Sunday, December 30, 2007

A Child's Christmas in Jersey (Second only to the literary epic, "The Goldbergs' Christmas", written by a very confused 6 year old Boo)

Dear Boo,

MMM, what a bacon-y and delicious first entry! As you mentioned, I'm sure half of our ancestors are davening in their graves while the other half are probably somewhere raising a pint and a bacon sandwich to your culinary adventures. Our christmas feast involved bacon as well, though in smaller, more contained portions than yours. I made the bacon wrapped goat cheese stuffed dates** (aka "Cherubs on Horseback", original name by Mouse,see below) which I am convinced are the key to paradise and probably peace in the middle east. The Boo: Speaking of davening in their graves...

I've heard a lot of vegetarians or former veggies say that bacon is the one thing they would either make an exception for, miss the most, or would run to first if the apocalypse were declared. (For me, my reconversion back to meat-eating came at my first job in New York in the form of little Old Bay roasted chicken wings* which I was serving day after day in the blistering heat at a certain painfully yuppified bakery-cum-restaurant to chelsea moms with enormous rocks and apparently nothing to do on a weekday except feed their brats $15 artisanal mac and cheese and generally make my life miserable. These chicken wings squawked at me day after day until I gave in and took a greasy and delicious bite...So. Chicken wings=delicious=bacon=the intersection between your Christmas and mine.)

Also in attendance at the appetizer party was the ubiquitous plate of shrimp with cocktail sauce, which oddly, was barely touched. that might have had something to do with the plethora of fried deliciousness that came in the form of many many little spring rolls made by our lovely cousins. They were stuffed with a combo of something like pork, cabbage, carrots, something something, and dried crushed angel wings. I ate about 12. seriously. Then there were the dates, (oh, the dates!), and ye olde baked brie with cranberries which I ate simply because I couldn't stand that no one else was eating it, especially since i'd made the topping. How I managed to eat a meal after this is a mystery even to me.

Mom had decided since we were 22 people, a 26 pound turkey was the only one that would do, so the enormous thing was heaved into the oven by our father who required a nap immediately after the effort. For the first time, we fell on the other side of the age old debate about stuffing in the turkey our out of the turkey. This year, due to the heft of the thing, we did out of the bird, which turned out to be easier and just as delicious. Even considering the fact that mother had made one of her first shopping mishaps and bought low-calorie whole wheat bread for the stuffing instead of white (i don't think it was ever detected. which just goes to show you, if you put enough butter and gravy on something, it ceases to matter what was underneath). On the subject of excess, there were not one but TWO enormous hams, one of which was never touched. Then there were minted peas (as a gesture towards something light and green), red cabbage (I refuse to ever do without this dish at Christmas), the best gravy yet, slightly soupy but delicious glazed balsamic onions, sweet potatoes which by some kind of odd chemical reaction, deflated and turned into a saucy kind of potato soup. Mom claimed she knew from the beginning that they were too liquidy and might end up with such a fate, but I suspect it had more to do with my discovery in the oven that they had been sitting at 350 to heat up with the saran wrap still sandwiched between the marshmallow topping and the tin foil cover. A chemical reaction between whatever frightening ingredients go into making and preserving a marshmallow and those that allow for a thin sheet of plastic to glue itself to all nearby surfaces is not all that surprising. Despite it all, they were a delicious saucy accompaniment to the turkey. The piece de la resistance was the brussels sprouts gratin which nearly gave me hardened arteries just from the smell. I think it involved a couple of sticks of butter, like an entire carton of heavy cream and a smaller one of light cream. Oh, and parmesan cheese. Oh, and proscuitto. Dad ate this and only this, which he declared "Brilliant!" and somehow got the idea that I had created it. So maybe I didn't deny it. What of it? Mom, aka Cholesterol-Party-Pooper found it slightly funky tasting and disappointing. But what does she know anyway.

