Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Mixed Plate: Home for the Holidays

There's no season I love more than Christmas. For all the complaints about how early it starts, with a kickoff from the retail industry, decorated trees up as early as September, I still look forward to the time of year. As a child, it was of course about Santa and getting the equivalent of the Red Rider BB gun without shooting my eye out, and then in my late teen/early twenties, I lost sight of the holidays. I would sit staring at the tree and wonder if the day would be any different than the next, disappointed to not easily have that holiday joy again. It felt as though something important was misplaced and you were left frustrated, looking everywhere to find it, feeling even more distressed having known you once had it and now it was lost. It wasn't until being apart from family, losing the things you had begun to take for granted that you realized the holidays were for celebrating the times of togetherness and maybe trying to recapture a little of what was lost. That's when Christmas came back for me, and why it was important to make a big deal out of something, at least once a year.

Tis the Season to Celebrate - Photo by Wasabi Prime
Not to get all maudlin about the holidays, but since Christmas has just passed us by, it feels a little silly to list off holiday food ideas and suggestions. Plus I think everyone's probably sugar plummed out by now. It's more important to see why we make such a fuss over this time, especially since there's so much effort into the lead-up to December 25th. We did our share this year, but with a measured effort. For the first time, I didn't decorate a tree, mostly because my schedule was too stressed and I knew in my mind it would come down to a question of taking time to dress up a tree or use that time for spending with friends, and quite frankly, myself. What they say is true, if you don't take care of yourself, you can't take very good care of others, and the season is all about giving of yourself and your time. And even if we weren't planning anything extraordinary for Christmas, I wanted it to be a good and comfortable one. The Mister and I were long overdue for the recharge.

So our big Christmas feast was shared by a few friends who came over and I made a heaping pile of spaghetti and meatballs. Extravagant, no? Mostly because some of our other friends made the clever suggestion to do a Flying Spaghetti Monster dinner party, a kind of internet meme secular feast. Also, spaghetti and meatballs is a pretty easy dish to make ahead of time, which was a good thing, since our Christmas dinner was a little touch and go -- a sudden windstorm knocked out the power for a short time and we were having flashback fears of a previous holiday when the storm knocked out power for days. Luckily, this was not the case. Power was restored, friends gathered, we drank several bottles of wine and totally carbed-out on pasta, bread and tiramisu for dessert.

Feast of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (with Meatballs!) - Photos by Wasabi Prime
You're seeing an Italian theme, albeit an Americanized variation. Everything revolved around the spaghetti and meatballs. I said that's what I was planning on making and everyone was happy to have it. Regardless of one's background, it's the one dish that evokes a lot of comforting childhood food memories, and maybe that helped make it a good holiday choice. Since neither the Mister nor I are particularly religious, there's no compelling ritual we adhere to outside of the fact that we just want everyone to have a good time and not feel like this was fancy. I was wearing fuzzy PJ pants through dinner! I made a big batch of antipasti, which was like a Kitchen Sink salad of everything -- artichoke hearts, fresh cucumber, roasted bell pepper, garbanzo beans, salami, cheese, all tossed together with some pesto and left to marinate in the fridge. I also made a tapenade to spread on toasted bread, made of sundried tomatoes, kalamata olives, capers and pistachios. I have to say, adding pistachios is fantastic for pesto -- gives it a nice sweetness and a nice alternative to the typical pine nuts.

Dinner was finished off with little tiramisu parfaits. A more personalized and pretty way of presenting dessert. Plus one of the people we had over was having a birthday -- sharing your big b-day with JC, that's a tough room, no? And a little tiramisu parfait looks just dandy with a little birthday candle in it. I used the basics of this tiramisu recipe from Epicurious, swapping out the traditional ladyfingers with sliced chunks of pound cake. Total cheat, yes, but tis the season to take shortcuts. Knowing the cake would be layered in a little glass, the ladyfingers would be too bulky and the smaller bits of cake made for even layering. And for the coffee sugar syrup, I used amaretto instead of marsala, which gave the cake a fragrant almond flavor - definitely doing that again. For as many times as I've eaten this dessert, it was the first time I'd ever made it, and I was really pleased with how it turned out. I could have eaten just the creamy mascarpone layer on its own!

Pesto is made best-o with chopped pistachios, a new tasty addition - Photos by Wasabi Prime
As for our Christmas at home, it was one that was becoming a growing tradition in our small household, since I've stopped spending the holidays with family. Brock and I wake up, we give our dog Indy a Christmas Morning snuggle (no different than other lazy weekend snuggles, but special all the same), and we have a good hearty breakfast. This Christmas breakfast was a taste of Hawaii -- I had made some Spam fried rice earlier and seared up some Portuguese sausage and fried some eggs to go with the rice. Not exactly the same as waking up to a tropical Christmas, but good enough. We stay in our cozy robes, having our very own Forever Lazy/Snuggie morning, opening presents and taking calls from family.

Christmas gifts galore, Indy is the happiest dog in the world - Photos by Wasabi Prime
We always give each other one special Christmas gift -- Brock got a membership to the Rare Beer of the Month club, so weirdo beers are starting to arrive to our house. I got a very special gift from the Mister -- all new cookware. He's a nut for researching products and chose a set of stainless steel, heavy-duty pots and pans. It wasn't the gazillion-piece set, where you wind up with odd-sized cookware you never use; he chose a select few pots and saucepans the size we'd use and not so heavy so that I couldn't easily handle and clean. To some, this may sound like a Bad Husband Gift, the bowling ball with "Homer" engraved on it, but it was really special to me because number one, I really needed new cookware, I've been using pots and pans from college, and number two, he knew I'd never have bought them for myself. He knows how I am -- any spare bit of money goes towards savings or bills; buying something like good quality cookware, despite how much I'd use them, would feel too extravagant. My brain tends to work this way: I have pots and pans, why buy new ones? Even if those ones I have are so old, the bottoms are totally warped to a curve and the handles are plastic, aka, not oven-safe (yet I put 'em in the oven anyways). I'm fairly sure the old nonstick coating flaked off ages ago, and it's just a miracle we haven't been poisoned or gone blind from some weird metal poisoning. Yeah, this new cookware is a total godsend! You totally rock, Mr. Wasabi!

Christmas goodies, including what everyone needs, an inflatable turkey - Photos by Wasabi Prime
And so another Christmas has come and gone. The madness of the holidays can subside for another three hundred and sixty-odd days until the decorated trees get propped up around September, or maybe even earlier next year. We didn't have a big decorated tree this year, but I didn't need to stare at it blankly, trying to find the spirit of Father Christmas somehow nestled in its pine needle-filled boughs. I'm thankful to find the holiday spirit so much easier these days, especially after this year minus the crutch of a big Christmas tree. It was found in the time spent with friends, silly and sweet gifts, food that's more familiar than fancy, and in the appreciation for changing traditions. I hope you all had a good holiday, no matter how you celebrate this season, and I hope you find the spirit of goodwill stays with you throughout the coming year.

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