Monday, April 27, 2009

Globe Spinner Dinner

When I was a young lad, my mother read in some family magazine about "Globe Spinner Dinners," a great activity for the entire family. The idea was that you set a special night to be a "Spinner Dinner" night, you spun the globe and randomly selected a country (although you may have had to do it a couple of times if you kept hitting the ocean), you prepared a dinner based upon the cuisine of the country, you dressed up in costumes from the country, and you researched information about that country. The evening became a culturally educational evening that allowed everyone a chance to take part. Those who didn't cook could read up on the country in the World Book Encyclopedia and report to everyone else on the such trivia as the country's population, topography, government, language, religions, customs, or main industries. Other people could ransack their closets to come up with costumes that mimicked to some vague level of accuracy the costumes worn in a Hollywood movie about the country. And other people could go to the liquor store and buy beer from the country in question. Everyone took part.

I have tried to introduce Globe Spinner Dinners to my family, and so far my youngest son has become the most interested in the idea. I warn you, however, if you plan to do a Spinner Dinner...PLAN AHEAD. Don't decide you are going to do a Spinner Dinner TONIGHT.

I was discussing that night's dinner with my youngest son when he suggested that we make it a Spinner Dinner evening. I thought, "Sure. China's a big country. The chances are pretty good that I can make Chinese or Indian or something else Asian tonight."

We got Botswana. Thank heavens for the Internet. I was able to save face and create a meal that very day.

Our menu consisted of pap (a traditional porridge made of corn meal) served with a vegetable potjie (a traditional stew made mostly of root vegetables). We had a morogo (spinach) dish with orange bell peppers and peanut butter (very good, but a bit of an acquired taste) and watermelon. Oh, and I introduced the kids to ginger beer.

I had wanted to find Reed's Extra Ginger Brew (the super potent, less sweet ginger beer), but all I could find was the Reed's Premium Ginger Brew (the very strong but slightly less potent, sweeter ginger beer). It was probably all for the best. Better they should start off with the lighter ale before I introduce them to the hard stuff. But I digress.

Considering the limited amount of time I had to shop for and prepare the meal, it came out very well. My oldest son researched some information on the Web about Botswana, although nobody dressed up in traditional garb.

That's OK. Next time, I will get my wife involved, and we will plan this a good week in advance. That way, not only will I have plenty of time to prepare a traditional Swaziland feast, but she will be able to sew me a costume as well.

Just like the one in the movies.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Orange Sunset Served in a Soothing Mug

This past week my darling wife was under the weather. She made puppy dog eyes at me until I made her an Orange Sunset, one of her favorite drinks when she is sick.

Making the drink was the easy part. Selecting an appropriate mug, on the other hand, took a bit more time. I am not a superstitious man when it comes to most of my daily habits, but I do admit to a certain degree of mystical practice when it comes to selecting the proper vessel for a heated beverage.

Very simply, the mug must match the purpose of the drink.

For example, in the morning, my coffee mug must be minimalistic and energizing. There must be no floral patterns or fancy type fonts. If I select the mug with the Colorado columbine, I might as well drop a couple of vicodin and bring a pillow to my desk.

On the other hand, if I want to settle myself down at night with a nice cup of chamomile or jasmine green tea, I will go for the gray mug with the winter forest scene or the free mug I got with my last Gevalia order that greets me with delicate gold lettering, "By Appointment to his Majesty the King of Sweden." If I pick the mug with the snappy logo that I got at a technical conference, I will be up all night trying to list all the movies that Tim Burton directed that Danny Elfman did NOT do the music for.

So, I very carefully chose the winter forest scene for my wife when I made her the Orange Sunset, and I am totally and completely convinced that it helped in her convalescence. Had I picked the wrong mug, she would have been up all night hacking and coughing and mentally writing middle eastern choreographies for her dance troupe. And all because I gave her a hot, soothing drink in a Far Side mug.

Who am I to taunt the lesser deities of warming beverages? This is serious stuff.

Anyway, here is the recipe for Orange Sunset.


