Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Our Christmas Eve Tradition

Christmas Eve has finally arrived. Every year, T1 and I pull out all the stops, cook all day and eat into the night. It started as a way to treat ourselves and give us a break from holding back on getting the things we'd like to eat the rest of the year. It's our one day of truly unabashed gluttony. We both look forward to it every year.

The tradition usually begins on the day before Christmas Eve. I head out early to all my favorite markets with an ice chest and a stack of reusable shopping bags in tow to see what looks good. As the day progresses I quickly accumulate the makings for a day of indulgence. I'll gravitate towards items I too often walk past; ikura caviar, premium grade hamachi, U15 colossal shrimp (both sounding and looking like miniature submarines), maybe some nice cheeses we haven't yet tried, if there's something I've been thinking about, this is the day to splurge and get it. This year, I hit Santa Monica Seafood, Mitsuwa Market, Whole Foods and Trader Joe's with very good results.

Over the course of the year, I take mental note of recipes I'd like to try and food I've had in restaurants that might be worth recreating and culinary experiments I'd like to conduct. I usually leave the house with a very loose shopping list, opting instead to see where the markets take me, Anything that happens to look fresh, in season and tasty may get picked up along the way. I'll see something and think, "that'll be good prepared in such and such a way" or "I haven't had that in a while". The most important thing is to keep things casual, fun and stress free. Most dishes only require 15 to 30 minutes prep and cook time.

This year we managed to assemble a nice collection of tasty tidbits. I really enjoy this way of eating because you get a bunch of flavor in each new dish and surprisingly, if you pace yourself, you can avoid getting too full too fast.

Colossal Shrimp Croissants.

First up, colossal shrimp croissants. If you happen to be ambitious, you could roll out your own croissant pastry dough, but in keeping with the stress free theme, I use the instant refrigerated variety. Clean and dry the shrimp, roll them up in dough, pop'em in the oven for 12 minutes, done.

Devils on Horseback
(Feta Stuffed Medjool Dates Wrapped in Prociutto)

Next in line is a keeper recipe inspired by the Two Fat Ladies. I remember seeing a version of this hors d'oeurve on their BBC/PBS program years ago, only their recipe called for chicken liver stuffed dried prunes wrapped in bacon. The recipe for this variation seems to be fairly common but I don't remember where I saw it first.

Devils on Horseback

(Wielding swords)

Pit some nice fat dates, stuff them with creamy feta and wrap them with prociutto (10 minutes), stick a pick in to hold them together, dust them with a little ground nutmeg (my personal contribution to the recipe) and stick them under the broiler (5 minutes). After 15 minutes of effort, you'll be rewarded with little flavor bombs; sugary, salty, creamy and smokey all at the same time.

Caper and Egg Salad in Twice Baked New Potato Cups

This is just a play on potato egg salad, fancied up a bit for a party. When thinking of things to make, I always return to ingredients that can be natural, edible, single serving containers; basically, anything that can serve as a cup, a scoop or a wrapper. In years past, I've used endive, little stuffed tomatoes, hollowed out cucumbers, chips and crackers.

Caper and Egg Salad in Twice Baked New Potato Cups

For these bite size potato salad versions, I baked some red-skinned new potatoes until done and let them cool down. Next I cut them in half and placed them cut side down on a baking sheet drizzled with olive oil to crisp up. The filling is just an egg salad with capers mixed through. For the bling factor, each was topped with some ikura salmon caviar.

Bloody Mary Aspic

I can't remember where the inspiration for this dish came from. I remember thinking how nice sections of little tomatoes would look, suspended in a gelatin. Tomatoes made me think of Bloody Mary's and gelatin reminded me of Jello shooters. A Bloody Mary Aspic seemed like a natural. I haven't had much experience cooking with gelatin other than the J-E-L-L-O variety. I knew pineapple juice is too acidic to set up properly in a gelatin, would tomato juice react similarly? How would the vodka in the Bloody Mary react? After Googling around for info on the matter I actually found a few recipes for Bloody Mary Aspic. Dang! There goes my points for originality.

To a can of V8 vegetable juice, I added a dash of Worcestershire sauce, some Tabasco, a couple of grinds of black pepper, a squeeze of lime juice and a good shot of Absolut. Next, I took a rectangular storage container and greased it up and layered whole little grape tomatoes in neat rows. Gelatin was dissolved per the packages directions, the Bloody Mary was stirred in and the mixture was poured over the grape tomatoes. The container was place in the fridge for three hours to set up.

At the end of three hours, the container was removed and dipped in a bowl of warm water to help release the aspic. The aspic was sliced (revealing those tomato sections I envisioned) and served on a celery salad dressed with lime juice and olive oil.

It worked. It tasted just like a Bloody Mary in Jello form. Maybe next year I'll have to try a Mojito Jelly with a fruit salad. How about a Black Russian gelatin over vanilla ice cream for desert? Definitely worth further experimentation.

Hamachi Sashimi with Jalapeno and Ponzu

Earlier in this post, I mentioned keeping track of dishes I've had in restaurants worth trying to recreate. This is one such dish. Earlier in the year, I had dinner at Nobu on La Cienega. One of the dishes we ordered was Nobu's "new style" yellowtail sashimi with jalapeno. It was excellent. The Jalapeno provides just a little bite and the tartness of the astringent ponzu balances the richness of the fatty yellowtail. Nobu knows his flavor pairing well.

This is my attempt at this dish and although nowhere as elegant in presentation as Nobu's, I think at least captured some of the key flavors.

Hamachi Sashimi with Jalapeno and Ponzu

At this point, we took a break for an hour or so just to kick back even though I was still having way too much fun in the kitchen. It's nice not to be on a schedule and just eat when we're hungry.

I was feeling like something with a bit of crunch so we resumed with crispy fried wonton. I folded a few in the traditional style and thought I'd be creative and made a few more by gathering the wrappers into a bundle and tying them off with some blanched green onion. The filling was ground pork, minced shrimp, some minced water chestnuts and green onions, a dash of sesame oil and fish sauce, a little white pepper and just a pinch of sugar. They came out looking like tri-cornered pirate hats and pouches presumably filled with treasure. We joked about these being called just that on some fancy menu somewhere.

Crispy Fried Wonton

Although we were starting to wind down, I still had a few things in the fridge I wanted to use. This last dish is spicy wasabi tuna on senbei rice crackers with wasabi tobiko.

Spicy Wasabi Tuna on Senbei Rice Crackers with Wasabi Tobiko

I picked up the negitoro (chopped toro tuna belly) from Mitsuwa market. All I had to do was mix it with a little mayo, wasabi, wasabi tobiko and green onion and spread it on some rice crackers. It was a nice end to the day of eating. Clean tasting, cool and light, not to mention as easy to prepare as spreading butter on a cracker but with tons more flavor.

Spicy Little Wasabi Tobiko

All in all, I'd say this year was a success. There's no limit to the decadence you can achieve at home when you start out with the freshest of ingredients and a little imagination. With the fridge still fully stocked, there will definitely be a few more days of good food to come but for today, we were satisfied. I can't wait to see what next year brings.

1 comment:

The Death Metal Soccer Coach said...

The ahi on senbei is a BRILLIANT idea! Everything looks awesome!!