Because no one likes Getting their hand Caught in a goopey cookie Jar
So, the other night, in an effort to slow the passing of December and spend an evening actually indulging in 'the holiday season' as opposed to just stressing over it, a couple of girlfriends and I decided to drink wine and frost cookies. (Oh, and take down heaping bowls of homemade spaghetti and slowly simmered meatballs - because when you give a group of girls wine, comfort food and dessert that's basically a craft project, being faced with a season of relentless traffic, overspending and too many hors d'oeuvres on a stick, seems somehow managable.)
Along with white, red, rosé and bubbles (yes, we covered our bases), we had an assortment of sprinkles, silver dragees, sanding sugars and sparkles, with which to decorate a big batch of festively-shapped butter cookies. I mean, Martha Stewart eat your heart out! The only things missing were matching pj's and monogrammed stockings hung by the fire with care. (More like hung by the fire-escape with Command strips - but, hey, renter's semantics.)
As a contribution to the edible 'craft table', my sweet friend brought with her a tube of mysteriously sparkly and vibrantly green decorating gel. As stated on the packaging, this eye-catching, sugary paste was intended to jazz up everything from cakes to cookies, and with its super spreadable consistency, it seemed like a simple way to tackle the intricacies of giving a cookie snowman its hat or a star its sparkle.
What the packaging failed to mention, was that this goopey green gel never hardens - not ever! A fact we came to realize, three snowmen and a star later. Yes, it sparkles. Yes, it's unnaturally attention grabbing. And yes, it will end up all over the inside of your cookie jar, treat bag or purse, several hours after applying it. It's one hell of a sweet mess, no matter how you spread it.
Fortunately, I had made us a batch of trusty royal icing as well.
Royal icing is pretty much the only way to go, when decorating cookies. As the mortar to your gingerbread bricks, and the glue to your cookie's adornments, it's the only way to ensure a secure, hard dry on treats you want to stack, build, box and give away. It's the icing we used when I was a kid, on all our gingerbread houses, and it's the icing I use today when throwing back wine and innaporopriately enhancing gingerbread men and women, once the pasta's worn off and the bubbles set in.
It's also what will save you from sending your girlfriend home with a to-go bag she'll have to think twice about sticking her hand into in the morning.
Optional: Food coloring
With a hand mixer or stand mixer, whisk the egg white into stiff peaks. (Stiff, but not totally dried out.)
Add in the powdered sugar, and whisk until it's totally combined. Then, whisk in between 1 tsp and 1 tbsp of lemon juice or vanilla extract. I used lemon juice, but you can use whichever flavor you prefer. (Peppermint extract would be good too!) You want the consistency to be sticky and pipable, but not runny. Add just enough liquid, so that you can pipe it through the tip of a piping bag, in a steady stream. Don't worry, if it becomes too runny, you can always add more sugar.
At this point you can add a little food coloring, if you want to brighten things up. I'm a bit classic when it comes to cookie decorating, so I leave it white and let the sprinkles and dragees do the rest.
Add the icing to a piping bag and decorate your heart out - it will fully set in about an hour, but add your decorations quickly, while it's still super tacky.
Now gather some friends, libations and a big bowl of something yummy, turn on the Christmas music and get your cookie on!
You can get back to worrying about estimated shipping costs, finding parking, getting to the store before everyone else does and holiday travel, tomorrow.
For those moments during 'the Holidays' when you don't want to emotioally connect to your food
Every year, somewhere between Thanksgiving and Christmas, after countless meals seasoned with cinnamon and nutmeg, an overwhelming amount of pumpkin and squash, and an almost maniacal emphasis on all things decadent, I become momentarily oversaturated. The thought of yet another meal served with the intent to coat my insides in warmth, nostalgia and rich, top-button-unfastening indulgence has everything inside me screaming for something light, bright and totally non-emotional.
Don't get me wrong, I love food with feeling, but after weeks and weeks of being made to have an emotional connection to everything from the latte I order at the coffee house, to the shameless Holiday rendition of my favorite granola, I crave a meal that leaves me feeling, well, nothing. Nothing but totally satisfied and just a little virtuous, that is.
