Archive for the ‘Being Poor at Christmas’ Category

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January 06, 2016: “Little Night” on “Little Christmas”

January 6, 2016

 

Moo's Minestrone SoupI get this Christmas article done just under the wire: today is the last day of the “Twelve Days of Christmas.”

Today, January 6th, is known as “Little Christmas” or (in Irish) “Nollaig na mBan” otherwise know as “The Feast of the Epiphany” when the wise men, according to tradition, gave the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the Christ-child. It is also the day, James Joyce used to place in time one of my favorite short stories, “The Dead.”

It is quite appropriate that I should publish this on “Little Christmas” as it concerns the Christmas dinner I made for my family, which I called “Little Night.” Swaseys+DogsFor a while now, I have been promising a “Big Night” for my folks. This is a dinner based after one of my most favorite foodie films of that name. The film features some of the most amazing Italian food in cinema, and my idea is to make a number of dishes from the film to serve after my family seeing the film. Christmas, of course, has too much going on to devote all that time to cooking, so I thought I would give my family a scaled-down version to whet their appetite…hence, “Little Night.”

One of our family traditions for some time was developed when, years ago, I made Minestrone Soup at Christmas and it was a universal hit. Even the guys who won’t eat veggies (…and you know who are…Stephen Swasey…oh, did I just type that?!!!) liked it. A tattered copy of my recipe has been hanging around for some time, and the actual dish has been duplicated so well by others, that I haven’t made it at Christmas for years now. Moo did an excellent job with this years’ batch. The rest of the meal was mine, ‘tho. We had:

Moo’s Minestrone Soup Chicken Roasted in Spiced Dough Bow Tie pasta with Greens Fancy Salad Tiramisu Chicken B-Ball

The chicken dish is called “Pollo al Sal” or chicken roasted in a salted dough. The dough spices the meat as it traps all the delicious moisture in. The dough bakes as the chicken roasts. At the end of cooking (dubbed the “chicken basketball” by the guys by virtue of how it looked) and after resting, you break the dough with a hammer and you have the most tender chicken of your life! We decided to substitute fresh herbs (rosemary, and thyme) instead of salt for a healthier, tastier chicken.Hammering Chicken

My next dish was a bit of a flop…this time. I usually make the bow tie pasta dish with broccoli raab, a slightly bitter veggie that looks like broccoli gone to seed. It sweetens very nicely when you saute it with garlic in olive oil and sweet red peppers. Trouble was…I couldn’t find broccoli raab anywhere, so I substituted dandelion greens instead. This ended up a little too bitter for most of my family’s taste. I also made the mistake of grilling the parmesan cheese which ended up hardening the pasta a bit. Microwave always has worked for me in the past. Lesson: stick to what works for the basic dishes.Plated Chicken+Pasta Salad

My salad was nice with a center of lentils cooked in olive oil, garlic, tomatoes and spices. This was covered with exotic greens, matchsticked fennel, fresh mozzarella cheese, tomatoes, pomegranate seeds, clementine sections, all topped with a blood-orange olive oil and wine vinegar. The salad tasted very good, but I need to work on my salad-arranging skills for the next big meal.

My Tiramisu has been perfected over the years, and I love especially it near Christmas. When I found out that Nickki my niece liked it, I had to make it! Most recipes use beaten raw egg yolks. I cook mine with kaluha, beating all the while, to make zabaglionTiramisue, an Italian light custard, which I then cool before whipping in the marscapone (an Italian cream cheese.) I could not find espresso either, so I brewed a strong coffee and concentrated its brewing to get a good substitute. I also could not find spiced cocoa, so I made my own. Then, it’s all assembly: lightly dip lady fingers in the coffee, a layer of the custard, sprinkle of spiced cocoa, and shaved dark chocolate. Cover and chill. I save the top layer of chocolate shaving until just before serving. Steve+Sophie“Little Night” was my gift, but my family spoiled me rotten with gifts of their own, with the charming company of four lovely dogs, as well as their own sparkling personalities!

[Thanks to Stephen Swasey for all photos, except the one of the family (me) and the one of me and Sophie (Nickki)]

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December 10, 2014: Empty Platter

December 11, 2014

Empty Platter LayoutI have volunteered as a chef’s assistant for several months now for an organization that provides home cooked meals and a pantry supplies to needy families in the area.

When I started at my present job, I was still living on scraps as I had so numerous other bills. Food wasn’t as much as a priority as like…keeping my house and paying for gas for the car. The owners of my company suggested I try Open Table (the local food pantry assistance program) and thought I might benefit from their service. I hemmed and hawed for a couple of days when I finally came to the conclusion that my pride was deeply meshed with my stupidity, and it would be foolish to not take assistance from an organization that was specifically there to help people in exactly my condition at the time.

