Christmas Dinner Menu 2015

Christmas DinnerSince it is the Sunday before the big event, I thought I would discuss what I’m planning for Christmas dinner. I’ve reached the age where holidays are primarily a time for me to make a bunch of food for a bunch of people. The kids get cash because they don’t expect me to actually know what’s going on in their lives. And that’s all done, so I have only to prepare for dinner.

(Actually, the really hard thing is to get all my Frankly Curious writing done. Currently, I am two days ahead. But what with the other work that I need to do, and all the cooking I will need to do before, I figure I need to be four days ahead by Christmas eve. So if the work gets sloppy here, you’ll know why. I am planning some very pleasant diversions for those people who won’t be spending Christmas cooking.)

Main Course

I have strong opinions about the main course for holiday dinners. We are an extremely wealthy country. So I really don’t understand why people go with turkey for these meals. Hasn’t everyone noticed that turkey is just a big chicken, except that it doesn’t taste as good? I like to at least do a ham. And the ultimate is prime rib. It’s shocking that I get push-back on this, given that I’m more than willing to buy it myself. Anyway, I got my way this year, although I still haven’t figured out where I’m going to buy it — or how much.

Side Dishes

The main course is the easy part of a dinner. It’s the side dishes that are always a pain. That’s especially true for me because my default is to make way too many starches. This is because I love starches. But I know that people like variety. So I try to mix things up a little bit. Of course, that doesn’t mean that any of this is healthy. This is Christmas dinner, after all.

Starches

I have my two starch recipes that are hugely popular at every pot luck I go to. That’s not why I make them. I make them because they are hugely popular with me. The first is au gratin potatoes. And it is literally that. Well, I add one other thing. It is potatoes, onions, and cheese — repeated to the top of the casserole dish. And then I cook the hell out of it — normally for one hour the night before and then one hour on the day. It only gets better the more you cook it.

The other thing I make is Chef John’s Macaroni and Cheese. It’s unlike any macaroni and cheese I’ve ever had. It has a wonderfully complex taste. The only thing is that I don’t exactly follow the recipe anymore. I’m not quite certain what it is that I do differently. But it’s close enough. If you’ve never made it, it is worth checking out. You will never see macaroni and cheese the same way again.

Nominal Vegetable Dishes

By tradition, my sister makes a green bean casserole. But over the last year, I’ve been making it a lot myself. There are basically two ways to make it. There is the easy way, which depends on the fact that everything tastes good when you drown it canned cream of mushroom soup. When it comes to this method, Paula Deen really does have the best recipe. And then, there is the hard way, which requires making your own roux. Auriel at All Recipes has a very good recipe for that. Which one I make will depend upon how rushed I feel.

I don’t want to have a salad for Christmas dinner. Unless a salad can be its own course, it seems too much like something tacked on — saying penance for the delicious foods you are about to eat. I suspect I will, ultimately have to include a salad in all of this. But I’m planning as if I can avoid it. And I found a really interesting recipe, Grilled Corn Salad. But I’m definitely going to add some other stuff to it; I just haven’t decided yet.

Appetizers

I don’t bother much with appetizers. To me, it’s pretty simple: get a couple of good cheeses, apple wedges, some crackers, maybe grapes, salami — dump it on a tray and serve. But I know there will be shrimp, because there always is. Also, there will be Swedish meatballs. And my sister makes excellent deviled eggs. After that, there really won’t be any need for dinner. But we will do it nonetheless because there are just some things you have to do to live in a civilized society.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

32 thoughts on “Christmas Dinner Menu 2015

  1. I love to cook, and throwing a party is a way for me to engage in attention and praise seeking that I am comfortable with. I agree on prime rib, excellent and extravagant. Whole tenderloin roast with hollandaise is another ritzy option. White wine poached salmon with basil aoli is an easy one if you have guests who don’t prefer red meat. I quite enjoy turkey, but many can’t cook one well. I used an Alton Brown brine recipe this Thanksgiving that really delivered. I would like to try goose, but my wife probably wouldn’t like it. White meat only with poultry. And she doesn’t like lamb, which is another home run. Giant lamb leg with garlic cloves stuffed into the meat. And lots of red wine.
    My birthday is when I really treat my extended family with the meat. Last few years I’ve been doing something on the smoker. Brisket, which by beginners luck I got a good piece of meat and nailed the technique and it was perfect. Ribs, salmon, chickens, and this year pork belly. Score the fat side of a pork belly, dry rub it and smoke it like a rack of ribs. Amazing.
    Mom was a lettuce snob, and so are her progeny. If you take the spines out of romaine lettuce and chop it (romaine will stand up to cutting) You get a Caesar salad that is much more enjoyable. It isn’t even that time consuming. I use the classic raw egg yolk dressing, no anchovy, a splash of soy and balsamic, crushed raw or roasted garlic, and a diced avocado. It just disappears.
    I agree on gratins. I have a cubed potato and cheese sauce with green chilie that works like a gratin. It was something Mom used to make. I got the thumbs up from my brother and sister the year I brought that to Christmas dinner. “Where has this been? Om Nom Nom..” I’ll look at that mac and cheese recipe. I don’t have a baked one I like, the come out too dry. I can do a couple of portions on the stovetop with a simple cheese bechamel. My wife’s cousin sent me an email after her summer visit: Haley want’s the ‘Uncle Lawrence’ macaroni. What did you do?

