Posted at 10:20 AM ET, 12/30/2005

Culinary Good Luck Charms

To get the year off to a financially promising and energetic start, the soothsayers tell us that we must eat appropriate symbols of good fortune. Consuming anything that resembles a coin (black-eyed peas, lentils, benne crackers) or cash money (collards or kale) is considered a step closer to a winning lottery ticket.

Some European traditions suggest eating fatty sausage, to represent prosperity. I suppose this is why lots of folks like sauerkraut and wurst (or some variation thereof). If New Year's culinary symbols are of interest, wait just a few more weeks for the Chinese New Year, which begins Jan. 29.

I'm not one to poo-poo financial wellness, and if eating Hoppin' John will improve my portfolio, bring it on. By mistake, I learned a few years ago that frozen black-eyed peas are perfectly acceptable for Hoppin' John, and in fact, I'd venture to say almost preferable to the dried bean. If bacon is out of your personal equation, try seasoning beans with soy sauce, and even a little liquid smoke. Other meatless options include adding some Gimme Lean "sausage" cooked separately and added to the end result.

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Posted at 10:37 AM ET, 12/29/2005

Whaddya Doin' New Year's Eve?

I got a crew of 10 or so coming over to my place Saturday night and I need to assemble the menu. Guests bring a favorite bottle and I reciprocate with substantial snacks.

I want the lineup to be fun and festive but not too fussy with food that goes with party hats and a pair of jeans. In a way, I want everyone to feel like they're at a picnic . . . but without the ants.

There's no culinary theme that I'm sticking to. I don't care if the dishes don't 'work' together. Instead, these will be a few of my favorite things that are shareable, soulful and probably a bit messy.

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Posted at 11:14 AM ET, 12/28/2005

Getting Punchy

I wish all holiday calendars could work like this year's configuration: long holiday weekends, with time for both pre- and post-party rest and recovery. How rare it is when we can eat and drink ourselves silly on New Year's Eve, with a bonus package of two whole days to nurse a hangover, extract that lampshade party hat and perhaps arrive at some sobering New Year's resolutions?

With the extra time to prepare and recover, we have a perfect excuse to yip it up at home rather than taking trouble out into the streets.

Today, I'll cover beverage options. Tomorrow, I'll follow up with some ideas for chow and festive snacks.

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Posted at 10:20 AM ET, 12/27/2005

Less Is More

There was no Christmas tree at my house. No tinsel, no carols, no lights. And everybody survived! I always prefer a simple version of the holidays, with minimal glitter and fuss.

Christmas Eve dinner for two included a pork shoulder, black beans seasoned with cumin and oregano and sauteed plantains. For dessert, I pulled an old trick out of the pastry bag and whipped up individual molten chocolate cakes, garnished with orange segments. These little babies are deceptively easy - make the batter in advance and keep chilled in ramekins until it's time to bake in a hot oven, for only 10 minutes. The bake-to-order quality of these cakes also allows for time to digest the big meal and pace the evening as you wish.

On Christmas Day, I battled two-plus hours of torrential rain on I-95 in pursuit of joining my mother and her extended clan outside Philadelphia. The meal was unmemorable, save the clatter of bickering relatives gnawing on a gargantuan prime rib roast.

Prime rib doesn't feel so prime when there are others just barely squeaking by. I kept thinking about how I could help my friends in Zambia, whom I called over the weekend; Godfrey, the primary bread winner for his family of nine, suddenly lost his job last week and is without money to feed them.
I packed a goodie bag for my 82-year-old aunt, who's in a convalescent home mending a broken arm and hip on the left side. That spunky gal suddenly became frail and unable to take care of herself. Little things like homemade cookies and an hour of conversation meant everything to her.

I got back on the highway to find the malls loaded with gift card redeemees fighting over parking spaces and the tollbooths backed up for 30 miles. Back in Arlington, I met a close friend for dinner, who was on her way to New Orleans to help paint a school that would reopen next week after Hurricane Katrina-induced damage.

All of a sudden, a minimalist bowl of broth seemed like the right thing to order.

In the coming days of this final week of 2005, I'll review culinary moments, great and small, and welcome your contributions in the comments below. I'll also touch on New Year's symbols of good luck, plus a few ideas on entertaining at home on New Year's Eve.

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Posted at 11:41 AM ET, 12/23/2005

To the Meat of the Holiday Season

It's the Friday before a big long holiday weekend, and maybe you're still running around picking up guests or presents.

Or maybe you're just like me and haven't EVEN begun to put together a menu for the weekend. I'm shooting to get to the store this evening, with list in hand and inspiration in my pocket.

Since time is of the essence, and I've still got a bunch of work to do before the fun begins, the operative word is "simple" for preparing this weekend's festive supper.

So I'm thinking main dish as the star, veggies, etc. as the supporting cast. I want cooking time to be minimal or, at least, low maintenance enough so that I can sip on a glass of wine without worrying if something is burning.

