Simple Pleasures.

Simple Pleasures.
Irish soda bread on its way up North with Noah.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Finally...a Great, Healthy Gift Idea

I am absolutely the worst gift giver. It's probably because I hate shopping in general and thus have no clue of what's hot for the season or what people actually want. I wrack my brains. I wring my hands. And I usually come up with doofus things--like an extra pair of earbuds or ski socks--that make people snore or cry. The hardest task of all is figuring out what to buy for my husband Paul's clients, simply because they really don't need anything, especially from people like me who barely know them.

This year, however, I hit pay dirt. It was October and I was scrounging around for a good birthday present. We had just come from apple picking in New York State and I thought about how cool it would be to send a box down to Paul's client in Tennessee, where maybe crisp Northern varietals might actually be a novelty. I Googled away and landed on, a site which sells a huge variety local apples, in particular the honeycrisp apple, which really is crazily crisp, thin-skinned, and sweet as honey. The coolest part was that they also send apples to American soldiers overseas and pay for shipping through their Operation Apple program.

I rang the place, cuz I of course had questions, and the owner, Paul Woolley, picked right up.  Woolley helped me arrange to send a box of his fab apples down to Tennessee. He then went and found just the right soldiers to send a bushel of apples to on Paul's client's behalf. Here's what he wrote:

"Just wanted to drop you a note and tell you that we found a local Special Forces hero SSGT Sean Keough who is in Afghanistan to send the case to. Sean's mom grew up with my wife and friends here in Upstate NY.  Recently Sean was awarded the Silver Star for his bravery.    Thank you for your contribution and tell Paul that I know from getting the emails and calls from these Heros that the apples will be a huge hit.  They always express two things - It’s a taste of home & so nice to just know someone is supporting them.  Thanks again.  Have a great day."

So off the apples went to Tennessee and Afghanistan. The soldiers loved them and sent pictures. And Paul's client was off-the-charts happy. He was insane for the apples and was even more thrilled about the fact that a bushel went to the troops. Ok, so why quit while I was ahead? I then sent apples to another client of Paul's for her birthday. SHE and her family went nuts. All was good. Story over. Or so I thought.

Yesterday, a box arrived on my doorstop. It was filled with honeycrisp apples. I was a little confused. Was this a weird coincidence? Was someone else I knew onto this apple-gift idea? Inside was a note from Paul Woolley himself, wishing us a happy holiday and thanking us for "starting a great thing." Turns out that Paul's clients were so thrilled with their honeycrisps, they sent out boxes and boxes of them to colleagues, friends and family for Christmas. And for every box that went out, they sent a shipment to our soldiers abroad. How cool is that? 

Long story short: If you're looking for a healthy, delicious gift that also does some good, keep and our troops in mind. You can even ring them up directly at 518-695-4517. Now...I'm off to grab an apple. Such a nice break from all the cookies, candy and other holiday health hazards hanging around this house. 

Happy Holidays Everyone!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Latke Love

Hannukah was looking to be a little glum this year. Paul's been out on the road for a long stint. My dad had gone into the hospital yet again. And my mother-in-law Florence, who is recovering from hip surgery and no longer drives, was stuck in her apartment on the Upper West Side. It seemed like it would be just the boys and I and our menorah all week.  I'd been so busy and distracted, in fact, I hadn't even picked up presents for them.

When Florence rang the house early Sunday morning, asking if I still planned to drive into the city to pick her up so she could celebrate with us (this, after I had spent Saturday driving my mother out to Great Neck for Aunt Sylvia's 90th birthday celebration at the assisted living facility), I started to get a little dizzy. When she followed that up with "And do you think you want to make latkes?" I thought I was going to light my hair on fire and run in the street. 

Latkes, you see, are not to be taken lightly. They're time-consuming. They're messy. They leave the house and its inhabitants doused in a sheen of oil. Not to mention, the potato starch leaves my hands feeling like beef jerky for about 2 weeks after the fact. Nonetheless, I've been making these particular latkes every year with Florence since the kids were born and they are widely adored by friends, family, teachers, tutors, and virtual strangers I've fed them to on the street. The whole crazy process of making them and sharing them has become our way of marking the holiday season and the turn of yet another year. 

