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12.28.2005

The two days of Christmas

When I was a little girl, Christmas was a spiny, sparkly tree floating on a sea of shiny, sparkly boxes. I’d wait 364 long days for a few hours of stockings and presents, a morning so exhilarating and so exhausting that I’d spend the afternoon comatose on the green shag carpet of our living room, my arms locked around the day’s best loot. But like most things, from monkeys to morals, Christmas evolves. In my case, it evolved from the living room to the kitchen, from the twinkly tree to the blue-flamed stove, and from tissue-wrapped stuffed bears to foil-tented roasted turkeys. If nothing else, that’s got to be proof of some sort of intelligent design—or at the very least, of good breeding.

In my family, Christmas takes place in the kitchen. You’ve heard the old saying: give them an inch, and they’ll take a mile. Well, give us Christmas, and we’ll turn it into 48 hours in the kitchen, a 25-pound turkey, five quarts of asparagus soup, four dozen scones, three gallons of egg nog, two dozen biscuits, two fillets of beef Wellington, a case of Veuve Clicquot, and a bushel of spinach, creamed.

This year we descended fifteen-strong upon the home of my brother David and his wife Carée, and though the house was plenty roomy, we made quite a crowd in the kitchen. In the weeks beforehand, David set the ground rules—Christmas Eve would be beef, and Christmas Day turkey—and we set out planning menus, making lists, and calling dibs. David and Carée would take care of the beef, the turkey, the oysters, wine, champagne, egg nog, cheeses, creamed spinach, sautéed mushrooms, and snacks, should we need them. My sister Lisa would make a cream of asparagus soup, cranberry sauce, two flans, stuffing, a chocolate-pecan tart, and of course, her Scottish scones. My mother would make her favorite bread pudding: layers of buttered bread sandwiching mincemeat and marmalade, doused with cream and eggs, baked until puffy as a quilted pillow, and slathered with hard sauce. My niece Hillary would make silky salt-roasted fennel with olives and herbs, a grapefruit-pomegranate tart, a salad with arugula and pears, and for breakfast, lemon-ricotta pancakes and truffled egg toasts. I offered biscuits, butternut squash purée with maple syrup, and leeks with cream and tarragon, baked to limber and lush. And for his part, my nephew Brian would wander the house with his new kid-friendly cookbook, pointing at the pictures of paella and folding down pages.

Needless to say, we had food enough for twelve days of Christmas, but being of strong constitution and eager appetite, we made quick work of it in two. We shared oven mitts and clinked glasses; we spilled, toasted, and went teary-eyed; and come bedtime, we each slept as though we’d eaten for three—which we had, for better or for worse.

And 360-some days from now, we’ll do it all over again. In the meantime, I plan on a 2006 full of excuses for champagne and a full kitchen, menus and lists and, first of all, those leeks. In fact, I’d be baking up a batch for New Year’s Eve, had I not already called dibs on a different sort of dish, one involving a party dress—black! strapless! with feathers!—and Balthazar, Brandon, and a very Big Apple.


Leeks with Cream and Tarragon
Adapted from Fresh from the Farmers’ Market


We served these leeks with beef Wellington, but they would be a lovely compliment to any roasted meat. The original recipe calls for a full teaspoon of tarragon, but being easily overwhelmed by its assertive flavor, I prefer my version with a bit less. I want just a whiff of tarragon, just enough to lend intrigue to the leeks’ unctuous bath of broth and cream.

8 leeks, each about ¾ inch in diameter
½ cup heavy cream
½ cup homemade or good-quality chicken broth
½ - ¾ tsp minced fresh tarragon
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

Cut off the dark green tops of the leeks, leaving only the white and pale green stalk. Trim the roots away, but leave the base intact. Cut the leeks in half lengthwise, leaving about 1 ½ inches together and uncut at the root end, so that the leeks will remain intact in the oven. One by one, rinse each leek under cool water, taking care to wash away any dirt trapped between its layers. Arrange the leeks in a shallow baking dish just large enough to hold them in a single layer.

In a small bowl, whisk together the heavy cream, chicken broth, tarragon, and a pinch or two each of salt and pepper. Pour the mixture over the leeks, and slide them into the preheated oven. Bake for 30 minutes; then remove the leeks from the oven and turn them over with tongs. Return them to the oven and continue baking for an additional 30 to 45 minutes, until they are lightly golden and very tender and have absorbed most of the creamy sauce. Serve hot or warm.

