Tag Archives: Christmas

Fried

Painted in Waterlogue

Most of the photographs I see on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are of food and families. Exquisitely-set tables, elaborate dinners, generations of relatives with freshly-scrubbed faces and beautiful clothes (or, sometimes, new and often comically matching pajamas), happy pets and the occasional engagement ring.

They might as well be pictures from the surface of Mars.

I’ve worked for many years as a church musician—and most of that in a very big church with many, many services. Not only are Christmas Eve and Christmas day workdays, they’re two of the biggest workdays of the year, with extra services, huge crowds, extra musicians. And don’t even get me started about the perfect-storm of a bad year when December 24th falls on Sunday, which means it’s a “regular” workday all morning, and then suddenly becomes Christmas Eve in the afternoon. And if you work in a parish that has services on Saturday evening (“anticipating” Sunday morning), it gets even worse. A special Christmas Eve dinner is out of the question. And by the time you get home on Christmas Day, what you may want more than anything else is to collapse.

That’s not to say I haven’t tried. Hearing about the Feast of Seven Fishes in some families,  I tried picking up sushi on my brief Christmas Eve dinner break. It was sort of festive, but far more rushed than feast-like. Looking for a simpler option, I tried a particular tortilla soup I liked. It was tasty and quick to prepare, but one year it was accidentally too spicy and I turned my head to cough after the first spoonful and re-injured a pulled back muscle and had to play Midnight Mass on some pretty serious pain medication. (That was my first year in the parish and the head of the search committee that hired me worried that they’d made a terrible mistake.)

So I decided: whatever. A ham sandwich eaten in the choir room can be perfect Christmas Eve–maybe with a cookie for dessert. Big Christmas Dinner can be postponed until after I’ve had some sleep.

And then I decided: I’m not doing that any more. I’m not working in a big parish, and I don’t miss it. I may fill in here and there, playing one service on Christmas Eve in order to give a colleague a couple of hours off to have a decent meal with her or his family, but that’s it. And on Christmas morning I am home with my small, happy family.

It doesn’t mean that December is quiet and restful, though. This year, between teaching and concerts and writing and re-writing and re-writing the re-writes and rehearsals and performances—both of us doing shows at the same time in different theaters—there wasn’t a day off between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. But, while driving to the train station in the morning, or in the few minutes before sleep at night, or in text messages exchanged here and there, we made plans: I’d play my one service on Christmas Eve with her in attendance to hear the music she loves so well; we’d go for a little drive to look at the lights; then we’d come home to roast a fast-but-festive spatchcocked chicken. On Christmas Day, we’d have a late breakfast of pumpkin-cream-cheese French Toast Casserole, and slow-cook a dinner of Boeuf Bourguignon.

Of course none of that happened quite the way we planned. The looking-at-lights trip happened several days after Christmas. The beef stew went into the pressure cooker rather than a slow oven. And what we thought would be a quick Christmas Eve nap resulted in her waking up on Christmas morning.

I’m just reporting, not complaining.

But there it was, the 28th, and we still had a raw chicken in the fridge. “Should I spatchcock it?” I asked. “What about Alton’s fried chicken?” I was skeptical about thermal-control issues, but she had given me a spiffy new instant-read thermometer for Christmas. So I used my treasured boning knife to portion the chicken. She made the spice blend and moved on to other household tasks. I buttermilk-bathed and spice-rubbed and flour-massaged.

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While the chicken rested I prepared the salad, scrubbed and started the potatoes baking.

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I cranked up the not-very-effective exhaust fan, opened the kitchen window, and heated the oil

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I checked each piece with my spiffy new thermometer, and kept them warm in the oven until everybody was finished. 

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It was a wonderful meal.

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Oh, Christmas Eve? I woke up from our nap sooner than she did. I padded downstairs in my robe and slippers to I assembled the French Toast casserole so it could rest overnight.  Then I realized I really did want some dinner. I had a ham sandwich and a cookie for dessert.

It was perfect.

Not Mincing Words

Gather, my children, and you shall hear the story of a boy, a girl, and the Christmas without a Mince Pie.

Watching the 2017 Christmas Masterclass Mince Pie segment (and missing Mary Berry very much), she says, “We should try that.”

I can’t remember the last time I had a mincemeat pie. I can’t remember ever having a mincemeat pie. It’s the sort of thing I vaguely recall my grandmother baking, but nothing I would have been willing to try as a child.

