a Christmas well spent

It’s the 25th of December and I’m not in Winnipeg. I’m not even in Canada. I’m in Massachusetts, a state I’ve never visited and still need help spelling. Perched on the edge of the Berkshires, a small range of hills in New England, Mark and I are spending our first Christmas ever “just us.” Each of us had previously spent only one Christmas away, so we’re not exactly practiced in family-free holidays.

Risotto with mini Brussels sprouts, Vermont sausage and blue cheese

As I reflect on our time so far, I must say that it has been great. We’ve stayed up and slept late, watched movies and meandered around pretty towns. We’ve visited small-town bookstores, cafes, and gourmet food shops. We’ve sipped eggnog at 2 am while stringing popcorn for our “tree” (a fake plant in the hotel room).

P.E.I. mussels with white wine, garlic and butter; salad with pecans, blue cheese and pears; Hob Nob Pinot Noir.

This Christmas will be memorable for many reasons: the quiet, the togetherness, and of course, the food. My mom’s (and mom-in-law’s) food this has not even paralleled. But it has been ours.  We’ve dined out on fancy fare and stayed in to cobble together what we can on a tiny electric range.

This smorgasbord post is not meant to provide any inspiring holiday dishes, but to help me remember what we ate on this first Christmas—gathered around a cheap pine table, happy, but yet so far from home.

George DuBoeuf 5$ Beaujolais

Above there are pictures of our first few meals in our unit: Risotto (our favorite throw-together meal) with mini Brussels sprouts, Vermont sausages and fantastic blue cheese. We also managed to steam 2 lbs of mussels in the small saucepan that came in our kitchen—a tasty concoction with its garlic and white wine broth, pear and pecan salad, and local bread. Most of these two meals were procured at Guido’s, a helpful and welcoming gourmet grocer in nearby Pittsfield.

Our first meal out (after a chilly day spent walking and browsing) was at Fin Sushi in Lenox. Our expectations were high, as the restaurant had been featured by a prominent seafood writer in The Atlantic. Our appetizer was pleasing: three large prawns stretched out on skewers and wrapped in what seemed like thin tempura sheets. The accompanying sweet chili dipping sauce was delicious, if not particularly unique. Our Fire Dragon roll featured bbq’d eel, cucumber, and avocado, and was topped with perfectly-done torched salmon sashimi. I admired the addition of pea shoots in our Crispy Yellow Tail rolls, but overall, Fin was more “standard sushi” than life changing. Maybe the more sushi one eats, the harder one is to please.

Crispy shrimp appetizer at Fin Sushi, Lenox, M.A.

Dinner for two: Crispy Yellow Tail and Fire Dragon rolls

We saved our special meal out for Christmas Eve, and taking the advice of our mussel-monger reserved a table for two at Perigee in South Lee, M.A. The contemporary, mid-scale restaurant is only five weeks old and boasts “Berkshire cuisine.” We settled on two bowls of their French Onion Soup (made with Berkshire Brewing Co. porter beer–good, but not as good as my Mom’s!), an order of their crab cakes (delicious), and two plates of the Juniper-scented Venison Osso Buco.

I was a bit worried when the main courses arrived looking more like country beef stews than something a fine restaurant might serve. But once I dug into the first shank and the meat melted off the bone into its moat of lightly juniper-scented stew, I was changed. Once we were given our marrow spoons, I proceeded to dig into the bone, excavating every last morsel of fatty, earthy-sweet tissue. Their wine recommendation—Château Fleur Badon St. Emilion (a Bordeaux)—was juicy and bright, but a too light to keep up with the heavy texture of the venison. Service was sufficiently cordial, but a bit awkward and uneducated. (What kind of server uses a plastic rabbit-ears corkscrew anymore?)

new england crab cakes starter

venison osso bucco with root vegetables

the menu at Perigee

Never a fan of the ubiquitous dessert tray that our server proffered, we headed back to Lee to try out Chez Nous. Their offerings were much more appealing, and we settled on a Blondie sundae with sea-salted caramel, rum-soaked raisins and Tahitian vanilla ice cream. Second in line was a chocolate-hazelnut Yule Log rolled in ganache and adorned with “traditional garnishes,” including a meringue-turned-toadstool and candied orange peel.

They were the perfect hits of sweetness to keep us up through the gorgeous service at St. Stephen’s Episcopal in Pittsfield.

After this, I could forever renounce the Brownie

the Yule Log

Today, after a luxurious night’s sleep, we feasted on eggnog-spiked apple-bread French toast and those same Vermont sausages. With apologies to my brother-in-law (whose eggnog scrambled eggs I apparently rebuffed last year), we were delighted by the leftover egg-and-nog batter we scrambled up in the pan. For dinner, we sauteed turkey livers with loads of red-wine caramelized onions. Later tonight if I’m missing home too much, at least I’ll have my Ward family nuts n’ bolts to offer solace.

And while I’m sorry that I haven’t been sharing many recipes as of late, I have been enjoying tracing this shifting life of mine, and tracking the noshes and nibbles that keep bringing me such delight.

“And they all went to bed tired and happy.” – line from my favorite childhood Christmas story

pumpkin puddin’ pie

Nation, I know you’re stuffed. But you didn’t think all I was going to say about Thanksgiving was drunken cranberry sauce, did you? Oh no. Besides, in Canada, we eat this stuff right through Christmas.

Yet another winner from the good (ahem, OCD) folks at Cook’s Illustrated, this is pumpkin pie as if it’s gone through all the rounds of America’s Next Top Model. Only it’s pie—and so much better for the soul. 

I never really thought there was much to mess with when it came to pumpkin pie. Take a recipe off the back of the can and you’ve got yourself a winner. But in the words of one of my editors, there’s always room to make good better. 

Soft and smooth as pudding, there’s ne’er a curdled spot of pumpkin in this baby. With the perfect shade of pumpkin-orange throughout, this pie doesn’t look like it’s spent too much time in a tanning booth either.  

As I read through Cooks Illustrated’s version of the classic, I decided to heed most of their advice. Following those those test kitchen folks’ advice is like becoming a teenager and learning that some rules are made to push. Take, for example, the following:

Silly Rule #1) Straining the filling through a fine mesh strainer. Yeah, right. (My friend Aaron, my favorite Cook’s Illustrated mocker, joked that he was surprised they didn’t want you to strain them through a series of mesh strainers, graduating in fineness. Borrowing a tip from his wife, I put my hand-held blender to work where the old strainer once ruled.)

Silly Rule #2) Using 3 eggs PLUS 2 more egg yolks? Um, since when did I not need my arteries?

Other than that I followed the recipe verbatim, except for this one not-so-secret ingredient I would now like to share with you. The story goes a little something like this:

Last year I was making my first ever pumpkin pie for our first American Thanksgiving when I discovered I didn’t have any evaporated milk. Gosh! Darn it! Whatever would I do? Neither of us felt like leaving the house, and as I pawed through my fridge for a reasonable facsimilie, there it was, smiling back at me: a carton of premium, thick-as-molasses eggnog. 

With my deepest apologies to evaporated milk. As much as I loved you, something taller, darker, and more handsome came a knockin’ at my oven door. And let me tell you, things have never been so hot as this here pie. 

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