Written for Edible Santa Barbara - Winter 2020-21


This is the power of gathering: it inspires us, delightfully, to be more hopeful, more joyful, more thoughtful: in a word, more alive.    Alice Waters 

I celebrated my third Thanksgiving in America by travelling to Napa Valley. With no family in town, and friends otherwise engaged, my then English boyfriend and I had left the hustle and bustle of a hot and dusty Los Angeles in search of autumnal weather and holiday fare. We arrived late on Wednesday afternoon just as the sun was setting over the crimson and ochre colored patchwork carpet of trees and almost dormant vineyards that blanketed the valley floor. Wisps of smoke curled up from chimneys, gossamer strands of mist drifted through the vines, and the air smelled woodsy, earthy and slightly sweet. We stopped by the roadside to take in the view as we crested a rise. It was picture perfect, down to the gratifying crunch of walking in mounds of dried russet hued leaves.

The hotel was equally charming. Our room had a fireplace where logs crackled and sighed satisfyingly in the hearth.  I curled up in front of it with a good book, and relaxed with a glass of an excellent local red wine in hand. This, I thought to myself is what this holiday is all about.

On Thanksgiving Day we went for a long walk bundled up in warm jackets and scarves as the crisp air turned the tips of our ears red. We worked up a hearty appetite for the meal to come. At the appointed hour we walked up to the lavishly decorated dining room, festooned with vine leaves, gourds, horns of plenty, and bushels of apples and pears. The maître d’ led the way, threading a meandering path around large tables where families had gathered en mass, to our lone table for two. I looked around as we took our seats, taking in the multi-generational cacophony that surrounded us. I sensed a pitying glance from an elderly matron seated at the head of a nearby table of sixteen, and felt a slight uneasiness, but couldn’t quite put my finger on what was amiss.

The food arrived. It was excellent, as was the wine, yet that niggling disquiet that had emerged as we sat down grew throughout the meal. We both felt it and tried to ignore what became increasingly obvious, the clamor of laughing families and the familial banter echoing around the room made our two top seem rather lonely and forlorn. Although the setting was, in every sense, sublime, the one missing element, and the one which was most important, was sharing the occasion with those we cherished most. As we scuttled back to our cozy retreat, we mused on this. Our great escape had failed to provide the comfort we sought.

A brief review of the annals of seasonal gatherings throughout history quickly reveals that these occasions are more about those we share these events with, than the food itself. In archeological digs around the world researchers have found evidence of humans celebrating their harvests together for thousands of years. We gather today to give thanks in November, and each family may have its favorite holiday dishes, but are they as good if we cannot make and share them with those we love? I have been pondering this question as we head into the end of year festivities. From Thanksgiving to Hannukah, Kwanza and Christmas, to New Year’s Eve and beyond. How do we celebrate if we cannot gather? Over the last seven months, with the arrival of all that is Covid, everyone has had to adapt to muted celebrations. We have gathered outdoors, had socially distanced picnics, and potlucks in the park. However, with the arrival of more inclement weather we will inevitably withdraw back into the nests that ore our homes, but without the ability to bring our friends with us. How then do we nurture each other?

Like many families, mine is scattered across different countries and many States, spanning a 12-hour time difference. It is unlikely that we will be together for the holidays. Faced with travel and quarantine restrictions we have been working on a solution, and also looking at the opportunity that cooking for fewer people presents.

Have you ever wanted to try a new dish but dismissed it because you were preparing food for sixteen? We are usually around that number for Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. This year we may be four.  This is the occasion to stretch one’s culinary boundaries and delve into something new! Instead of turkey, why not try roasted duck or Cornish hens? What about an everything but the turkey feast, focusing on all the side dishes and making them the focal point? Have you wanted to try food from a different part of the world? Or maybe explore your family’s culinary heritage? This is the one year where we will have the luxury of time.

