Christmas

The BMW of eggnogs

I have a friend who is the kind of person who is asked to do things like drive a BMW around for a month and write up a few blogs about his experience driving a BMW around. While I’m quite happy not driving a BMW or any other automobile around, I must admit that I would like to be the kind of person about whom someone thinks: “Hey, you know what would be interesting? To have Molly Watson drive a BMW around for a month and write about it.”

So far, however, that it not the case. Instead, I am the kind of person who gets asked to taste eggnog and maybe write that up. It’s better than not being asked to do anything, but it lacks both the glamor and the potential for lifestyle reflection that the BMW experience seems to offer up on a platter.

Alas, I like eggnog. I like eggnog even though when I was a kid my mom always watered it down with skim milk, a practice that now strikes me as vaguely criminal. Though to her credit, she also used to sprinkle the surface with nutmeg, and this was before coffee shops had all kinds of brown ground spices sitting around for sprinkling-on-drinks purposes; nutmeg on eggnog was pretty darn festive. Dust on sweet eggy milk! Merry Christmas!

So I grabbed my purse and, lacking a BMW to test drive, walked down to the Whole Foods near my house to meet up with their public relations person and several other writers (I’m guessing they didn’t arrive in BMWs either, but I’ll confess that I didn’t investigate) to taste through the various eggnogs the store sells this time of year.

One thing about PR people who work in food, as a group they are a one-two punch of generosity. PR folks in general want to make writers and editors and really everyone happy and often go about trying to do that by giving them things; food people tend to be an effusive, hospitable lot; put the two together and you had to sort of know going in that more than just nog would be on offer.

Several cheeses, an orange cake, a turtle tart, some brilliant cranberry membrillo, a few crackers, and several bottles of wine were also on the table. And a ham. You know, as one does.

The ham (Wellshire, $3.99 per pound) sat next to me. Honey-glazed and spiral-cut, it was a ham straight off my grandmother’s annual Christmas make-your-own-sandwich buffet. I have foggy memories of a traditional roast and a set table and the general re-creation of Thanksgiving that was Christmas dinner in the big house on Wooddale Avenue, but then my grandparents got divorced and Gram moved into a townhouse in Bloomington and “didn’t want to go to all that fuss.” As a kid I thought it was brilliant. No more long dinner to slog through before present-opening. Sign me up for ham sandwiches!

So I ate a piece of ham and it was good. Since it was right next to me I managed to snag what I’m sure many would have seen as the slightly overdone piece on the cut-side of the ham. The crispy bits and browned surface were, to this edge-loving girl, perfection. Nice and salty. Left the kind of heightened savory state in my mouth that only eggnog can conquer.

To the nogs!

We started with two non-dairy nogs. We all agreed that the almond milk one had an unpleasant processed flavor and a weird aftertaste that was not at all eggnog-ish. Everyone else liked the coconut milk one. I thought it tasted like eggnog-flavored coconut milk, which it was and which immediately conjured up an image of a big vat of “eggnog flavor” sitting on the shelf at the coconut milk factory and I just wasn’t there. If, however, I didn’t drink dairy and really needed that special Christmas taste that only eggnog can deliver, it would appeal. It didn’t taste bad, I just didn’t like the picture of that flavor vat in my head.

Non-dairy unpleasantness out of the way, we moved on to the real task at hand: which commercially made eggnog sold at the Potrero Hill Whole Foods in San Francisco is the best? Surely many cuticles have been gnawed down to shreds as people wait anxiously for this information.

It must be said, in the spirit of full journalistic disclosure, that I went in with a favorite. I figured I would politely sip whatever eggnogs were poured and then have my deeply held belief that Straus makes the best one confirmed by a jury of my peers.

Pride goeth before the fall!

The best, as unanimously agreed upon my all those present, was Organic Valley. Nutmeg and vanilla in the mix made the difference, as well as the thick and smooth mouth-feel (Such a gross term! Yet so evocative! We food people adore it!) provided by the gellan gum included in the list of ingredients. Straus, by adding neither vanilla nor gellan gum, kept to a more traditional and natural path that, while utterly delicious, simply wasn’t the best on offer.

The good news? We can all save money: a quart of the Organic Valley is $4.99 while a quart of Straus is $6.49.

The bad news? We’ll have to up our intake of gellan gum.

Gellan gum is made by fermenting an aquatic plant. It’s a gelling agent used as a vegan alternative to gelatin and as an additive that keeps the particles suspended in soy milk and the cocoa hanging around evenly in chocolate milk. I’ve never seen it called for in any of the many recipes for homemade eggnog I’ve surveyed over the years.

