Catholics pray to saints, Buddhists burn fragrant incense.
I worship my husband’s former roommate’s mother, whose name I don’t even know.
I imagine her slender and fit. The type of woman who doesn’t look her age, who gardens and rides a pastel-colored bicycle into town. Her bicycle has a wicker basket for the baguette or two she brings back from her trips to the local market along with bunches of earth-covered peppery radishes, plump strawberries, and bright orange carrots whose leafy tops leave a trail on the ride home like a healthy adaptation of Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs.
Of course, my husband’s former roommate’s mother sports a tan.
Not that leathery too-many-years-sizzling-on-a-beach-towel tan, but that healthy-glow tan, the one that comes from endless rounds of tennis, hiking, and kayaking, things involving pure air and strong lungs.
I look to her son, Matej, for clues about her. He is handsome, charming, smart and youthful, with a mane of golden hair and a movie star smile that makes it hard for my husband and I to keep up on who his current girlfriend may be. He is generous, kind, and thoughtful, all of which serve as a nod to his mom, whom I surmise, raised him that way. This is enough to already like this woman, to allow my imagination a one-way ticket into her home, where we’d have many absorbing conversations by a crackling fireplace while stirring risotto laced with fresh-picked yellow morels or sipping a glass of chilled Rebula wine.
But the adoration really began when I got her jam.
It came, several years ago, in a Mason jar wrapped in an old washcloth with a single scribbled word on its red-checkered top: marelice.
“Here,” my husband said while pulling it out of his carry-on after one of his many trips home. “Matej sends this to you.”
I grabbed the jar carefully, like when Indiana Jones first took the Golden Idol off its booby-triggered pedestal in Raiders of the Lost Ark. I don’t speak Slovenian, but, from its deep golden hue, I knew what it must be and my heart fluttered with joy.
“It’s from his mother,” Yeshua added. “Her world-famous apricot jam.”
There are few things I’d give my first-born up for but world-famous apricot jam is certainly one of them. Said first-born would probably go willingly, so tired she is of hearing me complain over the years about how impossibly difficult it is to find a properly made apricot jam. Most of my apricot-jam-eating-experiences are cloaked in the following whines:
Not apricoty enough!
She can tell you that list goes on and on.
But here was a homemade apricot jam that was bursting with promise.
And did not disappoint.
I knew from the first spoonful, when the balance of acid and sweet played footsies in my mouth. After that I kept finding excuses to pull out the jam. My breakfasts became decidedly Parisian with the mandatory croissant and, of course, the irreplaceable apricot jam. In the afternoons I took to being a Brit, taking 4 p.m. breaks for a spot of tea and a scone which I’d dutifully slather with, yep, my husband’s former roommate’s mother’s jam.
The jam was given elite shelf status in our fridge and guarded with the same scrutiny as Fort Knox.
No one in the household was allowed access.
If anyone dared ask for some, they’d be met with heavy resistance on my part (“Jam?You’re more of a Nutella fan!”), many sighs, and many attempts at redirection (“Here, have this bag of chips. You aren’t a fruit eater, remember?”)
Then, the inevitable happened and I ran out of the jam. Teaspoon by teaspoon, scrape by scrape, lick by lick, the jar practically sparkled.
My interest in my husband’s former roommate’s travel plans back home to Slovenia suddenly increased. He had left after university, settling half way around the world in a crowded, Mexican metropolis for a two-year job stint that went on and on.
“Your mother must miss you,” I coaxed.
“You need to stay connected,” I urged.
“Don’t forget everything us mothers do for our sons,” I whimpered, hoping to successfully weave in a thread of guilt that would get him on a plane home.
Remember though, Matej is a good man; his mother made him that way.
He is kind and thoughtful and warm.
Which makes him a good son.
A son that travels back home frequently.
And luckily, brings me back a jar or two of his mother’s world-famous jam.
“One day I want to meet your mom,” I tell him. “I want to be in her kitchen and watch her make her jam,” I say, not sharing with Matej that I would wish for a matching pastel-colored bicycle with a market-filled basket as well.
This is one of those seasonal recipes that normally require ripe apricots, something hard to come by in mid-October, unless you can time-travel back to summer, can find under-ripe versions flown in from Chile, or plain out live in Chile! So, yes, I’d offer to say I’ve made smarter recipe choices in October. Should probably be offering you a squash dish (them squash are everywhere now!), but I’m not. I’m giving you apricot jam because I am impulsive and sentimental and I’ve got apricot jam on my mind.
Don’t worry, though, I’ve also got a solution: dried apricots! You can find those year round, and, yes, a pretty spectacular jam comes out of them too.