Yield: about 6 servings

12.20.2005

Scone City

Once again, I’m hawking priceless family treasures over at Seattlest. Last week, it was my great-grandfather’s swashbucklingly boozy egg nog, and this week, it’s my sister’s scones.


Each Christmas, my sister Lisa takes a simple recipe for Scottish scones—a formula given to her, appropriately, by a Scottish friend—and spins it into a half-dozen delicious varieties. In our family, these scones are a much-anticipated Christmas-morning tradition—perfect for eating with one hand while tearing at wrapping paper with the other, and with nary a greasy fingerprint to be found. I’ve written previously about a summery rendition of these rugged beauties, but come Christmas, it’s only appropriate to trot them out again—and this time, in a warming, wintery incarnation spiked with crystallized ginger and daintily freckled with finely chopped pistachios.

If you’re looking for me next Sunday morning, head for Washington, D.C., and follow the crumbs.

Happy holidays, very dear reader. xo

12.19.2005

The art of so-called side dishes

Maybe it is a product of our time, a generational thing, or just a matter of pheromones, but I keep falling in love with vegetarians. I spent nine years in their camp, so perhaps I’m predisposed. I may dally with a meat-and-potatoes man, but fate has it that my love is meant for herbivores only. One might argue that my sample size of two is too small for statistical significance, but it’s all I intend to have, and that’s significant enough for me. The first man to win my cooing and swooning was a devout vegan with the bumper stickers to show for it, and together we lasted for three meatless—if occasionally buttery, and blissful—years. The second has, in the twenty-four years since his birth, not once eaten meat, but his palate has ventured farther than most ardent omnivores. I refer, of course, to my wonderfully food-obsessed New Yorker. If push came to shove, I’d take him over a plate of sausage any day, and as you know, dear reader, that is saying a lot.

But no amount of love can change a cold, hard fact: the holidays are a lonely time to be a vegetarian. With a turkey here and a roost goose there, here a tenderloin, there a spiral-sliced ham, everywhere a canapé involving caviar or crustaceans, December can be a cold, mean month. There is Tofurky for the brave, but faced with such odds, the braver will abstain. There are mashed potatoes, breads, biscuits, and yams this way or that, but no matter how many starches on the plate, they do not a meal make. All too often, a table set around meat—as most holiday tables are—looks a little off-kilter when its fleshly centerpiece is removed. A well-stocked plate has an intrinsic balance, an organization that depends on a variety of flavors and textures, a nebulous something that lands softly but satisfyingly on the tongue. So while I am solidly a meat-eating girl, the love of a good vegetarian has taught me a keen respect for the art of so-called side dishes, the sides that make a main meat irrelevant. When I say side dish, I mean creamy, garlicky, herb-flecked white beans.


Though humble to the eye, this silky, lusty purée sings in the mouth. Unabashedly aromatic with garlic, olive oil, rosemary, and sage, it perfumes the entire kitchen with a warm and welcome mid-winter rush of fresh herbs. These beans have appeared at my family’s Christmas parties and its bat mitzvahs—a testament, one could say, to our interfaith gourmandism, but more accurately, to this purée’s universal appeal. On the plate, it plays well with pork, beef, or poultry but is sturdy enough to take center stage among herbivores, carnivores, and those in between. It’s good enough for the love of a good vegetarian, and as you know, dear reader, that is saying a lot.


Dreamy White Beans
Adapted from Mollie Katzen’s Vegetable Heaven

These beans are wonderfully easy and effortless to make, requiring only the foresight to soak the beans a day ahead of time. As a side note, please forgive the recipe’s title; it is Mollie Katzen’s, not mine, and as Brandon notes, “She’s such a hippie.” Nonetheless, I owe her quite a debt of gratitude, and soon, you may too.

2 cups dried white beans, soaked overnight and drained
2 large rosemary sprigs
About 12 sage leaves, tied together with string
1 ½ Tbs minced fresh garlic
1 tsp salt, or more to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
Extra virgin olive oil, for serving
Good-quality balsamic vinegar, for serving

Place the beans in a large pot, and cover them by 2 inches with cold water. Add the rosemary and sage, and bring the pot to a boil over medium-high heat. When the water boils, lower the heat slightly and maintain the pot at a simmer, skimming off any white foam that rises to the surface, until the beans are tender, about 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, place a large bowl in the sink, and set a colander inside the bowl. When the beans are ready, remove the herbs, and drain the beans into the colander, reserving their cooking liquid in the bowl beneath.

