Greet the New Year with black-eyed peas

Black-eyed peas were always on the New Year’s Day menu when I was a child. It’s a Southern tradition said to bring prosperity in the coming year, much like the custom of serving lengthy noodles at Chinese New Year is intended to ensure a long life. Each cute little pea we consumed was supposed to put a dollar in our pockets.

We ate them fairly plain, usually out of a can. Truth be told, they were rather dull and boring, hardly the sort of food the uninitiated would expect at a celebration. No wonder I found it hard to interest my Midwestern-born husband in continuing the tradition.

Little did I know then how good black-eyed peas could be. Today, it’s a delight to eat them as an auspicious beginning to a brand new year. Continue reading Greet the New Year with black-eyed peas

Festive salad for the season

One good thing about coming from a family without a lot of immutable holiday traditions is you get to make up your own. That’s how we came to eat tamales at my house on Christmas Eve even though none of our ancestors would have had the slightest idea what to do with masa or chiles.

Since I’ve never been initiated into the secrets of tamale making, we let Lucy’s Tamale Factory prepare ours. To go with them, I cook a pot of savory pinto beans with onions, straight out of “Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen” (Scribner, 1996), along with rice and a festive salad. This year I’m also thinking about trying my hand at corn tortillas, but that’s another post.

This salad is far from traditional but it draws on flavors Continue reading Festive salad for the season

Panettone for Christmas

Attention bakers: It’s not too late to make your own golden panettone for Christmas.

It doesn’t have to take days of fiddling with starters and multiple mixings of dough. And if the results aren’t quite as delicate as the festive bread from Milan’s best bakeries, they certainly beat the packaged panettone found at most stores. Just think of the bragging rights.

I love the light, airy texture and sweet, buttery flavor of this traditional Italian celebration bread at its best. I’m not so fond, however, of the bitter chunks of citron and rock-like raisins in most commercial panettone. So when I ran across Jim Lahey’s recipe in the December Gourmet, I couldn’t resist. Continue reading Panettone for Christmas

Elegant granola makes thoughtful gift

A lot of us are going to be spending more time in the kitchen than at the mall this holiday season. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a silver lining to the mess our economy is in.

Homemade food makes a great gift in good times or in bad. It’s personal, thoughtful and always in style. You never have to worry about size, duplication or the clutter factor. What isn’t eaten right away usually can be frozen or stashed in the pantry for later enjoyment.

Cookies and candy are classics. But if you want your gifts to stand out, you need to come up with something a little different. That’s why I’m giving granola this year. Continue reading Elegant granola makes thoughtful gift

Cookbooks for Christmas

It’s hard to imagine a better present for anyone who cooks than a new cookbook. A good cookbook is a friend in the kitchen, introducing new ingredients, explaining unfamiliar techniques, and even inspiring altogether new dishes. It belongs on the counter with food stains on the pages and notes penciled in the margins.

With that in mind, I offer here half a dozen recently published cookbooks that have won my affection this year. Any one of them would make a great gift for your favorite cook (or a place on your own wish list). Continue reading Cookbooks for Christmas

Cranberries: Jewels of the holidays

Fresh cranberries are not the sort of produce I usually celebrate.

They’re not local – the entire American crop is grown in only five chilly northern states – and just a tiny fraction of the harvest is organic. They require vast quantities of water for cultivation and pose serious environmental challenges.

I love them anyway. Their bright, tart flavor and beautiful ruby red color bring a sparkle to dreary winter days that’s hard to give up.

The arrival of bags and boxes of the little jewels in the supermarket heralds the beginning of the holiday season in November. Come January, they’re gone . . . unless I remember to stash some in the freezer while they’re still available.

At Thanksgiving, we all eat cranberries, whether fresh or canned. They’re the humble supporting player to the noble roast turkey at the traditional feast. I like to grind raw berries in a food processor with a cut-up orange, a handful of walnuts and sugar to taste for a lively relish that sings with sweet, tart flavor. It’s the perfect counterpoint to often dull turkey.

Yet cranberries really deserve a starring role and they get one in this upside-down cake from my friend Joyce Gemperlein. Continue reading Cranberries: Jewels of the holidays