So, anyway, there I was, about to give Florence a litany of reasons why I just couldn't make the trip to NYC to get her. Why I just couldn't see myself grating potatoes. Why I just needed to crawl into bed and watch back-to-back episodes of House Hunters International. When some little voice crept up through me and stammered, "I'll l-l-leave for New York as soon as I get B-Ben from his guitar lesson." Before I knew it I was on Route 3, calling Noah and Ben from the car and asking them to pick up a big bag of spuds. 

When Florence and I got back to Montclair and walked through the front door, it was as though those potatoes had brought their own holiday energy into the house. Noah sprang into action scrubbing and grating the spuds. Florence suddenly seemed like her old self, lording over the fry pan and bantering with me about when the latkes should be turned and how big they should be. Ben surfaced from hours of studying, so he could sneak bits of errant fried potato from the latke plate. The house filled with that irresistible smell of all things fried and golden. The chicken came out of the oven and added it's own savory voice. Finally, we gathered together around the menorah, stuffing our faces with the crispy, spidery latkes. We kindled the lights and gave lots and lots of hugs...a gift that might not have been enough for Ben and Noah, but was everything I truly needed this holiday season. 

The Latkes Recipe

These latkes, from The Joy of Cooking, are crispy, relatively simple, and totally yummy. The trick is squeezing out as much moisture as possible from the potatoes and keeping those latkes small--only about the size of a silver dollar. Otherwise, you'll have either a big, oil-soaked hockey puck that'll give you acne just by looking at it, or an unwieldy, soggy blob that won't stay together. Note of chagrin: After years of swearing that hand grating was the only way to make a proper latke, I wholeheartedly take those words back. For the past several years, I've secretly (or now not-so-secretly) used the coarse grater on my Cuisineart and have come out with not just good results...but fantastic results: Nice long shreds that hang together beautifully, with pretty little tongues of potato fringing the edges. And no pieces of shredded knuckle in the batch! I don't know why my mother-in-law and I were so convinced that hand grating was the rule....I think it was just the basic Jewish belief that nothing good comes without some degree of suffering. So pull out that food processor, shred those potatoes in a snap, and use the extra time you have on your hands to mop the oil up off the floor. 

Here we go:

Wrap in a very clean absorbent towel and wring to squeeze out as much moisture as possible:

About 6 cups coarsely grated potatoes (If you want super crisp latkes, use a starchier potato like an Idaho baker. That's what we tend to use. Lower-starch boiling potatoes and yukon golds are also supposed to be fine.)

Combine 4 cups of the wringed-out, grated potato in a large bowl with:
6 large eggs, lightly beaten
3 Tbsp. flour
2 Tbsp. finely grated onion
2 tsp. salt

(You will have extra grated potatoes. Set them aside. You can add them to the batter at the end, since you tend to run out of potato pieces before you run out of eggy stuff. Also, you'll probably freak out that your shredded potatoes are turning black. That's just what they do when they are not covered in water, so get over it.)  

Pour vegetable oil into a large heavy skillet or electric fry pan until it's about 1/4 inch deep. (You can actually start heating the oil at some point while you're working with the potatoes, if you want.)  Heat over medium high flame until a bit of potato sizzles when you drop it in to test. (Or set your fry pan to 350.)

Drop small spoonfuls of the potato mixture into the skillet, then flatten each out a bit with the edge of your spatula to make them sorta flat and somewhat thin. Don't make them totally flat like a pancake, though, because you want some texture there. Fry until browned on the bottom, reducing heat to medium, if needed to prevent scorching. Turn and cook second side until crisp, about 3-5 minutes on each side. Drain briefly on paper towel. Sprinkle lightly with salt. Serve with apple sauce, sour cream, and a spray bottle of Shout. Makes a bunch.