How Much is That Doggie in the Window?

Pam’s Pictorama Post: Pictorama is generally and decidedly devoted to things feline – Felix finds, people posing with giant cat chairs, and photos of cats gone-by – but occasionally we wander into the dark side and we have a dog day. (For the canine lovers out there a few other posts can be found here and here.)

Even pre-pandemic, for decades really, Kim and I have had take-out on Friday night. We rarely have it during the week and frankly, although I eat out for work frequently, we rarely eat out at all. I generally cook (you can read more about my adventures in cooking, complete with recipes here and here) and find it healthier and less expensive (this is Manhattan!) to cook at home, and what’s more I like my own food. However, after a long hard week of work, signaling the start of the weekend, we have a date for take-out. There was a long stretch of Mexican take-out from an extended Korean family across the street and I would often meet Kim after my Friday evening work out at the gym.

The pizza guy figure who graces the entrance to Arturo’s Pizza take-out on 85th and York.
View of First Avenue from inside Taco Today, waiting for our Friday night order last year.

During Covid days the Mexican take-out was shut (it had actually closed right before for renovations and did not reopen for eight or more months) and we supported local from dwindling choices in the form of pizza (our beloved Arturos on York and 85th which kept its tiny storefront open and feed the neighborhood throughout the leanest time here) and a somewhat swankier Mexican restaurant on 86th Street. However, at the suggestion of my trainer who is very fond of it, we tried a Vietnamese place, the aptly named Vietnaam, on 88th and Second that had shutdown except for take-out. We fell in love with their soups and dumplings and have become devotees ever since landing there most Fridays. A line streams out their door on weekends.

The pick-up window at Vietnaam, with Kim paying for our take-out a few weeks ago.

In addition to the treat of laksa and canh chua soup it means a lovely walk of several blocks which helps us separate our minds and begin the transition from the distraction of work as we start to reacquaint ourselves with the idea of time off. In the winter it means bundling up, but the promise of hot noodle soup spurs us on and it is a good respite for a week devoted largely to chair sitting at desks.

Recently, over a period of months, someone was decorating a tree just east of the restaurant. I documented the additions periodically on Instagram. Then, just as abruptly, it was all gone without a trace.

Over the past year or so an antique/junk store had the courage to open on First Avenue between 87th and 88th, right near where my favorite bakery used to be. (That Yorkville moment post can be found here.) I saw stuff being moved in and then, there it was lights on a ready for action on summer Friday, back in ’20. Take out in hand we wandered in for a quick inspection and the stock was an eclectic mix, skewing slightly higher end than I might have thought. Some research shows that it is actually called Spellman Gallery, and would probably not be pleased to be put in the category of antique/junk store, although I mean it with the greatest fondness and deep affection for both antiques and junk. They do sell art, some early photographs of interest, but the bits and bobs interest me most.

The paper dresses in the window of the store caught my eye a few months back.

Although I’m unsure if we even went in again, I liked to look in the window. A few months back in February they had vintage newspaper dresses in the window which entertained me. And recently they launched a display of dog banks and door stops which garnered my attention. First one (nice!) cast iron door stop, but rapidly filled in with the others. Banks followed, a barking dog bank which made us curious about what the action might be. Now they had my full attention, wondering each Friday if there would be another addition – or would something have been sold and disappeared?

An earlier incarnation of the doggie window, pre-my pup.
This early entry sold quickly and was replaced with a “talking” dog bank and a dog jumping bank.

Over several weeks I enjoyed looking at this little fellow. Something about his cast iron cushion, the colors and his expression attracted me. I kept hoping he wouldn’t be sold and disappear. I appreciated the entire display and while I hated to be the one to break up the party, Saturday Kim and I looped around and wandered in to inquire about him. The store had grown pleasantly fuller since our initial visit. There was a large display of lovely early cooking bowls – yellow ware she called it when someone came into inquire. I own a few bowls of this type, given to me by a friend clearing out her attic, which I have used almost daily for years. I was shocked at the prices of them, but have no intention of taking mine out of daily rotation.

Our doggie was more dear than I think Kim or I anticipated, but when I started to hesitate Kim offered to substantially defray the cost and out of the shop window and home with us he came.

Our cheerful fellow off his pillow base.

Our pup is a bank and he is not attached to his light blue metal cushion he is perched upon – the stored coins accessible through a screw in the bottom. (Unscrewing this would make him come apart in two halves.) He is very heavy and although his paint is chipped in a few places it does not affect his overall jolly appeal. It took us a few minutes to even find where coins go in at the back of his neck. One jingles alluringly in the bank, but I am not taking him apart to find out what it is!

Coin slot just above his collar.

He is the product of Hubley, the early manufacturer of cast iron bank and doorstop fame, founded in 1909, and his brethren and tracks about them were surprisingly easy to find online. I did fail however to find him precisely. The earliest version of this bank I found was back in 1914, another slight design change is evident in one from the ’30’s. Originally sold under the name Puppo in the teens and s/he was designed by Grace Gebbie Drayton. (On his light blue cushion it is a he for me but interestingly always referred to as she in the online listings and information.)

The later incarnation morphs into Fido on a Pillow; it is unclear if the earliest version sported the pillow or not. (The later version had Fido embossed on the collar, mine doesn’t.) Not surprisingly, the pillow was often lost and I read that it was also sold sans pillow, and a black and white version of the dog alone proliferates online in various states of condition. (I’ll just say, it is all about the pillow for me.) Somehow I place mine roughly in the 1920’s, looking at the arc of designs.

