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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

One for the Table Gets Ready for the Holidays

Amy Ephron's One for the Table recently posted a holiday special called "Xmas on Your Doorstep." Regular contributors were asked to talk about,
... their favorite things that come in the mail at Xmas. We always think that one of the nicest things to do, if you can’t be with someone at the holidays, is to send something that can be part of their holiday meal, Xmas dinner, Xmas breakfast. A favorite jam, a basket of muffins, crab cakes, caviar (although this may not be the year for that), an apple pie, candleholders, a smoked ham or turkey, or even barbecued brisket!
Steven Zaillian, Alan Zweibel, Agatha French, Emily Fox, Susan Dolgen, Lisa Dinsmore, Andrea Pyenson, David Israel, Seale Ballenger, and Brenda Athanus remembered with fondness gifts that came in the mail that were as varied as "Mexican wedding cookies" and "a small shovel".

I contributed my own more conflicted response, detailing what was a continuing debate in my parents' household during the holiday season. My father was all in favor of Mail Order Food. My mother was not.
Mail Order Food

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I associate mail order food with my father. When I was growing up, he and I had very few connections. He took me to only one professional football game. He never came to Back-to-School Night and had no interest in any of my hobbies. I remember him as dour, not very talkative and disapproving. I was part of his second family and he was, I’m certain, just a bit too old to have a young kid running around.

Added to that, my father was burdened by tragedy. He was the eldest son of a prosperous Jewish family in Odessa on the Black Sea. Unfortunately when the Russian Revolution swept across the country, Bolsheviks rampaged through his neighborhood, lining up and shooting many people, including my father’s family. Being Jewish and well-to-do were two strikes too many at a time when “line them up against the wall” was meant literally.

Luckily for my father, when all this happened, he was studying at the University of Kiev. He learned later that his mother had survived because she had very thick hair. When she was shot at point blank range, the gunpowder was apparently so weak that the bullet merely lodged in her hair, knocking her unconscious and otherwise leaving her unharmed. My father never returned home to Odessa, having been told that he needed to flee the country, which he promptly did.

This is a long way of saying that my father spent his entire life reacting to this tragic event. The few times I remember him being happy was when he watched wrestling on TV (remember Gorgeous George?) and when the mail order food packages arrived during the holidays.

lattparents.jpgI was convinced that those packages reconnected him with happier memories of his family in Odessa. I remember watching him at the dining room table as he unpacked the treats he'd ordered: wine soaked cheddar in crocks, salamis rolled in herbs, specialty English crackers, chocolates from Belgium, tins of anchovies and sardines, glass jars with Italian antipasti, pasteurized caviar from the Caspian Sea, and cellophane wrapped packages of Russian black bread. He would get out a plate and encourage my mother and myself to share them with him. It would take him several days to finish everything and in that time he would munch away contentedly, a smile on his face.

But for my mother, those packages were an issue of contention. To her they were an extravagance. We had to watch our expenses in those days and we couldn't afford such luxuries, but my dad was old school and felt that this was one of his few pleasures and he should be indulged. Unfortunately my father had inherited his family's love of the good life without having inherited their wealth.

img80m.jpgMy dad died some years ago, my mom in 2006, but when the holiday catalogues start to arrive around Thanksgiving, I relive their debate about mail order food. The catalogues I enjoy the most are from Williams-Sonoma and Sur La Table with their exquisite photographs and seductive descriptions. I look lovingly at the boxes of Handcrafted Toffee, Cream-Nut Milk-Chocolate Peanut Butter Clusters, Perfect Endings Cupcakes, Chocolate-Dipped Peppermint Moravian Cookies, wheels of Stilton Cheese, the D'Artagnan Pate Collection, and the Niman Ranch Applewood Smoked Ham. And I am seriously tempted to buy something.

Then I look at the prices and return to my senses. My mother taught me all too well. Her reproof to my father that mail order food is too expensive rings in my ears and, besides which, as she and my grandmother always said, "Never buy retail." And yet, that smoked ham sounds really delicious, as does the handcrafted toffee, and there would be the added pleasure of connecting with my father who, for all his many faults, did imbue me with a love of good food.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Couscous Steps Up to the Plate as a Main Course

Traditional couscous has a home in the flavorful cuisines of North Africa. Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, and Libya have perfected a small grained, steamed couscous that contrasts well with their spicy sauces. Preparing authentic couscous requires a steamer and considerable patience. The result, while delicious, is too time-consuming for most people.

Instant couscous is now widely available, made with either white or whole wheat flour. Requiring only 10 minutes in a hot water bath, this small grained version is perfect for a grilled vegetable couscous salad.

There is also a larger pearl-sized, "Israeli" couscous, which is prepared in a manner similar to risotto. The grains are first lightly toasted in olive oil, then a liquid is added. The grains soak up the liquid as they cook and expand 2-3 times their original size. With the addition of vegetables or meat, this version can easily be a main course.

Couscous with Vegetables

Aesthetically I like to keep all the ingredients about the same size as the cooked couscous grains. Because couscous is a pasta, it will continue to absorb all the liquid it's given, so the couscous should be served as soon as it is cooked. Don't put in too much liquid or you risk overloading the grains and making them mushy.

Yield: 4 servings
Time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

1 cup Israeli couscous
1 medium yellow onion, washed, peeled, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, peeled, finely chopped
1 carrot, peeled, finely chopped
1 celery stalk, washed, trimmed, finely chopped
4 brown or shiitake mushrooms, washed, finely chopped
1/2 cup Italian parsley, washed, finely chopped, leaves and stems
1/2 cup corn kernels
2-3 cups liquid, water
1 tablespoon sweet butter
Olive oil
Sea salt and pepper

Method

Over a medium flame, heat a tablespoon of olive oil, seasoned with sea salt and pepper. Add the couscous and lightly brown. Remove from the pan.

Add another tablespoon of olive oil, seasoned with sea salt and pepper, and saute the onions, carrots, celery, garlic, parsley, corn, and mushrooms until lightly browned. Add the butter and put back the toasted couscous, stir well, pour in 2 cups of water.

Heat uncovered for 5-10 minutes, stirring to prevent burning. Taste a couscous grain. If it needs more liquid, add a cup of water, stir, and continue to simmer another 5 minutes. Taste and add more sea salt and pepper as needed.

Serve immediately.

Variations

Add 1 cup chopped spinach leaves, no stems, when you add the liquid.

Add finely chopped broccoli or squash or red peppers or tomatoes to the vegetable saute.

Use meat stock (chicken, beef, or veal) instead of water.

Add finely chopped chicken meat or sausage to the vegetable saute.