A friend of mine sent me an email not long ago to tell me she received a tagine for Christmas. She wondered what to do with her new clay cooking vessel that combines a low-rimmed, round, shallow base with a high conical top. Tagine (tuh-zheen). It's a term that refers to the visually seductive cooking vessel as well as an aromatic North African stew, cooked in the clay pot. The good news is that you don't need a tagine to prepare tagine. A heavy covered pot will work, although the design of a tagine pot has both practical and aesthetic functions.
On stage recently, speaking before a crowd of 350 food lovers and writers at a literary seminar exploring food in literature, Ruth Reichl said, "Love comes through the palate." An author and former restaurant critic, Reichl was most recently the last editor of the late, great Gourmet magazine.
Lights twinkling under a night sky the color of a Spanish black olive, brick pathways winding through lush tropical foliage and the soothing sound of fluttering palm fronds set the stage for a champagne reception on the opening night of the 29th annual Key West Literary Seminar. Jennifer Cornell, chef and owner of Small Chef at Large Classic Catering in Key West, strolled through the Tropical Gardens of the Audubon House with an air of tranquility, as though she had just come from a relaxing massage at one of the Key West spas. Quite the contrary.
The kitchen counter exploded with color. Bowls of all sizes filled with green slices of spicy hot jalapenos, black beans, bright yellow-orange shreds of cheese, grass green cilantro, homemade salsa mixed of red, green and white and sour cream the color of coconut ice cream. Chunks of grilled chicken and blackened shrimp filled out the array of ingredients. A pot of steaming tortilla soup was situated beside a casserole of cooked brown rice.
Frigid temperatures, deep snow and icy roads lead to soup and bread season in my kitchen. When I have a choice, I tend to stay tucked inside rather than bundle up, head out in my car and brave the winter elements. More time indoors means I can have a pot of soup simmering on the stove and yeast dough rising in a large bowl all wrapped up in a flour sack dishtowel. I know there are some who say there's no good reason to make homemade bread. Working with yeast dough is just too much fuss. It takes too much time. And I would disagree.
It's funny that I always seem to think of my dad when I make bean soup. It's not because he was an expert with the soup pot. Far from it. My dad spent very little time in the kitchen cooking. But, on rare occasions when he was forced to make a meal (every mom gets sick once in a while), he'd pull a can of Campbell's bean with bacon soup off the shelf. Looking very out of place at the stove, my dad would plop the cylinder-shaped bean mixture into a pot, stir in some water and heat it up.
With anticipation of a new year, we prepare for a fresh start, with new goals and good intentions. But hold your horses. Before you begin 2011 with a strategy to improve your health by consuming more plants and eating meat sparingly or maybe not at all, bring on the bacon. Bacon has been a hot food in 2010. It's not just being eaten sizzling and crispy right out of the skillet. Bacon has been adding flavor to many things sweet. I've seen bacon ice cream, bacon peanut brittle, bacon cupcakes and peanut butter bacon cookies. Bacon has been dipped in chocolate and infused into vodka.
Popcorn. It's the official winter snuggling snack in our family. Whether it's a snowy Saturday afternoon or a way-below-zero evening in front of the fire, there is often a big bowl of buttered popcorn in our laps. During a recent stay at my son and daughter-in-law's house for our annual marathon Christmas cookie baking weekend, my son made popcorn one night after all three children were in bed. Bright and early the next morning, my 3½-year-old grandson was eating what was left in the bowl. Popcorn's not bad for breakfast, either.
This time of year many of us are up to our ears in butter, flour and sugar as we mix and pat and roll and bake. Many holiday bakers will wrap up their homemade cookies, candies and breads to share as gifts. I've been doing that for years. It's a tradition I grew up with.
The fun and festive holiday season is upon us. In my quest for keeping my stress levels low and my spirits high, I'm keeping everything as simple as possible this year. Spicy Cranberry Cream Cheese Pastry Bites is an appetizer I will be making all through the holidays to take to every single event that I'm asked to bring nibbles to share. And everyone who comes to my house will be served these luscious little sweet, tart, spicy, creamy, crispy bites. I've stocked up on cranberries, cream cheese and boxes of frozen puff pastry.