The thought of sweet, bright and clean mandarin and blood oranges, peppery, sharp arugula, earthy beets and tangy, warm goat cheese served up with creamy avocado and toasted pine nuts, has me breathing a satisfied sigh of relief and gives me the momentary respite I need, in order to power through the remaining three weeks of excess.
The measurements for this salad aren't particularly vital - if you like more greens than fruit, by all means, skimp on the fruit, and via versa.
To fan the avocado, slice it in half and remove the pit. Scoop out the two halves from the shell using a spoon, keeping each half intact. Thinly slice the avocado halves, and then gently fan the slices using your fingers and light pressure.
To sear the goat cheese, roll it into little balls (I use about 1-2 tbsp per ball), then flatten them into discs. Coat the outsides of the discs in almond meal by gently pressing the discs into it.
Sear the cheese on an oiled pan over low-medium heat, until lightly browned. It's a delicate process, as I don't like to add a binder to the cheese, so just keep the heat low and work carefully.
Toast the pine nuts in a dry pan, over low heat, until fragrant and browned. (They go from toasty to burnt pretty quickly, so keep a close eye on them!)
Combine the arugula, beets and both oranges, Top them with the seared goat cheese medallions, a fan of avocado, some pomegranate seeds and a smattering of toasted pine nuts.
Dress the salad with a little olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper, and serve it up!
Simple, satisfying and probably lighter than anything you've had all season. Don't worry, we'll all get back to crying tears of happiness over Holiday pies and pork roasts soon enough - so seize the opportunity to savor a meal that doesn't trigger more memories than your cinnamon-soaked brain (and insides) can handle right now.
Ya feel me?
(...Or Puffed Pancake balls, if you prefer)
As the annual Christmas trip to Denmark draws nigh, the anticipation of treats consumed far too infrequently (in my opinion) grows both in our minds and in our bellies.
From the Swedish Christmas ham, which is unmatched by any other (and rationed out with such obnoxious yet hilarious stringency by my grandmother), to the special 'snaps' my uncle infuses with herbs and magic, particularly for this occasion, the edible traditions of Christmas surpass any the rest of the year has to offer...by a Danish country mile!
Though it's hard to pick a favorite, I must say I'm quite partial to the combination of æbleskiver and gløgg (or, if you're having a hard time wrapping your tongue around that - puffed pancake balls and mulled wine.)
Now, we rarely make either of these at home - there's simply too much going on in the little galley we call a kitchen. Between the 16lb turkey making its way into an oven designed for Danes who typically don't eat 16lb turkeys, and my grandmother cooking her 'risengrød' (a rendition of rice pudding consumed with cinnamon sugar and butter as an illogical first course on Christmas eve) with her face practically in the pot, we're decidedly aware of our limitations.
So, despite the sub-zero temperatures and the complete absense of light after 3pm, we head into town to our favorite little café, for some warming, spiced wine and powdered-sugar-dusted balls of dough served with jam. The gløgg does wonders for the cold that seems to find its way through countless layers straight into your bones, and the æbleskiver turn what could be oppressive darkness, into a sweet, cozy, candle-lit experience worth savoring. They also make handling the inevitable moments of chaos that only the Holidays can bring, just that much easier. Like the time the suitcase containing the aforementioned turkey (yes, we actually transport a frozen turkey from the States to Denmark, every single year) was lost by the airlines, and arrived Christmas eve, fully thawed and inedible. More gløgg and egg nog, please! (As a side note, the look on Granny's face, when she thought we'd be tucking into the ham outside of its scheduled mealtime, was absolutely priceless. Tradition is traditon, after all!)
So, if the Holidays find you with your own rendtion of the 'our-turkey-went-to-Germany-instead-of-Denmark' story, or the 'our-grandmother-won't-relinquish-control-of-the-proceedings-despite-being-94,' saga, you may want to whip up a batch of these with your favorite Holiday tipple.
Don't worry, you don't have to pronounce them, you just have to enjoy them!
In a medium sized bowl, combine the dry ingredients until fully incorporated.
In a large bowl, combine the egg yolks, vanilla, buttermilk and lemon zest, and mix well.
