We have certain food traditions in our home. One of the most important ones is "Snow Day = hot chocolate with real whipped cream in the morning, then soup and grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch." Those are the rules of Snow Day, and they are unflinchingly rigid.
While I love, love, LOVE meat-based soups and stews, we can't mix meat and dairy (thanks, Judaism!) and to me, the grilled cheese is an immutable component of Snow Day Lunch. HOWEVAH, I don't want a cream-based soup, either, because then it's like, Dairy Overload, you know? (Is there even such a thing? I'm going to assume yes.)
As a result, I'm always on the lookout for hearty, grilled-cheese-friendly soups that don't involve meat, or a metric ton of dairy products, and I tell you, that is NOT easily done. (I know there's always tomato soup, but I was looking to branch out.)
With a blizzard swirling outside my window as we speak, I'm happy to announce I found a winner today in this Tuscan Vegetable Soup. It has very little fat and a metric ton of veggies, but still manages to be hearty and full of flavor. (Bonus: It's vegan!) We kept eating it throughout the afternoon, all "this is SO GOOD." (Because -- yes -- we are assholes who compliment our own cooking.) I made some adjustments, and I'll tell you now it required a bunch of chopping/prep work, but not much else. (We also put the kids to work, draining beans, shaking in spices and running the escarole through the salad spinner, and it became a total family activity, to boot.) It also cooks really quickly, in about an hour from the time the first ingredient hits the pot.
In the event you were looking for the perfect grilled cheese accompaniment during the first snowstorm of the season (WE ARE HAVING THUNDERSNOW UP IN HERE, OMG. THUNDERSNOW!), I highly recommend this one.
TUSCAN VEGETABLE SOUP
(adapted from Family Suppers by Jeff Nathan; my comments/adjustments appear in italics)
1/3 cup olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped
6 medium carrots, chopped (I only had five; I don't think it mattered)
1/4 head green cabbage, chopped (we did half a head)
3 celery ribs, chopped
1/2 head escarole, tripped, coarsely chopped (I did use the escarole, but I feel like spinach/any dark leaf lettucewould easily substitute)
1 cup tomato paste (I used a 6 oz. can; again, it was fine)
1 Tablespoon dried oregano
6 garlic cloves, finely chopped
3 quarts vegetable broth(if you DID want to make this meat-based, by all means, use beef/chicken stock!)
Two 15- to 19-oz cans cannellini (white kidney) beans, drained and rinsed (I couldn't find white kidney beans; I found navy beans -- which are, ironically, white -- and used those instead.)
1 medium zucchini, chopped
1/2 cup fresh basil (I didn't have fresh; instead used four of those frozen...cube ones.)
Salt and black pepper to taste I also added 1/4 cup stelline in the last ten minutes of cooking (itty bitty star-shaped pasta. Orzo, pastina, etc. would also work well)
Step 1: Heat oil in the soup pot over medium heat. Toss in the onions, celery, carrots, cabbage and escarole. Cook, stirring often, until vegetables soften. (I covered the pot; this took about 20 minutes.)
Step 2: Stir in tomato paste, oregano, and garlic. Continue stirring until vegetables are all tender (about 10 more minutes). Pour in the broth, bring to a boil, and stir in the beans, zucchini, and basil.
Step 3: Reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer until zucchini is tender, and soup is slightly thickened (about 20 minutes; stir in the wee pasta about 10 minutes after adding the zucchini, if you want to).
Season with salt and pepper.
Enjoy! (Preferably with a grilled Edam/cheddar mix -on-sourdough rye, but no pressure!)
As is my custom, with Christmas coming, and so many of you off celebrating with your families, I like to take advantage of the temporary proverbial ghost town of the internet and confess a series of random and shameful things:
1. A Christmas Story is not my favorite Christmas movie. I...don't even really like it, so much. It's...okay? I guess? I feel like this is technically something that you'd call blasphemy, but given that the holiday isn't of my faith, I'll just call it "probably an unpopular opinion." For my money ("For my money?" Who am I? My grandfather? Classy chassis! Hold the wire! Swell!), the best Christmas movies are National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation ("GRACE?" "THE BLESSSSSSING"), and Love Actually.