For dessert, no pudding singing in the copper, as we decided to go light and simple this year. ahem. Remember that conversation, mom? So it was just a light snack of Ina's Outrageous brownies with ice cream, palmiers, a creamy lemon tart, a two layer coconut cake (baked by our fabulous aunt), and cognac balls which we made and then lost about 3 times somewhere between the kitchen and the basement fridge. I had a jolly old time wandering around yelling, "Mom! Where are my balls!?". Childish? perhaps. But it's only once a year.

The Mouse

* "Recipe" for Cherubs on Horseback (dubbed "Devils on Horseback" by the New York Times food editor, though his version involved stuffing them with almonds which i think sort of misses the whole point... Incidentally, "Angels on Horseback" are bacon-wrapped fried oysters with horseradish which is kind of amazing and which I had at a place called Fish in the west village).

Quantities are up to you--though I suggest making more than you planned since there was a near coup at my new years party when we ran out...
Use a soft goat cheese so it's easier to stuff into the dates. Take your pitted date and widen the hole with your pinky. take a pinch of cheese and squeeze it into one end until it's filled, kind of like spackling a hole in the wall. I use half a strip of regular-sliced bacon per date. Wrap around each stuffed piece and lay end-side down so you don't have to bother with toothpicks. Fill a tray with the dates about an inch apart. Put in the oven for about 5 minutes and when you're about to swoon from the aroma, use tongs to roll them over so each side gets crispy. I like my bacon on the well-done side so I'd leave them in another 7 minutes until they look browned and crispy and you can't stand it anymore. NOTE: people will want to grab these right out of the oven but for liabilities sake, dry them on a paper towel and let them cool SLIGHTLY before popping them in your mouth.

"* Recipe" for replicating Old Bay Chicken Wings (or drumsticks which I often use instead)

Take your chicken pieces. wash them. Yeah, yeah, I've heard you don't have to wash chicken, but come on. Gross. Dry and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Not too much salt because the Old Bay does a lot of that. Mince up some garlic and rub that on those birdies too. and some olive oil and maybe a squirt of lemon juice, but don't let it get too wet. Now, open a container of Old Bay seasoning (ask at the supermarket because I find they sometimes put it in a weird place, like by the ketchup instead of with the spices, or with the "ethnic" foods. (P.S., dont you just love that we still call it that??)) Sprinkle very generously with the Old Bay. Really, like go to town on those drumsticks because you really want them coated in the stuff. Now, stick them in the oven at like 350 or so. When they're partway done, squeeze a little more lemon on and maybe sprinkle more Old Bay on the bald spots. Then about 5 minutes before they're done, put them in the broiler to crisp them up. Serve with some glazed carrots or broccoli with butter and parmesan. Bring me some.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Uncharted Terrine: Christmas in Ireland

Dear Mouse,

Nollaig Shona Dhuit! and Happy New Year from Ireland, where as you know I've just spent my first Christmas ever in our lives away from our family, the States, and our mom's kitchen. ie, it has been my first Christmas I feel the way I imagine some people might if they missed Church. The Boyfriends' parents seem slightly bemused at what must seem a crazed obsession with food on my part, which is really withdrawal. At the moment am setting up Baked Challah French Toast for the morning, using a loaf of challah that I found sitting incongruously in their bread box next to the regular "Family Pan" and biscuits. I think maybe it was an attempt to welcome me. Twice now whenever the word "jew" has come up in conversation, someone has rushed to point out the loaf on the counter with almost spastic eagerness. I digress.

The lack of food prep for me this Christmas, however, has left me with a lot more time to, well, eat... and to observe, and learn a bit about The Boyfriend's culture on the most important level of all: gastronomic.

To your right you will see a picture of the food I have come to understand as the essence of Christmas in Ireland: the Mince Pie.

OK. See if you can stay with me. "Mince" in Ireland usually refers to ground meat, ie., hamburger. This is certainly a part of the world where they make meat pies. However, a Mince Pie contains dried fruit, nuts, dark sugars, meat at all. Despite this, the term for Mince Pie filling is "Mincemeat". What the hell.

