Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Pan-ta Claus

I'm lucky that I'm from a foodie family.  If I wasn't, I don't know how people would stand me at Christmastime.  From preparing and digging into the meals to my kitchen-heavy wish list, the holidays and food traditions are one in the same to me.  This year, as with every one before it, Matt and I drove up straight from my office door to my parent's doorstep in Buckley, Washington.  Well, I guess I didn't have to drive from Portland all those years I was conveniently at home, but since this was my 7th traveling Christmas, it's pretty much ingrained into my mind its semblance as normal.  On Christmas Eve we were headed to my Aunt Shirley's house in Redmond for our customary extended-family gathering.  All the relatives on my mom's side of the family - Grandma, my two aunts and my cousins, rotate around hosting each year as everyone arrives with appetizers.  We always have ten times what our group could possibly eat, but everyone wants to show off their recipe, so it's all okay. 

At Matt's request and my wholehearted agreement, we were bringing the stuffed jalapeno poppers we've been perfecting since summer.  I trusted my mom's kitchen to have the pan and mixing bowl we'd need, and I figured we could just buy the ingredients at Fred Meyer once we were up there.  They have jalapenos in Washington, after all.  Going to the store on Christmas Eve didn't turn out to be too much of a disaster - Matt needed a new shirt to wear, and I got re-acquanted to the rich redneck culture that so inspired me to move on and out in the first place.  Also, I discovered a sick scheme that they're perpetrating in the specialty cheese case.  I needed a good sharp cheddar, and since we came in by the deli, I grabbed a hunk of Tillamook Extra-Sharp Vintage.  $5.99 for 6-ish ounces, but whatever.  When we round about to the prepackaged meat and cheese area, over by dairy where they keep the big blocks of cheese and shingle slices, I find the same exact cheese for $2.99 in a 10 oz pack.  WTF!?  You think you can fool people with your "fancy" island cheese case, Fred Meyer?  Well, Mozzarella Fresca isn't exactly gourmet, and you stick Rondele in there, so until I see a wheel of Seastack, your special cheese ain't all that. 

Matt made sure I wore my mom's fancy zebra-striped kitchen gloves to protect against the capcacin in the peppers, which will get in and cause a burning, unyielding tingle in your fingers (and anything you touch... ANYTHING) for at least a day.  That is the peril of the pepper.  I've learned much since I was scraping these things out with my fingernails six months ago.  The filling is a mix of cream cheese, that almost-rip-off cheddar, crisp-cooked bacon, Penzey's Arizona Dreaming seasoning (very important!), green onions and barbecue sauce.  I like to use Sweet Baby Ray's, but as long as it's not that really terrible Kraft stuff that's like a dollar a bottle, it'll probably be good.  In the oven, they cook low (275) and slow (about an hour) so that the peppers gently soften up and the filling slowly meld into the crevices and slightly crust on top. 

I was feeling quite fancy until I saw my mom's pumpkin pie.  Look at this thing!  It's perfectly gorgeous.  It could be on the cover of Martha Stewart, complete with reindeer stencil download on the website.  I'll just never quite be at my mom's level of amazing.  I guess it gives me something to always try for, and look forward to if nothing else. 

When we arrived at my aunt's house, everyone was busy rotating around the ovens and putting the final touches on their features.  My cousin Nicole brought delicious P.F. Chang's-style chicken lettuce wraps, my Aunt Donna didn't disappoint with her customary stuffed mushrooms, my mom brought a great veggie pizza from the coveted Pampered Chef recipe, and Aunt Shirley made Coconut Chicken with Cilantro Sauce so good that I'm going to have to support the Junior League of Seattle for the recipe.  I guess that's a good thing.  Grandma brought the deviled eggs, my kryptonite.  Luckily I was able to down about half the plate by stealthily sitting down next to the platter.  It's a nice night to catch up with people I may not have seen all year, with a tradition that goes back as far as I can remember.  Christmas Eve without ten billion appetizers just wouldn't be right. 