2/3 mug of orange juice
1/3 mug of water
1 tablespoon of honey
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
3 whole cloves

Mix all ingredients together. Simmer on a low heat for about 10 minutes. Serve warm.

If you do not like whole cloves in your teeth, strain the drink before serving. I, on the other hand, fully believe in the healing power of whole cloves, so I always leave them in the mug and suck on them when I have finished the drink.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The White House Seder: Was It Good for the Jews?

Once again, the Obama White House has made history. And this time, I just do not know how to feel about it.

President Obama hosted a second night seder in the White House tonight. This was the first White House seder attended by a sitting president. The seder was relatively small, and included only about 19 people including the president and his family. Guests included Valerie Jarret, one of Obama's closest advisors; family friend Eric Whitaker; Reggie Love, Obama's personal aide; Melissa Winter, Michelle Obama's deputy chief of staff; White House videographer Arun Chaundhary, along with his family; Eric Lesser, a personal aide to senior advisor David Axelrod, and a number of other advisors. Eric Lesser, 24, led the seder.

The seder meal was "kosher-style," which means that it was not kosher for Passover, but presumably did not contain cheeseburgers, shrimp, pork, or leavened bread.

This seder is big news. By hosting a seder in the White House, Obama has made a point of showing his support for a) the Jewish people, b) his Jewish advisors, and c) diversity in general. After 86 years of a National Christmas Tree, the Obama White House has finally put a spotlight on the best Jewsih traditions and pushed our culture and religion, not our political issues, to the national center stage. The symbolism of the gesture surpasses the symbolism of the seder plate itself.

And yet, I find myself underwhelmed. I am sure that Eric Lesser, a rising star in the Democratic political landscape, did a fantastic job leading the seder. But still and all, this was not the seder I had hoped for.

A national seder is a watershed event. A seder in the White House should match the enormity of the event itself. Every part of the seder should be scrutinized since the seder is meant to represent the entire American Jewish community.

At an absolute minimum, we should all be asking these very important questions about the seder:
  • Who led the seder? Was it a leader in the American Jewish community? Was he or she Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, or unaffiliated?

  • Was the seder kosher for Passover? Did someone kasher the White House kitchen? Was the caterer kosher? Would observant Jews actually be able to eat at the national seder?

  • What was on the menu? Did a famous chef come up with an innovative, new take on matzah ball soup? Did the menu incorporate recipes from around the globe?

  • Who asked the four questions? Did the responsibility fall to Sasha? Did she do them in Hebrew? Did she sing them?

  • Who found the afikomen? What sort of prize was the lucky finder able to negotiate with the president? Did the finder get a college scholarship or just a shiny silver dollar?

  • Was Debbie Friedman invited? Well, was she?
And that is just for starters.

Many Jewish leaders felt snubbed that they were not invited to the seder. I can understand their feelings of disappointment, not simply because they were left out of what should have been the social event of the season, but also because the event was NOT the social event of the season.

Imagine if the president decided that instead of a National Christmas Tree, he was simply going to put up a small Charlie Brown tree in the oval office and invite a few close friends over for spiked egg nog. There would be rioting in the streets and Obama would be a one-term president. And all because he simply wanted to make Christmas a small, personal family celebration.

So, the Jewish community is STILL waiting for a National Passover Seder. When this does eventually happen, when a current or future president decides to bequeath a higher level of significance to both Passover and the Jewish people, then, and only then will the Jewish people have truly arrived in this country.

I only hope I make it on the invite list. I want to sit next to Sasha and Malia. I'll even teach them to sing Daiyenu until their parents beg me to stop.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Passover Traditions

Chag sameach! Happy first day of Pesach. I hope that all of you observing Pesach were able to celebrate in style last night. If not, hopefully you will celebrate in style tonight. If not, well hopefully you are able to hunker in a corner somewhere with a piece of matzah and bottle of wine.

We hosted a seder last night for 11 people (7 guests plus my family). I finally got smart this year and took a full vacation day so I could prepare all the food. As it was, I still ended up rushing around at the last minute trying to get everything ready. This is standard operating procedure. No matter how many days ahead of time I begin the process, I must spend the last two minutes before our planned start time saying, "Aaaah! Salt water! We're supposed to have salt water!"