Identified as the earlier, 1914 version, Puppo.
For sale on eBay, another differently painted version, closest to mine.

Having made a purchase from them I suspect I will wander back into the Spellman Gallery to poke around. Moreover however, I hope their window continues to entertain me on Fridays. Welcome to Yorkville Mr. Spellman.

Mysteries of the Easter Bunny

Pam’s Pictorama Post: I purchased this little guy a couple of weeks ago. I saw him on Instagram one afternoon and grabbed him (sold by @marsh.and.meadow antiques), and I was just delighted when he showed up. Continuing with yesterday’s jewelry theme I also purchased the lovely Czech glass necklace below from Heather @marsh.and.meadow antiques. It was new old stock and she had a fistful of them! When I wore mine, to a rare in person lunch earlier this week, it was the first it had ever been worn despite being decades old.

Photos snatched off of Instagram and from Marsh and Meadows Antiques.

I first met the proprietor, Heather, under the guise of her account, @_wherethewillowsgrow_, for the purchase of vintage photos and then I realized she sells other interesting stuff from her other account. She included this nice little photo of a family, shown below, in the package with the Czech glass necklace. I consider these folks as part of my Easter celebration in their spring hats and dapper clothes. (Also to say, she recently sold a necklace made of operculum which vaguely fascinated me, but I didn’t see it in time to pull the trigger. How is a necklace made of those somewhat ephemeral things? Find a post devoted to a pile of operculum here!)

Pams-Pictorama.com Collection.

Meanwhile, this great little Easter fellow presents this enormous spotted egg, tied with a big bow – and he sports a jolly big bow around his neck as well. I like this sort of frame he is in and I love that the back continues the design, bow, egg and bunny back. I realize that if you look carefully he does have a cotton tail which extrudes from the frame. He has a sweet face and expression and this is a very big egg he has. Although the pink in his ears is mostly missing, the tiny daubs of green and blue and gold in the flowers around the edge show a level of care in his making. He’s enjoyed a place of pride on my desk since he arrived and frankly I just like to have him there, pick him up and look at him.

There is a bale and he is meant to be a necklace. I would definitely wear the little fellow, although he is somewhat season specific, perhaps a thin bit of ribbon instead of a chain. No matter, I just like having his cheerful self around.

Admittedly I come at Easter from a largely non-ecumenical perspective. Easter for me will always be the launch of spring despite what the calendar or weather has to say about it. With a Catholic grandmother and Jewish grandparents, it has a mixed smattering of Passover thrown in and my childhood memories of this time of year are filled with Easter bread, matzoh brie, matzoh ball soup and of course chocolate. Easter and Passover are about food and family.

I am one of those kids who somehow subconsciously thought that bunnies laid eggs and that’s why the Easter Bunny brings eggs. At some point I realized that wasn’t the case and I admit it has always confused me. Yes, I understand the whole eggs and Christianity thing and the prolific bunnies of spring, but it was always remained a strange marriage in my mind. How did we end up with bunnies that deliver eggs? Chocolate eggs at that? And it seems to be a male bunny on top of it. Screwy.

I think I have touched on the big family Easter gatherings of my childhood in previous posts. (I wrote about the magic of my grandmother’s kitchen back in the 2015 post Ann’s Glass which can be found here.) I can remember Easter egg hunts in her generous yard – me in an Easter suit, white tights with baggy knees; I remember one in particular that was light blue and even had a little hat. (My mother was not prone to dressing us up as kids so perhaps that is why I remember the occasion, although I believe it is also documented in a photo somewhere. I think mom felt just keeping us clean and clothed and getting us to where we were going was generally sufficient when managing three kids.)

I always liked the stuff of Easter, the celluloid grass, small silky toy chicks, sugared eggs with Easter scenes unfolding within them. I liked the smell of Easter egg dye and vividly remember the messy joys of making those. (There was the year that our German Shepard, left unattended one afternoon, ate the better part of a dozen of our finished dyed Easter eggs. She didn’t get sick; she never did. Just took it in stride. However, I was very angry at her for robbing me of this ephemeral pleasure of the season.) Fluffy baby chicks, tiny soft bunnies, strange plastic eggs filled with toys and candy – what’s not to like?

Strangely Peeps creep me out and I have never eaten one. I know they have some intense fans.

I was thinking this morning that I have no memory of how we ultimately consumed all those hard boiled eggs each year, although we must have since mom didn’t waste food. My mother was not a maker of egg salad nor deviled eggs though and I do remember that the Paas dye seeped into through the shell and colored the inner eggs in places. I have specific memories of discovering egg salad and deviled eggs in adulthood. Maybe the dog got more of them each year than I knew. I will have to ask mom on the phone later.

My father, although Jewish, faithfully supplied us kids with baskets of Russell Stover baskets of candy every year, on into young adulthood, with amazing consistency. (My father was very good with the delivery of candy and there were equally consistent Valentine’s Day, heart shaped boxes each year. Those started with Russell Stover, but in adulthood morphed into Godiva and others as we got older.) The Russell Stover company still makes very similar chocolate eggs and baskets – they remained strangely constant over the years and I see them in the drugstore in the weeks leading up to Easter.

Most years I breakdown and purchase one of the chocolate eggs, filled with either strawberry or maple cream – the taste of childhood! Of course there were always the chocolate bunnies. I was a tad sad about consuming their cute selves – always ears first, eyes of hard sugar. Mom helping when they were solid chocolate and harder to break apart. It was always a somewhat inferior chocolate, but rapidly and joyfully consumed nevertheless.

