Christmas has always been my favorite holiday. I love the decorations, the cookies, even the fruitcake. It didn’t hurt that I was an only child (and the only grandchild) during my formative gift receiving years and, thus, made out pretty well in that department. For 34 years, I spent Christmas Eve with my extended family (who all shared a particularly festive last name of Rudolph). We devoured a multiple course meal (never too fancy, but just rich enough) and opened gifts one person at a time, oldest to youngest. Christmas day, a much more casual affair, was always a bit of a let-down even though the gifts I opened from my parents were usually more expensive and elaborate. It just didn’t have the same level of revelry and ritual.
In contrast, Mike’s family celebrations were always a little more turbulent than mine. While I didn’t know his dad that well, I understand that he didn’t like holidays very much and would always do something that would throw a wrench into the system. His final Christmas was no exception.
Mike and I had the very definition of a whirlwind romance. We met in June, moved in together in September, and by December were talking marriage. For this reason, we thought it wise that he spend the holidays with my family especially since he’d not yet met my parents. After only a day in New York, we were awakened on Christmas Eve’s wee hours by a ringing phone. You see, Mike’s dad had only a few weeks before had a stroke. When we saw him last in the hospital, he seemed to be recovering nicely and his mother gave her blessing to our trip. Unfortunately, his health took a turn for the worse and our first family holiday was cut short by the news of his death.
After that, Christmas changed. For many years, I tried to insist that this historical family fact wouldn’t impact our festivities. By the next year, Little Locathor entered our family unit. And while a child returns a certain innocence and joy to the season, he couldn’t completely rid it of the pallor that the remembrance of a death imparts.
From 2005, we’ve celebrated in Chicago, usually just me, Mike, Thor, and my parents. While our holidays have been wonderful and we’ve created new traditions, like tracking Santa’s sled on the web and treating him with cookies AND Scandinavia’s aquavit, they’ve never quite matched up to the idyllic holidays of my childhood. Often, embarrassingly, because at some point, they’re punctuated by a screaming match between Mike and me. We’re both hot heads and the fight was always more about blowing off steam than any rift in our relationship. Regardless, however, it wasn’t quite the warm fuzzy, Hollywood holiday spirit that I was going for.
After 5 years, we’re trying something new. Mike turns 40 next week, a big occasion at anytime of the year, but with the sadness associated with late December, the thought of a party wasn’t appealing especially when the last large birthday celebration I threw for him was days after his dad’s funeral. Instead, we’re leaving. On Christmas Day, we’re flying to London with a short side trip to Paris – we’ll wake up there the morning of Mike’s birthday. But before that, tomorrow we’ll share a big Christmas Eve celebration with the Rudolph clan.
As news spread among my extended family of our change in plans, they changed theirs. As a kid, the longest trek made by a family member was from White Plains to Long Island, a few hours with traffic. Now we’re convening from California (both ends), Chicago, and New York. While I know it could never live up to the romantic memory of my childhood Christmas’, it won’t need to. This, instead, is a new beginning, a chance to exorcise the ghosts of Christmas past.
One errand that I never resisted running as a child was a trip to the health food store. Located in a trailer behind our drive through bank, my mom and I would go to fill up our tamari bottles, buy whole grains, and, best of all, stock up on bulk seasonings. I still fondly recall sniffing the various jars of familiar and unfamiliar herbs and spices and sampling different spice blends.
It’s therefore unsurprising that one of my favorite stores in Chicago is The Spice House. Owned by friend, Patty Hurd, it’s an emporium bursting with sweet scents and spicy aromas. As a mom, I’m so pleased that Little Locathor shares my affinity for spice stores and never complains about our visits there.
Given our shared love, I thought it would be fun this year to take inspiration for our Christmas gifts from the spice store. In the past, our edible holiday gifts have been on the sweet side. We’ve made a hot chocolate mix with homemade marshmallows, jars of cranberry curd, and bags full of granola. Sweet gifts are great, but they tend to have limited utility. This year’s gifts, Thor’s Spicy Mustard and Vanilla, will hopefully provide months of tasteful joy for their recipients.
