Chinese New Year 4721 (2023)

(Click on any image to view it in high resolution.)The two-week long Chinese celebration of the Lunar New Year begins on Sunday – it’s 4721, the Year of the Rabbit. The Rabbit is known for a myriad of characteristics depending upon where you do your research: it symbolizes elegance, beauty, gentleness, alertness, kindness, patience, longevity, positivity, cautiousness, cleverness, and speed to name but a few, but when I read that the rabbit is known to be the luckiest of the twelve animals in the Chinese zodiac I decided to stop there because if we need anything right now, it’s got to be luck.

One of the traditions that make this holiday so extraordinary is the way in which wordplay and homophones factor into the selection of traditional foods specially prepared to mark the occasion. For example, at festive gatherings a whole fish will be served, because the word for fish (yu) is a homophone for surpluses.

Since I haven’t made this year’s celebratory feast yet, here’s photo of last year’s whole steamed fish stuffed with ginger and scallions and bedecked with even more julienned fresh ginger, scallions, chives, and cilantro for the centerpiece. Accompanying the star of the show were snow peas and black mushrooms in black bean sauce, and char siu fried rice (homemade char siu, to be sure) all featuring a host of traditional ingredients.

And speaking of being lucky, there was a time a few zodiac signs ago that it looked like my Lunar New Year luck had run out in terms of another one of its traditional foods. It was a mystery involving a particular nian gao (the traditional sweet rice cake and a homophone for high year) that resonates to this day.

Want to know what happened? Please read my tradition-packed short story, “The Case of the Uncrackable Case!”

🧧🧧🧧🧧🧧🧧🧧🧧
新年快乐! Xīnnián kuàilè!
恭喜发财! Gong hei fat choy!
🧧🧧🧧🧧🧧🧧🧧🧧
 
 

Christmas 2022

(Or, Better Late Than Never)

Served on time, posted after the fact. (That’s why it’s called “post”. Work with me here.)

Christmas usually rocks a classical Italian accent in my digs, so here are a duo of traditions, homemade of course, that graced this year’s table.

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Insalata di Frutti di Mare (aka Insalata di Mare): The quartet of shrimp, calamari (squid), polipetti (baby octopus), and scungilli (conch) – which tally four fishes for those of you who keep score – plus various veggies for crunch and zest is augmented by a harmonizing dressing of EVOO, lemon juice, and herbs.


An improvisation the first time I made it, it’s now an evergreen at our holiday table. I composed it as a means of gathering some of my favorite umami bombs in concert. The three-part invention features a trio of pasta filata (stretched curd) cheeses: smoked mozzarella, scamorza, and provolone, accompanied by sun dried tomatoes, agrodolce red peppers, fresh basil and mini tomatoes; it’s marinated in EVOO, balsamic vinegar, garlic, oregano, red pepper flakes, and fennel pollen and has become one of the key players in our Yuletide repertoire.

And the name of this Christmas homage to fromage? Praise Cheeses! (Of course. 😉)
 
 

Kutia

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Christmas is right around the corner. Eastern Orthodox Christmas, that is.

I was introduced to kutya (кутя) over 10 years ago in a Russian food market in Brooklyn’s Little Odessa where I now offer food tours; it’s a sweet story and you can read it here.

These days, there are few fully Russian markets to be found in that neighborhood, having been superseded by Ukrainian, Uzbek, Uyghur, generally Eastern European and even Turkish establishments. The aforementioned market is long gone and the availability of grab-and-go kutya has vanished along with it.

Needless to say, a little thing like that doesn’t stop me; now I make my own at home. I researched a bunch of Ukrainian recipes for kutia (the more accepted Ukrainian transliteration) and came up with my own spin on the dish. Best described as a porridge, it’s sweet from honey and raisins, chewy from wheat berries, crunchy from nuts, and distinctive and delectable from the poppy seeds; the wheat berries symbolize immortality and hope, the honey and poppy seeds represent happiness, tranquility, and success. It’s an indispensable dish for the family’s feast on Eastern Orthodox Christmas Eve throughout Russia and Eastern Europe.

In addition to wheat berries, poppy seeds, raisins and honey, my rendition includes toasted almonds (although walnuts are customary) and dried apricots. Kutia can be eaten warm or at room temperature and is now one of my must-haves for the holiday season. All that’s lacking is a proper beautiful Ukrainian serving dish, but this one (Federal green Depression glass) was my grandmother’s and it will do.