For my father, non-observant though he was, this time of the year my mother would always make matzoh brie which we called fried matzoh. She had learned this from his mother, early in their married life I gather. Matzoh ball soup was a constant throughout the year, but would always be made too. In young adulthood I mastered both – my matzoh brie is a scrambled one like my mother’s; it tends to come more like an omelet when I purchase it in diners, usually on the Lower Eastside, and I like my matzoh balls a bit firmer than some people. (There is always a discussion of fluffiness.) Lots of salt and some pepper in the fried matzoh – I know exactly how my father liked it.

In retrospect it is a bit strange to think that we would have an Easter ham with my grandmother on Sunday, when we probably had matzoh brie for breakfast the day before. My diet (which promises to be a feature of my life well into summer at the rate I am going) and Kim’s aversion to eggs (he is probably turning green just reading about all this egg consumption) means alas, we will not celebrate the advent of Easter and Passover related food this year. Perhaps next year will be a different story and I will find the recipe for the glorious fat loaves of Easter bread my grandmother used to make and treat you to the story of baking them.

Screwy

Pam’s Pictorama Post: This little object came across my path on eBay and I snatched it up. Corkscrews have become a popular collectible and I was afraid I might face some stiff competition. I was lucky that it didn’t appeal to the collectors and I acquired him unchallenged.

There’s something perfectly appealing about this kitty and his corkscrew tail, sticking up in the air. This little fellow (or gal) sports a big bow, an arched back and a slightly wide-eyed expression. He (or she – despite the big bow I’m feeling he I think though), has nice heft and stands well on his own. He is easier to hold and better designed (and to pull on) than you might think, although I find this kind of minimal opener requires a sort of brute strength I don’t have and ultimately leads to bits of cork floating in my wine. Therefore, despite being quite sturdy, this fellow is officially retired from the work of cork removal as far as I am concerned. I am eyeing a cabinet which I think he will be quite at home in.

As someone who both waitressed and cooked professionally I became committed early on to a very specific device to removing corks from wine bottles. One of the most useful life skills (aside from extraordinary patience) that waitressing provided me with was the most fail safe methods of opening wine and champagne.

One summer during college I worked in a high end French restaurant (which despite being called Harry’s Lobster House, had quite a reputation for its French seafood cuisine), and this was where I believe I was introduced to this style opener. (I was also given instruction in the careful opening of champagne table side – slowly and wrapped in a towel – so that it would of course pop! but with no spillage.)

Pretty close to what Harry’s looked like back in the day when I waitressed there, but this appears to have been taken a bit later than that. They added outdoor dining in an ajoining area after my days of waitressing there.

For the most part I was a pretty lousy waitress. Friendliness was the best skill I brought to it (in addition to the aforementioned patience), which bought me a fair amount of forgiveness with the customers. Frankly though this made me better suited for working behind a counter, making sandwiches and serving coffee as I had the summer before,

I can still remember how befuddled I was by the specific names of the liquors when people ordered drinks – this was a high-end restaurant and Sea Bright in summer was a drinking beach town. I wasn’t familiar with top shelf alcohol brands and was decidedly unsophisticated in this regard. (Mom and Dad certainly had liquor in the house, but they were fairly mundane in their imbibing.) I did my best to write the order exactly, phonetically when needed, on my pad and report them faithfully to the bartender who, although nice enough really, in retrospect must have thought I was an idiot. Mom tells stories of working her way through college waitressing and it doesn’t seem to be a gene I inherited. (Incidentally Mom was also a record breaking long jumper in high school and a runner – these days while learning to run I often reflect on not having those genes either.)

To be clear, a superior corkscrew to me is a bit like the better mousetrap – you can try to make one, but the bar is high. It is a perfection of a certain kind of ingenuity and design. One should not tamper lightly with success.

These generally have a small knife, at top, to help peel off the cover on the cork and can also be used effectively for opening beer bottles, using the hook on the end.

Anyway, I have been using the same corkscrew since cooking school, mine came with an assigned kit of knives and implements. It has a red nail polish dot that I assigned to all my stuff so I could easily identify them quickly in a crowded kitchen. If you’ve never used one, you quite simply screw it in and then use the other, short, protrusion for leverage at the lip of the bottle and pull the handle – and voila! Bottle opened. Neat and tidy.

Growing up, the largely preferred bottle opener was the one below. I have a fairly good success rate with these as well, although clearly you can’t carry them around and use them as a waitress or cook. (The other folds nicely and lived in my pocket daily, handy for when needed.) This model has a bit less control than my preferred model (I’ve had more corks fall apart with these than the others), but I think one of these still also rattles around in my kitchen drawer. (Because of my former life as a cook, long ago though now that it is, there are some amazing things in that drawer that are rarely if ever used – things to make melon balls, pie crimpers to name a few. My zester recently came back into favor and my olive/cherry pitter lives there and is a much beloved item.)

Given all of this knowledge, opinion and lore, you would think that I would have successfully imparted this bottle opener knowledge successfully to my family at large. However, for some reason, my father became enamored of every possible variation of bottle opener to be found. He bought them in stores, at garage sales and they represented every conceivable variation on this theme. Some were quite absurd. Many were heavy and complex. Despite my protestations he would deliver them cheerfully to me as well. The fact is they almost never worked as well as my simple device – although in general I will grant you that they were more colorful and interesting, at least in theory.

Dad broke another rule of bottle opening and one evening opened a bottle of champagne which exploded in his hand, top breaking off, and cutting him badly enough that he had to trek to the emergency room for stitches. He did adopt my wrapped bottle technique after that.