Both recipes are extremely simple to make. The mustard requires lots of measuring and scooping, great fun for kids. We then pack the jars and bottles in old berry boxes saved from our farmers’ market purchases. Instead of filling the boxes up with packing paper, we used some sweet as candy Satsuma tangerines. We then create tags from holiday cards received in years past. A gift that’s environmentally kind and delicious!
What edible gifts are you making with your kids?
Thor’s Spicy Mustard Makes 6 4-ounce jars
1 cup brown mustard seeds ¼ cup yellow mustard seeds 1 ¼ cups white wine vinegar 1 cup dry white wine 1 cup mustard powder 1 cup water 1 teaspoon granulated sugar 1 teaspoon kosher salt 1 teaspoon allspice ¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Combine the mustard seeds in a medium bowl with the white wine and vinegar. Let sit, covered, at room temperature for 2 days. Whisk together the mustard powder and water and let sit for ½ hour. Scrape the soaked seeds into the bowl of a food processor, add all the remaining ingredients, and puree until the mustard is creamy. Package in 4 ounce jars.
Vanilla Makes 1 4-oz. bottle, increase accordingly
1 vanilla bean ½ cup vodka or cheap brandy
Push the vanilla bean into the bottle. Cover with vodka or brandy. Note on the gift tag that the vanilla should be steeped for two months.
This past Saturday, Little Locathor, my husband, and I shared an intimate family celebration. An exceptional wine (and a little blood orange soda for Thor) accompanied Niman Ranch rib chops fit for a king (and a queen and a few other royal members). I hand cut and fried potatoes to dip into a chive flavored béarnaise sauce. We opened a few Christmas presents since we’ll be travelling this holiday and finished up with a chocolate soufflé. It was a special evening, not due to the deliciousness of the wine or the richness of the food, but instead because of the dramatic contrast to how I’d spent this particular evening in years past.
Over the last five years, I had a standing date on December’s second Saturday: cooking for 150 mostly Republican guests out of a suburban garage. You see, since 2005, in addition to running Purple Asparagus I’ve owned a boutique catering company. While the previously mentioned party was the company’s most lucrative event, it was also the most stressful. Money is no object for these clients and their values, well, they don’t hew closely to mine, not in food, nor in many things. So the news of their decision to hire a new caterer was not unwelcome. The sadness of the story, however, is that these weren’t just clients. The wife was also my former business partner, one of my husband’s closest college friends, and my son's godmother.
A rift in the relationship had been growing over several years, precipitated by miscommunications and perceived and actual slights. But, ultimately, the relationship was sunk by the chasm created by divergent world views. Unfortunately, all the adages about money applied here – money can change you but it cannot buy you happiness.
Saturday’s dinner was thus a sort of goodbye to a relationship soured. It was also a way to honor transitions and life that doesn’t stand still.
I once read that career counselors suggest reevaluating your professional circumstances every five years to determine whether they continue to meet your values. A little over five years ago, I left the law. While my big firm partner income helped with our temporal needs, the work left me unfulfilled. Now, I’ve reached a similar point of transition.
Over the past year, I’ve been moving further away from catering. With the burgeoning demand for Purple Asparagus’ services, I had little choice. For the first few years, I could deftly balance the needs of Purple Asparagus with whatever suitable catering gigs came my way. That’s no longer the case. Managing volunteers, teaching classes, developing partnerships, and seeking out funding is how I now spend my days. And those days are more than full.
Transitions are exhilarating, cleansing, heart wrenching, and enlightening. They also help you see things clearly, especially yourself. I’m a perfectionist, always have been. I married a perfectionist, and worst of all, between the two of us, we’ve birthed one. Like Mike and I, Little Locathor has a bad habit. While many things come naturally to him, the things that don’t he’s very cautious about. So cautious that, until he feels completely confident, he’s hesitant to try them. It feels painfully familiar to me.
My first two careers demanded that perfectionist trait. Typos are a sort moral failing at my former law firm. Catering was even worse for me. I demanded that everything be perfect – in appearance, in timing, and in taste. December, the month that brings to most tidings of joy, was a grim march of checklists and schlepping. It was a month to survive, not enjoy.
