Tidings of Spendy Cheer!

Once again, it’s time to stifle our own material desires for a month and go shopping solely for others. If you’re lucky (I most certainly am), the ultimate recipients of your selections are individuals you at least like and preferably adore, and gifting any of the following items will leave you nestled in good graces for another 365 days. If there are any special people in your life for whom Christmas is your opportunity to passive-aggressively send a snarky message, the suggestions below would be completely inappropriate, and you’d be better off bestowing a certificate for laser hair removal, a Proactive regimen, or a basket brimming with Dr. Scholl’s products. But for the good boys and girls on your list, especially those with any culinary flair, here are a few items certain to delight and enchant.

Chef’n Strawberry Huller $7.95, Williams-Sonoma
I usually avoid single-purpose kitchen tools, having a small kitchen and CCD (Compulsive Chucking Disorder), but if you know someone who loves serving food in other food, this is a must. I’m not sure with what you’d stuff the strawberries, or how you’d get them to stand upright for serving, but the recipient won’t even think of these quandaries until well after you’ve received a glowing thank you note.

Rösle Garlic Press $39.00, Williams-Sonoma
Is forty dollars too much to spend on a garlic press? Not if it’s the Carl Lewis of garlic presses. The perforated bin flips out for easy cleaning, and you don’t have to peel your cloves before pressing. I do anyway, having received my press from gift-giver extraordinaire, Mr. S, but knowing that it’s unnecessary gives me a tingle of smugness.

Stainless Steel Breading Pans, Set of 3 $34.95, Williams-Sonoma
If I have to use two dinner plates and a shallow bowl to flour, egg, and bread my schnitzel once more, I may wash my hands of the whole thing. This would be a hint to anyone who’d like to get something for their humble content provider. A little costly to buy for oneself, these are priced to be gifts, so let’s remind ourselves why we came to the mall in the first place.

Kaiser Stainless Steel Cookie Press Set $49.95, Chef Tools
Best to keep this one in the immediate family, so that you can enjoy the fruits of the giftee’s labor, again and again.

Small Treat Boxes $3.29/3, Wilton
Anyone who goes the homemade route at Christmas with coworkers, friends and family would be beside themselves to receive a few dozen of these bad larries. Never again will they have to shop at dollar stores for the least atrociously decorated tins, and now they can throw away that intimidating Incoming/Outgoing Tupperware log.

AK Bullet Ice Tray $6.99, Amazon
I don’t often go in for novelty cookware, even though the Tardis Cookie Jar would work so well with my kitchen’s blue and yellow color scheme, but ten dollars is absolutely worth being able to ask your companion if they’d be so kind as to pop a couple of caps in your Diet Coke.

Sorry, Chef Ramsey, they can’t all be “the most magnificent.”

TMI Chicken Soup

The first day of Mr. P’s long awaited nine-day Thanksgiving break found all five Peñas sick as dogs. We, the house-bound four, had been chewing on this particular bug for twenty-four hours, initially tipped off by Billy the Kid’s impressive reverse-vacuum all over my bedspread, while Mr. P efficiently wrapped up all loose ends at work on Friday before succumbing to the inevitable, compounded by the standard general start-of-vacation collapse. By the time I dragged the king comforter out of the dryer two hours after its ordeal, I was in full denial of my own doom. I was not ill. By Saturday afternoon, I was still the most functional, but only because I refuse to negotiate with disease, my ability to ignore discomfort having increased tenfold after carrying twins with a perforated appendix.

Note to potential and current gestators: if you point to the side of your enormous pregnant belly and tell your doctor, “this hurts and I can’t eat,” don’t downplay the pain and nausea, or you’ll receive the standard “why don’t we take a look after the baby comes.” I’m betting that liability near-miss still keeps a certain OB/GYN up at night. I’d heard of women being sick while in labor, but getting off an operating table seconds after receiving an epidural and seconds before a c-section, throwing up, and remounting just as all feeling drained from my legs reassured me that I possess excellent time management and multi-tasking skills. Unfortunately, it also detracted from focusing on the miracle of life and whatnot. Had my concerns been addressed, however, I might not have come out the other end fifty pounds lighter and then I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy creeping out Mr. P with my ultra-slender “tween starlet calves” for a month before returning to my preferred state of sturdiness.

Back to the present, with a mere low-grade fever and repulsiveness confined mostly to my head, the task of making chicken soup with rice fell to me. When visiting Epicurious, I prefer to to limit my options to recipes that boast four entire forks, but three and a half are apparently the mediocre standard in this case, so I settled on one that conformed to Mr.P’s request for “not weird.”  I found the absence of onion unsettling, so I threw in half a chopped yellow, and combined a tablespoon each of fresh thyme and parsley, scoffing at the direction to limit myself to one or the other. Then I salted and peppered the dickens out of it.

