Archive for December, 2011

Today marks the conclusion of the eight day festival of lights, Hannukah. As much as Hallmark, toy companies, and my own employer would like it to be, Hannukah is not a major Jewish holiday – we don’t spend the whole time in synagogue, we don’t even take off from work for it – but it is the second most observed Jewish holiday in the world, (More Jews have a Passover seder than light Hannukah candles) and it’s definitely a special time of the year.

I haven’t celebrated Hannukah with my parents since I was in high school. I’d rather save my vacation days to go home over Rosh HaShana and Passover. Besides, I don’t like night driving and it gets dark so early this time of the year! My parents used to send me a card, frequently with a small check in it to represent “gelt,” coins that children were given before ad men decided that Jewish kids should get presents in December too. (Not that I’m complaining… I like gifts.) My mom told me there would be no card this year – it’s just too sad for her to celebrate without my brother or I around. Classic Jewish mother guilt, of course, but she quickly conceded to my rebuttal– saying she’d rather I come home for Rosh HaShana and Passover if I can’t be home for all of the holidays.

In college, Hannukah usually meant finals studying. And lighting the hannukiah, frying latkes, and spinning the dreidel for half an hour with close friends each night was the perfect study break – enough socialization for everyone to remain stable, but not requiring a major time commitment if you have an exam in the morning. Plus Hannukah bar nights and other events made grade post-exam celebrations.

Last year, Kirios and spent six of the eight nights of Hannukah in Las Vegas (where there was no lack of lights), so I could run the Rock’n’Roll Half Marathon with Team Challenge for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America, and we could fit in some sightseeing too. During this trip, over Hannukah, my Zaydie (Yiddish for grandfather) passed away. Kirios and I weren’t able to return to the east coast early to attend his funeral. Each night, we lit the Hannukah candles in our room and took time to rest while the candles burned, before going out for dinner. The nightly ritual connected me to my family and community when I yearned to be with them.

This year Hannukah was much less eventful (and probably a good thing after the previous year). There were of course homemade latkes and Hannukiah lightings. Kirios joined me in person or via Skype as I recited the blessings over the candles each evening, and he even treated me to eight gifts for the eight nights. I passed on most of the big young professional Hannukah events in the city though, and things were fairly normal overall. But I suppose setting aside thirty minutes each night to watch the candles burn was a pretty strong reminder that there’s always time to stop and appreciate something special, and we encounter special things every day.

Player or Planner?

The other day I emailed a coworker of mine who has been out of the office on military leave for the army to wish her a merry Christmas. I was delighted to hear that she was actually home for the holidays, and she was interested in getting together for lunch with me and our boss next week. We both told her that we’ll be around the office and would love to do lunch, so she emailed writing, “Where would you like to go, Mike’s? Ok. Excellent choice. : )” Mike’s is a restaurant we’ve gone to together as a team before, kind of a far drive out Virginia. But it is one of her very favorite restaurants, so she offered to pick us up and drive us there.

My coworker’s restaurant selection reminded me of a conversation we had together back when Kirios and I first started dating. We had just gone on our second date – a trip to the National Portrait Gallery followed by dinner at Matchbox, a regional gourmet pizza chain which is one of his favorite restaurants (as it’s much more affordable than Zaytinya, his very favorite we went to for his birthday). I had a great time – we were planning more dates and emailing each other throughout the day at work, you could definitely say that I was smitten. But like most of us sensible ladies, I was trying hard not to get ahead of myself – not to let my guard down just to find out he was a notorious playboy, a million dollars in debt and addicted to shopping, a borderline alcoholic, or already three girls’ baby daddy.

At some point in this process, I did the inevitable, and began Facebook stalking him. For those of you that know Kirios, you know he loves to take pictures and post them on Facebook, so there was a lot to see and learn. I tried to limit my peeking – I’d rather learn by getting to know him in person. Plus, who really likes to see pictures of their love interests with other women? Of course, it’s not his fault he was with the wrong women – he didn’t know me yet, so he didn’t know what he was missing out on!

