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Sunday, March 24, 2013

The dilemma of Easter dinner

With Easter fast approaching, I'm beginning to plan my family's Easter meals. And that got me started looking into the traditions behind Easter foods.
We'll start the day with a sunrise service, at 6:45, in the courtyard gardens of our church. A soloist backed by a quartet will sing,, "One Early Easter Morning," an anthem that I sang as a choir member when I was ten or twelve. It's a song that's been rattling around in my head for almost sixty years, and I was so delighted when an old schoolmate from those days found the music that I sent it to the music director at our church. Then it will be home for breakfast and an egg hunt. For breakfast, we'll have scrambled eggs, sausages, fruit and hot cross buns.
Hot cross buns, I discovered, date back to Anglo Saxon days when people made wheat cakes to honor the goddess of springtime. With Christianity, those cakes became sweet ones, blessed by the church. Bread is the symbol of fertility and also of the body of Christ, and the cakes are sweet because we are breaking the Lenten ban on sweets (not that many of us keep it these days). The traditional icing crosses were symbols also used before Christianity but easily made the transition. Other cultures  serve similar sweet breads--the Polish have baba, and the Czechs babobka, while Syrians and Jordanians serve honey-based pastries.
For dinner, traditional meats in this country are lamb or ham. Lamb's significance is obvious--Jewish people slaughtered at lamb at Passover and used the blood to mark the doors of believers in hopes that the Angel of Death would pass by. The traditional lamb served at seder also translated easily into Christian ritual, since Jesus is often referred to as the lamb of God.
Serving ham has a much more mundane origin: early settlers in this country slaughtered meat in the fall. Fresh pork was eaten during the winter but what couldn't be eaten was cured for springtime use. Curing took a long time, and the first hams were usually ready about Easter. Once again cultures differ--some Slavic cultures serve coiled sausages and cold meats for Easter.
Two of my children and their families will be here for Easter, and one of them emphatically does not like lamb, never did. Since he was such a good eater as a child, I figure he's entitled to a few dislikes, so I'll serve ham. Ham of course requires some form of potatoes but instead of scalloped, I'll serve a lemon potato salad--I'm pretty sure I've posted the recipe before--accompanied by roast green beans and a fruit salad.
For appetizers we'll have pickled radishes--because my son-in-law loves radishes--and deviled eggs. Eggs are of course THE big Easter tradition, symbols of rebirth and renewal. Often in past times eggs were forbidden during Lent, so that's another reason to serve them. But the traditiona of coloring eggs probably goes back to Ancient Egypt or Greek and Roman Times. It's generally agreed that early German settlers brought the traditions of Easter eggs and bunnies to this country in the 1700s, though who knows where the bunny came from.

Deviled eggs
There are a thousand ways to serve deviled eggs--garnished with everything from caviar and smoked salmon to sprigs of dill, quartered cherry tomatoes, or tiny bits of gherkins. I don't do pastry bags or baggies with the corner cut of, so my eggs don't come out beautifully sculpted but they taste good. And my recipe is so basic I hesitate to repeat it.
Recently there's been a thread going around the internet about baking instead of boiling. Put eggs on their sides in a mini-muffin tin and bake at 350 for 30 minutes, then plunge into an ice water bath. I tried it on three eggs and don't recommend it. The shells cracked the minute they hit the ice water bath, which theoretically could allow bacteria in, and also made for some odd-shaped eggs. And the shelled eggs had brown spots on the exterior of the whites. I did devil them, and they tasted fine. I recommend putting them in cold water, bring to a boil, turn off the heat, and walk away for a couple of hours. Then refrigerate. I was astonished recently to watch one of my sons painfully peeling an egg standing at the kitchen counter. I asked if he didn't know to peel it under cold running water, and he didn't. Now he thinks he's discovered something new and wonderful.
I basically mash the yolks, add garlic salt, pepper, onion powder. Then I dribble salad mustard over the yolks, being careful not to overdo because I want more of a mayo taste. Sometimes I add a bit of dill or sweet pickle relish (your choice). Then just enough mayo to bind but don't let them get sloppy runny. Chill well before serving. But, shoot, everyone knows how to devil eggs.