    • I’m not that into cooking meat. The side dishes are what I most enjoy — probably because they are detail oriented. The thing about something like a rib roast is that you don’t have to do anything; it will be wonderful if you just let it be. The last time we did a turkey, it came out really well. But I can’t get past the fact that it’s turkey. I love turkey sandwiches, but you know: they are sandwiches. Interestingly, I read an article recently about A Christmas Carol and it noted that Scrooge buying a turkey at the end was supposed to contrast with the cheaper Cratchit goose. My experience with duck and goose is that it is too gamy for my tastes.

      I used to make a lot of Caesar salads, but I got out of the habit. The truth is that preparing the anchovy paste would always make me gag. It’s interesting how a hint of anchovy is delicious and a lot is disgusting — at least if you ask me. I’m more found of butter lettuce, but that may be because it is easier to work with. I’m never quite sure I can distinguish between the cooking and the eating. But I can’t imagine Caesar without the anchovy.

      It’s interesting that you mention your mom so much. My sisters and I spend a great deal of time trying to recreate mom’s recipes. The problem was that mom never had recipes. We’ve managed to recreate pretty much everything except for her chili. The search continues.

      Enjoy your holiday cooking adventures!

      • One way to try and recreate lost family recipes is to look for recipes by region. The other day a friend was lamenting the loss of a family recipe, and we had good results looking for the dish specifically as done in Eastern Europe where that side of the family originated.

        Maybe by looking into different aspects of your mom’s family background you might get some good recipe ideas. For example if she was from Texas and moved to California, those are two different traditions of chili.

        • I think I have discovered some of this. Even though my mother never had the Joy of Cooking, I’m certain that she must have had it at some point because at least a few of them seem to be based in it. But some things are totally idiosyncratic like her potato soup. I do know that her family came from Arkansas, and there was more than a little southern cuisine in her food. But nothing as exotic as Eastern Europe. She had Irish and German Jewish ancestors. I think I detect some Jewish aspects to her cooking. Of course, I think there’s a lot of that in the Joy of Cooking, so maybe that’s it.

          • What we found that really set off the search was her mom’s “Better Homes And Gardens Heritage Cookbook” from the 1970s. The history in it is iffy, but the old recipes from different immigrant groups made us curious about what more we could find on the Web.

            Clearly potato soup doesn’t come from Arkansas. Much more likely, Ireland or Germany (I understand potatoes spread through every poor European country pretty rapidly, and people in Germanic fiefdoms were always poor.) Now the question is, how many Irish or Germans moved to Arkansas? How did their food traditions blend with that of the existing culture?

            I’ve always been annoyed at food historians (I resent anyone with a less backbreaking job) but, in a way, it’s no less legitimate than studying how language develops. Very interesting if one’s being a cultural historian about it and not a food snob.

            So here’s your crazy thing of the day (night.) Marshall Islanders are facing much more coastal flooding because of global warming. So, where are they relocating? Why, the Ozarks in Arkansas, of course!

            http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20151126/as-marshall-islands-global-warming/

            If you predicted that would be their destination, you get a gold star and three smiley-face stickers.

            • I thought potatoes were universal. They are, as you probably know, The Greatest Food In Existence.

              I wonder if the Marshall Islanders are being mistaken for Muslims. But no: I would not have predicted that.

  2. “It is potatoes, onions, and cheese — repeated to the top of the casserole dish. And then I cook the hell out of it — normally for one hour the night before and then one hour on the day.”

    That sounds amazing!

    I’m known for not knowing how to cook, but I do know how to make some pretty awesome garlic mashed potatoes. The secret is roasting the garlic until you can squeeze it out soft from the bulb, and using heavy whipping cream instead of milk. You can’t miss with that!

    • I avoid mashed potatoes because timing is such a problem. It’s hard to keep them warm. But I still use them for chicken cacciatore, because they are so great together. Garlic mashed potatoes would be especially good with that.

      The thing about potatoes is that they are just amazing regardless of what you do with them. I mean, you can throw a potato in the oven for an hour and just eat it with nothing else and it is excellent. Potatoes are one of my favorite foods in all the world. Atkins can go screw himself.