Cafe d’Alsace earlier this week for a belated birthday dinner with a friend – they kept us pretty cozy despite the early March outdoor temps.

For all of this, you would think we are popping a whole lot of corks over here at Deitch Studio, but mostly we do not. Kim doesn’t drink and I am currently on a diet. Until earlier this week at a belated birthday dinner (which as my IG followers know was eaten outside under a heater and was actually quite lovely, pulling at the memory strings of what eating out used to be) when I broke down and had a glass of wine; I had not had a drink since December, maybe November. (The alcohol calories don’t make sense for me when I am counting them carefully. I always like to say that being on a diet is not so much fun that I want it to go on any longer than necessary so I try to be extremely focused and swift!)

I do cook with wine (or vermouth – although that’s a screw top) and there’s usually a bottle of something around for that. Pre-diet I enjoyed an occasional glass of wine or Prosecco with dinner – I like an occasional ice cold vodka tonic with lots of lime in summer. However, I am not and will never be knowledgeable about wine beyond what I like and what I don’t. Red wine triggers migraines which eliminates me largely from the erudite pursuit of wine. Nevertheless, when needed I know exactly how I am going to open that bottle.

Clam Chowder, Cooking from the Pantry

I don’t know why, but the idea of a spicy version of Manhattan clam chowder started to nag at my brain recently. I enjoy the occasional cup of the stuff when out – either the red Manhattan style or even (although less frequently) the creamier New England version. I can’t say I go out of my way to get it, more like it is an acceptable option when navigating a menu at a diner with a desire to add a bit on, or alternatively maybe not indulge too much.

In general though, I find it lacking and I have never made it myself, nor thought much about it. But for some reason I recently began to think about how you could make a more substantial and spicier one, a zootier version if you will. I think it started because I had several cans of clams which I had purchased for the occasional fish pasta I make (usually with some shrimp, leftover fish bits and maybe some of the canned clams), but I am currently on a diet so pasta isn’t happening right now.

Ah yes, speaking of that diet, readers know I have opined a bit in previous posts about the comfort of cooking. I explored re-creating some family recipes during what I tend to think of as Pandemic Part 1: the First Six Months (those recipes can be found here and here), and some new comfort food (a lovely cheesy bread can be found here) which also made the first months of quarantine – The Weight Gaining Months.

Cheesy Olive Bread – I could live on it.

After a long period of thinking that dieting during a pandemic didn’t make sense, I have reversed course and I am now in Phase 2: the Dieting Months. However, I do not intend to abandon the comfort I take in cooking so I am now applying my skill to devising soups and stews. During these cold winter months they are wonderful and it is satisfying. I derive as much joy out of constructing them that I would from baking, and happily fill the apartment with the aroma of the newest concoction. I generally get several meals for the two of us out of each attempt which lightens the weekday burden of meal planning a bit.

The kitchen, mid-renovation

Meanwhile, pandemic life has made me consider (and establish) what I euphemistically call my pantry. For the record, my pantry is one tall, narrow kitchen cabinet and a banker’s box in the entryway closet recently pressed into service. Until I remodeled our kitchen it was entirely non-existent and a few cans and whatnot were tucked in among the dishes, pots and pans, overflowing onto the limited countertop. It expanded (to the closet annex) during the initial phase of NYC lockdown when grocery shopping was most difficult. It now contains some extra pasta, beans, vegetable broth and the like. (The tale of the kitchen renovation can largely be found here and here – not a chapter I am personally willing to revisit at the moment.)

Growing up in suburban New Jersey we had an amazing pantry that was a large, sort of five foot cabinet of shelves which folded up on itself, once and then again. (Amazing!) I was fairly entertained by the engineering of it as a child (the long piano hinges to bear the weight of each heavy section of shelf), and I am now in awe of the amount it held. Still, were I to move to the suburbs I would likely opt for a walk-in space, a small room of shelves, where I could see everything and bulk buy to my heart’s content. (I come from a long line of if not quite hoarders, folks who like to buy in large quantity and to be well stocked on essentials. My mother has been buying paper towels and toilet paper in bulk for decades and never thought twice about purchasing industrial sized tin cans of olive oil which I remember having trouble hefting.) I also aspire to having a kitchen sink large enough to bathe a small child or good size dog.

It is not to be my fate and instead our tiny apartment (equipped with its bar sink, sigh), requires a certain vigilance around rotating through and using up food, buying just enough to feel well stocked, but not crowding us and the cats out of the house. (I confess that the aforementioned diet and my increased consumption of fruit and vegetables is skewing all this and you can barely open our refrigerator after a Fresh Direct delivery on Sunday morning and oranges constantly roll out when you open it as they are tucked into nooks.)

No idea why this was actually created (clammy cocktail?), but it is my go-to cheat for a fish stock base/

Anyway, all this to say my so-called pantry had this couple of cans of clams awaiting bouillabaisse (I made that for the holidays and the recipe and story can be found here, at the bottom of my Boxing Day post), but that was more ambitious than I was feeling. The fish pasta was too carb heavy for the zippy new diet so I went to work on this. This spicy chowder has the charm of being largely made from what can be kept in the house, an advantage in these days of not wanting to run to the store.

I read a few recipes online and constructed mine from there. It goes without saying that this is a very flexible recipe which encourages its own specifics around the general idea and framework. Most of the ones I read called for bacon, but we are a pescatarian/no meat household so I went in a different direction. However, I would think you would chop it and add it to cook in the beginning with the garlic, onion and carrots. As I say above – use it to use up whatever leftovers are languishing in the fridge, bits of veg and fish.

