Well, my family and I shared another wonderful Christmas holiday together. We ate some great food, listened to our fill of Christmas music, and traded a few nice, sensible gifts. And, to top it all off, it actually snowed. In Seattle. On Christmas Day. I can’t even remember the last time that happened!

The theme for this year’s Christmas Eve dinner was Greece. Check out our menu:

Lamb Stifado (which we made sans potatoes)
Garithes me Aginares kai Manitaria (Shrimp, Artichoke, and Mushroom Casserole with Bechamel Sauce)
Roasted Lemon Potatoes
Dolmathes (Rice-Stuffed Grape Leaves) with Tzatziki sauce
Yiganthes (or, what I like to call Jumbo Greek Beans)
Steamed Green Beans
Greek Salad
Grilled Pitas, Roasted Peppers, Mixed Olives and Peperoncini
Greek wines: Naoussa Boutari Red and Vin de Crete, a white wine by D. Kourtakis

Everything was wonderful, and it actually ended up being a pretty easy dinner to put together as many of the dishes could be made ahead. And, as usual, we began discussing next year’s dinner while enjoying this year’s dinner. Next year’s theme will be a return to a family favorite: Mexico. That means homemade tamales – yes!!! Happy holidays, everyone!

My family and I had a wonderful Thanksgiving once again. The weather was sunny and gorgeous, and the food was extra delicious (our Thanksgiving dinner is always good but, somehow, this year, it seemed better than ever.) Here is the menu:

  • Juniper and Herb Roast Turkey
  • Gravy
  • Stuffing
  • Mashed Potatoes with Red Chili
  • Baked Sweet Dumpling Squash
  • Sauteed Brussels Sprout Leaves with Ginger, Lemon & Chili Flakes
  • Mixed Greens Salad
  • Cranberry Sauce
  • Ice Cream Pumpkin Pie

Most of these dishes are standbys that we serve every year, or old favorites that we haven’t had in a few years (such as my mom’s famous ice cream pumpkin pie – glad to see that one make a return!) However, there are always some changes to the menu each year. This year, the big change was with the turkey. My mom always feels guilty because she refuses to brine the turkey even though all the recipes out there claim that you have to brine the turkey for best results. Her problem with brining is that it takes up so much valuable refrigerator space; you are required to get a container large enough to be able to completely submerge the turkey in it, and then somehow fit that into an already crowded fridge? That’s not so easy for anyone with a normal sized kitchen.

This year, my mom came across a recipe from chef Maria Hines, of Tilth restaurant here in Seattle, for Juniper and Herb Roast Turkey. Instead of brining, this recipe calls for salting the turkey a day or two in advance, claiming that this helps the turkey stay moist during roasting. Oh, and the turkey is also wrapped in bacon! Who needs brining when you’ve got bacon? The result was a delicious and moist turkey, and the pan drippings made the world’s most flavorful gravy. Mmmm…bacon gravy.

The other big change this year is that I was in charge of choosing the wines. This task usually falls to my sister but, since she is pregnant and can’t enjoy the wines herself, it hardly seems fair to make her pick them out. Plus, now that I’m known as “Miss Winesday” among my family members, I have a feeling the wine might be my responsibility from now on (as if I’m some sort of expert or something – far from it!) I bought a bottle of Maryhill Winery Pinot Gris and a bottle of Walnut City Wineworks Pinot Noir. The Pinot Gris was good but not particularly memorable; the Pinot Noir was excellent!

A note about Thanksgiving wines: People make a big fuss over which wines you can and can’t serve with Thanksgiving dinner but, if you do a little bit of research online, you will notice that a very broad range of wine types have been recommended by various wine experts. It’s as though each wine expert wants to be the more daring or creative one by recommending a wine that nobody has suggested before. The only wines you really want to avoid serving at Thanksgiving are wines that are too sweet, too oaky or too high in tannins. Other than that, I say pretty much anything goes!

I’ve been dying to try a pumpkin beer for weeks now. It’s odd because I’m not normally the type of person to go for novelty beers. I like my IPA and that’s final. The problem is that I’m very susceptible to hype. As soon as Elysian Brewery announced that it would be hosting a pumpkin beer tasting, people around town started really hyping it up. 10 pumpkin beers on tap? Including one undergoing a second fermentation inside of a giant pumpkin? That’s exciting stuff! How could I not have pumpkin ale on the brain after hearing about all of that?