In a third bowl, whisk the egg whites until stiff peaks form, but not to the point where they become dry.
Fold the dry ingredients into the egg yolk mixture, until a smooth batter forms, but do not over mix, then, gently, fold in the egg whites until fully incorporated.
Heat the pan over medium heat on the stove and add a little knob of butter to each indentation.
Fill the indentations 2/3 of-the-way full, and cook, as you would a pancake, until you begin to see little bubbles bursting on the top - about 2 minues. Then, using a fork, gently push the 'pancake' so it flips, and cook the other side for about a minute, or until golden.
Serve these æbleskiver warm, dusted with powdered sugar, alongside a dollop of your favorite jam for dipping.
Now if that's not enough to make you forget (or at least manage) the chaos of Christmas, have another gløgg, and you should be alright.
Because Sweet Potato pie isn't the only game in town
Have you ever arrived home, to find a big, beat-up box of sweet potatoes perched on your doorstep? No? Well I'm sorry, but you're missing out! That's exactly what I discovered the other day, and I've been reaping the sweet rewards ever since.
A dear friend from Atlanta, GA took it upon himself to send both me and my sister, some of the best sweet potatoes the southeast has to offer, and since the day I opened the box, they've appeared in almost every meal I've made, served and eaten. I'm convinced that, by this point, the blood in my veins must be running sweet and orange to the tune of Alabama's 'Song of the South.' Just bring me peaches and call me Scarlet, dammit - it's all 'y'alls' and big hair over here.
From curried sweet potato and peanut stew, to sweet potato and gruyere gratin, to rich and creamy pie that proved a welcome respite from its pumpkin-y relative, I've found myself sneaking this highly nutritious and stupidly delicious root tuber into as much as I possibly can.
But you know, there comes a certain point, when you look at the last four sweet potatoes lying in a basket on your kitchen floor, and your mind draws a total blank. With whiskers quietly but certainly beginning to sprout, and skin puckering ever-so-slightly at either end, it's only a matter of time before what once was a complex carbohydrate, turns into a compost carbohydrate, and the sweet indulgence of a box shipped with care, turns decidedly sour.
Scrolling through my internal Scandinavian-meets-Southern girl index, I recalled a recipe I stumbled on not too long ago, and thought 'heck yes, y'all - that's it!'
Though the recipe I found for butternut squash muffins, was a great jumping-off point, I felt it could use a few tweaks - and given my current produce inventory, one such modification was staring me right in the face. With the addition of a crumbly nut topping, significantly less oil and the abandonment of butternut squash, these gluten-free, dairy-free muffins are light, airy and totally delicious.
(Recipe adapted from Paleo in PDX)
Yield: About 8 muffins
Set your oven to 350*F and line a muffin tin with cupcake/muffin liners.
Combine the mashed sweet potatoes, coconut flour, 1/3 cup coconut oil, honey, baking soda, salt, eggs and extract in a bowl and mix until a smooth batter has formed.
Using an ice cream scooper, for evenly-sized muffins, fill the liners almost all the way to the top. The muffins won't rise a great deal, so don't worry about them spilling over.
Mix together the brown sugar, chopped nuts and remaining tablespoon of coconut oil to create a crumbly topping, and divide it evenly over the muffins.
Bake the muffins for 20-25 minutes, until a tester comes out clean when inserted.
So, next time you find yourself with a big box of Mississippi reds (or any other sweet potato, for that matter), break out the mixing bowl, muffin tin and Southern drawl and get to it. You'll be glad you did.
Y'all come back now, y'hear!
No neon fruit, just lots of moist, rummy goodness
So, I called my sister yesterday, to tell her I'd just put the better part of ten cups of fruit and nuts to soak in a healthy dose of rum and port for Christmas cake - Christmas cake that I'd be bringing home for the holidays. Her response? 'Great! Uncle Martin and uncle Thomas will love that!' Now, as much as I'm thrilled at the idea of my uncles enjoying the heck out of some homemade, fruit-studded and rum-soaked cake, I was hoping for something more along the lines of 'oooh, I can't wait to try that!' All I heard was 'I'll pass on the fruitcake, thanks.'