2. Until I was...well, into the low double digits, age-wise, I believed that an "oil change" involved....
~ wait for it ~
Going to a new gas station, and trying a different brand of gas than you usually did. I'm not certain why I conflated oil and gas, or why I felt brand loyalty was such an integral part of fueling one's car. And the whole formality of an official oil (well, gas) change? I have no idea what was wrong with me. I will, however, attempt to blame this on never pumping my own gas, as I grew up in New Jersey.
3. I will go through entire days without drinking a drop of water.
4. I routinely count on my hands and get butt-clenchingly nervous when I have to calculate, say, a delivery person's tip on the fly.
5. There are times when I'm using my iPhone in my own home on 3G, and feel like toggling down to turn on the WiFi signal (thereby speeding up my phone's performance) is just too much work. This is my new benchmark for laziness in life, and I'm hard-pressed to think of what could possibly surpass it.
6. I cannot pronounce the word "mobile." I genuinely never know when (and/or whether) it's "moble" or "mo-bile" or "mo-beel." It comes up more often then you'd think.
7. Due to seeing a very dark animated version ofRikki-Tikki-Tavi as a child, I have numerous lifelong (apparently) cobra-related fears. Fears that are totally valid here in my New York apartment, which is clearly similar in so many ways to a remote bungalow in an Indian jungle (the story's setting). The latest has me vigorously shaking out my boots before putting them on. You know, JUST IN CASE.
Anything ridiculous you'd like to confess? Go for it!
(And a very Merry Christmas to everyone celebrating!)
* I assure you, this is not about you. The person with whom I experienced this situation doesn't read this (or any?) blog. (And I apologize in advance for my uncharacteristic Ranty McRantypantsedness.)
In general, and with the specific exception of my New York Syndrome, I have a pretty long fuse. (Heh.) As I get older, I find myself gaining patience in most areas of my life, but...losing it in others. It's not necessarily a bad thing, not entirely.
To wit: at the grand old age of 30, I've decided that -- to me -- the singlemost hurtful behavior, the one that rips my heart up, is social climbing. That's my dealbreaker, ladies, and I swear to you: I would genuinely rather someone be a straight-up jerk to me than use me; hanging out with me when it's a good time for them to do so, when there's no one better. I really do try to think the best of people, and this type of person knows it, preys on that, and exploits it. They know you'll make up an excuse in your mind for why they did [Thing X], in order to explain it away to yourself. And then finally, when you DO ultimately pick up on it (and you will, at some point), you have a "KEYSER SOZE!" moment, only instead of shattering a coffee cup in slow motion, you just get mad at yourself, in retrospect.
The thing with this behavior, the part that's so knife-twisty, is that it says, indirectly, "you're unimportant. I catalog people. You are less valuable than [person X]," but it hides behind a smile. And while this behavior enrages me, what gets me more? Is that whoever is doing it to you thinks so low of you that they're counting on you not to say anything. Maybe they even think you haven't picked up on it, which is even more insulting. "You sweetheart. You marshmallow," that smile says. That smile is a pat on the head, dripping with condescension. Good girl. And you get filed away, cataloged right back into the neat little bottom-drawer file folder in her mind where she keeps you.
And let me be clear: the "sooo high school" label for this (and other, equally awful) behavior is dismissive, inaccurate, and diminishes its (very real) existence. I assure you, certain people are horrible throughout their lives; it's not endemic to one brief four-year period.
While I do wish I understood what makes people think it's okay to act like this, I'm ultimately okay with not getting it. I'm okay with not confronting it (because it's a particular type of deep-seated meanness, to the point of habit, that isn't going to change), and I'm okay with walking away. Like I said: it's my friendship dealbreaker.
My new favorite iPhone app (which, as noted in the title, is FREE), is Instagram. Not that you asked, but whatever. Remember how Flickr used to be? Like, really interactive? Instagram reminds me a little bit of that. The easy-ass interface and gorgeous filters are particularly compelling, too. I'm not a particularly talented photographer (especially with a cameraphone), but I've found the pictures I've been taking lately and playing around with in Instagram look...well, much better than anything I'm usually capable of, that's for damn sure.
(No one is paying me to say, this, obviously. Or asking me to say this. Or forcing me at gunpoint/iPhone hostage-taking to say this. Or--you catch my drift.)
