little miss merry and bright

Ok. Let’s take a minute to discuss Chicago, in particular the dubious practice of celebrating winter holidays here. I grew up here, and went to college in a similarly frigid and snowy climate. However, 8 years in the bay have left me entirely unprepared for this kind of scenario:

A much more comforting scene:

Now, isn’t that much better? I think so too.

My family is very low-key when it comes to holidays – our traditions are mostly about creating a warm, softly lit den for ourselves, full of tastefully festive holiday decorations and just about every kind of buttery, sweet, and/or spicy snack food imaginable. Seriously, this place is packed to the rafters (I actually don’t think we have rafters) with cookies, brittles, spiced pecans, popcorn, various barks…. and that was before we started cooking! I ate almost nothing but pie and snacks all day yesterday, which cannot be good for me.

Now, our first family tradition probably seems odd to all five of you readers who are unrelated to me, but like any good tradition I just can’t imagine Christmas without it. Some families have a Feast of Seven Fishes on Christmas eve. We have a Feast of Three Tiny Sandwiches. We get bakery dinner rolls (these came from Trader Joe’s, but compared favorably to the bakery variety) and fill them with (left to right) tuna salad, ham salad, and egg salad. They are accompanied by Cape Cod potato chips,* and if you know what you’re doing you stuff them inside your ham salad sandwich, as depicted below. At my grandmother’s house, where we spent Christmas when I was a kid, there was also fruit punch spiked with ginger ale. Here we drink various spritzers not spiked with anything, and at my insistence hot spiced apple cider spiked with rum.

* So the fine folks at Cooks Illustrated did a taste test, apparently, to find the best kettle-style chip, and Cape Cod did not fare well at all. Their favorite was Lays Kettle style, or whatever they’re called, so we did a taste test of our own. Tradition was dealt a mighty blow when much to our consternation we all liked the Lays version better as well. But I predict next year we will be back to Cape Cod… tradition is tradition, after all, and if it’s been significant enough to keep us eating ham salad for the better part of half a century (or more), then it will probably keep us loyal to Cape Cod. New England roots run deep indeed.

Christmas day begins at a leisurely pace, now that us kids are no longer kids, and it revolves around a Thanksgiving-style turkey dinner. Every year my mom gives serious consideration to a different festive roasted meat, but ultimately can’t pass up the opportunity to indulge in delicious roast turkey. I can’t say I mind at all.

You want to know the secret to a perfect roast turkey? There are a million techniques floating around out there – brining, salting, flipping, hot oven then warm, warm oven then hot, icing the breast beforehand, tenting, not tenting. Turkey tactics are debated every year with a fervor usually reserved for matters of state or the origins of man. But I, in my relatively few years on this earth, believe I have identified the one essential factor, the lynchpin, the Holy Grail:

You butter that birdie up good, under and all over the skin, roast at a reasonable temperature for a reasonable time, and you almost can’t go wrong. (Ok, that’s probably not true at all, so we use Cooks Illustrated’s standard turkey-roasting technique.)

Glorious. Though in all honesty, my absolute favorite part of the turkey is the neck. That’s right, the neck. When the turkey goes in to roast, the neck gets browned along with the heart and gizzard (treats for my dad, unless we reserve the latter for gravy) and then braised with all the standard accompaniments in order to make stock which eventually becomes gravy. But when you make stock from the neck, and you let it braise for hours, the meat becomes so meltingly sweet and tender that it has almost caused fights between my brother and I, before we grew up and learned to share. Sharing, it should be noted, usually involves me eating a noticeable amount of the meat, burning my fingers and mouth, before telling him it’s ready to eat…

We made the same brussels here as Yuan and the Princess made back in Davis. Either a touching example of food traditions bringing faraway loved ones a little closer, or more likely another example of the addictive properties of bacon. In all fairness, they are Rachael Ray’s brussels, though that should not be interpreted as any sort of support for her and the hoarsely squawking melted cheese enterprise she has become. The Princess is a fan, but personally I only grudgingly admit that her Brussels are pretty damn good.

Stuffing this year featured mushrooms, chestnuts, and sweet Italian sausage. It was the first of the leftovers to disappear…

My last essential holiday tradition is gingered spinach, from a recipe handed down from my grandmother’s best friend, reprinted below without her permission, which I hope she won’t mind. Traditionally it’s topped with those ubiquitous and addictive canned fried onions, but we forgot to buy them this year so we topped with buttery toasted fresh breadcrumbs and fresh grated parm. It was a grand success.

