Bulging bellies and other neighborly gifts.

Based on all the glittery holiday posts I’ve been reading, I think I’m supposed to be frying up crisp latkes, baking elaborate cookies, and constructing gingerbread houses that would make Martha Stewart gasp. I feel guilty that I haven’t. In fact, I let Thanksgiving go by without so much as a glimpse of turkey, pumpkin pie, or me in my sexy pilgrim hat. Instead I posted a photo of salt.

Squirrel glutton with hollyI can explain Thanksgiving—God canceled it. Or rather, my mom went to a church dinner that night, my bored brother fell asleep in the church basement (God wasn’t serving booze), and I stayed comfortably at home and dined on gnocchi with fried Spanish Chorizo sausage and roasted red peppers. That’s not Thanksgiving, that’s a pleasant evening in November.

The problem with the holidays is my waistline (barely visible, but it’s there somewhere). If I started gifting pinwheel cookies and peanut butter fudge weeks in advance of Christmas, my belly would inch across the state line into Wisconsin and, after I was done sampling the cheesecakes, force its jolly jiggly way into Canada. That’s a terrible gift for a neighbor. How do thin food bloggers do it? Willpower? Photoshop Svelte Me plug-in? Amphetamines? Elaborate restraint system using a cooperative family? That’s what I’d do if I had obedient family members.

“Mommy’s making truffles again. She says get the non-itchy rope this time.”

Squirrel glutton with presentBy the time I post any useful Christmas ideas, you probably won’t need it. So as weak compensation, here are two pictures of a squirrel doing exactly what I plan to do Christmas night: grab food twice the size of my head, bury my teeth in it, and let the crumbs fly. For all who celebrate, I hope you do the same. There are many starving people in the world who can’t, so for them, please donate to the Menu For Hope III campaign and maybe win a cool prize for yourself. It has been an honor to participate in something that not only helps the world’s hungry but brings back the joys of childhood again with all its greed for sparkly, shiny, awesome stuff. You know you want stuff too! Go for it! December 22 is the last day to participate.

Now take a good look at the two photographs above. Do you notice anything that seems out of place, maybe even unnatural? That’s right sharp-eyed readers—that tubby squirrel doesn’t have a visible waistline. The squirrel gut has left the country. See what happens when you start the gluttony early?

I’m so sorry, Canada. If you regift, send it to France. I still haven’t forgiven them for éclairs.

Early Christmas gift: googly Greek Yogurt Spaghetti.

You will always find the following at your local Salvation Army thrift store:

1) A dusty Graniteware roasting pan, circa 1978, with or without matching lid.
2) Replica poultry, circa 1956.
3) Something with googly eyes, circa “No era’s not a good era for googly eyes.”

I just happened to have been unsuccessfully hunting for vintage silverware at The Salvation Army the same day that my mailman delivered a surprise gift from a friend: I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence, by Amy Sedaris, famed cupcake baker and cheese ball maker. After finishing the surprisingly heavy book in two days, I can guarantee that you will find the following inside:

Googly Greek Yogurt Spaghetti1) Dusty Graniteware roasting pans.
2) Replica poultry in plastic and ceramic.
3) Lots of things with googly eyes.

The book is hysterically, dementedly, determinedly tacky and five times more politically incorrect than anything Anthony Bourdain has published under his real name. Rather than use food stylists, it looks as if Sedaris hunted down the original and partially deceased photography staff of vintage Jell-O cookbooks. In between her advice on gifts for gypsies (“It’s not your fault” lice comb), being a good guest (“Keep your parasites to yourself”), and children’s party games (“JR. CAT BURGLAR: Lock the children out of the house and see if they can break in”), she provides helpful advice that reveals a genuine love of food and entertaining. Send children’s party invitations through the mail, she suggests, because children love receiving mail addressed to them. If you throw a dinner party, serve dinner right away to keep people from leaving right after dinner and ending the party early. Then there are the many many recipes, disorganized and sparely written, yet oozing the same tested authenticity that oozes from your grand-aunt’s tattered favorites, except with more pictures of pine cones with googly eyes.

The spaghetti recipe caught my googly eye (just the left one) because it uses yogurt, something I haven’t tried on pasta. Also, I dissed onions last week even though caramelized onion have to be one of my top five favorite ingredients (I feel a future post coming on…). The sweet browned onions, creamy yogurt, and buttery pine nuts give the illusion of eating something as rich as Alfredo without the consequences, although this dish isn’t exactly light either. The recipe has been scaled down to feed two generously or three lightly. The photograph shows one of two servings on a standard dinner plate.

Notes on the photograph: We actually use that napkin holder. Somebody, don’t know who, made it for us, don’t know when. Since nobody’s sure if she’s dead yet, we haven’t replaced it. You can’t go randomly offending napkin-holder-making ladies, they might be important or have you in their will or something. Besides, it serves its purpose; napkin-dispensing shouldn’t cost more than the napkins dispensed, at least not until you strike gold with the napkin-holder-making-lady inheritance. I don’t know where that cat came from either. When it’s not camping up food photography, its main job is containing paper clips. And that plate is chipped, I promise.