Place the drained beans, garlic, salt, and a grind or two of pepper in the bowl of a food processor, add a ½ cup or so of the reserved cooking liquid, and process to puree, adding more liquid until the beans reach your desired consistency. You can make them fairly thick, like rustic mashed potatoes, or you can add more water to make them a thinner, spoonable puree. I like them somewhere in between.

Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary. Spoon the puree into a large bowl, drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and serve.

Yield: about 6 servings.


12.13.2005

Seattle(st)’s Best Egg Nog


Over at Seattlest, I’m revealing the age-old secrets of my family’s egg nog recipe, passed down from my maternal great-grandfather J. P. Hartt. This is the stuff of legends, dear reader, and it’s been corrupting the youth of my family for generations. We’ve never been a video-camera kind of gang, but our one family gathering on tape, the Christmas of 1987, is now famous for my (then) eight-year-old cousin Katie’s announcement that her favorite part of the holiday was “drinking egg nog with boooooze in it.

Egg nog gets a bad rap* in some circles today, and it’s no wonder: all too often, it’s nasty, viscous, cloying stuff, no better than cheap melted ice cream. J. P. Hartt’s rendition is the greatest of exceptions. Smooth, sophisticated, and with a slurpability that belies its richness, it is subtly sweet and, needless to say, very, very boozy. Cheers to you and yours, from me and mine.


*If you are concerned about the safety (or lack thereof) of using raw eggs, please read my notes in the comments section of the post.

12.11.2005

A coming-of-age, in cookies

It may have notoriously waving wheat and pastures full of prime Angus steak, but truth be told, Oklahoma’s food scene is most famous—in certain very exclusive, you understand, very select circles—for my mother’s holiday baking. For nearly twenty years, December was no ordinary month on my mother’s calendar: it was a series of nut-filled, chocolate-covered, butter-rich weeks, of afternoons spent churning out cookies, candies, chocolates, bars, and toffees by the dozen. When it began, I had a pacifier; when it ended, I had half a college diploma; and along the way, I had a sequence of fickle love affairs with nearly every confection my mother made. Some measure maturity in birthdays, milestones, firsts, or lasts, but I plot my personal chronology in Christmas cookies.

As is often the case, mine was a humble beginning. My mother’s Christmas cookie tin was a gorgeous, glamorous thing, but in the early days, I only had eyes for a modest, brown, burnt-sugar candy called Aunt Bill’s. Endemic to the South and a few lucky Plains states, it is creamy, chewy stuff, the flavor of praline melded with the texture of fudge, made from butter, sugar, cream, pecans, and inordinate amounts of muscular stirring. Tooth-achingly good, Aunt Bill’s candy was just the thing for a pre-adolescent sweet tooth—until, of course, I tasted chocolate “rads,” the dark, crackly, bittersweet chocolate-on-chocolate cookies that would usher me into puberty. But before another holiday season had passed, I had already begun a slow turn toward the Linzer cookie, classic and classy in its fancy powdered sugar coat, with a nutty almond base and rosy raspberry filling. Then, at age eighteen, I thought I had at long last found the final frontier in a now-crunchy, now-melty mouthful of coffee-walnut toffee. But I was mistaken. I had not yet tasted a chocolate-dipped fruit-nut ball.


My mother had been making them since the late 1980s, when the recipe was published in Gourmet, but for reasons of irrational childhood prejudice and suspicion of not-too-sweet sweets, the fruit-nut ball had never crossed my lips. In the end, that fateful first bite only took place because I was stuck in an airport somewhere between Oklahoma and California, in transit back to college after Christmas and cursed with a long layover. I was hungry, and by chance, I had a tin of my mother’s cookies stashed in my bag. They were intended for my freshman advisor, a lovely South Indian woman who had invited me “home” for countless dals and curries and was long overdue for proper thanks—but, I told myself, with a little rearranging of the tin’s contents, she’d never know that something was missing. I studied the tin, reasoning that the fruit-nut ball—though untested and, frankly, unpromising—might be my best bet: it seemed at least remotely healthy, and since it was obviously the dud of the bunch, I wouldn’t be depriving my friend of anything particularly good. So I plucked one from the tin, careful not to disturb its neighbors, and I took a bite.


