Xmas Eve Menu 2013: Back to the Past with an International Flavor

Another year, another complex Xmas Eve menu.  This year, my 11-yo daughter Mika said she wanted a 13-course dinner.  She didn’t know why, that number just came to her head, but she wanted it.  I could have argued against it, but I figured with a little bit of creativity I could get there.  And Mika didn’t particularly care what the courses were, as long as she had 13.  And she did – even though I overcooked one of the courses so it ended up almost inedible.

The key to cooking and serving a 13-course menu all by yourself is advanced planning AND advanced cooking, as well as flexibility. To make it easier I decided to revisit some of my favorite recipes, which come from all over the world.  I did decide on a new one as my main dish,  Orecchiette al Ragu di Braciole, basically beef rolls stuffed with cheese and cooked in a tomato ragout, but it didn’t work out.  I made it the day before the meal, and discovered that the sauce was pretty bland and one-dimensional and the meat rolls were not what I would call attractive.  So decided we would just have that for dinner that night, and sent my husband to get a roast.

Roasts are great main dishes because not only because they are simple to put together, but because they look impressive on the table.  Sure, they are expensive, but it’s Xmas.  On the minus side, a roast requires the use of the oven, which means displacing other dishes.  My second and third courses needed to be broiled,  but my oven can’t bake at 300 and broil at the same time.  I baked them at 300, which wasn’t ideal for either – but I overbaked the shrimp, making them barely edible.

In any case, this is what I came up with.  At the end of the night I asked each guest what their favorite part was. There wasn’t a consensus (the soup, the bastilla and the roast were all mentioned), but at least not one said “the cheese”.

  1. Beignets au Fromage èt a la Menthe
    These Corsican goat cheese & mint fritters are delicious, but I did discover that they’re best if fried right before they are served.
  2. Camarao Grelhado com Molho Cru
    Unable to either grill or broil these Angolan marinated shrimp, I baked them and almost dessicated them. However, my guests did like the cumin sauce.
  3. Bacon Wrapped Bananas
    This recipe from Antigua doesn’t actually need a recipe. Take a thick slice of banana, wrap it with half a slice of bacon, secure it with a toothpick and broil it for 3-5′. Baking it at 300F wasn’t a good alternative, as it dried out the outside of the banana without making the bacon crispy enough. But it still tasted good
  4. Blood Orange Sorbet
    Sorbets are great as palate cleansers, and this store-bought one from Ciao Bella is just delicious.
  5. Mixed Green Salad with Gorgonzola Vinaigrette
    This salad is an old favorite, it never disappoints.
  6. Mushroom Soup
    Another old favorite that tastes better if cooked the day before. But make or add the dried mushrooms in advanced. Doing it made them so tough and chewy as to be inedible.
  7. Bastilla
    This Moroccan Chicken Pie was a favorite of several guests, including my daughter. I will admit it came out perfectly. Because it only requires 15 minutes cooking, I was able to put it in the oven after I took out the roast to let it rest.
  8. Lemon Sorbet
    A 13-course dinner deserves two palate cleanser. My second one was also store-bought, Häagen-Dazs
  9. Ribeye Roast with Madeira Sauce and Roasted Rosemary Red Potatoes
    Perfection! The roast was perfectly cooked, the Madeira sauce was delicious and gave it an unexpected nutty taste and the potatoes were easy and loved by everyone.
  10. Cheese Course
    Featuring Spanish and Italian cheeses.
  11. Chocolate Peppermint Cake
    My Grandmother’s recipe. It was great! I made it earlier that day, which allowed the mint cream to settle. It looked beautiful and was very tasty.
  12. White Hot Chocolate
    I thought it was delicious, but nobody else was as fond of it as I 🙁
  13. A Lemon Square
    Bought frozen at Trader Joe’s and defrosted. Delicious.

