Tradition

St Nicholas has come to our house for about 20 years, always on the morning of his feast day, December 6. Before that, he came to my parents house, even in the communist times – then, it was quite a treat to find oranges and bananas in our boots which had been nicely polished and placed by the door the previous evening. Chocolate was rare, candies even more so. My mom baked cakes but not gingerbread.

I learned though, the gingerbread craft, I taught myself. After my first one was born, I came across a magazine which had what looked like a good recipe, along with instructions on how to make a gingerbread house. The first was rather simple and it managed to produce some sort of effect.

The many others which followed were variations on the theme during the years our first batch of kids – as we like to call them affectionately – were small enough to believe the old saint brought the treat. And then I stopped making the house, and only baked gingerbread cookies. The dough though I’ve made every year since December 2000.

When the daughter of the second batch arrived, the older children said: so you’re gonna do a house again, right? Nooo, I groaned, too complicated. What? – they said – there’s no way you’re going to deprive our sis of the experience! So I was forced back into the game somewhat. 

And then I got mad. Well, to put it mildly, it wasn’t the best time of my life – in order to fight depression, I took up watercolour and drawing again, learned relaxation techniques, and generally started to take care of myself, more or less. The afore-mentioned madness was specifically about starting to make gingerbread models of actual architectural buildings. A few years ago I did a small development of three one-and-a-half story houses, as a memento of managing to finish my doctoral thesis on Canadian postwar housing. Another year I chose the Vanna Venturi house – now that was quite ridiculous, it took me ages to make. Last year, I did row housing in Amsterdam, since we had visited the city the previous year and absolutely loved it.

And this year, it is a “Painted Lady” of the San Francisco, CA. The first batch had accompanied me on a West coast tour in August and I had many photos to choose from. But before I load the finished look, allow me to explain the process.

I start with making scaled sketches of the facades. This time when I cut them to assemble into a rough model, I realized the house would possibly be too big for the amount of dough I had, so I scaled the facades down on my photocopier.

I cut the papers and laid them into the baking trays to figure out how they’d fit – efficiency is key, trust me on this. Then I rolled the dough directly onto the parchment paper (outside the tray, duh…), placed the papers on top and cut on the perimeter of each shape.

Not a good idea to cut the openings (windows, doors) as during baking the dough puffs up a bit and, if completely cut, the holes would become smaller. Mark them with the knife before baking, so they show when the pieces are taken out of the oven. Work quickly to cut the openings and remove shortly after baking, while gingerbread is still warm – as soon as it cools down, it becomes very hard and breaks easily.

Now the fun part: decorate pieces! Get out all the hundreds and thousands and stick them with a “glue” made of icing sugar and lemon juice. Not only terrribly sturdy, but also gives gingerbread a very yummy final taste.

Perform a bit of archaeological work and dig the contour of the house in the gingerbread base, so the walls would be stuck into it and will thus have more stability when glued.

And… voila! Finished re-creation of an architectural heritage piece.

That was two days ago. 

This morning: back to square one 17 years later. The baby in the first photo is all grown up and shows that photo to the present “baby” of the family. As for the house… you must know that earthquakes are quite likely in the San Francisco bay area. Well, today was one of those days, damaged heritage. 

Tradition is good. Tradition grounds you. It inspires in the good days, it comforts in the down times. Tradition is the stone upon which kids are raised to believe that miracles do happen, even when you are likely to stop believing because, well, it’s hard in a what-you-see-is-what-you-get world. Tradition is about passing on skills, loving your folks and land, cherish your good memories. Tradition is about the important stuff in life.

Tradition is good. Make yourself at least one if you don’t have it – and start now!

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Groceries: the BIG FUN job

Saturday morning. Quickly-quickly, before it gets to noon…! I’ll have to try prepare these posts in advance, Saturday mornings are the leisure part of our week (before it gets busy again towards noon, which is where I’m heading now…)

We do grocery shopping and laundry and fix things and other house stuff on Saturdays. It’s a good time to do this, I find. During the years, we’ve had one possible activity scheduled for the kids in the afternoon, though we’ve tried to avoid it in the early years as they’re more likely to be invited to birthday parties at this time. Talking about organizing your life so you stay (pretty much) on top of things?

Let’s talk about that grocery list today. Ideally, you’d shop for the whole week. That doesn’t exactly work as fantastic as it sounds in larger families if you don’t have two fridges or a separate freezer – and we don’t. We mostly cook from scratch, and I‘m mostly the one who does the cooking (almost daily; I know, but you get used to it), so I need to first do another list of possible dishes to cook in the following week. I have a friend who’s a dedicated working mother – and when I say “dedicated”, it’s in all respects. She has two altars she constantly dies on: work during the day, home during the night and weekends. To keep up with everything, on Saturdays she cooks for the entire following week. I could NEVER do that, it’s too depressing. But hey, if it works for you, go ahead and try it. I’ve adapted this by having a (tentative) idea of what I’ll be feeding my gang weekly.