I’m not positive, of course, but I don’t remember there being any gellan gum in the eggnog Christina Lopez’s stepmom made and paid us $5 an hour to ladle out at her Christmas open house when we were in eighth grade (money we wisely spent on Duran Duran EPs). Whipped cream and whipped egg whites and a custard base and a bottle of brandy were involved, and we had to pour and ladle and stir and then not stir them in a particular order, which is why we were getting the big bucks.

Gellan gum is probably just fine to eat. I know next to nothing other than what the google machine just told me about it, but I tend to eschew the processed and I’m suspicious when foods with more highly processed ingredients are tastier than their non- or minimally processed counterparts. Do they really taste better or were they simply scientifically formulated to make me like them better? What is the difference between those two things? Santa, I’d like an answer.

After all, I’ve spent years waiting for Christmas to roll around so I can buy Straus eggnog. Such an improvement, I always thought, over the thicker, sweeter versions of my childhood (the taste of which is spot-on captured by Clover, $3.99/quart, and which made me think perhaps Mommy Dearest wasn’t so crazy with her skim milk addition to cut that brew a bit). I bet if I’d tasted the Organic Valley on it’s own, far from a sample of Straus, I would have thought “This is really good, it’s almost as good as Straus,” and then looked at the label, seen something I didn’t know what it was, and happily bought Straus the next time I was at the store.

But the side-by-side revealed the lack of vanilla and a slightly thinner, less gellan gum-enhanced texture in Straus. So I’m going to gently suggest two things: First, that Straus throw a few vanilla beans in their eggnog next year and maybe a little more cream to thicken things up (although I think the vanilla was really the key to Organic Valley surging ahead with the crowd of six tasters); second, that the fine folks at Organic Valley make theirs without the gellan gum. Now that would be an eggnog tasting!

Come on guys, you have months to fiddle around with the exact recipe in time to make Christmas 2014 the best ever.

Christmas
eggnog

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Spicy rémoulade

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.

Christmas
shrimp

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Cranberry cordial

Ask and you shall receive. I’ve finally posted my famous recipe for cranberry cordial, a homemade cranberry liqueur I’ve referenced and teased you with for years now. My secret is out. Everyone I’ve ever given it to can now see how lazy I am – making a big deal about this easy-as-pie concoction.

Serve it chilled in wee cordial glasses like the ones I tracked down at a thrift store somewhere on the 101 between here and Los Angeles on a road trip with my dashing husband back when he was simply dashing, or use to make the best kirs or kir royales you’ve ever had. I’ve used big batches of the stuff to doctor up the second (maybe third) crappiest sparkling wine at the market into delicious cocktails that made for very festive gatherings indeed. I wish you many such events in the coming weeks, or, rather, as many as you can stand.

Christmas
cocktails
cranberries

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Pecan cacao nib cookies

Have you noticed that I don’t post a ton of sweets here? I’m not a real dessert-y sort of gal. A bite or two of whatever usually does it for me, much to my son’s chagrin. The poor thing has taken to lapping up a spoonful of honey for dessert more than once while pulling a face at the offer of a juicy ripe satsuma or a bitter square of dark chocolate studded with almonds and sea salt.

These pecan cookies, however, whether studded with crunchy bitter cacao nibs or delicate shavings of dark chocolate, are right up my alley, they are buttery and crisp and not all that sweet but perfect with a cup of coffee or a spot of tea, and they aren’t out of place with a dram of whiskey either. They are inspired by cookies from the fabulous Alice Medrich. I once made them with finely chopped chocolate when I couldn’t find cacao nibs. They were, to some palates, even more delicious.

Find other cookies I genuinely adore at this list of potential christmas cookies.

Christmas
cookies

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Gravlax

Luscious. Silky. Salty. Fishy. Yum.

This gravlax was all of these lovely things. It was also cured in the trunk of my car. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

It started, as all salmon do, as an egg (yum, salmon roe!) in a creek or riverbed in a tributary that drains into the Copper River in Alaska. It grew and swam (and was swept) downstream into the cold, rich waters of the Pacific Ocean. The cold water made it develop a lot of fat, tasty fat that doesn’t congeal in the cold and thus is healthful and all things good for us humans to eat. It ate lots of stuff – crustaceans, squids, jellies, and other things that eat lots of marine plants and even smaller things that eat more marine plants. You know those omega 3 essential fatty acids health people are always going on about? They are mainly found in marine plants. So when things eat those plants and then other things – like salmon – eat them, the omega 3s build up in a most pleasing and beneficial way. Yet, like magic, this salmon remained low in mercury – they eat fairly low on the food chain compared to, say, swordfish or sharks, and they also simply don’t live that long enough (about 3 to 5 years) to build up mercury the way longer-loved fish do. Nice work, salmon.

