Sunday, January 31, 2010

christmas: food & family

we're finally settling down after the holidays (that, and i figured i ought to get my christmas post in before february), which were wonderful. oliver understood the concept quite a bit more this year, which made it all the more fun and special; hannah spent a week with us; and of course, we ate a ton of food.

christmas eve, i made our traditional meal of shrimp and grits. (oliver had fish sticks, since he's not a big fan of shrimp yet, but he gobbled up the grits without a problem.)

oliver and i also made gingerbread cookies. he gets quite a kick out of helping me bake, and he always offers to lick the beaters. instead of gingerbread men, we made gingerbread robots (bryan's idea; i had picked up the cookie cutter at williams-sonoma the day before). i think it will become a new tradition!

after dinner, bryan and oliver played guitar hero. i'm not much for video games, but this was pretty darn cute.

before bed, we opened 1 present each - our new pajamas.

then it was christmas morning! bryan and i relaxed with some coffee and baileys while oliver thoroughly enjoyed ripping open all his presents (and then going after ours).

oliver got right down to business playing with some of his favorites:

an r2d2 playdoh set -

a wooden crocodile, paint-your-own-style (his first experience with paints, which he very much enjoyed) -

and a little wooden monkey bowling set -

after nap, we headed over to mom and dad's house for more presents, and christmas dinner.

adrianne made oliver the coolest gift ever - an r2d2 quilt. she cut every piece separately from fabric and sewed them all on with varying colors of thread. she poured tons of work and love into it, and it's obvious - it is amazing. oliver loves it (he sleeps on it every night now). when he saw it, he gasped, ran up to it, and hugged it. adrianne said it made all her hard work worth it!

our contribution to dinner was appetizers. i went retro, with shrimp cocktail (i used fresh horseradish in the sauce and WOW that stuff packs a kick!) and stuffed celery (inspired by this recipe, but i prefer smoked cheddar to the blue cheese, and i don't bother blending it).

for dinner, mom prepared a pancetta wrapped beef tenderlion (the pancetta purchased from bolzano meats) with a red wine mushroom sauce, roasted potatoes, roasted root vegetables, a salad, and homemade crescent rolls.

the following day, hannah arrived! which meant more present opening. this time, oliver couldn't understand why most of the presents weren't for him. we had saved him a few to open that day, but apparently, it wasn't enough.

that night for dinner, i made a traditional style spaghetti alla carbonara using the guanciale we bought from bolzano meats.

let's get a close up of that, shall we?

almost too pretty to eat.

i've been rather intrigued and charmed by cream sauces that contain no cream. awhile back, we first made original fettuccine alfredo recipe, which uses only butter, cheese, and some pasta water to make the creamy sauce. it not only worked, but was better than all other roux/cream based alfredos i had in the past. so when i stumbled across the carbonara recipe, which uses only eggs and cheese for the sauce, i knew i had to try it. and i finally - FINALLY! - had access to real guanciale.

the result was pretty close to perfection. i loved it. this cream-less cream sauce thing is my new favorite.

mom, dad, shannon, dirk, and adrianne joined us.

which meant more presents.

and triple the silliness. i blame hannah.

we decided to go sledding sunday, so that we could get it in while we had snow and before we got too busy. we headed out to currie golf course, where hannah was confronted with the biggest sledding hill she's ever seen. i thought oliver would be too afraid - the hill is truly huge, and with all the cold weather, very frozen, meaning very slick and fast. we were flying down the hill!! but he loved it! after awhile, he wasn't too thrilled with the snow flying up in his face, and hannah didn't last too long in the cold either (and i believe she was a little bit afraid of the super fast hill, too!).

that night, i could have almost messed up dinner, but instead i made an awesome dinner. i had planned korean braised short ribs (galbi jim), but instead of defrosting short ribs, i defrosted spare ribs. oops. bryan assured me they would work, with a slightly different cooking time. i began by following the recipe as written - same marinade, and i simmered the ribs. after 2 hours, i checked on them, and decided that the marinade lacked the flavor i was looking for. so, i made up another batch of marinade, similar to the first, but with a few changes - sugar, soy sauce, mirin, garlic, sesame seeds, honey, ginger, and molasses. my goal was a sticky, sweet and savory sauce. would you believe it worked? i cooked the ribs for another 2 hours with the new marinade added to the sauce; the various sugars caramelized and helped to thicken the sauce. the final dish was exactly the flavor i was looking for.