Ultimately, I think my problem is that I’m a deeply imperfect perfectionist. I don’t deal well with the stress of it. It makes me fight with my husband, it gives me nightmares, and it makes me literally pull my hair out.
This December is much better. While I’m working damn near as hard giving cooking classes, meeting with potential new schools and partners, and fundraising, I’m not nearly as stressed out. The thing is, perfectionism isn’t expected or even welcome when cooking with kids. It’s not about creating the most beautiful plate or making every cookie exactly the same shape and size as the others. The process is more important than the product. Just this morning, I made Christmas fruit salad with 2 kindergarten classes. A class of 24 divided into 6 teams cut their red and green fruits, pulled apart their pomegranates, and whisked their honey-lime dressing. Not one looked or tasted identical to the others. More importantly, the kids had a blast and devoured every bite of ingredients familiar and not.
I think perfectionism is a little like a soufflé. So many factors, both within and without your control, can interfere with the pursuit of perfection. For example, the soufflé picture above (about to be devoured by the soufflé shark) almost didn’t happen when my oven began a sputtering death – shutting itself off. And even if you can achieve perfection, it fleeting. The second you remove the soufflé from the oven, it begins to deflate. Just between the time I removed it from my malfunctioning oven and took this picture, it was at least an inch shorter. But fully inflated or fallen, it’s tastes just as good.
Chocolate Souffle Serves 8 Adapted from Julia Child's The Way to Cook
7 ounces semisweet chocolate melted with 1/3 cup espresso or very strong coffee 2 cups 2% milk 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt 1 tablespoon vanilla extract 4 large egg yolks 6 large egg whites 1/2 cup granulated sugar
Preheat the oven to 425 F. Butter a 2 quart round baking dish. Wrap and tie a piece of parchment around the dish so that it reaches at least 3-inches above the dish.
Whisk the flour and milk in a medium saucepan. Set the pan over medium heat and bring to a boil slowly. Cook for 2 minutes, whisking all the while. Remove from the heat, whisk in the salt, vanilla, egg yolks, and the melted chocolate.
Pour the whites into the bowl of a stand mixer. Beat the whites with the whisk attachment on medium speed to soft peaks. Increase the speed, sprinkle in the sugar and beat to stiff peaks.
Fold the chocolate mixture into the egg whites carefully but thoroughly. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and set it on the lower rack in the oven. Immediately turn the temperature down to 375 F. Bake for 50-60 minutes. Remove the paper and serve.
Green Grocer is one of my favorite Chicago food spots in Chicago. A small independent grocer in West Town owned by my friend Cassie Green, Green Grocer stocks a variety of organic and locally grown or produced goods. During December, Green Grocer will donate a percentage of its sales to Purple Asparagus.
So for an easy way to support Purple Asparagus and to stock up on your holiday cooking needs, stop by Green Grocer.
Cold winter days and pizza nights are a natural partnership. With our frigid, gray weathers, I pulled out my tried and true pizza recipe on Friday night. The formulation has gone through some twists and turns over the years. Back in March, I began substituting whey reserved from ricotta making for water. It's a subtle change that gives the dough a little more character.
The only problem with this addition, of course, is that you have to have whey on hand to make this recipe. Me, when I now make ricotta, I divide the cheese by-product into small containers that I freeze. For those of you who don't have a stock of frozen whey, well, you were out of luck. That is until now.
Before I began digging around in my downstairs freezer, I realized something. We were using fresh mozzarella and it occurred to me the keeping water that I usually throw down the sink could serve the same purpose as my whey. I was right - a great discovery since I know that cheesemaking may not be everyone's cup of tea. Simply substitute the mozzarella water for either the whey in my recipe or the water in your ordinary pizza dough recipe. If you don't have a full cup, add tap water.
We make tiny little pizzas, eight in all, devouring six and leaving the final two for leftovers. Little pizzas allow Little Locathor and I to come up with a number of combinations. On Friday, we topped them with a little bacon, pepperoni, sausage, peppers, roasted garlic, goat cheese and fresh mozzarella. With a salad on the side, it was a great start to our Wintry weekend.