Well, I missed the pumpkin beer tasting because of other obligations, but I did manage to locate a 22-ounce bottle of Elysian’s Night Owl Pumpkin Ale at my store. This beer gets rave reviews from both beer critics and anonymous drinkers on the internets. Many claim it is, hands down, the best pumpkin beer out there today. Having never tried a pumpkin beer before, I can’t really say whether this is true or not, but it was quite good. It primarily tasted like a mild, slightly sweet pale ale. But, with every sip, you get a subtle, yet instantly recognizable, taste of pumpkin pie. Elysian ferments their Night Owl with 150 pounds of pumpkin meat and infuses it with pumpkin pie spices including nutmeg, cinnamon and clove. My only complaint is that it seemed a little flat, but that could just be because I am so used to drinking hoppy IPAs. I’m curious how it is straight off the tap. I might just need to run next door to Elysian and try it. Who knows? Maybe they will still have it available straight from the giant pumpkin tap!

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays because it is such a food-centric holiday. I couldn’t wait to sample some of my favorite Thanksgiving dishes so I decided to do a little preview dinner.

A couple of hours before dinner, I made a quick cranberry sauce. Cranberry sauce is one of the easiest things in the world to make. It practically cooks itself so there is absolutely no excuse for eating canned cranberry sauce. I also don’t think there is any reason to go crazy with additions. Orange zest, wine, spices and dried fruit all sound great, but I prefer to keep my cranberry sauce as simple as possible. For one bag of cranberries, bring to a simmer 1 cup of water and 1 cup of sugar (I usually use a tiny bit less sugar because I like it on the tart side.) When the sugar has dissolved, add the cranberries. Simmer the cranberries for about 10 minutes and then remove from heat and chill thoroughly. That’s it! My favorite part of this process is watching the cranberries pop as they cook. That popping sound alone makes my mouth water for the winter holidays. If you have leftover cranberry sauce, do what my mom does and swirl it into plain Greek yogurt!

Another important component of any Thanksgiving dinner is winter squash. I had two beautiful Sweet Dumpling squash leftover from last week’s CSA box. Sweet Dumpling squash are cream-colored with green stripes and look sort of like Delicata squash, but they are short and round rather than elongated. They are very cute, and one makes a perfect single serving. I cut each squash in half, scooped out the seeds and roasted them in a 375 degree oven for about 45 minutes (cut side down first, then I flipped them over once during cooking.) Before serving, I drizzled them with a rosemary-brown butter sauce, but they didn’t need it. They were sweet and delicious on their own.

Finally, what Thanksgiving meal would be complete without stuffing? Some may proclaim that turkey is the most critical part of the meal but, for me, the real point to Thanksgiving is the stuffing. No Atkins diet around here! In my family, we always make our stuffing as a separate dish outside of the bird to ensure lots of crispy topping (and to avoid potentially contaminating the stuffing with undercooked bird juice.) I didn’t really have a recipe but, as it turns out, stuffing is one of those things that you don’t really need a super-strict recipe for. A mixture of bread, savory herbs and veggies and plenty of butter could never turn out horrible. That said, there are a couple of keys to making a good stuffing. It is important to taste the stuffing before baking to make sure it is seasoned properly. Seasoning is always a little tricky with something that gets baked because you can’t add more once it is assembled. Also, you want to get the liquid to bread ratio right so that your stuffing is neither too dry nor too wet. For 6 ounces of dry bread cubes (about 1/2 of a large loaf of French bread,) I used 1 cup of stock and 1 egg. Those amounts produced a stuffing with a nice balance of moist interior and crispy exterior. I forgot to make gravy, but it was not missed. I really wanted eat the whole pan myself but, unfortunately, Robert really loves stuffing as well so I had to share!

Yesterday was my birthday. I never do anything too crazy for my birthday. I do like to use it as an excuse to eat lots of good food, though, and this year was no exception! On Sunday night, my family and I went to Kingfish for my annual birthday dinner. I’ve written about Kingfish before so I won’t go into it too much here except to say that, man, their desserts are huge! I had heard that they were “oversized” but apparently I didn’t quite understand what this really meant. We ordered three desserts to split between the seven of us, and we would have easily been satisfied with only two (we did somehow manage to finish all three though!) The dark chocolate cake was an encyclopedia-sized slab, the cherry cobbler was served in a trough, and the strawberry shortcake was piled sky-high with fresh strawberries and whipped cream. It was truly awe-inspiring. If Robert and ever go there alone and want dessert, we may need to go in on it with another table or something. It was so good, I think it would be worth it. The cherry cobbler was my favorite.