Despite this, I looking at his pictures with past dates and girlfriends did upset me – I found pictures of him at the same museum and the same restaurant with at least two ladies. I thought about our impromptu photo-session in the museum courtyard. The cocktail he ordered at the restaurant, no longer featured on their menu. A trap, a sham! All of it, the skeezeball! Here I am, thinking we had a really special date, and now I see these pictures and feel really dumb. Just another girl falling for the same trick he’s used a million times.

Incredibly discouraged, I went over to my coworker’s cubicle to complain. I filled her in on everything, looking for sympathy. But she gave me a lot more than just that – she gave me a completely different perspective on the situation. “Remember that restaurant we went to, Mike’s? It’s one of my favorite restaurants, and I’ve taken a lot of different guys there. It doesn’t mean that I think the guys are all the same, it’s just that I know we’ll enjoy our meal there!” Maybe Kirios wasn’t a lazy date-recycling player, and instead, just a guy hoping to ensure that a second date would turn into a third with an itinerary with which he felt confident and comfortable. The only way to find out would be to continue to get to know him. So with a still cautious skeptical and skeptical attitude, but much more optimism and encouragement, courtesy of my coworker, I continued to see Kirios.

As it turned out, on date number three Kirios decided he was feeling comfortable enough with me to quit playing it safe (I had planned our first date) and take me to a restaurant with very good reviews and that he had never been to before – and it was a disaster! The restaurant was in a neighborhood of DC that I wouldn’t walk alone in at night, in the basement of a house. When we got there, we learned that they only accept patrons with advance reservations, because they have all of 3 tables. And there was a cat sitting on one of the tables. I was horribly sketched out. No doubt they have excellent food, we’ll have to try it for real one day, but that was NOT going to be the night! I’m sure Kirios was pretty embarrassed by the debacle, and he worked hard to act cool while thinking on his feet and find a perfectly lovely plan B restaurant. I was ecstatic – this was a unique experience we had shared together, one which we’ve been laughing about ever since.

A Couple Odds & Ends

A few weeks ago I ran into a friend and she asked me how I liked the cheeses Kirios surprised me with for our semiversary. I’ve been meaning to report back, and appreciated the nudge! So I’ll give you a few follow-up tidbits to a couple of posts, and then I’ll let you know about the cheeses.

Holiday Parties – Remember when I told you that my office hadn’t even sent anything out about a holiday party yet? Last Thursday, an email was sent out gauging interest in a potluck for today – the Thursday before Christmas. Now, I’m actually leaving the office at noon to go to the doctor. But let me tell you, other than me, there are probably 3 people from our department who are here today. Unsurprisingly, a follow-up email went out saying there wasn’t enough interest to have a potluck. The original email also said we’ll be having a “New Year’s luncheon” in the second or third week of January. Yea… our manager totally forgot to have someone plan a holiday party. Epic office fail.

Meat Pizza – Apparently, completely distraught over the lack of lamb bacon from my trip to Koshermart, Kirios called the store the following day to see if it was now in stock. And it was! He was planning to surprise my brother, sister-in-law, and me with it last Wednesday, but when he had a 4pm meeting scheduled, he knew he wouldn’t have time to pick some up when he got home from work. So I took my sibs back out to Koshermart, and we were all able to enjoy a lamb bacon pizza in the end afterall. And I froze the beef fry strips so Kirios and I can enjoy them another time 🙂

Now the cheeses – overall, I’ve been enjoying all of the cheeses Kirios brought me. I’m sad that they’re mostly eaten by now, but also excited to go back out and buy more cheeses. I guess I’m hooked now!

The fontina was the “least scary” cheese. I’ve had it before, afterall, I studied inItaly! It’s salty and melts well, it’s easy to grate, and I especially like having it with pasta.

The comte, like the fontina, was relatively mild. It’s less salty than the fontina and has a nuttier flavor, in part due to its thick rind. I especially enjoy the comte in sandwiches.

The creamy toscano with espresso delighted Kirios and I both. It’s an incredibly flavorful cheese, that I would eat anywhere, anytime.  My only complaint is that the espresso shavings on the outside of the cheese get messy. But they do add to the flavor, Kirios is especially fond of pieces that include the espresso itself. It’s definitely a cheese I’ll be purchasing again. And since he liked it so much too, Kirios will complain less about the fact that I’m rebuying instead of trying something new 😛

The Spanish cheese tapas sampler with iberico, cabra al vino, and manchego was a nice snack to have with crackers and a bottle of wine. And it’s easy to serve, since the cheese is pre-sliced into wedges. While the first two cheeses tasted pretty similar to me, I do think the wine in the rind distinguished the cabra al vino. And the manchego had a fruitier taste than the other two. All three go nicely together.