This particular fish then had the great misfortune (or is that supreme honor?) to end up in Bill Weber’s gillnet last September (it was on its way to spawn – and die– in the same river where it was an egg). If I know Bill, and I don’t know him well but I have met him and heard him speak at length about how he handles his fish, this salmon was hand-picked off the net, bled (which drastically slows down decomposition), and immediately put on ice. Bill has all kinds of special and advanced methods because, at heart, the man is an inventor of things, an improver of ways.

There are people who will say – and they are probably right – that the wild salmon population is not doing so well and that, really, we probably shouldn’t be eating any of these creatures. We should let them all spawn and reproduce as much as possible. Fishermen and the communities they support, of course, have many arguments against this stance. I’ve decided that if there are only so many salmon left and other people are eating them, I want my share. I don’t eat it very often and when I do I buy it from fishermen I know are fishing responsibly and with great care so the fish I get is as awesome as possible.

And I did. Behold! A thing of great beauty!

It was then packed and shipped to SFO where my editor and pal Bruce Cole picked it up and brought it to his garage. I arrived, fillet knife in hand, and – visualizing but in no way imitating the clean, swift lines of the professionals I witnessed in Cordova – filleted this lovely creature while Bruce laughed at my lack of upper body strength (it’s a BIG fish!). I then took full advantage of my excellent fine motor skills, superlative manual dexterity, and expensive professional tweezers to pull out the pin bones one by one:

I then lugged it home in a trash bag with a few of its equally mangled brethren and one to fillet at home (so I could photoshoot it for you! see above!), packed it up very carefully, and put it in the deep freezer.

The Sunday before Christmas, I pulled this salmon out (yes, the whole salmon, both sides) and let it thaw. I did this because there is Norwegian in me and every Christmas (usually on the Eve) we have gravlax. It is what we do.

On Tuesday I rinsed the salmon, patted it dry, lay the two halves on a very clean counter skin-side-down, and sprinkled each half with 2 tablespoons of horseradish-infused vodka (usually I’d use aquavit, but we were out – yes, we usually have it in the freezer and yes, we ran out; what can I say, it was a trying fall). I then sprinkled each half with about a third of a mixture made of 1/3 cup fine sea salt, 1/3 cup sugar, and 2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper. A person could add dill to this mixture – about ¼ cup chopped – if they were so inclined and I would be so inclined except that my dashing husband really doesn’t like dill and really, really, really loves gravlax and Christmas is, despite how some people may choose to proceed, not a time to torture loved ones.

I put one half of the salmon skin-down in a large baking dish and laid the other half skin-up on top of it so the flesh more or less matched up. I covered it with foil and plastic wrap, weighed it down with a cutting board that fit inside the dish, put it in the fridge and laid a few wine bottles on top to weigh it down further.

On that Wednesday morning I woke up at the ass crack of dawn. I took the salmon out of its dish, patted it dry, and transferred it to a small baking sheet I had sprinkled with half of the remaining salt-sugar mixture (leaving the two sides cleaving to one another the whole time but flipping it so the fillet on the bottom was now on the top) and sprinkled the top of the salmon with the rest of the sugar-salt. I then wrapped this whole thing in foil and plastic wrap and transferred it to its new home – a small $1.99 Ikea cooler lined with a kitchen garbage bag with several ice packs at the bottom. I then worked a small cutting board (that fit into the cooler) on to of the wrapped fish, put the various bottles of champagne we were bringing to Christmas on top to weigh it down, added more ice packs to top the whole thing off, tied the garbage bag shut, and zipped the cooler closed.

We put the cooler – FACING UP AT ALL TIMES FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY DON’T MOVE THE COOLER! – in the trunk of my Honda Civic with scads and scads of presents (our luggage had to go in the backseat), filled our travel mugs with coffee, and carried a very sleepy son to the backseat where I’d made a nest with his favorite quilt, a pillow, and all our luggage. We hit highway 101 before the sun rose and drove north for two days (with plenty of stops to hike in redwoods, eat seafood, and buy one hell of a fabulous late-60s dress at a junk shop) until we got to Manzanita, Oregon.

On Thursday evening, I ransacked the cupboards of my friend’s mother’s beach house for a baking dish, unpacked the fish, flipped it again while transferring it to its new home, re-jiggered the fridge and found place for both fish and champagne. Then I said hello to the various lovely people with whom we were to pass our holiday.

Christmas morning, after Santa’s good will had been fully investigated, we got out the fish.

My dashing husband carved it and we put it – with or without cream cheese and red onion and capers as individual tastes dictated – on rye crackers, baguette, pumpernickel, and/or lefse.

We ate, we drank coffee, and before we knew it, our work was done.

I hope you all had holidays that were just as delicious and lovely and extended as mine were. It’s good to be back.

Christmas
gravlax
salmon

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