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Posts Tagged ‘Christmas’

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My Grapes of Wrath shot. Western meadow, Locust, NJ.

I got myself into a proverbial pickle this past weekend, working really hard and zipping all over the place for work, but forgetting to stock the larder. Well, part of it was Foodtown’s fault; I usually get ground turkey at Trader Joe’s, but the prospect of shopping there on December 23 (let alone Christmas Eve) put me in the cross-hairs for a panic attack. I love TJ’s, but not in December. A shopping trip there earlier this month compelled me to call the place a Ralph Lauren-encrusted Night of the Living Dead. With oversized tins of salted-caramel toffee.

So it was off to Foodtown, where they had ground turkey but with no price tag, and I had no energy to go to customer service to find out what it cost. I went home and did what my peasant forebears did: cobbled. Then gobbled. And gobbled well.

  1. Defrosted some chicken legs, made broth, and added bits of chicken. Dried leftover thyme went in next, and some soba noodles from my pantry shelf. Seriously capital stuff.
  2. Cut up leftover apples, mixed them with fresh cranberries and ground ginger, added oats and toasted walnuts, and made a huge pan of fruit crisp that I’m semi-embarrassed to admit that I destroyed in two days flat. Semi.

Then the craziest thing happened: The weekend kept surprising me, stretching everything that was lacking. And not just with food.

As I was halfway out the door, headed to the park to hike and take pictures, I realized I hadn’t recharged my camera battery since Hector was a pup. But it was too late to do it then; the sun had already started its decline and I couldn’t afford to lose any more light. I’d have to shoot until the battery burned out…and that might be after one shot. Or none. But it never happened. And I took nearly 30 shots.

And before I started out I remembered I needed gas. Gulped, kicking myself for not getting it the day before, because are gas stations even open on Christmas? My dashboard warning light had come on and I didn’t want to risk an hour drive, round trip, and then getting stranded while gas station workers (and everyone, really) were where they deserved to be—at home and drenched in eggnog. But first try, at my own hometown station, a guy was there. I filled up without another worry. Maybe he doesn’t like eggnog.

Even the sun hung in for me: When I arrived at the park the sun was still up but I felt it fading, and scrambled to shoot. Then out of nowhere it roared back, glowing a fierce amber and giving me another 15 minutes. I was shocked, but I shouldn’t have been by then. It’s as if the universe was saying no matter what little I have, it will stretch a bit further if I need it to.

Christmas is over and I made my way back to Foodtown (but not Trader Joe’s just yet, mind. We’re still shy of New Year’s Eve), but I’m not done cobbling in the kitchen with stuff from beforehand. I still have broth left. Guess what else I found? Two onions, bread chunks I saved in the freezer, and a wedge of Fontina.

2017 is on the horizon, and so is French onion soup.

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Many people have told me when they see this shot, they think of the Wizard of Oz. Minus the tornado. Locust, NJ.

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Sour cream coffee cake that looks like pie because I cut back the sugar by half. I’ve since gotten smart: kept the sugar halved, but doubled the overall recipe to give it the height I remember. I can MacGyver quite a bit when it comes to food. Cinnamony and tender. Christmas 2011.

The holiday season is winding down—just three more days until Twelfth Night. This time of year is famously nostalgic for the sights and sounds, but especially smells and tastes, of times gone by.

All of the photos here evoke a place that feels peaceful, safe, and magical—however briefly. Think about it: we willingly do this to ourselves every year, and it’s not always fun getting to the finish line. Shopping, wrapping, gift hiding, card writing, cooking, cleaning, decorating, tree hunting, driving, spending, fretting, sweating. There’s something we’re getting out of it, or we’d never bother. And I don’t think we do it just for the kids’ sake, or just for religion’s sake. This agnostic doesn’t have kids, but she bakes and decorates every year. I have a friend, also child-free, who’s atheist, and currently has a live 10-foot tree in his foyer.

I believe we do it for the feeling, for that fleeting sense of calm and magic we remember. We grab it every year with both hands, despite the hassle, despite the cost, because it feeds something inside us that’s hungry. The smells of pine and cinnamon and peppermint make everything okay again. The magic soothes us like a hot chocolate bath.

Christmastime has the unique ability to take us back to a place we need to go…and nourish us when we get there.

