We have a pretty clear Christmas Eve tradition at my parents’ house. Those who go to church go to a 4 o’clock service and sing about the Baby Jesus, we re-convene at some time between 5 and 6, drink champagne or whiskey, depending on our taste, and eat various seafood-y appetizer-y things for dinner in the living room. Then we exchange gifts. My mom used to be in charge of the food, then for awhile I sort of helped her and a few years ago I just took the food over because I like it and she doesn’t.
The coup d’état was a peaceful one, but as with any regime shift, there were some practical and even ideological changes made. We always had tasty food, but the spread didn’t always have menu cohesion. I pared down, tweaked, and started experimenting with different combinations. I re-focused the whole thing back onto seafood, letting the gravlax hold court with an attending platter of shrimp. Baked clams have been involved, as have oysters on the half shell. This year I kept it more simple than usual – I figured with my 2 1/2 year-old nephew and 17 month-old niece on hand we might want to try and make a quicker work of dinner than we have in the past.
My task was made all the easier since my Manhattan-based mother-in-law joined us. She went to Zabar’s, bossed around some guys behind the fish counter, and arrived in Minnesota with a beautiful white fish and over a pound of supremely cut nova in her bag. I just needed to platter those players up with some cream cheese, red onion, and rye bread. I made some easy-to-eat salads, some garlic-stufffed mushrooms, and blue cheese-stuffed bacon-wrapped dates and was about to call it a day.
My husband, my son, and my brother all made it very clear, however, that a platter of shrimp was expected. They weren’t a-holes about it or anything, but when I asked people if there was anything they definitely wanted they all piped up with the same request: make and serve what I wanted, but they really liked the shrimp.
Tough position. I know they wanted those big, fat shrimp to dip into cocktail sauce. Yet the only shrimp that size available at the market were farmed and imported. I’m sure there are some shrimp farms in other places doing perfectly fine work, but the vast majority of them are ecological nightmares and the resulting shrimp are full of antibiotics and their own crap. So I went with the Key West pink shrimp from Florida that I know to be a well managed fishery. The shrimp were flavorful but small. I later heard my husband defending my choice to his mother, who, like everyone else, likes her finger-food shrimp big. In the end the shrimp platter thrilled no one, I suppose, but at least I didn’t feel bad serving it. You know what else I didn’t do? I didn’t apologize or explain it. The shrimp were delicious, so, really, there was nothing to apologize for, and no one wants to hear a lecture about shrimp fisheries on Christmas Eve. I mean, I’ve gone out of my way specifically to hear lectures about shrimp fisheries, I know I don’t want to hear one in Christmas Eve.
So I was a wee bit pleased with myself. I walked the walk – making the purchase I felt good about – but I also kept the focus on the delicious, not the politics, of the meal. And in an effort to mix things up a bit I made a spicy rémoulade to serve with the shrimp: I whisked the pastured egg plus one egg white with a bit of ground mustard before dripping in the oil ever so slowly so it would all emulsify into a springy mayonnaise (feel free to use store-bought if whipping up mayo isn’t your thing) . I stirred in plenty of mustard and Tabasco and added the minced scallion and capers and some parsley.I adjusted the seasoning to get it just spicy enough to tingle a bit but not so spicy you didn’t want many more bites. As I was putting everything out I had the Shrimp Triad taste it. As the three of them stood in my parents’ kitchen in their Christmas Eve Casual finest, they all agreed: it was delicious, they really liked it, and they would also like some cocktail sauce. I looked at my dashing husband, my omnivorous son, and my baby brother and quite seriously thought about telling them to go stuff themselves. A younger me might have, indeed, argued with them. She very likely would have at least explained why the spicy rémoulade was better.
Instead of lecturing or cajoling or debating, 2011-me shook my head and, as they watched, I pulled a bottle of ketchup and a bottle of horseradish out of the fridge, dumped ketchup and horseradish into a bowl, gave it a few stirs, and handed it to them to bring out to the coffee table.
Merry Christmas, I said. And I meant it.