The Pre-Thanksgiving Post: Part 1 (The Rant)

I know that most of the readers of this blog do not know me personally and are probably not aware of what’s going on in my life. So here’s the gist of it: I got a job. Full time and a half with no benefits but still… A job. I work as a First Year Experience Coordinator at my alma mater which means I work with freshmen. 130 freshmen, in fact. There were 135 but I lost a few somewhere along the way. Or more like I could never find them. Part of my duties in this job is to try and help the “Class of 2016” bond as a group and create strong ties to the campus community. How better to do that than with food?

So while my job is an administrative one I’ve tried to make as many of our programs and events include food of some sort. Actually, while typing this section of the post I am supervising a Freshman Study Night and there are enough snacks and hot drink fixings here to sink a small ship. And that’s what I’ve been doing. Enticing young college students into the house of learning with the promise of hot chocolate with whipped cream and fancy biscuits to dunk in it. A lot of the students still don’t seem to realize I get paid to do this.  Sometimes I don’t realize I’m getting paid to do this. Then, magically, checks show up on my desk and thus my bank accounts grow.

In years past my family has tried various traditions for Thanksgiving. We never seem to stick to any one. One of my favorite Thanksgiving memories was from while I was living in England and a friend and I decided that life just wouldn’t be the same unless we had a proper Thanksgiving. One of the American professors that the school held a Thanksgiving dinner for the American students but you had to pay and it was vegetarian (my friend was NOT okay with that) and it was missing some seriously major elements: (1) Pecan Pie, (2) meat, (3) participation in the kitchen, (4) our friends.

So my friend and I decided that the only proper thing to do would be have our own Thanksgiving dinner and invite our non-American friends so that they could experience Thanksgiving our way. Not to mention the regular Thanksgiving on campus was ONLY for American students and we didn’t have too many of them in our posse. What is it about groups of Americans in Europe? I swear they aren’t that loud and obnoxious in their own country. We planned dinner for about 15 people. We made our lists, bought our groceries, scrubbed the dorm kitchen so it was usable and asked around campus for all the supplies we’d need like plates, silverware, chairs, etc.

Thanksgiving day comes and we both have class in the morning so nothing can happen until after lunch. That’s when we start hauling stuff over to the dorm from the cafeteria and people start to notice. It’s when we’re carrying over an extra table that a couple other students offer to help us out that we realize we might need to up our numbers for dinner. After all, people are helping us set up for dinner and they’re asking questions about Thanksgiving and we’re telling them it’s about being thankful for everything we have and bringing people together. So within an hour of beginning our preparations we’ve gone from our original 15 guests to around 20 and as the afternoon goes on we’re up to 35 and so we call in some favors and ask some friends to bring us a few more ingredients to make sure we have enough food. We’d apparently planned for everyone on our original guest list to eat until they rolled over dead because we didn’t have to ask for too many extra ingredients.

By the time people had pitched in to help set up, cook, clean up afterwards, etc, we had a total of (and we counted) 55 people attend our Thanksgiving. While it wasn’t the same at Thanksgiving at home it was still very special to me. It was after that big event that we put on that I was asked to be the Social VP at the school which brought on a whole different kind of intensive kitchen workout. But that’s another set of tales.

Like I said in a previous post, Thanksgiving is a magical time for me. I tell people who I bring or invite home (or wherever I happen to be) for Thanksgiving that this is the one day a year you can eat whatever you want. I know this has next to nothing to do with the spirit of the holiday but I don’t care. That’s a big part of  it for me. If you’re a guest in my house on Thanksgiving I will do my very best to make sure that what you love to eat most in the world in on that kitchen table at some point during the day. It just so happens that the Thanksgiving staples (mashed potatoes and stuffing) happen to be one of my favorite food couples in the world. I ask for it on my birthday along with pecan pie which I’m pretty sure I could eat a truckload of all on my own if I didn’t have parents. (I always make sure my mom makes two for Thanksgiving so I’m assure to have at least a half to a whole pie at my disposal throughout the day)

But every Thanksgiving we get ambitious at my house. My dad buys the biggest turkey and then 2-3 chickens. My mom checks out books from the library. I go online. Magazines get murdered. Lists get made. We all start yelling. It’s really quite horrifying how much we yell when planning family events/meals that are supposed to represent peace and togetherness. I’ve had friends state this quite bluntly to me. And somewhere in there we end up with a menu that works for everyone.

