Friday, November 20, 2015

The Optimist Christmas Trees Are Here!

The weather today is turning sharply colder, and we’re getting the kind of spattery rain that hints of sleet, slush, and snow. It gets you thinking about winter. I even baked some cookies this morning!

I had to run a quick errand this afternoon, and look what I saw: The Optimists’ Christmas trees arrived today!

Yes, I’ve blogged about this before, so if you don’t know who the Optimists are, why they have a Christmas tree lot, or any of the other “back” story, then look at that previous post.

The trees go on sale November 27 (the day after Thanksgiving). Considering that most places start selling Christmas stuff as soon as Halloween is over, I think the Optimists are showing some tasteful restraint! But they do want to sell out of the trees; not only are they perishable, but this is one of their big fund-raising projects.

I just love having them just a block away from our house. I love being able to look out my living room window and see their glowing strings of lights illuminating their lot, down on the corner, on these chilly evenings.

I love walking by the trees on my way to church, and breathing in that pleasant scent of fresh pine and fir. I love how little stray sprigs of firs lay on the sidewalk, releasing their aroma as people occasionally step on them.

I love the longevity of the Optimists and their Christmas tree sales. For as long as I can remember, my family has always gotten our Christmas trees from this nonprofit Friend of Youth.

So far, the trees are just laying there; they haven’t been set up for sale yet—but I’ll bet they begin selling them this weekend. If you’re going to buy a genuine tree this year, I can endorse the Optimists. They do good work with their funds.

Here in the Munichburg neighborhood in Jefferson City, you can find them on the corner of Broadway and West Dunklin, on the lawn of the Carpenters’ Building (originally Broadway Elementary School).

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Aramco World: One of the Best Magazines You’ve Never Heard Of

Dear foodie friends, dear inquisitive, appreciative, humanist friends, here is one of the best magazines you’ve never heard of: Aramco World.

But you have heard of National Geographic, right? And that’s the closest magazine I can think of to compare it to. Aramco World, however, focuses specifically on “Arab and Islamic cultures and connections.” I suppose if you have a cold, cynical attitude, you might view the magazine skeptically, as propaganda, published in Houston by Saudi Arabia’s national oil company, Saudi Aramco.

But there’s nothing charitable or even accurate about such an assessment, since oil, economics, and extremist politics are not the focus. It really is about cultures and connections, and that is something our world badly needs.

Too often we get our news in soundbytes and headlines, which objectify people and portray them, at best, as total strangers. “Others.” We need to be reminded that “those people” who live “somewhere else” are just as human as anyone else we know. Just like us, they have cherished customs and traditions. Just like us, they get up in the morning and go to work, God willing, and try to do something that makes the world better, or more beautiful, more fruitful, or healthier.

Aramco World magazine shows and celebrates the worldwide spectrum of Arab and Islamic cultures. They have articles about exploration and history; about medicine and science; about art, architecture, music, and crafts; about age-old customs of hospitality, charity, and family.

The art and food articles are my favorite. One real standout, in 2004, was Eric Hansen’s twin articles on the agricultural and ethnobotanical history of dates, “Looking for the Khalasah,” about date growing in California, and “Carrying Dates to Hajar,” about Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, the world’s largest date-growing region. (Click here for those articles. That July/August 2004 issue was full of excellent articles—one on the city of Marseille, France, long an international crossroads; one on an Arab music store owner in Brooklyn who delights in helping people find Arab music CDs; and one on a surprising Minnesota discovery of a trove of unknown glass-plate negatives showing Jerusalem in the 1850s.) is a truly excellent website, containing a complete and wonderfully organized archive of all their well-written, beautifully illustrated articles. But if you’re like me, you might prefer to read the actual printed magazine. I like to read an article with my cereal in the morning! And guess what: Subscriptions are free!

There’s a section in the back of the magazine that offers educators ideas for using the issue in a classroom; another section in the back provides an “Events and Exhibitions” calendar—global in scope—that feature Arab and Muslim art and history.

My dad has gotten this magazine for decades—he’s a geographer, see, and anything remotely resembling geographic knowledge is something incredibly nourishing to him.

Once he’s read them, he passes his issues on to me. When he gave me the July/August 2015 issue, he told me, “You have to read the article on Uzbekistan flatbreads!” And he was right! What a beautifully written article, with equally engrossing photos. (Again, by Eric Hansen.)

A few years ago, there was a similarly fascinating, colorful article on “Morocco’s Threads of Red Gold”—saffron, the most expensive spice in the world. To my delight, it included recipes for saffron tea (pretty simple) and for “lamb tagine with oranges, saffron, and candied orange peel.” (A little more complex!)

But ultimately, it’s not about the food at all—it’s about the people, their traditions, their culture . . . their humanity. And this is the true gift of Aramco World: seeing the broader perspective that we are, in our heart of hearts, all in the same family. We must always keep this in mind.

I encourage you to check out this magazine. Look at it online, and if you like what you see, consider getting a subscription, or a gift subscription, for someone you know who’ll like it. (The holidays are coming up!)

P.S. Aramco World doesn’t run any advertisements, and it’s not available in bookstores, much less grocery-store checkout lanes. You have to get it online or by mail.

Note: Sorry about my crappy photos of the magazine; I just wanted to give you a small idea of what kinds of images greet you when you open its cover! Do go to and check out the current and back issues!

Friday, November 6, 2015

Sage-Walnut Pesto

It’s autumn. Before the freeze, those of us with herb gardens are wondering what we’re gonna do with our lovely herbs, because we sure don’t want to lose them, and they’re so perishable!

