Lucky dish

On the way back to Virginia from Ohio I decided to stop by my favorite hometown meat market – Mom Wilson’s on US 23 outside Delaware, OH. I read out loud the small red road signs that had been there since my childhood as I drove the last miles to the store – Whole Hog, Country Sausage, Hickory Smoked Ham, Hickory Smoked Bacon, R Bologna, Pan Haas…

I pulled into the “Porkin’ Lot” and walked inside where I was greeted with the same old familiar smells: barrels of pickles, huge wheels of cheese, smoky meats and sauerkraut. The year was drawing to an end and I was there for the sauerkraut – a three pound bag of the stuff. Being of German decent, I grew up knowing eating kraut and pork on New Year’s Day was necessary to bring good fortune and prosperity in the upcoming year.

I don’t eat sauerkraut every year anymore, though. Now that I live in Virginia, I often uphold southern tradition and eat black-eyed peas and collard greens for good luck in the New Year. In fact, that is something I like to cook pretty much year-round – a pot of beans and a pot of greens. A little bit of country ham and a handful of dehydrated onions in each pot is all it takes for a perfectly nutritious and delicious meal the whole family will eat. 
Every culture, it seems, has a traditional New Year’s dish.

I had the pleasure of living in Japan for a few years where New Year’s (o-shogatsu) was one of the most celebrated holidays. On New Year’s Eve, we dined on soba; the long length of the noodles symbolizing longevity. New Year’s Day brought with it a wide variety of delicious treats – called osechi-ryori – each with its own meaning including fertility, prosperity, health and happiness. These artfully prepared foods are typically cooked in advance of New Year’s Day and are intended to be eaten throughout the first few days of the year. This ensures the whole family can visit and relax and not worry about preparing meals. O-zōni is a particular favorite of mine and my Japanese neighbor makes some for me every year. This mild New Year’s soup is made with dashi (fish stock), mochi (glutinous, sweet rice pounded into a paste and molded into small cakes), and vegetables including carrot, bamboo shoot, and daikon.

I am not sure which is the luckiest food, so I’ve decided to err on the side of caution and have a little bit of all the above!

(Photo from and )

Holiday delay

The holidays have always been about cooking and baking for me. I plan far in advance what I will make. I stew over my ten or so Cook’s Illustrated annuals and crack open my old-timey Betty Crocker Cooky Book. (I don't need bookmarks because "favorite" pages are always marked with a glob of dough or stuck together with molasses.)  I make my final selections, write out my shopping lists, and gather only the best ingredients – heavy cream, real butter and vanilla, Scharffenberger chocolate and cocoa, and new spices – especially new spices. I regularly restock spices this time of year. A good rule of thumb is six months for ground spices and twelve months for whole. (I grind most everything but cloves. My grinder doesn’t do them fine enough to suit me). This is another reason I love The Spice House. They sell herbs and spices in a variety of sizes from less than an ounce up to a pound.  This permits me to purchase what I will need for about a year. Oh, and I always buy a fresh can of baking powder regardless of the expiration date. There is nothing more disappointing than having ones baking powder fail (unless you really like hockey puck biscuits).

Because we spent Christmas visiting family out of state, my efforts this year were slightly delayed. We will celebrate our Christmas on New Year’s Day. So, today I baked Cook’s Illustrated double chocolate cookies, pfferneuse and gingerbread men. All three involve flour and, even worse, copious amounts of powdered sugar. This is a bad thing, as I am messy beyond compare when I cook. I frequently use my hands and often wipe them on my clothes without thinking (and I'm usually wearing black). I routinely spill, slop, splatter, and splash – activities that are only truly appreciated by the little dog who stands at the ready to clean up after me. Today I even turned on the mixer a little too high while adding cocoa/flour mixture. Poof! A fine dusty layer still coats my kitchen. All of this ensures I have just as must powered sugar on me as on the pfferneuse.

Photo by Susan Wenzel 

Nonetheless, everything is delicious. Now, if I could just find someone to finish the dishes.

Worth the wait

Photo by Susan Wenzel
The morning of December 23rd, my husband and I stopped by New Palace Polish Bakery in Hamtramck, Michigan (a Polish community within the city of Detroit) to buy Chruściki.

I first tasted “angel wings” years before when my husband took me to Hamtramck to visit some of his family still living in the area. His little Polish aunt presented us with cut crystal glasses of sweet wine and a platter piled high with this delicate holiday favorite to nibble while we chatted. So crispy and light, sweet Chruściki dough is irresistibly twisted into the “wing” shape, deep-fried golden and generously sprinkled with powdered sugar. Although I tried to restrain myself, Aunt Dorothy nonetheless noticed my enthusiastic consumption – I challenge anyone to stop at just one – and presented me with an entire box tied shut with string to take home.