The chocolate cap gave way to a rush of powdered sugar, and beneath it, a soft, dark, winy chew. The dried fruits and walnuts, finely chopped and held together only by a splash of juice, had morphed together into a third something, a flavor at once floral and musky, almost alcoholic, simple on the page but complex on the tongue. It was sophisticated, adults-only stuff from the first bite to the fourth ball, which I handily tucked away shortly before boarding. Needless to say, the tin never found its way out of my dorm room, and eight years later, I still find myself stuck on the chocolate-dipped fruit-nut ball—not a cookie in the strict sense, perhaps, but certainly a coming-of-age.


Chocolate-Dipped Fruit-Nut Balls
Inspired by Gourmet, March 1986

My mother and I find that these little confections improve with time, so for maximum enjoyment, plan to stash them in the fridge for a few days before eating. I like them best cold from the fridge, but then again, I also like cold meatballs and cold stewed prunes. I also like doing my Christmas cooking and baking to the tune of Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” played over and over, very loud and passionately lip-synced. I trust you’ll do what feels best.

1 cup walnuts
½ lb dried cherries
½ lb dried Turkish figs
½ lb dried apricots
½ lb dried pitted prunes
1-2 Tbs fruit juice, such as good apple cider, or fruit-flavored liqueur
Powdered sugar, for dredging
8 ounces good-quality semi-sweet chocolate, coarsely chopped

Place the walnuts in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade, and process them to chop finely. Remove the walnuts to a large mixing bowl.

Rinse the bowl of food processor, wipe it dry, and fill it with the dried fruit. Pulse the machine to chop the fruit finely. You don’t want to turn the fruit into a gummy purée, but you do want it to be chopped finely enough that there are no pieces larger than a pea. Remove the fruit to the bowl with the walnuts, and stir them to mix. Add 1 Tbs fruit juice or liqueur, and stir to combine. Pinch off a smallish wad of the fruit-nut mixture: when you roll it between your palms, does it hold together in a tight ball? If not, add a bit more juice or liqueur until it does.

Pour about ½ cup of powdered sugar into a small bowl; you can add more later, if needed. Pinching off little mounds of the fruit-nut mixture, shape them into 1-inch balls, roll each ball lightly in powdered sugar to coat, and place them on a baking sheet. Let the balls stand at room temperature, uncovered, for 24 hours.

Line a second baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat, and keep it close at hand. In the top of a double boiler set over barely simmering water, melt the chocolate, stirring occasionally, until smooth. Remove it from the heat. Using a teaspoon, plop and dab and shake chocolate onto half of each ball; you may want to do this over the sink, wasteful though it may be, rather than over the bowl of chocolate—otherwise your melted chocolate may be contaminated by sprinkles of powdered sugar. Place the balls on the lined baking sheet, and place them in the refrigerator until the chocolate has hardened. Tuck each ball into a small candy or cupcake cup, and store them in an airtight container, chilled, for up to 2 weeks.

Yield: About 50 balls.



12.06.2005

Saving the holidays, one macaroon at a time

This week’s installment of Seattlest finds me conquering the Christmastime cheese ball and supplanting it with more readily edible—and enjoyable—homemade holiday gifts. Each December, I relish the chance to hole up in my kitchen and churn out dozens of delicious things to give away, and I can’t help but spread the gospel.

Though there is certainly no shortage of wonderful holiday treats making their way around the web, I’ll be calling your attention to a few of my own favorites over the next three weeks. First on the list is a plain, simple, and delicious coconut macaroon,

adapted from Tom’s Big Dinners, by Seattle culinary celebrity (and recent “Iron Chef” winner) Tom Douglas. I love a good macaroon, as I’ve already made clear, and Douglas’s is no exception. While my usual chocolate-covered rendition is rich, moist, and toothsomely dense, his is lighter than air, with a sweet meringue base to give it a chewy, fluffy interior and a shatteringly crisp shell. I'm hard put to say which version I prefer, but the ease—and, dare I say, dirty-snowball appearance—of these makes them a shoo-in for the season.

12.04.2005

Plain Jane, with chickpeas

Peanut butter on toast. A soft-boiled egg with salt and pepper. Butternut squash boiled in cider and mashed. A carrot dunked in lemon-tahini dressing. A cold apple, cored and cut into sixths. Spaghetti squash with sea salt. A glass of milk and a pile of graham crackers. Three-quarters of my diet looks and sounds like something you’d find on the tray of a high chair, or at snack time in preschool. I’m totally blowing my cover, I know. There’s much to be said—and written—for complexity, for nuanced flavors and saucy, sophisticated stuff, but dear reader, woman does not live on intricately crafted dishes alone. I love my salt cod tarts and my soufflés, my hand-rolled pastas and panades, but plain, uncomplicated Jane is also pretty in her own way. Give me a handful of Newman’s arrowroot alphabet cookies and I’ll play contentedly for hours.