Of course, there are certain dishes that always have pride of place on most family’s festive dinner tables, usually accompanied by an amusing anecdote or family tale as to how that dish came to be. Much like those whose holiday traditions include a reading of The Night Before Christmas, the guests at my good friends Alan and Harriet’s Thanksgiving gather round the host for a ritual known as “The Drilling of the Mashed Potatoes.” I’ve not witnessed this firsthand, but understand that it is a melodramatic telling of Alan’s first “Chosen Family” Thanksgiving in Isla Vista decades ago, and includes something about a missing potato masher, the ingenuity of friend Chuck Cail and a drill. How then do we share the yearly telling of ‘that’ story if we cannot be in the same room together? Enter modern technology and the now familiar live streaming platform of your choice.

In our house preparations for holiday meals begin early in the morning. We start by making stuffing and cranberry coulis. This year we plan on making them together via Zoom. The timing may have to change a little allowing for different time zones, but with the same ingredients in hand we will still be able to cook together. Our olfactory senses have long memories, and what better way to share a family tradition than by reawakening those tastebuds. Our respective kitchens will be filled with the perfume of grated orange zest, the woodsy sweet aroma of cinnamon, and simmering cranberries plop-popping little bursts of tart-citrusy sauce. By cooking the same dishes together, we will be able to share the day, the simultaneous experience of preparing food and even sampling the same dish. Although our connection will be virtual, our physical senses will still have a shared experience. We can laugh together, give advice about a pie crust, avoiding soggy bottoms, and how to make sure the mashed spuds are well and truly mashed. We will pop in and out of view through our screens, be they via computer, tablet or phone, offering a real time window of our steaming kitchens. The light filtering in will reflect an early morning and late afternoon, some may be in pajamas, others back from an afternoon walk, but most important of all is that we will be together.

Our festive season will be different this year. It is up to us to make the most of the opportunity. Bon Appetit!

Cauliflower Soup with Stilton and Caramelized Pear Relish

Serves 4 people

Olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 medium-sized onion – peeled and finely chopped
2 shallots – peeled and finely chopped
4 sprigs thyme
1 cauliflower – leaves trimmed away and florets separated
1 bay leaf
4 cups vegetable or chicken stock
4 oz stilton.
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons crème fraiche

Pour a little olive oil and the butter into a large saucepan placed over medium heat. Once the butter has melted, add in the onions, shallots and the thyme and cook until the onions are soft and translucent – about 5-7 minutes.

Add in the cauliflower, bay leaf, stock and season with some salt and pepper. Simmer for 20 minutes or until the cauliflower is completely soft.

Remove the bay leaf from the soup, add in the stilton and then process the soup either in a blender or with an immersion blender until the soup is completely smooth. Whisk in the crème fraiche and keep the soup warm until you are ready to serve it.

Serve the soup in warm bowls with a spoonful of the pear relish (see recipe below) in the middle of each bowl.

For the pear relish:

1 pinch saffron
¼ cup dried golden raisins/ cranberries
1 tablespoon butter
2 pears – cored, peeled and chopped
3 tablespoons apple cider
1 tablespoon sugar
2 sprigs lemon thyme
Zest of 1 lemon
1 cinnamon stick
Coarse sea salt
Black pepper

Soak the saffron in a small bowl of hot water with the dried fruit for 10 minutes.

Melt the butter in a medium saucepan and add the pears, sugar, thyme and cinnamon stick. Cook for 5 minutes. Add in the dried fruit and saffron and cook for a further 10 minutes. You should have a soft golden mixture. Season with some coarse salt and pepper.

Roasted Cornish Hens with Mushrooms and a Riesling Sauce

Serves 4 people

1oz butter
Olive oil
8 shallots – peeled and quartered
2 Cornish hens
Salt and pepper
200 ml Riesling
3/4 lb crimini mushrooms – quartered
¼ cup lemon Juice
½ cup Crème fraiche

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Put the butter and a little olive oil into a roasting pan that is large enough to hold the Cornish hens and the mushrooms. Place the pan on the stove top over medium high heat and add in the shallots and cook until just golden. Remove the shallots from the pan. Add the Cornish hens to the same pan and sprinkle them with salt and pepper and cook on all sides until they are golden brown. This will take about 10-15 minutes in all.