2 8-ounce packages of dried apricots
1 cup sugar
half a fresh lemon
OPTIONAL (see notes below)
1 cinnamon stick
2 cardamom pods
Place 8 cups or so of water in a pot with the apricots and sugar. Raise heat to high and bring to a boil.
Once boiled, reduce heat to medium, slice the lemon into very thin slices and then into pieces and add to the pot.
Cook for 30 minutes over medium heat (without a lid).
After 20 minutes, use a potato masher and mash the whole thing up, clumsily, leaving bits and pieces (this will make it more like my husband’s former roommate’s mother’s jam.)
Stir again after a few minutes to see whether it is thick by taking a spoonful and plopping some jam on a plate. If it plops to your liking (i.e., it doesn’t soup all over the place but, rather, sets exactly how you’d imagine it should on a perfectly crispy croissant) then it is ready. If not, cook just a little bit longer. Once thick enough, take off the heat and let it sit until it cools. Place in sterilized jars and keep in the refrigerator.
Some people get uncomfortable with simplicity. If you are one of those, you may add 1 cinnamon stick, 2 cloves, 2 cardamom pods to the whole process. You would do this buy placing the spices in a muslin bag (yes, they sell these on Amazon) and plopping it in at the very beginning of the jam-making process (with the apricots, sugar, and water.) I personally like to be socked in the face with pure apricot flavor.
There are many perks to having a world-traveling husband whose focus lately has been China. Girlfriends will notice my new array of alleged designer handbags, a different one for each day of the week it would seem, but I don’t pay them much mind, I’m stuck on the culinary props that are introduced regularly to my home.
I’ve gotten all sorts of classics: woks, steamers, long chopsticks and frying spoons setting me up for variations on chow mein for the next 365 days. I’ve gotten obscure, tiny corroded contraptions he’s picked up in dingy, crowded alleyways of clustered markets filled with friendly locals entertained by the arrival of this 6”2’ Western man. This is to peel pineapple. This one takes the kernels off the corn. This mashes the garlic.
But then there was the knife. Handed to me in a primitive wooden box with rusted hinges, a box you’d inevitably be apprehensive about, secretly calculate when you had your last tetanus shot while making sure there are no small children around, making sure you are not too upset at your older children.
As I held the box I could have sworn I heard one of those country singers, with names as comforting as a warm slice of peach pie: Blake or Hank or Garth crooning a song about how great America is. I don’t even listen to country music but there it was, whispering in my ear, as I’d picture an oversized pickup truck following a pack of rugged cowboys herding cattle and in that second I’d be overridden with guilt, I’d admonish myself for even holding this contraband, scary knife box and will myself to put it down, give it back. I should accept knives made in America, good solid workmanship from Massachusetts or South Carolina or upstate New York.
But that lasts seconds, because I am weak.
I open it and I am in love, or at least, in a trance, as if you were dangling a gold medallion in front of me and asking me to count to ten. Maybe I’d get to three.
The knife is beautiful. It is a cleaver that is large with a gleaming blade and an exquisite wooden handle.
And sharp. So sharp I could splice an eyelash with it.
So I spend my days conjuring up recipes where I can use it.
Orange Roughy fits tonight’s bill.
I bought the fish because it had such a complicated and unattractive name.
I had already passed over it and focused on names that were easier to pronounce, names I’ve grown to love: salmon, red snapper, trout.
Here was Orange Roughy staring me in the face.
“What is that?” I asked my fishmonger.
“That’s Orange Roughy,” he stated, looking at me like I was an idiot.
“What’s it taste like?” I ventured, now intrigued by his incredulous glare.
“Delicious. Like grouper meets crab.” He said, eyes sparkling.
Grouper meets crab? Two of my favorites dancing in one fish flavor?
I had to try it.
I bought several fillets and rushed home to my new Chinese knife.
The fillet I’ll leave in tact, of course. You don’t want to mess with crab-meets-grouper, you just want to heighten it, and my Chinese knife and I know how.
We’ll take loads of fresh flat-leaf parsley and chop, chop chop!
Seriously, try this at home, if you have an unforgettable blade.
Buy loads of parsley and chop it fine.
You’ll feel so much better after you’ve done that, no matter how lousy the day.
Of course, be careful of the fingers. Keep them away. Losing a finger would really spoil the day.
To that I add some fresh spinach. The cutting board is covered in dark green. The knife works seamlessly and I have found bliss. I don’t even remember what purse I’m carrying these days, is it the Prada, the Michael Kors, the Gucci?
