Gelatinous Mass, My Family’s Holiday Tradition

Jell-o Mold

I apologize for neglecting the blog for the past week. I’ve been visiting family in Florida, still am in fact. I wish I could share the secrets to the fabulous turkey I made on Thanksgiving, or an old family recipe for stuffing or pumpkin pie. But, unfortunately I can’t do that. While I have offered, or begged to be more precise, to host Thanksgiving, my mom and aunts refuse to pass the torch. And here in Florida I had no way of even contributing a side dish or dessert.

Dissolving in hot water

Fear not. I will share a favorite recipe of my family’s, one that is present at nearly every gathering, everything from birthdays to Rosh Hashana to Thanksgiving. Yes, it goes against my general food philosophy, using the opposite of fresh, natural ingredients (helloooo, Sugar-Free Jell-O powder and Cool Whip Lite!), but every foodie needs to allow some exceptions to her rules.

Cooling with ice

Originally, my aunt who hosted Thanksgiving turned down my mother’s offer to bring the Jell-O Mold, saying it would be redundant with the cranberry relish (I know, what?). Anyways, she quickly caved to the pressure, my mom brought her dish and Thanksgiving was saved!

Adding Cool Whip

To fully grasp the significance of my mom’s Jell-O mold, you need to understand that it’s one of the few things she makes really well that my more cooking-adventurous Aunt Jeri just can’t master (that and matzo balls – my mom makes the best balls of anyone I know). Just to clarify, my mom isn’t a bad cook, just not one that I would call great. But she has a few items that are simply the best: matzo balls, kugel, sweet and sour meatballs, and Jell-O. At home my mom even has a special “Jell-O spoon,” a large slotted spoon made from white plastic that has been stained pink throughout the years from countless Jell-O preparations.

Pouring into the mold

You also need to understand my sister Marci’s obsession with Jell-O, and her subsequent hatred of The Chicago Tribune’s columnist John Kass who has published articles ranting about his disdain for the “gelatinous mass.” Marci could eat Jell-O every day and it’s a must-have when she’s sick, even more than chicken noodle soup. For her especially, no holiday would be complete without it.

So, the day before Thanksgiving I watched my mom make Jell-O in her under-equipped Florida kitchen. And I noticed a few advantages of the dish: it requires just three ingredients and uses only a large spoon, large bowl, liquid measuring cup, hand-mixer or whisk, and bundt-type mold pan. That’s it! A delicious side dish or dessert that can be made just about anywhere.

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Baking with Ben: Snickerdoodle Cookies

Reaching for more

Pretty much since he was born I’ve been wanting to cook with my friend Sara’s son Ben. With his third birthday just around the corner, we decided he was finally ready. No, we weren’t going to teach him how to cook an egg, which he said he wanted to do last week. (He actually told Sara he wanted to be a “cooker” and when Sara asked what he wanted to cook he said eggs.) Instead we started with a kid-friendly cookie: snickerdoodles.

Teaching Ben

The original plan was for Ben to help with the entire recipe, including making the cookie dough. However, he took forever to wake up from his nap so we decided to go ahead and make it without him. In retrospect, this was a wise move as the reality is that Ben has the attention span of the three-year-old he is.

Ben making cookies

But he did help with the best part of the process: rolling the dough into balls and then into the cinnamon-sugar mixture. He really enjoyed this, although he did take a break about halfway through to get his “doggy” from upstairs. And when it came time to eat the cookies, Ben was incredibly proud of himself.

Ben likes it

This was a great cookie to make with a kid – it’s virtually impossible to mess up, it’s quick, uses just one bowl, and it’s really fun. Not to mention the cookies were delicious, so much so that my own mother requested the recipe, which was adapted from Betty Crocker herself.

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Turkey & Roasted Red Pepper Chili

Turkey chili

Now that I’ve temporarily banned myself (let’s say with “taken a hiatus from…”) from whole grains, dried cranberries and winter squashes, I was forced to think outside the box for tonight’s dinner. That’s when I realized I haven’t made anything with ground meat of any kind for a while and, after a disappointing rice noodle dish at a local Vietnamese restaurant, I was craving some kind of filling soup. Which leads us to a healthy turkey chili.

Roasting red pepper

For sweetness, I used a roasted red pepper instead of tomatoes. Yes, roasting the peppers is an extra step and takes time, but it’s so wroth it. As I’m stuck with a horrific electric stove, I usually roast the pepper in my oven under the broiler rather than the traditional method of using a gas burner. But I decided to try a different way this time and roast the pepper under the electric burner. It was slow-going but still did the trick. However, next time I’ll go back to the broiler.

Steaming red pepper

In case you’ve never done this before, it’s really simple and actually a lot of fun, or at least it amuses me. Once the pepper skin has been blackened on all sides, place it in a bowl and cover it tightly with plastic wrap to steam. Let it cool to room temperature, then peel away the charred skin with your fingers and rinse the pepper under cold water. Now remove the seeds and slice it like you would a raw pepper. See, fun!

Peeled red pepper

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Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery, When it Works: Split Pea Soup

Pureeing

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, when it works that is. When it doesn’t, well sometimes what you get isn’t so good, and sometimes it’s damn good. I’ve recently become addicted to the split pea soup at Fresh Choice – a dairy-free version with a vivid green color and a creamy, thick texture that’s not completely smooth.

Raw vegetables Sauteed vegetables

I tried to replicate it today. The version I made was delicious in it’s own right, although not a replica of Fresh Choice’s version. It’s more of a murky green color with flecks of orange (from the carrots) and a mostly smooth consistency with small bits of texture. Mine is also vegetarian and dairy-free, actually it’s vegan now that I think about it, and very filling. It also falls in the quick-and-easy, one-pot category.

With liquid and peas Almost perfect split pea soup

I’m going to continue to try to make split pea soup that is the same as the one that inspired me, but this is a good one to eat in the meantime. Read more of this >>

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More Sweet/Savory Fall Flavor Combinations: Sweet Potato & Cranberry Couscous

Sweet potato and cranberry couscous

I know, I know. I’m becoming a broken record talking about how much I love the sweet/savory combination of fall flavors. I promise, this is it, I’m done pairing root vegetables and winter squashes with cranberries. At least for rest of the year. Damn, it’s gonna be tough.

Leeks and shallots Cranberries

So here it is, the last one. Please savor it: Sweet Potato & Cranberry Couscous. I actually made this twice, once with butternut squash which is what’s in the photos, and once with sweet potatoes. I preferred the texture of the sweet potatoes with the nutty couscous but it’s delicious either way and makes for a great side dish. Serve it with chicken or fish, and wild salmon works especially well (yup, that’s what I ate with it).

Fluffing

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