And as always, heartfelt prayers for safety and peace go out to my friend Olya in Ukraine, my inspiration for creating this recipe.
 
 

Thanksgiving 2022

Thanksgiving is a family affair and it takes over a week to shop for and prepare what has become an over-the-top family tradition. Not to mention Thanksagaingiving, another tradition in my clan, which you can read about here.

A few folks asked for photos of this year’s extravaganza. I guess they wanted proof 😉.

And even though I do pretty much the same menu each year, it always takes every bit as much time to put the whole thing together. You’d think I’d have developed some shortcuts by now.

But you know what? It’s totally worth it.
 
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Chestnut Soup – our appetizer, served with crème fraîche and snipped chives

 
Roast Turkey and Gravy (plus four extra thighs because everyone loves dark meat, of course!) with Cornbread Chestnut Stuffing featuring currants and dried cranberries.

 
Cranberry Sauce with Kumquats, Black Walnuts and Chambord

 
Dandy Brandied Candied Yams

 
Maple Sugar Acorn Squash with Spicy Pepita Topping

 
Roasted Brussels Sprouts and Jerusalem Artichokes with Crispy Soppressata and Grated Parmigiano Reggiano

 
Savory Corn Pudding

As served…


…and fresh out of the oven. It’s a signature recipe of mine that uses frozen corn – evaluated and actually better than fresh for this – as well as Cope’s dried sweet corn. I marvel at the way the snipped chives always find their way to the top. Did I mention that half a pound of butter and more than a pint of heavy cream were ingredients as well?
 
Scalloped Potatoes with Leeks and Bacon

As served…


…and fresh out of the oven. Only a pint of heavy cream and a pound and a half of bacon went into this low-cal dish. 😜
 
Cornbread is happiest when it’s made in a cast iron skillet.
Cornbread is happiest when it's made in a cast iron skillet
 
Skillet Cornbread with fresh sweet corn, cheddar cheese, cilantro, jalapeño, and more: my special recipe

 
Homemade Pumpkin Pie

Yes, from a real pumpkin, not a can – a decadently rich recipe I’ve been tweaking for years that I’m finally happy with. Topped with buttery, crunchy toasted pecan brittle (yep, that’s homemade too) and the obligatory whipped cream.
 
 

Oatmeal Pecan Raisin Sandwich Cookies

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When developing a recipe, I often set out by studying a collection of existing recipes in order to generate an amalgam of sorts before I forge ahead in my own deviant direction.

Since it’s time to start thinking about Christmas cookies (I lie – it’s always time to think about Christmas cookies) and because I had too much oatmeal in the house (long story), a spin on oatmeal pecan raisin cookies seemed like a solid idea.

So I developed my own bespoke recipe – which happily turned out to be first-rate – but since I’m a lily-gilder by nature I decided to elevate it by sandwiching cannoli filling between cookie pairs.

If I do say so myself, I may very well have come up with another entry for the holiday repertoire!

(I would have taken a better photo, but all the cookies mysteriously disappeared before I had the chance. Elves maybe?)

 
 

Dia de los Muertos

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You’ve heard it before: “Oh, Día de los Muertos is Mexican Halloween, right?”

Wrong. Día de los Muertos is decidedly not Mexican Halloween any more than Chanukah is Jewish Christmas – and if any unenlightened soul tries to tell you that, please disabuse them of that fallacious notion inmediatamente!

The Mexican holiday, Day of the Dead, is celebrated from October 31 through November 2 (dates may vary depending upon the locality) – and “celebrated” is the proper word: families congregate to memorialize loved ones who have passed away, but it is seen as a time when the departed temporarily revivify and join in the revelry rather than as a sorrowful occasion. Additionally, these days Día de Muertos, as it is also known, serves as a paean to the indigenous people with whom it originated in pre-Hispanic times.

In the year 1 BC (Before Covid), I headed out to Sunset Park, Brooklyn, to get myself into the Día de los Muertos spirit. Sequin-eyed, neon icing-coiffed calaveras (sugar skulls) are relatively easy to find in the neighborhood; this one came from Panadería La Espiga Real, 5717 5th Avenue. Although spirits don’t eat, this one seemed particularly interested in the pan de muerto I picked up at La Flor de Izucar, 4021 5th Avenue.