Though she'll be getting a sideways glance or two from me this Christmas, if she doesn't at least try it, I'm not entirely surprised by her response. Fruitcake, for most, is a tradition best left in the past. It is a sweet 'treat' that is, more often than not, surreptitiously folded into a napkin under the table, and deftly maneuvered into the trash, amid concealing napkins and the wrappers of sweets more unanimously enjoyed.
It's fair to say that fruitcake has a bad rap.
Whenever I think of it, I think of being a child and peeking into the larder in my grandparents cellar, which bore a handwritten note with the words 'no goings in here' scrawled across it. (The 's' on the end of 'goings' has always baffled me, but is somehow so like my family, that I'd be even more bothered by it not being there.) As a prominent doctor in Copenhagen, my grandfather was a receiver of countless gifts, most of which were either in the form of booze or edible, and the walls of the larder were always lined with bottles of wine and port, boxes of cookies and chocolates, and come the end of the year, an inevitable fruitcake.
Now, this was the kind of fruitcake you could see, even if the lights were off. The candied cherries, pineapple and green mystery fruit (still, to this day, I have no idea what that is, and it's probably better left to my imagination, at this point), glowed neon and bright, and practically lit the cake from within.
Some years, that cake would sit on a shelf through the entire holiday season, without so much as a modicum of attention being paid to it, and some years, someone (usually my grandmother), would take pity on the poor thing and bring it up from the depths for a taste.
Though well intentioned, the cake never satisfied. Dense, heavy, unnaturally fruity and hot with old liquor, this relic of yuletide tradition would be bitten into by a few brave souls, before promptly finding its way back onto the shelf from whence it came.
So, when my sister says she'll pass on the fruitcake, I remember that she, too, stuck her head into that dark room in the cellar all those years ago, and witnessed the glow of a cake not meant for human consumption, and that she, too, hoped we'd never be made to eat it again.
But, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, Christmas cake, when made the right way, can be absolutely delicious! When you forsake the candied fruits and dry crumb, and replace them with plump, richly sweet and dried cherries, prunes, currants and raisins that have soaked, along with almonds and ginger, for a full week in dark, caramel-y rum and ruby red port, and then bake them into spiced and molasses-y cake that ages for three weeks or more, it can only be a good thing.
And when said cake disappears into the darkness of a wine-lined shelf, the moment the lights by the cellar door are turned off, you know this ain't your grandma's fruitcake.
After a lot of researching and reading, this Caribbean style 'black cake' is a new favorite. I adapted it from a recipe I found on Chowhound, when digging around, and I think you'll love it.
Makes two full-sized loaves plus a couple of mini loaves
(Note - the fruit in this cake soaks for a full week before you begin the baking process.)
For the fruit:
For the cake:
Combine all the fruit, nuts, ginger and peel in a bowl, add the rum and port, give it a good mix, and then seal it tightly. Place the bowl in a cool dark place for a full week.
A week later...
Heat your oven to 300*F and grease two 9x5-inch loaf pans, thoroughly.
In a bowl, combine all the dry ingredients and whisk together. Set the bowl aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer (or if you're working on serious bicep strength, by all means, use a regular whisk and extreme patience) cream the butter and sugar until pale in color and fluffy (about 3 minutes) and then add the eggs, one at a time, until fully incorporated. Finally, add the vanilla.
With the speed on low, add in the flour mixture, the soaked fruit and all its rummy, porty goodness, and the burnt sugar syrup, and mix until just combined.
Fill both loaf pans until 3/4 of-the-way full. (The remainder can be used to make mini loaves to give away!) and bake the cakes for 2 hours. The tester should come out clean, but know that the cake will be very moist. Check it at 2 hours, if you feel like you need more cook time, add 10 more and see. Altitude, cake tins and a number of other factors can affect cook time on this one.
Let the cakes rest for 30 minutes in the pan, then turn them out to cool completely. Brush with a couple of extra tablespoons of rum.
This cake can be eaten right away, but if you really want to treat yourself, let it age. We've got just about four weeks left until Christmas, so take that time and get some age on your cake.
