Tag Archives: holiday meals

Christmas Eve Dinner 2021: Moussaka Mediterranean Kitchen + Luke’s Grill

A wonderful Christmas Eve Dinner with some help from Luke’s Grill

This year, probably for the third time in two decades, I didn’t cook Christmas Eve dinner. I’m going through one of my anti-cooking spells, and the thought of making course after course of food I’d barely have time to eat before getting up to prepare the next one just wasn’t appealing. Plus, after the fiasco that was Thanksgiving Dinner, I wasn’t eager for a repeat. Moreover, with another COVID wave hitting us, we had decided that once again it would only be us having dinner.

So, I decided on take out – but what? This shouldn’t have been that hard a question, but I wanted something “special”. That meant something that we didn’t usually get for take out, something that I wouldn’t be able to make easily, something that could be eaten family style and something that would satisfy all our individual food issues. Deciding on a specific cuisine, much less a restaurant, was hard.

Ultimately, I decided upon Greek because it’s homey, it’s somewhat Christmasy and it can be served family style. We actually have two pretty good Greek restaurants in town, and rather than decide between them, we tried them both.

Items from the Zeus Platter from Luke’s Grill.

We ordered the Zeus Platter ($20) from Luke’s Grill. This appetizer combo came with Greek sausage, meatballs, tiropita, spanakopita, dolmades, tzaziki and abundant pieces of pita. Though it was a bit cold by the time we started eating it, I was quite pleased with both the sausages and the meatballs. The tiropita, phyllo dough cooked with herbed cheese, was also quite delicious, and I enjoyed the pita with the tzaziki. Unfortunately, my vegetarian daughter wasn’t in the mood for dolmades or spanakopita, so those went uneaten.

We got all our mains from Moussaka. I particularly enjoyed the Hunkar Beyendi or Sultan’s Favorite ($28), apparently an Ottoman specialty. The dish consists of a smoked eggplant and mozzarella puree topped with braised lamb and tomato sauce. It’s served with a rice/orzo combination. By the time I transferred it to a serving dish, the whole thing was mixed together but that’s how you are supposed to eat it anyway. It was delicious. I’m not a particular fan of eggplant, but it provided an amazing smokiness to the dish. The lamb was tender and flavorful and the whole dish just came together with homey umami. And it was just perfect for Christmas: it has too many elements for me to easily replicate and it’s too expensive for a regular take out meal, and thus provided the “specialness” I wanted from a Christmas Eve meal.

Manti

I was far more disappointed in the manti ($18), pasta filled with spiced beef and supposedly served with a garlic yogurt sauce, brown butter and fresh mint. The little dumplings were tasty, but they were very lightly sauced, and therefore way too dry to really enjoy. They quickly became monotonous. I wouldn’t order them from here again.

Two portions of the combo kebap (one kofta already eaten)

In order to get a good sampling of their offerings, we ordered the combo kebap ($29), which came with a meat skewer, a chicken skewer, a single kofte, a mixture of beef/lamb gyro meat, rice and a salad. The meat skewer was listed as a lamb skewer, but it was actually beef. It was very tender, very nicely spiced and just delicious – often times kebabs are dry, but this was not the case even when the leftovers were reheated.

The same cannot be said for the chicken kebaps. They were very tasty, but dry. Fortunately, the kofta was delicious.

Beef/lamb gyro meat

I’m totally in love with the beef/lamb gyro meat. I couldn’t tell a difference between each slice of meat, so I’m going to guess it was all lamb, but whatever it was was delicious. Also very tender and not dry, and perfectly seasoned.

Chicken shawarma

A dish of chicken shawarma ($20), also served with rice and salad, was equally delicious. Again, they seasoned it perfectly and managed to not make it dry.

Finally, I ordered a felafel wrap ($13) for my vegetarian daughter, and she was happy enough, though wouldn’t elaborate about it.

In all, it was a great meal and I’d order from here again for a special occasion meal.

Gateau Basque, perspective from above

We had two desserts, though we were too full to eat more than one that night, and then well after the meal. Early in my meal planning, when I still thought I’d actually cook Christmas Eve dinner, I had proposed making Gâteau Basque for dessert. My first trip with Mike after we got married was to Spain, where we spent several days in the Basque country. We had enjoyed an amazing gâteau basque at a restaurant in Aoiz, my great-grandparents’ hometown and the memory has lingered with Mike ever since. However, in the decades since, we’ve been unable to find a cake that matched those memories, either at a restaurant or at home. It’d been many years since our last try, so I was game to do it again.

This time I decided on a well reviewed recipe that I found on the internet. I was quite pleased with the flavor, both of the cake and the pastry filling, but I felt that the dough needed more flour – my daughter preferred the soft texture, however. In all, it was good but not as sublime as our memories of that cake in Aoiz.

I also bought a Tres Leches cake from Safeway, a favorite of all of us. I was lucky to get to eat a slice the next day.