While the same thing is probably going to happen this year there will also be the potential addition of young college students joining us which is both a little stressful but in a good heartwarming kind of way. I hope that the students who come feel the love in how loud we yell at one another about who is cutting what completely wrong. But it is important to me, as me and as their adviser (possibly boss, we might get some older students) that they feel like Thanksgiving is magic no matter where they are or who their with. And also like they couldn’t possibly eat another crumb by the end of the night.

The second part of this post will be a special Thanksgiving Gastroporn Menu which includes some of my personal favorites for the holiday as well as some new things I’d like to see (and hear) my family argue about later.

To be continued…

Failure of the Foodie Police

Have you ever walked down a city street, seen some new bakery or treat shop and been drawn in by the pretty food in the window? Of course, most of us have. We get into the mood of the city life where one goes into a shop and buys this gorgeous looking little pastry like the page out of some urban chick lit novel where you walk down the sidewalk on a bright spring afternoon eating that delicious little treat just as you round the corner and crash face to chest with the suited man of your dreams who just at that moment happens to be in jogging gear and thus begins the biggest drama your life will ever know.

But it isn’t delicious. You buy that calorie laden little piece of tiramisu and it tastes like oily ash in your mouth and the face you make causes little old grandmas to cackle at your misfortune and small babies to cry from the pure negative energy you are now projecting into the universe because it feels like you just paid to eat shit. And when you look up you see your Mr. Suit crashing into someone prettier with an obviously lower IQ than you across the street (where you would have been if you weren’t still standing there making that weird face and running your tongue across your palate trying to scrap off that oily film that you know tiramisu should NOT leave behind).

This is all a romaticized version of a tiramisu experience I had last weekend in Chicago, where my family was for my brother’s big National Competition for Irish Dancers. I love Chicago but I really have to wonder about a city that allows tiramisu like this to exist within it’s city limits.

Back in college I got to spend some time in Italy during a winter break. Of course I had to pay penance for my extravagant lifestyle there by working in a Romanian orphanage for an equal amount of time (a stipulation made by my parents) but when I think about the whole experience it was just worth it. My roommate at the time and I were staying in Rome for a few days with a friend of my aunt, a super sweet lady with two little boys who tried to teach us how to count in Italian. When we told her that after living on the streets eating bread and cheese to save money (not a bad way to live in most of Europe, actually) we wanted to use all those saved up funds to go out one night and do it all. We wanted every course possible and we wanted it with wine followed by coffee in the plaza. The works. She told us that in Rome, unless you’re in some sort of tourist joint, you can pretty much never go wrong because if I place isn’t good the locals will pretty much shut it down.

I only wish American tastebuds were cultured enough to know when to shut something down. Junk food and comfort foods aside, think about it. We often put up with sub-par food from fancy restaurants. I took someone out to the Queen Mary out in Long Beach last year for dinner and paid quite a lot for a salmon that could, at the most, be dubbed “OK”. How is that acceptable?

Of course, I know, I’m a picky person. If I’m giving you $50 for my food I expect my food to taste like you spent $45 on it (I’m happy to pay a small amount of overhead as long as its reasonable). The company that night on the QM was great, the atmosphere was all right, but the food… the food was a disappointment.

Back to that street corner somewhere on the border betwen the Greek and Italian sectors of DC I realized that the tiramisu from Costco tastes like fluffy yumminess from heaven compared to what I was eating and I think that’s a problem. I had a friend from Austria who made a tiramisu without coffee, liquer, or ladies fingers and it still tasted amazing. I tried making ladies fingers before and boy was that a bitch and a half. Had to change the entire dessert course for my senior Honors’ Project to be pound cake based and when compared to light and fluffy tiramisu pound cake seems like a bit of a downer.

