Every year on my birthday, which is just a few days before New Year’s Eve, I lie in bed reflecting on the year’s highlights. I think about friends I’ve spent time with, food I’ve tasted and made and house projects I’ve finished (a regrettably short list). I also remind myself of things I want to do— visit Montreal— or learn more about, like opera. But this year, I’m focusing my to-do list on one area: cooking new things.

When I got married 13 years ago, I graduated from cooking for one (which meant pasta, hamburgers and the occasional French toast) to cooking for two. Delighted to have someone with whom to share meals, I would pore over cookbooks and thumb through magazines, scouting recipes. I cooked meatloaf for the first time, steamed mussels in white wine and learned how to make mayonnaise.

Older friends who had been married 20 years or more marveled at the diversity of our dinners, and with the smugness of youth, I vowed that my cooking would never become boring. But like so many busy people, I’ve fallen into routines. We eat pasta carbonara alarmingly often. My pork roasts are predictably seasoned with rosemary and garlic. And roast chicken is the de facto Sunday supper.

This year, I want to recapture the excitement I felt about cooking in 1994 by returning to some of the meals that were novelties then, like pork roast stuffed with prunes and apricots. I also plan to make at least one recipe from the cooking magazines to which I addictively subscribe. But most importantly, I resolve to try five recipes that have lingered on my cooking horizon for far too long.

Sausage. Busia, my Polish grandmother, made celery seed sausage every year for both Christmas and Easter. To me, the pungent, garlicky smell of Polish sausage is indelibly linked to holidays. I was never a part of my grandmother’s sausage-making process, but my father tells me that Busia would grind pork shoulder into small pink and white meaty pebbles. She’d add her pinch of this and that, and then force the meat into natural casings.

After Busia died, my Aunt Stella and Uncle Charles took up sausage making, but since Aunt Stella’s passing, the Zajacs have been without a sausage maker. My father and I have talked about making sausage for years, so this year, just before Easter, I’ll buy pork shoulder from Amish Country Meats in Cockeysville’s Dutch Market and take the meat to my parents’ house. Guided by recipes and a fair bit of family lore, we will add our pinch of this and that to re-create Busia’s sausage.

Beet Pickles. I have a long-standing love of beets, one of the few vegetables my mother could get me to eat as a child. Mom made beets two ways: hot, syrupy Harvard style and as tangy cold pickles. But it wasn’t until I married Kevin that I discovered sweet beet pickles.

Beet pickles, at least the way Kevin’s family makes them, are not sour. Instead they are closer to Harvard beets— earthy, spicy with cinnamon, and unabashedly sweet— and I can inhale a single Mason jar in one sitting. Kevin’s mother used beets from the family garden for this recipe, and today my brother-in-law Chuck and his wife, Karen, carry the Gardner beet pickle flame. A jar of their beet pickles is always a welcome souvenir from our annual Iowa visit. This year I will bring the Midwest to the East Coast, leaving a wave of magenta fingers and dishcloths in my wake. And maybe one of those jars will make it back to Cedar Rapids. Maybe.

Falafel. Falafel, like hummus, is one of those dishes I love in Middle Eastern restaurants, but rarely think of tackling at home. (OK, I have made homemade hummus, but more often I turn to Trader Joe’s cold case rather than my food processor.) Recently, Kevin asked if we could make falafel at home and when I looked at a recipe, I wondered why I hadn’t done so already. It sounds pretty simple to puree cooked chickpeas with garlic, parsley and spices, form the puree into patties, and fry. Heck, you can even use canned chickpeas if you don’t want to bother with soaking and cooking dried ones. Ali Baba, we’re there!

Fruit Liqueur. I’m a sucker for an after dinner drink, whether it’s a breath-stealing grappa or a silky cognac. While I can’t make either of those at home, I can make my own liqueur by adding fresh fruit and sugar to vodka and letting it sit in a cool dark place to ripen. The possibilities are endless; I’ve seen recipes calling for everything from rhubarb to raspberries to lemons. And if I can’t decide on a single fruit (a strong possibility for me), I can make Rumtopf, the German liqueur, in which fruit is added to rum throughout the season, starting with spring strawberries and ending with winter currants.

Polish Walnut Almond Cake. Like my weakness for morose love songs and charming men, I habitually fall for complicated desserts, particularly ones with meringue in them. Thus the Polish Walnut Almond Cake recipe has intrigued me for years. The raw cake batter, a sponge-like genoise flavored with cocoa and walnuts, is covered with an almond meringue mixture, baked and set aside overnight to cool. In the morning, you spread it with orange marmalade and ice it with a coffee glaze. It sounds rich and complicated, and just a bit strange. My kind of challenge.

Viv’s Pickled Beets

Polish Walnut Almond Cake


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