My friend took me out for lunch yesterday at one of my favorite restaurants in the International District: Shanghai Garden. We ordered hot & sour soup, mu shu vegetables and spicy szechuan bean curd. One of the things that I love about Shanghai Garden is the table service. If you order soup, they bring it out in a big bowl and then portion it out for each person at the table. They also assemble your mu shu for you, putting the perfect amount of hoisin sauce and veggies into each pancake. I really like the way that Shanghai Garden makes their fried bean curd. Instead of using firm tofu like a lot of restaurants do, they use a soft, silky tofu. It is crispy and light on the outside but soft and pillowy on the inside. The szechuan bean curd was served in a slightly spicy sweet & sour sauce with broccoli and snow peas. We had this with brown rice which was pretty unusual; it was more of a reddish color with lots of darker kernels sprinkled throughout. It was all so good!

After so much dining out, I was more than happy to stay home for dinner on my birthday. I didn’t feel like cooking, though, so I headed down to Pike Place Market after work and picked up some items for a deluxe smorgasboard. I got a really nice piece of freshly-smoked salmon from Pure Food Fish which ended up being way more than I needed (We only ate a quarter of it. I used the rest to make smoked salmon & pickled onion sandwiches on rye tonight.) From DeLaurenti, I bought a small wedge of Taleggio cheese and another small piece of Rogue Creamery’s Smoky Blue from Oregon. If you’ve never had this cheese, you must try it! It is so unusual; it is a blue cheese that has been lightly smoked which makes it taste a little bacony. Mmmm…blue cheese and bacon. But, the true hit of the night was the Taleggio. I just love this cheese. It is kind of stinky, but its flavor is mellow and nutty. And it is so deliciously creamy. I also picked up some Rainier cherries and the last of the local asparagus, which I grilled rather successfully on my little grill pan. To drink, I served another Oregon product: A to Z Winemaker’s 2005 Pinot Blanc. It was a really fantastic wine. It was very full-bodied but without the oak that is usually associated with heavy whites. It just had a really nice, full fruit flavor. Ah, so much good food in such a short amount of time. I can’t wait for my next birthday!

I hope you all had a happy and safe New Year’s Eve. Robert and I don’t like to venture out too far on New Year’s Eve; there are way too many crazies out and about for that. We do usually like to go out for a nice meal, though. This year we decided to go to Tango, down on Pike and Boren, for some tapas. It’s close to home and we have been there several times before so it’s nice and familiar.

We started with a bottle of 2001 Finca Valpiedra Reserva. I tend to get overwhelmed by wine lists so I decided to prepare myself with a little bit of advance research. I read up about Rioja wines in my wine book and learned that 2001 was a really good year for this region. That helped narrow things down considerably.  I settled on the Valpiedra wine because of the year and also because the description on the menu sounded intriguing: “rich, voluptuous, intense and spicy with complex silky stone fruit and a sherried finish.” It was so good! I could tell that it was a much better wine than I am used to drinking. The flavors were much more balanced and long-lasting. It felt like it was coating the inside of my mouth, but not with strong tannins, just with really good flavor. It may have been a little heavy for the food we were having, but I figured, with tapas, there are too many flavors happening to worry too much about matching wine.

For our dinner we ordered the following: a couple of “Cheap Dates” (bacon wrapped dates with grilled eggplant), Pan-roasted Green Beans with Harissa, Tequila and Vanilla Cured Salmon, Queso Azul (Valdeon blue cheese souffles with seasonal fruit compote), Croquetas de Papas (fried potato-horseradish balls with smoked tomato jam), and Gambas Picantes (chipotle tiger prawns with a corn and coconut galleta and pumpkin seed pipian sauce.) No one dish in particular stood out as spectacular but they were all really good and, together, added up to an excellent dinner. OK, so maybe the deep-fried potato balls were spectacular but, come on, deep-fried potatoes? That’s like cheating. Of course that’s going to be good. We finished with coffee and Tango’s famous El Diablo. People rave about this dessert online so we had to try it. The El Diablo is a very striking cube of bittersweet chocolate mousse dusted with cocoa and cayenne and served with a tequila caramel sauce and spicy almonds. It was very spicy.  Yum!

