Closed Captioned For The Thinking Impaired

Monday, December 9, 2013

It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas...

Christmas time is here.... no sleigh bells anywhere but the cable cars are clanging merrily, the evergreens are bejeweled with their holiday trimmings and visions of sugar plums are dancing in our heads (well, with apologies to my vegetarian friends, visions of beef rib roasts are dancing in mine).

Ah, Christmas. 
The culmination of a year's worth of hope and dreams celebrated by children of all ages. 

Peace on earth, goodwill to all mankind, with eggnog for all!

It seems that the retail holiday season starts earlier & earlier every year. Some stores start dragging out the break-dancing Santa right after Halloween. I, however, never really start to feel the holiday spirit until about the 15th of December when there is a genuine chill in the air and I start thinking about what I'd like to make for the all important Christmas Eve and Christmas Day meals.

After all, it's Christmas! 
I feel absolutely Dickensian this time of the year, all transgressions are forgiven: God bless us, everyone! 
Hope reigns supreme! 

Even those of us who tend toward the agnostic/atheistic mode of non-worship during the rest of the year feel the spiritual transcendence of a beautifully performed Christmas carol and the strong pull of the holiday cheer. We're decking the halls & wrapping everything we can in garlands & boughs of holly while we sing "Joy to the World".

Who doesn't look forward to seeing the Grinch's heart, which was two sizes too small, grow three sizes that fateful day, or Scrooge's maniacal, but miraculous transformation in his ghost-ridden bedchamber or George's joyous face when he discovers Zuzu's petals in his pocket? 

Who doesn't tear up watching each story's protagonist go through trials that ultimately become his salvation through the redemptive powers of one magical Christmas Eve? Powerful themes of love, redemption and fresh beginnings resound through the holiday season's traditions.

Then, of course, there's the feasting.

There are always the sacred traditional holiday staples served in the Van Wagoner household year after year: the very Germanic pork roast, mashed potatoes & sauerkraut on Christmas eve, the proper prime rib roast or roast turkey on Christmas Day.
It is with the hors d'oeuvres and sides where I play with variations of the yuletide theme depending on who our guests are, their dietary restrictions, and how adventurous they like to be. Something for everyone, that's my motto.

When I was growing up in my Puerto Rican grandmother's household, pernil with arroz con gandules were served alongside turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes; pasteles, a meat pie steamed in banana leaves traditionally made for festive occasions because of its elaborate & labor intensive preparation, were served with sweet potato casserole; and turrones (an almond paste rock candy studded with nuts) and guava paste were seamlessly offered with pumpkin and coconut custard pies.

 Everyone ate everything with great gusto and relish; making no culinary cultural distinction between the comida "criolla" or "americano". It all fell under the liberal, with the consumption for all mentality, sheltered beneath the Christmas feast's wide culinary umbrella.

So for me, in spite of my nod to tradition by keeping the holy trinity of roast beast, mashed potatoes & some form of sauce or gravy, anything goes. Some years I supplement the main course with Italian & Greek flavors, other years Asian accents. 

Every once and a while I try to revisit my childhood and give Puerto Rican dishes a whirl; although, it's really almost impossible to find the proper ingredients for those out here in San Francisco. Mexican influences, however, are a cinch. I always try to make sure at least one dish is vegetarian friendly; of course, if I really want to stretch my culinary horizons I'd try to make something delicious that was vegan but that calls for more culinary talent and initiative than I currently possess.

Everything tastes better with butter.

This year I may try to make my all-time favorite festive foods, a sort of all-star roster of Christmas' past; cultural clashes be damned! I am slightly handicapped by the fact that we have sold our amazing home with the 900 sq foot, fully loaded, state of the art kitchen. 

I am now in possession of a kitchen the size of a shoe closet with a 15 year old, 28" wide electric range.

These are small obstacles that can be easily overcome with a little grit, a little determination and a lot of planning. Which brings us to this posting: basically intended as a first pass at getting the little grey cells working and the creative juices flowing. I plan to have the entire menu mapped out by tomorrow and ready to post; taking into careful consideration the limitations of my galley kitchen. So until tomorrow... to be continued.....

