How is it New Year’s Eve again?

It’s December 31 again, and I distinctly remember digging through my photo archives this same time last year to find a photo where we looked cool and I didn’t look fat, and I spent most of the day fretting over what I was going to wear because we were going to a bar with a dress code and it was cold and all my dresses make me look slutty. It was a fretful day, and at the end we did our best to hold on until midnight and left immediately after, rushing the hell out of that downtown club because what each of us really wanted all along was to be comfortable, to be able to talk to each other, and to not have to pay inflated bar prices for cheap rum and watery Coke.

Tonight we’re going to a smaller party, at our friend Paul’s apartment. Paul is getting oysters and carving some of the salmon he caught this year into thin strips of perfect sashimi. Grace will be there, and Laraine – the whole team from our clam-digging expedition this past September. Paul’s girlfriend will be there, and who knows who else. It will be small, relatively quiet, and there will be so much food. And wine, which we’ve already paid for, and which we can drink without first buying over-priced tickets. And I won’t have to wait all night long to hear that one song I like, only to have the fifteen-year-old DJ mash it up lamely with that one song I really don’t like.

I’m glad that we get to celebrate the new year with the people we spent the best parts of the past year with. It will be an appropriate conclusion to 2010, which was notable because largely absent from it was the tumult of previous years, which for the past many have been filled with hasty moves to new apartments, panicking over debt and employment and graduation, and getting engaged and then married and then adjusting to being married so quickly. We hit our stride this year, both finding ourselves in jobs we really like, going on vacation, paying down that always present debt, and settling into an apartment that is mostly pretty awesome. And we got Molly Waffles, who we treat like a child, which we do not feel the least bit weird about.

It’s been a good year, and I have no complaints. And I am looking forward to this evening, and to the food. And to tomorrow, and all the days after it, and all the meals that will go with them. The photos in this post are from a party Grace hosted a few weeks ago, an oyster feast filled with lusty foods and sparkling wines and Rhianna songs; I expect this evening will proceed in much the same way, with sharp implements and soft shellfish and sriracha and dancing in slipper-socks on a makeshift dance floor in the living room and too much wine (and too many incriminating photos).

Happy New Year. I hope that the next 365 days are filled with wonder and opportunity and quiet moments in amidst the madness, and that you get to do something you really love. Writing here is the thing that I really love, and I hope you’ll continue to visit, and to every so often say hello. I wish you all the best in 2011!

Feuerzangenbowle!

A few weeks ago my mom and I went on our annual holiday outing to Christmas shop and eat and generally be merry, and we went to the Vancouver Winter Market beside the Queen Elizabeth Theatre downtown because the ad said there would be food and festivity and because this was the first time we’d ever heard of the thing.

When we got there, the first thing we saw was a kiosk dispensing something German we couldn’t pronounce, but it smelled good so we put a deposit on a pair of mugs and had our first round. Feuerzangenbowle, the thing we got, is mulled wine with cinnamon, cloves, star anise, orange, and rum, and when I did a bit of research I discovered that it’s also something that involves fire, which stirred my mild pyromaniacal urges in the best possible way.

The most important thing about feuerzangenbowle is zuckerhut, a sugar cone which is doused repeatedly in rum and set on fire above the heated wine mixture. The sugar caramelizes and melts into the wine, and the result is magic. I wanted to create this on Christmas, so I asked Brigitte, a German lady I work with, how to spell the thing I wanted to make (I still can’t, and pulled the name from the email she sent me, which also included this recipe for “rumtopf,” which I also must make) and where to buy the zuckerhut. I ended up not being able to find it in town, but she would be going to Greco’s Specialty Foods in Surrey and she had called and found that they had some, and she would pick one up for me. And she did.

To find zuckerhut, visit your local German deli; if they don’t have it, they may be able to order some in for you.

And so, on Christmas Day, we poured two bottles of cheap, off-dry red wine into a Crock Pot, and set it to heat for an hour. We added strips of orange and lemon peel, and two cinnamon sticks and two cloves to the pot and let it simmer with the lid on; next time, we’ll add two star anise pods and slice the orange and lemon into the pot so that the fruit flavour is more pronounced. Our adapted recipe comes from this one from WikiBooks, but deviates significantly enough that I’m okay calling the recipe below an original interpretation – we wanted it to taste like the drink we had at the Winter Market, and I think we made it work.

