While the menu for the Thanksgiving turkey dinner is more or less carved in stone at our house, Christmas dinner is a good deal more flexible. This is partly because for years we'd have a Thanksgiving celebration for students, then for ourselves, and then a Christmas party for the choirs at which we served roasted turkey and ham for sandwiches. By the time we got to Christmas, we were turkeyed out and weren't too interested in continuing Sue's family tradition of more or less repeating Thanksgiving at Christmas.
So each year, it's a bit of a process to decide exactly what Christmas dinner will be. In the weeks before the holiday, we're usually overwhelmed with concerts and the general hilarity of the holiday season; we often don't get much time to discuss the menu. This time, thanks to Elizabeth, it was a slam-dunk.
As with many menus, the plan for this Christmas meal began with (and therefore was built around) a relatively minor player: Elizabeth asked for Yorkshire pudding. (An aside is necessary here. We call Elizabeth "Switzerland"--affectionately, of course--because she rarely ventures an opinion. If a couple of options are offered--"Do you want to go to the museum or the park?"--Elizabeth will generally defer to the collective will and have a great time. She's happy with all the choices, and that makes her neutral. Because of this, on the rare occasions when she does state a preference, we drop everything and do exactly as she asks. So when, without my even raising the subject of Christmas dinner, she mentioned that it would be wonderful to have Yorkshire pudding at Christmas, the question was decided.) Yorkshire pudding is, of course, the quintessential accompaniment to roast beef. Indeed, old cookbooks tell you to put the pudding batter in the bottom of the roasting pan while the meat cooks, allowing it to absorb all the juices. That's probably a little too fatty for today's tastes, so roast beef isn't as crucial to the preparation of Yorkshire pudding as it once was, but the connection is still inevitable. So if Elizabeth wants Yorkshire pudding, we must be having roast beef for Christmas dinner.
That brings us to another story. A few years ago (4? 5? I'm not sure.) I saw Alton Brown talk about a low-heat method for cooking a rib roast. I was intrigued. It requires keeping the roast in the fridge for days wrapped in towels so that a good deal of the moisture gets sucked out of it. You also have to purchase a large flower pot to invert over the meat while it roasts. This was all so--out there--that I simply had to try it. Well, the result was delicious, but it took 8 hours to cook instead of the 4 predicted in the recipe. We were eating dinner at 10 p.m. on Christmas and falling asleep with our heads dropping into our mashed potatoes.
Fortunately, that trauma is far enough in my past that I was willing to attempt the process again. I thought I could make some adjustments in the procedure (like taking the roast out of the fridge for a few hours before it cooked) to avoid repeating the endless cooking of the last time. So the feature of tonight's dinner is a rib roast.
There will also be Yorkshire pudding, since Elizabeth asked for it. And mashed potatoes. I don't do anything fancy with mashed potatoes, like add garlic or anything, because the old-fashioned way with just some butter and milk is so good. Why mess with and try to gussy up a simple thing that is already wonderful? We'll have some green beans. I think I'll steam them in the microwave, then warm them up in a pan with some butter and slivered almonds. I've also had a butternut squash sitting on the counter for a while, so it's time to do something with that. I'll probably cook it, mash it, and throw a bunch of stuff in there with it. Maybe butter, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and whatnot (the whatnot is likely to include rum...). I think I'll chop up some toasted pecans for the top and bake it for a little while, maybe with the Yorkshire pud. Sue will make a salad of orange sections macerated in olive oil and balsamic vinegar that will be set on a bed of baby greens.
For dessert (not that we really needed anything other than the pile of cookies I've baked in the last week or so, though I'm emphatically not complaining) I have already made a cranberry cream pie from a family recipe a student gave me when I first came to Arizona. I've messed with it a little, but not much. It's kind of a surprising pie and really delicious. It also looks fabulous in the really wonderful new ceramic pie plate our friend Barbara Daniel gave us earlier in the week. In fact, there's some doubt as to whether the pie will make it to dinner unscathed. Someone might dip into it prematurely, which is actually OK by me. I'm posting a couple of pictures now, before someone raids the kitchen...
There is nothing particularly gourmet about this meal. There doesn't have to be--it just has to taste good and be made with care. Good food, I learned some years ago, does not need to be complicated. It just needs to be based on good ingredients conscientiously prepared with respect for their flavor and quality.
I will let you know how it goes. I've been snapping photos sporadically (I don't have the knack yet of documenting all the steps) so that I can post them later, probably with some recipes.
Whatever you are serving or eating for your Christmas dinner, make it wonderful by sharing it with people you love. That, after all, is the most important ingredient.