I served dinner with a Chateau Souverain Estate Bottled 2003 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

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Rolled Butter Cookies – Best Recipe so Far

Camila wanted to make Christmas cookie, and while I have a pretty good recipe, it called for some ingredients that I didn’t have at home. That was fortunate, because while searching for another recipe I came upon this one, from butter company Land 0’Lakes.  I like it more than my regular recipe, specially with the frosting.

Without the frosting the cookies are too dry.  That’s because of all the extra flour you use on them while you roll them.  Making them thicker helps – mine were too thin.  The icing, however, helps tremendously.  The best part was that the kids didn’t like them that much – Mika found them too dry and while Camila likes to make baked goods, she doesn’t really like to eat them.  The flavor was very good and, yes, you need all that vanilla extract.  All the recipes for rolled cookies I’ve found call for orange juice or lemon juice, so I suspect the citric acid element is needed for chemical reasons.

The key to making rolled cookies is getting the dough at the right temperature to make them rollable. It takes 2-3 hours in the fridge, but I’ve noticed that 45 minutes in the freezer also do the trick.  Work with dough in small batches.  As soon as one gets too soft, put it back in the fridge and get another one.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup salted butter, softened
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 2 Tbsp. orange juice
  • 1 Tbsp. vanilla extract
  • 2 1/2 cups flour + more for dusting
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 4 1″ squares of plastic wrap

Icing

  • 3 cups powdered sugar
  • 1/3 cup salted butter, softened
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1-2 Tbsp. milk
  • Food coloring, as desired

Instructions

For the cookies

With an electric mixer at medium speed, cream the butter with the sugar and the egg.  Add the orange juice and vanilla extract and continue mixing until combined.  Add the flour and baking soda and mix at low speed until combined.

Wrap 1/4th of the dough. with each plastic wrap square. Flatten slightly.  Refrigerate until firm, 2 to 3 hours.

Heat oven to 400°F.

Lightly flour a working surface and a rolling pin.  Roll out one package of batter to a 1/4″ thickness.  Cut with cookie cutters.  Place 1″ apart onto ungreased cookie sheets.  Bake for 6 to 8 minutes.  It’s ready when the edges of the cookie start to turn brown.  Remove from oven and let stand for one minute before transferring to cooling racks.

Repeat with the rest of the dough.

For the Icing

Using an electric mixer at low speed, beat together the powdered sugar, butter and vanilla.  Scrape the sides of the bowl often.  Add enough milk for your desired consistency.
Divide into small bowl and color each one with food coloring.  Spread over cookies and allow to dry.
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Reindeer Hash Recipe (Poronkäristys)

reindeerIt’s early January, Christmas is well passed and you don’t know what to do with the reindeer that Santa Claus left stranded on your backyard.  Well, here come the Finns to the rescue with a delicious (I’m sure, Santa Claus skipped me this year) recipe for reindeer hash.  It comes from the book Natural Cooking the Finnish Way, which, by the way, has quite a few really good recipes.

If you have kept your reindeer in the backyard, hopefully they are cold enough, but if not, do freeze the meat for a while to  make it easy to slice, and always do it across the grain, of course.

Ingredients

  • 1/2 lb bacon, cubed
  • 1 lb reindeer meat, thinly sliced
  • water
  • salt to taste

Instructions

Cook the bacon on a heavy frying pat over medium heat until the fat melts.  Add the reindeer meat and cook until browned.  Cover the meat with water and season with salt. Turn down the heat, partially cover the pan, and simmer for 2 hours, adding water if necessary.

Serve with mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce.


2012 Christmas Eve Dinner

Every year since my kids were born (except for 2005, when we visited Argentina) I have made an elaborate, multi-course Christmas Eve dinner.   I start the menu planning by deciding what meat I will feature as my main dish.  I want something eye-catching that I wouldn’t normally cook.  Trouble is, after so many Christmas Eves, I’ve run out of choices.  I’ve done standing rib roasts, boneless prime ribs and regular roasts.  I’ve cooked beef Wellington and plain beef tenderloin roasts.  I’ve done turkey, goose, pork tenderloin and leg of lamb.  One year I made the most delicious rack of lamb.  Earlier in my marriage, I once even made Ethiopian food for Xmas Eve dinner.  And last year, I made short ribs.