I am done and I throw these ingredients into a bowl, drizzle it with some olive oil, grate some fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano, add a sprinkling of sea salt and black pepper over it all and top it off with some lemon zest to freshen the whole thing up.
I’ve forgotten garlic! Something else to chop! A clove or two, depending on your love of the stuff, who you’ll be kissing tonight. My husband is already off to some other exotic country, so I can go nuts on the garlic, mince a bunch up real fine. This will take seconds now, you are a pro.
The minced garlic is staring us in the face. Add that to the bowl and mix it all up real good. You’ve got what looks like green mush. Fragrant green mush. Take a spoonful or two and coat it on your fish fillet. You can top it with some panko bread crumbs if you want it crusty (I’d mix those with a bit of melted butter for extra yum.) Or you can throw some panko straight into your green mix. Or opt to go panko-less if you are on a carb witch hunt, that’s fine too.
Ten minutes in a 350 oven and you’re done! Crab-meets-grouper is a perfect description. Sweet and meaty flavors meld wonderfully with the citric zest and earthy, peppery bite of parsley and spinach.
I think even the cowboys would forgive the Chinese transgression, if I sat them down to this meal. So long as I play some country music in the background.
I can’t take credit for this recipe. It was given to me by my dear friend, Ana Paula, whom I met in an over air-conditioned corporate office twenty years ago under the guise of becoming executive hotshots. The allure of fluorescent lighting and confining cubicles wore off quickly and we both left our positions respectively, but the friendship remained strong, most notably because of our love for our families and our passion for food. I’m always picking up great tips from this pal. This is one of many.
½ cup flat-leaf parsley, chopped very fine
¾ cup fresh spinach, chopped very fine
2-4 cloves of garlic, depending on you, minced
zest of 1 lemon
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
salt and pepper, to taste
4 tablespoons panko crumbs
1 teaspoon melted butter
mix and add into greens or on top for extra crunch! OPTIONAL!
There's really nothing to this. Mix all those ingredients and slather on your fillet.
Heat oven to 350 F
Place fillets in greased baking pan (line it with aluminum foil to make it mess-free)
Bake 10-14 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish.
(Fish should come apart easily with a fork.)
Makes 2 fillets
(And for you fish haters out there, this works great on chicken fillet too! (Although please, please, please work on loving fish!))
I love the Jewish holidays even if I may not be the ideal spokesperson for Judaism. Not really lighting the candles every Friday night or going to the synagogue as often as I should, and that’s when I belong to a real hip temple that offers funky programs like Jewish Meditation and Sushi & Sake In The Sukkah. They even stream their services live, so I can join them in my PJs, if I wanted to.
The thing is, when it comes to religion, or really anything, I tend to take the food route.
So, yes, I don’t know the prayers.
I’d fail miserably on any Bible trivia question.
Okay, let’s face it, I’d fail miserably on any Bible question.
I didn’t grow up with this stuff, even though my father was born and raised in Jerusalem, which is also known as, The Holy City.
But man, have I got it down on what you’re supposed to eat when.
For Rosh Hashana, a two-day holiday which began at sundown yesterday and celebrates the Jewish New Year (5775, for those of you scratching your head, like I was) there are a few essentials:
The first, the must-have, the easiest, is apples and honey, the main focus being the honey, for its sweetness and to bring forth a sweet New Year.
So you start with that.
Really eating anything sweet afterwards works. Chicken with fruit is a tasty main course. If you are of Eastern European descent, you’ll go for a large serving of tzimmes, a candied stew made from carrots and dried fruit. Another favorite is kugel, a baked casserole using undisclosed amounts of sugar, butter, sour cream and some sort of fruit: pineapples or raisins or cherries. Most people have memories of a grandma’s unbeatable version of one of these two dishes. The lucky few have a memory of both. If you want one with a killer secret ingredient, take a peek at mine.
Yes, it’s all high in calories, but God sort of ordained it, so you’re good to go. Which means you’ve gotta put a crumbly, crunchy topping on that kugel, maybe requiring a wee bit more butter.
Desserts on Rosh Hashana are popular, for obvious reasons. There’s the prerequisite honey cake, maybe throw in an apple cake too, since you are already slicing a bunch of apples for the dipping-in-honey bit. And, of course, rugelach, the crescent-shaped pastry filled with chocolate, raspberry, or apricot is a staple at any Jewish event (and they balance perfectly on the coffee saucer, you know.)
Since you’re not focusing on how tight your pants will become in the coming new year, I’ll take this opportunity to discuss the bread you will be eating as well. It’s the Jewish go-to standard: challah, that addictive braided loaf of goodness.