So here are some recipes I’ve found for Tiramisu  that I feel the need to try now:

Green Tea Tiramisu

Tiramisu Cupcake

Classic Tiramisu – Party Style

Tiramisu Pancakes

Individual Tiramisu

Tea Time, Nap Time, Fun Times

Ever since I was a little girl terrorizing the Caribbean I have loved tea parties. For my 16th birthday my mom offered to throw me a High Tea. I made all my friends dress up, my mom pulled out her grandmother’s china, and I received a replica of a 12th century sword. It was an awesome birthday.

Aside from the sword, and the dress, one of the best things that still remains from that party is a scone recipe my mom found for the occasion. She has no idea where she found it from so it remains labeled as “Oci’s 16th B-day Scones” in her recipe box. Over the years we’ve made these scones for tons of different occasions and the recipe has moved throughout our family’s social circles. Just last week a family friend of ours made scones using the base recipe but using a whole wheat flour mix and added dried cherries. The result was amazing.

Oci’s 16th B-Day Scones:

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/2 cup sugar (plus extra for sprinkling)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 2/3 cups heavy cream
Steps:
  1. Mix together the flour, sugar, salt and baking powder in a bowl.
  2. Stir in the heavy cream a little at a time (so it won’t become sticky)
  3. Divide the dough into 2 disks and cut into 8ths. (I usually roll the dough out slightly with a little flour and cut into disks)
  4. Sprinkle with sugar and bake at 325 F for 20-30 minutes.

My favorite way to consume these scones are with raspberry jam and homemade whipped cream (or just jam) or a homemade lemon curd. A friend found me a “Tangerine-Lemon Curd” recipe online back in January when I scored two boxes of Meyer Lemons from Costco. With Meyer lemons you can just do all lemons instead of lemon and tangerine. Here’s a link to the original recipe:

Tangerine Lemon Curd

Funny enough, my brother just had his 16th birthday party and the same scones were served during the tea portion of the charity gala we did for him.

After I finished college I spent a semester realizing that my dream of getting my PhD in philosophy was about 20-30 years too late and also that I wasn’t French. I also fulfilled some deep seeded desires to try and continue my architectual career by discovering I’m pretty darned good at physics. At the end of the Semester of the Great Ethical Failure of 2009 (apparently cupcakes is not a good metaphor to use on a ten page ethics final and that actually bringing cupcakes to class does NOT boost one’s ethical capacity or grades) I fled the country for two months.

My mom does a lot of contract work in China and used to go regularly to oversee projects, etc. and since my physics teacher said I could easily skip the first month of the class and still be ahead and I wouldn’t be starting my next attempt at Big Girl School until March I went with her to Chengdu where I had a brief stint as her translator and also as a volunteer in an Irish pub/bookstore/library/charity. China has a very old tea culture that I think more people need to adopt (even if they don’t drink tea).

On a previous trip to Beijing in 2008, my brother and I befriended a teapot artist named Wendy Wu (many Chinese who are studying English or have contact with foreigners tend to choose western names for themselves) from whom we both bought tea sets that summer. I also bought a pot from Shanghai when I took the train down there later that summer. Wendy and her younger sister taught us the art of the Chinese tea ceremony over a series of visits and they, along with a cousin, took my family out to eat huoguo (hot pot) for dinner in a tiny alley nearby after our bonding over dozens of tiny cups of various teas. It was the middle of the summer and it was hot and gross but even still the tea felt refreshing.

When I was in Chengdu with my mom it was the middle of winter so having hot tea was more than just a pick me up in the afternoons. Chengdu has a much milder winter climate than Beijing but the tea culture there is much more present with the office staff often taking an hour or two tea break after lunch along the river or in small tea houses near our office and temporary home. In the winter, many people carrying around these double lined glass thermoses in which they put some tea leaves (usually green tea) and simply refill with hot water throughout the day.