Moussaka Mediterranean Kitchen
599 Dutton Ave, San Leandro
‭(510) 850-5020
Closed Mondays

Luke’s Grill
1509 East 14th St, San Leandro
510-614-1010
Closed Sundays

Early Xmas Dinner 2021: Canelones!

For many years, my father and my sister used to come to spend Christmas with us and they’d partake on my multi-course meals. Once my sister got married, however, she started spending Christmas with her in-laws, but still missed my cooking. So for the last few years we’ve been going down south after Christmas and I’d end up making a New Year’s Eve dinner for the whole family. This got disrupted in 2019 when we went abroad that holiday season, and while we had a belated dinner in February 2020 – the last one with my father – I didn’t record it. Then the pandemic came and we stayed home in 2020 but armed with vaccines and home tests, we decided to give it a new try in 2021. Alas, my sister had a trip planned for New Years, so we had our family Christmas dinner early in December. Unlike my disastrous Thanksgiving dinner, this was an overall success.

It wasn’t easy to come up with a menu. My mother has never eaten poultry and is now disgusted by beef. She also says that vegetables make her feel bad – so she mostly just eats pasta. Now, I love pasta as much as the next person, but there is nothing particularly “special” about pasta. Unless, of course, it’s the sort of pasta you never make because it’s too much work. Enter, cannelloni.

I loved cannelloni – canelones, in Spanish – as a child. It was one of the dishes I most often ordered at restaurants. I preferred beef cannelloni, but would accept spinach and cheese cannelloni as well, even though I otherwise would not eat any vegetables. I didn’t even realize there were other types of cannelloni until one meal during a trip to Brazil and Paraguay, back in ’80, when I was 11. For some reason we were having lunch at the restaurant of the Stroessner airport in, I’m assuming, Asunción. Ours was a road trip, so I’m not sure why we ended up in that airport, but we did. I ordered cannelloni, they were ham and cheese. I hated ham – and most other foods, apparently – so I threw a tantrum (maybe a quiet one, I was too shy to make a scene back then) and didn’t eat them. I’m not sure if anyone did. But I did pose pretending them to eat them for the picture. Who knows? Without the picture I might now have remembered the incident – though what made that meal also memorable is that the then-President of Paraguay, the same Alfredo Stroessner for whom the airport had been named, was also having dinner at the restaurant, just a couple of tables over. I knew nothing of politics or the brutality of dictatorships at the time, which is probably a good thing.

My family I at the Stroessner Airport in Paraguay, 1980



As much as I loved cannelloni as a child, I’d only once tried to make them as an adult, over two decades ago. The problem, of course, was the dough. Cannelloni are stuffed pasta rolls which really require fresh pasta. I’ve never made pasta in my life, and I really don’t mind if I die without making it. My memories of making ravioli with my grandmother Zuni are all I need as far as pasta making goes. During my first attempt at making cannelloni, I used lasagna sheets. But these proved too short, and the frilly ending made the cannelloni visually unappealing. It’s a hack, but one that I didn’t thing was worth making.

My idea this time was to actually make them with crepes, another common hack. However my oldest daughter wasn’t keen on the idea. She didn’t think they would be actual cannelloni, and I thought she had a point. That’s when I thought of the Pasta Shop. I had seen their fresh pasta at the Market Hall in Oakland for years and years, and it occurred to me that they might sell pasta sheets as well. A quick online search proved that they did! Indeed, they listed pasta in a huge variety of flavors – when I finally went to buy it they only had egg pasta and spinach, which was fine – I don’t think you can actually taste the pasta when you have both fillings and sauce.

It was particularly difficult figuring out how many canelones I needed to make for my whole family, and how many I could get from a sheet. It turned out that a 6″ x 13″ sheet could be easily cut in 4. The sheets pretty much doubled in size when cooked (boil for 4 minutes for the perfect texture), but the size was good to roll them about 2-3 times over the filling.

Calculate between 2 and 6 cannelloni per person. People who ate soup and appetizer ended up eating 2 or 3, a couple of the guys who skipped everything else ended up eating 5-6. Next time around, I’ll probably just make 4 per person and then add another few just in case.

Note that making cannelloni is a slow process. When I tried to hurry and boil more than 5-6 cut cannelloni sheet at the time, or left them to rest together for too long, they stuck to each other and were ruined when I tried to separate them. The best process is to first cut all the sheets into fourths, and then drop 5-6 sheets into a pot of boiling water one at the time. Boil them for 4 minutes and then transfer them into a bowl of cold water, so they stop cooking. Again, do this one at the time so they don’t stick to each other. Transfer them from this bowl to kitchen towels to dry. You can make each batch one after the other, but make sure you have lots of towels to keep them separate.

At first, I was very ambitious and I thought I’d make a bunch of different fillings and sauces to go with them, but soon after I was daunted by the task and briefly considered just buying ravioli – but given how non-special that would be, I settled back on more streamlined cannelloni. The fillings I ended up making were my traditional ground beef/picadillo filling (the same one I use in empanadas or, with more pasta sauce, as a beef pasta sauce), ham & cheese (a slice of ham and some chunks of fresh mozarella) and spinach & cheese (fresh baby spinach leaves, fresh mozarella or goat cheese and chopped almonds). I made some with just Monterey Jack cheese, as i had some cannelloni sheets left over, but these were not as popular. The other ones were well received, though everyone had different preferences. My brother, for example, loved the ham & cheese ones, and my daughter was not at all fond of the goat cheese ones.

