Monthly ArchiveJanuary 2012
Seasonal Cooking 04 Jan 2012 09:21 pm
Living in New York gives you a sense of constant access. There’s always something open, so you always assume you can find what you want whenever you want it. In other cities you wake up to the reality that in most places markets close for the holidays. This awakening happened to me last week as I drove around my home town, searching for a grocery store open for business on Christmas morning.
Our official Christmas dinner would be on the 26th, when my brothers returned from visiting with their in-laws, but I’d planned a Christmas day mini-feast for my mom and dad and me. I’d bought a plump ‘Amish’ chicken from a local butcher shop, and took stock of what was on hand in my mom’s cupboard: potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, spaghetti squash. But about the details of my menu I dawdled. “I’ll just run to the grocery store in the morning to get what I need” I thought.
When I got up on Christmas morning I made a quick list, just a few items to fancy things up: some fresh herbs to stuff inside the chicken; some mushrooms to sauté with the spaghetti squash; chicken stock for extra gravy; a green veggie for an additional side dish.I hopped in my car and headed for the store. But every supermarket was surrounded by a vast, empty expanse of parking lot. My errand was in vain. I was incensed. I just couldn’t comprehend that there was nowhere to get my hands on some fresh parsley.
I still needed to get dinner on the table though, so I calmed myself down and got to work. And I realized pretty quickly that a dinner made from what I had on hand was going to turn out just fine. This was, after all, the Midwest. No one was going to care if the roasted chicken wasn’t thyme-scented.
There was milk and butter to make the mashed potatoes creamy. There was brown sugar, butter and flour for a tasty, streusel topping for the sweet potatoes (made from this excellent Epicurious recipe). Without mushrooms, I turned to a trick my girlfriend taught me to give the spaghetti squash a boost: slowly caramelized onions. I found carrots and maple syrup in the fridge and made glazed carrots. There was plenty of gravy for the three of us from the pan drippings augmented with a splash of the potato water. I had homemade applesauce I’d brought from home and sourdough bread from my Brooklyn neighborhood. And to keep true to my Mennonite roots I made a relish tray from the Amish cheese and sweet pickles my mom had on hand for the next day’s big feast. For dessert there were Christmas cookies. Mini Christmas Dinner was a robust, simple, homey success.
And what’s more, since I didn’t have herbs to wash or mushrooms to slice or any of my other fancy extra touches to deal with, dinner was simpler, more manageable, and made it to the table on time (well, the chicken roasted a little slower than expected, but that’s a different story). The relative simplicity of the meal meant fewer dishes, lowered stress, and a reliable serving time. And it really didn’t short-change the flavor of the meal. It’s my culinary lesson for the new year: sometimes simple is the way to go.