Celebrating 2014, The Year of the Horse

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Is it too late to wish you a happy new year?  Not if you follow the Chinese calendar which ushers in the Year of the Horse today or tomorrow, depending on where in the world you are. For most of us, it’s been a new year since January 1st and as usual I began my year with an open house. I’ve been holding an open house on New Year’s Day for so many years, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t.  It must be 20 years, at least. And every year I ask myself  “Do you really want to do this or are you doing it only because you’ve always done it?”  So far, I’ve always concluded that I really want to do it. Even for me, a professional cook, it’s a lot of work. Perhaps I should say, especially for me as a professional cook, it is a lot of work–no going to Costco or Whole Foods and buying prepared foods. Having a reputation of sorts to uphold, I figure everything (or almost) must be homemade and cooked from scratch.

There are any number of reasons I continue.  First, I love sharing my home with friends, and January 1st is the only time when friends from various parts of my life come together.  Also, as a caterer I must consider first my clients needs and tastes, and this is one occasion when I am the client and can create a menu solely to please myself (and hopefully, my guests). Therefore, I take it as an opportunity to  try new recipes or revive lost recipes. Too, having invited people over spurs me to complete small projects around the house that I’ve been procrastinating about. And finally, because years pass so quickly, I do find satisfaction in taking special care to celebrate the beginning of each new one.

How do I plan the open house? I begin thinking about a possible menu, weeks and sometimes months ahead.  Sometimes it will have an ethnic theme, other times it’s more a collection of dishes I like which I feel will go together. It would be easier were  my friends of one mind about what to eat.  Alas, that is so not the case. Some are vegan, others probably don’t feel they’ve eaten properly if  they didn’t see a sizable piece of meat on their plate. My menus, unlike so many holiday menus which can be heavy on meat, fat and sugar, lean heavily vegetarian, with only a bit of animal protein and with vegetables in the starring role. Also, as a matter of practicality, I very much favor dishes which can be made a bit ahead and served at room temperature. And although I have chafing dishes, I prefer not to use them.

Once I have a menu in mind, I make a detailed shopping list and head to Berkeley Bowl, where I love to shop because of their unmatched produce department and because I can most likely find everything else I need as well. This year, as he has for several years, my friend Frank Melanson came three days before the party to be my decorator, sous chef, and chief silver polisher. Frank helps with everything that makes a party run smoothly, and slips away before the first guest arrives. This year, my housemate, Mike Rother, also helped with cleaning and tidying, which is saying a lot, because when I cook, I make a mess!

(Find the full menu, descriptions of the dishes, and more photos after the jump).

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Thanksgivings–Past and Present

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I don’t know about you, but there have been times, and more than a few, when I’ve been thoroughly ambivalent about Thanksgiving, wanting nothing more than to avoid all the expected ritual. Several times, back in the seventies, I found myself outside the U.S., in places where it is just another work day. And too, I remember that I observed my first Thanksgiving after moving to New York City by taking a meandering walk through Central Park. The nonconformist in me resists the thought of eating a set menu on the fourth Thursday of November, just because everyone else does. In short, Thanksgiving and I have not always been on the friendliest of terms.

And yet, now that I’m in my “golden” years, I  see the value of family and friends taking time to gather around a table and eat a home cooked meal together. Which brings me to the photograph above, where you see all the close relatives of my maternal grandmother’s family gathered one chilly Thanksgiving day more than sixty years ago.  The setting is the dining room of the drafty house on the family farm where my grandmother was born, reared and married, and where my siblings and I also grew up.

This iconic family photograph (with turkey front and center), as far as I can tell, was taken by my father on Thanksgiving Day, November 23, 1950. I don’t know for certain that the year is 1950, but I appear to be about six years old and my sister about two, which would make it 1950 (I’m the smaller of the two boys in front of my mother who is standing in the rear and that’s my little sister in the red dress).  This Norman Rockwell-like scene, now seems  so distant from me that it’s hard to fathom that it happened in my lifetime.  I find it poignant that all the little kids in this photo are now senior citizens, and all the adults, with the single exception of my mother, have long since passed on. My mother, a 28-year-0ld housewife in 1950, celebrated her 91st birthday this year.