My cooking list is usually 8 or 9 items long and it includes the daily dinners for the next six evenings and some loose thoughts on lunches or snacks, depending on the time of the year (school-time or summer vacation). I’ve developed an array of dishes which are easy and quick to make, need only a few ingredients and feed tons of people, plus leftovers for next day lunch bags. True that the bulk of these dishes come from the Romanian cuisine, which I’ve been brought up with and might sound strange to anybody who’s not Eastern European or Mediterranean – but you can always adapt it to the cuisine you know and love best. One of the dishes is necessarily some soup – why? Most complicated thing about it is the chopping – other than that, you just put everything in a pot and let it boil until ready. I’ll continue to post recipes on my Wednesday series.

Here’s a possible cooking list for the week:

Chicken and yellow beans (the Greeks call it fasolakia, same thing)

Fish (oven) + corn and peas (boiled)

Pasta with meat/mushrooms/peppers

Pizza

Chicken soup with vegetables and dumplings

Baked potatoes/ hummus/green salad/tomatoes etc. (vegan)

Munchies, snack bars, deli & cheeses for sandwiches

Banana bread / some kind of sweet pie………

Sometimes, I get ready-made dinners – once a month is no big deal, even for healthy-living crazed people. Or we get take out. Or I feel like trying Turkish recipes or Thai or fancy French ones like coq-au-vin (which is really a variation of a Romanian similar recipe, only we use white wine whereas the French use red). Once you start cooking, you get the hang of it and you can vary stuff. The idea is to get to the point when you don’t worry. You cook with whatever is in the fridge (and a little extra, which might require a trip to the store in the middle of the week). Which brings me to the REALLY fun part of doing the groceries!

My husband insists he does the Saturday shopping. He asks for my list, completes it with one or two things he likes, and then sticks to it almost religiously. Like most men, he has little imagination, (mildly) forgets about replenishing kitchen supplies like salt, oil, napkins and the like, plus he does. not. do. the. cooking. (he insists he cooks as much as I do. Sure.) He’s been annoyed for years that by next Wednesday (or some other aleatory day) I do a second (might I say, light) round of groceries. We disagree, obviously. He constantly bugs me about dropping that habit – and why on earth, why can’t I just stick to the list if I come along shopping with him? (does this resonate with any other women?)

So one time, it was I who got so annoyed with him that I let him cook with whatever he bought. Not just that Saturday night, but FOR SOME TIME afterwards. Guess what happened. That Saturday he did some barbecue, nice, he’s good at that. Sunday afternoon, I had to go out running some errands, and asked before I left the house: “so what’s for dinner tonight, honey?” He looked at me aslant and said: “it’s OK, I got it.” I get back home two hours later to find him cooking lasagna (a favourite of his, I never cook lasagna, his is perfect). “Lasagna?” I say with laughter in my voice. “I don’t recall you getting minced meat yesterday.” “I went to the shop and bought some.” he says, avoiding my gaze. “Oh.” I burst out laughing. “It didn’t last you till Wednesday.” He makes himself busy. Funny, right? Lasagna was great that night and it lasted, you got it, for another night. Surprise, surprise, on Tuesday night there was no more. “And what’s for dinner, darling?” Oops. “Err… we have stuff in the fridge.” Right. Sandwiches. We also had some pasta and cheese three nights later.

We lasted like this for about two weeks. The kids started to beg: “moooom, stop this… when are you gonna cook again?” I looked at the love of my life and raised my eyebrows. His lips were pretty tight closed. Ever since, he hasn’t commented much on either the grocery list, my mid-week second round of shopping or my cooking. Getting organized and sticking to a point is working in all respects, trust me. Just find your own way to do it.

Happy Saturday!

Good Stuff

Wednesday morning. Well, more like lunch time now as I’m posting this, as I was too tired last night to write this and schedule it for posting in the morning. But the timing is good and here’s why: this post is about food!

Remember Monday you took care of your self. Tuesday you walked a bit to exercise your muscles. Now it’s time for some good food and whether you are a cook or not, you are going to try making this from scratch. The only thing you can complain about is it takes 10 minutes to make, otherwise it has only advantages: it’s good and healthy, it doesn’t have any food additives because it tastes excellent on its own, plus you know exactly what’s in it, it’s easy and beautiful to look at, it’s cheaper than processed food. It’s also pure vegan or you can have it as a side dish with meat or eggs or cheeses. You can have it for lunch or serve it at a party as an amuse-bouche (appetizer in English – I like the French term because it is a great description of the function this food fulfills: it amuses the mouth – and the eyes!)

So grab the following:

One pepper of each colour you can think of and/or find it in the store: red, orange, yellow, green should do the trick.

A few types of olives: green, black, mauve, spicy or not, depends on your personal taste.

Some cloves of garlic.

Olive oil (or any other kind)

Some fresh herbs: Best is rosemary leaves, it also works with marjoram, thyme, sage.

Now chop the peppers and the garlic in big chunks, they’re tastier this way.

Get a pan, heat it up a bit and pour the oil in it. Add the chopped peppers and garlic. Fry for a few minutes until the skin of peppers looks soaked. Add olives and rosemary and fry for another minute or two. Ta-da!! Ready. Add salt or not.

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The trick with cooking is to not be afraid to taste stuff as you make it. That’s how you know what it still needs. Tell me you made it. Tell me I’m helping with turning you into a courageous cook. Or don’t tell me a thing, just do it.

You owe this to yourself. You need good food. Enjoy!

Happy Wednesday!