Add the wine to the pan along with the shallots. Turn the hens once or twice in the wine and then place the roasting pan in the oven and cook for another 45 - 50 minutes.

While the hens are cooking, place a little butter into a large frying pan placed over medium heat. Add in the mushrooms and sauté until just golden brown. Add the lemon juice and remove from the heat, leaving the mushrooms in the pan.

Once the hens are cooked remove the roasting pan from the oven. Set the hens aside on a plate and keep warm. Place the roasting pan over high heat and reduce the cooking liquid by half, scraping up all the delicious bits at the bottom of the pan. Reduce the heat and stir in the crème fraiche and mushrooms and simmer until heated through.

Cut the Cornish Hens in half and place each half on a warmed plate. Pour some of the Riesling sauce and mushrooms over the Cornish hens and serve at once.

Potato and Celeriac Gratin

Serves 4 people
4 oz crème fraîche
¾ cup cups cream
Salt
Pepper
1 lb potatoes (russets or Yukon golds) — peeled, very thinly sliced on a mandolin
1 lb celeriac (celery root) — peeled, very thinly sliced on a mandolin
2 tablespoons finely chopped chives
3 green onions — finely sliced
2 oz Gruyère cheese — grated
 

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

In a large bowl, whisk together the crème fraîche and cream. Add a good pinch of salt and 5-6 grinds black better and whisk once more.

Add the remaining ingredients to the bowl and mix well. The easiest way to do this is with your hands. It’s a little messy, but fun!

Layer the well-coated potatoes and celeriac slices in a large gratin dish or individual gratins, slightly overlapping them.

Bake for 35-40 minutes or until the vegetables are tender and the top of the gratin is golden brown. Remove from the oven and let rest for 5 minutes before serving.

Roasted Kale, Brussels sprouts, Date and Pecan Salad
Serves 4 people

For the vinaigrette:
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon Dijon or walnut mustard
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

For the vegetables:
2/3 lb Brussels sprouts — sliced
Olive oil
Salt
Black pepper
1 small bunch kale —rinsed, and chopped into 1-inch slices
8 pitted dates — roughly chopped
½ cup pecans — dry roasted for 2 minutes
2 tablespoons finely chopped chives

In a large salad bowl, whisk together the vinaigrette ingredients to form an emulsion.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Place the Brussels sprouts onto a large rimmed sheet pan or into a large shallow baking dish. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with a little salt and 5-6 grinds of pepper. Place in the center of the oven and roast for 10 minutes.

Remove the pan from the oven, add the kale and mix with the Brussels sprouts. Return the pan to the oven and continue roasting for 8 minutes.

Add the roasted vegetables, dates, pecans and chives to the salad bowl and toss well with the vinaigrette.

Pear and Pomegranate Pavlova

Serves 6-8 people

3 egg whites at room temperature
Pinch of salt
6 oz ultra-fine sugar (1 cup plus 2 tablespoons)
1 ½ teaspoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla paste or pure vanilla extract
1 ¼  cups of cream
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon butter
3 pears — peeled, cored and sliced.
1 teaspoon sugar
Seeds of 1 pomegranate 

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.

Draw a 8-inch circle on parchment paper, using a compass or dinner plate. Place the parchment paper on a baking sheet with drawn circle side down.

Using a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt until satiny peaks form. Then beat in the ultra-fine sugar, one tablespoon at a time, until the meringue is stiff and shiny.  Sprinkle the cornstarch, vinegar and vanilla over the whipped egg whites. Fold in lightly using a rubber spatula. 

Mound the meringue mixture onto the parchment paper and spread it to the edge of the circle. Flatten the top and smooth the sides. 

Place the meringue on the bottom rack of the oven and immediately reduce the temperature to 250 degrees. Bake for 1¼ hours.  Turn off the oven. Let the meringue cool with the door slightly ajar. Remove from oven when the meringue has cooled completely.

Whip the cream with the sugar until it forms soft peaks. Top the meringue with whipped cream.

Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the sugar and the pear slices. Cook until golden and caramelized. Let cool in the pan.

When the pear slices are cool, place them on top of the whipped cream. Top with pomegranate seeds.

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