I don’t like repeating dishes – thus my Xmas Eve dinner problem – but I was in a big conundrum this year.  My kids won’t let me cook any cute animals – so no lamb, venison, ostrich, duck – and none of us are that fond of pork, so that leaves beef (chicken is just not impressive enough for Xmas Eve dinner).  And I really didn’t want to do a roast (nor spend the money to buy top-quality beef).  I thought about making oxtails, but the kids balked and, truth be told, after a couple of experiences with really tough oxtails, I wasn’t that willing to risk it.

So I decided to go for short ribs again.  There are many ways to prepare them, after all, and they are a crowd favorite.

In all, my menu went very well, I think it may have been my most successful menu so far, as everything I served was good-to-great.  The two favorites seemed to be the shrimp salad, that accompanied the soup, and the cheese course.  It’s sort of sad that that would be the star of a meal I spent 2 days preparing, but there is little you can do to compete against good cheese.

As usual, I eliminated one dish from my planned menu: the fish.  I had originally planned to make the leek tarts as an amuse bouche, but they ended up being too big for that purpose, so I turned them into an appetizer instead (and made the eggnog the amuse bouche).  I could still have gone with the fish, but given that it needed last minute cooking – which meant more time away from the table for me – I skipped it.  I think it was a good choice, both time and flavor wise.

Here is what the meal ended up being:

Eggnog

Plantain and Coconut Soup with Shrimp, Tomato and Avocado Salad

Individual Leek Tarts

– Lemon Sorbet, as a palate cleanser

Wine-Braised Short Ribs with Cocoa and Star Anise

served with garlic & plain mashed potatoes and braised red chard

Assorted Cheeses

Peanut Butter Trifle

And there you go 🙂

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Plantain and Coconut Soup with Shrimp, Tomato and Avocado Salad – Recipe

I wanted to make mushroom soup for my 2012 Christmas Eve dinner.  Mika wanted butternut squash soup.  I figured I’d compromise and find something else.  For some reason I was set on having a savory fruit-based soup, so when I came across this recipe I felt I had found gold.  It got amazing reviews, and I’d had great luck with other recipes from Emeril.

As things turned out, I was not too happy with the soup.  I felt it tasted mostly of chicken broth, with only hints of coconut and none of plantains.  If I was going to serve it, I felt I had to fix it – so I ended up adding the rest of the coconut milk from the can as well as 3 bananas and some nutmeg.  The results were much tastier than before, and Mika was pleased.

I don’t eat shrimp myself, but according to my guests and my husband, the shrimp salad was delicious – both by itself and when combined with the soup.  This is high praise coming from my husband, as he doesn’t like either tomatoes or avocados!

Plantain and Coconut Soup

Ingredients

  • 2 Tbsp.  olive oil
  • 1/3 cup small diced salt pork
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 1 medium carrot, finely chopped
  • 1 small celery rib, finely chopped
  • 1 Tbsp. minced garlic
  • 4 tsp. curry powder
  • 4 large yellow plantains with slightly green tips and some black spots, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 2 quarts chicken stock
  • 1 can  coconut milk
  • 3 small bananas, coarsely chopped
  • salt & black pepper to taste
  • pinch of nutmeg
  • 2 Tbsp.  lime juice
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 1 Tbsp. cilantro, chopped

Instructions

Heat a soup pot over medium heat and add the oil.  When hot, add the salt pork and cook until crispy, about 6 minutes.  Add the onions, carrots and celery and cook until tender, about 5 minutes.  Add the garlic and curry powder and saute for 30 seconds.  Add the plantains and the stock and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the plantains are soft, about 45 minutes.

Remove from the heat and add the coconut milk and bananas.  Puree the soup, either using an immersion blender (easiest) or in batches, in a regular blender.  Return to the pot, taste and adjust seasoning.