To support the Chefs Move to School program, All-Clad and several other kitchen manufacturers have teamed up with Partnership for a Healthier America to provide 1,000 schools with tool kits made up of induction burners, pots, knives, and some common utensils. Not long after the announcement, I learned from Audrey Rowe, Deputy Administrator for Special Nutrition Programs in the Food and Nutrition Service of the USDA, that these kits were really intended to be used for food demonstrations. I had asked because while I find our burner and pots useful in our Purple Asparagus presentations, these are not the most critical tools in our bag of tricks.
I have found that the best way to engage kids in our nutrition education, to build enthusiasm in them about trying new fruits and vegetables, is to get their hands dirty and involve them in every stage of the cooking process. Over the years of running our school programs, we've developed our own tool kit, a box full of kid sized utensils, 25 of each, along with a few other critical items (first aid kid of course!). With our experience of providing hundreds of hours of educational programming to thousands of Chicago parents and children, I thought it would be useful to chefs starting to move into their adopted schools to see the Purple Asparagus bin in various stages of packing.
On the bottom, we've got little silicone rolling pins - given their cost, we only stock six of them and divide classes into teams of kids. They're great for rolling out tortilla and samosa dough. (Sur la Table)
On the side, there's our first aid kid adjacent to commonly used ingredients like extra-virgin olive oil, honey, balsamic vinegar, and honey. In the side corner, we've got a bottle of sanitizing pellets for the many programs in facilities without sinks.
The next level is our veggie peelers and kid cutters. Twenty stainless mashers are hiding under the peelers. I know some people who cook with kids in schools teach them how to handle real knives. Working with kids K-4, 25 at a time, this thought makes me a bit squeamish. Thankfully, board member, Elena Marre, owner of The Kids' Table found these wonderful wavy cutters. Ordinarily used for garnish cutting, they are a safe, effective way for kids to cut nearly anything. (Peelers from Sur la Table; bowls and cutters from The Kids Table or Northwestern Cutlery)
The third layer is filled with small cutting boards, 25 stainless steel small bowls, a can opener, a set of tongs, a strainer, hand sanitizer, and an extension cord for our electric appliances like hand blenders, induction burners, ovens, etc. We've also got BPA-free measuring cups and spoons. (Cutting boards and small utensils from a restaurant supply store; bowls from The Kids' Table; and measuring tools from Sur la Table)
Finally, we fill in the top with compostable tasting cups (perfect for kid size portions), forks, knives and spoons. We've also got rubber gloves for instructors and small plastic bags for unused ingredients. (Our compostables come from a restaurant supply store, but Whole Foods also carries these items).
Before closing our box up, we layer in our clean towels and an apron for the instructor.
This bin, supplemented with glass demonstration bowls, a knife roll, and a handful of other small equipment, has provided cooking education from the far north suburbs down to far south side of Chicago. It's taught 4-year olds at farmers' markets how to mash raspberries for homemade soda and fourth graders how to make pumpkin muffins.
While we're always on the prowl to find some new fun tool for our box of tricks, this is a great starting point for any school program.
Certainly, I'm not the only one with fond memories of listening to news radio on snowy mornings for school closures. Snow days were one of the great pleasures of my childhood, time spent alternating between outside snow play and indoor lazy day activities. Given that my mom was a school teacher, she too would have the day off so we could host friends, build snowmen, make cocoa, and, of course, play around in the kitchen.
As a parent, it was a sad day when I realized that here in Illinois we don't get snow days. We're a tough bunch here in the Midwest. No matter how deep the accumulation or how low the wind chill, school must go on. As a working parent, I know I should be grateful, but still . . .
So when Saturday's weather reports predicted our first snowstorm, I didn't think as an adult about errands not run or sidewalks to shovel. Instead, I was as giddy as Thor about the possibility of a snow day that we could actually enjoy. We made snow angels, took a long walk, had a snowball fight, made hot cocoa, and made a giant mess in our kitchen. Within four hours, we'd prepared brownies, cashew brittle, gingersnaps, oatmeal cookies, marshmallows, and the very pinnacle of nostalgic indulgences: Rice Crispy Treats.
