December 3, 2013 - No comment
Something about this time of year–the early evening darkness, the cold weather–makes me even more voraciously hungry for reading time than I normally am.
Books are also one of my favorite holiday gifts, both to give and receive, with the tantalizing prospect of a bit of time off hopefully allowing all of us to sit in a comfortable chair with a good book. If you’re on the lookout for some suggested reads, you might check out my reading lists, recently updated to reflect some favorite new reads & divided into categories: young adult (ages 13-15), younger adult (ages 10-12), book club favorites, classics, contemporary fiction, and contemporary nonfiction.
As with food, my eyes are always bigger than my appetite when it comes to books; I love adding to my “to-read” pile. What books have you read this year, new or old, that you recommend?
Last but not least, I’ve had several inquiries from folks asking how they might acquire a signed copy of my book, The Pomegranate King. I’m happy to announce that you can now do just that! Click here for more information or to place an order; I’d be honored to be one of the holiday presents you give yourself, a friend, or a loved one.
Thanksgivingukkah. Hanukkahgiving. Call it what you will, this boils down to being the greatest mash-up of food-related holidays of all time, and I could not BE more excited about it.
Loads of folks all over the internet have already blogged about the potential glories of said holiday menu, and I was particularly intrigued by the idea of pecan pie rugelach. I tackled traditional rugelach, with its cream cheese dough & hearty dried fruit filling last December, so I decided to take that dough recipe and combine it with a scaled-down version of my tried-and-true pecan pie filling.
Final verdict? They’re freaking delicious. Even Jill wanted seconds, and she never does that with sweet stuff. She doesn’t even like pecan pie! And several of my Jewish colleagues at work gave me their blessing after the entire container of leftovers disappeared in a matter of minutes. I’ll be making them again next week fo sho. (Check out last year’s Thanksgiving post for more recipes.)
I’ve a tremendous amount to be thankful for this year, and I hope the same is true for each of you. Wishing you all a holiday filled with joy and connection!
PECAN PIE RUGELACH RECIPE
Like so many delicious things that come our way this time of year, these are not simple, quick, or healthy. They are decadent, delicious, a little bit of a project, and totally worth it.
for the dough:
2 ½ sticks (1 ¼ cups) unsalted butter, softened
8 oz. cream cheese, softened
scant ¼ cup sugar
2 ½ cups flour
½ tsp. salt
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese, butter, and salt together at medium speed until smooth. Turning the mixer down to medium-low, add the sugar and continue beating for a few minutes. Reduce the speed to low and add the flour, mixing until the dough just comes together.
With floured hands, divide the dough up into two balls, wrap with plastic, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, or up to 2 days.
for the filling:
2 cups pecans, finely chopped
¼ cup light brown sugar
¼ cup corn syrup
¼ cup sorghum (substitute molasses for deeper flavor, maple syrup for lighter)
splash of bourbon
1 egg beaten with 1 tsp. vanilla
3 T butter, divided
Place the pecans in a large, sturdy mixing bowl. Combine the sugar, corn syrup, sorghum, bourbon, and salt in a nonstick saucepan. Bring to a boil, then remove from heat and whisk in the butter, one tablespoon at a time. Allow the mixture to cool slightly before thoroughly beating in the egg, then pouring the entire mixture over the chopped pecans.
Remove dough from the refrigerator approximately 20-30 minutes before you’d like to roll it out. Check in on it as it’s softening; there’s a sweet spot to be on the lookout for. Too cold, and the dough will crack when you try to roll it; too soft, and it will fall apart when you roll your rugelach.
Preheat your oven to 350° and line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Beat 1 egg with a bit of water and set it aside, along with a pastry brush. Fill a small bowl with a few tablespoons of raw/Demerara sugar and another small bowl with a few teaspoons of flaky sea salt.
Flour your work surface heavily and roll the first dough half out into a rough circle (it does not have to be perfect, I promise!) around ¼ inch thick. If it’s warmed up too much at this point, you can move it back into the fridge—or even the freezer—for a few minutes, but I didn’t find this necessary. Just work quickly to get these babies rolled up and in the oven!
Gently spread half the pecan pie filling out onto the dough with a spatula. It’s probably going to seem like there isn’t enough filling but there is, I promise; you don’t want a lot. Thinly spread is good. You can even use your fingers to make distributing the filling easier.
Using a pizza cutter or bench scraper, cut the covered dough into long, thin, triangle-shaped wedges, as if you were cutting a pizza. Once you’ve cut all the way around, roll up each rugelach, starting with the widest, outer end and working toward the inner, narrow point. Place onto the parchment-covered cookie sheets, and when they’re all rolled up, brush each one with a little egg wash. Sprinkle generously with sugar, then go back and sprinkle each cookie with a pinch of sea salt. Trust me, the sea salt makes alllll the difference.
