Festive Weekend: Lunar New Year and Mardi Gras!

Lunar New Year

You may remember my pitiful post last month about my non-existent social life.  I’m happy to say that with some initiative and a positive attitude, life has improved and this weekend I enjoyed two celebrations in one day!

Saturday started with the Lunar New Year at the Chinese Community Center, an annual celebration featuring dance, music, food and cultural traditions from the many Asian communities in Houston.  This year is the Year of the Snake, and in addition to the familiar booths and activities we sampled tea and admired the bikes that the Chinese Motorcycle Club had on display.

Lunar New YearLater I spent a wonderful Mardi Gras evening eating crawfish etouffee and spending quality “girl time” with my fun-loving friend and two new friends.  It was great to listen to music, tell stories, laugh hysterically and just have fun.

Mardi Gras Festivities

In another city on another continent, my daughter donned costume and mask and she and friends joined crowds in the streets for Carnival festivities.  Today I saw the photos (love Facebook and digital photography) and could imagine the excitement she felt as she took part in this celebration for the first time.

New Year, new moon and spring is in the air.  Join the celebration!

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Regional Cooking: Cincinnati Chili

Cincinnati Chili

Not long before he died, my grandfather sent me his recipe for his famous Cincinnati Chili.  I was thinking of him over the holidays and reminiscing about his chili and cheese grits with my brother.  In the spirit of family and regional cooking, I’ll share his “secret” recipe that he was careful to pass along to me.

Cincinnati Chili is a regional style of chili con carne which is believed to originated with immigrants from Macedonia and has been served for almost a century in hot dog stands, diners and “chili parlors” throughout Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana.  Cincinnati Chili has a thin consistency and is made with seasonings such as cinnamon, cloves, chocolate or allspice.  It is usually served over spaghetti or hot dogs and often topped with shredded cheddar cheese and diced onions.

I did a little research and found that there is an art to ordering this chili, something like ordering a coffee at Starbucks.  Here’s an example:

  • Bowl:  chili in a bowl (may be served with oyster crackers)
  • Two-way:  chili and spaghetti
  • Three-way:  chili, spaghetti and cheese
  • Four-way:  chili, spaghetti, cheese and onions
  • Five-way:  chili, spaghetti, cheese, onions and beans
  • Four-way bean:  chili, spaghetti, cheese and kidney beans

Cincinnati chili can also top a “coney dog,” which usually also includes mustard, cheddar and onion.

Cincinnati Chili

makes 2 quarts

Combine the contents of 1 package of chili mix (any brand) with 1 – 6 ounce can of tomato paste in a large saucepan and add 6 cups of cold water.  Add 1½ lbs. of lean ground beef – RAW (do not brown).  Stir with a fork until the beef is completely broken into small pieces.

Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring vigorously.  Sprinkle in 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 4 bay leaves and 2 dried chilies.

Reduce to a simmer and DO NOT COVER.  Continue to simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 3 hours until desired consistence – not too watery and not too thick.

Serve over spaghetti and add grated cheddar cheese.  Makes good conies, too.

Add salt, pepper and hot sauce to individual taste.

Sounds crazy, but it works.  And only one dirty pan.

 

I’m Dreaming of a Skype Christmas

I'm Listening

I’m Listening

When I was growing up, my dad’s family lived in a small town where relatives lived within a couple of square miles of each other.  Mother lived next door to daughter, separated by an alleyway.  Aunt lived next to nephew and down the street from her sister.  The family whose house was just beyond the tiny bridge that defined the city limit was considered “out of town.”

Those days are gone.  Or, should I say, they never existed in a real way for the family beyond that small, geographically limited cluster.  Now, family members are dispersed across the U.S., North Africa and Europe and tiny factions of our extended clan will be dining together.  But we will take a few moments to reach out and Skype someone this holiday.  The image may be less than optimal and the connection and quality may waver.  The computer may even crash, as it does on occasion.  But thank goodness for Skype, Google Hangout or whatever the means to see and hear our loved ones far away.

Everyday Shrines

When you think of a shrine, you may envision a holy place of worship, pilgrimage and sacred relics.  In some parts of the world, people have household shrines dedicated to a deity.  I also see them in businesses like my favorite Asian restaurants – little altars with offerings of food, tea and incense.

I have everyday shrines; places of magic that contain memorabilia associated with revered people and places.  These are small corners where sacred relics disguised as ordinary objects gather and lend some of the personal energy that makes our house a home.  Here are some sacred possessions and their stories.  What are some personal objects that have meaning for you?