Finally, there was the semi-scary looking wild blueberry vanilla chevre. Despite being a soft cheese, it’s not bad at all. I do like goat cheese, and get it on dishes at restaurants from time to time. But I’m still a bit at a loss as to what to do with it at home. This particular goat cheese tastes like yogurt with a thicker consistency.  I wouldn’t eat it at the same time as my other cheeses, since it’s sweet instead of salty. I think it would be really great on a bagel. (Although admittedly I haven’t bought any.) I’ve had it on toast as a morning snack, and when my brother and sister-in-law were visiting, they topped some homemade blueberry muffins with it. Overall, a nice cheese… but I still can’t help but think of cheese as a savory snack.

As for the other surprises, I’m almost out of chai powder, and we have yet to try the mulling spices, but are still looking forward to doing so this winter!

Don’t Kill the Dinner Guests

Dinner party etiquette can be extremely complicated, and while I don’t typically host formal events requiring the use of a confusingly high number of scary utensils, there’s one rule I try to live by: don’t kill the dinner guests. I learned from my mother, when inviting someone for the first time; always ask if they have any food allergies. What about other food restrictions, medical, self-imposed, and the ever pleasant ridiculously picky eaters? Depending on the type of event and the number of people you’re cooking for, it can get tricky.

When you’re not serving a meal, it’s typically pretty easy to provide a variety of snacks that can keep everyone happy. And individuals with more difficult restrictions are generally accustomed to asking in advance, bringing something along they can eat, or at the very least, showing up with a full stomach. But when it comes to a home cooked dinner, I have a lot of sympathy for people with dietary restrictions. After all, I keep kosher and I have Crohn’s Disease. I think choosing to keep kosher is similar to choosing a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. I have certain traditions, beliefs, etc, and while others may not share them, I want them to respect them. And while my disease is well-controlled through medication and for the most part, it won’t hurt me to eat anything in moderation, there have been times when that’s not the case, and my diet is incredibly restricted. I may not go into anaphylactic shock, but trust me, Crohn’s flairs aren’t pretty, and can lead to severe malnutrition, dehydration, and a need for serious drugs, hospitalization, or even surgery.

Generally, by asking people if they have allergies, they’ll volunteer any other pertinent dietary information. But at the same time, it’s not as wishy-washy as asking people if they have any likes or dislikes. If someone doesn’t like the texture of mushrooms – will eat them if they’re mixed all together, but pick them out if they’re big enough pieces, tough toenails! (I know – what a ridiculous phrase. My boss says it all of the time and I couldn’t resist.)

So this brings me to the Friday night Shabbat dinner party I hosted last week. My brother was visiting from Seattle, although his wife had to leave for New York Friday morning. Kirios was busy with his company’s holiday party. But I was taking the day off to spend time with my brother, and wanted to ensure that our evening was filled with good food and good company. I invited our first cousin who lives in the area, as well as her roommate who is also a friend of mine. I invited a childhood friend who lives in the area, and hadn’t seen my brother for a decade, and with his boyfriend. 6 people, no problem. There were a couple of allergies in the group – tree nuts, fish, sesame, and cocoa. As depressing as being allergic to chocolate sounds, this didn’t seem like a menu-planning challenge at all. In honor of my brother and cousin, and I decided to make our Grandma Magda’s Hungarian Stuffed Cabbage – a real patschke recipe that I had never tried myself (Yiddish for a production), but a wonderfully heavy and distinctive meal for a winter’s night.

Then all hell broke loose. And by that, I mean my brother casually asked if he could invite his fraternity brother who lived in the area over for dinner. I can seat 8 at my table, and cooking for seven or eight isn’t really any more work than cooking for six, so I naturally agreed. In fact, I had recently seen this guy at an event, which he attended with a lady friend. So I told my brother to go ahead and invite his girlfriend as well. They both graciously accepted our dinner invitation. “Ask about allergies,” I instructed my brother. Turns out the girlfriend is a diabetic who eats no carbs (including rice) and is allergic to soy. GREAT.

