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Food strategies of a Super Bowl widow

Now that I'm past the “Why is it called football if they're not kicking the ball?” stage, I have to admit: I love American football. (The football I grew up on is what we call soccer here.) My first Super Bowl experience was as a newlywed in Cleveland in 1994. My husband and his friends were glued to the TV: I would see them fervently pipe up, scream, high-five, laugh, joke and look heartbroke

Now that I'm past the “Why is it called football if they're not kicking the ball?” stage, I have to admit: I love American football. (The football I grew up on is what we call soccer here.)

My first Super Bowl experience was as a newlywed in Cleveland in 1994. My husband and his friends were glued to the TV: I would see them fervently pipe up, scream, high-five, laugh, joke and look heartbroken — all in a span of ten minutes. The major food groups? Beer and nachos, not my top choices for cocktails and hors d'oeuvres.

I wanted to join the fun. I did not want to be a football widow. “So,” I asked, plopping myself down on the couch next to my husband, “can you tell me what is going on?”

As kindly as he could, he turned to me. “Honey, I love you...but really, not now.”

I was annoyed, but at the same time, I wanted to fit in with the crowd. Why? At the time, we lived in Cleveland — and to say that Cleveland is a football town is a gross understatement. Everyone I met was in love with this game. I guess I ended up falling in love with the boundless energy it created in the fans, the camaraderie of cheering for their team; it was a fervor I had only noticed back in India on the faces of cricket fans. OK, so I didn't understand the technicalities or the rules, but I still wanted to join the party.

My way to involve myself showed itself quite by surprise. My obsession with food reared its head as I read food-related trivia about the game. “Did you know what’s expected to be consumed by the 79,000-plus fans at this year's Super Bowl of WhoeverIsPlaying in WhereverTheyArePlaying Stadium? Among the fare will be 19,600 gallons of soda, 9,300 gallons of bottled water, and 20,900 hot dogs!”

The more I read, the more I knew what I needed to do. If I couldn't get in the front door to be a part of this football fervor, I would use the back door. All these people at these parties needed to eat. I knew how to cook.

It took about two Super Bowls before I had the nerve to make the bowl of nachos disappear and replace the Bud Light with Sapporo. No one complained, but no one paid any attention to me either. I was still just a tag-along.

By the late '90s, I had devised a sure-fire game plan to conquer the palates of my football-fanatic friends and family. For game-time snacks, I made dishes that would keep their energy going, and mixed in cocktails like mojitos. Store-bought dips got replaced with fresh salsa, hummus and cheese spreads. Instead of chips, I served spicy Indian lentil wafers, plantain chips and vegetable chips. (The only holdout in my little revolution was barbecue chips, considered nearly sacred in our house, which had to be there.)

I did mention to my husband that I would be including finger sandwiches but his glare was enough to send me back to the cutting board. So instead I opted for spicy grilled shrimp instead of plain old hot dogs.

As a safety precaution, no utensils were allowed: I had seen what these guys could do if they disagreed with a call during the game. Deciding on the main dish was a lot trickier. If their team won the game it had to be a celebratory dish; if it lost, it had to be comfort food. I finally settled on a variety of homemade pizzas — from a simple creation with basil, tomatoes and colored bell peppers to a more complex one with grilled Indian paneer cheese as topping.

Then it was game time. I was ready with spicy grilled shrimp on a stick. It was my Hail Mary. I served it and waited. Finally, in the middle of the game, my husband said, “Love the shrimp. It’s great.” The group nodded in violent agreement. Goal!

No, wait: Touchdown!

I was halfway there. They loved the chips and no one had complained about the missing nachos. I prayed the entrée would work.

Pre-game quiz

Of course, pizza is the perfect fun food, so it went off without a hitch. When the game had ended, my husband begrudgingly acknowledged that I was now welcome to attend his football parties, and baseball and basketball, too — not only because he loved the food, but because I had stopped asking probing questions at the most importune times,

After that, I became so fascinated with creating fan-friendly dishes that I had a whole chapter dedicated to “What to cook for a Super Bowl party” in my first book, “The Spice is Right.” By then I had become a bit bolder. The shrimp-on-a-stick became spiced shrimp cooked in an aluminum-foil sachet.

I am now welcome at Super Bowl parties, with one special instruction from my husband. Before we leave the house or open our doors for friends, he stops me. “Okay, dear, let's go over this one more time: The names of the teams playing are … ?”

Then my six-year-old adds, “And Mom, this game even has vampires, like soccer.”

I may not be in the game, but my men are now definitely on my team.

Monica Bhide writes about food and culture from suburban Virginia. She is also the author of “The Everything Indian Cookbook.”

Surefire Super Bowl recipes

For this Super Bowl Sunday, I chose recipes from author and columnist Mark Bittman because they add a touch of surprise. The main dish, the ribs, are a lovely comfort food — win or lose.

