Scrooge as a City Cook
Christmas Salads, Breakfast and Seven Fishes
It's only mid December and I've already got holiday burn-out. I still have to send greeting cards, buy and wrap the few gifts we still give, and take care of matters like year-end taxes and work deadlines. The crowds make it so much harder to get anything done that I become a Scrooge held hostage in my apartment. I am normally a spirited NYC cheerleader, but from Thanksgiving to New Year's, I harbor secret fantasies of pushing tourists in front of city buses. Forgive me.
I'm at the point when I want to be leave town. Ignore my obligations. Avoid every party and stomp on tinsel. But by the end of the month many of the tourists will have gone home, I will have gotten most things done, and once again, I will appreciate what millions come here for each year: Christmas in New York City.
I've learned that I can find meaning in these five weeks of holiday madness if I can make this time of year be about generosity. After all, it is when we encourage our children in believing that every dream can come true. It is when we seek ways to soften the hardships of those less fortunate. And it is when we want bounty at our tables.
A Holiday Salad Lunch
Generosity in cooking doesn't have to be expensive or lavish. It can instead simply mean inviting people who are alone to dinner. It can be setting a table with flowers and candles. Or serving two desserts. Our best holiday meals are ones that let us celebrate being together and being abundant. If for you that means a Christmas dinner with an extravagant prime rib of beef and Yorkshire pudding, that will be wonderful (and please invite me!).
But a holiday meal can also mean a two-hour lunch with hearty winter salads. Here the generosity comes from the lingering, plus from a splurge on ingredients that you don't normally use either because of their price or their calories. For example:
• Steak salads made with thick slices of boneless New York strip steaks that you've first rubbed with coarse salt and freshly ground pepper and then broiled for about 7 minutes a side (about 5-inches from the heat source) until they're medium rare. Let them rest five minutes before slicing. Arrange several slices on each dinner plate alongside a mound of celery remoulade and thin slices of red onion.
• Crab or lobster salad. From a good fish monger buy a pound of large chunk crab or cooked lobster meat (if you prefer to do the work yourself, you can save some money by buying and steaming your own lobsters; shop around for the best prices). Make your own mayonnaise -- yes, it makes a huge difference in a fresh seafood salad -- and add some tiny diced celery. Plate a large portion with oven roasted plum tomatoes and a slice of lightly toasted buttery brioche bread.
• A crisp green salad seasoned with slivers of crispy pancetta and dressed with your best olive oil and vinegar and served with a loaf of Grand Daisy or Sullivan Street or Royal Crown or Pain D'Avignon bread as well as a big wedge or round of a favorite cheese and let guests help themselves. Maybe something pungent and gooey like a ripe Vacherin du Jura or an Epoisse, or rich and buttery like a blue Stilton.
• Ice cream sundaes. There are excellent hot fudge and butterscotch sauces that you can buy, but sauces are so easy to make and the difference in flavor between store bought and homemade can be remarkable. Many cookbooks and all the recipe web sites have recipes. Use good chocolate (Jacques Torres or Schaffenberger) if you make hot fudge sauce. Remember the whipped cream and toasted nuts.
• A huge plate of wonderful cookies and gingerbread. Buy special cookies from one of our great bakeries that specialize in them, such as One Girl Cookies or Amy's. Or if you have the time, make your own -- with extra to keep in the freezer.
• Even though it's only a lunch of salads and dessert, serve two kinds of wine. Perhaps a sparkling chilled Cava for the seafood salad and a chewy red for the steak.
But these are just suggestions. The point I'm trying to make is whatever you do, make it special. Make your companion's favorite dishes. Have seconds. Have another glass of wine. Eat slowly with nowhere better to go. Be generous at the table.
For many, the Christmas meal is all about breakfast. If you go to church on Christmas morning or a midnight service the night before, or if your home is filled with Santa-expectant children, a big breakfast or brunch is a perfect meal because parts of it can be prepped the day or night before. A Christmas brunch could include:
- French toast made with panettone, a slightly sweet egg yeast bread from Italy, made with raisins or bits of candied fruit. Dip slices of the bread in a mix of egg, milk and a touch of vanilla and fry in melted butter until both sides are brown. Serve with a dusting of powdered sugar and slices of fresh oranges.
- Savory breakfast meats are not limited to bacon or ham. Consider slices of pancetta (have your butcher or deli cut slices that are thicker than you may normally buy, about 1/4-inch each), turkey or chicken sausage, or if you want something exotic, D'Artagnan makes sausage from wild boar.
- Grilled red grapefruit or a platter of in-season tropical fruits like papaya and pineapple.
- For the non-meat eaters, sauté cubes of tofu and serve with (or without) scrambled eggs and hot sauce.
- A frittata (see our recipe) or quiche are perfect brunch dishes because they can be assembled in advance and then baked just before serving. These egg-based dishes can also match your flavor preferences -- all vegetable, or with lots of cheese, or seasoned with spicy flavors.
- A compote of poached dried fruit for dessert, along with a plate of tangy lemon bars.
- Instead of the more familiar mimosa made with orange juice and Champagne, make a breakfast drink of ruby red pomegranate juice combined with a splash of Prosecco, a modestly priced Italian sparkling wine, saving the more costly Champagne to drink unadulterated.
- Be a hero to everyone, including yourself, by making your own cinnamon rolls. We have a recipe.
Epicurious recently reprinted "A Pacific Northwest Christmas Breakfast" from a 2002 Bon Appétit article, complete with recipes. The geography may have inspired the menu, but even a New York city cook would find this meal, which includes a smoked salmon and potato casserole and butterscotch baked pears, all very tempting. We've added a link below.
The Feast of the Seven Fishes
I love the Italian tradition of an all-seafood meal on Christmas Eve. The Feast of the Seven Fishes calls for seven different dishes, each featuring fish or shellfish. If you're not a strict traditionalist, you can make fewer than seven, but since seafood is so versatile, you may be challenged to rule something out.
Consider having one big fish, as a Whole Fish Baked in a Salt Crust (see our recipe); a calamari and shrimp salad; bacala or salt cod cooked with garlic and potato, also called brandade de morue; a clam or shrimp risotto; spicy crab cakes; a seafood pasta (see our recipe for Pasta with Tuna and Cannellini Beans; or work with a top quality fish monger to create a platter of raw shellfish. Add a couple of green vegetables, some wonderful bread, and an easy dessert, such as a platter of little cannolis. And take pauses between the courses -- it's a holiday.
Finally, remember that as the cook, you should let yourself share in the Christmas spirit by making just a few dishes that are loved and abundant so that you're able to leave the kitchen and join in raising a glass of good cheer. Generosity to yourself and to others. Comfort and joy.