In the before time I was a bit of a snob about using frozen or canned vegetables, but these days, especially for soup they are handy and work just fine. Of course if you are making this in the summer you’d use fresh corn and maybe even throw the cob in for good measure and to thicken the soup, perhaps even instead of the potato, but no complaints about this pantry version.

The sort of mainstay ingredients are as follows:

  • Large can of clams, drained
  • Bottle of clam juice
  • Large bottle of Clamato juice (my favorite cheat for fish stock!)
  • Large can of diced tomatoes
  • One large or two small bell peppers; I used red
  • Small onion
  • Garlic (lots! I think I used three or four large cloves)
  • Carrots
  • Celery
  • New or creamer potatoes – help to thicken although I kept them to a minimum – four of the minature creamer ones, another recent discovery and I keep a bag of them in the house for various uses.
  • Jalapeño peppers (Pandemic pantry discovery for me – I keep a jar of them in the fridge – try them on grilled cheese sometime!) I used about 1/4 cup.
  • Green beans
  • Corn
  • Herbs – I had a bunch of flat leaf parsley and some fresh basil so I used that chopped. I also added two bay leaves and a bit of thyme. I used Maras red pepper (a whole post could be devoted to the discovery of this gentle, but strong red pepper as a seasoning!), but you could use red pepper flakes (I’d chop them a bit), chili pepper or whatever you prefer to make things spicy. I always like a bit of ground coriander. Salt to taste. I adjusted the seasoning throughout cooking in a more rigorous way than usual and I used a fine salt rather than the rough ground salt I prefer on many other things – no idea if that made a difference.
  • Tomato and anchovy paste (optional but I like to add it for depth)
  • Wine or vermouth, about a half a cup

So I was feeling a bit lazy and I used the Cuisinart to chop the onion, the garlic and the herbs. Not sure it was a good idea, but I decided to Cuisinart the red pepper as well. Of course this meant that it was very fine and it also brought out all the liquid which I had not anticipated and really I ended up deglazing the pan when I added it. It’s soup so in the end it doesn’t really matter, but the result was a finer, less chunky soup. I think fine either way although my usual go to is to hand chop.

Anyway, I softened the garlic, onions, celery and carrots first, along with the tomato and anchovy paste (first go of salt and the Maras pepper at this point, but I added more later), then added the potatoes (sliced pretty small), then bell peppers and then you can deglaze the pot with the wine or vermouth; I keep vermouth for cooking as a wine alternative. This assumes you are using frozen or canned corn and green beans – if fresh you would want to add them before deglazing.

Add the Clamato, the diced tomato, clams, clam juice, Jalapeño peppers (rough chopped), corn, beans, etc. and the herbs. Bring to a hard boil for a bit. Adjust seasoning. Simmer for no less than an hour, but the longer the better. Keep checking the seasoning throughout – I wanted it very spicy but didn’t want to kill us so it was a fine line. This is another recipe that is definitely better after a day in the fridge. I am going to make a variation on it today with shrimp and leftover flounder, with perhaps a few cheese tortellini to keep things interesting.

If I wasn’t on a diet I would serve this with corn bread or muffins – or even some crusty buttered baguette. Nevertheless, it was so great I can’t wait to make it again.

Boxing Day!

Pam’s Pictorama Toy Post: I’m not sure I remember a Pictorama post falling on Boxing Day, but here we find ourselves on a sunny if cold New York City day post-Christmas as we do our best to shove 2020 behind us. Kim and I were recently speaking of Boxing Day and I looked up its history. It started in the 1830’s in Britain and it was a day to be charitable – boxes were taken to the poor and were given to servants who got the day off as well. It spread to the British colonies and remains a holiday there whereas, as we know, traditionally the day after Christmas in this country is usually about shopping. Of course nothing is really usual about this year, and I cannot imagine stores teeming with post-Christmas folks under the current Covid circumstances.

Our own Christmas was celebrated with just us and the felines here on 86th Street, a Zoom call to New Jersey with my mom, cousin and friend Suzanne in the afternoon sadly substituting for an annual visit. In order to cheer us up I made a rather amazing bouillabaisse if I do say so myself – a sort of quick and cheaty one that has its origins with my grandmother, but I have manipulated a bit over time. (I managed six of the seven fishes – seven if you count the anchovy paste!) I served it with homemade corn muffins and a red pepper compound butter. Before I brag on myself too much I will admit that I forgot to consider dessert entirely and ran out to the store and acquired a frozen Dutch apple pie. Frankly it did the job just fine and I confess, diet be damned, I am looking forward to eating some for breakfast today. Yum.

Christmas was a cold, stormy day here with a wind whipping around – I discovered just how bad when I made that run to the store. Jazz at Lincoln Center unexpectedly announced that they were giving us all two weeks off over the holiday and I am easing into a blissful state of extra sleep and pajama wearing – house cleaning will follow I hope, as I have ignored the state of it long enough and one should go into the New Year with a clear mind and house I suspect. All this to say, I have not yet enjoyed the aforementioned improved weather but look forward to some outdoor exercise in a bit – New Year’s resolutions are lurking just around the corner to be sure.

Our newest toy, identified as French and a Krazy Kat, but I believe was meant to be Felix.
Side view.

However, the aspect of Christmas which was traditional and in no way disappointing were the toys Santa, aka Kim, brought me! Two absolutely wonderful toys, the first featured today by way of Bertoia auctions shown above. (Of course I still enjoy receiving toys on Christmas – not a surprise to Pictorama readers I am sure.)