Pickled radishes

Clean and quarter 10 regular radishes. Put in a glass jar with 10 garlic clovers  peeled, a tsp. whole black peppercorns, a tsp. each sugar and kosher salt, and 2 cups white vinegar. Shake until sugar and salt dissolve. Refrigerate at least 3 days, but you can keep them a month if you keep them in the refrigerator.

A blessed Easter to one and all.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

A supper for St. Paddy's Day

My youngest daughter’s birthday is today—shh! I’m not saying how old. She’s getting sensitive about it. I always thought corned beef and cabbage would be appropriate for her birthday, but from her youngest days she had another idea: tacos! Make them yourself tacos! I got so tired of chopping tomatoes and onions and lettuce for twenty of her nearest and dearest (they varied over the years). This year she’s requested cheese enchiladas (she’s making them), beans (from a local restaurant), fruit salad (I’ve cut up a whole pineapple, cantaloupe, mango, 2 lbs. strawberries, washed pint of blueberries—I always get the chopping!).

Her menu leaves me with no Irish food to celebrate the day, so last night I fixed an Irish supper for a friend. I wasn’t quite up for the heaviness of corned beef and cabbage so I made a Reuben casserole—with some trepidation, I must admit, but it was really good. Then I worried about salad—coleslaw didn’t sound right for a dish with kraut in it, neither did a green salad. Besides, I realized you have to have potatoes with an Irish meal. My friend told me that once in Ireland her husband ordered assorted vegetables—they turned out to be mashed potatoes, hash browns, and one other potato dish! So I made what the Web assured me is an Irish potato salad (above). I’m a little late with these recipes for St. Patrick’s Day this year, but save them for next. Also I forgot to take a picture of the casserole until after we’d eaten, so please pardon the picture of a half eaten casserole. It works in a way because I thought I was making just enough for two—I ended up with about half the casserole left.

 Reuben Casserole

 About 6 oz. corned beef, diced (I had the deli counter thick slice it and then I diced)
1 cup sauerkraut, drained and then squeezed dry
Four green onions, mostly white part, chopped
½ c. grated Swiss cheese
½ c. grated cheddar cheese (I used sharp)
¼ cup Thousand Island dressing (I always make my own—equal parts ketchup and mayo, in this case about 3 Tbsp. each with 1/2 teaspoon pickle relish and a dash of Worcestershire)
3 Tbsp. mayo

Mix all together and put in a casserole dish. The more shallow the dish, the more room for crumb topping.

For topping:

2 slices rye bread—crumbed in food processor
2 Tbsp. butter, melted
Mix and spread over casserole. Bake at 350o for 40-45 minutes. Topping should be crunchy and browned.

Irish potato salad

2 baking potatoes, peeled, sliced and boiled until tender, then cooled (do not overcook so that they fall apart)
4 green onions
4 slices bacon, cooked and crumbled
Equal parts mayo and sour cream (I used ¼ c. each), mixed

Spread a layer of potatoes in serving dish, cover with mayo/sour cream sauce, sprinkle with bacon and green onions. Repeat layer. Refrigerate until chilled (3-4 hours)

 Serve with green beer—or a nice wine. No green wine, please.


Sunday, March 10, 2013

Dining on the High Seas

When we think about a cruise, most of us envision lavish buffets, with ice sculptures and scrumptious food. But that image is out of date. Cruise lines are changing their approach to food service. If you’re thinking about a cruise soon, you’ll want to read this advice from guest blogger Claire Jenkins first about food questions to ask before you book
There is no argument that food is an integral part of the cruise holiday experience, but reports on the quality of food served aboard the ships vary immensely. For some, the fine dining experience while enjoying the ever-changing view from the restaurant window is something that can’t be topped. Others report on the mayhem experienced in cramped buffet style restaurants offering food that most fast food outlets would be ashamed of. For many of us quality food is a key aspect of a holiday, and something to look forward to, so reports of poor food are troublesome. What is the reality, and what can you expect when dining aboard?