I made some with regular pasta sauce (from a jar) and others with a cheese sauce (bechamel sauce mixed to saturation with grated Parmesan cheese) and, of course, sprinkled parmesan before baking (20 minutes at 400F).

Now that I’ve made them once and I know how well the pasta sheets work, I’m tempted to make them again in the future, probably for a special family meal. Unlike other types of pasta, cannellonis are heavier on filling than pasta, which makes them more acceptable for the diabetics among us.

Anyway, my final menu consisted of:

Salad with Balsamic Vinaigrette

I actually was too tired to prepare this, so my sister in law took over and added some twists of her own.

Mushroom Soup

A favorite frequently included in our holiday menus, a special request from my sister.

Blue Cheese & Caramelized Onion Tart

Another request from my sister which everyone loved, though my oldest daughter would prefer it with a different cheese. I may try it with fresh mozzarella for her next time around.

Canelones!

See above.

Tiramisu

I followed the NYT recipe, which was simple enough but does call for uncooked eggs. I used Argentine ladyfingers, called vainillas, which are easily available at Argentinian and Latin market in LA, but harder to find elsewhere. They were the perfect texture. This was probably the best tiramisu I had in my life, I’m guessing because I was able to control the amount of coffee I used (I used regular coffee, not espresso).

See also: Party & Holiday Recipes

Thanksgiving 2021: A dinner failure

This year, we stayed home for Thanksgiving. That meant that I would be making dinner, and I was just not at all inspired this time around. It took me forever to come up with a menu – I finally settled on a seasonal French-inspired menu – and then I completely failed in its execution. There wasn’t anything wrong with the recipes, several of which I’d cooked before, but my timing was off, dishes were unbalanced and I just couldn’t deliver. Still, I do like to know what I’ve done in previous years, so here is what I cooked.

1 – Canapés

  • Smoked Salmon and Cream Cheese on Crackers
  • Tri-Tip and White Cheddar with Horseradish Cream Crostini
  • Baked Camembert with Honey and Rosemary with crackers

I decided near the last minute to serve a few canapes, as I had invited my friends Lola and Iggy for dinner rather early and I wanted them to have something to eat while I prepared the dinner in the kitchen. I chose things that didn’t require much effort to put together, and they all worked wonderfully.

For the salmon canapés, I simply spread cream cheese on crackers and topped these with slices of refrigerated smoked salmon I got at Safeway. I don’t eat salmon, but everyone liked them. I was inspired by Panera’s steak and white cheddar sandwich for the tri-tip canapé. I had previously toasted some tri-tip in the oven, and I simply made thin slices, which I topped with a slice of white cheddar. I don’t remember what recipe for horseradish cream sauce I used, but there are lots of online and I know I chose one of the simplest ones. It was delicious, and I will be sure to make more of these in the form of sandwiches next time I can get tri-tip on sale. Finally, the baked camembert was just delicious.

2- Roquefort Pear Salad

This turned out to be OK to good. I had made the dressing the day before and I didn’t like it at all, perhaps because I put too much garlic – but it was OK on the salad. My guests did enjoy the pears in particular.

3 – Vegetarian French Onion Soup

This is where things started to go sour. Rather than make a French Onion soup and simply used vegetable broth instead of beef broth, I went with a recipe that enhanced the flavor of the broth with tamari and other seasonings. The results were not tasty. The soup was very intense – though I solved this by adding extra water when I reheated it – and just not that good. Next time, I’ll stick to the traditional recipe or simply serve a different soup altogether.

4- Bourbonnais Chicken with Mustard Sauce

I had made this recipe before and it had been delicious, but this time it just didn’t work. I’d doubled the sauce and vegetables but there were just too many vegetables and they weren’t well integrated with the sauce. I’d made an effort to get organic, free range chicken and somehow it was dryer than the chicken I usually buy. I don’t know, it was fine but not great. I did enjoy the leftovers, however.

Vegan mushroom bourguignon pot pie

I made this for my vegetarian daughter, but it was too alcoholic tasting for her, and the flavors were really not well balanced. Another failure.

Sage Stuffing

I also don’t remember what recipe I used, but it was a pretty standard vegetarian one. It was actually not bad, but I did overcook it so it was dry. Still, my vegetarian daughter liked it

Mashed Potatoes


I’m sad to report that, together with the canapes, the mashed potatoes were everyone’s favorite part of the meal. I’m sad because these were just plain mashed potatoes: yukon gold potatoes boiled and mashed and then mixed with a ton of butter and whipping cream.

5- Tarte Normande

This is a French apple tart with a custard topping. My daughter actually put this together for me while I was taking a nap. The top was very good, but I had messed up the dough when I’d made it and it was way too tough.

See also: Party & Holiday Recipes