That’s when I started to panic. I realized it would be easy enough to keep some of the stuffed cabbage separate for her, without any rice mixed into the beef, and without any sugar in the sauce. The Hungarian version of this recipe is sour, and only includes a spoonful of sugar anyway (unlike the Polish, who make it sweet with raisins). Obviously I was planning to make challah for Shabbat, which she wouldn’t be able to eat. But I was determined to plan the rest of our menu to include her dietary restrictions. In the end, my brother and I settled on making a butternut and acorn squash soup, and roasted broccoli, onions, and mushrooms to accompany the cabbage. We were told she could eat fruit, nuts, and chocolate for dessert. Since nuts and chocolate were already on the allergy list, we had been planning to make an apple crisp. For our diabetic guest, we took some of the sliced apples, doused them in cinnamon, and baked them for her.

In the end, the stuffed cabbage and the rest of the food came out well. No one went hungry, and as far as we know, no one got sick from our food. I’d consider that a successful Shabbat!

Meat Pizza

One of the main principles of keeping kosher is not to “cook a calf in its mother’s milk.” Simply put – don’t eat meat and dairy in the same meal. This is a tenant of kashrut that my parents brought me up to follow, and is pretty much second nature to me. I don’t make chicken parmigiana, I eat hamburgers instead of cheese burgers, and I frequently substitute butter for parve margarine. So when I was planning to cook Shabbat dinner for Kirios a month or two after we started dating, and he requested a meat pizza, I was taken aback.  Let me be clear – Kirios understood that I don’t mix meat and dairy, he requested a meat pizza without any cheese. But I refused immediately. It seemed absurd.

For me, pizza is by nature a dairy meal – bread, sauce, and cheese, plus any veggie toppings if I so desired. For Kirios though, his ideal pizza was inherently meat. Pepperoni, sausage, chicken… you name it; he loves it on his pizza. Sure, his pizza usually includes cheese as well, but he was willing to live without it for the night, declaring meat paramount. His argument seemed perfectly rational and logical – kosher meat, sauce, bread, and any veggies we choose. Why not? Still, it seemed so foreign and unnatural to me. “We still can’t do it. All of my pizza pans are dairy, I won’t cook meat on them,” I declared. I thought I had won, but my stubborn boyfriend persisted – he bought me a brand new pizza pan to be used for meat, instead of dairy. “This won’t be the only time I want to eat a homemade meat pizza with you,” he said confidently.

For that first meat pizza, I didn’t have time to make a special trip to the Kosher store, so I purchased kosher beef salami and turkey slices from the regular supermarket to top our pizza. It was a big success – Kirios’ point was valid: meat, sauce and bread; what’s not to like? I thought of it like a veggie burger – not a replacement for a hamburger, but a valid entrée in its own right. I wasn’t exactly ready to abandon cheese pizzas, but mixing things up with a meat pizza every once in a while didn’t sound like a bad idea either.

Kirios and I have made several homemade pizzas since. I’ve made special trips to the kosher store and we’ve experimented with different meat toppings: hard salami, turkey fry strips, beef fry strips, and spicy sausages. We even made a cheese pizza with Morningstar fake bacon (which features ridiculous neon coloring). One day we bought kosher lamb bacon, which triumphantly declared the best kosher substitute for regular pig bacon – although we had that top a salad instead of a pizza.

My family was especially interested in hearing about our meat pizzas – for them, like me, the idea of pizza with meat seemed unnatural to them. But they were also fascinated by the idea – understanding that it was a different but delicious pizza formula. Kirios and I will be making another meat pizza for dinner tomorrow night, to share with my brother and sister-in-law who are coming to visit. Unfortunately there was no lamb bacon at the Kosher store this week, but we’ll be topping our pizza with fresh veggies and basil, beef fry strips, and chorizo sausage.

Personally, meat pizza is more than a good story and a good meal to me. It’s representative of how Kirios and I have shaped our relationship. He is respectful of my traditions and observances, and I understand that he has differing views and preferences. We weren’t raised the same way, and it can be challenging, but it also keeps things interesting. And when we include each other and share our favorite things, our culture, and our traditions, it makes them even better. Anyone else hungry for Greek food now?

