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starting off right

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I love the way our home feels when it’s filled with people sharing food, drink, and conversation.

Twenty-or-so people made their ways to our open house this afternoon. We never really know how many folks are coming. We aren’t very good at the formal invitation thing; we just tell the people we see along the way and wait to see who shows up. If you’ve been once, we expect that you know we are going to do it again next year and the invitation still stands. Part of what that means is we never quite know what the collection of people who gather is going to look like, which means the afternoon is always filled with wonderful surprises.

Some of the best recipes happen that way as well.

As I was putting things together for this afternoon, I found I had a sweet potato left over from Christmas, some cranberry chutney I made a couple weeks back, a bag of mini marshmallows, and a pack of wonton wrappers. I boiled the potato and pureed it with some maple syrup, cinnamon, and nutmeg and then put a teaspoonful of the mix with a spoonful of the chutney and a marshmallow in the wonton wrapper, folded it over and fried it. Good stuff, Maynard.

Whatever designs I have on 2006, I can rest assured that things are not going to go as I expect them to, unless I expect the recipe for the year to require much the same improvisation as the wontons. I have some ideas about what I hope will be on the menu for the year ahead, but I don’t yet know what ingredients I will be working with.

Here’s what I do know: we started it off right with a house filled of friends and a table filled of food.

Peace,
Milton

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what’s with the black-eyed peas?

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As long as I can remember, New Year’s Day meant black-eyed peas. It also meant ham and cornbread, because that’s why my family always ate with black-eyed peas. The peas were for good luck, they told me.

When we moved to Boston fifteen years ago, I went to the local supermarket in Charlestown to buy some black-eyed peas. I searched the dried beans, I searched the canned beans — no luck. Finally, I asked the store manager if they carried them.

“Shu-ah (which is Boston for “sure”),” he said, “they’re in the ethnic section.

Thank God for Goya.

This morning I did a little surfing to find out why black-eyed peas on New Year’s? I found three explanations.

The first — from a guy in Florida, I think — said the dish promised prosperity: the peas represented coins and the collard greens (which he cooked alongside) represented folding money.

The second — from a farmer in Arkansas — said the role the peas played in crop rotation put nitrogen back in the soil and enriched it for the coming crop.

The third — from the deep South — said troops from the North raided the camps of the Southern soldiers one New Year’s Eve and all they had were black-eyed peas.

When I come home from work tonight I will start soaking the dried beans to get ready for our New Year’s party on Sunday afternoon. Since the house will be filled, mostly, with folks who did not grow up in a pea-eating tradition, I’m going to fix them three ways (one, I suppose, for each story): traditionally, with some ham, garlic, and a little sugar — and cornbread on the side; as a variation on “Chile Macho,” a recipe from my mother (a can of green chiles, a can of Ro-tel tomatoes, one diced onion, two cups of cooked black-eyed peas, 2 T vinegar, Salt, and sugar); and as Akkras, a West African bean fritter (2 cups soaked — but not cooked — peas, 1 chopped onion, 1 fresh red chile seeded and chopped — all put in the food processor — and oil for frying).

One way or another, everyone will get a taste of good fortune.

Peace,
Milton

PS — I sent some of you an invitation to be a member of this blog. I didn’t realize the catch was you had to creat a blog of your own. I didn’t mean to create any obligations. Sorry.

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bread makes the meal

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My earliest food memories have to do with bread.

I grew up in Africa in the late fifties, sixties, and seventies. What bread we had my mother made from scratch, at least in the early years. I think that’s one of the reasons I grew up wanting to be in the kitchen. There’s something about the smells of the whole bread baking process — the dryness of the flour, the pregnant promise of the yeast as it dissolves, the aroma of invitation that fills the house as the bread bakes — that make most any house feel like a home.

For Ginger and me, special occasions are marked by special bread.

My mother passed on a family recipe to me for “Refrigerator Rolls,” which is a bread dough that contains yeast, baking powder, and baking soda, and will keep in the fridge for a week or more, making it possible to bake a little each day.

Here’s the recipe:

1 quart milk, scalded and poured over

1 cup sugar and
1 cup butter
(I do it in the bowl of my kitchen Aid mixer on low speed)

Let cool and then add

2 packages yeast dissolved in
1/2 cup water

Add

8 cups of flour, one cup at a time (I use 1 cup of whole wheat flour)

Cover and let rise until doubled, then add

1 cup flour mixed with
3 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking Soddy

Cover and let rise again.

When I make our rolls, I use a biscuit cutter and then drag the bottom through some olive oil and fold then in half. You can also cook the dough in loaves; it also makes great cinnamon rolls. Bake at 425 for 12-15 minutes. We’re talking seriously addictive bread here.

I’m convinced part of what makes bread dough rise are all the memories it contains. Each time I make the rolls I am tapping into the history of my mother and grandmother doing the same thing. I am also connecting with all the loaves that have been baked and broken at any table that was and is to come.

That’s good honest work.

Peace,
Milton

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staying at the table

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“A crazy guest eats and leaves right away.” (Arabic proverb)

There were six of us around our Christmas table this year. We sat down to eat about three and got up from the table somewhere around seven. We had stopped eating quite awhile before we left the table, but we stayed to be fed by the conversation.The same six, along with five others were around the table at Thanksgiving–and we ate and talked and laughed and cried for eight hours. Sharing the mashed potatoes and green beans makes it easier, somehow, to share feelings.The food tastes better, too, when there are more with whom to share.

One of my favorite Christmas gifts was a cookbook called Extending the Table: A World Community Cookbook. Along with recipes from around the world, it’s filled with photographs,stories, and quotes (like the one at the beginning of this post) that create a conversation that moves beyond the recipes.

Whether food or friends, life is best savored rather than gulped.

Peace,
Milton

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working with what i have

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I’ve been staring at the “posting” screen for several days now trying to figure out how to join the world of food bloggers. Since I’m writing from a Mac and I don’t know much about HTML, I’m still not sure about adding links and so forth. I wanted the blog to look less plain, but I decided to work with what I have rather than wait for everything to be perfect.

But that’s the way it goes. I ran out of time before Christmas and so I asked my friend Jay to go to the grocery store for me. I had made a list of the stuff that was on sale that I needed; I failed to add some of the basics. When I got up on Sunday morning I realized I didn’t have everything I had planned for. So I headed to the pantry and the fridge to see what possibilities existed that had yet to be discovered. I found arborio rice, Israeli couscous, Vidalia onions, a few sweet potatoes, some craisins, slivered almonds, pine nuts, and fresh spinach.

We sat down at the table to a meal of brown sugar ham, drunken turkey (marinated in bourbon, maple syrup, and orange juice), sweet potatoes au gratin with carmelized onions, roasted corn and pineapple risotto, and couscous with craisins, almonds, pine nuts, spinach, and a little Jerusalem spice I found in the freezer.

We had six around the table: all friends who have become family, all folks who help to make meals matter. We ate and talked for several hours. Food is best with friends and family.

Like it says at the top of the page: don’t eat alone.

Peace,
Milton

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