christmas leftovers

Years ago I had a boyfriend who said he liked it when we hardly had any food in the house because that's when I got the most creative with cooking. I must say, as much as I like trying lots of new recipes I do get a special thrill from improvising in the moment with whatever is on hand. I didn't get out to the grocery store over Christmas so the past few days have been a lot of recycled meals. Today's was probably the easiest and most satisfying. I chopped up the leftover Christmas capon and forcemeat (see my last post for more details on that meal), added the leftover sauce, two cans of cannellini beans and some water. The result was a delicious white bean stew. Easy, fast, good!

christmas capon

At Thanksgiving I always cook the traditional turkey dinner so at
Christmas I definitely want to do something different. That lead to
having a tradition of an “international” Christmas – each year a
Christmas (or winter holiday) meal from a different part of the world.

Over the years we’ve covered quite a few different countries and
regions: Mexico, Germany, Middle East, Ethiopia, Czech Republic, Cajun, China, Ethiopia. Ironically we have never done Italian. I guess because your own ethnic heritage doesn’t always seem as exciting as trying something new.

But this year, having too much going on andfeeling overwhelmed and exhausted I really wasn’t up for my usual international culinary research project. So I decided on Italian. Easy, crowd-pleasing and delicious. Of course there’s no one typical Italian Christmas dinner because it varies very much by region. I decided we should roughly try to follow the Piemontese tradition since that is where my mother’s family is from. But I wanted everybody to be able to contribute a dish and I didn’t want to be too rigid about authenticity.

I planned to make the main/meat course (or il secondo, as it’s called in Italian) and have our other guests contribute appetizers (antipasti), first course (il primo), salad (insalata) and dessert (dolci).

Unfortunately one of the most traditional Piemontese meat courses for Christmas that my grandmother used to make is a “bollito misto” which is basically boiled beef and vegetables. I say “unfortunately” first because I don’t eat beef (I’ll have to do another post about why at a later date) and secondly because I am not a big fan of boiled meat or vegetables (taste wise, texture wise or nutritionally). So I ruled that out.

Another traditional main course for Christmas in other parts of Italy is baccalà (salt-dried cod fish). Also not a fan.

So after thinking about it I decided to make a stuffed capon. (This is the point where everyone always asks, “Wait, what is a capon again?”) Capon seems to be one of those birds that people are familiar with by name but then realize they don’t actually know what it is. Pigeon? No that’s squab. Not a pheasant, not a game hen, what is it? Simply put, it’s a castrated rooster. This basically results in something akin to a very large chicken with lots of tender meat.

On a side note, speaking of things Italian and castrated…(you must
be wondering where I’m going with this now…) this reminds me of a
hilarious 1950’s Italian film with the venerated Italian comedian Totò. It’s called “Un Turco Napoletano” and Totò plays a Neopolitan
petty criminal and womanizer who escapes from jail and pretends to be a Turkish eunuch. When a wealthy and jealous merchant hires the alleged eunuch to guard his attractive wife and daughter, comedy ensues. I’m not sure if the film is available in the U.S. or subtitled (I saw it on television when I lived in Italy years ago) but if you’ve never seen a film with Totò it’s worth trying to find one of them.

Anyway, back to our capon…I read through a lot of recipes for stuffed capon (cappone ripieno) on the Italian recipe website and also found an interesting one (in English) on the Canadian Food Network website. I decided to make a conglomeration of the “best of” of all these recipes.

That meant starting with a deboned capon. I have pretty decent knife skills for a home cook but I’m definitely not a chef, especially when it comes to these kinds of techniques. I’ve deboned a chicken only once and it was probably almost ten years ago. So I was a little daunted. I must say the process was a little intense and disturbingly
animalistic.  There’s nothing like ripping the flesh off of a carcass
to put you in touch with your bestial nature.

In the end I actually was pretty pleased with my results (didn’t nick the skin once!) but it was fairly taxing. Actually, it wasn’t technically that difficult it was more my uncertainty about whether I was doing it the right way. Now that I feel like I know what I’m doing I’d like to try it again with more confidence.

 After that I made a forcemeat stuffing of chicken livers, pancetta, Italian sausage, pork tenderloin, chicken breast, bread, parmesan cheese, onion and spices and ran it through my meat grinder.

I stuffed the boneless capon with the forcemeat, sewed the openings closed and trussed it. Since the boneless bird still was like a shapeless bag of jello, I also wrapped some twine (sloppily!) around it a few times to give it some form.

While the capon was roasting, I started a sauce by browning the
chopped up carcass (nothing like taking a meat cleaver to a skeleton to release any holiday tension) with a mirepoix.

Then I added some water, chicken stock, white wine and a little tomato paste. This cooked (and reduced) the entire time the bird was roasting (about an hour and a half).