This bread of the dead is customarily embossed with bone shapes, sometimes crossbones, sometimes in a circle, and other traditional embellishments such as skulls and a single teardrop. It’s a barely sweet, simple bun (like so many Mexican panes dulces), light and airy with a tight crumb, and topped with sesame seeds or sugar (like this one) with hints of cinnamon, anise, and orange flower water.


Above: A view of the inner sanctum.
 
 

Happy Diwali! (2022)

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Dear Friends,

I can no longer keep this to myself. I am an addict, hooked on mithai. What’s that? You don’t know about mithai? Mithai are Indian sweets and since Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights, is upon us, I can think of no better time than now to tell you my tale. So gather round your diyas and check out my post “Indian Sweets 101: Meeting Mithai” right here on ethnojunkie.com!
 
 
दिवाली मुबारक
Happy Diwali!
 
 

Le 2022 Lait de Poule Est Arrivé!

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Eggnog! First sighting of the year!

It’s like waiting for this year’s vintage Beaujolais Nouveau to appear: Le 2022 Lait de Poule est arrivé! (They say that the French have a word for it, and I have to admit a certain fondness for their spin on the word “eggnog”, lait de poule: hen’s milk.)

If you’ve read me, you know that I have a few (ha!) guilty pleasures when it comes to holiday food, and for me, nothing heralds the advent of the season like the first appearance of eggnog on supermarket shelves. And snatching it away precipitately as they do every year when the yule log’s embers have barely begun to evanesce only makes the anticipation and craving for next year’s batch more intense.

But which one(s) to buy? The brand in this photo may not be my fave – it’s merely the first I’ve found this year. But fret not. I and my OCD are here to offer you the benefits of my research and experimentation regarding this happy holiday quandary. Please check out my essay, An Eggnog Excursus – and unlike the holiday libation itself, it’s available year-round under “Deep Dives” on my homepage!

Cheers!
 
 

Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival – 2022

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A visit to any Chinatown bakery this time of year will reveal a spectacular assemblage of mooncakes (月餅, yue bing) in a seemingly infinite variety of shapes, sizes, ornamentation, and fillings, all begging to be enjoyed in observance of the Mid-Autumn Festival, celebrated this year on September 10. Here are two pandan mooncakes, one with preserved egg yolk and a mini version without, from Chinatown’s Fay Da Bakery.


And here’s one of my favorites, Five Mix Nut Moon Cake, from Golden Fung Wong Bakery at 41 Mott St – one of the stops on my Manhattan Chinatown ethnojunket, of course!

Since 2022 is the Year of the Tiger, known for his bravery and adventurousness but also for his impulsive unpredictability, I decided to purchase an assortment of these delicacies even if I was unable to identify every single one of them in the bakeries in order to compare them and ultimately share them, virtually, with you.

For a deep dive into the holiday and these delicious treats, you can get the skinny – er, poor choice of words there – in my Chinese Mooncakes Demystified page detailing their similarities and differences in an attempt to shed some light (moonlight, of course) on their intricacies.

中秋节快乐!
 
 

Chuseok – 2022

Chuseok (추석) or Hangawi (literally “autumn evening”) is a major mid-autumn festival in Korea celebrated this year from September 9th though the 12th; because it’s a harvest festival, it’s sometimes referred to as “Korean Thanksgiving”. Needless to say there are traditional foods and even traditional table settings.

I wish I could say that these photos are part of that tradition, but they are, nevertheless, quintessentially Korean dishes from my local Korean deli. Here’s a rundown:

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Korean grilled mackerel, sweet and spicy pickled daikon, and seasoned cucumbers (fish sauce, sesame oil, sugar and garlic).


Five banchan (Korean side dishes). In the center there’s spicy baby radish kimchi: the leaves and stems are topped by slices of the root which was about four inches long before I got to it. Then clockwise from the top: red, crunchy radish (not as spicy as it looks), green seaweed (a little slippery), savory marinated black beans, and jwipo: seasoned, pressed, and dried filefish jerky that’s sold as a street snack – chewy, a little spicy, a little sweet.


Marinated soy sauce eggs leading the parade of assorted Korean pancakes (모듬전, mo deum jeon), followed by pollock filet, kimchi (napa cabbage, radish, carrot), surimi, scallion, and seafood mix (squid, cuttlefish, clam, shrimp, mussel).

Happy Chuseok!