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Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Holiday Wrap Up

There's something emotionally complex about the American winter holidays for me--Christmas and New Year's. Festive, fun, but also bittersweet, a soft sorrow of something not quite achieved, something reached for and only just brushed with fingertips before it moved completely out of reach. Maybe it's the fleeting nature of friends and family all gathered together, knowing it will be over too soon, perhaps it's the fragile hope that we can gift wrap joy or clean the slate and start over as another year begins anew.

This year's holidays, while they brought plenty of sweet, both tangibly with great food and ephemerally in sharing time with many of the people I love, had more than the standard brow-furrowing little edge of sadness. The white flowers pictured above were sent to us by our good friend, Ted, with whom we've said goodbye to another fine feline once (Benten, baby, we still miss you). He sent them to celebrate the beautiful life that our cat, Odin, got to share with us. We said goodbye to Odin on December 27th in our home with a very kind and compassionate vet. If you ever have to help any of your animals pass, I would suggest trying to find a veterinarian who will come to your home. It was the most peaceful and comfortable way I think Odin could have experienced his final moments.

It's ridiculous to write about how hard this was and how much I miss him--there aren't even words, but staring into the curved little petals of the flowers Ted sent, arranged in miraculously perfect symmetry, I find myself able to give something over to the mysteries--cruel and crushing though they may be--of the natural world. It doesn't mean I don't feel devastated by a sense of unfairness, but like many things that I've faced in 2007, there's just no amount of mental wrestling that will make me feel ok about it and so I do what I'm learning more and more how to manage--look toward the positive and pull the comfort of family, friends and shining bits of good fortune a little bit closer. If there's one thing that the horrible weight of loss is good for it's making you focus on what's not lost, on all that you have, and all that you will have.

And there's the ring of hope in that preceding sentence, a chin squaring with resolve to pick myself up and just go on, but damn if it isn't hard.

Perhaps it's just impossible to transition honestly and artfully from grief to samosa.

These tangy and spicy little triangles were the opening to a Christmas dinner we shared with my family in our apartment, where they kindly agreed to come after it was clear we could not travel for the holidays. We'd agreed to an Indian theme for Christmas dinner and what better way to start the feast but with samosas stuffed with potatoes I dug at Parker Farms? Our family tradition for Christmas in my pre-veg days alternately involved ham and lasagna, but soon after transitioning to a vegan diet, we introduced this new family tradition where each year we pick a different cuisine and develop a feast around it. It's fun way to take the emphasis off things you won't eat with your family and bring in a new way of sharing meals together.

This year things were a little scaled back, but we still turned in a very respectable feast in just about three hours of work. We began with samosas and baked pakoras made with cauliflower, potato and peas in a chickpea batter, both of which were liberally dosed with freshly made chutneys: a spicy date chutney with tangy tamarind and a cool mint chutney. Then we moved on to plates piled with veggies, dal, and rice. The rice is one of my favorite dishes--a comforting and indulgent pile of long grain white basmati rice cooked with cinnamon stick, cardamom pods and cumin seeds before being gently fried with garlic and doctored with chopped dried apricot, candied pineapple and pumpkin (brought back from India by my parents on their recent trip there) and finally tossed with salty roasted pistachios. We also enjoyed another one of my favorites, a South Indian style eggplant dish where the eggplant is stuffed with dried coconut, tamarind paste, spices and lime before being cooked "face down" against a bed of cumin and mustard seeds. Even my dad, who has spared very few positive thoughts for eggplant in his years, was somewhat won over.

We also had an simple curried tomato and okra dish with chickpeas, as well as a festive five bean dal, cumin peppered papadam (freshly toasted by my mom), and to cut some of the spice, a light cucumber and tomato salad with sweet curry soy yogurt and poppy seed dressing.

After the traditional break for digestion, we made some room for cups of chai (made with Bazu's wonderful whole spice chai mix) and darjeeling tea, also brought back by my parents from India. We sweetened the black tea with this floral and fruity sugar that I made earlier in the week to let the flavors meld. This is a great little thing to have on hand to make tea a special treat anytime. Just take some sugar and toss in candied fruits (I used pineapple and kumquat) and some dried rosebuds (make sure they are fresh and fragrant--they can loose their potency) and a little section of a vanilla bean, keep it in a sealed container and just stir into your hot tea.

We also enjoyed a beautiful dessert prepared by my dad who didn't get his fill of kheer by half in India, so he whipped up this vegan version for us. He used long grain white basmati rice, toasted almonds, cardamom, cinnamon, coconut milk and soy milk to come up with this incredibly luscious dessert that was all creamy, sweet and spicy. Finished with a pinch of Spanish saffron from our trip to Barcelona, some chopped pistachio, a drop of rose water and a dried rose bud (just for decoration), I couldn't imagine a better ending to the Christmas meal. It's comforting creamy rice pudding simplicity combined with its dynamic flavoring totally trumped the overly complex and heavy dessert I had planned to make--coconut sorbet topped with garam masala batter fried bananas, cinnamon sauce and delicate rolls of pistachio tuile cookies. Maybe sometime when we haven't had a multi-course dinner I'll get back to that dessert, but I'm awfully glad to have spent the time I would have invested in making it sitting around drinking tea and enjoying my dad's kheer instead.

