Christmas Passed…Or Did It?

January 3, 2011 at 11:17 pm Leave a comment

How to Stay Warm Through a Minnesota Winter

When temps dip too low, my outdoor thermometer flatlines, as if to say, “You donwanna know.” On this first day of 2011, it is cold enough that my husband has trouble surfacing from the warmth of the quilted comforter, so I send little Muñeca in to keep him motivated. Her self-defined job description? To paw for a little petting attention and keep him from falling hopelessly back into a REM state. Soon I hear his gravel-voiced declaration, “She’s a big help in getting me up,” and peer in to see her snuggle-bugged up close to his side, her own eyelids heavy with sleep. 

As the mercury grunts its way up to 14°, the crunch of powdered sugar under my boots, the pup and I try our footing on the snow-frosted layer of ice that came down in one five-minute deluge on New Year’s Eve afternoon. The pup thinks better of it and heads back inside, while I trudge forth – if not smarter, at least hardier. But iced-over streets prove less of a challenge than the park paths, where planting my foot in the frozen imprint of a previous trekker is essential to staying upright and not breaking an ankle in the deep, crusted snow. Bundled in quilted outerwear, I must look like the Michelin Man on a tightrope. 

Meanwhile, the 40 percent of my mind that is not occupied with this balancing act idly marvels at the fact that the Christmas commercials that have plagued us for over two months are still jingling out their “buy me” messages a week after The Day itself has passed. As an antidote, I try to reconstruct the beautiful Oswald Chambers passage I read from the December 31st offering in My Utmost for His Highest. 

It seems that no matter how I hard I try to stay focused on the Real Reason for the season, a hustle and bustle atmosphere inevitably churns up around me as I rush to get baked goods into the mail for dear ones far from us and try to keep on schedule with seasonal projects that pile up on top of daily chores. But that Chambers’ entry haunts me, so I remind myself that the four weeks of Advent have led us directly into the brilliant illumination of the Epiphany season, and seek it out for a refresher read: 

“Our yesterdays present irreparable things to us; it is true that we have lost opportunities which will never return, but God can transform this destructive anxiety into a constructive thoughtfulness for the future. Let the past sleep, but let it sleep on the bosom of Christ.” These two straightforward sentences put all the mainstream New Year’s resolution advice to certain shame. 

And I am definitely a New Year’s reformist, a believer in fresh starts. The very possibility of God guiding me to improve on (or build on) the week before delivers me into each Monday morning with a sense of hopeful enthusiasm. You can imagine what a thrill January 1st ignites in me. So I’ll cast only a quick glance back at Christmas Dinner Past before striding into 2011. 

Our celebration menu started with one of my (in)famous improvised punches, poetically labeled Kirhamshire Cranberry Shrub, followed by Butternut Squash Soup with Rye Toast Croutons, Sirloin Tip Roast with Sherry Pan Sauce, Sautéed Mushrooms and Onions, Roasted Yukon Gold Potatoes, Green beans with Crumbled Bacon and Pine Nuts, Citrus-Avocado Salad, Tweed Popovers, Roasted Pear Wedges, and Red and Green Ice Cream Bombé with Assorted Christmas Cookies.

The house punch is as simple as can be: Whir leftover homemade cranberry sauce from Thanksgiving (all that sugar preserves the mixture for-seemingly-ever) in a high-powered blender until liquified. Drop a generous spoonful into the bottom of a squat, 8-ounce glass and add 4-5 ounces of Seven-Up; stir to blend. Add crushed ice and a small wedge of orange for garnish, and prepare to be amazed at how many people ask for refills! 

For the soup course, to serve 6-8: 

1 tsp butter + 1 tsp olive oil                                              1 med onion, chopped

1 rib celery, sliced                                                                1 large carrot, sliced

4-1/2 C cubed, pre-cooked butternut squash            1 small green apple, chopped

3 C chicken broth                                                                  ¼ tsp nutmeg

¼ tsp cinnamon                                                                     salt & pepper to taste

¼ C evaporated skim milk                                                 ½ C coarse-grated Parmesan

32 small, crisp rye toasts, broken (I used Pinahs Cracker Size Rye Chips)  

To pre-cook the squash, puncture the flesh with a sharp knife tip in several places to allow for escaping steam and microwave on high for 10-12 minutes, or until it becomes easy to peel and cut. Next, put butter and oil in a heavy kettle over medium low heat and add onion, celery, and carrot; cook 6-8 minutes, until onion is softened. Add squash, apple, and broth; cook 20-30 minutes at a low simmer, until apple is tender. In small batches, carefully puree the soup in a blender or food processor until smooth. Return to pan, stir in seasonings, and return to a simmer. Just before serving, whisk in milk. 

Ladle into small bowls and top each serving with coarse-broken rye toasts and a pinch of grated Parmesan. The cheese-topped toasts will soon soften to a mouth-melting consistency, like tiny deli sandwiches afloat in the creamy richness. Resist the urge to make a meal of this course alone.  