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My first-ever candy snowmen, sitting on a sugared landscape. Whenever I make them now I remember seeing one of the kids at this party smooshing a snowman with his fist. I wasn’t mad; I thought it was hilarious. Almonds all the way. Something like Christmas 2006.

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Shepherd’s pie, made with lamb, naturally. I made this just after New Year’s Day, 2013. Nothing comes close to the real thing. Rich, nutmeggy, and creamy.

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Half-eaten traditional English Christmas cake, made from a recipe gifted to me by my elderly English neighbor. I had so much fun making this and enjoying it in ‘fingers,’ little slivers, as they do across the pond. Intensely flavored with cloves, cinnamon, and lots of dried fruit. Christmas 2013.

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Another first-ever: stollen. I shot this right out of the oven, just before I pulled its fluffy insides apart with my fingers. Full of fragrant, juicy dried fruit and orange peel. Christmas 2010.

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My room, with guest appearances by Douglas fir, white pine, juniper, and weeping willow. It smells woodsy and wintergreeny. The shot might be a current one, but the smells remind me of Christmases past.

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My Raggedy Ann, about 40 years old, in her worn calico dress. She sits under my tree every year.

 

 

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I’m writing this five days after the winter solstice, windows open on a 63-degree F night, and waiting for proper winter to arrive. I can’t wait for the aqua-blue evening light, the perfectly still air, the sheets of glassy ice at the curb. And yet…the light brightens just a little more every day. That’s an ancient promise we can count on.

I’ve talked a lot here about communing with the earth. It’s probably my favorite topic. Cooking, foraging, digging around in the ground—all are like butter on a burn to me, and I suspect they always will be.

But the backstory, the one I haven’t yet told, is this: I don’t cook and forage and dig because they’re a pleasant way to spend a Thursday, or because they’re trendy (perish that last thought along with skinny jeans). I do it because the earth is home. She’s blood. She’s safe. Always has been. The earth, the outdoors, consistently gave me what I couldn’t get indoors. And harvesting and eating what comes from her today is natural, if you’ll forgive the pun. It’s one of the dozens of ways I can keep reaching out and grabbing her hand.

The earth and I go way back. One of my earliest memories is when I was a toddler, pulling a long weed from the side yard, and being genuinely surprised that there wasn’t a carrot at the other end of it. We kids spent an inordinate amount of time outside. I learned the best ways to traverse hedges between yards, and it didn’t fail. I waited for certain flowers to bloom every year, and they always did. Spring rain water felt differently in my fingers than fall rain water. (It feels thicker. Maybe it is.) I can still remember the scent of the little white flowers that grew on a hedge at the end of our block, as well as in my uncle’s backyard around the corner. I still have the scent of May in my nose. It smells green. Of course.

(And today, right now, my bedroom is green: On Christmas Eve I hung juniper and white pine branches on the wall above my bed, and willow branches are literally hanging from my ceiling. It was a trick, considering I’m 5’3″, the ceiling is 9.5′, and I only have a dinky stepladder. [Don’t ask. I made it work.] I’ve always wanted to feel as though I was falling asleep in a magic glade, and with the shadows and tiny white lights on my tree, also in my room…it is. And I can have the windows open, no less.)

My earth experiences growing up weren’t all great; I remember the hurricanes at the end of summer, the ice storms and mud and heat waves. Getting pricked by wild-rose thorns and getting poison ivy blisters. But I never felt afraid when I was outside. I always felt protected. Cradled. I knew where to go when I needed cradling, and I was never left wanting.

And that sense of safety remains to this day. There’s a powerful serenity in knowing when I have a crap day that the ocean will be there for me. Always. There’s a serenity in knowing that the underside of a magnolia leaf will be brown and fuzzy, and that the blackberries beneath the canes will be sweetest. The wild lilies-of-the-valley down by the lake will be palest pink, the wild crocuses will be lavender. When the sun comes back, I get to visit them again. I wrap this knowledge around me, and it is profound comfort.

The earth can be messy and unpredictable, that’s for sure. There’s always been mud, and storms, and heat waves. There always will be. I still get pricked by wild-rose thorns, and I get poison ivy blisters on my hands every year like clockwork.

But here’s the important thing, the biggest reason why I take it all in stride: the heat waves always pass. I can count on that like I can count on the crocuses. There will always be beauty at the end of the block. Old friends will poke their noses up from the ground, and new ones will, too. I will get surprises every day, of every year. I laugh when I see them half the time because I never saw them coming.

