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I got a message on Facebook last week from a relative. “Hey, we’re going to be in town for the Super Bowl, are you around that weekend?”

Two questions: 1. The Super Bowl is in New York this year? 2. What weekend?

To give you an analogy, this kind of question is like me writing to a friend in San Francisco to say “Hey, I’m showing up for the Point Reyes Blue Cheese Festival, are you around that weekend?”

I did consider asking him for specific dates, but remembered my trusty resource Google. Google is that friend to whom you direct all of your embarrassing questions. As long as you clear your history. You don’t want your significant other to see that you’ve been researching Syphilis. That happened to good friends of mine (it was an honest mix up, I won’t get into it) but it serves as a cautionary tale: keep that history clean.

I’ve formed a strong relationship with Google over the years, sometimes I think I expect a little too much; I’ve caught myself asking open-ended questions, like “will I have another baby?” or “will my dinner guests like salt cod?” But for the garden variety questions, Google’s always had my back.

Armed with information, I quickly responded “we’re in town!”

It’s not that I was completely unaware that something vaguely footballish was going on. Facebook was abuzz. Taunts were thrown. My sister’s update on Jan 19 read: “Are you watching Brady peeing in his Gucci panties? #BRONCOSSSSSSSSSS”.

So I did what any smart person with a food blog would do – I immediately logged onto Pinterest and created a Super Bowl board, and started collecting recipes for all of those manly dishes that people seem to eat at this time of year. The wings, dips, chilis, nachos, and of course the little football-shaped deviled eggs.

Who knows, maybe I’ll throw my own Super Bowl party down the road. It sounds like fun. I’ll just wear earplugs so that I won’t have to listen to the sound of football on TV. Am I the only one who feels this way? I’d watch golf over football any day. I don’t even golf, but I love the velvet hills, the soothing voices, and the conspicuous absence of sweat.

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pierogies

It was 1990 in Banff, Alberta, in the heart of the Canadian Rockies when I had my first kiss. I remember it vividly. The Banff Mountain Ski Academy was hosting our team for a set of races at Nakiska. We’d be racing the same downhill course that had been used for the Women’s Olympics just two years before. I was terrified.

But I was turning 15, that tender age when you morph from innocent kid into hormonal teenager. Boys were a good distraction, and there was a kid on our team who stood out. He was strong and confident, cocky even. I was downright attracted. What girl wouldn’t be?  At least in the early teenage years, when the concept of boy-girl attraction is so new. The nice guys were a blip in my rearview mirror.

With a few days to kill before the race, we arrived in Banff ready to eat, sleep and train. We bunked up with our hosts and settled into our new schedule.

And then it happened. Out of nowhere, the kid started to flirt. I must have spun around in surprise. He hadn’t spoken a word to me all season long. But here he was, trying to make me laugh. I welcomed the attention. I had a huge crush on him after all.

So, one night after a Polish-themed dinner, we crept upstairs. With the smell of ski wax and the sound of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon filling the air, we kissed. It should have been an incredible moment, but it wasn’t. I expected romance and here was this guy, groping like he was searching for something.

Fortunately, I’d fallen in love with something else that night: pierogies.

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ham_feedmedearly

Thanksgiving is over. Time to stop talking about it, it’s done, let’s all regroup on this topic next year. (That was primarily a note to myself, goodbyes are hard.)

But seriously, it’s time to shelve all of the Thanksgiving talk because truly, we’re deep into the holidays at this point. We need to shift gears. We need to talk about things like snowflake cookies and Yule logs.

Unfortunately, right now I have limited pictures of our holiday food to share with you. Why? Because last year at this time I didn’t have the faintest clue that I’d one day write a blog. But here I am, fessing up, and facing a bit of an emergency: I have to tell you about our Christmas Ham and have no pictures of the end product.

I hope you can forgive me. I’m only a team of one. I’m not Bon Appetit magazine with a staff of recipe testers who start buying, cooking, and photographing holiday hams in June. If I bought a Ham right now for picture purposes, we’d be eating ham leftovers for weeks. Come Christmas I’d be so over ham. And what a horrible tragedy that would be.

But thank heavens for ham steaks, which are available at Whole Foods. Perfect when you’re in a ham pinch but you don’t want to buy the full beast. And it’s just enough meat to showcase the best part of our ham dinner, the king of condiments: mustard.

We haven’t always been Christmas ham devotees. In fact I cooked my first just a few short years ago. In the past we used to serve turkey, a family tradition.

But that was in Canada, where Thanksgiving and Christmas are separated by months, not weeks. In the US, I’m just getting through my freezer stash of turkey leftovers when it’s time for another bird. Too much, too soon. I apologize turkey lovers, apparently I’m showing my true stripes and it’s not impressive. But really, I can only do so much turkey.