After an hour, we placed the zuckerhut in a wire mesh strainer and held it over the pot. We poured rum over top, and then lit the cone on fire. It was awesome. We ended up using about a cup and a half of rum; the cheap white stuff worked better than the good amber stuff for burning. When there was no more rum and we couldn’t light the sugar on fire anymore, we stirred the remains of the cone into the pot and let it dissolve. We served it in mugs immediately, and felt very warm and delighted and then had naps.

Feuerzangenbowle

(Serves six.)

  • 2 bottles of off-dry red wine
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 2 whole cloves
  • 2 whole star anise
  • 1 orange, sliced
  • 1 lemon, sliced
  • 1 zuckerhut
  • 1 1/2 cups rum

Heat wine with cinnamon sticks, cloves, star anise, orange, and lemon slowly. If using a Crock Pot, set on high heat and let sit for about an hour. Do not bring to a boil. If heating on the stove, heat over medium-low heat, covered, for 30 to 40 minutes.

Suspend zuckerhut in a wire mesh strainer (one that has no plastic on the edges of the strainer). Pour two tablespoons of rum over top, ignite, and continue feeding the flame with small amounts of rum until no rum remains. Do not pour rum directly from the bottle.

Stir any remaining sugar from the zuckerhut into the pot, test temperature, and if it’s warm enough to serve, ladle the drink into mugs.

Grandpa’s Radio Pudding.

Every so often I find myself going too easily from reflective to sentimental, especially at this time of year when it seems like every beverage is seasonally … uh, “enhanced.” It goes against my nature, which is perhaps why I find sentimentality embarrassing, and even more perhaps why I’ve avoided lengthy ramblings on the holidays and significance and touching heartfelt somethingorothers in general. But I have been thinking a lot about tradition, because it’s December and because I have reached a strange point in my existence, one where “tradition” is less the thing you do each year and more the thing you try to replicate now that key pieces are missing.

One of the lessons of my first married Christmas is that I do not cope well with change. It would be marvellous if every holiday went exactly as I’d like it to, but the annoying thing about traditions is that they tend to involve other people. Now that Nick is one of my people, I have to care about him too, even though he doesn’t do Christmas the way I want him to. One year real soon I am going to have to get over the fact that he never believed in Santa Claus. What do I care if he’s on the naughty list? I’m on the nice list, so I’ll be getting a gift this year. And maybe it’s still possible to stab some magic into his heart.

This year we lost my Grandpa. Grandpa was funny, a veteran of the Korean war, a proud Canadian, and probably the only good dancer in the gene pool. When he was young he looked like James Garner and was just as cool as Jim Rockford, at least to me. Every time I visited, he was just about to head off on some grand adventure, often driving. And making him proud was something I very much wanted to do; I won a scholarship from the Korean Veteran’s Association when I was 18, and he was literally pink with delight. I remember the rum drinks, and thinking about how I would have to walk to collect my award deliberately, without stumbling, because there were a lot of old men there, and cameras. When Grandpa poured the drinks the Coke was just for colour.

I adapted reluctantly to changes over the course of nearly a decade of Christmases, where one grandparent or the other was sick or had passed away; I remember cooking holiday feasts while my parents visited my mom’s dad in the hospital, or cramming shortbread in my mouth as Cuddles and Auntie Lynn and I snorted with laughter at the kitchen table over three decades of holiday gossip, remembering Grampa with humour. When my grandma Cuddles died, we adapted again. But as long as there was Grandpa, my dad’s dad, a piece of my smaller self’s Christmas remained intact.

This is the year when all the things are officially different – no grandparents will be at our dinner table. That doesn’t mean that Christmas will be any less magical (except it won’t be for Nick because he doesn’t believe in flying reindeer either), but it does mean that I am at a temporary loss for describing the traditions I’ve held for my whole life so far. I’ve celebrated a few this year and they have been as joyous as always, and I’ve made quite a few new ones.

Many of these new traditions are due in large part to the fact that there are small children around now, and because none of them are mine I don’t have to be an adult. Some are because of Nick and Nick’s family, where there are many more small children and where I am also not required (or expected?) to act my age.

And there is still Sandi, who I think of as Grandma and who is very much family, who was good to my Grandpa until the last, and who I will still make a trip out Pitt Meadows in the coming week to visit. I believe she’s spending Christmas with her kids this year.

So even though there is lots to look forward to this year, I’d like to also think about Grandpa and the past. And because I do most of my thinking in the kitchen, I’d like to share with you a recipe of his, the origins of which are “the radio.” He heard the recipe on the radio at some point a very long time ago, but as far as anyone’s concerned it’s his. It’s his like Continental Chicken and garlic sausage and cheese on crackers. It’s called, quite simply, “Grandpa’s Radio Pudding.” Make it for yourself if you could use a warm hug or a bit of holiday cheer.