I served the sliced capon with the strained sauce on top. Everyone
really raved about it and had multiple servings. Unfortunately I had
the experience that often happens after I’ve been in the kitchen all day–total loss of appetite. There’s something about inhaling all those delicious aromas that often fills me up and leaves me uninterested in eating the final result. Of course I did eat it anyway (pullease!) and it was tasty but I just felt like I was eating my tenth meal of the day.

Oh, I also have to give a shout out to my mom who made an enormous batch of homemade potato gnocchi (from my grandmother’s recipe) that were feather-light and delicious. That’s a lot of work by hand and we all appreciated it (I actually did have seconds of that course myself.)

 As I count my many blessings this year, I guess I also have to be
thankful for coming from a culture that really knows how to eat!

lighted boat parade

Tonight was the annual Lighted Boat Parade in the San Rafael canal. Every year boaters throughout the county deck out their boats to benefit Community Action Marin, Marin County’s oldest and largest provider of family support services. A friend and I brought our kids and shared a nice glass of red wine at the waterfront as we took in the festivities (everything from lighted kayaks to vintage cabin cruisers.) It was a huge hit with the kids since it had all the light-up bling factor plus water vehicles (the coast guard and police boats were a particularly big hit).

All that nautical exposure put me in the mood for fish and chips so afterwards I headed straight to the my favorite place in the area, Fish restaurant in Sausalito. I’ve been a huge fan of this spot ever since it opened. In an area full of waterfront tourist traps with bad food it was a welcome relief to finally have a place for the locals. I love the industrial/maritime aesthetic (warehouse space, picnic tables inside and out, mason jars for glasses), being able to eat right by the water, and the fact that they are strong advocates for sustainable seafood. Not to mention that the food is delicious. They have a very varied menu with great seasonal specials but I always have a hard time passing up the fish and chips–fresh Alaskan Halibut battered with our local Anchor Steam beer and seasoned
flour. Yum! The only downside is the prices; it’s really expensive. But considering the location, the quality and the ethical food practices I can justify it, just not very often.

santa’s japanese elves


When of my favorite parts of Christmas morning as a child was the delight of discovering all the little tiny items in my stocking (along with tangerines, walnuts and Italian torrone nougat candy.). Today I was looking for stocking stuffers for the boys that would be small and inexpensive but also not plastic throw-away junk. I found some good small toys at Elephant Pharmacy but also made a stop at one of our local Asian markets. This was a great resource for treats that I know will be very exciting both because of their packaging and also because they’ll be perceived as candy (a rarity in our house) even though they aren’t completely loaded down with sugar.

walnut leaves

Since we haven't had many storms yet, the leaves have been hanging on my walnut tree longer than usual this year. Today I noticed as they were falling off a lot of the leaves on the ground had this interesting striation before turning completely brown and drying up. It was such a pretty effect I decided to bring some in and make a little arrangement for the table. I did feel a little like Morticia Addams with her flowerless rose-thorn arrangements, but decay can be quite beautiful at times.

grainy day

Given my (probably foolhardy) attempt to grow winter wheat in the Bay Area, I was thrilled to see an article in today’s San Francisco Chronicle about Bay Area wheat growers. Most of the small organic farms are growing soft Sonora wheat, but I was excited to learn that Eatwell Farm in Dixon is growing hard red winter wheat. The winter temperature averages for Dixon are not that different from where I live which makes me feel a little more hopeful about the success of my crop.

But the really thrilling thing for me in this article was learning about Whole Grain Connection, a local non-profit focused on organically and sustainably grown grains. I wish I had known about their seed catalog before I started my crop. They have so much good information especially about varieties. I would really love to try growing the Ethiopian Blue Tinge variety, not only because of my history and connection with Ethiopia, but also because they say the flour is good for “dark richly flavored whole wheat breads. Yum. But this variety seems to be a Spring crop and I’m not going to sacrifice my regular vegetable garden for growing wheat. If only I had acreage!

Speaking of grains and Ethiopia…when I was in the Ethiopian countryside last year at this time I watched families hand harvesting teff to make their traditional “sponge bread” injera. I’ve always liked this gluten-free grain, not only for its interesting taste but also for its strong nutritional profile–high in iron, calcium and protein; excellent amino acid composition (including all 8 essential amino acids for humans) and lysine levels that stimulate the flora of the large intestine. The problem is it’s not always easy to find locally. One good online source for both the grain and the flour is at Teff Co a company growing teff domestically in Idaho. I definitely recommend trying it, especially for those on a gluten-free diet.

There are more pictures of my 2007 trip to Ethiopia on my Flickr Photostream.

cold comfort food

Ever since this cold snap hit (and by cold, I mean Bay Area cold not Quebec cold. That's 31F at night, not -4F) and my furnace went out (the night before I was hosting 12 people for Thanksgiving of course, and did I mention the dishwasher also broke?) I've been cooking classic comfort food. (Is it any wonder?)

