If there were one post that I've been looking forward to writing this year, this is the post I've been looking forward to writing all year---the last post of 2010. The past 365 days have been filled with such enormous…
My family’s never been big on annual traditions.
I mean, sure, at Christmastime, there’s a tree and presents. We mail greetings and watch movies that come on TV, like most people do. We eat cookies (but then we always eat cookies). And then there are a few other recipes we associate with the season, you know, things that sometimes get made, sometimes don’t, from fudge to cream cheese to the gem I bring you today: sweet and tangy meatballs.
But these meatballs aren’t just for Christmastime, and they’re not always with Christmastime—with my family, few things are. In fact, some of you may remember seeing them at our (hot and balmy) blog party last August, where 32 people managed to eat over 100 in the space of a few hours. There were so many requests for the recipe afterwards—Mom gets all the credit there—that I had to post a quick version over on our Facebook page, with plans to give these year-round appetizers better treatment later on.
Now’s that time. Because while these meatballs aren’t just or always for Christmas, I usually think of them now, at the end of December, when I remember holiday parties and buffet tables lined with snacks, from chips and dip to cookies to that enormous glass bowl of tropical punch we always had. I remember decades of Christmases, filled with a decorated world of twinkling lights and celebrations at school or work or with friends.
That’s what traditions are supposed to do, I guess, even the ones we practice sporadically.
Because whether it’s an Advent calendar or the annual reading of Luke 2, we can build rituals into our lives to create reminders, tangible illustrations of something we don’t want to forget, something we want to hold onto in the future. Like birthdays reminds us to express affection for our loved ones, like Thanksgiving, to give thanks, so Christmas points at memories and meaning, in the midst of a crazy festive season.
Meatballs—and cookies and pies and comforting pot roasts—are nice in that way, too. They serve as hallmarks of this season that comes every year, in which many of us will do traditional things: find time to be with family, try to think of gifts to give, talk about the greatest gift: that the Creator became creation.
And while some may argue our traditions aren’t that meaningful, as Christmas trees come from pagan religions and stockings from tales of Saint Nicholas, I like to see things another way: the truth is, I love tradition, even the irregularly practiced kind.
If traditions are valuable for what they remind you of, then what we’re reminded of is what makes the tradition. Ornaments remind you of your grandma. Christmas cards of your friends faraway.
And meatballs, of the good gifts you’ve been given, this year and every year before it, from sweet and tangy things to eat to loved ones to share it with.
OK, I know what you’re thinking: pumpkin pie in December? Why don’t I just put on a Halloween costume and sing the Star-Spangled Banner while I’m at it? Listen, I know. Pumpkin pie is traditionally associated with Thanksgiving, and I know, here we are, a few days from Christmas—a time decidedly post-Thanksgiving.
But I’ve thought this one through, and I’m bringing it to you today, anyway, despite the backwards holiday timing and seeming ignorance of appropriate blog content. I’m doing it for two reasons:
- This is the best pumpkin pie I’ve ever had.
- I can’t stop making it.
(Oh and PS: pie pumpkins are currently on sale at my grocery store, so hello?)
I’m also posting this now because it includes a pie crust recipe! for a homemade crust! (Once you start making excuses, it’s hard to stop.) I’ve posted this dough recipe before, with a quiche in early November, but I’ve since made it with all my pumpkin pies, as well as another version of that creamy pear pie, and I’ll be darned if it hasn’t been flaky, buttery goodness every. single. time.
If you remember nothing else from this post, remember this: if you have a cup of flour and a stick of butter, you have a pie crust. No kidding.
And the final thing, the one that really sends this post over the top, is that it comes with a story. See, once upon a time, a year and a half ago, my friend Wendi made a pumpkin pie for a party. She said it was based on this five-star (and 258 reviews) version from AllRecipes, with just a few tweaks that she was happy to pass along. Shortly after that, my brother made the pie. I made the pie. It couldn’t turn out bad. The key seems to be that creamy, spiced, custard-like filling—made with real pumpkin, not the kind from a can—and even though the original is supposed to be best after sitting overnight, I think there’s nothing like a hot, steaming piece fresh out of the oven.
Early last month—it might have been the cooler weather or the fact that I hadn’t eaten red meat in a couple weeks, or it might have been since I already had a couple grass-fed chuck roasts in my freezer, purchased from a local farm—I got a fierce craving for pot roast.
Now if you’re anything like me, you’ve probably made pot roasts before. My versions were usually in a crock pot and surrounded by carrots and potatoes. Pot roast is one of those classic American dishes—like mashed potatoes and apple pie—that we have all had and made and probably prefer a certain way.
As for me, I like my pot roasts very tender, flavorful and fragrant enough to turn the kitchen into a different place while cooking. It’s kind of like my morning routine: where you might wake at a set time, have breakfast, read the paper and get in the car, I like to read and pray in bed before pulling out my laptop, still without having taken a shower, and get a few work things done.
So early last month, when I tested a new pot roast recipe, the combination of several ideas I’d seen online, and it turned out the be the most moist, tender, dark and wonderfully smelling piece of meat I’d ever had, you’ll understand when I say it became my morning routine of pot roasts.
Since then, I’ve made it four more times. Really.
So you know how it is the first time you try something: you’re a little unsure how it will go, so you’re checking the meat every hour, changing temperatures when you think it might help, adding ingredients partway through. Well in this case, all those changes worked so well, that I decided I would always do things that way every time after. This includes flipping the meat and adding mushrooms after an hour, raising the temperature an hour after that, then lowering it again. If you’re less paranoid, you could probably do some other combination of 225 and 325 degrees for a total of 3-4 hours—just keep your eye on it every now and then—but I’m sticking with my routine.