This extraordinary wind-up toy was identified as a French Krazy Kat with no additional information. He is entirely unmarked, stands at about 8 inches, with a metal body covered in a heavy felt suit. His head and hands are composition and you can see that he probably fell on his face a lot from the chipping on his nose – his one ear is also a bit nibbled down. Despite that he is in pretty extraordinary condition, and of course it should be noted that I believe he is a Felix not a Krazy Kat. It should also be noted that his wind-up key is permanently affixed to him, not removable.

This one-footed fellow is seen a bit more than the latest acquisition.

I have never seen a toy like him and would appreciate any information folks might have about his origins. His mechanism spring is a bit shot or over-wound and I have only achieved a few bits of a hopping, splayed leg gait out of him (he fell on his face immediatley) which is too bad because I have seen enough to know it must have been comical. He is smaller and more delicate than the more typical wind-up mohair Felix, one that seems to always lose one foot. My example shown above. I assume that because of his composition parts this fellow didn’t last and few of these seem to be knocking around. I wrote about the one above and another more or less one-of-a-kind wind-up Felix toys, shown below, in a post that can be found here. While I had never seen that one before I was certainly familiar with the wind-up function he was built on.

Another admittedly unusual Felix wind-up toy.

So, we start to close out 2020 with a house full of leftovers and a moment to catch our collective breath. For those of you who still have some cooking ambition in you, or need a New Year’s meal, I lay out the basics of my fish stew below. Enjoy!

****

Fish Stew or Quick Bouillabaisse Recipe:

Saute onions, garlic and chopped carrots with salt and pepper until they begin to brown, add additional veggies. I like a little potato to thicken, green beans and a bit of corn. (If you are using corn on the cob you can wait and drop the full ear into the soup to cook and cut the corn off after – that will add taste and additionally thicken soup. I used frozen corn this time.) Add in a bit of anchovy paste and a smidge of tomato paste.

Add in fresh fish of choice, about a pound of each – I used a bit of halibut (skinned) although any thicker white meat fish will do, and cut it into bite-size chunks, I added shrimp, and scallops and let cook. I like to add a lobster tail or some crab legs and it does well to add them in here too if they aren’t frozen which my lobster tail was this time. (Snow crab legs are great, but messy to eat later – this was a faux lobster tail belonging broadly to the lobster family with sharp sprine-y bits – ouch!, but I was able to take it out after it had cooked and add the fish meat back into the stew so no eating time mess.)

Deglaze the pot with a cup or so of wine or vermouth. The cheating part starts here (and I am pretty sure this is my addition to this recipe) with some canned fish options. I start with a can of clams, with their liquid included, and this time added a tin of smoked oysters. (I prefer mussels but oysters was all the market had to offer and they were just fine. This is a very forgiving recipe.)

Here’s the big cheat – add a bottle of clam juice AND a large container of Clamato juice (I have often wondered what other use Clamato juice has in life – do people drink it? Make cocktails with it?) Also add a large can of chopped tomatoes at this stage. This creates a substitute fish broth base. I added fresh chopped basil and wide leaf parsley. I like basil in it in particular, but again this is another place where you can be creative. I also added a bit of oregano and at this stage adjust your seasoning overall – I tend to have been adding a bit of salt and pepper with each addition of fish. Bring to a boil and then simmer for at least 40 minutes.

If pressed, you can happily eat this immediately, but the real trick is to cool it down and refrigerate it over night. A glorious change takes place and it is even more amazing! Great dish for company made the day before and then only needs to be heated before serving.

Christmas Cookies

Pam’s Pictorama Post: I know I am far from alone in being a bit bereft this holiday season. While a decision to stay home makes sense, this is the first holiday season I will not find myself with family in New Jersey on Christmas and it saddens me deeply. I am usually a fan of the holidays, but this year fail to have much ho, ho, ho. Of course, much of the world is in exactly the same place, and it is hard to rally even nominal holiday spirit and instead seems easier to try to ignore the calendar entirely.

Holiday cheer on 86th and York on a recent morning.

Nevertheless, Kim and I did produce our annual holiday card and those are going out in the mail this week – look for a Deitch Studio-Pictorama card reveal post next weekend! And a bit of holiday spirit has begun to infuse me. I have been snapping pictures of holiday decorations as part of my morning outdoor workout. Winking fairy lights, faux icicles and bubbling tree lights have always attracted me and many of them are still lit from the night before when I head out in the morning. And I have looked again and again at the limited square footage of our apartment to see if maybe a small tree might fit and provide the cats with the opportunity to pretend they live in a tiny indoor forest. Those few feet of unoccupied space continue to evade me however – Pictorama readers also know, it is a very small apartment.

I was deprived of bubbling lights as a child and have had a passion for them ever since!

Therefore, as I have frequently in recent months, I reach into my bag of cooking tricks to see how I might summon a bit of holiday cheer for the coming weeks, and I have landed on Christmas cookies, specifically my grandmother’s ginger spice cookies.

As some of you have read in prior posts, I was blessed to grow up with a maternal grandmother who was an extraordinary cook and who, along with her two sisters (she was Anne and they were Ro, for Rose, and Mickey, or Margaret), turned every holiday into a table-groaning fiesta of food. (I wrote about recreating my grandmother’s Poor Man’s Cake, including the recipe, in a post that can be found here. In recent weeks I wrote about her cherry preserves and that post can be found here.)

Anne’s Poor Man’s Cake as featured in a January ’19 post.