Oh wait... Today is yesterday's tomorrow, yes?
Tomorrow has already come.
Hosannas to the highest!!!
And, with this aurora, a new strategy to help  those of us with restaurant kitchen envy to triumph over our small kitchen woes!

Yes, the sun has risen and a new day has begun.

With it also starts the dawn of a new era in my culinary life.
I now see the glaring gap of information available to those who by necessity must entertain in a slightly less than commodious environment. 

When dear Martha, Nigella or Giada air their special holiday television segments on home entertaining, they cook in beautifully appointed commercial kitchens that could easily accommodate a catering staff of 12 and serve their meals in dining halls worthy of Henry the VIII. They never attempt their culinary triumphs in a 6x8 kitchen, outfitted with dated equipment and cheap melamine counters that melt at the sight of a hot casserole dish as I will try to do in this seminal moment. 

Cooks of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your aprons!!!

Entertaining in limited space with less than stellar equipment requires focus, patience and excellent timing. One must learn to prioritize. If you are like I am and enjoy serving the main course warm straight from the oven after a period of rest for the juices to be evenly redistributed, then you must cook the entree "a la minute" right before service to avoid having it dry out by being kept warm or reheated.
A large roast in a small oven will take time to cook and also take up most of your precious cooking space which means some sides need to be prepared ahead, either the day before or earlier in the day and reheated by microwave just before serving. Mashed potatoes and most cheesy or creamy casseroles survive this treatment well. Something to consider when planning your holiday menu. A quick vegetable saute on the other hand will not handle reheating well & is best done at the last minute while your roast beast rests.

Another consideration is what to serve before and after dinner. 
Again, a small apartment cannot handle an overload of hors d'oeuvres or desserts. 

Choose things that are easy to prepare with a few high quality ingredients purchased either pre-cooked or pre-assembled from a high quality food purveyor and make them easy for your guests to eat with their fingers from platters that are distributed throughout different tables in the "public" areas of your apartment (no bedrooms or bathrooms please) like grilled asparagus wrapped in smoked salmon; wedges of specialty cheeses on sliced baguettes, apple wedges or gourmet crackers; slices of seared ahi tuna, salsa & guacamole on large tortilla chips or baked wonton wrappers, platters of precooked shrimp with a quickly made dip of Vietnamese sriracha hot sauce and mayonnaise, or a mix of nuts, dried fruit and wasabi peas in a pretty bowl. For dessert consider a variety of cupcakes from a local baker like Kara's or a variety of brownies, chocolate truffles, individual pies or frozen confections like chocolate eclairs, very retro & fun.

The point is to make it easier on yourself and fun for your guests. Nobody likes to see a harried hostess. It makes your guests feel uncomfortable & a little guilty. Take good thoughtful shortcuts. Save your energy for the main event: spending time with your guests. A relaxed demeanor is a hostess' best accessory.

Something else to ponder when mulling over the Holiday menu is to whom you are catering. 
The holidays usually include family time and families have children. 

Kids are notoriously hidebound and reactionary when it comes to mealtime. They are heartless little food fascists who would spit in the poor food offenders face as soon as kiss it if they can't find something they deem edible.

Many adults will balk at sensory overload as well so try to keep some dishes user-friendly for the majority of your guests. Now is not the time to show off your newly acquired knife skills by making a carpaccio of monkey liver or to display your mastery of the globe's full culinary repertoire by panko-crusting dung beetles.

Try to keep within a safe distance of your guest's culinary boundaries; but, do feel free to try interesting variations of classics by experimenting with different techniques or adding interesting herbs, spices or oils. For instance, adding a dash of cumin or rosemary to garlicky pork roast borrows from other cultures and enhances the sweetness of the meat without being too alien or overwhelming to the uninitiated; just don't add both rosemary & cumin at the same time, they are two disparate & competitive flavors; however, they do enjoy sharing the limelight with oregano and lemon which compliment both the cumin & the rosemary lending a latino flair to the former & an Italian accent to the latter.

I am sticking to a Mediterranean-ish menu this year because those are the flavor profiles of my favorite all-star Christmas dishes. The San Francisco winter climate as well as its winter produce lend themselves to that style of eating so I won't be foraging too deeply to find the ingredients for my festive season faves. If I find that someone is a non-vegan vegetarian, I can always throw a baked cheesy pasta, potato or eggplant dish together very quickly and add it to the menu for them without disrupting the theme.