Sage is a special question for me. I grow it every year, partly because it overwinters and comes back for free in the spring, but mostly because it’s de rigueur to have sage in one’s herb garden. But I don’t cook with sage very much. It’s strong, and it doesn’t figure into many of the cuisines I tend to cook. (Honestly, I’d do much better to have a private supply of cilantro and fenugreek!)

The main things I can think of to do with sage are: 1) poultry; 2) brown sugar–winter squash concoctions; and 3) frying the leaves and using them as a garnish.

“Why don’t you dry them?” —I usually back away from drying herbs, because no matter what, they always taste like straw. Yes, I have a dehydrator, and I agree that drying one’s own is much better than buying it pre-desiccated. But it still loses so much in the process. (Parsley is an exception: Dried, it can still be used as a visual garnish, and since it retains respectable vitamin content, it can go into grilled cheese sandwiches or scrambled eggs as an easy nutrient booster.) But most herbs? Like everything else, it’s just sad to dry them.

Fresh or old, dried sage always tastes old.

But if you can get your fresh herbs melded with oil, they tend to freeze okay. And frozen pesto is great to have on hand, because when you use it, you can make some pretty humdrum foods into something you’d have to pay $6.60 or even $8.80 for in a New York restaurant.

This is based on a recipe I found on the Internet, but I’ve tripled the quantities, plus increased the amount of sage compared to parsley, since I usually have more of the former that I want to use up. So feel free to adjust the ratio of sage to parsley, even to the point where there’s much more parsley than sage. (This isn’t exactly rocket science.)

Sage-Walnut Pesto

1/4 cup parsley
3/4 cup fresh sage leaves
3 garlic cloves
2-3 teaspoons salt (to taste)
3 cups walnuts (English/Persian walnuts this time, not black walnuts)
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 cup grated parmesan cheese

Put the walnuts in a food processor, first, by themselves, and pulse/grind until you obtain a rather coarse, meal-like texture. Then dump that into a mixing bowl and set aside.

Then, put the rest of the ingredients in the processor, and process until it’s well-blended (puréed).

Then pour it into the ground walnuts and stir to combine. It will seem rather dry, for pesto. It should make about 3 cups of pesto.

Pack into two or three 1-quart freezer zip bags and flatten to about 1/3 inch thick; as you do so, squeeze as much air out of the bag as you can (air causes freezer burn). Freeze the bag flat on a cookie sheet for easy storage. To use, open the bag and break off the amount you need (be careful, since you probably don’t want to tear the bag). It will thaw quickly in a bowl.

Note #1: If you are using it to stuff, say, chicken breasts, you might just leave the pesto frozen as flat little chunks, since it handles better that way. Why not?

Note #2: I suppose you could use pecans instead of walnuts . . . but then it would be “sage-pecan pesto,” eh?

Note #3: I don’t know how your food processor works, but with mine, I kinda have to pre-chop the herbs, and press the garlic, before I process it. Maybe my blades are getting dull; it’s an old machine. Anyway, be advised . . .

Using Sage-Walnut Pesto

This probably isn’t the kind of pesto you’d put on pasta or use as a spread on sandwiches or pizza. It’s rather crumbly. And its flavors don’t seem to go with stereotypical “Italian” or “Mediterranean” dishes. However, here are some things I’ve done with it, and gotten good reviews:

Filling for stuffed chicken or turkey breasts. Great for chilly evenings. Not great if you don’t like sage. (But then, if you don’t like sage, why are you reading this?) Cut a pocket into chicken breasts, or pound them to about 1/2 inch thick (sprinkle water on the chicken, put it in a large resealable bag and don’t seal it all the way, or put it between layers of plastic wrap, and then pound with a rolling pin, say, or an empty wine bottle). Put a big bunch of the sage-walnut pesto into the pocket, or wrap it in the pounded chicken, and then tie with butcher’s twine or fix it closed with toothpicks. Oil it, brown it, and cook however you want—covered with foil in the oven, or in a heavy, lidded pan on the stovetop. Serve with mashed potatoes and gravy.

Sage-walnut turkey pan meatloaf. Make a meatloaf mixture out of a pound of ground turkey, 1 beaten egg, 1/2 cup bread crumbs, 1/2 to 1 cup sage-walnut pesto, and some sautéed-and-cooled chopped shallots and mushrooms, plus salt, pepper, and a jot or two of Worcestershire sauce. Shape into big oval hamburgers about 1 inch thick and pan-fry in olive oil about 6 minutes per side, set aside and keep warm. Then, melt a few tablespoons of butter in the pan drippings, and make a roux with a few tablespoons flour. Add about 2 cups of chicken stock and whisk to make a gravy, and season it with poultry seasoning, salt, and pepper. Pour over the patties. Again, mashed potatoes are a good accompaniment.

Sage-walnut turkey meatballs. Make like the pan meatloaf above, only shape into flattened meatballs. Sauté until done. Use in pita sandwiches or tortilla wraps, with mayo, lettuce, fresh tomatoes, sliced onion. Or, go all “Thanksgiving” with it and fill the sandwich with some leftover dressing, cranberries, and cooked sweet potatoes. Or, dip into plain yogurt as an appetizer or light lunch.

Use your imagination—poultry always goes well with sage, but I’ll bet this would be great mixed with sweet potatoes or winter squash, stuffed into large pasta shells or ravioli, and served with a brown butter sauce. I think it would be a great addition to a bread- or cornbread-based stuffing recipe—use it like you would dried sage, only expect it to taste much fresher and stronger, with a slight crunch from the nuts.

I’m sure you can think of more ideas!