Just before serving, reheat the soup and add the lime juice.

Place the sour cream in a small serving bowl and sprinkle the cilantro on top of it.  Serve the soup with the salad (recipe below) and sour cream on the side.  Before eating, combine the three elements.

 Shrimp, Tomato and Avocado Salad

Ingredients

  • 1/2 pound shrimp, peeled, deveined and diced
  • 1  tsp. creole seasoning
  • 2 Tbsp. butter
  • 2 tsp. chopped garlic
  • 1/2 cup diced tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup diced avocado
  • 1 Tbsp. cilantro, chopped
  • 1/2 tsp. salt

Instructions

Season the shrimp with the creole seasoning and set aside.

Heat a saute pan over medium heat.  Add butter and melt.  Add garlic and saute for 1 minute.  Add the shrimp and cook for 2 minutes.  Add the tomatoes, avocado and cilantro and mix.  Turn heat to very low.  Season with salt and continue cooking until the shrimp is completely cooked through.

Marga’s 2012 Christmas Eve Dinner

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Eggnog Recipe

I’m not the hugest eggnog fan in the world, but I wanted to have something to serve my Christmas Eve dinner guests when they first arrived.  For some reason eggnog came to mind.

This recipe, from Alton Brown, was fairly easy and pretty tasty – if you like eggnog.  It was a bit too nutmeggish, however, so if I made it again I’d reduce the nutmeg to half a teaspoon.  It wasn’t too sweet, which I appreciated.  I followed it pretty closely, but as I needed both an alcoholic and non-alcoholic version, I only added the Bourbon at the end.

Ingredients

  • 4 eggs, separated
  • 1/3 cup + 1 Tbsp. sugar
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 tsp. nutmeg
  • 3 oz bourbon

Instructions

Beat eggs with an electric mixer until they lighten in color.  Gradually add 1/3 cup sugar and mix until completely dissolved.  Mix in the milk, cream and nutmeg.

Using an electric mixer, beat the egg whites until they form soft peaks.  Add the remaining sugar and continue beating until hard peaks are formed.

Mix the egg whites with the egg yolk mixture.  If you are making both alcoholic and non-alcoholic eggnog, pour into separate pitchers and add the bourbon to one.

Refrigerate until serving.

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Wine-Braised Short Ribs with Cocoa and Star Anise – Recipe

This year – 2012 – short ribs were eatured as the main dish on my Christmas Eve dinner table.  I love short ribs and I couldn’t think of anything else to make for this dinner.  Of course, I had to try a new recipe because I wasn’t in love with any of the ones I made before, plus I always like trying new things.

I think this recipe was quite successful.  I’m not ready to say it was the best short rib recipe I’ve ever made, but it definitely was tasty and the sauce was delicious – both with the short ribs and the garlic mashed potatoes I served it with.  The sauce was definitely rich and well balanced.  The ribs, btw, were succulent and fall-off-the-bone tender.  Regardless of what recipe I use in the future, I will cook them in this manner.

I made the short ribs the day before, not only because I don’t want to be crazy cooking on Christmas Eve, but because braised short-ribs are always better the next day.

I got this recipe from Chuck Hughes of the Cooking Channel (I had never heard of either, I found it through Google) and I modified it slightly.  I used a roasting pan for this dish, as I had nothing else that was large enough for the ribs and veggies.  I placed it on the stove over two burners.

It will serve 6 people.

Ingredients

  • 8 meaty short ribs
  • coarse salt
  • flour for dredging
  • canola oil
  • 4 large onions, coarsely chopped
  • 5 stalks celery, coarsely chopped
  • 5 carrots, peeled and cut into 2″ cylinders
  • 8 garlic cloves, peeled and cut in half
  • 3 sprigs fresh rosemary
  • 1 tsp dried thyme
  • 2 star anise
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 2 bottles red wine
  • 3 Tbsp. cocoa powder
  • 3/4 cup brown sugar
  • 2 Tbsp. peppercorns
  • 2 Tbsp butter

Instructions

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Trim excess fat from the ribs.  Season well with coarse salt.  Dredge in flour.