The walk home was pleasant.  We only passed a few crazies and they were the mild, entertaining kind not the true freaks (they come out later.) I was way too full of food and wine to bother with the prosecco that I had bought so I just poured a big glass of water and watched the space needle fireworks on TV. I know that sounds really lame, especially since we could have walked a couple of blocks down the street to watch the fireworks in person. But, it was freezing outside! Happy 2007!

This year’s Scandinavian-themed Christmas Eve dinner was a roaring success! Considering that nobody in my family is Scandinavian or really has ever eaten much Scandinavian food, we were quite happy that the dinner turned out as well as it did. Here is the menu and links to the recipes where available:

Swedish Meatballs
Roasted Pork Loin with Cardamom-Currant Jelly Sauce
Poached Salmon with Mustard-Dill Sauce
Mushroom Pie
Kukkakaalilaatikko (Cauliflower Rye Casserole)
Potato Pancakes with Sour Cream and Homemade Applesauce
Braised Red Cabbage with Apples
Romaine and Cucumber Salad with Sour Cream-Dill Dressing and Blue Cheese

Although the meatballs were addictive, the pork loin was beautiful and the cauliflower rye casserole won for most amazing name, the biggest hit of the evening was the mushroom pie. The filling, which consisted of little more than mushrooms, onion, thyme, and cream cheese, was so good. It was really hard not to just serve it up right then and there as our lunch. The crust had a bit of leavening in it which made it puff up. The end result was closer to a mushroom pot pie than a tart. I had some of the leftover pie for lunch today which was definitely the high point in my first day back at work.

More photos from our dinner are below. The last photo is of the baby hats that my mom and sister and I made for a charity called Caps to the Capital. We knit the hats and then let everyone at our Christmas party choose one that they could submit in their name. Aren’t they cute?

I can’t wait. I love Christmas so much! Yesterday, I went over to my mom and dad’s for a big day of cookie baking and Christmas Eve dinner planning. It turned out that my mom had made most of the cookies already, but we did spend a couple of hours making Thumbprints. We roll ours in chopped almonds and use apricot and raspberry jelly for the filling. We also usually make Russian Tea Cakes (also known as Mexican Wedding Cakes), Mandelbrot (a Jewish biscotti-like cookie) and Pizzelles (Italian waffle cookies.) This year, in keeping with our Scandinavian Christmas theme, we tried a new recipe: Scandinavian Rye Cookies. They are basically a sugar cookie with some rye flour added. They turned out pretty tasty. We also received a package in the mail this week from Robert’s family in New Mexico containing Biscochitos (Spanish anise seed cookies.) In my family, we almost never make cookies with chocolate or mint flavors or ones that require icing or frosting. We tend to prefer drier, crunchy, even slightly salty cookies, flavored with nuts or spices; the kind of cookies that go really, really well with coffee. What Christmas cookies do you traditionally look forward to every year?

We are right in the thick of what Robert refers to as the “whipped cream holidays.” This is the span of time (roughly November to February) during which whipped cream starts to appear on the cocktail menu of every restaurant and bar in the country. If it’s got kahlua, creme de menthe, bailey’s, or frangelico in it, it’s going to be topped with whipped cream. People where I live practically count the days until eggnog and peppermint lattes show up in the coffee shops. I usually stay away from any beverage made with excessive amounts of sugar and cream; I prefer my coffee black and my cocktails basic. This year, however, I found myself wanting to make eggnog. I have absolutely no idea where this impulse came from because I have never been an eggnog drinker. But, there it was, this strange desire to indulge in a sweet, fattening holiday drink. I would soon be participating in the “whipped cream holidays” just like everyone else.

On Saturday, Robert and I wandered down to our local liquor store so that he could replace his diminishing supply of Maker’s Mark and I could get the rum I needed for my eggnog. I was originally planning on using the eggnog recipe from How to Cook Everything which is for a very quick, uncooked eggnog. But, then I came across this recipe which had been given rave reviews by all who had tried it. In this recipe, you cook the egg yolks slowly in spiced milk and then, after it has cooled, you add cream and lots of rum. It was a little bit more work but really was not that difficult. The only tricky part was combining the hot milk slowly with the egg yolks so that they don’t curdle.