I have not made them since high school, but one nibble of one recently sent me in a swoon and it got me thinking - why must they be made with margarine and bagged marshmallows? How awesome would they be if I used the real deal - butter, sugar, and real vanilla? Suspicions confirmed. Even my husband who originally pooh poohed my suggestion because he "never liked them" rated them tops among the days baking experiments.
I brought them that evening to a friend's Chanukah party and apparently, without my knowledge, she too was guilty of Rice Crispy nostalgia. I'd wished I'd made more because they were the first to depart the dessert tray. At least I'd saved some for the little locavore who rated them tops as well.
Cheers to snow days!
Little Locathor and his snowSam.
Rice Crispy Treats
1 envelope (1 scant tablespoon) unflavored gelatin 3/4 cup granulated sugar 1/3 cup light corn syrup 1 pinch kosher salt 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract Vegetable oil cooking spray 5 tablespoons butter 5 1/2 cups puffed brown rice
Spray two 9 x 13-inch baking pan with cooking spray. Line with parchment and spray with more oil.
Pour 1/4 cup cold water into the bowl of an electric mixer. Sprinkle with gelatin.
Mix together sugar, corn syrup, salt, and 1/4 cup water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil and cook, swirling the pan occasionally, until syrup reaches 238 degrees (soft-ball stage) on a candy thermometer.
Fit the mixer with the whisk attachment. Begin whisking gelatin mixture on low speed. Gradually pour the syrup in a steady stream down the side of the bowl. Increase the speed slowly to high and then beat until is thick, opaque, and has almost tripled in volume. Don't overbeat. Add vanilla, and beat just to combine.
Spray a rubber spatula with cooking spray and scrape the mixture into the first prepared baking pan; smooth with a greased offset spatula. Let stand at room temperature, uncovered, until firm, at least 3 hours or overnight.
Scoop the marshmallows into a large saucepan, add butter, and cook over medium heat until melted. Add rice and stir strongly to combine. Press into the second prepared pan and cut into squares.
Best served on the same day that they're made, if they last that long.
Samuel the Spaniel as drawn by Thor 10/24/2002-12/2/2010
Today has not been a good day. I can barely speak, much less write, as my tears gush. In just about an hour, I will see my beautiful beautiful eight year old Springer Spaniel, Sam, for the last time. He had a major neurological meltdown, which reared its head just about a month ago and has progressively gotten worse to the point that yesterday he was no longer able to stand, much less walk.
Sam was a gentle soul, not the sharpest claw on the paw, but the best friend and companion we could have ever asked for. Beautiful, kind, and stoic, he will be deeply missed by many especially Little Locathor. Thor understands that Sam will likely not be here when he returns from school - a homecoming that I deeply dread.
Sam was a simple soul who was born in the suburbs of Minneapolis in the town known for Spam. He loved bread, especially sourdough. It will be difficult for me to make or buy a country loaf in the near future as this dog could hear a bread knife cutting through the ceramic like crust from rooms away.
I've always had dogs in my life so I'm not a stranger to this kind of goodbye. On the first day of my senior year in high school, my family learned that my Scottish terrier Mac had cancer. We put him to sleep two days later. The night before his last day, I slept with my head on his bed, comforting only myself as he obviously knew nothing of his fate. Shortly before midnight, I woke up and wrote the following in my composition book. Please be kind, it is the work of a sad 17 year old.
I'm going to shoot the stars tonight, shredding their light into infinite slices. Letting each bury themselves into their universal grave.
I'm going to shoot the stars tonight. Draining the sky of all its light.
I'm going to shoot the stars tonight, but I'll save one for you, a last lonely dot, fearing the blackness of the night and the threat of tomorrow.
September 2, 1985
Me, Sam and the future Little Locavore in vitro during better times.
As I've only gone through this before as a high schooler, if any readers have suggestions on how to help a 1st grader through this, I'd much appreciate it.