Gingered spinach is one of those dishes, like my mom’s tuna noodle casserole, that makes me think about what makes food good. I have no sort of training around food, none whatsoever, unless you consider trial, error, and mild gluttony to be training. I just know what tastes good. I know that most things are better when made from scratch, from fresh ingredients, and I happily take the time to make them that way. But some things just aren’t the same when they’re not made the americana way, canned cream of mushroom and all. Tomorrow, taking up a notch the americana-rama that is my family’s holiday tradition I will be making turkey tetrazzini with a homemade mushroom sauce, but as soon as I finish this post I am racing for the last of the gingered spinach in the fridge. Amateur gourmet sensibilities be damned, sometimes you just want the stuff you ate when you were a kid. Try it out and see what you think.

Well, that about sums it up. From the Squabblery’s Midwest envoy, Merry (belated) Christmas to all, and to all a delicious good night.

Harriet Buckingham’s Gingered Spinach

3 10 oz. packages frozen chopped spinach
1 10 3/4 oz. can condensed cream of mushroom soup
1 c. sour cream
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp prepared mustard
salt and pepper
1 can fried onions

Microwave spinach until defrosted and warm. Squeeze out all the liquid. At this point you will either thank yourself for taking the time to fully defrost the spinach, or lose circulation in your frozen fingers and curse yourself for hurrying. The choice is yours.

Add remaining ingredients, reserving some onions for the top* and mix well. Bake uncovered in a 1 1/2 quart casserole for 30-40 minutes at 350.

* If you are going to sophisticated route, as we did this year, omit the onions. Saute fresh breadcrumbs in butter, sprinkle on top, grate on some parm, then bake.

Bay Area Eat-a-thon

As Little Miss pointed out, we had a friend in town from the east coast last week whose only request was that “tacos should account for roughly 50% of planned activities” during his visit. Since Yuan and Little Miss were busy during the week…something about jobs, I took it upon myself to accompany our friend as he explored the delicious delectables the bay area has to offer.After one day in Davis, where I acquired a pork shoulder from the awesome pork man at the Davis farmer’s market and experimented with my pressure cooker (mmm….carnitas), we headed west to Point Reyes. We saw some Tule elk (not for eating) and the beautiful California coastline. Admittedly, we were only in the park for 40 min before we had to leave to get to Marshall for some oysters. Hog Island oysters apparently sit in purified salt water tanks for cleansing in ultraviolet water so Yuan “trusts” them. With fifty oysters in the trunk, the super helpful Garmin told us that the best route to San Francisco was down Hwy 1. I guess technically it’s the shortest route, but we had to do some treacherous, twilight, no-fall zone, cliff driving for a hour after which the golden gate bridge was a welcome sight. We arrived at chez Yuan slightly green but recovered as soon as Yuan recreated his “trio of oysters” and we gorged ourselves with small sweetwater succulence. Yuan and Little Miss then made us a giant bowl of carbonara.

The next day, we stopped by the Mill Valley In-n-Out where I got my usual double double animal style and adventured in Muir Woods. We came back to meet up with Yuan and another friend at a great little Vietnamese restaurant in the Mission, Tao Cafe. It was a small, comfortable, and affordable restaurant which didn’t just serve your run of the mill Vietnamese food but served creative and pretty Vietnamese dishes with its distinctive French influences. Highlights of our meal included shrimp imperial rolls, “Saigon-Paris” duck confit with baby bok choy and the yummiest morsels of bass in a coconut curry sauce served in a clay pot.

Day three began with Taqueria Cancun in the Mission with some carnitas and carne asada tacos. They were delicious.

We explored San Francisco and visited the Sutro Baths, Golden Gate Park, Fort Point and took the boat to Alcatrez, then met up with Yuan at another great little restaurant in Little Miss’s neighborhood, Burma Superstar! Superstar is a crowded Richmond restaurant with lines going out the door but Little Miss knew that you can call ahead and put your name on their list. We didn’t have to wait at all and sat down immediately in the tightly packed establishment – this is not the place to bring your children who cannot remain in their seats. I never had Burmese food before, but it turns out it’s awesome! It is a wonderful mix of Indian, Chinese and Thai food. One of Burma Superstar’s specialties is their Tea Leaf salad prepared with smushy tea leaves imported from Burma, tomatoes, lettuce, dried shrimp, fried garlic, sesame seeds, peanuts, and split yellow pea. The waiter explains to you all the separate components before mixing it up tableside with lemon. The contrasting flavors and textures of the salad had us fighting for every last scrap. We also sampled some Burmese samusas (not unlike its Indian cousin samosa), fiery chicken and tofu, pork curry, and garlic duck noodles. A side order of coconut rice with hints of subtle coconut sweetness accompanied our meal and is apparently a frequent object of Little Miss’s dreams. Everything was flavorful, affordable, and fully enjoyable.