Daily life may not be photogenic, and no one needs instructions for putting peanut butter on bread, but I’ve been woefully remiss in giving good, gritty, everyday grub its due. Some dishes are quiet; they don’t sit up and tell stories begging to be written and retold. Instead, they get under our skin and into our kitchens in other ways, namely through outright, all-out, drag-down deliciousness. Take, for example, my favorite spin on the beans-‘n-greens genre, a dish I’ve made no fewer than four times in as many weeks: braised winter greens with chickpeas, onions, and garlic.


These days, most of us have eaten our fill of wilted greens, whether in a salad or as a ubiquitous restaurant side dish, sautéed with olive oil and lemon. But cooked more slowly, braised with only a few clinging drops of liquid and a couple of aromatics, winter greens arrive at the table a different dish entirely, one I’m hard put to put down. Longer, gentler cooking brings out a low, earthy sweetness in chard, collards, or kale, an uncanny flavor that plays well with other things grown close to the ground. The coarse, dark leaves slowly melt into a tangle with onion, garlic, and olive oil, handily trapping nutty, sweet chickpeas onto the fork. It’s a dish perfectly calibrated in its simplicity: a handful of common, everyday ingredients treated uncommonly well, with no sauces or emulsions, no garnish or glitter, no adornments or adult-rated appointments. And for me and Plain Jane, it’s happily so.



Braised Winter Greens with Chickpeas, Onions, and Garlic
Adapted from Fresh from the Farmers’ Market, by Janet Fletcher

This dish sounds so commonplace that I’ve been hesitant to write about it, but its flavors are so unusually well-balanced that I don’t want to keep it to myself. It would be a delicious side for sausages, roasted pork, or roasted chicken, and it would make a welcome bed for a poached egg. Most often, though, I take it as a perfectly plain, perfectly satisfying main dish, with fruit, cheese, and bread to make a hearty meal. It’s ideal for these mid-holiday times, when we find ourselves otherwise surrounded by cookies and cakes and heavy-handed spicing.

The original version of this recipe calls for only chard, but I prefer to use the pretty “sauté mix” from Willie Green’s Organic Farm, which—as far as I can tell—contains ruby chard as well as young leaves from Lacinato (also known as dino) kale, green Winterbor kale, purple Redbor kale, and maybe even mustard greens. I’ve also used collard greens, and to very good effect. These latter greens are a bit heartier than chard, so if you use them, which I highly recommend, choose specimens that are on the younger, more delicate end of the spectrum. I don’t recommend spinach, which goes limp and slippery almost the second it hits the pan. Whatever you use, make sure they are fresh, good-tasting greens with crisp, plump-looking leaves. This recipe is the ultimate in simplicity, so be sure to use the best ingredients possible.

2 bunches chard, kale, collard, or other winter greens, about 1 ½ pounds total
3 Tbsp. olive oil
2 large cloves garlic, minced
½ medium yellow or red onion, minced
1 can (15 ½ ounces) chickpeas, drained and rinsed
Salt
1 ½ tsp freshly squeezed lemon juice

Trim the central ribs from the greens, and discard them. You should wind up with about 1 pound of leaves, or a bit less. Wash them well in a pan of water, and drain them well in a colander. Some water will cling to the leaves, and don’t worry—you want it to. Stack the leaves a few at a time, and slice them crosswise into ¼-inch-wide ribbons. Set them aside.

In a 12-inch skillet, warm the olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and onion, and sauté until the onion is soft and edging toward translucent, about 5-10 minutes. Add the chickpeas, and stir to mix. Add the greens, season well with salt, and stir and fold gently to blend. The leaves are bulky, so you may need to add them in batches, letting them cook down slightly before adding more. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the leaves have wilted enough that you can cover the skillet. Cover, lower the heat—you want to keep the contents of the pan cooking gently and slowly, with no aggressive sizzling or burning—and cook until the greens are tender, about 15 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, and stir in the lemon juice.

Serve warm or at room temperature, but not hot. Taste and adjust the seasoning just before plating.

Yield: 6 side-dish servings, or 2-3 main-dish servings