Holiday Cooking: December Recipes
It's high drama around here as my daughter, Carson, is applying to colleges, and she veers from hysterics about her academic future to despair over her inability to find the perfect slouchy, pointy-toed black-leather boot (from what I can tell, there are about a million options at the boutiques in lower Manhattan, where we live). Mo, my 15-year-old son, tolerates the hoopla relatively well. I think he's just grateful that everyone is too preoccupied with her to ask if he has finished doing his homework.
December is always crazy, and every day builds toward the crescendo of the holidays. So my little rituals, like baking on Sunday for the week, provide a kind of stress-free reprieve for me, and at the same time let me stock up on fuel for the family, like blueberry–sour cream muffins.
© Quentin Bacon
My husband, Kevin, is bringing his partner, Joe, over for dinner. Joe and his wife, Jane, have been battling methane gas development in the New York watershed—a real David and Goliath situation. Since Joe is meeting Jane late to conduct a community meeting, we thought it'd be nice to supply him with some sustenance (it seems like Jane runs on air). I think I'll make a big roast chicken stuffed with tangerine halves and glazed with fresh tangerine juice, honey and wine. That's fortifying. Afterward, I'll put the bones and fruit in a soup pot. I like to simmer everything overnight on very low heat (I have an electric stove, which is less nerve-wracking to leave on than gas). In the morning, the whole loft smells like chicken soup.
More Fantastic December Recipes:
My girlfriends and I threw a surprise cocktail party at my loft for our friend Diane's birthday: martinis, gravlax, scallops with pickled mushrooms, duck burritos with mallards my friend Suzanne shot in Arkansas, and artichoke-and-Fontina pizzas for the late hangers-on. Had a brief panic when my pizza dough didn't rise. (I'd bought fancy Italian yeast and knew it was suspect. From now on, it's Fleischmann's for me.) So I ran out to a pizzeria to buy a few patties of dough. This is one of the reasons we pay thousands of dollars in rent every month in New York: $4 pizza dough around the corner. Anyway, Diane was totally surprised and flattered. By 10 p.m. everyone was dancing, including various kids, despite the appalling sight of their parents gyrating to "Brick House."
© Quentin Bacon
I told everyone last night that dancing would metabolize the martinis, but, well, I was wrong. Oh my God, what a hangover. The loft isn't a total mess: A few people stayed late to help clean up, but what looks good after six hours of partying is not necessarily what looks good in the light of day.
It's Sunday, and after taking a resuscitating run to Chelsea Market, I'm home to settle into some comfort cooking. I'll prepare blueberry–sour cream muffins and a huge pot of cranberry bean soup to go with all the cheese, bread and salad fixings that I've already laid in. There is too much going on socially and workwise this month for me to cook multiple meals every day, so everyone in my family is just going to have to feed themselves.
Today I had a couple of lunch guests— my publicist at Clarkson Potter Publishers and a gal from marketing. The purpose of the meeting was to brainstorm a program for promoting Well-Preserved: Recipes and Techniques for Putting Up Small Batches of Seasonal Foods. I preserve all kinds of things, and the book is a collection of those ideas, for stuff like apricot jam and oil-packed tuna, as well as recipes for cooking with those ingredients.
Anyway, I needed to prepare something I could cook ahead of time, so I wouldn't be constantly at the stove while we were working. So I made a nice lentil soup with tomatoes, potatoes and smoked turkey. Usually for this dish I smoke my own poultry with my little Cameron stovetop smoker— it's supereasy—but I decided to make life simple and buy a smoked turkey wing and thigh from the Whole Foods in my neighborhood.
An hour before my lunch guests showed up, I opened a jar of pickled asparagus I put up last spring to serve as a first course with chopped hard-cooked eggs, a drizzle of good extra-virgin olive oil, a few grinds of black pepper and a sprinkle of sea salt. I found the loveliest torpedo red onions at the store where I picked up the turkey, so I sliced them superthin and decorated the plate of asparagus with a tangle of them.
The meeting was excellent, and so was the lentil soup, which I served with a loaf of Italian bread, a simple green salad and a piece of beautiful aged goat cheese from Consider Bardwell Farm.
Cooking during the week might not be easy if I had an office job. I am still working all day, however, even at home, so I have gotten into the habit of putting up foods or preparing them in stages. I've created a kind of kitchen ecosystem where I have access to all these ingredients that can be thrown together pretty quickly to make fabulous dishes.
Because Monday is always hard on the kids—the beginning of the school week, homework, basketball practice, exams—I decided to make something they love: meatballs with tomato sauce and peas. The dish is so stewlike that I serve it with rice or mashed potatoes instead of pasta. In my kitchen, I had home-canned tomatoes that I put up over the course of the fall, a bag of bread crumbs that I constantly add to, and sweet peas that I froze last spring when they were cheap and seasonal. So all I had to buy for the meatballs was the ground beef and pork—everything else I needed for the recipe was already here.
I went to the Putney School in Vermont in the 1970s. A recent e-mail thread brought together a bunch of classes from that era, under the heading You Krazy Middle-Aged Kidz. The thread inspired me to donate a five-course meal with wine pairings to Putney's fund-raising auction.
These dinners require a lot of prep, which sometimes makes me wonder why I don't just donate the cash it costs me to do them. But I'm a glutton for many things, including punishment. I do love to set the table, because I have all this wonderful old-fashioned silver from my grandmother. It's on the tarnished side, but it dresses up my plain white everyday china.