The earth never fails me. No matter what befalls, good or mud. She always gives the sun back.

Spring always comes.

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I spent this week outsmarting insects called no-see-ums, dismantling and cleaning my apartment, and restoring it after a fumigation, just as everyone enjoys doing a week before Christmas. Me in black leggings tucked into new and surprisingly tight black* Hanes socks, with a long-sleeved shirt tucked into my waistband, to deter the biters. Dressed like this while dragging out paper snowflakes, ceramic light-up houses, and a suped-up tree stand. I looked like a Goth elf. But I beat the invisible little suckers.**

This is good news. And because I’m tenacious and in decent shape, the house is clean, aired, and bug-less. But I’m not ashamed to say this ordeal wore me out. Extra treats have been essential to get me from point A to point B, and I have been enjoying them without the faintest trace of guilt. Christmastime offers up some awesome once-a-year treats. Maybe you could use a couple yourself. Here we go.

Things that Cheer Me Right Back Up

-Driving past the house nearby that has a porch decorated with lit trees and a life-sized Santa.

-Making gingerbread men (to be continued; the dough’s in the fridge to firm up). Finding a cookie cutter for them has proved preposterously futile, so I’m cutting them out freehand. Edibility is the only requisite here, which is good.

-Dim sum and crepes, plus homemade stuff: mozzarella in carrozza, burgers made in the manner of English spiced beef, proper stuffing (which I sadly missed at Thanksgiving), and sour cream coffee cake. The recipe is here.

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The Cake. It won a ribbon at the county fair and is a Christmas morning tradition. One year I even put it under the tree as a present to me. Maybe I’ll do it again.

-Following the local volunteer fire truck as the guys dress up and deliver early gifts to our kids. The kids jump up and down in picture windows and I can see them mouthing SANTA!

-Decorating my tree, which I keep in my room, and which was cut down by a gold miner (truth). Yukon Cornelius made a rare appearance in Colts Neck, NJ. He looked great for his age.

-Filling the bedroom with white pine to keep the tree company.

-Visiting the antiques store to see bits and pieces of Christmases past.

-Buying myself a rhinestone necklace and wearing it home from the mall, even though I had on work boots. Logic, schmogic.

-Observing the sky at dusk on New Year’s Day to predict what kind of a year 2016 will be. It’s an old custom. You want to look for a cloud shaped, however vaguely, like a bull. Totally not kidding! Look it up.

-Reading my old book of Christmas ghost stories, which are less scary than they are quaint.

-Sending Christmas cards. I might be one of the only people who likes this activity. That and eating fruitcake (caveat: homemade).

-Opening my vintage Advent calendars, which are German, at least 50 years old, and were owned by my neighbors growing up.

Sweet.

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Girl after my own heart.

*I wear black clothes a lot. It matches everything, plus it’s all that’s allowed backstage.

**These guys can get in through window screens. Explains why I never saw them.

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Raisins, Dots, chocolate buttons, mini marshmallows, M&Ms, shredded coconut, Junior Mints…and my brother-in-law’s fantastic concoction (supervising): apple cider, white rum, dry curacao, and orgeat syrup.

Yesterday was spent with my family, making and decorating Christmas cookies, opening presents, and generally chilling. Here are the takeaways, in no particular order.

  1. A small child will never tire of putting her hands in bowls of candy.
  2. And she will extract as much as she can in the manner of the claw machines at the boardwalk.
  3. You may have to tell her that the M&Ms are edible, and not, say, beads. Once you do, you’re on your own.
  4. If you give her two ornaments off the tree as gifts for her and her brother, she will continue removing the rest of the ornaments.
  5. After opening a handful of art supplies, she will want to play with them all. Simultaneously.
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This is Santa, created by my 2-year-old niece. He is either waving a Merry Christmas to everyone or imploring help for a severe Junior Mint injury to his right shoulder. I think we’ve all been there.

6) When offered two different kinds of homemade cookies, grownups will eat one after the other quite mindlessly, as if the room is a zero-calorie-emission zone.

7) Even after going through two pizzas.

8) The floor is a totally acceptable place to sit.

9) After a bottle and a tummy rub, a five-month-old will demonstrate the best way to enjoy life: by falling asleep in the corner of a sofa.

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Mommy at left; tiny artist at right.