Adapted from I Like You, by Amy Sedaris who was in turn—
Inspired by The Glorious Foods of Greece, by Diane Kochilas
Makes 2-3 servings

· 2-3 Tablespoons olive oil
· 2 large onions, coarsely diced
· 6 ounces uncooked spaghetti
· 1 cup Greek yogurt or yogurt cheese (see note below)
· 3 ounces coarsely grated Kefalotiri or other salty hard cheese such as Romano or Parmesan, divided in half
· 4 Tablespoons toasted pine nuts
· Salt to taste
· Chopped parsley to garnish

1) Heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat and add the onions. Fry the onions, stirring constantly, until they darken a shade and begin to dry out. Drop the heat to medium-low and continue stirring frequently until the onions are caramel-colored. The whole process may take half an hour, but don’t rush it, and don’t let the onions burn! Cover the pan, remove pan from heat, and set aside. (You may want to start the water boiling for the pasta when the onions look almost ready.)

2) Boil the spaghetti in salted water. While the pasta cooks, stir the yogurt into the onions. When the spaghetti is nearly al dente, ladle 3 tablespoons of the hot pasta water to the yogurt-onion mixture to thin it a bit. Stir, then mix in the pine nuts and half the cheese. Reserve another extra half cup of the pasta water just in case.

3) Drain the pasta. Dump the hot noodles into the pan with the onions and stir until spaghetti is thoroughly coated, adding more pasta water as needed to thin the sauce, keeping in mind that the pasta will thicken a bit as it cools. Taste and adjust for salt.

4) Serve on warmed plates and sprinkle with the reserved cheese and the parsley.

Note: If you can’t find Greek yogurt (like me, sigh), drain 2 cups of plain, unflavored, unsweetened yogurt through a yogurt cheese maker or a colander or sieve lined with several layers of cheesecloth. Place the colander over a bowl in the fridge for at least 12 hours, 24 if possible. This may not work well if your yogurt has been heavily fortified with gelatin. In my experience, moderate amounts of pectin don’t seem to cause problems.

How pasta-draped nudity can feed the world.

Menu for Hope IIIThe Menu For Hope III raffle campaign has officially surpassed last year’s total! There’s still time to play, so please consider donating to feed the hungry and maybe win stuff. It’s way more fun than buying a lottery ticket at the gas station where you have to hang out with warty people buying cigarettes. Here you get to look at gourmet food packages and help starving people. So what are you waiting for?

Yesterday I carefully looked over Bon Appegeek’s pasta maker package (UC05), polished it up, then lovingly packaged it to send it out to one lucky winner. Free bonus prize: bubble wrap. Everybody loves bubble wrap. Except the bubbles. Then I discovered a…well let’s not call it a problem. Let’s call it an opportunity. This was the original package list (U.S. and Canadian shipping only):

· Shiny new Atlas Marcato 150 Italian pasta maker
· OXO 1.5-inch pastry brush to clean it (not shiny, sorry)
· Pair of shiny stainless steel pasta serving forks
· Shiny pastry crimper to make your ravioli squiggly cool

Pasta nudityAdd to that list one more item:

· Free Marcato Pasta & Wellness booklet with a cover featuring a naked and possibly Italian woman wearing a pasta scarf (alluring streaks of sunlight not included).

Somehow her bits, I mean that bit, escaped my notice before. If you’ve already bought a ticket for the pasta maker, I’m sorry, but you’re stuck with naked pasta lady if you win. If you have not bought a ticket for this item, well, look at what you get! You can frame it and proudly tell people that you entered a hunger charity raffle and won this picture of a naked woman wearing a pasta scarf! For those who love to entertain, this is the ultimate conversation piece. You’ll be even more popular than if you’d won a glowing fishnet stocking leg lamp with fringed shade. The only potential downside is a jealous significant other, but even there you’re not alone. Add this to the package too:

· Free moral support e-mail from Annie in case of domestic strife as a result of photograph of naked woman wearing pasta scarf. Limit one. Offer expires December 31, 2007. Warning: E-mail support may worsen situation. Leave me out of it. No, I will not take temporary custody of the children until it blows over. Your partner has unreasonable insecurity issues about naked pasta models and could use some counseling. If probably wouldn’t hurt if you reassured your partner of your partner’s attractiveness now and then. In fact, both of you should get some counseling. Leave the kids with Aunt Betty.

By now I’m sure some of you are wondering if I feel shame for pimping pasta porn and destroying marriages to feed the hungry. Not really. Mostly I feel an urge to make pasta, now more than ever. Don’t you? Admit it. You’ve always wanted a pasta skirt or maybe a pasta kilt, you just didn’t know it until now. Think of how satiny the dough would feel against your bare skin. And unlike frying bacon, making pasta is apparently a clothing-optional activity (at least until you finish that pasta Prada blouse with orecchiette buttons). Does Mario Batali know about this? Is that what Jamie Oliver really meant? The public has a right to know.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go double-check the materials that came with my new meat grinder.