Here are a few Instagram shots I took around the city in the past week:
Bryant Park ice skating rink at dusk
Grand Central Terminal, evening rush, aka, Pickpocket n' Pervert Happy Hour
Park Avenue, from a cab that smelled like feet and misery.
Puffy lone cloud - view from my office.
Sunrise over Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges.
I love winter in New York. Now, go download Instagram and let's be Instafriends, or Friendagrams,, or whatever the hell it's likely called on there. (I am, shockingly, "Metalia.")
Happy Chanukah! Here's an Ask a Jew post, devoted to questions I've received about the holiday:
What is the proper spelling of the holiday? Why so many spellings? Does it matter?
This is the most popular question, it seems. "Chanukah" and "Hanukkah" seem to be the most common spellings, and the variations are based on the fact that it's a transliterated Hebrew word. There's absolutely no right or wrong spelling, so just go with whichever you prefer!
Can I have a brief rundown of what the holiday is about? How is the menorah a part of it?
Sure! Chanukah's primary theme -- as has been drilled into my head from kindergarten -- is that of "hidden miracles." (As opposed to big, flashy sea-splitting ones. For instance.) The story itself addresses the Jews being oppressed in ancient times by an evil Greek leader named Antiochus (I'm sorry, Greek friends! I love feta! I love c! I love YOU!), who forbade the practice of Judaism, pushed for complete assimilation, killed a lot of Jews, and took over their Temple. A rebellion by a Jewish resistance group named the Maccabees was successful, and they ultimately regained control of the Temple. At the time of the re-dedication of the Temple, the Jews were preparing to light the menorah, which required pure oil, however, there was only one small flask of pure oil, barely enough to even last one day. Through a HIDDEN MIRACLE, the tiny drop of oil stayed lit for eight days and nights. (Not unlike me in college, but that's a story for another day. Ah, memories. Of tequila.) We celebrate the successful revolt and the miracle of the oil on Chanukah by lighting menorahs of our own for eight nights (adding one additional candle each successive night).
Do you give gifts all eight days? Who do you give gifts to?
This varies from family to family, in terms of size and number of gifts, but it's generally kid-focused. (J and I got new knives and a new stockpot as our gift to ourselves. WE ARE EXCITING.) Growing up, my parents gave one small gift to each of us, each night (there were three of us; it adds up fast), like a Matchbox car, or new markers. Then on the eighth night, we'd get a big present (like a dollhouse in my case, or a trampoline for my brothers). We also always had a few annual family Chanukah parties, where we gave and received a bunch of gifts, too.
J and I do this, essentially, also. We get each of the kids one or two bigger gifts, and smaller things for the other nights. Again, we have family parties at which they -- the resident great-grandchildren, niece/nephew, grandchildren, etc. -- are spoiled beyond comprehension, and OH GOD WHERE SHALL I PUT THIS LITTLE MERMAID VANITY TABLE IN MY APARTMENT. SOMEONE HELP.
Bearing in mind the amazing surplus of gifts, something we've instituted at the end of Chanukah is that they each pick one gift each from their haul, and we go to a toy drop for kids in need. We do a toy cleanup, too, and give away the old stuff to make room for the new stuff, and (I hope) let them learn a little bit about being cognizant and appreciative for what they have, and helping other kids.
What is the significance of playing dreidel?
A dreidel is a small spinning top, and the key component of an eponymous game played on Chanukah. As mentioned above, Jewish practices were outlawed during the time of the Chanukah story, so in order to secretly carry on Jewish teachings, kids would get together to learn, and bring the dreidels with them. If a Greek officer came by, they'd whip out the dreidels and start playing, pretending they'd been doing that the whole time. It has since been turned into a cute game that a lot of families play on Chanukah.
We have a laser dreidel that plays "Axel F," which is, I'm pretty sure, exactly what the Macabees were envisioning for the future when they were fighting for our right to continue as a people.
What is the percentage of families that almost set their hair on fire with the candles?
Minutes after J captured this Norman Rockwell-esque tableau last year, I -- no joke -- nearly singed the back of my head while turning around. It happens EVERY YEAR, at least a few times. To us, anyway. Well. Me.
Are there special foods/eating rules for Hanukkah, like there seem to be with some other Jewish holidays?
