Sunday, December 26, 2010

Whipxack Christmas Borscht

Why do I love borscht? Is it the deep happy pinky-red color? Or because it is so fun to say? “Borscht.” The knowledge that if I go for seconds, I have eaten all of the veggies I need for the year to come? Or because for the past three years, our friends Tricia and TJ have invited us to share in their budding borscht tradition, adding instant family and tradition to our sometimes lonely overseas holiday. Yep, all of the above!

Eating borscht with friends will be a holiday traditions we weave into our own Christmas celebration. Hopefully, more often than not, it will be spent with TJ and Tricia. I asked Tricia to share her recipe, and here it is in her own words:

Last Tuesday, my husband TJ and I hosted our 5th annual Christmas Borscht dinner. The tradition started when we were living in Honduras and celebrating our first Christmas away from home. We were having Christmas Eve dinner with friends who were vegetarian, and we were looking for some Christmasy-yet-meat-free foods. Somehow (we cannot reconstruct the actual mental leap involved) we came up with the idea of vegetarian borscht -- mainly because when served with sour cream and parsley it is the perfect combo of red, white, and green. That first borscht was so dang tasty that we have continued to make it every Christmas season since. We have been lucky to share the last three years of meals with Ashley, Carter and Oscar. In the past we have basically made up the recipe as we go, but I was bragging to Ashley that this year I finally wrote up a recipe for our soup, and she kindly suggested I send it along for a guest -starring role on Smash n' Sniff. Grab your spoons folks, and ignore your families' protests that they don't like beets, or that borscht isn't a Christmas food. You know better!

Whipxach Christmas Borscht

Serves 16(ish)

*You don't have to chop anything too well, since it will all be blended in the end!
**Every time we make this it's slightly different, so feel free to not follow this recipe exactly. (I'm just making it up anyway.)

1 - 1.5 oz. dried porcine mushrooms
olive oil
1/2 lb. white mushrooms, trimmed, wiped clean and sliced
1 large onion, diced
about 6 medium-largish beets, peeled and sliced
4 medium carrots, peeled and sliced
1 medium parsnip, peeled and sliced (we have never used this, but its in a lot of recipes, and if we could get one here in Mexico I'm sure it would be delicious)
6 stalks of celery, cleaned and sliced (some recipes call for 1 small celery root -- go ahead and use this instead of celery if you can find one.  We can't, so celery works fine!)
4 medium sized potatoes, cut into chunks (don't bother to peel it!)
1 small white cabbage, cut into small chunks (we have also used red cabbage, depends on what's available)
1/4 cup of tomato paste (we usually use about 1 cup of tomato puree since we can't get the paste)
3 large cloves of garlic, chopped
1/4 cup sugar
1 bay leaf
6 - 8 cups vegetable or chicken broth (we use turkey broth, leftover from Thanksgiving)
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar (we usually only have balsamic on hand, but I bet apple cider or red wine vinegar would be good)
salt, pepper
sour cream
1 bunch fresh dill or parsley for garnish (we usually can't get dill, I imagine it would taste good) 

BASIC RECIPE: Throw everything in a pot, cook, blend, serve

1. Soak the dried mushrooms in 1 - 2 cups warm water for 15 minutes. Then drain, squeeze out excess liquid, and save all liquid

2. Heat oil in a LARGE soup pot

3. Stir in the white mushrooms, onion, beets, carrots, parsnip, and celery or celery root. Cook for a few minutes

4. Add porcini mushrooms, cabbage, potatoes, tomato puree and salt/pepper. Cook for a few more minutes.

5. Add garlic and sugar.

6. Add broth and mushroom liquid. It should cover the veggies. If not, add more broth, or some water. Add the bay leaf. Bring to a boil, then simmer, covered, until vegetables are tender (usually 45 minutes to an hour).

7. Remove from heat and remove the bay leaf!

8. Puree everything in a blender (will have to be done in batches).

9. When everything is blended, stir in vinegar, then taste. You may need to adjust and add more vinegar, salt, or sugar. Before you add more vinegar or sugar, follow Ashley's advice and add lots more salt!

10. Serve hot, with a blob of sour cream and dill or parsley (red, white and green!)

11. Makes a lot, you can theoretically eat it hot or cold, but we always eat it hot! This gets better as the days pass! Also freezes well.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Guadalajara Christmas Market

In mid-November a Christmas market sprouts up behind the fruit and veggie market in the bric-a-brac neighborhood of Santa Tere, a few blocks from my house. Waiting until November to haul out the tree trimmings and nativity figures is a show of great restraint for Mexicans. The encroachment of ‘all things Christmas’ that clogs the aisles of every department store, grocery store and neighborhood tienda, begins its take-over in SEPTEMBER in Latin America. For the past three months, a 10 ft. inflatable Santa Claus has greeted me at the Costco entrance.

