Month: October 2011

Wickedly Wonderful Wassail

Rainy days and crisp, fall nights can only mean one thing — it’s time to break out the wassail!  Derived from the Norse phrase “ves heill” or “be in good health,” wassail can be a toast to good health, the alcoholic drink with which one is toasted, or the festive event where drinking and toasting occurs. In my household it’s all about the hot, mulled drink. Yet, for my English ancestors, it was all about the apples. During medieval times the English believed that if they toasted their animals and crops with drink, prosperity would be theirs in the upcoming year. Eventually this tradition focused specifically on apple production with British farmers dousing the roots of their oldest or most prolific apple tree with cider. Some went so far as to place cider-soaked bread in the tree limbs to ward off bad luck and encourage good crops. Others simply sang songs to the health of their trees. All imbibed in the warm, punch-like drink known as wassail. By the 17th century wassailing had moved beyond …

Pity the Pumpkin

Growing up, I had little respect for the pumpkin. Blame it on lack of exposure. It showed up once a year in my mother’s Thanksgiving pie and then quickly disappeared from our menus and my mind. If I did see it more than once, it was usually at Halloween. At that time it was carved up, stuffed with a candle and dumped unceremoniously on our doorstep only to be forsaken after the holiday. It’s no wonder I now feel a bit sorry for pumpkins. A part of the gourd family, which also claims cucumbers and melons as members, the pumpkin hails from the Americas. Sensitive to cold in spite of its tough skin, it requires temperate weather, regular watering and lots of space to flourish. As evidenced by a predicted pumpkin shortage in the Northeast, it does not fair well in floods or hurricanes. What to do once a hefty, blemish-free pumpkin had been bought from a local farm stand or plucked from my parents’ garden used to baffle me. Cleaning and chopping this unwieldy …

One Word Says It All – Chocolate

There’s very little that I can say about chocolate that hasn’t been said many, many times before. As you probably know, it comes from the seeds of the cacao tree. This evergreen hails from Latin America, from the area between southern Mexico and the northern Amazon basin. Once collected, the cacao seeds are roasted, fermented and ground to make the heavenly treat that we know as chocolate. The ancient Mayans were probably the first to enjoy hot chocolate. Archeological evidence shows that they even buried their dead with the bowls and jars used to drink it. The Mayans weren’t alone in their love of a good chocolate beverage. The Aztecs consumed it cold and sweetened with honey. Both cultures held chocolate in high esteem, using it as an offering to the gods and serving it at ceremonial feasts. It took until the 16th century for Europeans to encounter chocolate. Spanish conquistadors led by Hernán Cortés came across these ‘black almonds,’ as they called the cacao seeds, at Tenochtitlan. At first repulsed, they grew to appreciate …

Look at Those Mussels!

Whenever I see mussels, I think of Belgium, specifically its capital, Brussels. No matter where you go in this medieval city, you invariably come across someone selling these succulent bivalves. Whether served with fries, as in moules frites, or in an herb-white wine broth, as in moules marinière, mussels are a common treat in this land. Belgians aren’t alone in their love of mussels. Archeological evidence indicates that Europe has been consuming these dark blue- to black-shelled mollusks for over 20,000 years. Unlike Europeans, I was a bit of a late comer to this shellfish. Now, though, I’m hooked on its creamy texture and mildly sweet flavor that’s slightly reminiscent of lobster. I also love its eco-friendliness. Take, for instance, the North American blue mussel. It grows in abundance, is low in contaminants and doesn’t adversely affect the environment. Plus, it’s both inexpensive and delicious. Can’t ask for more than that! Although dozens of species exist, I most often see the aforementioned blue mussels. Found on the Mediterranean, Atlantic and Pacific coasts, blue mussels range …