              • Latkes were okay if they were made by one person-the Best Friend’s uncle who died recently. So now nope.

                    • Nothing! I’m killing myself with work to allow me to take two days off. And my editor keeps throwing really cruel assignments at me. But they do pass the time!

                    • And I think my recipes are unhealthy! I’m sure it’s delicious, although it is a very standard recipe. But two pounds of bacon?!

                    • *faints* How can you say there is too much bacon, why that is unAmerican!

                      Heehee, I am kidding of course, but the way we slice bacon in this country it doesn’t seem that bad once you fry it up.

                    • It does depend upon the bacon. If I get it in a package, that isn’t much; if I get it from the butcher, it is quite a lot. But I’ve used bacon in my potato soups before. I really don’t think it is necessary. Save the bacon for the BLTs!

                    • I was thinking the stuff in packages not the stuff from the butcher since I never buy directly from. I should probably should start.

                      What kind of cheese does the au gratin potatoes use? I was going to make it this weekend.

                    • Medium cheddar usual. But I’ll use anything at all. It’s just that a more subtle cheese is wasted.

                    • Odd, doesn’t it just turn into baked french fries? Or is there some kind of liquid added in?

                    • No. It is just potatoes and cheese and onion — all delicious alone but together even better. I’ve experimented with many other recipes but for pure deliciousness, you can’t do better than this one.

  3. What an amazing array of information in these comments. Marshall Islanders to Arkansas? The Ozarks are beautiful but they are still in Arkansas. I agree on the potatoes, they are great in so many ways. I would want to eat at the house of Lawrence especially if he cooks a rack of lamb. Every thing he and Frank mention sound so good! Frank, print your recipe for your au gratin even if it’s basically an outline.

    • Recipe?! I wouldn’t know what to write. It’s so simple. Maybe a video?! How about an equation: potatoes + onions + cheese = yummy. My mother used to make a far more involved one, but this recipe so appeals to the cave man in me, I always make it. I could live on it…

    • I’d look up recipes online, and try the one that seems most within your comfort zone. If it includes ingredients you aren’t familiar with, or steps you aren’t interested in experimenting with, ignore it.

      But, basically, since I’m in typing mode right now, here’s the outline version.

      Chop up half an onion. Every dingbat has instructions on how to chop onions. The cool thing about onions is they’re already mostly chopped for you; they’re in layers. So if you cut one right, it comes out in nifty perfect-sized pieces. They’re cheap, so buy one or two, cut them in half, and chop in different ways until you find the way that works for you.

      (Me? I chop ’em in half right along the equator. Then carve out the poles in a little crater. Discard the outer layer or two. Slice the hemisphere in half again, right down the International Date line. Now I have two quarter-spheres. I flip them core-side down on the cutting board, and make cuts by latitude. Then longitude. Bingo — a diced onion.)

      Next you want a creamy sauce. Fry the onions in butter or oil, say two tablespoons. When they’re getting soft, add a few tablespoons of flour, and stir the flour all around so it’s all mixed with the oil.

      Then add milk or broth (or both. You can use the broth cubes, just nuke/boil some hot water and stir the cubes in so they dissolve before adding them to your onions.) A cup or two of liquid.

      Here’s the only tricky part (the onion cutting isn’t really tricky, everybody has their own way of cutting onions, it’s all good.) When you add the milk/broth to your onions and flour, you have to cook on medium heat (4 on a burner that goes to 10 is perfect) and stir every minute or so. Use a wooden spoon and scrape any sauce sticking to the bottom so it goes back into the mix.

      If you cook the sauce too low, it’ll take forever. Too hot, and it’ll burn. Cook it at about 4, stir it with the spoon, and it won’t take that long.

      After 5-10 minutes, your sauce will start bubbling. Let it bubble for a minute (stir frequently here) and take it off the heat. Add your cheese. (Shredded, grated, cubed, just not big blocks.) The cheese will melt by itself. (Nonfat cheese doesn’t melt right. Part-skim or lowfat is fine.)

      There you go! You’ve got the sauce. Now just VERY thinly slice raw potatoes (skins on or off, up to you) and layer them with the sauce in something you can put in the oven. Glass, metal, whatever. Layer of sauce, layer of potatoes, layer of sauce, layer of potatoes, etc. Bake them at 350 until they look yummy.

      This sounds like a lot of work but really, once you’ve tried it once, it’s easy. Slicing the potatoes thin takes more time than anything. Two times trying it, and you’ll go from prep to oven in less than fifteen minutes!

    • Thanks for not being offended by my know-it-all blowhard tone. It was late, and I was avoiding working on something else. Good luck with cooking!

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