A Kitchen Shrine:  Silver and lapis ring from a small shop across from Albrecht Dürer’s House in Nürnberg, Germany; Opal ring purchased on my first business trip to Boston; Sandstone oil burner and Satsuma oil from The Body Shop (Anita Roddick is a personal inspiration); Stone and Bergamot oil from the beautiful Grüne Erd (“Green Earth”) store in Nürnberg.

 

Portraits and Cards:  Portrait of my husband painted by my daughter for his birthday; photograph taken by my mother when I was 17; birthday cards from my mom and my friend Els.

Kitchen Tools can be sacred:  Marmalade crock from the 1930’s found at a stall on Portobello Road (where I used to walk each day); wooden spoon from my mother by way of my grandmother;  kitchen tongs from Germany; assorted utensils I use to cook every day.

The items in my kitchen are well-worn and ordinary, but I use them with care to make good food for people I love.

Are you thinking about your everyday shrines now?

Boxes:  Handmade wooden box from Costa Rica; special handcrafted box with a circus motif – a gift from my husband from a trip to New York; inside the circus box are earrings from my mother and grandmother.

Shells and Stones:  I gather shells and stones wherever I find them and keep them in a clay bowl.  They have been collected from all over the world and airport security is sometimes interesting with a bag full of rocks.

Last but not least are the letters and artwork from my family.  I think I’ve kept every one.  Probably my most precious possessions.

Fear of Festivals

I have a confession to make.  I’m not very good at holidays.  Taken to extreme, fear of holidays even has an official name:  Heortophobia.  Not wanting to be bound by obligation disguised as tradition, I’ve veered a little too adamantly to the other extreme of unpredictability.  Spontaneity seemed better, somehow.  Brighter and freer.  My kids asked, “Can’t we just have turkey dinner like everyone else?” when I proposed some new and exotic menu.  I thought I was rescuing them from the horrors of green bean casserole (sorry, Mom – I confess that it was never a favorite).

Recently, a comment from a new Australian acquaintance made me think.  He noted that in workshops that he leads, he would ask participants to raise their hands if they were indigenous.  Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders would raise their hands confidently, while white people would sit still.  “Everyone is indigenous to some place, but white people seem to have forgotten their past.”  He continued to talk about the importance of names, family and clan/kin/tribe, connection to your origins and knowing your traditions.

I’ve been thinking about this ever since.  It’s probably appropriate this time of year.

Festivals

Diwali – Festival of Light

Now I read with curiosity and slight longing when I discover posts about others’ joyous traditions.  For example, I just happened upon this wonderful post about Diwali on Kiran’s Cooking Club site.  Diwali is also known as the “Festival of Light” and it is India’s most important annual holiday.  The name Diwali refers to the clay lamps that people light outside their homes, symbolizing inner light that protects us from spiritual darkness.  Originally a harvest festival, Diwali is a time when Indian people (regardless of faith) seek the blessing of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth.  The holiday is celebrated with family gatherings, lamps, lights and fireworks and traditional sweets.

“Zie ginds komt de stomboot…”

When we lived in Holland, we enjoyed the arrival of Sinterklaas (otherwise known as Saint Nicholas) with his crew of Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes – Moorish helpers) by steamboat the third week of November.  The Sint rides his trusty white horse and “Petes” engage in all sorts of mischief.  Children leave shoes out each evening, and if they are lucky they will find small presents in the morning.  December 5th, the Eve of Sinterklaas, is celebrated with gifts, rhymes and sweets.  Typical treats include pepernootjes (small spice cookies), speculaas (more spice cookies!), large chocolate letters for the first letter of the child’s name, marzipan figures and chocolate coins.

Other harvest festivals and fall and winter celebrations draw me in with their family time, sense of belonging, music and fun.  We spent 8 of the last 20 years living in The Netherlands and London, far from home and family holidays.  This year, we’re divided.  Extended family is far away as always and two daughters are studying abroad, leaving a small group of three to celebrate a quiet holiday.

What will we do?

Will we celebrate my husband’s Spanish background with a feast of tapas and traditional dishes?  Should  we explore my English/Scottish/Irish heritage and perhaps rediscover the rituals of the Winter Solstice?

Or shall we stick to tradition and try something completely new?

Around the World in 50 Plates: An International Culinary Challenge!