I eat this every Shabbat (candles or no candles), often slathered in butter. On Rosh Hashana, the same bread will make its appearance in a round shape and served, you got it, with honey.
Round is big on Rosh Hashana. Theories abound: that the round loaf represents the cyclical nature of the calendar year, that it is smooth and seamless like we hope the coming year will be, even, that it represents a long life span.
The cool thing about Judaism, whether channeled in a progressive synagogue like mine or in a more traditional setting, is that there is always more than one interpretation for everything. We Jews love a good discussion. Multiple viewpoints are encouraged, almost expected. Pair that with a warm, honey-dipped slice of fresh challah and I’d say that is the start of a very delicious new year.
In a large bowl, sprinkle the yeast over the water. Let stand for about 5 minutes to dissolve the yeast. Stir in the salt, sugar, oil, and eggs until blended. Gradually mix in flour. When the dough becomes too stiff to stir, turn it out onto a floured surface and knead for 8 to 10 minutes. Come on, get into it. This part is like going to therapy without having to cough up $200 afterwards.
Place the dough in a bowl, lightly oiled, put a dishtowel over it and forget about it for a bit (aka, until it is double in size.)
This part is also fun: Punch down the dough. You heard me. Take off that dishtowel and sock it dead center, as if you were Mohammed Ali himself.
Okay, this part gets a bit tricky. The braided round challah requires a spatial mind, or, I am a blundering idiot because I can’t figure out how to do it. Seriously, I’ve studied it closely, it entails rolling out long snakes of dough (like a traditional challah) but then forming them in tic-tac-toe type settings and going all crazy on it, whipping strands under and over and around that would leave even the most agile weaver confused.
So, I’m sticking to the spiral version. Seriously, it may be silly, but there is enough stuff to stress about so I am not going to throw visual perception into the mix. And many folks actually prefer this loaf for symbolic reasons:
Spiral = smooth = circular = Rosh Ha Shana. I can work with that equation.
So, here we go for the round shape:
Divide your dough in two pieces.
On a lightly floured surface, roll first piece into a very smooth 24-inch long “snake” of even thickness.
Here’s a tip: round challah can be filled with sweet treats, namely golden raisins, although some über cool moms (I won’t name any names) have been known to toss in mini chocolate chips instead. In any case, if you want to go this route (maybe do one loaf plain and another loaded up) then you are going to want to roll out each snake piece with a rolling pin so that it is flat, sprinkle your desired add-ins and roll that snake back up into a strand so these goodies are nestled inside the dough. At that point, you go on to shaping it in its spiral shape. Got it? Good.
Bring one end around to form a circle that is about 5 inches in diameter. Continue winding the rest of the snake on top of the circle so that it spirals inward and upward, finishing in the center. Tuck the end of the snake into the center.
Do next loaf. (Remember, you’ll have to roll it out first if you want to fill it with raisins/chocolate.)
Place on a baking sheet and allow it to rise another 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Whisk together your wash ingredients and brush over the tops of the loaves. Sprinkle with seeds, if desired.
Bake for 30 minutes or until bread is a golden color and emits a hollow thump when patted on the bottom. "HUH?" you are thinking. Seriously, don’t panic. Just gently pick up your loaf, or turn it or whatever, and lightly tap it (like a criminal would lightly tap floorboards to determine where the hollow one holding the cash is.) When you hear that hollow thud sound, you’ll light up with happiness (like said criminal) because your fabulous challah will be done. Hey, don’t go breaking into anyone’s house or anything.
Which begs the question, ‘What other weird celebratory days are out there?’
I found this nifty little site that will tell you what you should be celebrating 24/7. It’s called daysoftheyear.com. Simple enough, right? And funny.
I checked what I missed out on yesterday: Constitution Day. It’s a logical choice because yesterday marked the anniversary of the signing of our constitution way back in 1787. I actually felt gypped out on that one, like there should have been more hoopla about it. I know Obama is busy right now, but come on, someone should have scheduled in a little tribute, a flag salute, some type of cake? Something.
Tomorrow is Talk Like A Pirate Day, which, of course, makes me doubt the legitimacy of this site altogether. If my daughter were looking over my shoulder right now, I’d be in big trouble. She’d remind me of the zillions of times I’ve reprimanded her for the tidbits of outrageous statements she regularly spews while navigating the Internet autobahn:
Cosmic rays from outer space often cause glitches in your electronics.
You replace every single particle in your body every seven years, which means that you are literally not the same person you were seven years ago.
If you could drive straight up, you’d be in outer space in one hour.
“I read about it online!” she asserts, feverishly tapping away at her iPhone.
“Check your sources, always check your sources,” I reply in my best Walter Cronkite voice.
I just won’t tell her why I’ll be calling everyone matey tomorrow, or why I may be sporting an eye patch. I’ll redirect things with National Cheeseburger Day. That’s like shinning a gold coin in front of any teenager.
I love learning about National Cheeseburger Day. It’s one allotted day to bypass salads or wraps and go for the kill. It does seem primordial, biting down on a huge, juicy, dripping patty of meat and oozing cheese nestled between two fluffy, grill-toasted buns. There’s some sort of hormone released chomping on that, I’m sure. If you did a brain scan at that precise moment, I guarantee your brain would light up like a Christmas tree, all in a good way. Something associated with cavemen and survival. I’ll have to Google that later. And even if I find the answer on some shady site, say ilovecheeseburgers.com, I’m going to own that truth, if only, at least, for today.
In a small skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add onion and sauté until transparent, 3 minutes. Add garlic and sauté for 30 seconds. Place in a bowl and add all the other ingredients. Combine well. (Take off the rings and dive in there!)
Form patties (this should equal out to 4-6 patties, depending on how hefty you like 'em) and place on a grill or preheated grill pan. Grill over moderately high heat until well-browned on the bottom, 5 minutes. Flip and add cheese. Grill another 4 minutes, max!
Throw buns (I like brioche buns!) on the grill until warmed through (20 seconds or so) and assemble your burger with all your favorite fixings.
There’s more, there’s so much more, really. I could go on and on with this list, but, if you are anything like me, you may glaze over lists, maybe get a bit antsy, peek at your Smartphone to check what’s trending on Twitter or send a quick text. Maybe you only brake for exorbitant lists offering up 110 Hot New Sex Tips You Need To Know or Lose 50 Pounds in 50 Minutes Forever, stuff crazier than watching that merengue-dancing golden retriever your cousin Rob posted on Facebook. How does she do that?
My lentil list is not sexy, but it’s worthy of you, because:
LENTILS ARE CHEAP AND QUICK.
Yeah, I capitalized that, centered it and made it bold. I’d set it up with blinking lights and all, if I was computer savvy enough.
I want to tell you more.
I want to ask you to imagine coming home at the end of the day from work/school/the doctor’s/whatever.
Place yourself there, in that moment.
That moment where your body aches, where you’re fed up (because Casey didn’t like your Instagram picture or Horace informed you the Excel spreadsheet you spent the last 5 days preparing is of the wrong month. And he wants the right one on his desk tomorrow.)
Heck, maybe you just got a pedicure and banged your toe as you got out of the car.
So now your toe is throbbing and your Passion in Pink is messed up.
Would a list really do it for you then? Would you really give a crap that:
Lentils stabilize your blood sugar.
Lentils are a great source of protein.
But if you were to open the door to your house and be enveloped by the aroma of gently sautéed onions and garlic, fresh tomato, and earthy lentils, man, you’d feel revived; you’d feel better.
I remember I did when I was a teen coming home from high school drama, the kind that required a flow chart to properly comprehend.
I’d shuffle into the kitchen and my nanny, Yoli, would be there, hovering over the stove. There was always a lot of stuff going on in her kitchen, numerous dented pots and pans simmering or sautéing something or other. But when the lentils were showcased, I knew instantly from the comforting smell of her tangy tomato sauce and my mood automatically shifted for the better.
I’d sit at our scratched up, round wooden table at the far end of the kitchen and Yoli would present me with a bowl of steaming white rice topped with her reviving lentils.
Life instantly improved. After that, I could tackle anything.
Lentils increase energy.
Now, I realize we don’t all have a Yoli stirring in love and lentils upon our arrival from a less-than-wonderful day.
But we all dig the words cheap and quick (which is why I centered them before) and adding healthy and easy to the mix is only a sure win.
You may want to be proactive and get your lentil game on before you and your ruined pedicure grumble towards the rest of your day. The stuff keeps great in the fridge and then it’s really just a quick pop in the microwave until it is ready to work its magic on you.
But if you aren’t the planning type or are so busy you can’t even find the time to go to the bathroom, then, no worries, you can really whip this up in a flash. (And, hey, find the time to pee. That’s just not healthy.)
Here’s a good way to end the list:
Lentils are low in calories and have virtually no fat.
It’s true! One cup of lentils = 230 calories.
Which makes the whole experience delicious, nourishing, quick, and, best of all, guilt free: a happy list worth revisiting on dreary and delightful days alike.