Wrap it in cheesecloth and store it in an airtight container or cake tin - not in plastic wrap! Every few days, you can brush a little more rum over it - if you're into that sort of thing!
It's the sort of cake your uncles will love, and your sister will be requesting next year!
*Burnt sugar syrup is also known as 'browning' and can be found in specialty stores. If you really can't find it, or order it online in the week while your fruit is soaking, substitute blackstrap molasses, though the flavor won't be quite the same.
For chilly mornings that need a little something extra
It's the Sunday before Thanksgiving, and it's cold and grey beyond the panes of my window. As a matter of fact, the rain is coming down in droves, and when I finally swung my legs out from beneath the covers and onto the bare wooden floor this morning, I promptly pulled them back up and safely under the covers. It's chilly, y'all!
Finally, after weeks of prematurely dressing for the season of cable knits and densely wovens, I find myself reaching for a sweater and scarf out of necessity, and not a feeling of confused obligation. It's the moment I've been longing for! Not only because, as a southern California resident, I crave seasons like a plant in dry soil craves water, but also because it signifies the beginning of days spent with family, of Holiday parties, and of efforts being made. It's the time of year when we find ourselves going the extra mile and speaking our hearts more freely. And, perhaps because of the cold, we find comfort and warmth in our friends and family as mush as we do in the balls of thick yarn that cloak us.
I'm three days away from going home, and I've already checked out. My bag is mentally packed (though not physically, of course - that'll happen at 2:00am before a 6:00am flight on Wednesday, at which point I'll undoubtedly forget underwear, my toothbrush and anything that actually comes together as an outfit, but hey, family doesn't care), I've stopped grocery shopping, and I find myself in an emotional holding pattern, just waiting to join in the fun. I'm already sat on the bed, late at night, gossiping with my sister and watching an episode of something scary that will inevitably have her passed out long before I dare close my eyes. (Cue the gentle nudging and the 'hey Alex, you're still awake, right?') I'm already listening to the clinking sound of my dad making the tiniest Manhattans in the biggest glasses, to which the follow up is a chorus of the popular tune 'let's have another!' And I'm certainly already elbow deep, seasoning the cavity of a turkey that'll feed an army, while my mother holds its legs unceremoniously in the air.
So, in an effort to tide myself over and indulge in a morning perfect for caramelized custard and syrupy apples, I whipped out my cast iron skillet and the scraps left over from an evening that ended before the baguette ran out, and made myself French toast. Because, why not.
And because it's the Holiday season, I threw in bourbon. (It's a three hour time change, after all, so even if it's not yet five o'clock here, the rest of my family is certainly breaking out the jiggers and shakers, and I'll be damned if I'm not participating, even if in the abstract.)
For French toast:
Heat your cast iron skillet to low-medium and add the coconut oil and butter to melt. Then add the apple slices, and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes until soft.
Meanwhile, whisk together the milk, eggs, maple syrup, bourbon, vanilla and salt to form the custard.
Dunk your baguette slices in the custard and submerge them fully, allowing them to really soak up the liquid. Set them aside, momentarily.
Once the apples are soft, stir in the cinnamon and maple syrup, and cook for a further minute. Then move the apples to the sides of the skillet, add another tablespoon of butter, and place a couple of slices of soaked bread in the center.
Cook the toast until golden, about 2-3 minutes per side.
Serve with more maple syrup and a little powdered sugar, and then enjoy the heck out of it!
No, I'm not yet able to join in the family fun, but I do take a little pleasure in knowing that the onslaught of bourbon French toast and the like, doesn't happen until I get there. So, as much as I'm looking forward to going home, they're most definitely looking forward to having me.
in the season of all things carnivorous, sometimes all you want for dinner is a big bowl of veggies
The Holiday season places a great emphasis on all things meat. From turkeys, to hams, to roasts that'll feed an army, November and December are rich with the offerings of your local butcher. More often than not, by the time January rolls around, many of us find ourselves suffering a hangover only a so-called 'meat coma' could induce. And though the proteins of the season surround themselves with a whole host of vegetable-based side dishes, they're inevitably dotted and laced with everything from smokey bacon to savory sausage. So, if you're seeking respite from the carnivorous staples of the Holiday table, it's not necessarily found in their plant-based accoutrements. (Seriously, bacon has become the 'salt, pepper and olive oil' of the Holiday season, and though I'm totally behind it, I can literally hear my arteries whispering 'help!' as they realize that the passing of Thanksgiving only gives way to the lead up to Christmas!)