10) Whether decorated perfectly or somewhat less so, a cookie made with good ingredients will always taste good.

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Snowflake with red royal icing and mini marshmallows, skillfully applied.

 

 

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Most tales that include cold-cured marinated brisket evoke joy and good will. Not so this.

I mean I made sure the story wrapped up on a good note, but there was the cost which whirled away down the potty, don’t think that didn’t hurt, and the time I’d spent each night giving the meat its massage of spices and salt. If I knew what I did wrong I’d just kick myself and learn and be done with it, but I don’t know what I did wrong. And what really got me bummed was missing out on the flavor that Laurie swooned over.

I know, I always get ahead of myself.

Let’s make like Julie Andrews and start at the very beginning: years ago I became enthralled by a recipe for Spiced Beef, a traditional Christmastime treat in the UK, in More Home Cooking. The book was written by Laurie Colwin, who passed away suddenly some 20 years ago, who I’ve never met, and yet miss like a best bud. We’re cut from the same cloth, as two of the 11 people on Planet Earth who champion English recipes. Hers was Elizabeth David’s version. I saw a recipe for Spiced Beef again in a vintage collection of UK recipes I bought at a used book sale. And there was a version of it on Nigella’s site, and another on boston.com. This looked Promising.

Laurie’s recipe made too much (it feeds 8-10), so I went with the recipe in my vintage cookbook instead. Whole Foods kindly sold me 3 lbs. of lean brisket, and I snatched up black peppercorns (1 tablespoon), whole allspice (1 tablespoon), dried juniper berries (1/4 cup), dark brown sugar (1/4 cup), and coarse salt (1/4 cup). It was a combo I had never tasted, and it sounded wild. Laurie called it magnificent. Game on.

The recipe said I was to coat the meat with the brown sugar, place it in a casserole dish, cover it, and let it sit in the fridge for two days. Then I was to crush the spices and salt, then scatter and press a tablespoon of it into the meat every day for 12 days. This dry rub would act as a preservative to seal in freshness*.

I followed the recipe to the letter. I’m a good listener. Okay, one thing—I finished in 11 days and not 12 because the rub ran out. But I coddled that meat like a flat pink newborn. I also took three more precautions:

1) To be sure it would keep four weeks after cooking, as it said it would, I called a butcher for a professional opinion. Went straight to the top—Lobel’s, NYC, five generations. Evan Lobel, who I saw a few years ago on television talking beef with Martha Stewart, picked up. I read the recipe to him and he disagreed with the longevity, thinking it would keep 10 days, tops. I found another opinion online that said 4-5 days. Fine, we’ll polish it off in a week.

2) I had a feeling my oven thermometer was slowly going on the fritz, so I replaced it.** I was right.

3) I set the pan on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator, all the way in the back where it’s coldest.

Yesterday was cooking day. You take some or all of the spices off, drain off the liquid in the casserole dish, put the meat back in, add 3/4 cup of cold water to the dish, and cover it. Then you cook it on the middle rack of the oven for 3.5 hours at 275 degrees F. This is how it looked just before cooking time. I swear I sang little songs to it.

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Can you tell anything’s wrong? Me neither.

After a half hour, I could smell it. That’s when I started to worry, and that’s when it started and ended—right there with my nose. It wasn’t horrible, just…off. I went through all of the question marks in my head.

Will it smell better once it’s finished cooking? Does it smell this way because it’s coated with sugar and a mix of spices I’ve never cooked before? Should I taste it?*** Do I lose my mind now, or wait until I have the meat nicely settling on a cooking rack?

I didn’t even throw it away immediately. Almost went through the last steps of weighing the meat under a board and letting it press down overnight. With as much as I pampered this brisket, it felt like it should be interred, maybe with chanting and a few carefully chosen words, not just tossed away. I put it in a Hefty freezer bag first, which isn’t the same as interment after a soak in myrrh, but decent.

Reliving this has been less than enjoyable. For you, too, right? Let’s bring on the holiday cheer.

I am a stage tech in my down time, and we learn to be problem solvers. If we don’t, we can at the very least foul up the show; and at the very most, get hurt or hurt someone else.**** And yesterday, after it hit me that the meat was gone, I was in a state: I’d eaten half a 72% blueberry-chocolate bar to drown my sorrows, so I was hopping. Plus I have a very big problem, in general, with failing *entirely*; if I fail at something, I want either to fix it or to wring the best out of it, and that’s on me to make happen. So I thought about it.