I let my eggnog sit in the refrigerator for several hours before serving. It was very tasty and, as expected, extremely rich (see the recipe notes for calorie and fat count, if you’re curious.) I’m pretty sure the rum was actually the healthiest ingredient in there. That same evening, as Robert and I were sipping our eggnog, we happened to flip to the Food Network right when Emeril was making eggnog for his audience. His preparation was very similar to mine but, for some reason, his eggnog was coming out a disconcertingly bright shade of yellow. More frightening, however, was the extremely lumpy texture that his eggnog had taken on. It looked like scrambled eggnog. And this was the premade version that he pulled out of the fridge to serve to his guests, not the version he had been making live, which would have been slightly more forgivable. As we watched in horror, we began to appreciate the smooth texture and spicy, rummy flavor of my eggnog so much more!

Yesterday, I took the day off work so that I could participate in one of my holiday traditions, a full day of shopping, eating, and Christmas dinner planning with my mom and sister. Before dropping me off at my mom’s in the morning, Robert wanted to swing by Group 2 Motorsports to bring some doughnuts to the guys, one of his own holiday traditions. We stopped by Top Pot Doughnuts and I picked out a dozen for the guys and ordered two unglazed old-fashioneds for Robert and myself. Top Pot is the best doughnut shop ever. They started out in a small shop in my neighborhood, Capitol Hill, and now have a few locations in Seattle, each with it’s own unique atmosphere. I couldn’t wait so I immediately wolfed down my doughnut in the car on the way to the auto shop. It was sweet and crispy and would have gone wonderfully with some coffee if I had been smart enough to order some. Then, while Robert ate doughnuts and discussed new wheels for his car with the guys, I perused the old alfa romeos sprinkled throughout the garage.

After that, it was off to Ballard with the gals for shopping and lunch. Ballard is this really cool neighborhood just outside of Seattle with lots of artists, funky shops, great restaurants, old buildings and a large Scandinavian population. We are planning a Scandinavian dinner for Christmas this year so, of course, we had to check out Ballard’s various Scandinavian delis. For lunch, we went to La Carta de Oaxaca, a hugely popular restaurant that serves authentic Oaxacan dishes. It has a really stylish atmosphere with long, wooden tables (some are communal, an emerging trend here in Seattle) and tons of framed black and white photos of Mexico covering every square inch of the walls. The menu has about 15 choices, all small plates that are great for sharing. We started with warm chips and guacamole and chose 3 different salsas from the salsa bar. Then, we split the tostada de camarones (lime-marinated prawns and avocado on top of a freshly fried corn tortilla), mushroom empanada (spiced mushrooms grilled in a flour tortilla), and the enchilada with red sauce, Oaxaqueno cheese and a fried egg. Everything was very fresh, not too cheesy and very well executed. And, since we had gone for lunch, we didn’t have to deal with the hour-long wait that plagues the dinner crowd.

It was a long day of shopping and trying to figure out just what the heck that is in those jars at the Scandinavian delis so, for dinner, Robert and I decided to take it easy and stay very close to home. We did, however, try a new place in our neighborhood. A couple of blocks from our home is one of those haunted locations where a new restaurant is popping up every six months or so only to close down a couple of months later. Right now, it is a restaurant called Cypress. The menu features casual Mediterranean food and actually has really reasonable prices. Robert had the lamb burger with Greek fries which he enjoyed. I always have to be more complicated so I ordered the calamari appetizer as my main course, a fattoush salad and a glass of retsina. The retsina was a different brand than the one I am used to and it had a much tamer pine flavor. It was more like a very lemony wine. The calamari dish was actually pretty good – calamari sauteed with chickpeas and sundried tomatoes served on top of seared spinach. The fattoush salad could have been better. It had all of the proper ingredients – romaine, cucumber, tomato, scallions, mint and pita croutons – but there were very few pieces of pita in mine and, those that were present, were slimy and chewy rather than crisp. Also, for some reason, it was really hard to eat. It was as if the vegetables were chopped in such a way as to make them both unscoopable and unpierceable. Overall, the food was OK and worth the price but, they may need to make a few improvements if they want to last longer than their predecessors. I will be going back, though, because the polenta fries that are offered with their sandwiches sound quite intriguing.

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