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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *