I kinda dig the span of time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve as parochial as it may seem anymore. My own traditions are rooted in the American Catholic idiom, but we have enough friends of other ilks that late November to January is quite a festive time. Someone is always gearing up for some kind of celebration for being half-way out of the dark. Even if it’s a party that we’re not necessarily invited to, I enjoy chatting about what’s on the menu.
This year’s bacchanal started with a repetition of last year’s Thanksgiving menu. Leg of lamb is our official go to meat for Thanksgiving, as are the fig and bacon brussel sprouts and Stove Top stuffing. Still riding the buzz from Paris, I mixed it up this year and made pommes Anna instead of mashed. I expected more outcry from my dad, a mashed potato enthusiast, but he was very pleased. Mom, on the other hand, did pick up some roasted sweet potatoes from a Polish deli they passed on their walk that morning since I omitted them this year. The pie was of pumpkin, of course, since it gives Jeff an excuse to eat whipped cream. I also went a little crazy with the Jeni’s Ice Cream cookbook and made two kinds; Bourbon Pecan for a nod to pecan pie and Cranberry Royale in place of relish. The latter was served with champagne as an aperitif, but it didn’t go over so well. Jeff didn’t see why he should ruin his glass of champagne and my parents can’t drink but a few sips of the stuff because it gives them headaches. More for the cook, although it did result in various crashing noises interspersed with not-parent-safe cursing from the kitchen. Dinner was stellar, but there were two truly masterful moments that defined Thanksgiving for me. The first was the early afternoon charcuterie from my new favorite Chicago butcher. The four of us devoured a plate of prosciutto, beef blood headcheese, Spanish chorizo, and duck liver pâté before half-time of the Lions v. Packers game. (ed. note: Yes, we watched football. Don’t even ask how that happened. I blame Chicago.) Jeff also picked up some fantastic aged goat cheese and a lovely triple cream brie. That also disappeared with lightning speed. The second food moment was my mother’s brilliant use of leftovers. She rustled up remaining bits of sweet potato, red potato, onion, and lamb into a gorgeous hash served with poached eggs on top. Fucking brilliant.
Christmas 2011 was a staycation. During a chat with my mom, I articulated that all I wanted for Christmas was some time off work that didn’t involve traveling or hosting guests as that has been the case for, oh, the past year plus. She grokked, so we got a tree and eggnog and all that Norman Rockwell shit in preparation. The geist conspired against us though and the collective mood of the city plummeted the closer Christmas got. I even vowed not to bake this year, claiming “Fuck what people are going through. It’s not like they eat them anyway.” Yet, like all codependencies, I flirted every weekend with the idea of gingerbread. I love gingerbread, but baking is an act of larger devotion for me. I need an exterior anchor the keep the comet of inspiration from burning out immediately. Gingerbread for gingerbread’s sake just isn’t going to happen in my house. Thankfully, I held out. My coworkers are to thank for keeping me real every time my mouth started running on about gingerbread.
We did, however, partake in an epic cooking session on Christmas day. Since it was just the two of us, we skipped on the meat and multiple sides tradition. Instead, we made xiao long bao (soup dumplings) and char siu bao (BBQ pork dumplings). If broken down into small daily tasks, the only real challenge of dumplings lies in the assembly. Char siu bao is easy enough; it doesn’t have to be pretty or water-tight. Xiao long bao on the other hand presents a few difficulties. First, the aspic (a.k.a. soup jello) is totally gross, like seriously skeeve you out, never eat meat again gross. It’s all fatty and wiggly and smells like a room full of gamers. Second, xiao long bao must be architecturally sound because the soup jello melts during the steaming process. If your hull is compromised, you lose the soup and just have regular dumplings, thus negating the two previous days of stock prep and waiting for the jello, not to mention having to suffer the sight of the horrific shit in your fridge every time you want a beer. We knew there was a lot at stake when we started pleating the impossibly thin dumpling wrappers. I even freaked out a bit and left to get smokes because so much was on the line. Yet we persevered, thanks in large part to copious amounts of excellent sake and a few mugs of DD’s famous vin chaud earlier that morning. Did we lose the soup? Yes, but they were still delicious, perhaps even more so because we were still in our pajamas as the sun set. Jeff has since suggested that we perhaps get better at making regular dumplings before attempting something that only 90 year old Chinese grandmothers do or leave it to the professionals at Lao Shanghai or Sunda.
As I sit here in the kitchen, New Year’s Eve will be soon upon us. The weather has been relentlessly unseasonal, although one should be careful what she wishes for. We’re still discussing which song to play for our midnight dance in the living room, but we do have our menu, roughly. The centerpiece is that absurd, ostentatious Tomahawk chop Jeff has been pining over since summer. Jamie Oliver’s “Cook with Jamie” should protect me from any booze induced “Eraserhead” moments. We may have salad. We may just wash down rare beef with champagne. We’ll have to see what mood strikes us.