Monday, December 31, 2007

A Holiday Feast

Christmas is a time for enjoying time with family and friends; a time to slow down and appreciate the people you love. In my family, Christmas has always been a big deal, and we all enjoy gathering together in my parent's home for sharing stories about the previous year, good conversation, and of course great food. Typically, we have the standard fare; honey-glazed ham, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, and of course, cornbread stuffing. Not that there is ever anything wrong with the old stand-bys, nothing at all. It's just sometimes, they can get a little bit, well, boring. So this year, my dad and I decided to dress things up a bit and make a few dishes that may have been a little unexpected, but made the meal exciting and really delicious.

Anyone who has spent any part of winter in the Central Valley knows that it gets cold, wicked cold. (Ok, maybe not mid-west cold, but California cold, alright?) And if there is one thing that helps warm the body and the soul on a cold winter night, it's a bowl of hot soup. So instead of just diving into the traditional meal head first, I decided to start Christmas Day dinner off with a Carrot Ginger soup.

Carrot Ginger Soup
1/4 cup butter
2 medium onions, chopped
2 tablespoons grated peeled fresh ginger root
1 1/2 lbs carrots, peeled and thinly sliced
6 cups chicken stock or vegetable stock
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper

In a stockpot, melt butter over medium heat. Saute onions until translucent, about 5 min. Add slivers of ginger, more or less to taste. 2 Tbs. can be a little overwhelming for some, so add or subtract as you see fit. I found grating ginger to be frustrating and time consuming, so I just used a vegetable peeler to make long slivers of fresh ginger. I added about 12 slivers, and it came out just right, but that can vary on the pungency of the ginger and your own personal taste.

After cooking ginger for 2 minutes, add chopped carrots and stock. I added about 5 cups of stock and left 1 cup in reserve in case I needed more liquid. It turned out 5 cups was perfect. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook about 20 minutes, or until carrots are tender.

Working in batches, using a blender or food processor, blend mixture until smooth. Pour the soup back into the stock pot, and heat on low until hot. Salt & pepper to taste.

Next came a tasty update on an old favorite; the staple that anchors the whole meal. Mashed potatoes. But this time, we made Garlic Rosemary Mashed Red Potatoes.

Garlic Rosemary Mashed Red Potatoes
5 lbs red potatoes
6 - 8 cloves of garlic
4 sprigs of rosemary
1 cup milk

Peel potatoes, leaving half of the skin on each potato in alternating strips. Boil potatoes and drain. Using whatever blunt instrument you have available, preferably a potato masher, mash the potatoes into thick chunks. Using a garlic press, add the cloves of garlic one at a time. Peel the leaves off the sprigs of rosemary, chop roughly, and add to potatoes. Add half of the milk and mix with an electric hand mixer. Combine the rest of the milk with the potatoes to smooth out the texture. Add more milk to taste.

No Christmas dinner would be complete without the centerpiece: The Christmas ham.
But my dad and I wanted to make the ham with a twist. And any reason to open a good bottle of bourbon in the kitchen is ok with me.

Ham With Bourbon, Molasses, and Pecan Glaze
1/2 cup apple juice (preferably fresh unfiltered)
1/4 cup bourbon (I like Maker's Mark)
1 3/4 cups (packed) dark brown sugar
1 cup pecans, toasted, cooled, finely ground
1/4 cup mild-flavored (light) molasses
3 tablespoons dry mustard

1 whole bone-in 16- to 18-pound ham

Boil juice and bourbon in small saucepan until reduced to scant 1/3 cup, about 6 minutes. Combine sugar, pecans, molasses, and mustard in bowl. Add bourbon mixture; stir to form thick paste. (Can be made 2 days ahead. Cover; chill. Bring to room temperature before using.)

Position rack in bottom third of oven and preheat to 325°F. Line large roasting pan with heavy-duty foil, leaving overhang on all sides. Trim off skin and all but 1/4 inch fat from ham. Place ham, fat side up, in prepared pan. Roast ham until thermometer inserted into thickest part registers 130°F to 135°F, about 10 minutes per pound or 2 hours 40 minutes for 16-pound ham.

