Friday, January 21, 2011

First Fridays and Los Primos

(While I explain our town's First Fridays to you, please enjoy these photos of ice sculptures from January's "Fire and Ice" theme.)

One hardly knows where to begin with the topics I have in my mind. I really want to do justice to the monthly street fair our town has successfully implemented, but I don't want my review of our favorite authentic Mexican joint to seem secondary.

Our town's Main Street is very typical of small towns across America: it had experienced many decades of financial success and dependable clientele that began rapid decline about 25 years ago with the availability of supermarkets and shopping malls on the outskirts of town. I won't pretend to be more knowledgeable than I am about the history of "First Fridays." All I know is that a few years ago some smart people got together and rallied the few blocks of shopkeepers to remain open into the evening hours on the first Friday of every month, promoted a theme or a happening to entice people in and sat back to watch the profits, popularity and community spirit swell.

We heard about First Fridays with disinterest and a lack of hope. Every small town wishes to revitalize its sleepy Main Street and it's rare that anyone finds the magic formula that draws people in. Sometime later we accidentally found out just how successful the monthly party was growing when we drove through downtown on our way to a Fourth of July cookout. The theme of that month's First Friday was the first annual Cruise In. My town was once known as The Cruising Capital of the World, with the heyday in the 50's and 60's when young people would come from all around every Friday and Saturday night, jumping in and out of cars, exchanging numbers, growing friendships and forming memories. They were also blocking traffic, heckling passersby and leaving behind trash. Finally, in the mid-80's business owners and responsible citizens had had enough and there was a new traffic law to be enforced on Main Street that would kill cruising in my town. So now, on the first Friday of July, the city revokes the traffic law for one night only and everyone pulls out their toughest cars, puts their best girl at their side and does the vehicular version of strutting up and down Main Street, enjoying seeing and being seen.

Imagine our surprise when we thought we'd quickly drive through town on our way to our friends' cookout, only to find ourselves in bumper to bumper traffic with 3000 people lining the sidewalks. That's when we said, "Hey. Maybe there's something to these First Fridays."

A year ago, our son's choir was asked to participate in a free concert to be offered at the old downtown theater at the November First Friday. That was the first time our family truly experienced the event up close. I was charmed. There were interesting things to see wherever you looked. Someone was actually roasting chestnuts over an open fire at one corner and sold them as a street snack. An Amishman brought an actual reindeer for children to pet, feed and be photographed with. The shops stayed open until 9PM and they were packed, let me tell you. It was heartening to see.

So let's get to what First Fridays are really about - The Food. All the local eateries are packed. They expand their menus and run specials and enjoy their good fortune. This month Mike and I took the kids to Los Primos, a Mexican restaurant that has such wonderful food....!

Tell me. What is the difference between salsa and pico de gallo? All were served (with a heavy hand of cilantro) with fresh tortilla chips as we waited for our food. It is a small, nay, TINY family establishment, with one waitress, one cashier and one, maybe two, people in the miniscule kitchen. There are eight cafeteria-style tables to choose from and "Glamour Shots" of food on the walls.

I love the fried tacos. Mike says he will only ever order the Pollo Cubana, or Cuban chicken, because he simply loves it so much. I tried something new and got pork in green salsa and absolutely loved it. Fried plantains are a common side and during this time of the year, Mexican hot chocolate (Who knew?) for a desserty kind of beverage. If you get a special (offered during the week) you can eat there very cheaply. Even their regular prices are reasonable.

Los Primos is not on Main Street, but a bit off the beaten path, so we were able to get a table, but only by the skin of our teeth. The owners looked at our party of five, counted the available chairs and spoke to each other quietly in Spanish. They pushed a couple of small tables together and brought a chair out from the kitchen in order to seat us, which used up the very last available spots in the place. It's so nice to not only get tasty food and hospitable service five minutes from my front door.

(At the four corners of the main square were four fire-breathing ice gargoyles. Cool, huh?)

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Onion Bagels

Did you know there are no onion bagels at any of our area markets? It's one of the local crimes against humanity, along with our cinema not showing any of the Golden Globe-nominated films, but instead making sure we do not miss any installment of, say, the Focker saga.

After determining that there were no onion bagels in the area, I turned to the internet and found a recipe that seemed doable. Having made similarly-textured soft pretzels before, I assumed I would boil the bagels before baking them and, indeed, found this to be the case. Why must we do this step, one might ask? As the flour on the outer part of the bagel absorbs the boiling water, it forms a protective overcoating which prevents much rising during the baking process. This causes that wonderful chewy, dense texture that we love in bagels.

This recipe makes a dozen bagels. I mixed them up and let them rise on Saturday, stored the dough covered and chilled overnight and then completed the project for Sunday morning bagels. Use them quickly because I found that they don't age nicely.

Nobody wants to break a tooth on an onion bagel with a "schmear."