I have always felt sorry for every other country in the world that does not have the "Thanksgiving Buffer”—the holiday stop-gap that keeps marketers’ decency in-check until the last Friday in November, saving us from months on end of Christmas music and creepy elves pushing products. But, due to experiencing the magic of Christmas through the eyes of my 2.5 year old, my feelings are shifting and I couldn't wait to whore-up the house with Christmas glitz this year. This is the first year that I have wondered why I can't have a Christmas tree glowing in the corner while we celebrate Thanksgiving.

However, we held out until all of the Thanksgiving leftovers had been eaten, and then hauled out the box marked, “Christmas” and set off to pick out our tree.

The market fills an alley one block long. Venders sell lights fit for a show on the Vegas strip-- ribbon, ornaments and all sizes of figurines: kings, camels, horses, plants, etc., for a nativity scene. (Nativity scenes in Mexico have agave cactuses- the plant tequila is made from- and the devil—is that normal?) Oh, and of course, there are Christmas trees: pink, white, brown, and real.

The scene is a sharp contrast to my childhood memories of Christmas. No one is tapping the snow off of their boots in this temperate climate, no need to keep a hot steaming toddy to your lips to prevent icicles from growing out of your nose; the urban grit is a world away from the spacious Christmas tree lots of the Chicago suburbs. But really, this little alley could be a scene in any Santa loving country: red and green, gold glitz, sparkly glass ornaments, plastic mistletoe, miles of garland, and the bustle of families stuffing shopping bags and wrangling evergreens. Looking around, I realize Christmas has a solid brand, at least from where I am standing, the aesthetic is pretty universal.

It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas…..

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Are Cupcakes Killing Traditional German Christmas Cookies?

This article, on the cover of a recent "Kultur Spiegel", a regular supplement in one of the most respected news magazines in Germany, is about "a Christmas drama". American cupcakes are replacing all of our treasured Christmas cookies! the author claims. Seriously Germany? I don't think you have anything to worry about.

Exhibit A: My Local Bakery and Konditorei

Nary a cupcake in sight ... just lebkuchen männer (gingerbread men), Zimtsterne (cinnamon stars), Vanilla Kipferln (vanilla, um, kipferl), Domino Steine (domino stones)...

....various Christmas cookies and cakes....

.. and a personal favorite, stollen confekt, a small pocket of stollen - Germany's answer to fruitcake - filled with marzipan. These are deceptively addictive and so delicious with a cup of coffee - and I speak from experience.

The glutton-free dieter's nightmare continues with another personal weakness, baumkuchen. Layers of light spongy cake dipped in milk chocolate. Also good dipped in coffee for breakfast. Also the reason why I have increased the number of times I go running during the month of December. But soooo worth it. 

Exhibit B: The Supermarket

Dear Supermarket Manager, I have a bone to pick with you.  I can't take my kids with me to the grocery store any more because of your ingenious little Christmas cookie displays. All that is missing here is a flashing neon sign and Santa himself sitting atop Rudolf while handing out free samples. How am I supposed to get around this? In fact, these displays are strategically positioned at the entrance so that you have to walk right THROUGH them to get anywhere else in the store. I have not made it out once without at least one major tantrum and no fewer than three chocolate Smartie-filled Santas sneaking their way into the shopping cart - at least two of which always seem to get scanned by the cashier before I've realized that I've purchased them. Kids 2 - Mom 0.

Seriously, even if a few people find cupcakes fun, different or novel, the so-called evil plot to overthrow lebkuchen is not going to amount to anything. There are enough stollen purists out there to secure their place on the grocer's shelves for many generations to come, I wager.

Oh sure they look harmless enough, but I swear these little Santas contain hidden mics with recordings of subliminal messages instructing children to raise hell until mom agrees to put at least two in the shopping cart. Talk about evil plots....

Exhibit C: The Christmas Markets 

Row after row of baumkuchen spitze, brittle, zimtsterne and other traditional Christmas cookies and cakes for you to mix and match.

The nougat and marzipan dealer. And I say dealer because this stuff is like CRACK. Addictive, sugar high-inducing CRACK. Cinnamon, chocolate, vanilla, espresso, pistachio, hazelnut, with nuts, without nuts. No where else will you find a display of as many different kinds of pure balls of marzipan and soft (not brittle, like the Italian) nougat than at a German Christmas market. Cupcakes? What cupcakes?

Exhibit D: The Enemy

One of a handful of cupcake specialty shops in town, trying to capitalize on the trend - which is credited in great part, claims the Spiegel article, to the popularity of "Sex and the City" in Germany. The one cupcake peddler I spoke to claimed that if anything, cupcake sales were down around the holidays due to the increased competition from all of the other baked good flooding the market. Although those topped with crushed candy cane do seem to be holding their own. 

So, defenders of traditional German Weihnachtsgebäck, stollen purists and militant anti-cupcakists, fear not. While the American cupcake may have made a splash as the new trendy baked good, your Christmas delicacies, contrary to reports, are stocked on the shelves and will most definitely remain so for many Christmases to come.