Grandpa’s Radio Pudding

Cake:

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 tbsp. cocoa
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup chopped nuts (or chocolate chips)
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 2 tsp. melted butter or shortening
  • 1 tsp. vanilla

Sauce:

  • 4 tbsp. cocoa
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1 3/4 cups hot water

Preheat your oven to 350°F.

In a 1 1/2 quart casserole or baking dish, whisk together flour, salt, cocoa, baking powder, sugar, and nuts or chocolate chips. Stir in milk, butter or shortening, and vanilla.

In a separate bowl, mix cocoa, brown sugar, and water. Pour over cake mixture. Do not stir.

Bake for one hour.

Serve hot, with ice cream or whipped cream.

Vegetarian hominy casserole.

I don’t know what’s brought it about, but lately I have been really excited about all things TexMex, even though I’m still not entirely sure what that means. And casseroles. We’ve had rain for days here, and the only thing I really want to eat is bowls of brown sugary oatmeal for breakfast and pans of melted cheese for dinner. I am so grateful for leggings and loose tops right now, and hope that stretch denim never goes away.

My understanding of hominy casserole is that it’s a debaucherous combination of corn, cheese, and bacon, and I’ll certainly be making that to go with roast chicken very, very soon. But it’s Meatless Monday, which always feels like an opportunity to get creative. I find that not using bacon as my go-to herb means finding sumptuousness in other ingredients, and in this case, the result is a dish that tastes a bit like nachos: a very good thing. Hominy is a type of corn, and it reminds me of a cross between potatoes and tortilla chips. If you’re in Vancouver, you can buy cans of hominy (white and yellow) at Killarney Market at 49th Avenue and Elliot Street. Everywhere else, check the Latin section of your local market.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera when this was plated. I actually took a photo of the reheated casserole on my desk at work at lunch today, where the microwave melted everything into a gooey puddle of cheese corn. Excellent tasting, but not beautiful.

Hominy casserole

(Serves eight.)

  • 2 tbsp. butter
  • 1 shallot, chopped
  • 2 cups frozen corn
  • 1 large red bell pepper
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. chili powder
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1/4 tsp. ground cayenne pepper
  • 2 28 oz. cans hominy (I used white and gold for colour)
  • 2 cups sour cream
  • Zest and juice of one lime
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley (or cilantro)
  • 8 oz. shredded Monterrey Jack cheese
  • 4 oz. shredded Cheddar cheese, plus an additional handful or two to top

Preheat your oven to 400°F. Lightly butter a 9″x13″ baking dish.

In a heavy-bottomed pan over medium-high heat, melt butter. Add shallot and corn, and caramelize until golden brown, stirring regularly for about ten minutes. Deglaze the pan with about 1/4 cup of water, scraping the browned bits off the bottom. Add bell pepper, garlic, salt, chili powder, cumin, pepper, and cayenne, and sauté for an additional two minutes.

Meanwhile, drain and rinse hominy. Combine hominy in a large bowl with sour cream, lime zest and juice, parsley or cilantro (or a combination), and both kinds of cheese. Pour pan contents into the bowl, and stir to combine. Taste, adjust seasonings as needed, and pour into your prepared dish. Sprinkle remaining cheese over top, and bake until bubbly and golden, about 20 minutes.

Serve with salsa and salad.

Oh, and because it’s Meatless Monday all over the Internets, visit the Midnight Maniac blog carnival for all sorts of other fabulous vegetarian recipes!

Moon Chai.

Ugh December. I have a bijillion things to do and am way too easily distracted. On the one hand, my holiday shopping is just about done; on the other, my apartment looks like a crime scene.

Last night I had macaroni and cheese for dinner. From a box. Which I ate on the floor while watching the cartoon channel and wrapping presents while simultaneously attempting to defeat the cat. It’s her first Christmas and she doesn’t mean to be annoying, I’m sure, but to a tiny wild-eyed beast nothing is more thrilling than scissors cutting Iron Man-themed wrapping paper.

It’s easy for me to think that my life is real life, but I can’t imagine how overwhelming this would all be for someone with more people than I have to buy for (I’m shopping for 14) and a family who cares about folded laundry to impress. I had a temper tantrum the morning after laundry day and there’s still a pile of socks beside my front door and that’s embarrassing and it’s been that way since Tuesday. And then there are all the events, and I noticed as I was getting dressed for this evening’s party that these tights aren’t controlling a goddamn thing up top anymore.