But perhaps because of the recent visit from a picky-eating 10-year-old, I was feeling willing to give it a go. Of course we didn’t have a jar of mincemeat on hand, but the weather wasn’t bad, and I was going to be sitting on an organ bench at church for a long time later, so I volunteered for a Christmas Eve-afternoon walk.

Reaching the market, I began my search for the international foods aisle. I know there’s an international foods aisle, for it is where I buy PG Tips tea, her preferred brand. I can’t find it. I checked at the customer service desk, where I was told, “We don’t really have a section like that,” but maybe in aisle 7.  In aisle 7, I find the German foods, the Thai foods, Chinese foods, Japanese foods, lots of Kosher products, and stuff from many South American cultures. This feels pretty international to me, but whatever. In any event, there was nothing British.

Thinking the Brit-food has been distributed in other departments, I looked for pie fillings in the baking-supplies aisle. Couldn’t find ’em. Cake mix of every variety, muffins as far as the eye can see, plenty of flour and sugar, but no pie fillings. Oh, wait, there they are. Or were: a mostly empty shelf. But the mostly empty shelf has no tag indicating mincemeat was once there. I checked in produce, where the dried fruits are kept. Nothing doing there either. By this point I was on a mission. It must be there somewhere.
I found two clerks talking while one restocked the cheese section. I heard only the end of their conversation. “…and then it just wasn’t there anymore.” The other one threw her hands in the air in a helpless shrug, and the first one left. I said to the one remaining, “Speaking of things that aren’t there any more, do you know where I can find mincemeat?” She wasn’t sure, but led me to another guy. “Mincemeat?” this guy said. “That’s with the lamb.”
“I think that’s something else,” I said. “This has beef suet, but it’s mostly fruit.”
“Oh—fruit,” he replied. “Look with the prunes.” (That’s the dried fruit section, where I’ve been, but maybe I missed it.)  My guide-clerk led helpfully to the produce section, where she saw a third clerk and called to him, “Mincemeat?” He nods, and starts down the aisle. I followed him, encouraged.
He reached the end of his section and pointed to a shelf where proudly stood bags…of snow peas.
“Uh, thanks,” I said. “Let me think about it.” He nodded, and walked away, happy that his mission was accomplished.
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a mince pie. All except us, anyway. I had a great walk, and baked brownies.

Sweet Traditions

Two more layers of creamy goodness will top this lemon-covered shortbread. Talk about gilding the Easter lily!

My grandmother had a pre-wrapped gift box. I’m sure it had once been a beautiful thing, but by the time I came to know it, it had seen better days. Its glittered and flocked exterior showed plenty of wear. The ribbon wrapped around its lid was more than a little frayed. The bow formed by that ribbon would never be as pretty and puffy as when it was new.  But every Christmas, it came out of her closet, and was filled with a token gift for her youngest son, my uncle. And on the day after Christmas, she’d take the box back and put it back into her closet to wait for the following year.

After she passed away, my mom found the box and continued to use it for her baby brother’s Christmas present–which was usually a small batch of his favorite cookie, wrapped carefully in plastic so it didn’t damage the box. (The rest of the cookies were presented in a more practical container, usually a zip-top bag.) As time went on, those orange flavored cookies with a faint orange glaze might not even have been my uncle’s favorite, but they were tradition.

My grandmother’s recipe collection is in storage while renovations on the Country House are underway. This might not be her exact recipe, but it’s close.  While she was living, nobody but my grandmother baked the orange cookies; then, only my mother did. One of my cousins does it now for her dad.

We don’t have many solid food traditions here. Turkey on Thanksgiving, sure. But we’ll have fried rice on New Year’s Eve, or popcorn for Christmas, or pancakes any night of the week if that’s what we feel like doing. That might change; we’re still figuring things out.

Her aunt–who is as much like a big sister to her as anything else–is known in the family for her lemon squares. They’re requested for every big family occasion, and nobody else makes them. Her aunt gave us the recipe–not because she’s handing over the reins, but because we’re far enough away that we aren’t encroaching on her turf. I’m honored. And delighted. I made a batch last Easter, surprised that I so enjoyed a recipe that had ingredients I’d never otherwise use: Cool Whip? Pudding Mix? I’m a from-scratch guy! 

When we were invited to a friend’s home for Easter dinner, her aunt’s lemon squares the first thing it occurred to us to bring. We tag-teamed: I baked the shortbread crust before I left for rehearsal; she took it from there. Creamy, tart, and addictively delicious, they were of course a hit.

I’ve seen variations of the recipe on lots of sites, so I don’t know that her aunt invented this treat; it seems to be a family tradition that only she made them.