In our home, Christmas Eve is a more casual affair, because we spend it watching our favorite childhood Christmas specials as I trim the tree: a special soup or tart, a lovely salad, sometimes just cheese plates and charcuterie with Acme baguettes and levain walnut bread.

Christmas Day is when I wear my chef's toque, and pull out all the stops.

This is last year's menu from Chez Gomez:

* Recipes included for these entrees in red.
Everything in green is vegetarian-friendly. Everything in red is for meat eaters.
You can make the chestnut soup vegetarian-friendly by using vegetable broth.

I will post recipes for the dishes in red. I have not included recipes for everything on my menu. Items like the salads, mashed potatoes and the biscotti are pretty straight forward and don't need elaborate recipes. Although, I will link you here to my biscotti recipe, if you really need it. And here for the Crab Salad. And here for my lovely (and easy) variation of an Autumn Salad that would be perfect as a Christmas Eve main course with its smoked duck breast, dried figs, crunchy pomegranate seeds, and tangy feta.
What can I say about mashed potatoes? Don't cut them too small, leave the skins on, boil them with salt until soft but not mushy, remove excess water by tossing them over heat in a dry, hot pan and heat up the cream & butter before adding them to the potatoes. Put them through a ricer or food mill if you like a smoother, lighter texture or mash them with an old fashioned masher if you like them with a heartier, more rustic style. Just add lots of white truffle butter or truffle oil to it at the end to give them a luxe flavor. If you can score fresh white truffles and shave them on top, all the better but good luck; they are as rare and as expensive as an F50 Ferrari.

A good Alsatian Riesling from a maker like Zind-Humbrecht will complement both meals.

Let the instruction begin...

(I so LOVE food porn, don't you?)

Roasted Crown Rib of Pork with Garlic Mustard Crust and Wild Mushroom Jus
Note: Crown rib of pork sound impressive but it's just a bunch of uncut bone-in pork chops from the ribs of Porky and about as complicated to bake which means not very. It does require a large roasting pan, & it requires you or your butcher to tie the rib racks together to form the "Crown"and french the bones for better presentation & easier carving. MY hubby hates to have the ribs "frenched", not only because he's not crazy about the French; but also, because he likes to eat the stuff between the ribs.

It takes up a whole small 28" oven, so you may not be able to bake anything else for dinner that night which is probably why the Germans serve it with mashed potatoes & sauerkraut. A whole crown can serve 12 people. You can just get a rack of 6 ribs (half the "crown") & cook it like any roasted rib meat & still call it a Crown roast because it is the same cut. It's just more like a tiara than a crown.

Ingredients for the roast:
  • 1 pork rib roast (6 ribs)
  • 1/3 cup of dijon mustard
  • 1/3 cup of olive oil
  • 4 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
  • 1 teaspoon of salt
  • 1 teaspoon of pepper
  • 1 teaspoon of herbes de provence
  • the juice of one lemon (Meyer's lemons are the tastiest)
  • 1 cup of panko or other unseasoned bread crumbs mixed with a tablespoon of sweet paprika
  • 1 tablespoon of horseradish, cream-style
  • Baking spray
  • Wild mushroom jus (recipe below)

Directions for the roast:

Place oven rack in lower third of oven.
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Season pork in its roasting pan with 2 tablespoons of olive oil and 1/2 the sea salt & fresh ground black pepper and all of the herbes de provence.

In a large mortar or small food processor, grind garlic with the remaining sea salt until a paste forms. Add the lemon juice, mustard & horseradish combining it well. Add the remaining olive oil a little at a time until an emulsion resembling aioli (garlic mayonnaise) forms.

Smear the garlic mixture all over the pork & carefully pat the panko crumbs to form a crust on the top portion of the rack. Spray the crust to evenly coat with a few spritzes of baking spray or canola spray. Let stand at room temperature in a cool spot for an hour to allow the seasonings to absorb and also for quicker cooking time. Place roast in lower third of oven and roast at 450 degrees for 15 minutes then lower heat to 325 for 35-40 minutes or until a meat thermometer registers 145 degrees when placed in the center of the roast.