The truth is that the cruise industry is going through a period of dramatic change when it comes to dining. The days of the formal traditional dining rooms are coming to an end. Most cruise lines are diversifying and offering a wide range of dining options, as well as choices in eating times, which is a far cry from the formality of the original dining rooms with their set meal times.

 “Anytime dining” is a new buzz word in the cruising world. Diners can book a particular meal time at a specific table or can opt to go for the flexible option where they can turn up at anytime during serving hours. Princess and Holland America were two of the first lines to offer this. Other lines, such as Norwegian Cruise Line, have gone for the 24-hour restaurant option, offering comfort food throughout the night. The once-per-cruise midnight buffet option is being replaced with a once-per-cruise brunch . Disney Cruises offer champagne brunch on sea days in their adults-only restaurant, Palo.

Changes are also taking place in the types of eateries available as well. Cruise ships traditionally offered one dining room, meaning guests had no choice in where they ate. These days guests can choose from a number of smaller onboard specialty restaurants. These generally have a cover charge of about $18, which, compared to the cost of eating ashore, is a good value. These specialty restaurants offer a range of culinary themes and a more intimate and personal dining experience away from the crowds of the main dining room. These food cruise specialty restaurants offer more allowances for individual tastes and preferences. For example, you can request steak cooked the way you like it, ask for a certain element of a dish to be excluded, or added. They also give guests the option to avoid the sometimes forced entertainment often found in the main dining rooms.

Check what food is included in your fare before you book your cruise, and ask about the cover charges for the specialty restaurants. Make sure there is some variety in dining options offered on the boat as in some cases you will be on board for a few weeks and you could quickly tire of limited options.

For connoisseurs

Fans of the celebrity chef craze may be pleasantly surprised by the dining options on board. A host of famous chefs have endorsed food and restaurants on cruise ships. Jacques Pepin is Oceania’s Executive Culinary Director, Marco Pierre White has restaurants on P&O’s Ventura and Oriana, Boston-born Todd English has a restaurant on the Queen Victoria, and Nobuyuki ‘Nobu’ Matsuhisa has a sushi bar on Crystal Serenity. The chefs not only create the menus but also have a hand in designing the restaurants and regularly dine aboard to check on the quality of the food being served.

Some cruise companies are making the extra effort, and often the extra cost, to ensure that the food served aboard is locally sourced. Hebridean Island Cruises support the small business communities that they sail around by sourcing the food from local suppliers. This ensures that the food is fresh and seasonal for the guests. The fish is all sourced from Scottish waters, the meat is from a local butcher based in Argyll, and even the cheeses are Scottish. For those wanting to really experience the true food of the area they are visiting this is an ideal solution. Other liners offer specific food and wine-based shore tours. Oceania has joined with Food and Wine Trails to offer guests the chance to taste local life as well as local food and wines. Azamara Club Cruises offer tours to the source of local foods, such as Slovenian salt plant tours, visits to olive farms and wine cellars.

If you want to brush up on your culinary skills while on holiday then choose one of the ever increasing numbers of cruise lines offering cooking lessons on board. Holland America is leading the way in this revolution with their Culinary Arts Center. In a specialized demo kitchen they offer small groups the chance to watch demonstrations and have hands-on lessons. Regent Seven Seas Cruises have Le Cordon Blue chefs on hand to teach guests their tricks of the trade through their lectures and demos.

For some people the choice of wine is just as, or even more, important than the food choice. The majority of cruise companies have recognized this and now have wine bars. Norwegian Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean and Princess all have impressive wine bars. Celebrity Cruises even put on a special wine lovers cruise once a year as part of a repositioning trip between Vancouver and San Diego, with vineyard visits and seminars by wine experts.

Dining on board with magnificent views from the windows in undeniably a special experience, but Windstar Cruises have taken it one step further and offer the guests an al fresco dining option when the weather allows. Guests can choose to dine under the stars in the fresh air on all three of their ships.

 A lasting impression

The reputation of the food served on cruise ships has taken a bit of a battering over the past few decades, but it is clear to see that the cruise industry is revolutionizing itself. By doing some careful research before booking you may find that the food served on board is one of the most memorable parts of the holiday, and for all the right reasons.