For those of you who haven’t had proper green tea, a quick note: Green tea is actually a lot stronger in flavor than one might imagine. The first pouring or two of green tea can be incredibly bitter. Also, Chinese teas aren’t usually meant to be drunk with any sort of sweetener. I prefer the 4th pouring and after of green tea because that’s when you can really enjoy the hot water and the more subtle tastes of the tea rather than that face scrunching bitterness that really isn’t too pleasant. For many Chinese teas one is usually not meant to drink the first pouring of the tea.

The following are some GastroPorn Films about Chinese tea ceremonies I think are fairly accurate to what I know and also look cool.

After the ancient tea culture of mainland China my mum took to to another tea institution by taking me for afternoon tea at The Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong when we stopped there on the way home for the Chinese New Year celebration. It was a bit of a time and space warp to walk through the galleries beneath the hotel and sitting in a massive hall dripping with the British opulence in the Orient after trying to navigate the Chengdu bus system and having to find our main meal of the day later that night in an alley behind our hotel. We got so lost trying to find our hotel late one night it was lucky most people in Hong Kong know some English or Mandarin and were able to help us out with some directions.

The Lobby at The Peninsula, Hong Kong

[You can click on the photo to see more information about Afternoon Tea at The Peninsula]

When we returned from that trip I wanted very much to try and find better places in the DC area that I could go to and enjoy both kinds of tea culture. While I have yet to actually try any of the weekend high teas in the area (I simply cannot bring myself to spend that sort of money for something I can do so easily at home unless there’s a really good reason/incentive), I have found two places that are very worth mentioning: Teaism and Ching Ching Cha. [You can click on the logos to go to their websites]

Teaism

In my “For the Love of Chocolate!” post I mentioned Teaism as a good place to go for a light meal before shamelessly gorging oneself on a 5-course dessert at Co Co. Sala. I usually go to the Penn Quarter location because it’s the closest location to the various Shakespeare theaters in the area as well as the Mall (the one with museums). Also, with the Penn Quarter being so close to Capitol Hill and all those government buildings, there have been more than a few “C-SPAN Star Sightings” in this location.

I have yet to meet anything on Teaisms’ menu that I really didn’t like. I take out of town visitors here for a quick meal in between visiting museums and I also go just to sit an enjoy a cup of the famous Teaism Chai or a Jasmine Creme Brulee. I’m not actually a fan of creme brulee but this one I like. As it also happens, I have a really good recipe for creme brulee tarts that I used to make a lot because my mum (and non-coincidentally one of my favorite people/crushes at the time) loves creme brulee. Teaism also has British Tea tray but I’ve never actually tried it. I’ll have to do that next time I’m down there.

Another thing I love about Teaism is their tea shop, which is right next door. I’ve bought several loose leaf teas from there as well as tea bags (as in bags to put your loose leaf tea in).

Ching Ching Cha

Ching Ching Cha is not only my number one tea place in DC but it also happens to be the third stop on my famous “Napping Tour of DC”. The tour starts in the Building Museum before it fills up with parents and small kids, continues into the Kogod Courtyard of the Portrait Gallery, takes an extended break at Ching Ching Cha, and ends up at the Georgetown Waterfront Park. Depending on the time of the year (and tourist saturation of the area) I will also include some of the art galleries but these tend to be seasonal locations based on when the least amount of people might be in the galleries.

The last time I took a friend on the Tour was right after Christmas and it was seriously cold. We curled up on some of the super comfy pillows and watched “Modern Family” while sipping on teas and nibbling on a bowl (or four) of snow peas and Mongolian dumplings. Ching Ching Cha is also an excellent place to get away from the heat and crowds in the summer.

Ching Ching Cha – Snow Peas in a Ginger Soy Sauce Dressing

Ching Ching Cha – Mongolian Dumplings & Five Spices Peanuts

Ching Ching Cha – Artisanal Tea

Ching Ching Cha – Green Tea