So I registered for the pantry service. One thing about a service like this is that there is always a little waiting around. You are given a random number that groups you in a queue according to that number. While waiting, I took in the whole environment. The first thing I noticed is that most of my fellow patrons seemed very appreciative to have the service, happy even…despite their obvious current setbacks. It was no wonder, as each Open Table volunteer…to a person was charming, sympathetic, and helpful. The volunteers themselves seemed happy to be there as well. I knew how hard it was for individuals like myself, but my heart went out most of all to the families. I wondered and worried about how many nights the parents had nothing to offer but the empty platter of hunger to their children.

As I waited, being a foodie, I could not help but be interested in the food they served (I never had the meals at Open Table as the pantry suited me fine, and I did not want to burden them any more than I had to.) I found the meals well-made, clearly geared for popular appeal, nutritious, well presented, and best of all…well received! I decided my first night that as soon as I didn’t need the pantry service I would pay them back a bit by volunteering where I thought I could do the most good…the kitchen.

So it has been for some months. And a more peasant kitchen experience I cannot imagine: there are a group of assistants, a group to clean, a group to serve and a lead chef. Everyone pitches in and does whatever is needed to do, often with being directed, and best of all they help each other, all with a pleasant chatter making the whole experience warm and fun. I was always capable of more, but I was happy prepping and cleaning. After all, to my mind I was paying back a debt. The notions that I was having fun, learning a bit, especially about cooking for a huge group of people, and keeping my knife skills sharp (yes…pun intended) were all bonuses.

I got a surprise the other night, when Jim, the lead chef this week told me, “We’re serving ham for the main course, but there will be a few people who cannot eat ham. I would like you to take these ingredients and make something pleasant for them.”

People tell me all the time about these cooking shows where they have challenges/eliminations like this. I’ve never seen any of them, but I imagine that this was like that…minus the TV cameras and lights…and fame…and money…and restaurant positions. On the plus side, I was doing it for coolest folks doing good works for the needy, and it was fun! I ended up making lightly breaded and fried Chicken Breasts, smothered in sautéed Mediterranean Vegetables. I left pleased. It was not my best dish ever (I usually plan way ahead of time) but I thought I did OK, considering the turn-around time.

I went back to work, but after a couple of minutes I had that “DOH” moment when it occurred to me that this would make a good blog article, so I went back down to try to get a shot of my dish. When I found it, the only thing that was left was the empty platter it was served on. At first I thought with a laugh, “Oh, it went over well” but then I remembered the reality: the staff packages the leftovers from the meal and gives them to people as they are leaving, the idea seeming to be to get every scrap of food into the hands of those that need it.

Looking down at that empty platter…something clicked…a switch was thrown. I don’t know if I can describe it, but I’ll try.

I’ve written before that making food is like another form of an expression of love. If I’ve cooked for you, the chances are pretty good (at least at the time of the meal) that I held you in such high regard as to give you the best of my creative industry. Friends and family…easy…cooking for them is pure joy. On the flip side, working in the French restaurant was not only hard work, but I never even saw a patron. The catering jobs I’ve done were smack down the middle. I enjoyed people I didn’t know…enjoying what I made.

So, I’ve cooked in a lot of different situations. Somehow, cooking at Open Table the other night was very different. I discovered that I had created something that could possibly stave off hunger for a few people, for a little while. Although I would never meet them, or talk to them about their troubles, I had been part of something that could make people’s lives (who need it the most) in the tiniest way…a little less painful. That empty platter of mine made someone else’s platter a bit more full. To me, that empty platter was the symbol of the highest expression of love to our fellow-men.

So. At this time of year we are focused on giving. If you truly want to practice “goodwill towards men” I urge you to donate to your local chapter of food and pantry assistance services like Open Table. There is almost certainly one in your town or close-by. Your money will be well-spent giving comfort to those who need it the most.

But you don’t have to listen to just me. People have been writing about the theme of caring for the poor (particularly at Christmas time) for some time. A popular traditional source is the carol by John Mason Neale (1818-1866) in “Good King Wenceslas”

“Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye, who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.”

If you are looking for another contempory source, here’s what Bill Murray has to say about it all. Trust him. He’s a changed man.

 

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December 17, 2012: Bittersweet

December 17, 2012

Bittersweet LayoutI know what you would say. “We have more than enough Christmas traditions. There is no need to concern ourselves with yet another Christmas decoration” and in one sense you’d be correct. We have all the holly, ivy, wreaths, mistletoe, Yule Logs, perfectly healthy conifers that we cut down and bring inside to put lights on. No, I’m talking a decoration for a very different set of folks. Let’s say the holly, ivy, etc. are for the “haves” of the world, because let’s be honest…few people with money collect decorations from nature. I know of no one now that actually goes out to chop down the Christmas tree, anymore. Most people buy Christmas decorations, and if you have the ready cash to buy temporary vegetation to decorate your home for the Christmas season, that pretty much qualifies you as a “have” as opposed to a “have-not.”

Here, I want to break off and say I hope you are a “have.” I sincerely want each and every single one of you to be a “have” because now that I have had the experience of a “have-not” there is no one I would wish this state upon. Yet, I am far from alone…not this Christmas anyway, and for most Christmases either. As the man said once,”The poor will be with us always.”