After roasting, allow the meat to rest on the cutting board in a warm spot for 15 minutes before carving.

Meantime, make the Wild Mushroom jus.

  • 2 tablespoons of olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons of unsalted butter
  • 1/2 lb. of sliced wild mushrooms (chanterelles, maitake, porcini, cremini, oyster etc)
  • 2 shallots, diced
  • 1/4 cup of veal demi-glace
  • 1/4 cup low sodium chicken stock
  • 1/2 cup of dry white wine (a dry Alsatian riesling or gewurtraminer would work well)
  • pan dripping from the pork roast
  • sea salt & pepper to taste

Heat the bottom of the roasting pan over medium high heat, add the olive oil, a pinch of salt & pepper, and the shallots. Saute until soft, then add the mushrooms & one tablespoon of unsalted butter, cook until the mushrooms wilt then deglaze the pan with the white wine, loosening & scraping up every bit of residue in the bottom of the roasting pan. When the wine is reduced by half, add the stock & the demiglace, stirring well, until the jus is thickened and glossy, then remove it from the heat, stir in the remaining butter & check for seasonings. Season to taste & serve or keep warm until service.

Parmesan Budino with Peas & Micro-green Salad

Note: This recipe is from the great Northern Italian restaurant, Acquerello, in San Francisco. It is a savory custard baked in individual ramekins that is ridiculously simple to make, can be made a day in advance, refrigerated then reheated by microwave just before serving. The peas can be pre-cooked as well & tossed with buttery stock at the last moment while the budinos are being reheated. It's an amazing first course that would also serve well as a brunch entree with a larger salad adding arugula or watercress. Grana Padano is less expensive than its Parmigiano-Reggiano cousin and provides the same rich, nutty flavor. Serves 6.


For the Budino:

    * 1 Tablespoon unsalted butter
    * 2 Tablespoons all purpose flour
    * 3/4 cup heavy cream
    * 3/4 cup half & half
    * 1/4 cup milk
    * 1 whole egg
    * 2 egg yolks
    * 3/4 cup grated Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano
    * dash of freshly grated nutmeg
    * 1/4 teaspoon salt
    * 1/8 teaspoon ground white pepper

For the garnish:

    *1 cup of shelled peas
    * 1/2-3/4 cup chicken or vegetable stock
    * 2 to 3 Tablespoons unsalted butter
    * Good sea salt & white pepper to taste
    * 1 to 2 Tablespoons finely chopped parsley, leaves only
    * 2-3 ounces of microgreens
    * dash extra virgin olive oil
    * dash lemon juice (Meyer's lemon would be my recommendation)
    * grated Grana Padano cheese to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray six 4-ounce ramekins with vegetable spray coating. Melt the butter in a small heavy sauce pan over medium-low heat. Add the flour and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture takes on a "nutty" aroma. This should take a couple of minutes. Remove from heat. Slowly whisk in the half & half, milk and heavy cream, mixing well after each addition. Add the eggs and egg yolks, one at a time, whisking well. Stir in the cheese, nutmeg, salt & pepper; mix until fully incorporated.

Ladle the budino mixture evenly into the prepared ramekins. Place the ramekins in a large baking pan; pour in enough hot water to come halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Transfer to oven.

Bake for 20-25 minutes until set, or until the tops are lightly browned and a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean.

For the garnish:
While the custards are baking, blanch the peas in boiling water for 30 seconds; drain and plunge immediately into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Drain.

Pour the stock into a saute pan; reduce slightly over high heat. Add the butter & peas; toss to coat in the liquid. Season with salt & pepper to taste. Take half of the peas and puree them in a food processor until smooth. (You may skip this step).  Garnish with parsley. Set aside in a warm spot.

Gently dress the micro-greens with lemon juice & olive oil; season to taste. Set aside.

When the budinos are done, remove from oven. Loosen the sides with a paring knife, then turn them unto a warm plate. Arrange the peas (and the puree) around the budinos. Top with micro greens & grated cheese. Serve immediately.

Serves 6.