Here's what I've got up my sleeve, representing various protein departments, and a possible meatless item as well, just in case I've got a vegetarian friend stopping by.

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Posted at 12:53 PM ET, 12/22/2005

Kwanzaa Snacking

I was in Charleston, S.C., for the first time this spring, and during my weekend stay only scratched the surface of the rich culinary heritage of this part of the south, and in particular, that of Gullah country. I did stumble upon all kinds of delicious morsels, including the benne cracker, a thin sesame seed wafer that's a little bit sweet, a little bit savory. I wolfed down a bag and bought one for my pals back home, intrigued by their flavor and texture. It was only during recent research that I put benne crackers together with Kwanzaa and came up with some interesting tidbits.

It turns out that sesame seeds (known as benne seeds to West African slaves) were among the few possessions that made their way aboard slave ships and ultimately in the cuisines of the American south.

I tried my hand at making a bunch of bennes and couldn't believe how easy they were to put together - a total of 30 minutes, from start to finish. I kept thinking what a great idea not just for those celebrating Kwanzaa, which begins Dec. 26, but for all of us, who can always use a history lesson on where things come from and how they figure into our lives and those of our neighbors.

I also learned that benne seeds were considered good luck, much like black-eyed peas or lentils at this time of year, so the crackers would be a terrific addition to the New Year's menu as well.

For more Kwanzaa recipes, I highly recommend Eric V. Copage's "Kwanzaa: An African American Celebration of Culture and Cooking" as well as titles by Angela Shelf Medearis, who inspired me to make benne crackers in the first place.

If you've got a delicious, time-honored Kwanzaa recipe to share, please do so in the comments area below.

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Posted at 12:05 PM ET, 12/22/2005

Gingery Request

Many of you expressed an interest in getting your hands on details for a gingerbread pudding, if you will. Below are the goods; please note that I haven't tested the recipe but I will vouch for many others in Sara Perry''s reliable "Great Gingerbread" from where this comes. Enjoy -- and please post kitchen reports!

Indian Gingerbread Pudding with Autumn Compote
From "Great Gingerbread" by Sara Perry

Ingredients:
2 cups milk
pinch salt
½ cup yellow cornmeal
¼ cup packed dark brown sugar
½ cup whipping cream
1/3 cup maple syrup
1 teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

Compote:
½ lemon
2 large ripe pears - Comice, Bartlett or Bosc - peeled, cored and diced
¼-1/2 cup dried cranberries
½ cup packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground ginger

Method:
Preheat oven to 275 degrees. Place a baking sheet on the middle rack. Butter six 6-ounce ramekins.
In a large saucepan, heat the milk and salt over medium heat until almost boiling. Slowly whisk in cornmeal and stir constantly until it thickens like oatmeal and absorbs most of the milk, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in brown sugar, cream, maple syrup, ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg. Fill ramekins with ¾ cup of the mixture. Cover each ramekin with aluminum foil, tightly sealed and place on baking sheet so that ramekins are not touching. Bake for 1 ½ -2 hours (1 ½ for creamy texture, 2 hours for firmer). Remove from oven and serve warm or at room temperature.

For compote: Remove zest from lemon half. Squeeze juice from lemon. In a saucepan, combine lemon zest and juice, pears, cranberries, brown sugar and ginger. Toss gently until well mixed. Heat gently over medium heat until fruit begins to release juices and cranberries plump. Serve warm over pudding.

Serves 6.

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Posted at 10:55 AM ET, 12/21/2005

Let's Celebrate -- Winter Has Begun!

According to the U.S. Naval Observatory, winter begins at 1:35 p.m. today. What this means is that today is the darkest day of the year, with the sun setting at 4:49 in Washington. (In Chicago, it's even earlier, at 4:22!) But don't let the darkness get you down. For those of us in the seasonal affective disorder club, the winter solstice is a day to celebrate, because it means that starting tomorrow, the sun will set later and later, bringing us closer to those longer days of sunlight and playing outside yet again.

So, let's do a little dance. A little nosh wouldn't hurt, either. I'm thinking something tropical. Mango champagne cocktail, perhaps? I just got my hands on two new titles that are putting me in the mood for a little cha-cha-cha: "Mambo Mixers" by Arlen Gargagliano and "Latin Chic" by Carolina Buia and Isabel C. Gonzalez.

"Mambo" is more cocktail based, with recipes for bite-sized tapas treats sprinkled throughout, whereas "Latin" is chockfull of entertaining ideas, with menus from Mexico, Cuba, Argentina and other hot spots.

I think a bowl of homemade guacamole would help shake off the winter blues, plus some grilled scallions (aka cebollitas) or a batch of tostones (fried plantains). Of course, washed down with a mojito or caipirinha, what could go wrong on the darkest day of the year?