The Christmas decoration that I propose for the “have-nots” is that of the American Bittersweet. First, it is a true American plant, as opposed to the holly and the ivy, both which grow in the Americas, but it is the European varieties that we see at Christmas. Bittersweet has a festive coloring, forming red berries with the occasional yellow sheath covering, just before Christmas. It is found on a long, flexible vine that can be wound around like a wreath or cut into smaller pieces. It grows in abundance just about anywhere in the wild and is free for the taking. Symbolically, it is appropriate for us “have-nots” as like poverty, Bittersweet can surround and choke off all other life it grows around. Most symbolic is the plant’s name, because as we all carry memories of better Christmases, being poor at Christmas can be perfectly described as “bittersweet.”

Bittersweet_LThe Sweet
My first introduction to Bittersweet as a decoration was at my last “real” Christmas four years ago. I was visiting my sister in Western New York State and she had her house decorated in her unique and quirky artistic style. Every corner of her house had a different and usually antique, decoration or toy. I noticed she had tastefully placed vines of red berries with yellow accents behind a number of pieces of artwork and when I asked what they were and she told me it was Bittersweet. As always, she was the perfect chef and hostess and served the family a most wonderful Christmas Eve Dinner, complete with candlelight, champagne, and  a slew of wonderful Christmas desserts she is famous for. Christmas morning was the best because I had the money to spoil my niece and nephew with a shower of gifts. As Christmases go, it doesn’t get more sweet than that.

No Cash at Christmas is a Real Dickens
Probably the biggest success story of being poor at Christmas is famous because it has been turned into the best-loved Christmas stories in English literature. Despite having been the most celebrated authors of his time, just before Christmas 1843, Charles Dickens was having his own financial crunch. His last two novels were a critical, but not monetary, success. He had just come back from a bad tour of America, where he hoped to get new ideas. It wasn’t a good mix. Dickens found Americans crude and boorish. They found him foppish and irritating. With his fifth child born and overdrawn at the bank, Dickens needed a real good story, and he needed it quick! Dickens was forever haunted by the idea of poverty. When he was eleven, he was pulled out of school and had to work at a boot-blacker shop as his father was put into a debtors prison for his own bad money management. Not only was the work, messy, dirty, smelly and filling the long day with mind-numbing dullness, but Dickens had ignominy of having to perform his job in front of a window for passer-bys. He was never going down that road again if he could help it.

So, by locking himself in a room with pen and paper, in just six weeks, he Bittersweet_Cpounded out “A Christmas Carol” and self-published it just in time for the Christmas season. The rest, they say, is history. He had managed to not only eventually rekindle his bank account but also to capture the perfect and concise story of what it means to be human. He also, single-handedly reinvented Christmas from a not-so-special holiday into what we know of it today. He managed to do all this, while at the same time not sacrificing his moral or creative ideals. Due to his own experiences, Dickens was much concerned with the education of English youths and counted it as the only way to improve the welfare of his nation’s future. Witness, the youthful spectres of “Want” and “Ignorance” that are sheltered under the Ghost of Present Christmas’s cloak.

As with our dreams, storytellers tell stories about what they know…and what they know best is themselves. It is understandable that in “A Christmas Carol” Dickens is at once Cratchit, Fezziwig, and Scrooge, especially when chastised for his avarice from his young finacee with, “You fear the world too much!”

Bittersweet_RThe Bitter
Yet who could blame anyone for “fearing the world too much” when you are under the threat of poverty? The fear is generating from the idea that you have no real control over your life. Having some experience with this, now for the fourth year, I would like to offer some thoughts that may possibly help others in my “have-not” condition (and might not hurt those of the “have” category as well!) Most of these are indeed old chestnuts, so roast them long and slow over your Christmas hearth:

No amount of wretchedness can remove your good memories. Those are yours forever. Use them to remember a time when things were not as bad. All things pass.

Never lose your ideals. There is one thing worse than being poor and that is being poor and not being able to look yourself in the mirror from being bad to yourself or others.

The only real thing you have control over is your attitude. Misery hates laughter. Find the humor. You might even find (like Dickens) with a little imagination, you have a good story.

You might feel embarrassed because it seems  you are failing. Please stop. The only people your condition matters to, are the ones who love you anyway and sincerely want you to improve. Just do your best.

The world tends to obscure blessings through the cataract of misery. Look closer. You will find blessings behind the veil.

Find solace in the free (or cheap) stuff…it is usually the best stuff anyway. Libraries, laughter of children, exercise, sunlight, fresh air, the occasional moment of grace….and just a whiff of hope, are all not to be undervalued.

I would be doing a disservice if I didn’t point out that like most Christmas decorations, Bittersweet is also slightly poisonous and should not be placed in households with pets and small children.

To my friends and family: to all the “haves” and “have-nots;” I wish you a most lovely and wondrous Christmas season. Oh…one more exceptional free thing…a good wish. Yet…if I had wealth of millions that sincere good wish would still be the best of what I could offer.

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