Though the joys of November's turkey, December's ham, and the like, are annually anticipated with great fervor by those who cut their teeth omnivorously, even the most enthusiastic beast of prey could use a satisfying main course made entirely of vegetables, from time to time.
Thankfully, great comfort can be found in the hearty offerings of a stew rich with spice, toothsome produce and buttery peanuts. A stew this packed full of flavor and texture, will have even those staunchly tied to the idea that a meal is not a meal without a meat, a starch and a veg, feeling utterly satiated.
So this Holiday season, make room in your routine for a big pot of sweet potatoes, carrots and parsnips, spiced with mellow curry and made silken and smooth by a generous spoonful of earthy, creamy peanut butter. You won't feel cheated, I promise.
For garish: I like it with chopped, roasted peanuts. chopped cilantro and chimichurri sauce.
Add the coconut oil to a large pot set over medium heat. Add the curry powder and onion to the oil and sauté until the onions are soft and translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic, cilantro stems and ginger, and sauté for a further minute.
Add the sweet potatoes, carrots and parsnips to the pot and stir to coat them with oil, about 1 minute. Then, add the vegetable stock, tomatoes. coconut milk and pepper flakes. If the vegetables are covered with 2 cups of stock, then that's plenty. If not, add the remaining cup.
Cook the stew for about 25 minutes until the vegetables are cooked through and soft, and the sauce has thickened.
Stir in the peanut butter, and cook for a further 5 minutes. Season the stew to taste, with salt and pepper.
I like this baby served up over brown rice with some steamed or sautéed cauliflower on the side, just for good measure. It's rich enough to make you feel like you're indulging, without as much as a slab of bacon in sight. Shocking, I know!
Because dessert's a whole lot sexier when it's forbidden
I think we can all agree that, when it comes to dessert, molten chocolate cake is sexy. Served up hot with vanilla ice cream, this deep, dark and rich dessert oozes with chocolatey goodness, and succumbs to the pressure of a fork with a melty tenderness that's second to none. Whether you're ordering or serving it up, this ooey-gooey chocolate cake screams 'I like it dark, silky and decadent, and I'm not afraid to say so.'
You know what's not sexy? Rice pudding.
When the dessert menu is presented at the end of a first date, it's really hard to pull off a sinful, come-hither wink as you utter the words 'ooh, let's share the rice pudding.' Luscious chocolate cake? Sure. Maybe even the creamy, dreamy crème brûlée. But when you're the girl who really, really wants a bowl of glorified gruel to round out an otherwise sophisticated meal, you better be wearing a great dress.
Needless to say, I'm that girl.
When it comes to dessert, I like it homey, rustic and simple. I like my crusts uneven and my baked fruits seeping, and I like to sense that whatever I ordered was made by the muscle memory of hands that create by feel and not measurement. Baked puddings, crusty crumbles and bowls of bubbling stone-fruit topped with cascading streams of crème Anglaise will always find my spoon long before a perfectly frosted cake even crosses my mind.
That being said, I refuse to identify my dessert preferences with a life lived in comfy sweats and perpetual coziness - I have uncomfortably high heels and great dresses to wear, and sinful winks to give, even if I'm not a champion of the oh-so-predictable molten chocolate cake.
In an effort to sex-up rice pudding (I know, I know, it's a stretch - just go with it), I substituted the usual white rice and milk for black rice and coconut milk. I used Chinese Forbidden rice for this (mainly because it said 'forbidden' on the packet, and felt it was thematically appropriate), but you can certainly use Thai black rice, which has a stickier nature when cooked.
In a medium pot, combine the rice, water, coconut milk, sugar, cinnamon, vanilla and a pinch of salt and bring it to a simmer over low-medium heat. Simmer for about 45 minutes, stirring frequently and adding more water if you feel like the rice is absorbing it too quickly.
