The Holidays Are Coming
Thanksgiving is next week. How did that happen? I swear that time is going faster.
I’m off kitchen duty this year and will be outside the U.S. on Thanksgiving Day. It’s slightly dislocating to be in a foreign country on any holiday for which you have practiced expectations. Thanksgiving probably has the most pull due to it being so food-centric and also, minus a nod to Canada, so particularly American by which I mean, you can be anywhere and if it’s Christmas, you’ll know it (I once spent it in Egypt and Santa was there, too). But if it’s Thanksgiving and you're out of the country? There’s not a turkey in sight.
Last year on Thanksgiving Day we were in Strasbourg, in France’s Alsatian region. My husband had sneaked into our luggage a little paper turkey, the kind that when you unfold it, its tissue paper feathers pop open. He brought it out of his jacket pocket as we sat in a tavern eating choucroute garnie, complete with sauerkraut and pig’s knuckle that was so splendid that it was its own cause for giving thanks. Still, I loved having that little paper turkey sitting on our table and how it reminded me so much of home.
It also reminded me how you can appreciate and celebrate the meaning of Thanksgiving -- to be with people you love and to be grateful -- regardless where you are or what you’re eating. Even a pork knuckle.
Things To Cook This Holiday Season
Being away won't spare me completely from holiday cooking, as I will be back in my kitchen in time for Hanukkah and Christmas. Before then I want to stay focused on my trip, so I’m trying to not get too far ahead of myself. But I will return to find New York in its full holiday scrum.
The last few years I’ve happily made elaborate and traditional Christmas dinners. One year I did short ribs, another I splurged on rack of lamb, and I’ve roasted a goose more than once. Meals like these mean spending days in the kitchen, making chicken liver paté, Julia Child’s mushroom velouté and her spinach gratin, baking my own breadsticks, and making lemon mousse and apple tarts.
But not this year. Coming home just before Christmas means I will make something simpler. My husband suggested I make the meal I’ve always done in the years when we’ve rented the same apartment while spending Christmas in Florence, Italy: to start, a plate of charcuterie and olives and great bread (all bought, no cooking); then a small bone-in leg of lamb roasted along with little potatoes, thin slices of lemon, and artichoke hearts (bought frozen) which is all cooked at once in the same roasting pan; a green salad that features bitter elements like radicchio plus sliced red onion and dressed with an anchovy-tinged vinaigrette; and instead of dessert, a wonderful cheese or two to help finish the wine.
The lamb is particularly simple to do: rub the roast (either boneless or with the bone) with olive oil, season with salt and pepper, place in a roasting pan and surround it with the potatoes, lemon slices, a handful of peeled garlic cloves, and artichoke hearts – still frozen – adding a little more olive oil and salt and pepper, and tossing them a bit to coat. Cook at 375°F until the internal temperature reaches 130°F for medium rare (it will rise to 140°F while it rests). The lemon slices, garlic, potatoes, and artichokes will caramelize and become tender. It’s always perfect, it’s easy to make, and we know we love it – three wins for a holiday meal.
For New Year’s I have a new recipe in mind, one I’ve had my eye on for a while. It’s from Venice, the fabulous cookbook by Russell Norman that I had reviewed here at The City Cook a year ago. The recipe is duck with rigatoni made with duck legs so that it’s rather like making ragu with confit de canard. Every recipe I’ve made from this book has been a winner so I’m feeling okay about making it the first time for New Year’s Eve.
I'm also planning a decadent appetizer, a dish from an unexpected source, although I’ve always believed we can get great ideas from left field. This one I got while watching “The Circus,” John Heilemann’s political television series on Showtime. In this series, Heilemann and his compatriots Alex Wagner and Mark McKinnon always meet around food and alcohol in some really appealing restaurant, often in D.C. or New York. In one episode they were sharing what seemed to be a bar snack of crisply fried tater tots, drizzled with crème fraiche and served with a dollop of caviar. My appetite started to race, ignoring the caloric hit that I’m sure a serving of that will deliver. But I’ve been eyeing the bags of tots sold in Whole Foods’ freezer case. And since I’m a fan of salmon caviar, not the high priced stuff, I just might try it. It could be the whole dinner.