We tried a host of new recipes this year, opting for a more Sephardic meal. As usual, we had the Sephardic charoset of oranges, dates, nuts, and grape juice. The main course was Pesadic spanikopita pie, garlicky stir fried green beans, curried white and sweet potatoes, and a quinoa pilaf. But of course, we had to start with vegetarian matzah ball soup and the walnut onion salad (mocked chopped liver). Those two are absolutely critical. Even if we decided to do something wacky like an all sprouts seder, we still would have to have matzah ball soup. I'd just sprinkle the sprouts in the soup.

I am curious. Do any of you get innovative on Pesach, or do you always have the same meal? If you do get innovative, do you have certain dishes that are absolutely required year after year, NO MATTER WHAT?

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Moscardini de Pesach a la Winicur

The countdown to Pesach has begun. The house is almost completely kashered, the baking and cooking for the seder is underway, and we have now reached the most difficult time of Pesach...the days of final chametz. Now is when we have used up all the good chametz, and we are trying to find something to eat amongst the last few scraps of usable food. We can't break into the matzah yet, but we don't have anything to put in our sandwiches other than bread itself.

As a matter of fact, today I had a glutenschnitzel sandwich. That means that other than the tomato sauce I smeared over it, I had wheat gluten breaded with corn meal between two pieces of bread. It was like a super chametz sandwich. Tonight, I stopped at the store, bought a 8-count package of tortillas, a can of black beans, and a small can of corn. Combined with the last of the leftover rice in the fridge and the non-kosher for passover salsa, we suddenly had a wonderful burrito meal with hardly any leftovers. And tomorrow, I'll take the last of the stir fry and noodles for lunch.

Trying to make the chametz come out even before Pesach is almost an art. Open question to all of my readers: What do all of you eat on the last couple of days before Pesach? Do you kasher your kitchen weeks before and eat out for 10 days straight? Do you put all your chametz in a bag in the fridge and sneak your sandwiches out to the garage until you finally sweep up that last bread crumb with a feather and a candle the night before?

When you live in Indianapolis, you have to prep for Pesach ahead of time. If you haven't bought your Doc Brown's kosher for Passover black cherry soda a couple of weeks before Pesach, then good luck finding any at all.

I'm sure that all you folks in Skokie or NYC or Israel can go into the local Walmart any day of Pesach and find whatever you want whenever you want it. But for the rest of us in the Midwest (i.e. outside of Chicago) we have to plan ahead. It just makes us better than you. Or something like that.

Switching topics rapidly, I finally worked out a good recipe for Passover moscardini, an almond cookie usually made for Purim. If any of you can give me a historical background on this cookie (or even a good picture of what it should really look like), I would be much obliged. These cookies taste wonderful, but they are possibly the most unappetizing looking pastries that I've ever made. What can you expect? They are dark brown cookies with flecks of white in a nondescript tubular shape that looks like...well, you get the idea.

So, I've played with the recipe to make it look more like mandelbrot. At least now it looks like a cookie I'd actually want to eat.

Moscardini de Pesach a la Winicur

1 1/4 cup almonds, toasted then finely ground
1 1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1/4 cup matzah cake meal
1/3 tsp. cinnamon
2-3 tsp. orange zest (1/2 an orange)
1 egg, slightly beaten
1 egg yolk

Preheat the oven to 350 deg F. Oil a baking sheet and coat it with matzah cake meal.

Combine all of the dry ingredients in a bowl. Mix the egg and egg yolk into the dry ingredients and stir well.

Press the dough firmly into a long mound, about 3 inches wide by 9 inches long by 1 inch high. Taper the edges so that when you slice the loaf, you get moon-shaped cookies.

With a sharp knife or a pastry scraper (a pastry scraper works very well), cut the mound into segments, each about 3/4 inch thick. Place the segments cut side down on the baking sheet, each about 2 inches apart. Bake for 10-12 minutes till just firm. Remove cookies to a cooling rack to cool completely.

Yields about 1 1/2 dozen.