Reader Holiday Cheer

I received an e-mail from "Jennifer B." who continued the search for almond paste and other confectionary items that were discussed in yesterday's chat. Here's what she had to say:

"I visited Little Bitts Cake and Candy Supply Shop in Wheaton on my way home tonight. It's located in the Wheaton Triangle, across from the public parking lot and, if you're looking at Marchione's, to the left near the comic book store. The shop is a neat little place. The small store front is packed - just packed - with all sorts of candy and cake items. I found a HUGE can of almond paste that cost $44. But you would seriously have to make about 50 batches of pignolis or amaretti to use it all. I spoke with a woman who works there and she said they haven't been able to stock the cans of paste during the holidays this year. They do have the tube paste (behind the counter, so ask)."

"I didn't see any candied fruit, so the search continues. But candied citron is definitely available this time of year at most grocery stores. Anyway, I'm happy to report they had lots of the icing and powdered egg whites that people were looking for during your chat. They also have tons of really neat nonpareils and jam fillings (for layer cakes) and melt-able chocolate bits and flavorings of every kind and boxes for your homemade candies and lots of gadgets. It's definitely the kind of place in which you can get lost."

Thanks, Jennifer. This is a great find. I had similar fun last year at Fran's Cake and Candy Supplies, in Fairfax.

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Posted at 10:13 AM ET, 12/20/2005

'Tis the Season for 'Kah and 'Zaa, Too

Based on television commercials alone, you'd think that the only holiday coming up this weekend is Christmas. There's Santa, yet again, at the Kay Jewelers buying a rock for Mrs. Claus and there go those Target kids, getting jiggy by the tree, dancing to a holiday rendition of an Earth, Wind and Fire tune.

Thing is, there's a whole lot goin' on this long holiday weekend, which includes both Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, both culinary events in and of themselves.

The eight-day Jewish festival of lights actually coincides this year with Christmas, kicking off the evening of Dec. 25. Wake up the next morning, Dec. 26, and there's Kwanzaa to celebrate, the seven-day tribute to Africa and African-inspired culture, which continues until New Year's Day.

So as you can see, there is much to do beyond trimming a tree and waiting for the fat dude to come down the chimney. There are potatoes to shred and oil to fry for latkes, celebrating the miracle of eight-day burning oil. And there is okra and sweet potatoes to roast to commemorate Umoja, the principle of unity, inspired by the Montgomery, Ala. bus boycott in the mid-1950s.

Recently, I revisited my recipe for latkes and came to the conclusion that these heavenly little morsels of crispiness are grossly underestimated. Why we limit ourselves to these treats at Hanukkah time is beyond me. They're too tasty - and too easy - to eat only once a year. Whip up a little applesauce and you've got a warming wintry supper without a stitch of meat.

If potatoes aren't your bag, consider shredding up a sweet potato instead, and season it with cumin, cinnamon, cayenne and coriander. Other fun ideas, besides the oft-served jelly doughnuts (aka soufganiyot) and fried noodle pudding, are coin-shaped items (symbolizing the coins minted by the Maccabees after they drove out the Assyrian army from Jerusalem), such as cheddary crackers or lentils, and yeah, what about chocolate gelt lollipops?

For resources, check out "Joan Nathan's Jewish Holiday Cookbook," plus titles by Gil Marks. For an overview of December holidays, from Thanksgiving to New Year's, I like "Holiday Baking" by Sara Perry.

Got a latke variation to share or another Hanukkah treat that always graces the table? Please do so in the comments area below.

Type to me today at noon, in the final installment of What's Cooking for 2005.

Tomorrow: a taste of West Africa, via South Carolina, just in time for Kwanzaa.

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Posted at 9:25 AM ET, 12/19/2005

The Chronicles of Gingerbread

It was a two-day affair, this gingerbread-building business. I've detailed the steps in a mini-diary of sorts, with pics to give you the full flavor of the experience.

Thursday afternoon/evening
Weather: Flurries and freezing

Nancy and I took kids Ruby (10) and August (6) to pick out gum drops, red hots and jelly rings for decorating. We also picked up a box of nonpareils (remember those?) for the roof shingles.

Between homework and making dinner, I showed the kids how to make the dough, a fun lesson in measurements and math and learning what ground ginger actually smells like. They were more interested in watching "The Santa Clause," with Tim Allen, than cutting the gingerbread into house shapes, so Nan and I decided to venture forward without them.

Kim O'Donnel and the Gonzalez kids making gingerbread dough

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Posted at 12:36 PM ET, 12/15/2005

A Virtual Feast

The next few weeks are a glutton's paradise. The feasts are endless, the snacking ongoing, the imbibing like an intravenous tube. . .
You don't even have to go to the store anymore if you'd like to keep yourself in a culinary coma. Simply waddle over to the computer and prepare a sumptuous holiday spread with just a few keystrokes.

The choices for online food sources are not only plentiful, but the quality of vittles is top shelf and getting better all the time. Here's a taste of how gourmet the Web can be.

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