The couple who won the meal were jovial folks who immediately revealed that their son was on probation at Putney. Kevin and I consoled them by saying everyone was on probation there at one time or another. We fed them a series of delicate fish dishes, followed by duck breast with fig sauce. Cooking duck is just so simple yet luxurious it should be illegal, and the fig sauce—which I had on hand because I preserve it in the fall—marries with the flavor really well. I served the duck with a peppery arugula salad and broccoli rabe with olives. Over the course of the evening we poured Prosecco and Qupé Roussanne, a lovely California wine, and finally a great Syrah blend from the Côte Bleue, the 2000 Jean-Luc Colombo Les Pins Couchés.
As they left, the couple said they were looking forward to bidding on the dinner next year. I said, "Oh, that's wonderful," because they were so nice. But the dirty dishes!
© Quentin Bacon
Went out to my parents' house in Westchester to help them trim the tree. When I arrived, my mother had a glum look on her face, having botched a piecrust for lunch. The crust fiasco sent her into a tailspin, so she disappeared to her studio to practice yoga and om her way out of her pastry funk. (I know that funk. I also suffer from periodic biscuit funk.) We decorated the tree, then settled down to a salad and veal breast stuffed with ricotta cheese. The recipe is from Italian Family Dining, a cookbook that I wrote with my dad, Ed Giobbi, who is a food writer as well as an artist.
Given my mother's piecrust dilemma, it was a good thing I brought a lemon–poppy seed cake from home. The recipe was adapted from a Maida Heatter one called East 62nd Street Lemon Cake, which was supposedly kept on hand by many Manhattan socialites in the '70s. I replaced some of the flour with cake flour and added a lot of lemon extract, which pumps up the tenderness and flavor of this elegant dessert.
La Vigilia, the traditional Italian Christmas Eve dinner, is a fast that is a feast, the idea being that you fast (i.e., eat fish instead of meat) until midnight. For our family, the seven fishes represent the seven sacraments (although if you ask my father what those sacraments are, he says "stuffed clams, spaghetti alla vongole…"). Every year, the painter Jim Rosenquist, his wife, Mimi, and their daughter Lily join us. The Rosenquists usually bring each of us a fabulous bottle of wine, and I wrap jars of cranberry ketchup, which they always forget to bring home.
By 7 p.m. on Christmas Eve, we were eating baskets of crisp fried squid and toasting the holiday with copious glasses of Champagne, the bottles cold from waiting in the white snow outside the back door. The table was dressed with nuts and pinecones and tangerines. There was a menu at each place written on the back of one of my dad's lithographs from the 1970s, plus there were carafes of his homemade white wine, blend and vintage unknowable, but lovely and crisp and authentic.
We ate all kinds of crustaceans and delicate flounder primavera (with chopped tomatoes and herbs) for our entrée and finished with lemon sorbetto—Spumante and lemon sorbet—served in Champagne glasses with long sundae spoons.
After dinner, we gathered by the fire to listen to a recording of Dylan Thomas's A Child's Christmas in Wales and sip on something. We listen to it every Christmas Eve, ever since my mother discovered it calmed the mad young children and put the older folks to sleep.
Christmas morning is a chaotic collision of interests. The kids are after the presents; the parents, who are wiped out after putting together bicycles and stuffing stockings at 3 a.m., struggle to consume enough coffee to get their motors running. My sister's husband, always dapper, moved into his annual eggnog production. My mother disappeared to find the gifts she had forgotten to wrap, and after standing among the ribbons and paper and Styrofoam peanuts for a while, Dad shrugged and returned to the kitchen to start the Christmas Day lunch. I helped.
We usually have lasagna as a first course, but this year Dad decided to go with a regional Christmas Day dish from Le Marche, where his family is from: a fritto misto of cauliflower, pear and raisins. It was supercrisp and sweet, and no one seemed to miss the pasta course. For the entrée, we grilled a huge elk tenderloin from Colorado—it looks like a baseball bat, but the meat is incredibly tender and mild. Like a cross between beef and venison, it has a real holiday quality. We served it with my home-canned cranberry ketchup, braised broccoli rabe and lots of roasted potatoes. It took me forever to get my potatoes crispy on the outside and soft on the inside like Dad's. I guess the trick to making them right is counterintuitive: You just have to let those potatoes cook to death. The meal—especially the elk—was great with a beautiful Barolo that chef Fabio Trabocchi had brought over when he and his family joined us for Thanksgiving the month before. He's from Le Marche, too.
December 31 and January 1
For New Year's Day tomorrow, we organized a lunch at the loft. We invited neighbors, new friends and grown children of friends from out of town, about 12 altogether. I planned to set out boiled shrimp with homemade mayo, then wild mushroom strudel (the leftovers are great because they reheat perfectly) and marinated zucchini with feta. I'll also serve a traditional Italian New Year's dish, cotechino (a fat, creamy sausage) cooked with lentils, and an arugula salad. We've got plenty of sparkling wine and some Ruffino Chianti Classico. I did all the prepping today, so assuming I can get up by noon, everything can come together by 3 p.m., when folks are due to arrive.
But no cooking for me on New Year's Eve. I've done so many New Year's Eve parties, it was a relief to make a plan to go to our neighborhood joint, Raoul's, and let someone else cook and clean up. Kevin and I had our first date there, in 1986, and we go when we are feeling romantic or need some time away from the teenagers that always seem to be lolling around our house. Last month, Michael, one of the maître d's, promised he'd wear my fur coat with nothing underneath if we showed up. So, of course, we made a reservation on the spot.
We were back at the loft by 2 a.m., just when our daughter got home from her party. Our son stayed up to say good night and we all hugged and kissed for the first time in 2009. And I have to say, those sweet kisses were the tastiest things I'd had all month.