Bake for ~20 minutes or until golden. Cool on wire racks and serve, or store in an airtight container for a few days, or until you eat them all.
Last Saturday, I threw my seventh Diwali party.
Actually, it would be completely inaccurate for me to say that I threw this party and imply that I did it by myself. Hardly. One of the things I have finally learned is that not only can I not do everything by myself, it’s much more fun to let incredible people in my life help.
And so, friend-of-a-friend Laura designed the most perfect invitations, out-of-town friend Rebecca not only drove with her husband from San Antonio for the party, but also brought custom-made food labels that matched the invitations perfectly, Megan & Maconda made the house and backyard tables look exquisite with vintage glass, floating candles, and the loveliest arrangements of pink flowers, Greg & Sharon handled plates and napkins, finding the loveliest designs, and tied sparklers into bundles for the gift bags, and continued the tradition of being the deliverers of my last-minute “Oh crap I forgot this!” items.
My mom cooked a full half of the food served, wowing everyone with her chicken tikka masala and stuffed eggplant (yes, I promise to blog about those soon!), looked like a million bucks in the deep purple sari she wore, and charmed everyone who met her for the first time. Diwali marks the one-year anniversary of her living here in Texas, just 1.96 miles away from our house, and I couldn’t be more grateful to be able to say that. Jill, loving spouse of shocking efficiency, rendered the back yard a twinkling retreat, perfect for the day’s fall temperatures, helped clean the house, wrangle our child, and served as always-gracious host to the almost-forty people who walked through our door.
For his part, Shiv romped, flirted, played ball (pictured here with Rebecca’s husband, Aaron), and pointed up at airplanes passing overhead (his latest thing). He had a blast, and I hope everyone else did, too.
When I threw my first Diwali party, I didn’t think too much about why I was doing it or what I was hoping to get out of it; I had just lost my dad, and throwing the party seemed a way to honor him and the rituals of my youth, plus it gave me a project, something to do, which is helpful when you are grieving. Since then, though, I’ve thought (along with Jill) more deliberately about the intention behind the tradition we’ve created.
Our hope is to create something magical, to render our home a sacred space, one in which strangers can meet and connect, feel and share joy, and leave well fed not just in stomach but in soul. To me, Diwali is, in its essence, an affirmation of the belief that love is the strongest force in the universe; that, no matter how hopeless things seem, human goodness will always triumph. And each year, the people who we are lucky enough to have in our lives show up at our house and serve as living proof of that belief.
We billed this year’s gathering as an open house/happy hour, so we had plenty of beer, wine, & cocktails on hand. The two cocktails I served—Lucky Dogs & Cider Sidecars—proved to be incredibly popular and were easy to prep ahead of time.
For food, we had: the aforementioned chicken tikka masala & stuffed eggplants from my mom, a sev puri station that included sprouted mung beans (also a hit, also done by mom), some tamarind-glazed lamb meatballs that I made, roasted chickpeas, a cucumber/onion/tomato salad, carrot achar (pickle), onion pakoras (fried by—you guessed it! my amazing mother) served with tomato chutney, and saag paneer pizza, which was the hands-down runaway hit of the night.
Here’s how I did them, step by step (I was able to fit 3 “pizzas” per baking sheet & work in batches):
1. Garlic naan (Storebought from Whole Foods—I’m not THAT crazy!)
2. Homemade saag slathered on top (I made mine in the slow cooker overnight, which helped it thicken, keeping it from being too watery.)
3. Generous handfuls of pre-shredded mozzarella (don’t use fresh mozz, it’s too watery)
4. Cubes of homemade paneer sprinkled on top.
5. Into a very hot oven–500°–to get the cheese all melty, and then a few minutes under the broiler to brown everything.
6. A good slather of homemade cilantro chutney after the pizzas came out of the oven.
7. Cool slightly, cut into wedges, & serve hot.
(No pictures, they disappeared too quickly!)
I wake up every morning grateful.
In the few moments that it takes for my brain to make sense of my surroundings and calibrate to the time and place, I still experience a residual moment of panic, a kind of pre-dread, a preparing for dread. But just as the knot is about to form in my stomach, it releases. You’re okay, I realize. There’s nothing to be anxious about. Everything is actually fine.
This time last year I was struggling with the very sudden outset of very intense depression and anxiety. When I woke up each morning, instead of the knot in my stomach loosening, it would tighten. The start of each day was a struggle, as if I were deep inside a hole that I couldn’t see a way out of; on top of that, I felt wrong for feeling bad in the first place, as if I “should” feel better, “should” be able to muscle my way out of the situation. And on top of everything else, I felt terror—deep terror—that I would always feel this way, that I would never get back to being—not even happy, just okay. I’ve never been so scared of anything before or since.