It is finished when the consistency is creamy, soft and pudding-like and the rice is tender but not totally falling apart.
Serve the rice pudding hot with your desired toppings and enjoy it brazenly.
And let's be honest, if you're confident enough to order rice pudding over its more provocative counterpart, you don't even need a dress - you are the dress.
In the final run up to Thanksgiving and Christmas, planning and practice make perfect
You can't step on stage opening night without having learned your lines, you can't show up to game one of the World Series without having trained during the off-season, and you certainly can't wake up Thanksgiving morning without having practiced (or at least planned) your culinary lineup. (Two baseball references in one sentence - that probably won't happen again.) While the old adage that says 'practice makes perfect' may be a tad on the optimistic side (I gave up on cooking white rice 'perfectly' years ago), there's certainly something to be said for stepping into the ring with the weight of some serious training in your gloves. (I'm not quite sure where this is coming from. but somewhere I hear my father sighing in relief.)
The meals prepared for Thanksgiving and Christmas (or any other major celebration, for that matter), are generally high-stress meals. Sure, in an ideal world and according to most of what comes out of Hollywood, we all stand around the stove, calmly and quietly stuffing turkeys, peeling potatoes and scratch-making pies worthy of some serious picture taking, while playfully pelting cranberries across the kitchen and sipping on cider stirred with cinnamon sticks and sobriety.
The last time I checked, however, the world wasn't ideal and mom and I stood sweaty-browed and hot-flashed in the kitchen, trying to time a turkey that cooked far faster than anticipated with six side dishes that all seemed to require the oven at the same time, while taking refuge in sips of cider so heavily laced with bourbon that if the tryptophan didn't get us, the brown stuff certainly would.
The idea that a meal with a year's worth of build up and anticipation behind it, should be anything less than nerve wracking, is overwhelmingly optimistic, to say the least.
That's why I'm a firm believer in rehearsal. I'm a firm believer in having your own back, and in giving yourself a leg up on the day. Game plans and strategies make you a much more agreeable host and much easier for your family to be around. (In my experience, turkeys, stuffings and gravies lend themselves to a whole host of expletives, otherwise absent from the average mealtime.)
While every year brings with it a series of standby's, without which the celebratory table would be incomplete, I try to introduce a few newcommers to the party, from time to time. Though you can't beat the classics, we'd still be eating canned pineapple ham, bathed in aspic, if people hadn't started sneaking in less gelatinous offerings, in acts of mild rebellion.
This year, I think I may add this squash and barley 'salad' to the mix, because aspic has no place on my table, and while it may be a Thursday, I'll only take #tbt so far.
Set your oven to 400*F.
On a lined baking sheet, toss together your squash and onion slices with the thyme spigs, garlic cloves, pepper flakes, olive oil, agave and salt to taste, and roast them for 20 minutes, tossing once, about half way through. Then allow them to cool to room temperature.
Meanwhile, cook your barley in salted water, according to the instructions on the packet. I used quick cooking pearl barley, which only took about 10 minutes. Spread the barley on a baking sheet or large plate, and allow it to cool to room temperature.
Discard the garlic cloves and thyme sprigs, and combine the barley and squash/onion mixture in a large bowl.
Melt the butter in a small pan until it starts to bubble, but be careful not to let it burn. Add the sage leaves and fry them until crisp – about 30 seconds. Place the sage leaves on a paper towel to drain off the excess butter.
Crumble the sage leaves into the barley mixture, add the crumbled goat cheese and season with salt and pepper. If you like, you can drizzle over a little extra olive oil and agave, and then toss everything to combine. Serve at room temperature.
In a sea of predictably heavy sides and scene stealers, this is a nod to a newer, lighter tradition. I've made it twice now, and I'm confident that it won't stress me out when the air conditioner fails, while four burners are on high, the oven's set to 400 and the bourbon, which was thought to be plentiful, runs out. This one, is in the bag.
*A Delicata squash is a long, almost tubular yellow squash, with green ridged lines running along it. You can eat the skin, which gives it a really lovely, almost chewy texture, so don't worry about peeling it.