from there, we moved into the week. it was good to have the whole family together again!

monday, bryan and hannah headed up to the farm. bryan helped them out with some computer problems, and hannah went skiing with kay and her daughter, sarah. hannah had never been skiing before, but had been asking about it, so she was thrilled!

while they were gone, i tried some new things for dinner - crockpot rotisserie chicken and stovetop mac n cheese. the chicken seems like it shouldn't work, but i kept reading good things about the method, so i decided to give it a try. i made a seasoned salt using lemon salt (which mom made us for christmas), black pepper, garlic, thyme, paprika, and marjoram. i rubbed the bird with olive oil, then the salt mix. at the bottom of the crockpot, i put 5 loose balls of foil, plopped the bird in, and that was that. i let the skin crisp under the broiler for a few minutes before we sat down to eat. i thought it worked out rather well. the meat was moist, the skin was crisp and tasty with the salt like that - very similar to a rotisserie chicken. the mac and cheese was another roux-less experiment. instead of roux or cream, the recipe calls for butter and evaporated milk. it came out very, very creamy. and it's definitely an easier and quicker method than a roux. oliver wasn't complaining, either.

luckily for hannah, this year we actually had a good bit of snow for her to play in. it seems most years the big snowfalls seem to miss her visits. she tried to teach oliver to make a snowman, but the snow was too powdery for packing, and oliver was more interested in tossing it in the air and yelling "SNOWBALL!" anyway.

wednesday, we braved the obvious perils of a road trip with a toddler, and drove to chicago for the day. oliver did amazingly well on the ride down; so well, in fact, that as soon as we arrived and i realized how lucky we were, i began to wonder what the catch was and experience a profound sense of dread. luckily, the problem was that being cooped up in his car seat for 2 hours meant lots of unspent energy that he wanted to release; but unfortunately, our first stop (the shedd aquarium) was such a zoo that we couldn't possibly let him run free.

we arrived around 9:30 a.m., which was shortly after the aquarium opened. we parked down the block (the avoid the $15 parking fee - WTH, CHICAGO?!), and decided to leave the stroller in the car, since that's usually what we do at the museums here. ha ha, joke was on us. the place was PACKED. woe is the parent of a toddler who forgets that all kids are out of school during christmas vacation. i only had to wait in line for 15 minutes or so for tickets, but there were already a TON of people there - wall to wall (though, it's a good thing we got there when we did, since when we left, all lines in the lobby were full, out the door, down the steps, and going around the block - those people must have waited a good 2 hours in the snow). so mostly we had to resort to bryan carrying oliver on his shoulders, which incited quite a few not so quiet riots. between oliver and the crowds, we didn't get to stroll around so much as we had hoped. he and hannah had fun anyways, though next time we'd probably skip the masses (and the $70 it cost us to get in) and do something else.

after we wrapped things up at the aquarium, we headed to lou malnati's for lunch. i know, i know - a chain. not our original plan. actually, our original plan had been hot doug's, but they were closed for the holidays (something i fortuitously thought to check before we went). as we were eating later than intended, and already encroaching on oliver's nap time, and both kids voted pizza, we found the closest place we could. next time, we'll hopefully plan a little better.

after lunch, we drove over to the museum of science and industry. sadly, we needed to get on the road and get oliver napping, so we didn't get to spend much time here. i forgot how huge that place is! we did get to see the u-505 sub, which is pretty darn cool. we plan on heading back in the summer and making that a full day destination.

the next day was new year's eve. for breakfast, i made pineapple pancakes with mango cream. shannon had sent me a recipe for pineapple upside down pancakes, which i modified a bit. i didn't have kashi cereal, so i used cornflakes; instead of buttermilk, i used regular lactaid milk; i opted to skip the maple syrup; and i didn't let them sit in the fridge more than 15 minutes or so. instead of syrup, i whipped up some heavy cream with cubed mango and a little sugar.