Onion Bagels
2 c. warm water
2 pkgs. active dry yeast
4 T sugar, divided
1 T salt
1/2 c. minced onion
5-6 c. flour
cornmeal, for sprinkling on baking sheet
1 egg yolk
1 T water

1. Combine warm water, yeast and 3 T sugar. Let stand 5 minutes or until foamy. Stir in salt and onion.

2. Gradually mix in 4 c. of flour, beat on medium speed for 5 minutes. Add enough of remaining flour to make a stiff dough. Turn onto floured board and knead until smooth and no longer sticky (about 15 minutes), adding more flour as needed.

3. Place in greased bowl, turning to coat all sides. Cover; let rise utnil doubled in size.

4. Knead dough lightly and divide into 12 equal parts. To shape, knead each piece, forming it into a smooth ball. Holding ball with both hands, poke your thumb through the center. Work around the perimeter, shaping like a doughnut 3 - 3 1/2 inches around.

5. Place shaped bagel on lightly floured board, cover lightly and let stand in a warm place for 20 minutes.

6. Bring 3 qts. of water and remaining tablespoon of sugar to boiling in a large kettle. Adjust heat to keep it gently boiling.

7. Lightly grease a baking sheet and sprinkle with cornmeal. Heat oven to 400 degrees.

8. Gently lift one bagel at a time and drop into water, boiling 4-5 at a time (depending on the size of the kettle). Boil for five minutes, turning often.

9. Lift out with a slotted spoon, drain breifly on a towel and then place on the cornmeal-y cookie sheet.

10. Lightly brush the tops of the bagels with a well-beaten egg.

11. Bake for 35 minutes or until nicely browned and crusty. (I did not let mine brown enough for my asthetics, though they were delicious. I was simply too hungry and the church bell looming too near.)

Monday, January 10, 2011

My Favorite Breakfast

I don't know if I invented this breakfast. It seems unlikely. But I've never had it or heard of it before. I was just sitting in the class in which I was substitute teaching one day and the fantasy of these flavors and textures together in my mouth entered my head.

I happened to have made some homemade granola a week or two before and wasn't using it up quickly. I spooned out some cold, creamy, low-fat vanilla yogurt into a bowl, sliced oranges on top and poured granola over all and it honestly was better than I had imagined.

Exactly five months from today, I will be 40 years old and my body is telling me in lots of different ways that the old gray mare, she ain't what she used to be. In the last 18 months, I've continued eating as I always have, but I noticed I was putting on weight when I hadn't before. So, I continued with my normal diet but began to exercise faithfully...

And I continue to put on weight.

So now I'm looking for ways to still enjoy food, but cut calories or portions and make our favorite things more healthful while still allowing them to be flavorful. I'm extra pleased with this breakfast because it's not "good, for healthy food." It's just GOOD. I feel like I'm getting a special treat when I'm eating it.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

New Year's Eve Appetizers

My friend Erika introduced me to this first nibble. She has a Christmas party and makes them every year. I go and scarf them up and make them for her at my New Year's Eve party two weeks later.

Bacon-Wrapped Water Chestnuts
1 lb. turkey bacon (The Real Recipe calls for real bacon, but I've never had them prepared with such. Erika is always looking for ways to make food more healthful, and by New Year's, I'm so sick of rich food that the thought of bacon makes me nauseous.)
2 cans of whole water chestnuts
1 c. ketchup
3/4 c. brown sugar
2 T soy sauce

Preheat oven to 375. Cut the package of bacon in half so that the strips are half as long.

Drain the water chestnuts and wrap a half-strip of bacon around each water chestnut. If the water chestnuts were very large, I cut them in half before wrapping. Secure the bacon with a toothpick and set aside. Repeat until you've used up all the water chestnuts.

In a medium saucepan, combine ketchup, brown sugar and soy sauce. Cook over medium heat, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat. Holding the bites from the toothpicks, dip each morsel into the sauce, covering completely. Set aside in a roasting pan and repeat with all water chestnuts.

Bake until bacon is done, about 20 minutes. The recipe says to serve the remaining sauce alongside the appetizes, to use for dipping. I don't usually do this, as I think the flavor is more than adequate and I want to avoid further mess. I love these guys.

My friend Darcey entered this next recipe, for stuffed mushroom caps, in the church cookbook two years ago. It also is a standard at our New Year's Eve fete.

Mushroom Caps Stuffed with Blue Cheese
2 pounds of medium mushrooms
8 oz. cream cheese
1/2 c. blue cheese crumbles
2 T minced onion

Remove stems from mushrooms and chop enough of the stems to measure 1/3 c.

Combine cream cheese and blue cheese, stirring until well-blended. Mix in chopped mushroom stems and onions. Spoon into mushroom caps.

Place caps on broiler pan and broil until golden, about 4-5 minutes.