There are, thankfully, no eating rules, like on Passover, but there are most definitely special foods. In order to commemorate the miracle with the oil, we -- no joke -- eat stuff that's been fried in oil. O, HEAVENS. THIS RELIGION. SUCH HARDSHIP! THE TORTURE! Common "oil" foods include fried jelly-filled (or caramel cream-filled) donuts, and latkes (potato pancakes).
What is your latke recipe?
Here you go, adapted from Kosher By Design:
2 lbs. peeled potatoes (the recipe calls for Yukon gold or russet, but it work fine with regular potatoes)
1 medium onion, quartered
4 medium scallions
1 large egg
1.5 teaspoons salt
black pepper to taste
1 cup oil (recipe recommends peanut oiil; I used canola to no ill effects)
~NOTE: You really need a food processor for this recipe~
Grate potatoes in food processor, using that top...disc thing. Remove half of the grated potatoes to a large bowl. Remove top...disc thing, and replace with the fitted blade, the one that goes in the bottom and can sever your digits. Add the onions and scallions, and process until smooth.
Smoosh out any liquid that has gathered in the bowl of grated potatoes, and then add the smooth potato/scallion/onion mixture, and toss with the egg, salt and pepper until well blended.
Heat the oil in a large pan until hot, but not smoking. While it's heating up, line a tin/large plate with paper towels. Carefully add the mixture in heaping tablespoons to the pan, frying until golden, and then flipping until the other side is golden as well. Remove latkes to drain on paper towel-lined tin.
How do we merge Christmas and Chanukah without offending anyone?Our family is mixed and everyone goes to FIL on Christmas morning. I'd like to incorporate something Chanukah-y but have absolutely no idea what would be appropriate.
Is it disrespectful to have a menorah in your home if you are not Jewish?
These two questions are from different people, but are kind of related, so I will do my best to answer them together. Also: although I consider myself an Orthodox Jew, I tend to skew pretty modern in my views. With that in mind, let me attempt to answer these.
I hope (HOPE) I've given a basic overview of the basics of the holiday. In terms of the overarching respect issue, and how to incorporate the holiday, to me, it all depends on the dynamic in your family. Some families are rigid about not melding the two holidays, and some families have open, relaxed "Chrismukkah" get-togethers. Without knowing the details of your family, I would err wayyyyy on the side of caution, so as not to offend, but that's just me. My suggestion would be to -- rather than attempt to involve any tangible Chanukah objects, which might seem like an actual, physical imposition to someone who's not expecting it -- maybe see if you can talk about some of its messages, in a casual way. Perhaps something about standing up for what you believe is right, and the concept of small miracles. While they're Chanukah hallmarks, they're also universal themes, I think, and ones that I would hope wouldn't cause any stress/offense.
In terms of bringing a menorah into one's own home if they're not Jewish, my feeling is this: the menorah isn't a sacred object, per se, and it's more of a symbol, embodying the aforementioned concepts of the holiday. If you like what the holiday (and thereby the menorah) represents, then do whatever makes you and your family happy and comfortable.
(Did I answer that stuff okay? OH GOD I HOPE SO. By all means, weigh in in the comments. I (and, I'm sure, the question-askers) would love to hear your experiences and thoughts.
Oh! And as always. let me give some form of my standard “Ask a Jew” disclaimer: I am not an expert in Judaism, nor do I claim to be perfect in my observance. This is my understanding and my interpretation. Yours may be different, and we can all learn something from each other and be right, in our own ways. In fact, I’d LOVE to hear if you know of a different explanation for anything I've addressed above, but please, please be courteous.
On a wholly unrelated note, I haven't done an Ask A Jew post in a while, and given the time of year, does anyone have any Chanukah-specific questions? (Or is this one of those holidays that everyone has all figured out?) If so, let me know in the comments! Either way, I will be here eating ALL OF THE LATKES, EVER. ALL OF THEM.
I loved reading all the entries in my Fresh Perfume Giveaway; hearing what other people are thankful for gives me that warm, fuzzy, Muppet-y feeling. Without further ado, the randomly-selected winner is #15...
And #15 is...Mimi!
Congratulations, Mimi! Email me your address, and the perfume will be on its way!