Bread, home-made pasta, meatballs, and hams – and for dessert fried dough with confectioner’s sugar (these were also served without the sugar and instead with tomato sauce for subsequent, post-holiday meals) and homemade cannoli. And at Christmas there were Christmas cookies, the production of which would have been taking place throughout the month of December, beginning right after Thanksgiving. (The holiday LP’s would come out at the same time – Andy Williams belting out that it is The Most Wonderful Season of All and Chestnuts Roasting On an Open Fire.)

No excuses for the family’s taste in holiday music. I think there were a few albums in rotation, but this is the one I remember.

My grandmother would come to bake some, although certainly not all, of her holiday cookies at our house and therefore I had a front row seat, helping her and watching for many years. I deeply suspect I can no longer name all of the types of cookies she routinely made each year – as I write more come to mind. Those that stand out in my memory are: Russian tea cakes in the form of wonderful little balls of cookie and nuts covered in powdered sugar, mom’s favorite were a cream cheese variety; thumbprints which were dotted with different jams; gingerbread (which was always made at our house so we could decorate them with icing and other tidbits and smelled just heavenly cooking); chocolate and butter cookie pinwheels; regular butter cookies which were made with pounds of butter and decorated with colored sugar – there was a variation on these which spit out a similar dough with a handheld device and made a somewhat fatter star-shaped version which were decorated with sprinkles instead of sugar. (I had to pause to look this up to make sure I hadn’t imagined it and yes, there is an electric plastic version made today and it is called a cookie gun or handpress.)

This is the sort of device my grandmother used. This one just sold on eBay.

I loved the sprinkles, colored sugars, icings and cookie cutters that were brought out on these occasions – the latter and the above mentioned cookie press appeared each year in a series of ancient flour-dusted plastic bags my grandmother would carry them in. Tins of mixed cookies were assembled and given out to the branches of the family and we’d have a supply that lasted into January. She would make endless tins of them for family and friends – the prodigious output was stored on her sun porch which was cool in winter, awaiting distribution.

This via Pinterest where a recipe for “simple French butter cookies” is available

My holiday favorite was the butter cookies and it is those I am tempted to make, however those pounds of butter are intimidating me in my efforts to pull back on the pandemic pounds I have acquired since March, and instead I have landed on the ginger spice cookies which were another favorite. Among my grandmother’s cookies, the spice cookies (they were always just the spice cookies in our family lexicon) were the only ones that were also made out of season. I do not remember my grandmother making any other cookies at another time of the year – perhaps her extraordinary holiday output precluded additional cookie baking in her mind, I never asked – some things just were and that was one.

The spice cookies were also the first cookies I learned to make on my own. I think by the time I learned to make them I had probably played around with chocolate chip cookies, made from the recipe on the back of the bag of chips. (It was years before we graduated to the sophistication of M&M’s in our cookies – yes, I am that old.) The spice cookies represented my first nascent attempts at baking and was a favorable enough one that at one time I considered it for a career, but that, as we say, is another story.

There is a slightly chewy quality to them if you don’t over bake them and they are quite addictive. They are easily thrown together and were an excellent and gratifying early lesson in baking. I remember receiving an honorable mention for them in a Girl Scout baking competition. The troop leader told my mother that I would have gotten first place on the taste of them, but they were too irregular in shape. This seemed hugely unjust to the pint-sized me as in my mind cookies were about how they tasted, not how uniform they could be. (Looking back on it, there was probably an important lesson about the world I was being given as well and likely that is why it has remained in my mind all these years.)

Shamelessly promoting the family product! Hope you’ll listen to the concert next week!

This year, rather than Andy Williams I have Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Big Band Holiday concerts playing on the computer – a new one will be released on December 19 with a week of available listening. (Early in my career with the band I hit the road during the Big Band Holiday tour and I wrote about that rollicking trip in a post can be found here. I believe I heard that concert a dozen times over the course of that season.) Of course I need to hawk our online Big Band Holiday concert tickets which can be purchased here and can be played on-demand through December 26.) It will be a different and memorable holiday with new traditions this year.

So, with apologies and regrets that I do not have cookie photos yet as I am planning to make them this afternoon, I offer the recipe below. I promised to post photos here and elsewhere after the fact. I have only the rudiments of my grandmother’s recipe, given to me by my non-baking uncle so I may need to tinker with the instructions as well!

Recipe for Anne’s Ginger Spice Cookies:

  • 3/4 cup soft shortening
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup molasses (I’m going for the original, not dark here)
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 3/4 tsp ginger
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • confectioner’s sugar as needed

Combine ingredients: dry first together, then cream butter and sugar and add the egg and molasses. Mix all thoroughly. (A hand or standing mixer is called for if you have one, although I have a vague memory of doing it by hand. I do have an ancient hand mixer I rarely use, from a garage sale and purchased by my father for me. The tape price tag still stuck on it. My memory is that I mixed these by hand though and by hand I do mean, with your hands, not an implement.) Please note that it is shortening (margarine) not butter and it should be quite soft so it mixes easily with the sugar and other ingredients.

A recipe I checked online suggests chilling the batter for 2 hours to prevent the aforementioned spreading. She also uses parchment paper on the cookie sheet which does make it go quickly and with less mess, especially in a small kitchen like mine. My memory (which does not include refrigerating although mom remembered yes when asked) was that we lightly greased the cookie sheet with some of the shortening. Form the balls of dough – about an inch or the size of the ball that came with jax. Bake at 350 degrees for about 6-8 minutes. (Keep an eye on them not to over bake. The first batch in my gas stove overcooked at about 10 minutes.) Allow cookies to cool for the first few minutes on the baking sheet because they are soft – then transfer to a cooling rack. After the cookies are fully cooled shake powdered sugar over them. If you are stacking them in a tin, layer parchment paper between them or they will stick. Eat cookies, listen to holiday music and enjoy!