Yuan and Little Miss were able to join us for a day in Napa where we visited a couple wineries (yay Prager Port!!!), and enjoyed much of the Napa scenery thanks to Yuan’s questionable and increasingly drunken navigating.

We ended the day at Bistro Jeanty and stuffed ourselves silly with buttery bistro food. We each ordered an appetizer and an entree and spent most of the meal rotating plates so we can all get a bite of everything. Highlights were the tomato soup in puff pastry (thymey fragrance and wonderfully rich), smoked trout with potatoes (seriously, the best trout I’ve ever had – didn’t even know trout could taste like this), fried smelt (served in a cone like french fries… mmm…delicious small fried fishies), pork belly and foie gras (both were so soft and flavorful – Yuan ate the whole piece of foie gras and exclaimed, “wow! that pork belly is so soft!”), braised kobe short ribs, grilled ribeye with frites, and Yuan’s cassoulet which he ate approximately two bites of, took home and then was devoured by us later that night after getting back to Yuans.

My bay area eating adventure vacation ended with me and Little Miss making ourselves at home at Yuan’s ordering Chinese delivery and eating all of the leftovers in his fridge. Now…onto the holidays….

little miss practicality

Just before leaving for a week in Chicago, I wanted to use up the half an onion and couple of shallots I had languishing, lonely and forlorn, in the fridge. Obviously the most economical, most practical way to do so was to run out and get puff pastry and blue cheese (both of which are now in the fridge/ freezer), and concoct the following.

It was the perfect accompaniment to last week’s episode of Top Chef and the carton of eggnog that my roommate Andrea and I have been drinking for dinner lately (all rummed up, of course…).

Perhaps my New Years resolution should be to start watching my cholesterol. Though that really would be no fun at all.

a classic squabbling evening, featuring a few of our favorite things about living in the bay

After meeting for lunch at the Ferry Building and deciding that the dinner portion of our evening should revolve around the Oregon black truffle we talked Yuan into buying (it wasn’t hard), the following dinner ensued. The truffle came from Far West Fungi, purveyors of all manner of fine mushrooms that spill out into the market’s main hallway and generally prove to be an irresistible temptation whenever we pass by.

Little Miss was conscripted into going to Bi-Rite on the way over, and picked up a glorious chunk of Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog, a “soft, surface ripened” goat’s milk cheese. The blue parts are thin layers of organic vegetable ash. The cheese is piquant, creamy, not too goaty, and highly photogenic.

Yuan seared some scallops simply in olive oil, butter, salt and pepper. All that was needed was a little bit of parsley and a poking stick for keeping the Princess’s skinny fingers away from those succulent mollusks.

Sweet tri-color carrots poached with an appropriately generous amount of butter.

Sauteed shiitakes and chanterelles.

And the main event, Yuan’s delicious black truffle risotto.

Remarkably, a dinner featuring risotto, rich mushrooms, and what must have been a medically-inadvisable amount of dairy fat left plenty of room for some decadent chocolate truffles and port.

After several nights spent exploring our fair city’s bountiful restaurant offerings, it was nice to remember that we make food that is equally as good as that we find out there on the town. Not to say that we haven’t eaten well this week. During what will hopefully be the first of many exploratory convenings of the Council on Gastronomical Excess, we’ve sampled some of our favorite culinary offerings, including the tea leaf salad at Burma Superstar, assorted tacos at Taqueria Cancun, soft shell crab po-boys at the San Francisco Fish Company, and everything we could get our hands on at Bistro Jeanty. But this relatively simple dinner at home was right up there with the best of our restaurant dinners. And the corkage policy at home is unusually generous.

Someday, perhaps when one of us wins the lottery or robs a bank, we will take the squabble on the road and spend some time eating our way across New York with our East Coast outpost. Until then, we’ll have to make do with what we’ve got here in the bay. Somehow I think we’ll manage.