bryan had promised me tamales for dinner (YES!), and as we normally have the family over for NYE dinner, shannon came over to lend a hand.

they made quite a few, of a few different varieties - roast pork, bean, and corn.

we served them with homemade caesar salad, guacamole, pinto beans, and homemade queso freso.

i don't get tamales very often, but they are definitely worth the wait.

shannon made a flourless chocolate torte for dessert, with chocolate and chile for a little kick. it wasn't very spicy, so oliver and hannah had no problems eating their slices.

new years day, we celebrated the new year with food. are you starting to notice a pattern here?

hannah had requested a french toast casserole, which i thought would be perfect to have the morning of the 1st. last year, we tried a paula deen recipe, but this year when i came across one that involved cream cheese, i was happy to make the switch. that along with a little bacon was more than enough to fill us up for the morning.

as accorded by tradition, we usually have corned beef, black eyes peas, and greens or cabbage for dinner on the 1st. however, we forgot about corning a brisket until it was too late (don't worry, we will remember for st. patrick's day). i didn't want bryan to go totally without so we had corned beef sandwiches for lunch. when i asked the deli lady for shaved corned beef, she asked if i really meant shaved, or did i just mean really thin. um, no, i meant shaved. which is why i said it. it's rare that i misspeak about my food, woman.

that evening, shannon, hannah, and i went roller skating. there is a friday "roller party" at a rink way the heck out in cedarburg that was recommended to us, so we decided to give it a go. we had a blast! it took us a little while to feel stable on the skates (somehow, ice skating is easier), but we had fun. they had tons of games, a music request list (so i could remember my younger days at the roller rink by skating to some guns'n'roses), and some interesting people to watch. i don't think we'd drive 40 minutes to go to the same one again (there's a rink about 5 minutes from our house), but it was a fun night out.

that saturday was hannah's last full day with us. i decided we'd start the day with cardamom caramel rolls. the recipe calls for ground cardamom. we have cardamom pods. have you ever had to shell and grind cardamom? it's not exactly like shelling peanuts. i decided to do extra, since it's such a royal pain. it took me 40 minutes or so. oh, the things i will do for baked goods.

the rolls turned out pretty good. my only complaint was that in order to have them in the morning, i had to make them the night before (yeast being what it is and all), which meant the caramel sugar mix on the bottom was cold, and even the hour or so i let them rise before baking wasn't enough to come to temperature so that the caramel got gooey and sticky when baking. if doing these overnight, it might be better to leave the caramel mix at room temp, and switch the rolls from a tray in the fridge (without caramel) to a room temp tray (with the caramel). still, the rolls didn't suck. the cardamom lent a different but not unwelcome flavor.

that evening, mom, dad, and shannon joined us for dinner. hannah had requested macaroni pie, and i was inspired by this recipe for tacaroni (taco-ish flavored mac n cheese). i made taco flavored meat, with chile powder, garlic, onions, oregano, and cumin, and some tomatoes. plenty of cheese later (and some evaporated milk for creaminess), it went into a baking dish. instead of the traditional bread crumbs on top, i smashed some tortilla chips on top, and sprinkled them with lemon salt and chile powder. baked until happy. everyone really loved this. i made a gluten/dairy free version for dad (using quinoa pasta and soymilk), and he requested it from mom while we were eating it.

for dessert, i made chocolate cream pie, because i am just that great of a wife/mom/stepmom/daughter/sister. (except in the case of dad, since this was most definitely not dairy free, though i briefly considered trying to make it so, then decided to not even try to pretend it could be anywhere near as good if i did, and instead just bought him dairy free chocolate ice cream.) in any case, everyone loved me just a little bit more after that dinner.

it was a good final night to hannah's visit.

more pictures online, of course.

i'd like to say we're looking forward to relaxing some, but knowing us, it'll never happen. i'm trying to plan a trip to atlanta for oliver and i, hannah will be coming to spend her spring break with us, and before we know it, summer will be upon us - at least, that's what i'm hoping. i am ready for spring weather!