Thursday, December 23, 2010

Tasty Foods for New Year Luck

I have to admit, it wasn't until we lived in Tuscaloosa, Alabama that I encountered the idea of eating specific foods on New Year's Day to promote luck or prosperity.

When I was a kid, our New Year's special treat was diving into the gift foods that came from Dad's business associates. The special pears from Harry and David, the box-o-cheese with semi-exotic blocks and the marvelous squishy, red-wrapped tubes of spreadable "bacon cheddar." We'd gorge on those treats along with leftover turkey and Christmas cookies while our eyes feasted on all the bowl games played one right after the other in black-and-white televised drama.

Football, Alabama, and "The Tide" brought New Year's Bowl games to a new level. . . and the need for all the luck one could get. Southern friends introduced me to traditional black-eyed peas and greens. I ate them, but I have to admit they weren't my favorite things to eat. Now that I"m back up north, I have my own tasty, easy twist to these lucky New Year's essentials.

The web is full of ideas for these and other "New Years Lucky Foods." Many play off themes -- things that increase such as rice, things that are round, things that are gold or green to symbolize money, noodles for long life are some of the common listings. Why not invent your own New Year's lucky foods. As your kids to think of things that fit in the "lucky" framework. What is a round food they enjoy. -- Golden Carrot Coins come to mind. Or an Asian-inspired lettuce wrapped pork nibble. Round sesame seed wafers or cookies add a "benne-ful" touch.

It never hurts to give good fortune a tasty welcome. I hope these food ideas bring lucky, festive touches to the New Year for your family and friends.

I found the inspiration for this spinach tart in a recipe from the 1600s. I've updated it, but the combination of currants and seasonings elevate ordinary greens into an unusually tasty delight.

Spinach Tart

1/3 cup dried currants
1/4 cup brandy or orange juice
30 ounces frozen chopped spinach
4 eggs, lightly beaten
3 tablespoons peach juice, rosewater or orange juice
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ginger
4 tablespoons melted butter
2 8-or 9-inch unbaked pie crusts
Walnut halves for garnish

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Combine the currants and brandy in a glass measuring cup or other container. Microwave for 1 to 2 minutes until the currants have absorbed the liquid. Set aside to cool. Thaw spinach and press out ALL of the water. Put eggs in a medium bowl, add juice, and seasonings. Beat well. Add the melted butter, spinach, and currants. Mix thoroughly, making sure the spinach clumps break up, and then divide between the pie crusts. Bake at 425 degrees F. for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees F. and continue baking until filling is puffed and set, about 20 to 25 more minutes. Tart is good hot, warm, or cold. Store uneaten tart in the refrigerator for up to two days, or freeze for up to two weeks.
NOTE: You may use frozen leaf spinach, but chop well for much easier slicing and serving of finished pie.

Much as I wanted good luck, I never could enjoy black-eyed peas. Even mixed with rice for the traditional "hopping John" they didn't make me hop with delight. Mixed with salsa, however. . . now there's a dish that slips right into the football spread, bringing luck to the cook and guests. Microwaving the beans to infuse the cumin and basil flavors makes it even more delicious. You could start with dried beans for more depth of flavor, but this time of year, I'm all for easy.

Lucky Black-Eyed Peas Salsa Dip

1 can black-eyed peas
1/4 teaspoon cumin, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon dried basil, or to taste
1 12-ounce container prepared salsa

Drain the peas, rinse and place in a microwaveable container. Sprinkle with seasonings and add water to just cover. Microwave on half power for 3 minutes and set aside to cool. Drain liquid and stir in salsa. You can vary the proportions to suit your taste. Serve with round crackers or chips.

Copyright 2010 Rae Katherine Eighmey all rights reserved

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Visions of Sugar Plums and the Recipe

For nearly two hundred years, "Visions of Sugar Plums" have danced through children's dreams on the magic language of Clement Moore's poem of holiday wonder The Night Before Christmas. It was first published in the Troy, New York Sentinel newspaper December 23, 1823. The Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker ballet has caused the same delight for more than one hundred years.

When I first started investigating Sugar Plums I ran across descriptions and recipes that ranged from simple dried and sugared fruits to early 19th century versions where a small dried-fruit boiled pudding was formed to resemble an actual plum even down to the pit which was a sugar encased edible seed. Nowhere in all the recipes were plums involved. The "plum" in the traditional English "Plum Pudding" refers to dried raisins or currants.

These Sugar Plums take their inspiration from recipes I found in family recipe files and Victorian-era magazines. I've combined dried fruits with "sugar and spice" for a rich and satisfying treat with a complex flavor profile. They are best enjoyed by eating slowly. You can make them as fancy as you like, decorating with frostings, melted white or dark chocolate, sprinkles, even edible silver and gold. I particularly enjoy the simple interplay between the fruit, spices, and dark chocolate. But white chocolate tempered with grated orange peel is good, too.

May all your dreams be filled with visions of joy and may all your holiday wishes come true.

This recipe makes about 5 dozen confections -- perfect for two-bite treats!
NOTE: This is a very low sodium recipe. No salt or leavening. There may be a bit of sodium in the dried apricots and in some of the toppings you may want to use.

Victorian Sugar Plums for 21st Century Delight
1 6-ounce package dried cranberries
3 1/2 ounces dried apricots (half of a 7-ounce package- reserve the rest)
1/2 cup orange juice

1/2 cup butter
1 cup sugar
3 eggs
1 lemon peel and juice (3 tablespoons)
1 orange, peel only
3.4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
4 cups flour
3/4 cup finely chopped pecans

Granulated sugar for dipping

1/3 cup brandy for brushing Sugar Plums after baking, You may substitute non-pulp orange juice diluted half and half with water.

Semi-sweet chocolate chips
White chocolate chips with grated orange peel and candied cherries
Frostings with variety of colored sprinkles or additional nuts

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Combine cranberries and cut up apricots in a food processor and pulse process until you have pieces about 1/16th of an inch. Put fruit and orange juice into a microwavable bowl and cook in the microwave for one minute. Allow to stand until cool. Cream the butter and sugar. Add the cooled fruits, eggs, finely grated orange and lemon peels and lemon juice. Mix well. Stir in the flour and nuts. To form the Sugar Plums. Take piece of dough about 1 1/4 inches in diameter (a heaping measuring tablespoon). Gently roll into a tear-drop shape, roll in granulated sugar and place on lightly greased baking sheet pointed side up, pressing down and pinching to form a ridged-looking "mountain." Bake until Sugar Plums are lightly browned, about 15 to 25 minutes depending on how big you make them. Remove from oven and immediately brush with brandy or diluted orange juice. Decorate when completely cooled. Store in tightly sealed container.

For the reserved apricots: Cut them in half and dip the cut half into melted semi-sweet chocolate chips.