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Post-Passover and the Unholy Host(ess)

gratinghorseradish

Grating horseradish (at least for a small quantity) is not really the big deal I once thought because I saw a superhostess friend of mine struggle with it every year. While you’re admiring my diligence and handmade everything, just like my friend but slightly saner, please go ahead and dig the groovy paper plates. The only way to do Passover, or any obligatory celebration, in my humble opinion.

Last week a friend at shul asked me, tongue in cheek, whether we could use an extra couple of boxes of leftover matzah. What can you say to an offer like that?

I asked him if he wanted to trade with us–we both seemed to have the same amount and brand.  He sighed and said that even his chickens, which eat almost any kind of scraps, are still sick of matzah at this point. So’s our cat (do not ask why cats think matzah is interesting. It makes no more sense than why they go after taco chips).

This is all by way of explaining why I haven’t been blogging so much lately. Is there still something new to discover about Passover cooking? Other, I mean, than the tentative trend to re-include legumes and rice. This year, unpleasantly, the bag of rice I bought turned out to be rancid (you don’t need me to explain this. The sour or barny smell will clue you in if you ever get a bag that’s off, and no it won’t rinse or cook out. Take it back to the store).  Was it a Message from the Almighty ™ or just a bad bag of rice? Only the potato knows. In any case…

The week before Passover, I tend to feel a lot more like Bart Simpson than usual. Even my hair gets spikier (though not blond, never blond). I envision Bart standing before the chalkboard at Pesach, having committed yet another farfetched classroom sin. Only my litany goes something like this:

  1. I will eat mostly vegetables.
  2. I will not eat any foods containing hidden matzah after the seder.
  3. I will not eat foods adding up in practice to six eggs a day OR anything made mostly of potato–except for an actual  plain steamed potato.
  4. I will not just scarf canned coconut macaroons when I don’t know what I really need to be eating or am too lazy to find it.
  5. I will not let my husband buy fake Passover cheerios for a zillion bucks a box when five full boxes of whole wheat matzah are staring at me, I have sliced almonds AND steam-defatted organic coconut shreds in the freezer, AND brown sugar and cinnamon, and that’s all you need to make matzahnola from scratch in five seconds flat. Or we can just eat plain yogurt with a spoonful of jam or some berries.
  6. I will eat yogurt.
  7. I will make soup.
  8. I will resist the temptation to buy yet another fresh unopened can of potato starch. I still have 95 percent of last year’s.
  9. Next year I am launching the Paschal answer to the Washington Post‘s Peeps Competition. I think I’ll call it The ‘Roon Run. Dioramas made from canned macaroons in any configuration, with or without goggle-eyes, toothpicks, pipe cleaners, construction paper in many forms  and (of course) glitter. Almost like the real thing, only not purple, pink or yellow…

Sigh. Now that Pesach is over, except for the three boxes of matzah we still have and which we are supposedly allowed to eat any time of the year….I can add one or two more items to my chalkboard manifesto.

Number one, I will not cook seventy-two times a day. For anyone. Which is what it often feels like when your husband and child are both at home the whole week, or nearly.

And really, what great things was I making? Mostly the same stuff I always make, only with potatoes instead of pasta or rice.

Well, there were a few improvements this year:

Zucchini latkes–Grate a zucchini or two and about a quarter of an onion or just add a couple of chopped scallions into a bowl, then a clove of garlic, then crumble some feta and add chopped basil or a bit of thyme, stir in an egg and a spoonful of matzah meal, and fry in patties in olive oil. Quantities? Quantities are for finicky people who actually follow recipes. I’m not sure I qualify anymore.

More refined whole-wheat Passover blintzes: Whole wheat matzah cake meal still tends to be a bit gritty if you use it straight, and it doesn’t have as much cohesiveness as you’d like for crêpes. I found I could grind it finer successfully by dumping half a cup at a time in my poor abused coffee grinder and whizzing it a few seconds.

Crêpes for 10 blintzes should be about half a cup of “Turkish grind” whole wheat matzah cake meal, a spoonful of potato starch, a cup of milk and two eggs mixed in. Then you have to let the batter sit because matzah meal is so much drier than regular flour that it will thicken much further than you expected. Add more milk to thin it out to a drizzle, about the texture of cream. A spoonful of sugar and a small shake or pinch of nutmeg will give it that French flair.

What else? Oh yeah:

Hrein. Horseradish. I’ve never made it by hand before, and whenever we go over to a super-cook friend’s house for Passover, she makes a blenderful of excessively potent horseradish and says how tough it was to grind up, so I always figured it was more trouble than it was worth. The fresh roots always look awful and muddy, too. But this year there wasn’t any horseradish in the supermarket without either dairy or odd ingredients. So I bought one of the huge foul-looking muddy roots on sale in the produce section.

I have a very sharp paring knife, and the peeling went much easier than advertised. I cut a two-inch chunk of the peeled root and grated it on the small holes of my trusty cheap plane grater (note, not “microplane”, which might not hold up under the pressure)  by hand over a plate. It took only a minute or so. I piled the shavings into a cup, poured just as much apple cider vinegar over them as they could absorb, added a pinch of salt (Joan Nathan and most others say add a pinch of sugar and some black pepper as well, but I didn’t bother), and stir and cover and chill.

Verdict: pretty good!

–  –  –  –  –

But back to the chalkboard litany. My second hard-won lesson, which I assure you I will exercise much past the final sundown of Passover, is to pick my guests carefully. 

