Sunday, November 28, 2010

Advent Calendars

Today is the first day of Advent, the religious season leading up to Christmas. In our house and in the classrooms of the Catholic schools I attended, there was always an Advent calendar to mark the progression of the season, day by day.

Some of the calendars were cardboard, like a regular wall calendar, others were shadow boxes with cubicles covered by numbered doors. Others were felt wall hangings with pockets, like hanging shoe trees.

Each one of them held a season's worth of treasures -- pieces of candy, pretty pictures, tiny Christmas ornaments or toys -- to be discovered each day. My favorites were the calendars imported from Germany with their festive foil-wrapped chocolates. I still buy those for my niece.

The Recurring Gentleman Caller has kept the tradition going for me. Every year, he buys me a beautiful Advent calendar fashioned like a famous cathedral with windows that open to reveal beautiful stained glass windows -- Notre Dame, San Marco. This year's calendar is a row of Venetian villas.

I love this tradition.

Advent, like Lent, is really supposed to be about fasting and deprivation, but since it leads up to Christmas, and includes the feast days of St. Nicholas and St. Lucia, there is a certain sense of joy and celebration. This was traditionally the start of cookie baking in our household. One of the cookies we always made this time of year was Nona's recipe for Chinese Chews. I'm not sure where she got it -- probably a ladies' magazine from years ago. It may not be original to the Point or even Biloxi, but it sure is a keeper.

Nona's Chinese Chews

The dates in these moist cookies make them chewy, but to this day I'm not sure why they're considered "Chinese." They are one of the easiest cookies I know, and they keep well.

3 eggs
1 cup sugar
1 cup chopped dates
1 cup chopped pecans
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp baking powder
3/4 cup all purpose flour

Cream together eggs and sugar. Mix in vanilla and pecans and add the remaining ingredients and beat well. Bake in an ungreased 9 x 9 or 10 x 10 pan at 300 degrees for 30 minutes. Cut into small pieces and sprinkle with confectioners sugar.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Pub Crawling in Venice

My 50th birthday splurge wasn't what you might think. In fact, it wasn't much of a splurge at all, being the Venetian equivalent of the happy hour buffet we all used to hit in college.

And it's some of the best food in Venice.

Venice ain't an "eat cheap" kind of place.

Restaurant meals -- four courses including a separate one for pasta -- can set you back 60 euros or more -- which is a lot to pay to discover that you do not like cuttlefish pasta cooked in its own black ink. I didn't try that by the way. I'd rather wear black than eat it.

However, if you're on a budget, and want to sample the local cuisine beyond pizza and panini along with a genuine Venetian experience that does not involve Carnavale masks, gondolas or yet another medieval basilica or 15th century masterpiece, it can be done.

Every sestiere in Venice is full of tiny bacari -- little hole in the wall wine bars -- selling wine by the glass, local beer on draught and, beginning around mid-morning and on into the night, a selection of appetizers known as cicchetti. The concept is like Spanish tapas.

Some offerings are familiar: meatballs, fried cheese, finger sandwiches and roasted potatoes with dipping sauces. Some were, ummmm different -- bites of marinated squid and octopus with pickled onions on a square of congealed polenta come to mind.

Most bacari have few tables. Unless you plan to stay a while, you're better off bellying up to the bar or standing outside. Most places charge to sit whether at one of their tables or in their restroom stalls (and if you're really curious about the whole bathroom abroad experience, read it about mine at this post on my my other blog "The House Where The Black Cat Lives.")

You can load up a plate of cicchetti for about 4-10 euros per person or sample as you go for a euro or two per pick. After a bite and a glass, move on down the street -- there's sure to be another little place offering a whole new selection of tasty tidbits. Each bacaro has its own vibe -- some are fancy, some dives. All are fun.

When the bar tender at one place learned it was my birthday, he threw in a bunch of freebies. Well, he did try to extract a kiss.

But, hey, if a young, good looking guy wants to flirt with me on my 50th birthday, you know what, I think I'll let him.

By the way, the meatballs there were so good, I wanted to kiss the cook!

Venetian Style Meatballs

The meatballs you find in most bacari tastes like mini-meatloaves.

2 tbsp Worcestershire Sauce
1 tbsp horseradish
1 Tsp Dijon mustard
1 1/2 lb ground beef
1 lb russet potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 onion, minced
2 eggs, lightly beaten
3 cups plain breadcrumbs
1 1/2 cup cooking oil
Salt and pepper

Put peeled and cubed potatoes in a pot of salted water, and bring to a boil. When soft (after about 15 minutes), drain, mash and set aside. While the potatoes cook, saute onions with 1 T of oil and 1/2 tsp of salt over medium high heat in a large nonstick skillet. When the onions are soft (about 10 minutes) set them aside in a bowl. Wipe out the skillet, add the meat and 1 tsp of salt, breaking up the meat with a wooden spoon until evenly browned. Drain the meat, place into a large bowl, season with Worcestershire, horseradish, mustard, and pepper. Add mashed potatoes and onion to the meat. Roll the meat mixture into small balls ( about 1 to 1-1/2 oz), then roll in the egg, then the breadcrumbs. Heat remaining oil over high heat. Cook the meatballs in three batches, browning on all sides. Drain and serve hot or at room temperature.