A Persnickety Christmas

Lobster Joy12 Screaming babies, 11 awkward pat-downs, 10 long delays, 9…okay okay, you get the idea. Traveling at the holidays isn’t exactly fun. Mechanical failures and belligerent passengers seem to be relentless fixtures of my travel experience, but I soldier on as best I can. For Christmas, it’s the white snow and frigid temperatures of Madison, WI that I return to. And although I’ve only lived in DC for two and a half years, my stalwart Midwestern endurance of cold has utterly vanished. It was COLD. Luckily, most of our activities were inside (after successfully convincing my mother to turn up the heat to…wait for it…a balmy 68 degrees), and involved a lot of baking and cooking.

There were two big meals to prepare for, and although it was only my brother, my mom and myself, we went all out! My brother, as usual, was the brave leader in our culinary endeavors. For Christmas Eve, it was to be the Feast of Seven Fishes (we only managed five, but that’s beside the point), and for Christmas Day–roast lamb. Christmas Eve went swimmingly (get it – fishes…swimmingly…ha!), but there was some major drama for the Christmas Day meal. Our brains must have been addled by the meal the night before. But, I think you’ll understand why….

The Feast of the Seven Fishes is a traditional Italian Christmas celebration that generally consists of seven seafood dishes. Dane, in normal fashion, marched into the seafood market with my credit card and emerged with $70 worth of lobster, shrimp, clams, mussels, and monkfish. I admit, I was hesitant about all this fish…give me a nice piece of salmon anyday, but this feast was a real departure from my norm. But I converted quickly. What came next was a beautiful shrimp and lobster platter with homemade cocktail sauce, and a lobster risotto topped with a hefty piece of monkfish and surrounded by a broth of clams and mussels. Delicious!

Shrimp & Lobster platterRisotto with MonkfishWe finished the evening with my mother’s profiteroles and a viewing of Scrooge. There’s a running joke about how long it takes for one of us (or all of us) to fall asleep during this movie–whether we’ll make it all the way through the Ghost of Christmas Present to see the appearance of the Ghost of Christmas Future or fall asleep somewhere in the middle. Well, I failed miserably this year and barely made it out of the scene with Jacob Marley at the beginning of the movie! (Watch it, kids – great stuff!)

Christmas in WI

Christmas morning was lovely, with the snow sparkling in the dazzling sun. We had apple muffins, cookies and tea and unwrapped our gifts together. In afternoon, we commenced our preparations for the big meal: roasted lamb with brussels sprout/cauliflower gratin (a repeat from Thanksgiving because it’s so good) and a beautiful salad with pomegranate, pecans, and blue cheese. Since we were roasting the lamb, we had set it on a roasting rack in a glass dish in the oven at a temperature of 425 degrees. About 25 minutes in (and with our brussels sprouts and cauliflower roasting in their own pans), my brother decided to add some broth to the meat. Warning: do not pour cold broth into a glass baking dish in a 425 degree oven. Why, you ask? Because the dish will shatter into a million pieces, that’s why! It’s true folks, the dish verifiably exploded and we were left picking pieces of (tempered – thank goodness, no shards for us) glass out of the oven and the cauliflower for a good 30 minutes. Luckily, no one panicked too much (and we can’t just go out for Chinese, since I can’t actually eat it), and we ended up popping everything back in the oven. Surprisingly, everything was perfectly cooked!

Roast LambSalad and GratinChristmas Day always ends with Cassata cake, a Sicilian cake that we’ve made every year since…well…since I started forming memories of eating good food! It was a great spread, and we were delighted to be eating leftovers in various ways for the rest of the visit! I hope everyone had a great holiday season, and are living it it up in 2013!!

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A Persnickety Thanksgiving

It’s been a week since we stuffed ourselves silly at Thanksgiving, and I’m only now catching up with real life again! Thanksgiving at my brother’s Manhattan apartment has become a tradition for my family; this might have been the 5th year running! It’s only right though–for a holiday that is almost solely focused on food (and a wee bit of thanks thrown in), you gravitate to the best chef. In my family, the crown goes to my brother, and he certainly wears it with pride.

Dane always prepares a surprisingly traditional menu of dishes (i.e. turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing, mashed potatoes, etc), but the food is so elaborately, carefully, and lovingly prepared, that it pretty much beats every other meal ever. But before that happens, we eat burgers.

Last year, we ate at 5 Napkin Burger, and this year, it was P.J. Clarke’s that provided our pre-Thanksgiving grease. The burgers are delicious, the gin & tonics perfectly refreshing, and a special artisanal ketchup on the table may have been slathered on every bite. PJ’s was also a fantastic example of a restaurant that trains its staff on a responsible approach to dietary restrictions. Our seasoned waiter knew everything about frying oil used, allergens in the kitchen, and completely quelled my concerns with his comments: “You have nothing to worry about–we have plenty of people come in with allergies, especially peanut allergies.” A great meal to expand our stomachs!