But the party was fun, and filled with the kind of geeky people I love so much, book people, and we talked about reading and writing while sitting on my friend Tracy’s kitchen floor while her pug Penelope snorted all over us, bounding from lap to lap like the excited little monster she is. Evenings like these are why I am so excited about December.

When we came home, I made Nick and I mugs of moon Chai. Moon Chai is a tea we used to get at this place on Broadway. It’s a Middle Eastern restaurant that’s filled with chaises and awkward tables with tiny little stools, and for awhile I really liked it but now it annoys me to have my knees bump the table I’m eating from, and I don’t particularly enjoy their prices these days. These must be signs of aging. It’s just that I feel a buffet should be reasonable, and that the price should reflect the quality of the food, you know? But anyway. The thing I took from there was their Moon Chai, which is really just hot hot hot Chai tea spiked with brandy.

I don’t know Chai’s recipe, but I’ve adapted and interpreted and made up my own, and this stuff is a sedative if you use decaffeinated tea. I’ve never had it before 8:00 p.m. So you can see how it would be perfect for the holiday season.

Moon Chai

(Serves two.)

  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 1 tsp. black peppercorns
  • 1  tsp. fennel seeds
  • 10 green cardamom pods
  • 10 whole cloves
  • 2 cups unsweetened almond milk (or real milk, if that’s what you have/prefer)
  • 1/2 vanilla bean pod
  • 1 tbsp. honey
  • 1 bag black tea, such as orange pekoe (bonus points for decaf)
  • 1/4 cup French brandy (not the stuff that tastes like paint thinner)

In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, toast cinnamon, peppercorns, fennel seeds, and cloves until fragrant, stirring frequently, about five minutes.

Pour almond milk into the pot. Add vanilla bean (seeds scraped plus pod), and honey, and tea bag, and reduce to medium heat. Bring to a boil, then turn off heat. Add brandy, cover, and allow to steep for five minutes.

Strain into mugs and serve hot. I guarantee instant relaxation. And possibly a slight buzz.

Eggnog baked oatmeal.

December offers all kinds of events, and in combination I find that priorities conflict. Mimosa brunches are followed by dinner with the in-laws, nights of rum and eggnog are followed by work the next morning, and sparkling wine-fueled oyster binges are followed by early wake-ups for shopping with Mom. Expectations run high this time of year. In a perfect world, I’d be able to stumble from one event to the next in a twinkling haze of festive spirit and good cheer, but the thing about in-laws and work and Mom is that they have little appreciation for my kind of enthusiasm, and sometimes Nick decides it’s my turn to drive.

Knowing that Grace’s oyster feast was upon us and having bought two bottles of sparkling wine, I planned ahead. To stave off the effects of a party, I like baked oatmeal; it’s a dense, cakey version of oatmeal that will fill you up and sort you out.

Before going out, I put oatmeal, eggnog, eggs, butter, and spices into a bowl, mixed them well, and placed the mixture in a 1.5 quart baking dish that I then put in the fridge. Now, if it seems like I am asking you to bake oatmeal in custard, don’t worry. That’s absolutely what I’m asking you to do, because we’re a long way from swimsuit season, and this is a celebratory dish, the kind of thing you bring out for brunchtime and then digest during a nap that lasts all afternoon. It’s oatmeal, but it’s special. It’s like a big dish of oatmeal cookie, the dessert of breakfast dishes. High in soluble fibre and butterfat.

Use the best eggnog you can get – I use the stuff from Avalon, which I bought more of than I needed because of the beautiful dairy man who causes me to trip over my words. Also, it’s delicious.

Eggnog baked oatmeal

(Serves four.)

  • 2 1/2 cups rolled oats (not instant – I used large flake, the kind that cooks in 10 to 15 minutes on the stove)
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp. allspice
  • 1 cup eggnog
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 tbsp. rum or bourbon, whichever you prefer (optional, I guess)
  • 1/2 tsp. vanilla

In a large bowl, combine oats, brown sugar, salt, nutmeg, and allspice. Stir. Add eggnog, butter, eggs, rum or bourbon if using, and vanilla. Stir again, thoroughly. Pour mixture into a greased 1.5 quart baking dish, cover, and refrigerate for eight to 10 hours or overnight.

Heat oven to 350°F. Bake oatmeal for 60 minutes. It should be golden on top, with a little bit of bubbling around the edges. Let rest for five minutes before serving; serve with maple or golden syrup, if desired, or yogurt. If you were to serve it with ice cream it would be amazing but I am not so bold at 9:30 on a Sunday morning.