Holiday Parties

During my last trip to the supermarket, I replenished my supply of olive oil and bought a box of Hannukah candles. Kirios’ parents put up their Christmas tree and lights (I’m still waiting for them to bake their Greek cookies though!) Although I’m not quite sure what happened to fall, it’s official: the holiday season is here.

As a young professional, the holiday season usually implies two things – holiday parties and empty offices. Every company celebrates the holidays a little differently – some host classy formal affairs, others challenge their employees to drink to the point of being ridiculous without jeopardizing your job.

When you work for a quasi-federal/severely in debt institution such as the Postal Service, however, holiday celebrations are typically limited to pay-your-way affairs. Two years ago, my manager brought in donuts and hosted a small gift exchange before our department went out to a nice restaurant for lunch. I supplied 50 homemade latkes to represent the festival of lights. It was a nice time, and my supervisor voluntarily covered lunch for his employees.

Last year, my department opted for a swanky lunch at an Italian restaurant along with a Postal Trivia activity. It too was a nice affair, but it set me back $35. My fellow young professionals (there were 3 of us under 30…) bemoaned the cost of a meal we didn’t get to choose, and discussed passing up on the party. But alas, when someone 3 levels above you in the corporate food chain invites you to a luncheon, non-attendance doesn’t seem to be a viable option.

And this year? Well, my manager has been so swamped and things around the Postal Service have been so depressing, no one’s even mentioned a holiday party. Sigh.

In contrast, Kirios’ office party is usually a fancy event with a nice dinner and an open bar. Employees are sent home with a token gift (last year it was Ralph Lauren drinking glasses) and participate in a white elephant gift exchange. The owners purchase all of the gifts, last year’s most coveted prize was an iPad. Kirios didn’t win it, but he did walk away with a netbook, and his coworker sitting next to us went home with $300 cash. Not too shabby. Unfortunately, Kirios will be attending his office party stag this year, since my brother is coming to visit. Although it’s not a great loss, I can’t help but feel disappointed that I don’t get to pretend for an evening that I work someplace that likes to celebrate and treat its employees to a night out.

I guess for this year, I’ll be enjoying holiday parties with friends, homemade treats, and other holiday rituals. And of course an empty office for the next couple of weeks 😉

I’m not going to gripe about being on hold with BestBuy for two hours or the fact that Starbucks charges an extra 60 cents for soy milk today. It’s time to talk about the things that really make me sick to my stomach, keep folks awake with worry, and bring out existentialist crises. Today, a long-time friend of mine lost her mother to a battle with non-smokers’ lung cancer. In itself, this is terrible and depressing. But to make matters worse, another friend of mine lost her mother to the same disease less than four months ago.

My mother called to tell me the news, and after a while our conversation drifted. My mom started talking about some other family friends who have been having a rough time. A little older than my parents, both husband and wife have been struggling with serious health problems. As my mother detailed medications, surgeries, and worrisome coughs, I suddenly told her to stop. “Enough for today.” My mother frequently brings up subjects I don’t care to discuss – Mothers never stop embarrassing you. I tell her to change the subject or I’ll get off the phone, and she gets upset, saying it’s unfair for me to control the conversation like that. But today, she didn’t object, she just obliged. She too knew the feeling – enough is enough.

I’m 24 years old, and I am not ready to lose my parents. I’m also not ready for my friends to lose their parents. I’m not sure if anyone is ever actually ready for that. I know it happens, I have friends who lost their parents when they were young. Maybe too young to really remember them. But my first memory of a parent’s friend dying is when I was in 12th grade. My friend was away from home for her first year of college, and her mother found her father – he had complained of a headache the night before, but no one knew he had a brain tumor until he was gone. It scared me. Since then, there have been more losses – some sudden, some with prolonged suffering. They don’t get easier. Each one is a painful reminder of how fragile life is.

I know that death is part of life. And until it’s our time, we must live on. But tonight, I’d like to publicly declare that non-smoker’s lung cancer, common in younger women, makes me frustrated. And when one of my friends loses a parent, it really makes me sad.