Spicy Cold Celery

Northern Chinese and Taiwanese meals — especially in restaurants — often begin with a little nibble, dishes of savory snacks that are set on the table with tea. They are generally items that you can pick up with your chopsticks and pop in your mouth in one motion. This cold celery dish is a perfect example, with just the right gentle crunch and bite to whet your appetite.

4 servings as a starter or side dish

Time: 10 minutes, plus 3 hours marinating time

1 pound celery stalks, trimmed

1 tsp. salt teaspoon sugar

3 tbsp. sesame oil

1 tsp. soy sauce

1 tbsp. sugar

2 tsp. vinegar, preferably rice or cider

1 clove garlic, peeled and minced

1 tsp. chili oil, optional

1. Cut the celery into 2-inch lengths.  Mix with the salt and sugar and set aside for 10 minutes while you whisk together the remaining ingredients.

2. Rinse, drain, and pat dry the celery, then toss with the dressing. Let stand in the refrigerator for at least three hours, and up to a day. Serve chilled.

Source: Mark Bittman, “The Best Recipes in the World” (Broadway, 2005)

Kalbi Jim: Braised Short Ribs

Koreans prepare and enjoy dozens of different stews, and usually eat them so hot (temperature-wise — they're often served over a flame so they are actually boiling while they're being eaten) that Westerners are astonished. Some are so mild that they seem almost French; others are dark and richly flavorful, like this classic.

Makes 6 servings

Time: 2 hours, plus marinating time, largely unattended

6 lbs. short ribs

10 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

1 cup soy sauce

5 tbsp. sesame seed oil

2 tbsp. minced ginger

12 scallions, trimmed and roughly chopped

4 tbsp. toasted and ground sesame seeds

1/2 cup sake

4 tbsp. mirin

2 tbsp. sugar

1 Asian pear or 2 crisp apples, peeled and chopped

1 or 2 fresh chiles, preferably long and red, minced, or to taste

2 large shallots, peeled and chopped

1 tsp. black pepper, or more to taste

4 tbsp. olive or neutral oil, like corn, canola, or grapeseed

1 large potato, peeled and chopped

2 medium onions, peeled and chopped

2 medium carrots, peeled and chopped

2 eggs, optional

Salt

1. Combine the first 14 ingredients and marinate overnight, covered and refrigerated. About two hours before you’re ready to eat, put half the oil in a broad, deep saucepan or casserole and turn the heat to high. Remove the short ribs from the marinade and brown them on all sides; this will take 10 to 15 minutes.

2. Add the marinade to the meat, along with 2 cups water. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer, covered, for an hour or longer, until tender. (These are not cooked until falling-off-the-bone tender, but tender as if they were a good steak.)

3. Turn the heat back to high, uncover, and add the potato, onion, and carrots. Cook at a lively simmer until the stew is thick and the vegetables are done, about 20 minutes more. (You can prepare the dish up to this point in advance; let sit for a few hours, or cover and refrigerate for up to a day before reheating and proceeding.)

4. Meanwhile, if you want to make a traditional egg garnish, put the remaining oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet and turn the heat to medium-high. Beat the eggs with the pepper and a pinch of salt, then add them to the skillet. Turn the heat to medium and let sit, undisturbed, until the bottom is lightly browned. Flip and cook until the omelet is firm. Turn out onto a cutting board and cool slightly, then roll up and cut into thin slices. Taste the stew and add a little salt if necessary. Garnish the meat and serve, with white rice.

Source: “Best Recipes in the World”

Platanitos: Plantain Chips

A popular snack in the Caribbean, these wafer-thin crisps are best eaten right away, and though this amount technically makes four servings, you may be tempted to eat them all alone. The plantains' inherent sweetness is countered nicely with a little heat from the cayenne. These are best as an accompaniment to mojitos or other Caribbean cocktails, or use as a garnish for any Caribbean dish. They will stay crisp for a few hours if you store them in an airtight container as soon as they cool.

Makes 4 servings

Time: 20 minutes

1 tsp. salt

1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper, or to taste

Lard (traditional) or corn, grapeseed, or canola oil for deep-frying

2 medium-ripe plantains (yellow-green, not green, yellow, or yellow-black), peeled

Lime wedges

1. Mix together the salt and cayenne. Set aside.

2. Put enough oil to come to a depth of at least 1 inch in a large, deep skillet or saucepan. The broader the vessel, the more of these you can cook at once, but the more oil you will use. (They cook very quickly, so don’t worry if your pan is narrow.) Turn the heat to medium-high; you want the temperature to be at 350 degrees F when you start cooking.

3. While the oil is heating, shave the plantains, using a vegetable peeler, sharp knife or a mandoline set to just about the thinnest setting. If you are using a peeler, press down with some pressure so that the slices are not too thin. Traditionally, they’re cut the long way (a mandoline makes this easy), but you can make round chips if you find it easier.

4. Fry as many slices at once as will fit without crowding, turning if necessary. Total cooking time will be about 2 minutes; the chips should not brown, but turn a deeper yellow. Remove with tongs or a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels or paper bags. Sprinkle with the salt cayenne mixture and lime juice and serve immediately.

Source: “Best Recipes in the World”