul of the grape, and sweet, regal ice wines. And if you’re not into wines, Cheese Haven sells other beverages, as well.

Candy. I usually don’t spend a lot of time in the candy section of Cheese Haven, but I need to point out that they have lots of candy you don’t find much anymore, including penny candy. They have every flavor of saltwater taffy imaginable, including sassafras! They have lots of old-fashioned candy, too. You can see why I avoid this section—it’s the only way I stand a chance!

Well! It’s looking more and more like a picnic, isn’t it! When I was there last week, I asked them if a lot of their business comes from Cedar Point tourism (Cedar Point is a huge amusement park near Sandusky). And they said that most of their tourism-related business is with people headed to the Lake Erie islands: Put-In Bay and Kelley’s Island, for example, plus local tourism for the Marblehead area, famous for its picturesque historic lighthouse.

This part of northern Ohio is branded to tourists as “America’s North Coast,” and it’s a good slogan. Boating, fishing, and swimming are big draws here. Put-In Bay, on South Bass Island, is a magnet all by itself. People take ferries to the island from Port Clinton, then rent golf carts or bicycles to get around on the island. Put-In Bay’s big lovely waterside park and its many cozy vacation cottages beg for you to bring along a cooler with bread, cheese, sausage, and wine. Which naturally leads you to Cheese Haven!

You might think that, like other businesses that cater to a tourist market, Cheese Haven might close during the off-season—but no way! They’re open year-round; they are closed Mondays and Tuesdays, but they certainly don’t shut down for the winter. (Hey, they have to stay open in order to sell you goodies for the holidays!)

The Cheese Haven Story

When we were there just after Thanksgiving, we noticed a sign that said “Under New Management.” We didn’t see the sign until we were exiting the parking lot on our way back home, so that night the clan sat around and discussed what might have happened at this landmark local business.

I was wondering, too, so I called to get the low-down. Here’s what I found out. Cheese Haven opened in 1949. Its original location was at Old Route 2 and State Route 53. A decade later, it moved to a location that was right across the street from where it is now. In 1989, Cheese Haven moved to its current address.

All those years, it was owned by the same fellow: Richard Brassel, who is called “Pops” by all the locals. He is the father of Tom Geisheimer, who, with his wife, Lisa, recently bought the business. Thus it remains a family-owned store! APPARENTLY I got this wrong--see the comments below! Needless to say, there's been a change in management, but apparently it's still locally run. (—JS, 6-24-11)

We did notice a few changes—most obviously in signage—but you can expect to see some other changes as well. They will be increasing the number of imported cheeses, for example. One thing you won’t see is a big turnover in staff: in this family-run business, the longtime workers are friendly with the owners, and a feeling of mutual goodwill prevails. Alas, alack, apparently I was wrong here, as well. Again, see the comments below.

One More Thing

They sell by mail order, yes they do! You can find Cheese Haven online here. They sell their cheese and sausages individually, plus they also offer gift baskets—combinations of goodies at reasonable prices. If you don’t see it online, give them a call—I’m betting they’ll ship it to you.

Why I Care

If you’re a regular reader, you already know what I’m going to tell you: Please support your local, family-run businesses. They are treasures, full of color and community pride, home of the American Dream. Even if they’re quirky places at times, they nevertheless have genuine character and a commitment to their community. Whether it’s Cheese Haven or another mom-and-pop shop just two blocks away from you, don’t let Walmart and its faceless international corporate cronies squeeze them out of the ring.

Cheese Haven on Urbanspoon

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Leftover Greens

Namely, kale. Yesterday we talked about cooking kale. I know it’s an elementary thing, but to be honest, I didn’t grow up with cooked kale, and if my mom had made it, I probably wouldn’t have touched it. You know how kids are: anything green and wilty is questionable.

But we’re not kids anymore, and we’re trying to build sensible “food pyramids” for ourselves. Maybe you don’t cook with greens much.

So let’s say you made that kale I told you about, and now you’ve got some leftovers. Here are some of my favorite things to do with it!

1. Grilled cheese sandwich. Oh, this is easy, but if you choose good cheese and good bread, you end up with a sandwich that you’d pay, oh, $6.60 or $8.80 for at a downtown restaurant. The kale has a nutty-earthy flavor, so I’d go with a creamy or nutty cheese. Manchego, Swiss, or Monterey Jack, for instance.

2. Poached-egg breakfast. This one requires some pasta sauce, salsa, or other tomatoey sauce (which could be from leftovers, too). Top poached eggs with some reheated greens and drizzle some tomato sauce over. This is pretty darned good. And if you don’t feel like poaching eggs, soft-cooked will do just as well. (Dress it up a little with some crumbled feta? Your call.) I’m pretty sure this is Atkins-friendly, though I myself like a piece of toast for sop.

3. Colcannon soup. Well, or a quick version of this Scottish/Irish classic. This requires some leftover mashed potatoes. Easy, easy, easy: reheat the mashed potatoes, and stir in milk and butter to make a thick, creamy soup. Add the kale to the potato soup. Great for a cold day!

4. Pasta loves leftover kale, too. It can be added to any kind of pasta salad—for instance, you could take it in a “Mediterranean” direction, with Kalamata olives, feta, bell peppers, tomatoes, onions, cucumbers. Or whatever. You can add it to hot pasta, too.

Just ideas. I mean, you know you need more veggies in your diet, right? And aren’t you getting bored with broccoli and green beans?