I can scarcely imagine what was going through her mind on this day when she was charged not only with supervising two little kids, but with cooking the year’s most significant meal for the elders of her mother’s family. At the head of the table, sits my mother’s great uncle, Thomas Jones who died within a  year or two, and to his right, my great, great aunt, Mary D. Jones, who was born the year the Civil War ended, and who died in 1966, just short of her 100th birthday. At the table also, are my mother’s parents, her brother (and only sibling) John, his wife and three of their children. The woman on the far left, we knew as “aunt”  Rosella, although we were not actually related. I should note that we kids were brought around this table only for the sake of picture taking–for dinner, we were relegated to a kid’s table in the kitchen.

This November day is likely one of the few times all these folks gathered in one place. Soon enough the elders died, my aunt, uncle and cousins moved to South Dakota and then to California. And I fled for parts far away as soon as I could. But I love how this photograph captures a moment now long gone and one which was never to come again.

And so, although I have not always rigorously observed this holiday, I am grateful that I grew up in a household which did.  I am grateful that my mother willingly took on the consequential task of entertaining her extended family.  I’m grateful that my father took the time to make this photograph. And I’m grateful that my parents kept us connected to their families, thus giving us kids a better sense of our place in the world.

As for me, and this Thanksgiving day, a small group of friends are gathering around my dining room table. The menu, I suspect, is strikingly similar to my mother’s on that day so long ago.

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Photo above: Siblings of my grandmother’s mother, my great, great uncle Thomas Jones, and great, great aunt Mary D. Jones arrive at the family farm November 23, 1950. In the background are cribs used for storing and drying field corn. Photos by Edward Alinder

Food and Culture: The Amazing Story of Minnesota’s Thriving Food Co-ops

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As some of you know, I’m in the middle of my annual visit to Minnesota. I’m spending ten days with family and friends, and mostly with my 89-year-old mother. Although I’m on vacation, I can’t help noting the status of Minnesota’s food culture.  Two years ago, in my first blog post, I wrote about the notorious food-on-a-stick at the Minnesota State Fair. I didn’t visit the fair this year, but I did check out something which gives me a lot of hope, and that is Minnesota’s vigorous food co-op movement.

Co-ops (short for co-operatives) were brought to Minnesota by northern European immigrants in the 19th Century and thrived well into the 20th. Co-ops are businesses owned by their customers, who buy shares and either receive a discount on purchases or a percentage of the profits, and are usually governed by an elected board of directors. Fifty or sixty years ago, it wasn’t unusual for small Minnesota towns to have a co-op gas station, creamery, grocery store, even a general merchandise store. As those co-ops declined, a new style of co-op, inspired by the alternative culture movement, sprang up all around the country, really, but these new co-ops seem to have endured especially well in Minnesota.

Needing to shop for dinner, my mom and I headed to the new and nearby St. Peter Food Co-op. St. Peter is a college town of fewer than 10,000 people deep in Minnesota farm country, but this market is one any sophisticated urban neighborhood would be happy to claim. I was thrilled to see how roomy, well-stocked and beautiful a store it is.

The St. Peter Food Co-op first opened as an all-volunteer, storefront business in July of 1979. It expanded about ten years later, survived a horrendous tornado which hit the town in 1998 and moved into its present site this past April. The co-op raised $900,000 in new and renewed memberships and received a loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to finance the more than $3 million it took to buy and renovate a sixty-year-old auto dealership into a stylish natural foods supermarket. Although the store sells a wide range of goods, they feature local and organic foods as much as possible and have some 500 items in bulk. I was impressed to see an attractive deli, salad bar, in-house bakery, and inside and outdoor seating.  In short, I wish this store were in my neighborhood!

What is perhaps more impressive is that this is just one of more than forty food co-ops in Minnesota, ranging from the Wedge in Minneapolis which operates its own organic farm (and where I used to shop), to the Countryside Co-op in tiny Hackensack (population 313) in north central Minnesota. I’m heartened to see that this healthy food movement is not confined to hip, urban enclaves, but is spread throughout the state. As depressed as I sometimes get about the state of America’s food and health, I am immensely cheered to see how people here in Minnesota are working to create healthy soil, nourishing food and meaningful work. To everyone involved in this movement, I say a hearty thank-you and best wishes for a bright future!

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Photos–Top: Locally-grown, mostly organic produce. Above: The St. Peter Food Co-op faces Minnesota Avenue in downtown St. Peter (more photos after the jump).