I got an eye-opener as to why hostesses with the mostess use white tablecloths and cloth napkins and those awful cut-glass olive dishes when they have people over. Turns out it’s not just to be fussy. No. All that formal crap I always hated is very important protective armor to keep the guests in line via mild intimidation and prevent them from taking advantage of you. Same strategy as used by all the major French restaurants.  To wit:

We had friends over for the 7th night. Stressful enough without it also being a seder they had suggested–and somehow it ended up being at our house! Which meant I had to do the cleaning and yelling at my nearest and dearest to help get the bathrooms and living room cleaned up somewhat in advance of the guests’ arrival…and it meant doing most of the cooking! How did I let this happen?!

It would never have worked at all if our friends hadn’t been reasonably unpicky, and to be honest in the aftermath, it mostly turned out okay. It was still stressful in unpredictable ways, though, ways I am planning to learn from for my daughter’s bat mitzvah celebrations in a couple of months.

What exactly went wrong? Despite a simple but pretty decent menu for 6 people–salmon, asparagus, potatoes, salad (which they brought), haroset, hrain, hard boiled eggs, parsley, salt water, matzah, and an apple-almond cake–oh, and wine–there were a few raw moments I just hadn’t counted on.

I was frazzled enough before they came, hoping a. they would arrive earlyish because it was a school night for my daughter and b. the food wouldn’t all dry out or get cold before we got to the fifth question (“When do we eat?”)

I am (and this is stating it gently) not exactly the hostess with the mostess. Could you tell? Other people are unquestionably more organized and juggle things more gracefully than I do, and they remember all the right sauces and accessories for each dish and make it look pretty with a lettuce leaf under it. I’m still working on that one.

Our guests came just late enough, as it turned out, for me to get most of everything done, including grinding new horseradish (see above) and chopping some last minute apple for haroset and finding out where the parsley had migrated to in the back of the fridge. The fish was just going into the oven when they arrived.

They were a bit flustered with good intentions and a lot of salad fixings and a huge glass bowl to put them in, but somehow the wine they’d intended to bring had been left behind and they started arguing back and forth about who was supposed to have taken it. It took almost half an hour to settle them down even though we reassured them we had wine and they shouldn’t worry about it. I’m pretty sure the cut-glass olive dish ploy would have been good here.

The food turned out okay, and the seder was the 30minuteseder.com variety, which turned out pretty well.

But then came the seemingly all-important question of dessert. I always think that if the food is good in and of itself, that’s going to be good enough, and no required fussing will make or break it. Especially with informal friends.

How wrong I was.

I had made an apple-almond torte that afternoon because it’s really good, it’s relatively simple, it’s not the classic choke-cake, and our friends said they hadn’t had any kind of real Passover dessert all week. Also, I can usually  microwave it, which makes life a little less crunched. But I added an extra egg white, hoping it would lift and stay lifted…well…it did. Be careful what you wish for! This time, even with a bigger, deeper pan, nearly a soufflé dish, it started rising to overflow, like a soufflé gone haywire, after just three minutes.

Apple-almond cake
With an extra egg white, this cake rose like a soufflé in the microwave and quickly needed rescuing, so I stuck it in the regular oven to finish cooking. No, I didn’t serve it this way.

So I did my best with it, transferred it to a hot oven half-cooked as it was, and quickly had to shield the top edges with foil so they wouldn’t start burning like a marshmallow over a flame. The oven took about 40 minutes–you can see why I prefer microwaving in 7-10 minutes–but the color was beautiful and brown and caramelized on top, like a big meringue, and the cake stayed moist and fluffy inside. A little hard to cut and serve neatly, but good.

But–not the ideal hostess, as I say–I don’t do decoration very much. I didn’t go with sliced almonds or lemon slices or whatever on top, partly because I started out intending to microwave it. But if I had decorated–maybe my guests would have recognized it as an actual dessert? Maybe they would have behaved better if it had looked a little fancier? Or been set on a doily with a silverplated cake slice (which I don’t actually own, come to think of it)?

Because when I brought out the cake and strawberries, the first thing out of their daughter’s mouth was, “Do you have any chocolate-covered matzah?” Mind you, she’s not six, she’s fourteen. This request was backed up by a disconcertingly hopeful look in her parents’ eyes (and these are some disconcertingly Whole Wheat-espousing people). We did actually have a box of chocolate-covered matzah on the shelf.

My husband and I shrugged at each other and put it on the table as my heart sank. They sailed into it as though we had intentionally starved them for weeks. We’re talking about chocolate-covered matzah. Not great chocolate; ordinary Hershey’s grade coating chocolate. On matzah.

Even more surprising was the father–he came into the kitchen shortly after dessert was served and said, “Boy, your daughter must not get many sweets. She likes that cake.”

For a moment I was ready to snarl and hand them their hats, their salad bowl, and their daughter along with a marked-down box of Manischewitz choke-cake mix. But maybe he didn’t mean it the way it came out? So I took a deep breath and–with shocking hostess-mojo, considering how bad at it I usually am–deflected the criticism by shrugging airily and replying calmly that my daughter has a sophisticated palate that cheerfully encompasses all kinds of fresh foods, including broccoli and brussels sprouts. It worked like a charm: He forgot all about the apple-almond cake he’d dissed because it wasn’t something chocolate-covered, and launched into a boyhood shudder about brussels sprouts instead. Problem solved!

I give up, I tell you. Purely in self-protective mode, I’m adding one final lesson to the chalkboard. Tablecloths and cake servers will be mandatory from now on, even though I personally despise them. And brussels sprouts are definitely on next year’s menu. Covered in chocolate, obviously. ‘Nuff said.

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