And now we do, for Easter. Pudding and Cool Whip. Life is full of surprises. And unexpected traditions. I think I’ll bake some orange cookies at Christmastime. I’m looking forward already to next Easter.

At the end of Easter dinner, one remaining Lemon Square might look as forlorn as an old Christmas gift box--but it's every bit as delicious as new, and as full of love.

At the end of Easter dinner, one remaining Lemon Square might look as forlorn as an old Christmas gift box–but it’s every bit as delicious as new, and as full of love.

Linen-White Christmas

“White Christmas” will never be my favorite carol. I love Christmas, but I’m no fan of snow. If I could find a way to have it fall only on parts of the world that are usually green, I’d be perfectly happy.  A snowy field?  Fine.  Frosted tree branches along the roadside? Beautiful. Just keep it off the pavement, power lines, and rooftops.  I don’t mean to be a Grinch about it, but there are places to go and things to do.  I’m no Scrooge, but offer me an icy windshield to scrape or a plowed-in car to shovel out, and my response is a hearty Humbug!

The same attitude doesn’t apply so strongly in the kitchen, but I think of white things there as a delivery mechanism for other foods.  Mashed potatoes carry gravy.  Rice is best with a pile of vegetables and a little protein.  Grits? Scrambled eggs.  Oatmeal? Lots of fruit and some crunchy granola. Whipped cream is a garnish for pie or cake; vanilla ice cream is best with some topping or other.

But at home? Let’s have plenty of white–on the walls, that is.  The painter worked incredibly hard this week, and finished the main floor of the house on Friday morning.  We swept and mopped and swept and mopped again, finally removing the hoarfrost of plaster dust every horizontal surface in the living room, dining room, and kitchen.  We wiped down the kitchen cabinets and removed the dust that had slipped inside them. We vacuumed the un-tarped furniture; she fitted the sofa with the new slipcover that’s been waiting patiently to begin its service.  Tables came out of hiding and lamps perched brightly upon them. A very few objects d’art were arranged on shelves.  She found the stocking hangers and hung the stockings (with care, of course) from the mantle.  Her parents arrived for a pre-holiday visit. There were comfortable places to sit, a table at which to eat, flowers arranged, and a fire crackling in the hearth. If there was to be no more Christmas than this, it would still be a beautiful celebration.

It looks a little like we’re just moving in–which, in a way, we are.  The walls are creamy, the floors are clean and shiny, and there’s nothing hung on the walls.  Some might call it bland, boring, or vanilla, but I won’t.  It’s calm and uncluttered and clean. There’s no snow in the forecast. It will be a linen-white Christmas, and that seems perfect to me.

This Dinner Brought to You by iMessage

There are dinners you plan weeks in advance, snuggled on a sofa with cookbooks all around and steaming mugs of tea nearby.  (I’m pretty sure there are such dinners, anyway; the nearest we’ve had have been conversations about Christmas and Easter meals, although I don’t remember the steaming mugs of tea, and in our case “cookbooks all around” means searching on Epicurious.)

There are dinners you plan by opening the fridge and hoping not to find new cultures of penicillin.

Most days, dinner is somewhere in between.

On Monday morning, I received an iMessage:

Car unloaded.

(She had made a trip to the storage unit to retrieve some items from a “miscellaneous” box that should have come into the house.)

Also, dinner sourced.

Oh? I replied.

Tomato and mozzarella sandwiches on bagels. With whatever other veggies we have.

After a successful workday, several hours of unpack-and-sort (cleaning products, hats and gloves were the day’s projects), and guest-room-tidying in preparation for a visit from her dad, it was dinnertime.

Lightly toasted asiago bagels were spread with a molecule-thin layer of mayo, layered with thick slices of ridiculously good tomato from the CSA and dairy-fresh mozzarella cheese, sprinkled with salt and pepper, and a few fried basil leaves, and served open-faced alongside sautéed green beans.

It’s not the sort of thing I grew up eating. I didn’t like uncooked tomato until college, and the only cheese I knew was square, pre-sliced, and wrapped in plastic. It’s a fine and glorious thing to discover things you thought you didn’t like.

Tomato and cheese sandwiches. Who knew?

Yum.

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(No photos last night, particularly not of the leftover burger I offered my breakfast-and-lunch-skipping dinner companion as a protein boost alongside the bagel. It was, as predicted, considerably past well-done. Instead, here’s one of the planned-well-in-advance boeuf bourginnone she prepared for Christmas dinner last year.)

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