Because a nice beef roast is a lovely holiday tradition: 

4# sirloin tip roast                                                                 1 TB olive oil

¼ tsp garlic powder                                                              1 tsp salt

½ tsp pepper                                                                            2 tsp paprika

1 tsp fresh rosemary leaves                                                ½ tsp dried thyme 

Pan sauce: 2 tsp olive oil (optional)                                 2 med garlic cloves, minced

1/3 C medium-dry sherry                                                     1/3 C Merlot

2 C beef broth

Combine all rub ingredients in a roasting pan and turn the roast over in the mixture until well coated; cover and refrigerate for up to two hours. Bring meat back to room temperature, then roast at 325 for 25 minutes per pound (for medium-rare) or until a meat thermometer registers desired doneness. 

When roast is done and resting for ten minutes before being carved, pour meat drippings into a pan along with olive oil, if necessary. Add garlic to skillet and saute over medium-high heat until soft; add wines and bring sauce to a boil, then add broth and cook until reduced to 2/3 (about 8 minutes). Transfer sauce to a gravy boat to pass with roast and potatoes – 8 Yukon golds, peeled and cut into halves, tossed with olive oil, and roasted alongside the roast for the last 60 minutes. 

This salad is one of my favorite company offerings, very easy to construct but rather elegant to present: 

4-6 cups torn hearts of romaine                                       1 ripe avocado, cubed

2 oranges                                                                                    1 lge grapefruit

1 small red onion, sliced                                                       Italian dressing 

Put greens in a large glass bowl. Add avocado, peeled and sectioned orange and grapefruit, and onion. Add a generous splash of dressing (I like Good Seasons) and salt and pepper to taste. Toss gently. Enjoy.

The green beans simply require eight servings-worth of fresh-steamed green beans to be sprinkled with 2 crisp-cooked strips of bacon, crumbled, and 1/3 C toasted pine nuts right before serving. No butter required, and the crunch is quite irresistible. 

I have tried unsuccessfully to make popovers using whole wheat or white wheat flour, but I keep going back to the popover recipe posted here on 3/1/2010. It’s another company-pleaser, and the addition of a small amount of wheat flour results in a nutty nuance, a crispy crust, and tweedy texture – more appealing, IMHO, than the standard “white bread” popover. 

Another perennial favorite, roasted pear wedges can be done quickly as the roast and potatoes are finishing: 

8 pears, cored and cut into eighths                                      2 tsp butter

1 TB brandy                                                                                1 TB caramel syrup

1 TB maple syrup 

Put butter in a medium microwave-safe bowl along with flavorings. (I use the DaVinci Gourmet brand of sugar-free coffee flavoring syrups.)  Heat in microwave for 45 seconds to melt butter then stir with a fork to blend.   Toss pear wedges in mixture and spread on a foil-lined cookie sheet. Roast for up to 30 minutes, or until golden around the edges. 

This year’s do-ahead dessert of red and green ice cream bombé took a big load off the cook, that would be me, and made for a relaxed opportunity for visiting after dinner: 

4 C light vanilla ice cream                                                       3-4 TB green crème de menthe

½ C chopped dried cherries                                                   3 C light vanilla ice cream

2-3 TB cherry schnapps                                                            1 oz semi-sweet baking chocolate 

If you have a set of nesting glass bowls, place the 8” size in the freezer and wrap the 6-1/2” size in plastic wrap and set it aside. Otherwise, use closely conforming bowl shapes in these sizes.  Put the 4 cups of ice cream into the refrigerator to soften; about 45 minutes should do it. When just soft enough to stir, blend in enough crème de menthe to evenly tint the ice cream, then fold in the chopped cherries. Spoon this mixture into the iced bowl and press it evenly over the bottom and up the sides of the bowl. Press the smaller, plastic-wrapped bowl into the larger bowl to help form an even layer and place the two nested bowls back into the freezer for about two hours. 

Meanwhile, grate the chocolate on the medium holes of a box grater to produce shavings and soften the remaining 3 cups of ice cream in the refrigerator as described above. When workable, stir the cherry schnapps into the softened ice cream until evenly tinted and then fold in the shaved chocolate. Remove frozen green mint layer from freezer, extract small bowl from center, and spoon in pink-tinted ice cream mixture, smoothing the top with an icing spatula. Cover with plastic wrap and freeze until ready to serve – at least 2 hours. 

To serve, carefully dip the bowl up to the rim in warm, not hot, water and run a knife around the outer edge to loosen. Unmold bombé upside down onto a flat serving plate. Cut into wedges to serve. 

Now haul out a tray of your favorite homemade Christmas cookies, the baking of which can be made much less tedious by an Oxo Good Grip squeeze-release cookie scoop – possibly the best $12.99 investment I’ve ever made. You can get a similar doohickey made by Oneida at Wal-Mart for $7.00 or so, but the idea is genius and saved me so much time and hassle in my massive baking project (15 different recipes, each doubled) that it came close to leaving me speechless. Well, as close as anything can. 

Also, Jacques Pepin recommends using two cookie sheets, nested, to prevent scorched edges, and I read in several reliable sources that shiny sheets work best to prevent over-browning. On that topic, extracted from my “Duh Files”:  Do not readjust the baking temperature while you have a batch of cookies in the oven. So much chocolate and pecan goodness; such a shameful waste. Sigh. 

But onward to happier thoughts, such as the prayer that your New Year will be blessed with very few lost opportunities and many, many epiphanies.

Entry filed under: Musings of a Midwestern Foodie. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

A Mad, Merry Dash to Christmas or a Frenzied, Fervid Rush to the Cash Register? Spaghetti Night at Grandma’s

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