Monday, September 27, 2010

Their Lox Is Our Gain

Every family cherishes its food traditions: a secret recipe, an immutable Christmas menu, or a weakness for the starvation foods of the old country.

My family is no different. Our traditions have been largely shaped by my mother, who has a passion for matzo ball soup and gefilte fish. My sisters and I grew up thinking of the former as the ultimate in comfort foods, and the latter as a quaint relic best appreciated by older generations.

This is actually much stranger than it sounds. My mother was born and raised in Macao, with Cantonese as her first language; and my American-born father's parents came from southern China. Although my parents' devotion to Chinese cuisine borders on addiction (and has led to ill-advised pursuits of dim sum in such places as Cairo and Budapest), at home, their refrigerator sometimes resembles the reach-in at the Carnegie Deli--with a few jars of pickled ginger and chili bean sauce thrown in.

When I was small, this seemed like a perfectly normal state of affairs: there was Chinese food, and "American" food. And what could be more American than a freshly toasted bagel piled high with lox and the up-from-the-bootstraps, straight-out-of-Horatio-Alger people who claimed it as their own? Since most of my schoolmates at the tiny grade school I attended were Jewish--and comprised the vast majority of the non-Chinese kids I knew--there was little in my experience to disabuse me of the notion that most white people regularly ate lox and matzo balls.

This is all my mother's fault--largely because she began her American experience with the same misconception. Although she was educated in Catholic schools and came to America to study at a Catholic university, her most vivid food memories from that time came from her summer vacations working at Jewish resorts in the Catskills. (Watching Mom’s play-by-play fact-checking of Dirty Dancing when it showed up on cable one night was one of the stranger memories of my youth.) The food at the resorts must have been tasty and plentiful, and my mother's line of reasoning in evaluating it, back in her naïve youth, probably went like this: (1) This is yummy! (2) And so exotic, compared to plain ole winter melon soup and braised sharks' fins and curried crabs! (3) And since it's what Americans eat on their vacations, it must be really fancy too!

Years of trolling the aisles of Williams-Sonoma and watching the Food Network disabused her of the last two of these notions. Yet somewhere in her psyche she must still believe them. Why else would someone who changes our Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner side dishes every year, according to the latest dictates of Bon Appétit or Food and Wine, continue--for over four decades--to serve bagels and lox every single Christmas morning?

I only realized the strangeness of this tradition when I enrolled in a Catholic high school, where most of my classmates had never even heard of lox. Until this point in my life, there didn't seem to be anything odd about fighting my sisters for a scrap of cold fish while listening to Handel's Messiah. So I tried to justify it: Jesus was Jewish, after all (yes! that must be it!), or more prosaically, toasting up a bunch of bagels is easier for a busy mom than making omelets. But there had to be more to it than that. My parents were genuinely fond of their little tradition. Deep in her heart, Mom probably still believes our Christmas morning bagels and lox are a treat to be cherished--and growing up, so did we.

And we do still. Our family's holiday celebrations continue to evolve and change, but our Christmas lox remains an unquestioned, immutable constant.

Two Christmases ago, my then-two-year-old nephew -- himself a fairly new addition to our holiday festivities -- had his initiation into this family tradition. In classic toddler fashion, he fussed over everything my poor sister tried to feed him that morning -- he didn't want cereal, took no interest in cut-up pieces of bagel, and made it abundantly clear he would rather watch TV than eat pieces of banana and orange. Just out of curiosity, my brother-in-law offered him a tiny morsel of lox -- barely the size of my pinkie nail. And to our surprise, he happily gobbled it down -- then opened his mouth for more.


One of the virtues of salmon, besides its yumminess, is its healthfulness: cold-water fish such as salmon are supposed to be good for promoting healthful cholesterol levels and otherwise keeping one alive and well. Another virtue of salmon is that because it is so richly flavored, a little can go a long way -- especially if the salmon is cured or smoked.

Here is a good post-Christmas dish: low in cholesterol and high in flavor. Its (trans-fat-free!) creaminess, combined with the savory notes of smoked salmon echo, vaguely, the flavor profile of cream cheese and lox. The egg-free fresh pasta recipe is inspired by one in The Artful Vegan: Fresh Flavors from the Millennium Restaurant, a book that can best be described as vegan food porn.


For the lemon-pepper fettucini:

1 cup fine semolina

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

finely grated and chopped zest of 1 lemons

1/4 cup water

1. Combine all ingredients. Knead on a clean surface for about two minutes, until the dough is smooth.

2. Divide the dough into four balls. Wrap them in plastic and allow them to rest about half an hour before rolling.

3. With a pasta machine, roll the dough into sheets of medium thickness, then cut them into 1/2-inch thick strands.

4. To cook: toss the strands into a large pot of boiling water and cook until tender, about 3 minutes.

5. To store the pasta for later, coil the strands loosely into nests (the goal is to keep the strands fairly separate so they will dry evenly and won't stick together) and place in a well-ventilated area until they are completely dry.


3/4 cup shredded smoked salmon

2 tablespoons minced shallots

2 cups unsweetened soy milk

salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

chopped fresh dill or parsley for garnish (optional)

1. Simmer the soy milk and shallots together in a heavy saucepan, stirring occasionally, until the the soy milk has the consistency of heavy cream. The volume will reduce by about a half.

2. Add the salmon and simmer until heated through. Add salt and pepper to taste.

3. Toss with the cooked pasta, top with optional parsley or dill, and serve immediately.

Serves 4 as an appetizer, or 2 as a main course.

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