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!!

Flight, Fields, Fins and Farm

The categories Flight, Fields, Fins and Farm accurately divide the menu at the Melrose Hotel’s newly unveiled, Jardenea restaurant. The menu’s tagline, “The farm is the beginning of the food chain, knowing where your food comes from, has gone from being a trend to being a necessity,” although grammatically suspicious, does reflect the increasing emphasis that restaurants are putting on responsible and sustainable food choices. I had a beautiful meal there, but was dismayed by the low attendance in the dining room. It’s only a few weeks old, true, but folks–it’s definitely worth a try!

I was lucky enough to win a weekend stay at the Melrose Hotel through a work event, and so I chose the weekend leading up to the GRE to hole myself up in the gigantic room and study my butt off. After a day of studying, I was absurdly ready to put my books away and enjoy a meal downstairs. I was with someone who has an allergy to tree nuts, so we needed a completely nut-free (and corn-free, of course) meal. When we explained our dietary needs to the waiter, he decided to retrieve the chef so we could talk to him in person. The chef Nate Lindsay was extremely personable, and was obviously enthusiastic about accommodating our preferences by switching out sides or picking and choosing dishes to create a safe meal. It was a fantastic attitude, and it was clear how excited he was about making our dining experience safe and enjoyable.

To start, we ordered the Prince Edward Island Mussels with toasted curry, elephant garlic and heirloom tomato consommé. I’m a late starter to mussels so this was a bit of a stretch for me. Thus, I was damn delighted to find that I really enjoyed them! The broth was heavenly with massive pieces of the roasted garlic and a hint of spice from the curry (very little of that broth remained at the end…thank goodness for nice crusty bread to soak it all up!). As far as the mussels themselves go, I am assured by my dining partner that they were cooked to perfection!

MusselsOur mains were lovely, literally. I ordered the Colorado Lamb Rack, prepared to look like a sprig of holly. Garlic showed itself again, accompanied by roasted potatoes, cherry tomatoes, haricots verts and roasted beets. The lamb was perfectly cooked, and although quite fatty, it had a beautiful flavor. On the other side of the table, three medallions of beef were surrounded by potatoes mousseline (the creamiest mashed potatoes ever) with a shallot demi-glace. Unfortunately, the beef itself didn’t have too much flavor, but the sauce made up for the lack of taste.

Rack of Lamb

Lamb, potatoes, haricots vert

Beef medallions

Unfortunately, we were too stuffed for dessert–we even packed up the last of the beef and potatoes to re-purpose later! It was a truly lovely meal, with impressive attention to detail, and most importantly, an understanding and accommodating attitude from the chef and waitstaff. Whoever wrote the menu clearly recognizes the prevalence and seriousness of dietary restrictions: “Our chefs will accommodate vegetarian, vegan, and most special dietary needs; please speak with your server if you have any requests.” Nice.

Earlier that day, I had witnessed other guests requesting that the chef come to the front desk as they were checking out. Although Nate looked a bit nervous upon arrival (who wouldn’t be?), it quickly turned to relief when the patrons commenced their resounding approval of their beautiful meals there. If you need any more convincing, take a look at the Washingtonian’s slideshow of some of the other dishes you’ll find at Jardenea.

Jardenea | Washington DC Melrose Hotel | 2430 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC 20037

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!