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Tome for the holidays


It might be a bit Grinchy to say it, but the holidays are about self-preservation. It’s almost impossible to survive the unholy trinity of familial obligation, unspoken rules of reciprocity, and gluttony. So gird yourself with these holiday reads.

In The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken: A Search for Food and Family, Laura Schenone writes that a ravioli is like “an envelope with a message.” So too is her unusual book, the message being that authentic recipes are as difficult to come by as happy families.

Mouthwatering passages describe Schenone’s culinary adventures through Liguria in search of her great-grandmother’s ravioli. This is supplemented by heartbreakingly honest accounts of family unrest, marriage counseling, Alzheimer’s, suburban ennui, holiday arguments, ailing siblings, the crumbling of a family business, generational hostilities, and midlife malaise. Schenone’s truthful portraits of celebratory meals are rife with subtext and are a welcome deviation from the usual fluffy food memoir.

The antidote to the season’s frenzy may be to quiet the mind and make your own bread. So says Zen chef Edward Espe Brown in his classic The Tassajara Bread Book. Recently the subject of the film How to Cook Your Life, Brown says he bakes because it’s “wholesome.”

“I feel renewed, and I am renewing the world, my friends and neighbors. What you knead is what you get.” I couldn’t agree more (and am now entering the third month of a moratorium on store-bought bread).

The New York Times Magazine recently featured an article on Alice Waters giving a refrigerator makeover to a working mother with two hungry teenage boys. The “after” photo depicted a cornucopia of vegetables, a lone roast chicken, and a few piddly condiments. In her most recent tome, The Art of Simple Food, Waters expounds further on her minimalist ethos.

I’ve had a tense relationship with this revered chef over the years. Her recipes all seem to require access to a bounty of the freshest, most precious heirloom ingredients. So I was relieved to flip to a random page of Simple Food and find sauteed cauliflower. Ingredients? Olive oil, cauliflower, salt. Condiments may always overwhelm roughage 2-to-1 in my fridge, but it’s nice to be reminded that a festive meal can include an unadorned dish of pureed parsnip or a generous bowl of tangerines.

If you can’t find comfort in a harrowing family saga, a peaceful session with warm dough, or a return to uncomplicated ingredients, may I suggest the fool-proof method of pouring yourself a stiff drink?

A.J. Rathbun offers 450 cocktail recipes in Good Spirits: Recipes, Revelations, Refreshments and Romance, Shaken and Served With a Twist. Chock-full of trivia, history, and advice for the home bartender, this book will certainly bring about holiday cheer, or at least make the awkwardness more bearable.


Web Extra

Rathbun’s recipe for a traditional Christmas drink. Serves eight to 10.

2 quarts lager
5 oz. simple syrup
3 oz. freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 t freshly grated nutmeg
1 t freshly grated ginger
1 quart dark rum
apple and lemon slices for garnish

Add the beer, simple syrup, lemon juice, nutmeg and ginger to a medium-size nonreactive saucepan. Heat the mix over medium-high heat until it’s hot, eight to 10 minutes. Do not let it come to a boil.
Add the rum to the saucepan and stir well.
Place the apple and lemon slices in a heat-proof punch bowl. Pour the hot mixture into the punch bowl and serve.

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