Holiday Gift Ideas
Home cooks love kitchen and food-related gifts. But walking into Williams-Sonoma or Crate & Barrel or Sur la Table can be overwhelming, plus some of the items are very specialized or very costly. So I have a few ideas in case you’ll be shopping for a cook in your life, or maybe taking advantage of holiday sales to get something for yourself.
Cookbooks are always great gifts. Here are a few new titles out in the past month or so that are very appealing:
365: A Year of Everyday Cooking and Baking by Meike Peters, who won the 2017 James Beard Award for Best Cookbook–General Cooking, has some fresh new answers to the question, what do we cook today? With recipes and menu ideas for an entire year, Meike brings modernity and creativity to daily cooking. I’ve just done a podcast with her and you can hear her enthusiasm. You can listen to her here.
The Feast of the Seven Fishes, A Brooklyn Italian’s Recipes Celebrating Food & Family by Daniel Paterna would make a great gift for anyone who loves Brooklyn (when Brooklyn was Brooklyn), or whose favorite food is what is sometimes called Italian “red sauce” food, meaning dishes that Italian immigrants brought with them to America, and especially anyone who has always wanted to make the traditional Christmas Eve meal known as the Feast of the Seven Fishes. This book takes you through generations of an Italian family’s kitchens and to today's Bensonhurst and its shops still selling amazing ingredients (mozzarella, pasta, breads, salami, and more). The book is packed with classic recipes (arancini, gamberi fra diavolo, parmigiana di melanzane, and many more), has Easter and Good Friday meals, and includes a menu and recipes to create the amazing Feast of the Seven Fishes. All that plus the book is engaging, personal, and delicious.
The Art of the Host by Alex Hitz is for the traditionalist and the enthusiastic entertainer in your life. Published by Rizzoli, which always does beautiful books, this book features many Southern-inspired food and entertaining traditions with 100 recipes organized into menus (e.g., Praline Bacon, To-Die-For-Ale-Braised Brisket, Orange Bourbon Pound Cake, Poire Belle Helene, Broccoli and Cheddar Soup). Because the book is part-memoir and because Hitz has hosted and designed events for the rich and famous, he shares stories about some of the great hostesses of current and recent times. The recipes are really appealing, the table décor is sumptuous, and there’s detailed coaching for how to be a successful host. Hitz’s message of gracious living may seem like it’s from a lost time, but this is a guide to making sure it’s not.
Milk Street: The New Rules is Christopher Kimball’s (and his crew’s) fourth cookbook in three years and it continues his mission to bring the world into your kitchen. Besides more than 200 recipes, this latest one is also full of tips and wisdom, what he calls "new rules," gathered from his 25-plus years of working with home cooks and chefs from many of the world’s richest food cultures. These rules will make anyone a better cook no matter what what you're making.
For the Francophile who loves history and food, especially French food, I can recommend A Bite-Sized History of France, a wonderful and engaging book by Stephane Henaut and Jeni Mitchell. This is not a cookbook but its well-researched and written stories of cheese, oysters, kir, chestnuts, chicken, and wine just may send you looking for one.
And for anyone who loves great writing, misses bylines by R.W. “Johnny” Apple or M.F.K. Fisher, and laments the loss of delight and literacy in much of our food writing, a copy of Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin, the ultimate city cook, is a tonic.
But what if you want to instead give a kitchen tool? Many home cooks, especially ones with small city kitchens, don’t easily make room for something they didn’t choose. But if someone you know is a garlic lover and cooks with it often, I recommend the “Gourmet Cutter” by Leifheit, a German company that makes (sometimes in China) useful and beautifully designed (both aesthetically and functionally) housewares. The cutter is a three-part 4-inch plastic cylinder with a very sharp blade at its base. You peel a garlic clove or two, put them into the cylinder, and with a few repeated twists of its top, you’ll have a generous handful of garlic cut as thin as in Goodfellas when mob boss and prison inmate Paul Sorvino used a razor blade to get his garlic meltingly thin. You can also use it to slice things like Parmesan or chocolate. $11.99 at Amazon.