Yesterday a friend brought over the remains of a honey-baked ham she had from a party. That brought my mind to thoughts of Macaroni and Cheese and how nice this would be with some of those ham bits and frozen peas tossed in (the American version of Penne con Prosciutto e Piselli?). Mac and Cheese isn't a dish I make very often and when I do it's usually some updated, lighter version with an interesting mix of cheeses. But since I was starting with leftovers from the iconic centerpiece of an American buffet, I felt like I had to go with the straight-up full-fat cheddar classic. I found a recipe on Epicurious that did not hold back–a whole stick of butter, a pound of cheese, whole milk–bring it on. I must say it did not disappoint. Just the right amount of moistness with a nice crunch on top (and the added ham and peas contributed some welcome texture and color.)

Today I still had the ham bone and some small meat scraps to use up. In my mind ham bone = split pea soup. And of course I love any excuse to drag out my old vintage 1970's crockpot! I used this recipe but found I didn't quite have enough green split peas on hand so I made a blend of green and yellow. The house smelled wonderful all day long (nothing like a stewing ham bone to give you a feeling of well-being).

a day at the olive ranch

Every time I drive by the McEvoy Ranch in Petaluma, I always want to go visit. It’s such a stunning piece of land (550 acres of rolling hills, studded with olive trees) that produces delicious Tuscan-style olive oil. I always seem to miss their tour season so I was really happy when I got an email invitation to their holiday open house. This seemed like a perfect seasonal event that I could bring the kids to and that we’d all enjoy on different levels.

It was a chilly morning when we arrived but we were welcomed with hot chocolate (I think my kids wiped out half their supply) and a spread of delicious olive oil-based treats all made with recipes from their Olive Harvest Cookbook.

There was also a great bluegrass trio called the Earl Brothers playing who we all really enjoyed listening to. They have a refreshingly traditional mountain sound and Robert Earl Davis (banjo and lead vocals) has a wonderfully sorrowful voice. They play shows fairly frequently around the San Francisco Bay area and I definitely would like to go hear them again soon. You can also check out their music on MySpace.

After snacking and toe-tapping our way through the morning, we stepped inside the frantoio (Italian olive oil mill) for a tour. Considering the mill processes olives from 80 acres of orchards, it was a fairly discrete and efficient set-up.

First the olives are poured into a hopper and a defoliator pulls off any leaves and stems.

Even though the olives are “cold processed” (no heat or chemicals) with sophisticated Rapanelli machinery,

The fruit itself is still crushed the old-fashioned way by two heavy (over twelve hundred pounds each) granite

After the crushing, the olive paste is pumped into a Sinolea extractor (apparently the only machine of its kind in the U.S.) that works by dipping thousands of steel blades into the paste, retrieving droplets of oil. This gentle process creates no heat of any kind which protects
the fragile composition and quality of the oil. Any vegetative water
remaining in the oil is spun out by a centrifuge.

At McEvoy they bottle two types of olive oil, Olio Nuovo “new oil” which is freshly produced and sold during the olive harvest (and for a few weeks afterwards) and Traditional Blend which is left to settle and mellow in tanks for several months.

I’ve never been much of a fan of new olive oil–it’s much too “grassy” for me, but being there at this time of year it was nice to be able to taste both types side by side.

All and all it was a really enjoyable outing for all of us, festive without being commercial and a nice mix of food, nature, music, education and of course the kids’ favorite–loud machinery!

felt slippers

The holiday season always send me into cooking and crafting overdrive. In some ways having kids has amplified that (so many things I want to share with them) but at the same time it's also slowed me way down in terms of what I actually have time to accomplish. Pre-kids, by this time of year I would have already had a small assembly line of homemade food gifts–chutneys, preserves, pasta sauces plus whatever crafts I was currently into–soap, bath salts, etched glassware…the list goes on. Now post-kids, I usually try to focus on just one main project for the season plus doing some smaller craft and baking projects with the kids. But every once in awhile I break down and just have to squeeze in an extra impulsive project.

Ever since the fall chill (finally!) was in the air, I've been wanting to felt some wool and make slippers for the boys. So yesterday I went to the local Goodwill and picked up a cute olive green wool snowflake sweater for a couple dollars. Came home and tossed it in the washer on hot. It didn't quite felt up as well as I'd hoped, so I boiled it on the stovetop for a few minutes, washed again and then tossed it in the dryer for good measure. Finally it was small and stiff as a board. Perfect!

I used a cute Burda pattern which you can download for free and printed it at 75% which was perfect for the boys' small feet. A friend and her son joined us and we were able to cut three small pairs out of the one sweater, including double thicknesses for the soles (which I would definitely recommend – one layer of felt is way too floppy).

The top of the slippers is actually the wrong side of the snowflake pattern that ran across the top of the sweater. I actually liked the abstract graphic look of the backside better and it also makes the slippers less seasonal.

The boys love their new slippers so much they asked if they could wear them to bed. As if making them hadn't been satisfying enough!