Maybe once in history it took the form of a pie as we know it, a large round crusted thing from the oven, meant for an entire party. I haven't seen them that way here at all. The role of the Big Family Christmas Dessert is ably played here by the 'Christmas Cake', which comes from the same family of flavors: dark as molasses, spicy, rich, with a heavy moist character and usually a trace of alcohol, as in the Brandy Butter that is often the accompaniment. We had such a pudding on Christmas, from Marks & Spencer's: dark, cut into slices and steamed over a pan of water on the stove, generously doused with the drunken buttery topping. God Bless Us, Every One!

The Mince Pie is EVERYWHERE during this season.It's not really a pie. It's a snack. Perhaps it's the size, but it seems no one regards it as dessert per se.. more something you can eat AFTER dessert. Or anytime. The Boyfriend has a tray in his pantry, as does the B's Brother. The shops sell them in the "Christmas" section alongside pates and stilton. Best of all, when we alighted from the train in Cork (3 hours from Dublin) there was a smiling, apple-cheeked, santa's elf beneath a glittering tree, welcoming travelers home with a tray of mince pies. Not selling them. Just giving them out... because it was Christmas. (And no one was like "are you kidding, they're probably dosed"... because it's Ireland.)

On December 20, I got a ride home to Dublin from a show in Waterford with another band. When I was climbing into the backseat the guitarist pointed to the seat and said "help yourself". There they were, in a lovely white box, snowy from confectioner's sugar and slightly frozen on the black upholstery of the back seat. I had one. Rock & roll? Maybe not, but lovely manners.

(There was also a ham & cheese sandwich, which I declined. By the way, what the hell is up with the Ham & Cheese Sandwiches? How is it possible for an entire country to subsist on basically this one kind of meat, in this one form? Is it just The Boyfriend's Family? I can't believe how many of these things I've eaten over the last three weeks.)

In closing, I would like to say that I also cannot believe how much bacon this country eats. Ireland is changing, for sure, at a remarkable pace... there are gourmet shops and restaurants and martini bars and fancy coffee chains and an "Italian Quarter" in Dublin with some great food. It's not the bacon, cabbage and stout situation of yesteryear. With immigration and the Celtic Tiger came globalization and the hunger for new, more, and better. I for one am thrilled for them that the FoodScape is changing.... But it does warm my heart to see some things remain SO IRISH. The country's relationship with bacon, to me, is the prime example of this.

Last week in Waterford, I ate a plate of rigatoni dressed in tomato sauce with chorizo, red chilies, and bacon. (Leave alone the "mexican sausage in the italian food" issue for the moment; Ireland is freakin' crazy for the stuff and it is in everything). Bacon. Not pancetta. Not, mind you, chopped into the sauce or flavoring the meal. Five or Six healthy strips of honest to goodness meaty, crispy bacon, PILED on TOP of my pasta as if it were a plate of scrambled eggs.

I have also -- swear to the gods of trayf and innovative cuisine - seen bacon on the menu in Dublin's most popular JAPANESE restaurant, YAMAMORI. In the sushi section. I think it was wrapped around shrimp or something.

OK. Gotta go. I have a tray of french toast batter to prepare for the morning. I am also going to prep the ingredients for the loaf of "Spotted Dog" I will be making to give to the Boyfriend's Fam, who aren't going to eat it as it heretically replaces the raisins in the traditional "railway cake" with chocolate chips. But it IS a recipe from the Darina Allen book, which they gave me, and Ballymaloe is right here in Cork. Maybe there's hope.

HAPPY NEW YEAR! How was your holiday?

The Boo

P.S. I forgot to say that for Xmas Dinner we had turkey and ham slices sandwiched together with stuffing (sliced from a tube), potatoes roasted and mashed, carrot/parsnip mash, brussels sprouts and red pickled cabbage just like at home! For a first course we had shrimps and locally smoked salmon from right here in Cobh, and a fish terrine (which was the whole reason for the title for this blog in the first place).

Hungry For More?
Lodgings Suggestion: Harrison's Gastropub in London (bacon sandwiches brought up to your room in the AM. Near King's Cross Station)