Giving food or beverages as gifts is always wonderful, especially because they can be shared with others. If you’re going to give food or wine or condiments, I suggest trying to shop at a local New York (or your city) merchant. In New York, Murray’s is a treasure for its cheeses, charcuterie, and carefully chosen grocery items. And they ship nationwide.
A selection of spices, both familiar and exotic, would make a fun gift. Find them at Kalustyan’s and wrap them with a small kitchen item, as a dish towel or a pepper mill. Not sure where to start? How about a small sac each of tellicherry peppercorns, ground cumin, fennel seeds, Greek or Sicilian oregano, za’taar (I recommend the Lebanese blend), hot or sweet paprika or red pepper flakes.
If someone is a fan of spicy food, I especially like the peppers that are grown and produced by Peperita, an organic pepper farm in Tuscany (I know; they're not local but unique and worth the haul) and I think it would make an unusual and practical gift or stocking stuffer. I first encountered their products while on a trip to Rome when I bought a jar of their chili and garlic-flavored coarse salt. I now order it online three jars at a time and it arrives via DHL within 4 days. I particularly love it for seasoning the slow-roasted plum tomatoes (drizzle with olive oil, season, and cook at 225°F for 3 or so hours until the tomatoes shrivel and deepen in flavor) that I make year-round. 4.95 Euros for each 95 gr. jar; shipping varies according to order size and location.
The wine or spirits lover you know might appreciate a tasting course at the Astor Wine Center. They hold classes year-round and as long as alcohol is what you have in mind, there is something for everyone.
Or give a cooking class. New York City’s two professional culinary schools have extensive options. Investigate both schools’ offerings because they’re quite different. Located in SoHo, the International Culinary Center might be best known for training chefs, but they also have one-day to one-week classes for amateurs. And the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) in the Financial District at Brookfield Place has a great mix of offerings they call recreational, including evening classes, all-day sessions, and classes combined with neighborhood food tours. A cooking class is a great gift for a family or a couple, or to go solo and meet fellow-home cooks.
It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Steve Jenkins and Olive Oil Jones, the olive oil business he and his wife, Michelle Sims launched in 2018. With holiday giving in mind, they have put small bottle selections together, both olive oils and vinegars with prices starting at $65. They also offer gift cards, custom gift boxes, and can gift-wrap individual full-sized bottles.
Finally, if you want to make a big impression, I recommend a 4 qt. 11-inch cast iron enameled braiser by Staub. Le Creuset also makes one, but I own the Staub and it is my absolutely favorite piece of cookware for its versatility, performance, and beauty. Its size is perfect for roasting 6 chicken thighs or a whole 4-pound chicken, or slow-roasting a 4 pound boneless pork shoulder, or baking fresh cod filets on a bed of braised potatoes and chorizo, or making tomato sauce. It comes in gorgeous colors (I have the graphite gray) and while the list price is $371, it is frequently on sale – often significantly so -- especially at this time of year.
Finally, just a quick follow-up. A few months ago I wrote to you about Misen, a new-ish company that manufactures and sells its own line of cookware and knives, claiming top quality at better prices. In August I had purchased an 8-inch non-stick skillet, and since then it’s been used often, maybe three times a week, mostly for eggs but also I’ve toasted nuts in it, and sautéed sausages and bacon.
My reaction is that it’s fine. Nothing special. Rather meh. One negative is that I find it difficult to clean due to the way the handle is attached. The pan cost $45, although I used a first-time buyer 15% discount, but there was also a shipping cost. Compare this to a Viking 8-inch non-stick on sale at Sur la Table on the day I’m writing this for $29.96. So my recommendation is to pass on the Misen and shop for sales among the better brands, especially for non-stick, which we replace far more often than regular pots and pans.
Back To Thanksgiving. Thank you for spending some time with me this year. I wish you happy holiday cooking and eating, and time joyously spent with family, friends, and neighbors.
Kate McDonough, Editor