Because sometimes, nothing beats a potato
Before you go getting the wrong idea, I just want to clarify something. Yes, I'm the girl who knows how to slow roast a pork shoulder, who swirls coconut cream artfully across the top of a bowl of homemade soup, and who makes almost everything from scratch (ugh, I know, sometimes I wanna punch me, too), but I'm also the girl who never has anything in the fridge, can call a tin of tuna and can of Pinot Noir dinner, and forgets that tequila, chips and guac do not a three course meal make.
It's all about checks and balances. I've certainly lived years of making sure the fridge was stocked and preparing three square meals a day (somehow I managed to be a child of the 80's and a 1950's housewife all rolled into one), but these days, breakfast is the only guarantee – the rest of the day I make no promises to myself. Sometimes I'm a put-together 33 year old who eats like she lives in the pages of a glossy food magazine, and sometimes I'm a college student who calls coffee and seven almonds, lunch. (Ok, so in college I probably would have skipped the almonds and opted for a packet of wine gums instead, but you know, older, wiser, etc...)
I'm great at cooking for others, when company's coming and when inspiration strikes – I'm just not so great at the moments in between. I forget that treating myself to what I am capable of is as important as sharing it with others. (I feel, perhaps, that there is a greater life lesson to be learned here, but I'm running on two scoops of almond butter and black coffee, after having shed a probable 40% of my water weight in a hot yoga class, so I'm not thinking bigger than my pruned self can handle right now.)
In an effort to do my mind and body a solid, I will occasionally make a big batch of something to have in the fridge, so that in those moments of irresponsible, non-adulting, I have satisfying and healthy nourishment at arms-reach. And once that batch is made, I can spend a full week eating it. Fortunately, if something's good and I'm into it, I'm slow to bore.
Between Halloween, a couple of late nights that led to late mornings, and work, this past week was a bit of a struggle. And when I struggle, all I can think of, is soup. From butternutty, to brothy, to roasted and tomatoey, a big pot of something steaming, soulful and savory is just about the only thing I want or want to make. For me, comfort is bowl-shaped and served with a spoon, and my state of mind is, more often than not, evidenced by the contents of my dish rack.
Having already gone down the butternut squash route last week, I shifted my focus to another classic: Leek and potato.. I've always loved this combination - it's simple, hearty and totally satisfying. Unfortunately, it's often laced with heavy cream or half and half, and delicious as that may be, it just doesn't sit right with me.
So I decided to skip the dairy and amp up the flavor by adding sweet potatoes instead. The soup is not overwhelmingly sweet, as the russets balance it out, but if has a depth of flavor that is needed in the absence of white gold.
Coarsely chop your cleaned leeks. Make sure all the grit and sand is rinsed out - these guys are deceptively dirty!
Add your bacon to a large, non-stick pot, over low-medium heat and render the fat until the bacon is cooked but not crispy.
Add the butter or oil to the pot and then add the leeks and sauté, moving them around occasionally so they don't burn, for about 10 minutes until soft. Add the minced garlic and cook for a further minute.
Add both the russet and the sweet potatoes and move them around the pot, to coat them with oil.
Finally, add in your vegetable stock, increase the temperature to achieve a firm, steady simmer, and cook the potatoes until soft - about 20 minutes.
Remove and discard the bacon, and working in batches or with an immersion blender, blend the soup to your desired texture. I like to leave a few little bits and pieces whole, but if you like it smooth - make it smooth! Season the soup with a healthy dose of salt and pepper.
To top it off, you can add a little sour cream, crème fraîche, or (in my case) goat's milk yogurt, some crumbled bacon and chopped chives.
I can't say that it cured me of a stressful week or one (very mild) hangover (awful but effective blue Powerade and 3 Advil did that), but it certainly gave me great comfort and the feeling that I was taking care of myself properly. Well, ish.
Now where's a pack of wine gums when you need 'em?
*If you want to stay vegetarian, simply skip this, and add about a tablespoon more of butter or coconut oil.
**It took six cups for me - but depending on the size of your potatoes it may take a little more. You want them completely covered with stock when boiling. And you want there to be enough liquid in the pot to achieve soup and not potato purée. Any time I make soup, I like to have an extra carton or batch of stock on hand, just in case.