The only other note I’d add is on the grass-fed meat: I know some of you will wince at the higher price tag and just use regular chuck roast, and that’s fine. But I will say that my mom tried that with her own version after tasting mine, and it wasn’t the same. Grass-fed meat is noticeably more tender, not to mention higher in Omega 3 fatty acids, and, while we’re on the subject, have you seen Food, Inc., yet? It will change your perspective on meat forever.
At lunch the other day with Jacqui and her sister Jenny, we got talking about cookies and holiday baking, about how everyone has their favorite type of chocolate chip cookie and how my grandma used to make dozens of cookie tins to give away each year. I eventually found myself saying, with animation even, cookies are my favorite thing to bake, ever. And it’s true.
While this year is going to be my family’s most low-key Christmas yet, with not a lot of celebrations to worry about or long shopping lists to work through, and I won’t be seeing everyone I want to—a fact that gets me a little down when I start thinking about it—I’m still surprised to say that, here we are, December 13, and I haven’t baked a single holiday cookie. (There were sticky buns this weekend though, so don’t feel too sorry for me.)
So in an effort to get myself back in the holiday-baking spirit and to point you to a few quality cookie recipes stashed away on this site, I present Christmas Cookies 2010. If you have a favorite that you make every year, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!
The truth is, I’ve been wanting to tell you about this chicken roulade recipe for over a week now—ever since last Tuesday, when I pulled chicken out of the fridge and wondered what to make for dinner. I’d gone through all the usual options in my mind, things I’ve had before, things I’ve made, but nothing sounded like it would be worth the high price tag of the Amish, antibiotic-free poultry I’ve been buying, nothing until this beautiful, impressive chicken roulade.
Chicken roulade, if you’ve never heard of it, is essentially rolled chicken: the meat gets pounded and flattened into a large surface area; topped with cheese and a filling made of greens, onions, dried fruit, and nuts; rolled tightly; tied up with string; browned and baked. When it’s finished, you slice the bundled breasts into slices stuffed with flavor and color, and it’s the kind of thing that makes you go wow.
This version comes from the lovely Angela of Spinach Tiger: she’d posted it as an idea for a spring picnic back in April; I’m posting it as a weeknight dinner in December. That’s what’s great about this dish: it’s versatile. Not only is it timely year-round, but it’s also adaptable to the ingredients you like and/or have on hand, whether type of greens, nuts, dried fruit, or cheese.
As for why it’s taken me more than a week to post here, all I can say is I’m sorry. I could say I’ve been busy, but then so are you, and you’re reading this. I could say it’s the holidays, but truthfully my family’s Christmas is pretty low-key. So the best explanation I can give you is the same one I’m always giving, it seems: I didn’t know what to say.
I keep wanting to tell you about how things are going around here, I mean beyond chicken roulade for dinner, but the words just don’t come. Do you ever feel like that? Like you’re full of stories but speechless? Sometimes you just have to wait it out. But sometimes, in blogging at least, when you’ve already posted the series of photos to Flickr and already typed up the adapted recipe and then still have nothing else beyond that, you just admit it.
So it’s like this: If we were on the phone today, you and me, or sitting across a table, or pounding some chicken breasts together while we worked on dinner, this is what I’d tell you: right now, even as we do this, there are a lot of things I’m trying not to think about, things like worry and doubt that I feel like I fight more often lately. And I’d say there are other things, things like these, which I’m repeating to myself over and over again. I’d say I’m, as always, overwhelmed by good gifts, don’t misunderstand, but hey, how about you talk for a while? And you could do me the favor of telling me about your day and what you’re doing for Christmas and how much you’ve whittled down on your shopping list. We could also make roasted carrots—baked for about an hour with coconut oil and drizzles of maple syrup—and maybe a salad loaded with vegetables.
And then, when we were done, I’d say, let’s eat.
Last night, two hours into a kitchen disaster that left dishes in the sink, flour on the counters and about a dozen buckwheat ravioli in the freezer (i.e., pasta with the texture of burlap), I gave thanks for the thing we call cooking.
Because last night, cooking was part something to do, part a way to release energy and part an opportunity to be creative with concrete objects I could see, even if I turned those objects into tough dough set in thick sheets that didn’t cut well. I am thankful cooking adapts to our days, adjusts to our needs.
It has been, at times, a way to relax. At others, a chance to feel productive. The night before Thanksgiving, while I made a pie around midnight, it was the only thing that could keep my mind occupied. On the Saturday after, while I made another pie and then these cheddar-garlic biscuits, it was a welcome distraction and comfort, better than remembering the holiday ended and everyone had to go back home.
Sometimes I don’t even care what I’m cooking; I just need the rhythms of mixing ingredients, cleaning the counters, loading the dishwasher yet again. As far as these biscuits—beyond the fact that I had a little over a cup of buttermilk in the fridge begging to be used, I made them because Jacqui inspired me, because I’ve always liked the ones at Red Lobster that they seem to be an homage to and because, quite frankly, baking biscuits is a much better way to spend a Saturday night than staring at the walls feeling sad. They are cheesy and soft, flecked with pepper and covered with natural ridges like rustic biscuits should be. I like them toasted in the oven and served alongside a nice, big salad—preferably a salad I have to take a few minutes to put together, feeling thankful for the chance to.