Coat the bottom of a roasting pan with Canola oil and place on the stove over medium-high heat.  When hot, add the short ribs and brown on all sides.  Remove and set aside.

Add the onions, celery, carrots, garlic, rosemary, thyme, star anise and cinnamon sticks to the pan.  Cook until they caramelize, stirring frequently.  Return meat to the pan and pour wine over the ribs.  If they are not completely covered, top with water.

Mix in cocoa power, brown sugar and peppercorns and bring to a boil.  Cover tightly with aluminum foil, put in the oven, and cook for 3 hours.

Carefully remove ribs, and set aside.  Strain out the braising liquid into a large cooking pot.   Discard the veggies.

Place the pot on the stove and boil over medium-high heat until the liquid is reduced by about 1/3rd.  Return the short ribs to the pot.  Cool and then refrigerate until the next day.

When ready to reheat (30 to 60 minutes before serving), place the pot on the stove over medium heat and cook uncover until the liquid starts boiling.  Stir to make sure the short ribs are moist all over.  Cover and turn the heat down to a simmer.

Five minutes before serving, remove the ribs and place on the serving platter.  Cover with a kitchen towel to keep warm.  Taste the liquid, adjust seasoning and reduce further if needed to make it more intense.  Add butter and serve with the ribs or on the side.

Marga’s 2012 Christmas Eve Dinner


Xmas Eve 2012 Menu

It’s that wonderful time of the year again, when I forget how I swore last year that I’ll never cook Xms Eve dinner again, and revert to doing it anyway.  It’s not that I mind cooking a huge Christmas dinner.  I do enjoy it, in particular now that Camila will help me with some of the preparations and I’ve become wise enough to chose mostly dishes that can be made in advance or require little preparation the day of the event.  But what I don’t enjoy is getting the house clean and ready for the event.

My favorite part, however, may be making and tweaking the menu, trying to make sure the dishes flow into one another and trying new recipes.  I rarely have the chance to make appetizers or soups (or even desserts) in my regular cooking, so this is fun.

Anyway, this is my planned menu, which I’ve already started cooking.  Recipes will follow and I will make a full post, with what I ended up cooking and how it turned out in a few days.

Christmas Eve 2012 Menu

Leek & Cheese Tarts, as an amuse bouche
Plantain and Coconut Soup with Shrimp, Tomato and Avocado Salad
Home made eggnog, in tiny cups as something to occupy guests with while I cook the catfish
Catfish and Asparagus a la Meuniere
Lemon sorbet, as a palate cleansar
Braised Short Ribs (new recipe) with garlic mashed potatoes and braised red chard
Cheese course
Peanut Butter Trifle

And that’s it 🙂

Now, the question, what will I end up /not making/ because I run out of town or was too exhausted?


Wine Braised Short Ribs

I decided to make short ribs for my 2011 Christmas Eve dinner because I’ve run out of new cuts of meats to try.  I’ve done a standing rib roast, a boneless prime rib roast, roast beef, beef Wellington (twice!), rack of lamb, lamb leg, filet mignon roast and goose.  I’m sure I made a turkey once upon a time as well.  I wanted something different!  Short ribs came to mind because, well, they are delicious.  I thought my dad would be coming and I knew he would very much like them.  Alas, he couldn’t make it but the dish still proved a winner – very tasty and something you can make in advance.

I basically made the epicurious.com recipe for Short Ribs Provencale skipping the baby carrots and the olives.  I increased the quantities a bit, using a little over 8lbs to serve 5 adults and 3 children.  I served them over mashed potatoes, a great combination.

The key to these melt-in-your mouth short ribs is nicely browning them before braising them, and then braising them *slowly*.