Cornbread Stuffing…wish it just didn’t look so delicious!

And now, for what you’re actually reading this for: the big Thanksgiving meal. I was the only one present with a dietary restriction, but since it was a small group of family and close friends, I was actually shocked to discover my brother’s intention of preparing a cornbread stuffing. It was my almost-daily intake of cornbread muffins at my work cafeteria that led to the development of my intolerance, so I have long had to turn my back on cornbread (and all other corny things – bad jokes not included). I grudgingly accepted Dane’s justification that he would make normal bread stuffing as well, there would be no worry of cross-contamination, and there would be a ridiculously large variety of other foods for me to eat. Yah, yah. Fine. I didn’t push–there was no need to make a scene, although I do feel that it would have been just as easy to have a perfectly allergen-free Thanksgiving. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this issue!

The preparation began at 9:30am with 2 pies made by my mother and I, and the kitchen was rocking for the rest of the day! Check out the dishes below!

Charcuterie spread for munching.

Our 14lb bird, and our 5lb gremlin.

A gorgeous presentation, as per usual.

The cauliflower and brussels sprout gratin.

The table is groaning at this point.

Quite the full plate. Polished off in record time by yours truly.

Don’t forget the pie! Pumpkin and chocolate-pecan with handwhipped (seriously) whipped cream.

Hope you all had an amazing Thanksgiving!

A West Virginia Kind of Weekend

 With unending twitter and facebook updates and four different email accounts synced to my iPhone at all times, I rarely find myself totally disconnected (even when I’m sleeping, MetroAlerts continues to ping my phone with updates about the broken Red line). But I was lucky enough to enjoy a pause from all that this weekend in an adorable cabin on the outskirts of Berkeley Springs, WV. When describing the trip to a friend, she pointed out that saying “rural West Virginia” was a bit redundant; West  Virginia doesn’t have much space that’s not rural. Just so where we were: situated along the edge of the Cacapin river (just a hop away from the Potomac, funnily enough), the cabin is literally enveloped in trees, and in the entire weekend, only one truck passed by on the road outside.

Saturday was the big day of our trip, for we were visiting the acclaimed (at least by the citizens of Berkeley Springs) Applebutter Festival. Berkeley Springs is also home to the famed (by more than just the citizens of Berkeley Springs) hot springs that Washington dignitaries would historically visit. You can even stop by George Washington’s bath (please visit Wikipedia at your leisure if curious). Despite the sun, it was brisk and windy, and we were all aghast at the (obviously local) little girl splashing around in her bathing suit. Despite the shivering, we had a marvelous time testing out applebutters and other preserves, chowing down on county fair-type food, selecting the best Honey Crisp and Crispin apples for the to-be-baked-that-night apple crisp, and engaging in some awesome, unabashed people-watching.

On the drive back from festival, the trees were literally exploding in front of our eyes–vivid reds and oranges burst out of the forest of green surrounding us on all sides. It’s beautiful country, no doubt. The only catch? Nestled amid the lush greenery, scores of neglected or abandoned farmhouses, barns, trailers and sheds slowly sink into decay. The deterioration is quiet, unassuming. It’s a reminder of the scores of people that have struggled–are struggling. In my world of DIY and design blogs, fixer-uppers are a fun challenge for the budding homeowner. In the quiet roads of West Virgina, not 3 hours from my own neighborhood, windows are broken and the paint is peeling, and a quick trip to the local Home Depot won’t be enough to stall the slide into ruin. In West Virginia, 17.4% of people live below the poverty line. That’s almost every 5th person living in poverty. And that’s enough to give you pause.

But inside that cabin, the mood was light. We sipped on hot apple cider, crouched close to the woodstove for warmth, and played with a delightful toddler and baby duo. A six-year-old amazed us all in the game of Taboo when she guessed that the word was “pipe-skirt” (not being familiar with the word “kilt,” but completely understanding the concept). We ate simple food – grilled chicken and sausage, grilled veggies, corn-on-the-cob (well, I didn’t), baked beans (again, I skipped those), and rosemary bread with apple butter spread (applebutter, cream cheese and cinnamon), and finished the meal with a bowl of hot apple crisp made by yours truly.

A gorgeous evening, followed by 2 days of relaxing, reading, playing board games, telling ghost stories, and watching Seinfeld on DVD (to distract us from said ghost stories at 3am). We drove home in a steady rain, none of us quite ready to rejoin civilization and the stream of texts and alerts that erupted on our smart phones as soon as we finally regained service on the road…