Choucroute with Sauteed Shallots, Pancetta, & Veal Demiglace

Note: Choucroute garnie is a traditional Alsatian dish. The sauerkraut is typically served with pork sausage and other cured meats. Charcuterie is a hearty and handy staple, especially in the winter time. With potatoes and boiled meats, simply served. it is a satisfying dish.
The sauerkraut itself is usually heated with a glass of Riesling or other dry white wine, stock, and goose or pork fat. In some recipes, it may also be cooked with chopped onion and sliced apples.

Food writer 
Jeffrey Steingarten attempted to catalogue the composition of an authentic recipe in his very entertaining and informative,
The Man Who Ate Everything. He claimed that every traditional recipe includes black peppercorns, cloves, garlic, juniper berries, onions, and potatoes; most include bay leaves and wine.

I, myself, am luxing it up with sliced shallots, pancetta and veal demi-glace, reducing the meat, eliminating the potatoes and essentially relegating it to a side dish, but served with the roast pork, and the truffled mashed potatoes will still keep it married to its original use as a delicious foil. You can use guanciale, fatback, or thickly cut bacon, if you can't find pancetta, but the clove and the garlic in the pancetta add a liveliness to the dish, that mere bacon alone will not.


*3 large shallots, thinly sliced

*2 oz of duck fat  (you may substitute olive oil)

*2 pounds sauerkraut (preferably fresh), rinsed

*1/2 bottle dry Riesling

*1/2 ounces juniper berries

*1 bouquet garni (including rosemary, bay leaves, thyme tied in cheesecloth)

*6 oz of pancetta, large dice

*4 tablespoons of veal demi-glace (you may substitute 1/3 cup chicken stock)


1. Cook pancetta over medium heat until crisp. Remove and reserve crisp bits. Add duck fat to pan.

2.Sauté the sliced  shallots in the duck fat slowly; do not brown them.

3. Add the rinsed sauerkraut, wine, juniper berries, bouquet garni. Cook for about 30 minutes on low heat with cover.

4. Drain the cooking liquid from the cabbage. Remove the bouquet garni

5. Place the sauerkraut in a large serving bowl or plate, add the pancetta.

Serves 4-6.

Chestnut, Celery Root and Apple Soup

The soup is essentially chestnuts, celery root and apple.  It's a great combination and it can be served simply or garnished with luxurious delicacies.  Daniel Boulud suggests adding shredded duck confit, thin strips of prosciutto, sliced truffles or cubes of foie gras, but some chopped roasted hazelnuts would add lovely texture and complement the inherent sweetness of the soup without breaking the piggy pank.

Makes 6 to 8 servings
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, peeled, trimmed and thinly sliced
1 medium leek, white part only, thinly sliced, washed and dried
2 McIntosh apples, peeled, cored and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
10 ounces celery root, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 bay leaf
1 sprig thyme
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
3/4 pound peeled fresh chestnuts (from about 1 1/4 pounds chestnuts in the shell) or dry-packed bottled or vacuum-sealed peeled chestnuts
2 quarts chicken stock or store-bought chicken broth
1/2 cup heavy cream
Heat the oil in a stockpot or large casserole over medium heat.  Add the onion, leek, apples, celery root, bay leaf, thyme, nutmeg and salt and pepper to taste and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes, or until the onions and leeks are soft but not colored.  Add the chestnuts and chicken stock and bring to the boil.  Lower the heat to a simmer and cook, skimming the surface regularly, for 35 to 40 minutes, or until the chestnuts can be mashed easily with a fork.  Add the heavy cream and simmer for 5 to 10 minutes more, then remove from the heat and discard the bay leaf and thyme.
Puree the soup until smooth using a blender or a food processor, and working in batches if necessary, then pass it through a fine-mesh strainer.  You should have about 2 quarts soup.  If you have more, or if you think the soup is too thin -- it should have the consistency of a veloute or light cream soup - simmer it over medium heat until slightly thickened.  Taste and, if necessary, adjust the seasoning.  (The soup can be cooled completely and stored in a covered container in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days or frozen for up to one month.  Bring the soup to a boil before serving.)


So, gentle reader, are you feeling all Grinchy with all the holiday hubbub or aglow with a yeasty benevolence for all of mankind like Tiny Tim who wants God to bless us... everyone?
Here's hoping that no matter how you spend the holly daze, you find yourself warm, comfortable and surrounded by the people and things you love... That is, after all, the best recipe for life, yes?


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