Inspired by a suggestion from my brother-in-law Alejandro as well as a significant upcoming birthday, I am setting out to discover world cuisine one recipe at a time and invite you to come along!  More than willing to get out of my comfort zone, I’m featuring new discoveries along with old favorites.  And I’m challenging you to inspire and help shape the journey!

A fond memory also helped to inspire this project.  Our wedding took place at a friend’s converted one-room schoolhouse and a simple ceremony was followed by a big party.  Instead of requesting the usual expensive gifts, we asked our international friends and family to bring a dish from their homeland.  The result was a truly  memorable meal, prepared and shared with love.

International Food Festival

Vegetarian Food Festival

Twenty four years later, I’m inviting you to join a similar international feast.  Each week I will post a recipe or two from one country and would welcome any suggestions for countries to visit and/or recipes to try.  I’ll also feature guest bloggers to share a recipe or tell a story of a special time, dish or place.  Although it’s easier to stick to readily-available ingredients, your suggestions may prompt a culinary treasure hunt to track down something exotic.  That’s ok, too!  An active collaborator, I look forward to exploring your suggestions and requests and sharing inspiration.

At this point, we’re planning the itinerary, with a list of 50 countries.  The places may be special spots already visited, somewhere on the list of future destinations, your home country or a place that is close to your heart.  Next will come the menu for this memorable, many-course celebration.

Here are the rules:

  • 50 distinct countries
  • 1 recipe or meal from each country
  • Preferably vegetarian
  • Can be a food or beverage
  • Open to all!

Join this international culinary blogfest!  Where shall I go?  What shall I cook?  Feel free to leave your suggestions below.

The Camping Way

Camping Langenwald, Freudenstadt Germany

Beautiful Black Forest campground – Camping Langenwald, Freudenstadt

Years ago, in exasperation at having to pack up camp and move on yet again, our eldest daughter muttered, “What is this, the Montes Family Traveling Circus?”  Frustration quickly turned into laughter and the name stuck.  This year the Montes Family Traveling Circus World Domination Tour was live on 3 continents at once, as 3 of us visited Germany, Switzerland and France, while Daughter #1 returned to Egypt for a year and Daughter #2 spent the summer in Kyoto.

The European Contingent traveled in camping mode, a.k.a. “Hotel Room in a Bag.”  Baggage restrictions make this a challenge, but we have pared down to lighter equipment and bare essentials.  This is the fourth time that we have experienced family Eurocamping and each time the process becomes more refined.  It’s not as easy as getting on and off the tour bus, but the time invested means that you shape and own the experience.

Here’s the process:

  • Initiate and commit:  Stop resisting and book a flight and a rental car.  Look for a car with decent trunk space or a station wagon-type that has a cargo cover.  GPS is a must.
  • Map the itinerary:  You have a ticket and a car, and know the place and time of your arrival and departure.  The rest is up to you. Chart a circuit and try to minimize driving hours and campsite changes at first to minimize exhaustion and conflict and maximize time for exploration and fun.  Check out sites like VirtualTourist.com or TripAdvisor.com for ideas and list interesting destinations in the places you plan to visit.  Your itinerary can change on the go, but a list is a good starting place.
  • Research:  Time consuming, but it can be fun.  Think of it as extending the mental voyage.  Investigate your local library for current travel guides and mine the internet.  If you’re interested in camping, there are many good sites with campground listings complete with gps coordinates, a full list of amenities and customer reviews.
  • Gear up:  Research and buy the basics – tent, sleeping bag and pad, small camping stove compatible with locally-available fuel like Campingaz, lightweight cooking and eating gear and utensils.  Decide what to bring and buy at your destination.
  • Pack:  Leave plenty of time to pack and decide what to leave at home.  Work with your baggage limitations.
  • Documentation:  Make sure your passport is up to date and valid for 6 months after your trip.
  • Travel:  Air travel isn’t much fun, but relax.
  • Explore:  Be receptive and open to new experiences.  Know when to be an observer and when to jump in and interact.  It’s revitalizing to wake up knowing that the day is full of possibilities.
  • Memories:  Take lots of pictures, blog, journal, sketch – you’ll appreciate it later.  Laugh at the hardships – they make great stories.
Camping Breakfast

Breakfast spread

This year’s journey was different because we were not all together for the first time.  A little sad sometimes, but exciting knowing that each person was somewhere interesting, learning and growing.  The Montes Family Traveling Circus 2.0 – alive and kicking!

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