It’s hard to believe such a short month is so log-jammed with commemorations, celebrations, and annual hooplas from Super Bowl and Chinese New Year to Valentine’s Day and Black History Month. (Let’s not forget Mardis Gras, which usually falls in February, but missed the cut this year). All are steeped in traditions and cultures, while food remains the cornerstone where these festivals converge.
Although Big Game Day is over, alas, we’re still recovering from the gustatory orgy as Super Bowl Sunday lays a solid claim to the second largest food consumption day of the year, closely trailing Thanksgiving. Fans will indiscriminately scarf down a national total of 53 million pounds of guacamole, 14,500 tons of chips, and 450 million killer chicken wings. Then there’s post-Super Bowl fallout with antacid sales hiking 20 percent.
From pigskins to the Year of the Pig, the oinker is the zodiac sign for this Chinese Lunar New Year. While zodiac pigs are symbolic of nomadic wandering and hedonism, when reined in they can become intelligent adventure seekers. So, let the feasting begin with melt-in-your-mouth appetizers like refreshing rice paper vegetable wraps (see recipe below), and cilantro chicken dumplings with ginger-plum dipping sauce.
Other traditional delicacies with exciting twists include a mixed salad of Diver scallops, prawns, lobster tail chunks, and wild-caught salmon tossed with vibrant watermelon radishes and edamame to herald a year of good luck and prosperity. A whole fish like steamed Branzino or catfish symbolizes togetherness, and uncut noodles for a dose of longevity. So noodle up with chilled buckwheat ramen salad, or lo mein stir-fry with plenty of purple cauliflower, and choy-sum (Chinese greens) for a pop of color and antioxidant oomph.
For just desserts whip up some toothsome fortune cookies containing your own heartfelt Confucius-inspired messages to usher in St. Valentine’s Day. Get lucky in love with high-octane aphrodisiacs to ignite amorous sparks of the heart from asparagus, almonds and avocados to zinc-rich seafood, bittersweet chocolate, figs and honey. Or celebrate a special friendship over afternoon tea with finger sandwiches of smoked salmon and goat cheese, along with assorted scones and biscotti. How about embracing your kissing cousins with a nostalgic dinner served family-style including some favorite comfort dishes like turkey meatloaf, vegetable lasagna, or spicy seafood cioppino.
From the heart to the soul, February embraces Black History Month, including a cuisine rich in traditions, especially a bountiful communal table bursting with flavors that originated in West Africa then filtered to the Americas during the Diaspora.
Modern soul food blends African, Creole, (itself a mix of French, Italian, Irish, Haitian and South African culinary influences), Caribbean, Cajun (Acadian/French Canadian), and southern fare with many sassy riffs on traditional dishes. Kick-off the day with a frothy smoothie of coconut milk, peanut butter, banana and tangerine zest.
For a light lunch, blackened mahi mahi tacos topped with mustard green slaw hit the spot, yam latkes and zesty pineapple sauce, or shrimp grits with Cajun-fried okra, and side of Meyer lemon cornbread are simply divine. For dinner options try chicken brined in goat buttermilk, then fried or baked until golden, paired with jalapeno-molasses jelly, and mound of roasted maple-glazed butternut squash and Brussels sprouts. Just in time for Carnival, some soulful Big Easy classics include Jambalaya, a southern-style Paella with spicy rice, sausage and mixed seafood, and a rustic Po’boy sandwich of fried oysters, shrimp, or calamari on a crusty French loaf smothered in Creole aioli.
For sweet endings whip up a nectarine cobbler or Plantain Foster with coconut ice cream, or pan of praline brownies, and cup of café au lait with roasted chicory, a herbaceous digestive aid that adds a deep chocolate essence to the jo, and puts the skids on heartburn.
Recipe: Rice-Paper Vegetable Wraps
• Ingredients: 1 package rice paper wrappers; 4 Persian cucumbers, thinly sliced; 3 carrots, shredded; 1 1/2 cups chopped Napa cabbage; 1 cup chopped kale or Brussels sprouts; 2 scallions, diced; 1 avocado, diced; 1/2 inch fresh ginger, minced; 1 handful cilantro, chopped; 1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar; juice from one lemon; 1/2 tablespoon sesame oil; sea salt to taste.
• Method: Combine vegetables and seasonings in mixing bowl. Toss well. Rinse individual wrappers under warm water for few seconds until soft. Lay on flat surface. Place 2 tablespoons of vegetable mixture in middle of the wrapper. Fold sides inward, then roll from bottom until a tight wrap is formed. Place single file on a platter. Serve chilled with spicy peanut sauce. (Makes 18)