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The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking: Curried Red Kidney Beans With Roasted Butternut Squash

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If you’ve ever pursued an interest in vegetarian cooking, it’s likely you’ve been drawn to Indian food. India, it seems to me, is home to the world’s most sophisticated and highly developed vegetarian cuisine. And no wonder, given India’s ancient culture, and its hundreds of millions of vegetarians. Although I once took cooking classes from two Indian women, my knowledge of Indian cooking is pretty superficial, coming mostly from cookbooks and an occasional restaurant meal. Nevertheless, I can’t keep myself from dabbling. Currently, I’m taking inspiration from The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking, an 800-page tome which seems to me to be the most comprehensive Indian vegetarian cookbook written for American readers. The author, Yamuna Devi, is an American who was known as Joan Campanella before she became a disciple of Srila Prabhupada and began her life-long study of India’s spirituality and cuisine. This is a serious, but very usable book, with more than 500 recipes, and no pretty pictures. It’s a book I’ll refer to time and again as I share with you my interest in Indian cooking. Today’s recipe is only loosely based on one of Devi’s, but I expect it will be the first of many to be inspired by this stimulating book. My recipe for curried red kidney beans with roasted butternut squash is after the jump.

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Summer’s Harvest: Cook Up a Lovely Pot of “Sufferin’ Succotash”

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“Succotash” is one of those words that’s just a whole lot of fun to say. To my mind, the best way to get a chance to say it is to cook up a batch of this homey American dish. Succotash has deep roots in American culinary history, as first citing for use of the word dates to 1751. I’d imagined it was of Southern origin, but it turns out to be from New England, it’s name derived from the Narragansett Indian word for “boiled corn kernels.” Although lima beans and corn are the defining ingredients, quite honestly, you could substitute fava beans or edamame and still have a respectable succotash. Since we’re in midsummer, I give you my warm weather version, using fresh ingredients. When the weather turns cool, I’ll share my alternate recipe which makes use of dried corn and lima beans, along with winter squash. Eat this as a vegetable side dish, or do as I did for dinner tonight: stuff it into warm corn tortillas and top with salsa. It was a wonderful light meal. And if you can’t recall who popularized the phrase “sufferin’ succotash,” it was Sylvester the cat in classic Warner Brothers cartoons from the forties and fifties (which I must confess, I’m old enough to remember). See my recipe after the jump.

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Want To Have a Lovely Meal? First, Set a Pretty Table.

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It’s sad but true that we live in an era when most meals are eaten standing up, while driving, or sitting in front of a TV.  It’s rumored that some people (I won’t mention names) eat breakfast while checking email and reading the news on line.  Folks, we can do better than this! A pleasant, calm dining environment shows we respect our food, and leads, I suspect, to better digestion, and better health. I created this vignette for friends who came to dinner last night. The pastel blue and pink color scheme seemed right for what turned out to be a balmy, open-the-windows-and-doors kind of evening. Better yet, it cost me nothing, as I rummaged my shelves and cupboards for odds and ends. And though I’m not much of a gardener, the flowers came from my little patio garden. So, my point is, making things pretty doesn’t necessarily cost a lot, it just takes a bit of time and imagination. I admit that I’m lucky, I have a cupboard full of lovely dishes, many of them gifted to me by my design consultant and friend, Frank Melanson. The place-setting bowls look Chinese, but are actually English (Maddock), probably midcentury. If there’s a moral to this story, I guess it would be: whether dining with friends or dining alone, take the time to make it pretty.
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The New York Times Takes Up The Hunt For A Great Meatless Burger

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I’m often amused and delighted when the mainstream media takes up a topic I’ve written about on this blog. This week, The New York Times has been writing about veggie burgers. It seems they’ve gone from being disreputable afterthoughts to creative outlets for talented chefs: “…veggie burgers haven’t merely become good. They have exploded into countless variations of good, and in doing so they’ve begun to look like a bellwether for the American appetite. If the growing passion for plant-based diets is here to stay, chefs — even in restaurants where you won’t find the slightest trace of spirulina — are paying attention.” New York Times readers were paying attention too. For a time, the featured article (here) was among the ten most emailed articles on their site, evoking dozens of comments. Photos of six burgers being served in New York and L.A. restaurants are here, and a recipe for a Thai carrot burger, along with reader comments (and more recipes) are here. My entry into the meatless burger sweepstakes (pictured in the photo above, from a July 2010 post) is here. It’s always great see that good food is getting the recognition it deserves–who knew meatless burgers had become so cool?