Photo by Susan Wenzel 
Now wedged in with several dozen of my closest friends, I took a number and eagerly awaited my turn to order from an extensive selection of breads, cookies and other traditional Polish delicacies piled high in the glass cases lining the walls and front window of the store. As I listened to people order, some in English but many in their native Polish, I dreamed of ordering some of each – Seven Sisters layer cake akin to a huge petit four, braided Chalka bread topped with sweet crumbles, Christmas tree shaped Keks adorned with multicolored candied fruits, even several kinds of Perogi and locally made Kowalski sausage (a favorite of my husband's I occasionally have shipped overnight down here to Virginia Beach).

Over a half-hour later, I stepped up to the counter and asked for three pounds of Chruściki and, tempted by the handwritten menus displayed on the back wall, a pound slice of Makowiec (a traditional holiday jellyroll type yeast bread crammed full of rich black poppyseed filling) and two pounds of Kowalski holiday kielbasa perfect for Christmas breakfast.

As I left the warmth and sweet smells of the bakery with my string-tied white boxes, I looked forward to sharing one of my favorite Polish treats with my own family. 

One size fits all

I was wrapping presents today and noticed a good chunk of them are food items. Among them are chai spice blend and cocoa nibs (both from my favorite – The Spice House) as well as 100% Kona coffee for my mom, Virginia Diner peanuts for my grandparents (salted, Old Bay seasoned, and butter toffee) and dad (chocolate covered), little boxes of Godiva chocolates for the girls’ stockings, wine for my sister – heck, even the dog gets a 2 foot long rawhide bone. When I was a kid, Christmas Eve was filled with people stopping by and dropping off food gifts: cookies, candies, a ham, fresh baked bread, fruit baskets. (As I mentioned before, our neighbors here share gifts from their own kitchens: a rum cake, homemade trail mix, fudge, and brownies are often among the treats.)

Aside from fruitcake (I’ve tried to appreciate it, I really have), food gifts given this time of year are lucious, delectable and unique (and fattening, but we won’t go there) – not your typical run-of-the-mill grocery store items but special things we wouldn’t normally think to purchase. And, I’m apparently not the only one who gives food gifts. From Harry & David and Cheryl’s Cookies (lemon frosted…yumm) made in the town where my great-grandparents lived – Westerville, Ohio – to Hickory Farms and Omaha Steaks – these specialty food companies cite Chirstmas time as their busiest season.

Now, I could wax philosophical about breaking bread, but I prefer to think that the answer is much simpler. We want to give something to be enjoyed not something that will be returned the next day. We give what we love and we love food. Food is the any age, any sex, any holiday or religion, true “one size fits all” gift. (Personally, I’d rather have a couple jars of homemade jam over a waffle iron any day!)

Trader Joe's

The families in my neighborhood exchanges little gifts at Christmas, and I usually make an assortment of homemade cookies and candies for each family. This year I am not baking for them, and it’s all Joe’s fault – Trader Joe’s, that is.

I was introduced to TJ’s by my sister-in-law shortly after moving to California (yes, the one that mailed me spices) and soon became, well, enamored. Flatbread, tzatziki sauce and hummus, organic blue corn tortilla chips and fresh salsa, fresh organic fruits and veggies, scrumptious soups (tomato and roasted red pepper is a personal fav) and a plethora of other tasty items with ingredients I could both pronounce and recognize – I soon did most of my grocery shopping at TJ’s. I was bummed when I moved back to Virginia and realized the closest one to my house was an hour away. But, I was determined to have my cranberry crunch cereal, Thai peanut sauce and organic haricot vert (green beans) and would make the trek once a month, cooler and reusable shopping bags in tow, over the river and through the woods to Trader Joe’s I’d go. Imagine my elation when rumors started to swirl that we were getting one right here in town. Speculation abounded as to where it would go and exactly when it would open. TWO YEARS after the initial rumblings, I finally stood in a blocks-long line of fellow TJ’s aficionados waiting for my chance inside the grand opening.

Now I can go whenever I have the need. I try to stick to the necessities, but who can with such a fabulous range of unique items. For instance, I go in for whole wheat pita bread, strawberry kefir (a probiotic yogurt-type drink my kids love), quinoa (a delicious alternative to couscous or rice) and chocolate soymilk (another favorite of the kids) and walk out with five bags filled with sesame honey almonds, creamy corn and roasted red pepper soup, sparkling blueberry juice, Double Gloster cheese with chives and more – and forget the pita bread.