Increase oven temperature to 425. You will have to sort of spakle the glaze onto the ham. Return ham to oven and cook until glaze is deep brown and bubbling, about 25 minutes.

We of course still had our cornbread stuffing, a tasty green bean dish, and what Christmas dinner would be complete without pie? This year's Christmas meal was a wonderful escape from the usual; we succeeded in making an nontraditional dinner that made every one's taste buds wake up. I had a great time sharing the kitchen with my dad, and I think we made a pretty good team. Now I guess we have set a bar that we have to live up to next year.

Thanks to the folks at Recipezaar for the Carrot Ginger Soup recipe, and Epicurious for the Ham with Bourbon, Molasses and Pecan recipe.


Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Pollo Pibil

You might think that after being back state-side for almost a month, I would be over my desires for all things Mexico. Sadly, you would be mistaken. Ok, so I'm not exactly looking at vacation properties on the Yucatan anymore, but I am still thinking about the food. In particular, I have been wanting for some time to make something with "pibil" in the title, so I did my best to re-create a meal I had in Playa del Carmen. The original recipe, for those of you who have never seen "Once Upon a Time in Mexico" is made with pork butt and cooked in banana leaves; however, since there are only two of us and pork butt's tend to be a bit large, I chose two chicken breasts instead, and used foil instead of banana leaves because, well because I don't know where to by banana leaves in The City. So here is my attempt at winging a simple yet very traditional Mexican dish.

Pollo Pibil

2 1/2 Tbs. achiote paste
2 - 3 cups orange juice
1 large yellow onion
6 - 8 garlic cloves
1 small habenero pepper, seeded, deveined and finely diced
2 boneless skinless chicken breasts

In a large bowl, dissolve the achiote paste in the orange juice. The paste is tough and sticky, and will take some work to dissolve completely. I recommend using a fork or spoon to smash up the chunks of paste to save yourself time and unwanted wrist strain. The paste will not completely dissolve, and there will usually be a few small clumps at the bottom of the bowl. Try not to worry yourself too much about this fact, realize that no one is perfect, and move on. WARNING! This mixture, which gives the pibil its characteristic deep red color, will have the same affect on your clothing. For this dish, make sure that your cooking clothes are ones you won't mind donating to the dust-rag pile.

Line a baking dish with foil, covering all sides and edges with foil. You want to make sure that there are no gaps through which the sauce can escape. Then loosely lay one more sheet of foil in the pan, folding it up all four sides. Once you have made a nice bed for the chicken, place the two breasts in the dish. Dice your habanero pepper into tiny pieces and stir into the juice mixture. The pepper is hot enough, but if you like even more heat, leave the seeds and veins in. Slice the onion in big, thick rings about 3/4 - 1" thick,leaving the narrowing rings in place and set in the pan with the chicken. Distribute the whole cloves of garlic around the pan. Finally, pour the achiote/orange juice mixture in over the chicken so that it covers the chicken and onions completely. Cover the dish tightly with another sheet of foil, and refrigerate for 1 hour.

With your oven at 375, leave the dish tightly covered with foil and cook the Pollo Pibil for about 1 hour. Leave it alone to cook; with that much liquid in the pan it will not dry out. Just let it do its thing, and worry about something else for an hour.

For a nice side dish, dice 1/2 a yellow onion, and saute until translucent. Before the onion finishes cooking, press about 3 or 4 cloves of garlic into the pan. Take 1 can of black beans and pour into the hot pan, and bring to almost boiling. Add salt and pepper to taste. Once you are ready to serve, sprinkle fresh roughly chopped cilantro over the beans and the pibil.

I have to say, except for almost ruining one of my favorite shirts, this dish was very easy and really quite good. The achiote and orange juice make a very unique flavor, and of course the habanero gives it a great kick. If you can't find achiote paste, which I brought home from Mexico, use fresh annatto seeds, finely ground in a clean coffee grinder. ENJOY!