Wine Braised Short Ribs

  • 8 lbs short ribs
  • sea salt
  • ground black pepper
  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 yellow onions, finely chopped
  • 2 carrots, finely chopped
  • 2 celery ribs, finely chopped
  • 1 head of garlic, each clove individually peeled
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp. herbes de Provence
  • 3 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
  • 3 cups red wine
  • 2 cups beef broth
  • 2 cups canned diced tomatoes in juice, drained
  • 2 bay leaves

Preheat oven to 275F

Trim short ribs of excessive fat.  Dry them and generously season them with salt and pepper.

Heat olive oil in a large oven-safe pot over medium-high heat.  Add several short ribs, making sure to not overcrowd the pan.  Brown on all sides, remove, set aside and repeat with the rest of the short ribs.

Reduce the heat to medium low.  Add the onions, carrots and celery.  Cover and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Stir in the garlic, herbes de Provence and flour and cook for about a minute.  Add the red wine, bring to a boil and scrape off the pieces of meat stuck to the pan.  Add the broth, tomatoes and bay leaves and mix well.  Return the short ribs to the pot, and pour in any juices left on the plate.  Bring to a boil, remove from heat, cover and put in the oven.  Cook for about four hours, stirring from time to time.

Remove the pot from the oven and let cool for about an hour.  Place in the fridge and refrigerate overnight or up to three days.  Remove, uncover and spoon off the layer of fat that has accumulated on the top.  Discard.  Recover the pot and place in a 300F oven until warm.

Remove short ribs from the pot and place in a serving dish.  Keep warm.  Remove bay leaves and discard.  Put pot on the stove, uncovered, and boil over medium-high heat until it reduces somewhat.  Using an immersion blender, puree the sauce until smooth.  Season with salt and pepper and serve with the short ribs.

Marga’s 2011 Christmas Eve Menu

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Curried Butternut Squash Soup – Recipe

Once again, my daughter Mika asked me to make butternut squash soup as part of my Christmas Eve menu.  I had made a version of it for my 2008 Christmas Eve dinner, but I hadn’t been that thrilled with it.  I found a number of well-rated recipes online, but many reviewers suggested that they were quite bland without some doctoring.  So I decided to start with Claire Robinson‘s recipe as a base and add extra seasonings to make it tastier.  The results were quite good, even my husband liked the taste.  I didn’t blend it as much as I should have, however, so parts of it were a bit chunky 🙁  The soup, as I made it, was unfortunately a bit too spicy for Mika, though perfect for the rest of us.  To make it child friendly substitute regular curry powder for the Madras curry powder I used.  I made this soup the day before I served it, it heated up very well.  This recipe should serve 12 adults easily, half it if there are fewer of you.  Serve with sour cream.

Curried Butternut Squash Soup

  • 2 butternut squashes
  • 1/4 cup olive oil + more for brushing
  • salt and pepper
  • 4 shallots, chopped
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh ginger
  • 2 Tbsp. fresh sage, chopped
  • 2 Tbsp. curry powder
  • 2 tsp. Madras curry powder
  • 1 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1/2 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp. allspice
  • 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 2 quarts chicken stock

Directions

Preheat oven to 375F

Cut off tops and bottoms of the squashes.  Cut them in two, lengthwise.  Scoop out and discard the seeds.  Brush with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and put facing down on a baking sheet.  Bake in the oven for 1 hour.  Remove from the oven and carefully turn the squash around, so the flesh faces up.  Let cool and then scoop out the pulp into a bowl, discarding the peels.

Heat 3 Tbsp. of olive oil over medium-high heat in a stock pot.  Add the chopped shallots and the ginger and cook until soft, about 5 minutes.  Add the sage and spices and cook, stirring, for a minute or two.  Add the reserved squash and the stock and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat to low and simmer for at least 10 minutes.  Let cool and then blend with an immersion blender until smooth.  Alternatively, blend in a blender in batches.  Return to the pot and cook for at least five more minutes to let flavors blend.  Season with salt and pepper.

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Marga’s 2011 Christmas Eve Menu