So I put my foot down one year. I shook things up. I cooked a capon.

Which is about as different from a turkey as a strip steak is from a T-bone.

But the capon was a foot in the right direction. Old traditions die hard, and this was a tough one to move past.

The following year, emboldened, I thought I’d take an even bigger step. Go for something a little more Dickensian. A goose? Perhaps. But after floating the idea around the family, there was some resistance. Goose didn’t seem appealing to the majority of those polled.

We needed something mainstream, and so we picked ham. Hallelujah, a new tradition was born.

It just so happens that we were having a bunch of friends and family to the lake to celebrate Christmas dinner that year and I wanted an easy dinner. I was wiped out after three straight weeks of ordering, unboxing, sorting, wrapping, labeling, hiding the mountain of gifts that would end up under our tree. While not a spoiler during the other 11 months of the year, I fall hard for the holidays.

So I planned ahead for dinner: I bought a big smoked ham from my butcher Mike, got a bunch of rolls and different kinds of bread from Amy’s in Chelsea Market. (And hey! I was able to dig up some photographic evidence):

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And best of all, I stocked up on all kinds of mustards – spicy, sweet, and whole grain. When you’re taking the easy road with dinner, you have to impress with something, and pretentious mustard fits the bill. (By the way, here’s what I’m serving with our dinner this year):

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Kale and artichoke dip 079
I’ll be honest, I’m pretty sheepish when it comes to dip. It just seems so retro, like it belongs in one of those old 1950s cookbooks with the plaid dust jackets. The kind of book that depends on ingredients like Campbell’s Cream of Chicken soup and canned pineapple.

That being said, I have a good friend who happens to be a trained chef, and her go-to party dish is always a dip. Fine, maybe dip can be cool after all, especially when it’s her version with caramelized onions and Indian spices.

And here’s the truth, dips do get a bad rap, and it’s not because they don’t taste good. It’s because they were popular at a time when jello salads and SPAM burgers were in favor. They were just hanging’ with the wrong crowd, so to speak.

My biggest problem with dips today is their placement, with all of the other appetizers, at the beginning of the meal. Aren’t those foods the best part of the meal? Who doesn’t want to gorge themselves on a heaping plate of wings, or a gigantic vat of nachos? I think I speak for all of us when I say that we have no need for the rest of the meal. No need at all.

So it was with great fortune that I ran out of food the other day. The fridge was nearly bare. This was time for brute tactics.  I managed to find a wilting bunch of kale and a few types of cheese along with a package of nearly-expired prosciutto. Perfect. Digging around the freezer revealed some more potential treasures: a big bag of frozen artichokes and some grated Parmesan. Hmmm….

And then it hit me. Dip. I’d be able to make a dip just for myself. A whole tray of it. No holding back, no whetting of the appetite, no guilt, no remorse. I’d have some crusty bread in one hand, and a glass of white in the other.

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chili_fmd

If there’s a cold weather dish that I spring for most, it has to be chili. Or stew. Or soup. Or some kind of braise with a big hunk of meat.

But let’s go with my first answer. Because chili is one of those dishes that has so many variations that you can make it every week and never get bored.

I used to be fanatical about following recipes for chili- the world of dried chiles and  spices can be overwhelming if you’re unfamiliar with it (which I admit, I still am for the most part). My go-to fruit & vegetable market in in NYC, the Manhattan Fruit Exchange, stocks a big variety of chiles, from the wrinkled, smoky ancho chiles to the tiny chile de arbol. Although I’m pretty adventurous with most foods, I’ve always been a little fearful about picking chiles off the shelf – how can you know how spicy they’ll be? Are there any special preparations that are needed, such as soaking or dry toasting? So for years I cooked chili with guided instructions only.

Fortunately, there are a ton of recipe to choose from both online and off – I even have a cookbook that has nothing but chili recipes. It’s right there on my bookshelf next to the book that has nothing but smoked salmon recipes, and the two separate mac ‘n cheese cookbooks. Thankfully I’ve slowed down on  my cookbook purchases lately, leaving me with a little more money for other essentials like our gas bill, exotic fruits and light-up kids’ shoes.

But strangely, despite trying a huge range of dishes, I never found a chili recipe that I truly loved. And I’d end up doctoring and tweaking my dish until it resembled nothing like the dish I’d originally intended.

I’ll never forget the year that I entered a chili cook-off at a friend’s house. I was living in San Francisco at the time, and he suggested to a group of us that we bring over some beer and vats of chili and have a taste-off. 

And so I began to plan. Eager to impress my crew of judges, I searched through cookbooks and hunted around online until I found a recipe that was impressive enough to wow the guests, who would be tasting each dish blind.

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