****

Postscript! These were like tasting my childhood again!

Sour Cherries, Quince and Tomato Water

Pam’s Pictorama Post: The day before Thanksgiving a bag showed up with my doorman and tucked inside were two delightful little jars of jam and a mason jar of tomato water. These were sent by Liz, a colleague, friend and chef who lives in my neighborhood and has so kindly sent along such care packages periodically during the long, shutdown time. Her bag of goodies not only improved our breakfast repast, but set loose a wonderful torrent of memories shared with my mother, mostly of the yard I knew as my grandmother’s, where my mother spent most of her childhood. Today’s post is devoted to those memories.

The jar of tomato water which I am rapidly consuming.

To start, for those of you who have not experienced it, tomato water is the water you drain out of tomatoes. This is sometimes done before canning or cooking tomatoes down in recipes. The result, assuming you like tomatoes, is drink that is like a wonderful burst of summer in your mouth. Liz introduced me to this delight, made me a fan and always includes a mason jar of it. This one is yellow – and tastes of those different tomatoes. Still very yummy and a real treasured reminder of summer as we head into a darker, gloomier season.

Quince tree at The Cloisters

One jam is quince. It is my introduction to it and I like it very much. The only quince trees I ever made the acquaintance of were up at The Cloister’s garden in Fort Tryon Park. There are lovely ancient looking gnarled examples in that garden and a quick read shows that some types can live, with care, longer than a human life span, and that getting them to produce an agreeable fruit isn’t easy. Back in 2012, the New York Times was inspired to devote an article to quince trees, In Praise of the Misunderstood Quince, specifically launching the discussion around those venerable examples of the trees at The Cloisters.

The other jar was plum and sour cherry jam. This one opened a Pandora’s box of taste memory because I have not had sour cherry jam or preserves since childhood. My grandmother used to make it each year – children and their spouses and the grandchildren were all tasked with a morning of picking the sour cherries off of an enormous tree in her yard. As I was a small child I assume my memory of it as being an enormous tree may be a bit exaggerated, but I do believe it was a mature and large specimen.

The yellow ones are similar to the cherries I remember gathering.

The cherries were yellow with a sort of red blush – more yellow than the ones I found to show here but that is the idea. We collected them in plastic buckets – strangely I remember an aqua colored one in use specifically. My grandmother had an enormous, ancient double sink and she would be in the kitchen cleaning them as we brought them in. I don’t think I was privy to the process of cooking them down, but the end result were jars of cherries that would last us the better part of a year. This ideally to be spread on her own homemade bread which we consumed in enormous slabs.

A subsequent conversation with my mom reveals that growing up, when several generations lived in the house I knew as my grandmother’s, the property next door also belonged to them. (I have written about my grandmother’s house and yard twice before. Those posts can be found here and here.)

My grandmother’s house as it looked in 2017.

Mom tells me that her grandmother taught her that it was planted very intentionally, almost entirely with food producing plants to feed the family. (My mother points to this as being particular to the Italian immigrant side of the family which was her mother’s.) Great grandma did not approve of the decorative plants my mother liked – wasted effort and space. To my mother’s memory, in addition to the cherry tree, there was: an apricot, a walnut, a chestnut, something called a freestone peach (which evidently failed to produce much), and two pear trees. My mom remembers her father always keeping walnuts from the tree in his pocket to share with the occasional inquisitive squirrel who would come and take it from his hands.

An undated photograph of a wedding feast in what I knew as my grandmother’s yard. The grape arbor, in keeping with the food theme, was gone by the time of my childhood.

I remember the chestnuts on the ground there. (Of course I was very small and closer to the ground than the fruit bearing part of a tree after all.) The furry, prickly outside of the chestnuts always fascinated me, as did the surprise of the velvety smooth chestnut inside. I never developed a taste for chestnuts, my father was fond of them though and I believe we did toast them in our fireplace experimentally one winter. My dad would buy them on the street here in Manhattan where you can smell them roasting in winter even now. (Well, at least in the now before now – are there chestnuts roasting without tourists in midtown?) The chestnut tree was an odd survivor of a nationwide blight (not unlike that which destroyed so many American Elms), and mom says people from Rutgers came to study it and photograph it as a survivor.

Chestnuts in their furry wrappers.

I love walnuts so I am surprised I have no memory of those on the ground or of that tree specifically. The parcel of land to one side of the house was sold when I was still very small, although mom says the walnut tree was near the garage so not sold off as was one of the pear trees which sadly was cut down to build the house there.

Mom says she adored the pear trees and that she can remember eating pears right off of them. One tree was on the property that was sold and was cut down for the house to be built. The other of those two trees was destroyed by a lightening strike which split it down the middle, leaving only charred halves. Mom said it was like losing an old friend.

She shared other memories of climbing up into the apricot tree, which had a long, low lying branch, to read her library books in the summer. She and her friend Jackie had competitions to see how many books they could read in a summer – I did the same with my friends as a kid, must have been her idea. It was the beginning of my life-long voracious reading habit.

Despite being housebound these days my mother still enjoys the garden, in her recently acquired home on a small plot of land. Under her instruction, the yard has been planted by a patient and lovely man known only to me as Mike, with many flowering plants – however specifically and thoughtfully designed to feed the birds, bees, butterflies and wildlife she likes to attract and to watch from the windows. A garden that provides, but in a very different way.