I was also happy to sit around stuffing my face with candy as my family and I decorated our annual gingerbread house. My parents have gotten the construction of the house down to a science. They draw up plans, roll out the delicious gingerbread, cut it, bake it and assemble the structure with hot sugar as glue. Then we all sit around with pastry bags of stiff vegan buttercream and decorate a side of the house. As you can see, it gets a little crazy looking, but it is always fun. I haven't done enough research to actually stand behind this fully, but it seems like the tradition of gingerbread houses may have come from the building of Hexenhaus (literally witch's house) in Germany, named for the tempting house of candy and cookie in the German fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel. It came to be a practice in America with German immigrants, but lost its association with witches.

Gnawing my way through the remnants of my family's hexenhaus, I undertook a second big dinner the next week to welcome in New Year's with some of my friends. We cracked open more bottles of wine than was strictly speaking smart and rang the new year in with festive food, beginning with this green leaf lettuce salad with comice pear, a few surprisingly good out of season raspberries, homemade croutons with mixed dried herbs from my garden, and a fresh raspberry and balsamic vinaigrette. Each salad was also topped with a different flower of pressed cashew cheese. I used an incredibly cute petite four pan, well greased with olive oil and firmly pressed in a warm mixture of cashews, silken tofu, miso, tahini, nutritional yeast, lemon and spices. And then I just hoped for good luck, which I was granted as they all came out well formed.

We followed the salad with a warm bowl of Moroccan-spiced celeric and parsnip bisque, again made with the vegetables we harvested from Parker Farms before Thanksgiving (they are all stored in our "root cellar," i.e. on top of a disused washing machine from tenants of old in our basement). I finished the bisque with a dollop of saffroned pinenut cream, a drizzle of herbed Spanish olive oil (also carried back from Barcelona) and a good grinding of black pepper. It was a complexly earthy soup, creamy, deep, warming and decadent with the saffron and rich olive oil.

Our main course was a carmelized shallot chickpea polenta tart (with inspiration from the Voluptuous Vegan--chickpea polenta is really insanely creamy and delicious, no one can guess what it is) drizzled with a fire roasted tomato and thyme sauce and surrounded by white wine and agave roasted vegetables, again making use of our harvest with parsnips, turnips, and carrots with some bright bell peppers and a few roma tomatoes to add color.

And to finish? Ice cream. I know, I know, stop with the Wheeler's Black Label already, but I can't help myself...though I am now officially out so I either need to beg some or go back to making my own pale imitation. Knowing that there would be limited room for dessert, I made use of my collection of small bowls and little soy sauce dishes to serve tiny scoops of vanilla ice cream next to these mayer lemon and poppy seed crust tartlets filled with lemon thyme ganache. I love the combination of poppy seeds and lemon and the mellow citrus flavor of the mayer lemons was nicely balanced and not overwhelmingly tart or harsh. The tangy herbal notes of lemon thyme hit all sorts of new notes in the dark chocolate for me as well, proving that orange isn't the only citrus that works with chocolate.

For an even lighter dessert option, I also filled these tiny cups with just a bit of the lemon thyme ganache and served them with little spoons.

Lacking storage space in my small kitchen, I turned the tarlets into a centerpiece rather than just something else in the way by using this beautiful old tiered tea tray that I just got, despite the fact that I absolutely do not need a tiered tea tray. Seduced by the beauty of completely useless things. Oh well, call it a Christmas present to myself.

I think one of my favorite poems, "Essay: The Love of Old Houses," is my frame for 2008, a reminder that nothing comes to us fresh and shining and new, we build on and grow from everything and with everything--each loss, each sadness, every set back, every minute around the table with people you've loved your whole life, each smile as glasses clink in a toast with friends you can't imagine your life without, all of the rumbling purrs and stretches of contentment, each morsel of delicious food melting on your tongue.

...Making new/builds upon every layer come before;
we're joined to whoever

wore the stairstep down, or cracked
the corner of a windowpane, or waxed
these boards when company was coming.
Which is why I like old houses best:

here it's proved that time requires
a deeper better verb than pass;
it's more like pool, and ebb, and double
back again, my history, his, yours,

subsumed into the steadying frame
of a phrase I love: a building:
both noun and verb, where we live
and what we do: fill it with ourselves...

-Mark Doty
Happy New Year everyone, let's all make the most of it.