I regard chicken soup as a food of necessity, and since one can’t taste much of it when one needs it the most, and wouldn’t make it if one didn’t need it, it doesn’t really matter that this one is exceptional to a fully functioning palate. The rice leaves relatively little broth, but just enough to avoid the dreaded bisque effect. The carrots and celery remain brisk and cheerful, having just cooked through upon serving, and lend an appealing primavera quality that’s often appetizing to an invalid. I suppose Epicurious’ three-and-a-half-forks rating is, indeed, appropriate; even at it’s best, chicken soup is still just chicken soup.

Isn’t there room for one more at the table?

This year, the Peña Five will be the happy guests of the gracious Carroll family, whose Thanksgiving dinners embody Norman Rockwell paintings, only with better lighting, more attractive guests, and less inebriation. Aunt N always prepares an impeccable traditional Thanksgiving dinner with turkey, pork stuffing, whipped potatoes, and so on, but done so perfectly and consistently that I can hardly bear the excruciating anticipation in the weeks leading up to the most delicious of Thursdays.

The single issue I have with my favorite meal-based holiday involves the majority of tables across the US, and in no way directs any criticism toward two of my favorite hosts. Many dinner guests enjoy a beer or a glass of wine during the hour before the meal, but not much of a drinker, I turn to another nerve softener: cheese. I can almost always rely on my old friend to ease me into a mingle, and start feeling at home as soon as I spot a cheddar and pepperoni combo plate with a fan of Ritz, a nut-encrusted ball surrounded by water crackers, a yule log, a pub cheese, a baked brie and baguette toasts, or the Excalibur, generally reserved for wedding receptions: the fruit and cheese cube fountain.

How many Thanksgiving dinners can you recall that incorporated any sort of cheese showcase? My best guess is that most diners on this particular occasion are concerned that they will exceed capacity before they’d like to stop eating, and can’t allow distractions like pepperjack to poach on precious abdominal real estate. I, however, do not overeat at Thanksgiving. I’m not above the occasional overindulgence, but I dread experiencing the inevitable system shutdown anywhere but at home. If I can’t get into my bed, I stop at one plate.

There must be others like me, who yearn to stick their head right into the bowl of whipped potatoes, while instead they slowly cut their one slice of breast meat, and savor their single scoop of pork stuffing, when they just want to grab the serving dish and lock themselves in the nearest closet with it. A good bracing of cheese beforehand would spare us from these horrible fantasies.

Since I’ve managed to establish a solid run for my coveted monopoly on the Christmas feast (a childhood dream), I don’t see myself hosting many Thanksgiving dinners in the coming years. So I entreat you, gentle reader, to leave a little space on the coffee tables between the nuts and olives this Thursday, and let’s see what happens when we get some Camembert involved.

Cow and Chicken

Chicken Chicharrones

I resent Chick-fil-A for three reasons. Long before I’d been unlucky enough to live within a drivable distance to the fast food establishment that considers itself above operating on Sundays (I am a staunch advocate of separation of church and chicken, so that’s reason number one), I worked in the screen-printing sector for a spell, where I came across the ambiguous logo for the first time. I assumed the pronunciation was “chick fillah,” and figured the company had been founded by a surly aviculteur with a strong Boston accent, who supplied chicken filling for nuggets, patties, and the like. Obviously, reason number two addresses the all too common liberties taken with the alphabet.

Reason number three arose the first time I acquiesced to BK’s pleas for a Chick-fil-A kid’s meal from our mall’s food court, a routine I was unaware Mr. P had allowed to develop. I’ll note that our mall, though relatively close by, is actually in another state, one that boasts a long line of historically bad ideas. To my delight, I saw that the nuggets looked homemade, identifiably chicken, and lightly breaded. But then I tasted one, and a specific rage rose up out of my chest, one reserved for the slap in the face that is misleadingly appealing fare. I don’t know if the trademark “flavor” originates intentionally from a specific “seasoning,” or if I’m just experiencing the complex flavor profiles of grease, but those obsequious cow mascots need to offer at least bearable fare if they don’t want to end up in my sandwich.

I recently came across a recipe for chicken chicharrones on the always reliable simplyrecipes.com, and jumped at the chance to impress Mr. Tilde with some flavors from the mother protectorate. Upon plating the piping hot, shimmering with oil yet obviously crunchy little chunks, I noticed a hint of physical resemblance to the insipid little orts slung by CfA, but hoped that half an hour marinating in rum, lime juice, and soy sauce would yield a much more palatable product. Palatable is an understatement, and elastic waistbands are called for once again, as well as a table-side candy dish filled with Tums. A squirt each of lime juice and hot sauce are legally mandated in this case, and I find diners are especially delighted if the lime wedges are presented in a small communal bowl.  I’ve never been much of a deep-fryer, especially when peanut oil is involved, but I’m going to need to start that new gym membership, now that I’ll be eating this three nights a week. And when I finally have a few too many chicharrones sometime after Christmas, I’m coming for you, beefcakes.

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