Replacing the brisket and starting over entirely without the benefit of knowing what went wrong—obviously that was out. I knew I wanted to taste what I should have tasted, that strange primitive combination of flavors with meat. THAT I could do, in a different way.

Night had fallen and it was still raining—had been all day. I put on my coat and turned my collar to the cold and damp. Then I went to the store and bought fresh ground turkey.

When I got home, I formed three patties and into them pressed 1 tablespoon brown sugar. Then I covered the pan and set it on the cold shelf of the fridge to soak overnight.

This morning with my mortar and pestle I crushed 1 teaspoon each of juniper berries, whole allspice, black peppercorns, and salt, pressed it into the patties, and set them back in the fridge for an hour. I sliced a wedge of seeded semolina bread for a roll, which is about as English as baklava, but so what, and I tossed some potatoes from the organic farm with some fresh horseradish from my friend Peggy, who grows it for Passover and always ends up with a yard full. Nigella said the beef goes well with horseradish potatoes.

Then I cooked everything, and then I ate everything, and it was freaking spectacular. I’m not even BSing you to make up for the lurid saga above. I got to taste those flavors. Serious happiness. And tomorrow’s and Tuesday’s burgers will probably be even better because they’ll have had a chance to marinate in the spices more.

Yes, I am going to try Spiced Beef again sometime. And if any readers out there have made it and have pinpointed where I screwed up, speak right up and help a girl out.

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*I sound like a Gladware commercial.

**My oven’s 25 degrees off. The joy of cooking, indeed.

***This was the toughest to resist. You will be glad to hear I did not taste it.

****Or God forbid, hurt the set.

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Hot sourdough bread with butter.

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Same slice. I just couldn’t decide which was the purtier.

So maybe it’s because I went from making a 12-ingredient* fruitcake over Christmas to drizzling Baileys into snow last week that’s really making me appreciate the value of simplicity. Or maybe it’s because I’m an editor as well as a writer, and stripping the superfluous out of everything from copy to my Facebook friends list to food ingredients appeals to me. Or—this is probably it—it’s that the simpler the ingredients and prep, the more satisfying the dish.

People usually assume that since I’m a food writer I put all of my focus on fancy restaurants, but to be honest, the opposite is true: I don’t care about fine dining. I care about ingredients. Choose the best ingredients and don’t mess with them too much. Why should you? They already had big plans to speak for themselves.

Years ago Dr. Andrew Weil said his idea of the ultimate dessert was good-quality dark chocolate alongĀ  with fruit, in season (this matters) and perfectly ripe. It’s both healthy and heavenly.

For a real challenge along those lines, for a week (or more) keep recipe ingredients down to the bare minimum—three to five, tops. Pared down just to the essence of themselves, offered in the best possible light with the matchmaking** of your two sweet hands, and people start to call you a good cook. It’s nutty.

The shots here are bloody good memories of mine. Every component of every dish is of good quality and consequently didn’t fail me. And none have more than five ingredients.

I’d continue, but I don’t want to shoot my premise in the foot.***

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Just-picked organic strawberries and cream.

Mozzarella in carrozza: a cheese sandwich dipped in egg, dredged in flour, and butter-fried.

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Organic figs I picked, then dipped in dark chocolate and sprinkled with fleur de sel.

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Scotch Woodcock: toast smeared with butter and anchovy paste, then topped with very softly cooked scrambled eggs and a couple whole fishie cuties.

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Lemon curd: lemon zest, juice, sugar and eggs, plus a little pat of butter.

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Gianduja (homemade Nutella): dark chocolate, toasted hazelnuts, sugar, cream and butter.

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Popovers: all-purpose flour, eggs, milk, butter and salt.

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A pineapple kebob-like thing I came up with: fresh cut pineapple doused in Malibu rum and dusted with sweetened shredded coconut.

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Another invention of mine: mulberries picked from the tree outside my balcony and cooked down into a jam with sugar, several hefty splashes of Petite Syrah, and ground cardamom.

*And it would have been 13 but I couldn’t find candied angelica.

**I couldn’t think of this word. I could only think of ‘shiddoch’. True story. So I Googled that to get me to the English word. The nine remaining drops of my sanity are going to fall out of my ears one of these days.

***I also mix metaphors the way good things come to those who take the bull by the horns.

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