I mention this not only to mark the anniversary of what I only half-jokingly call my breakdown, but also because I bet there is a fair chance that someone who reads, or will read this blog, has felt or is feeling the same way. If that applies to you, I know that everything I say will ring at least a little bit false and hollow; I get that, I remember that feeling. But please do me this one favor; do not be so stubborn as to resist asking for help. You can’t fight this monster on your own. You have to get out of the hole first, and there are people (and perhaps also chemicals, as is/was the case for me) that can help pull you out. Once you’re out, you can do the work of figuring out how not to get back in. But you’ve got to get out, first.
My story is not all that unique or even noteworthy, but I find, frustratingly, that despite what we know about brains and how they can go awry, we still as a culture stigmatize mental health in a way that I find baffling. We have no trouble discussing our various physical ailments or seeking treatment for illness that beset the body, and so should it be, too, that we discuss and check up on our inner workings without shame or guilt.
If it’s not you, but someone in your life, who is struggling with anxiety and/or depression, please know that you can make a difference. I honestly would not have been able to make it through those months without the unconditional love and support of Jill and my friends; never have I been more vulnerable or broken open, so in need of care. By listening, by encouraging me to seek help, and by holding the possibility of feeling better when I could not hold it for myself—they each carried me through that time, reminding me of who I was when I had forgotten. I’ll never forget the afternoon that dear friend Megan met me at my psychiatrist’s office for my first appointment. She didn’t do much—brought me a coffee, sat in the waiting room while I met with the doctor, and walked me back to my car—but her presence made all the difference.
I wake up every morning grateful, almost breathless with gratitude on some days. To not feel the way that I felt is a relief and a joy. If you are not yet there yourself, I promise you there is a way. I—and all those who care about you—will hold the space for you, until you arrive to claim it.
POLENTA WITH LAMB BOLOGNESE
Polenta is one of my favorite party tricks for fall; tired of all the summer pastas and burnt out on quinoa, sometimes you just need something hearty and creamy and this is the ticket. We love lamb in my family, but you could substitute ground beef, pork, or turkey based on your preferences. You could also sneak some wilted greens (spinach, chard) into the sauce, if you’re feeling virtuous–we weren’t.
for the bolognese:
1 yellow onion, diced 4-5 cloves garlic, minced 1 large carrot, shredded large handful baby portabella mushrooms, roughly chopped 1 24-oz. can whole San Marzano tomatoes ¼ cup red wine 1 lb. ground lamb 1 tsp. dried oregano ½ tsp. dried parsley salt & pepper olive oil
for the polenta:
2 cups polenta 6 cups water large pat of butter (~2 T) salt
serve with: grated Parmiagano Reggiano
In large, heavy-bottomed pot (I used Jill’s grandmother’s cast-iron Dutch oven, as I do whenever I want to invoke good cooking ju-ju), brown the lamb—in batches if need be—over medium-high heat, with a bit of olive oil to avoid sticking, breaking the meat into clumps with a wooden spoon.
Once cooked through, turn the heat down to medium and use a slotted spoon to move the ground meat to a heatproof bowl, setting aside for later. You’ll probably have quite a bit of lovely lamb fat in the bottom of your pot at this point; you may wish to leave it all there, but I chose to pour out all but about a tablespoon or so. To this, I added a few generous glugs of olive oil and tossed in the onions & garlic, sautéing until very fragrant and translucent. Stir in the carrot and mushrooms, cooking until both have given up their liquid and the entire mixture has reduced in volume, approximately 6-8 minutes.
Now, pour in that red wine—and feel free to pour some for yourself, too—and turn the heat down a bit, allowing everything to simmer until about half of the wine is gone. From here, add the tomatoes, gently breaking them up with your spoon, and perhaps fill the empty tomato can with a bit of water and add that to the pot, too.
Return the ground lamb to the pot, season with oregano, parsley, salt, & pepper, and bring the sauce to a simmer. Cover partway with a lid, off-setting it just a bit so that the sauce will reduce. Cook for as long as you can—at least 45 minutes and up to several hours, knowing that the sauce gets better the longer it cooks.
About a half hour before you’d like to eat, make the polenta. Bring six cups of salted water to a boil; add the polenta and stir vigorously, turning the heat down to medium-low. Cover the polenta and allow it to cook, stirring occasionally, until it reaches the desired consistency; I find that 30 minutes is just about right for me, but you can let it go longer, as it will continue to thicken.
Before serving, stir in a knob of butter and also a bit of salt to taste. At this point, your polenta will make a creamy bed, perfect for topping with your Bolognese. Left alone, the polenta will firm up, but—this isn’t a bad thing! Use it to your advantage by greasing a square pan with olive oil and pouring still-warm polenta into it. As it cools, the polenta will harden, allowing you to cut it into squares and grill, pan-fry, or roast it in the oven. I love a square of leftover polenta, browned in a pan with olive oil and topped with a fried egg & plenty of Parmesan cheese: the perfect savory winter breakfast!