This is what happened to my traditional cookie gift. It went by the wayside when I saw the array of distinctive Christmas items at TJ’s. I couldn’t stop myself. My cart was soon filled with elegant tins of sipping chocolate, chocolate truffles, chocolate oranges, and peppermint Jo Jo’s (far tastier than Oreo’s, in my opinion). This year the neighbors are all getting an assortment of TJ-made chocolate treats. Somehow, I don’t imagine they will mind.

Double duty spices

I couldn’t help myself. I threw a handful of Williams-Sonoma mulling spices in a pan of simmering water on the stove.
Mmmmm…the house smells like Christmas now!

Gold, Frankincense & Saffron

Yesterday I received a Christmas package from my sister-in-law containing gifts for the girls and spices for me. A few weeks ago she told me about a new spice market near her house in South Pasadena and asked if I wanted anything. I had just placed a big order from but had forgotten a couple items. As I planned to make pfferneuse and gingerbread from an old German recipe, I told her I would deeply appreciate allspice and “real” cinnamon. **I most recently learned – I think from Alton Brown – that most cinnamon sold in stores is not really cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum) but cassia (Cinnamomum aromaticu) – a close relative.

This made me start thinking about spices much I didn’t know then, how much I know now, and how much I still have to learn. Case in point: About ten years ago I visited Bali in Indonesia and very near The Spice Islands (aka Maluku Islands) – so named for the abundance of spices grown there. Unfortunately, at that time I was not as enamored of cooking as I am now and missed my chance to stock up. I did, however, buy whole nutmeg, anise, cloves and a bunch of other goodies for my Aunt Carol who is a cooker extraordinaire.

Years later I found myself in the middle-east, Dubai to be exact, and made a point of visiting a couple of the souks (Arabic for market). Souks, I soon learned, are both market places and festival places. The range of goods sold in each and the opportunities for people watching were mind-boggling! At the gold souk, I gawked at the millions and millions of dollars of gorgeous gold jewelry (sold by the gram regardless of the workmanship involved) on display in each storefront and finally settled on an intricate 22k filigree ring for $15(US) a gram ($466 an ounce – a good deal at the time).

Photo by Susan Wenzel

Then…I ventured into the spice souk. Surrounded by the kaleidoscope of colors and panorama of smells emitting from row after row of huge burlap bags and bins of every kind of spice, herb and nut imaginable – I was quickly approaching sensory overload. After gathering myself, I was determined to not make the Bali mistake. Now older and wiser, I purchased all kinds of amazing items including premium grade frankincense (not a spice but a highly prized tree resin used in perfumes and incense) and then honed in on my intended target – saffron. Saffron, stamen from the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus), is one of the most expensive, highly prized items in the food world. (I most recently saw 1 gram for sale in a specialty market for $9). This fragrant and richly colored spice is loved just as much for the exotic aroma and taste it imparts as it is for the golden hue it gives to rice, chicken or even custard. After passing on bins of yellowish-orange saffron in one crowded little store, I succeeded in persuading the merchant I meant business. He finally pulled a small tin from a shelf behind the counter. This was the stuff I was looking for – the good stuff. After parting with about $12, I walked away with nearly a full ounce of rich smelling, deeply red colored tiny curls of saffron.

My penchant for purchasing spices both at home and abroad has earned me the nickname of “Spice Girl.” Although I’ll admit I’ve moved far beyond seasoning my food with only salt and pre-ground pepper, there are so many more spices to learn and flavors to explore!

Blog? Ick! Why?

Today I visited an acquaintance of mine (professional chef, published author, food critic, cooking instructor, etc.) to have him sign a copy of his cookbook for me to give as a Christmas gift. He was on a deadline but we had a few minutes to chat about food (what else?) – Indian food, Middle-eastern food, favorite local eateries, and more. I told him I envied his job visiting nice restaurants, trying delicious food, and critiquing it all for the magazine (and, let’s be honest here, getting paid for it). He said, as a start, I should get a blog to share my love and knowledge of food, my bistro picks and pans, and even random food related rants.

So, to make a long story short, I now have a food blog. Who knows where my ramblings might take me. I might talk about the delicious Cooks Illustrated (CI) apple cake I baked for my husband’s birthday party tonight (made with apple brandy), reminisce about my Thai neighbor Anne who taught me to both prepare and adore her native cooking, get on my soapbox regarding buying organic or fresh/local foods, or even add another item my list of “non-foods” people insist on calling sustenance.

I’m no expert, but I love to write and I love I’m gonna write about food.