So, something you should know about me I guess... I believed in Santa til I was 12.  I was the oldest child!  My dad was the Auburn post office Santa, who wrote letters back to kids from the North Pole!  "Why didn't your friends tell you?"  Matt, the one who stopped at 6 or 7, asks.  I don't answer, I glare.  I was a little sheltered, okay?  I admit it.  I may have given up the belief that someone other than my mom and dad were adding the surprise extra presents and downing the cookies and milk, but that anticipation and excitement isn't something I've been able to shake, even as I slip down the wrong side of twenty.  I try to sleep, I really do.  After a couple glasses of rose I did end up falling asleep, but I woke up at 6:30 am and never recovered.  I tried rallying my little brother and sister, but Annie was up until 3 making a present for her boyfriend and Zach just wasn't into being awake.  I surfed TMZ, looked at some lolcatz, tried to fall back asleep.  Finally people started shaking themselves from sleep around 8, with Matt the last one to stumble out of bed.  He hasn't quite mastered the whole Christmas morning thing yet.  I'm working on him. 

When we were little, we used to have to wait, stockings hot in our hands, at the top of the stairs until Mom and Dad gave us the go-ahead to come down and start Christmas.  Dad would subtly torture us by starting the coffee machine while Mom made sure everything was in order (bikes and dollhouses properly wrapped in those big present bags, that kind of thing).  Somehow we've lapsed out of this now that our youngest is starting college and I've got a husband who makes fun of me this ENTIRE TIME for acting like I'm ten. 

As we race down the flight of stairs and into our spots around the tree, Mom slips another tradition into the oven - Christmas morning breakfast.  It's a meal that starts several weeks before, when she starts scouring around for recipes for this year's feast.  It's always a little different, usually savory.  We've had a couple years with cinnamon rolls or french toast strata things, but we're really a eggs and bacon loving bunch.  With Matt in the mix now, it's even better.  Nobody loves breakfast as much as Matt, and it's fun to figure out what new recipe is going to knock his socks off this year. 

Our stockings were both full of snacky wonderfulness - Penzey's Mexican vanilla and Theo Peppermint Chocolate bar for me, gourmet beef jerky and Harry & David yogurt pretzels for Matt.  After everyone empties their stocking - tastefully, of course, one thing at a time savored like a foie gras bon bon, we hand out presents and circle around, one present opened on each pass. 

On my first turn, I picked up a present from Matt.  His gifts were distinguishable by the fact that they had no tags or bows, and the wrap job was a little less than hospital-corner-perfect.  You can tell a lot by looking at the wrapping.  I knew for sure at our office Secret Santa exchange that Scott Cannon had drawn my name because he used a post-it note as a gift tag.  Girls always have tags and bows.  Anyway.  The paper peeled away to reveal a clean, neat white box with simple gray lettering.  ALL-CLAD!!!!!!  The Pans of the Gods!  A 10" stainless steel fry pan,  standard-issue in the Iron Chef kitchen and Ina's barn-house-Hamptons thing.  I just seared pork chops in it last night and even though I was just going to brush them with some mustard on the way into the oven for a roast, the shiny pan that had collected a crunchy collection of cooked-on bits, drug me down and begged me to make a pan sauce.  So I did.  And it was delicious.  I only had a couple pieces of All-Clad in my kitchen beforehand:  a roasting pan that was a wedding gift, a tiny saucepan that was also a wedding gift, a deep saute pan we bought with the Macy's rewards points from our wedding registry, and a nonstick pan I decided to get with my work bonus.  Obviously there has been a bit of a shortage since we got married. 

As the circle kept coming back to me, my All-Clad collection kept growing, until I was buried in an entire ten-piece set.  I didn't think I'd have these precious gems in my cabinets until I had a New York Times Notable Book on my bookshelf (apparently I only needed to have someone else's NYT book in my shelf).  Having Matt decide, free of ultimatums or excessive begging, that he was going to go and get these for me felt like the ultimate acceptance and validation of my crazy obsession/hobby.  He's saying, you're good at this and I love what you do, here are the tools you need to make the most of it.  From a practical guy, that is something.  Screw diamonds. 

By the time the last presents were opened, we had Breakfast Enchiladas beeping at us.  What better way to slide into the post-holiday anti-climax than a good breakfast?  It can't hurt, at least.  I forgot to take a pre-picture, and this was all that was left of it.  Trust me, it was a year to remember.  Serve with embarrassing stories about years past, schemes to set up new toys and a resolution to eat healthier tomorrow.  You promise.

Breakfast Enchiladas
1 lb package hot ground pork sausage
2 tbsp butter
4 green onions, thinly sliced
2 tbsp chopped fresh cilantro
14 large eggs, beaten
3/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
Cheese Sauce
8 flour tortillas
1 cup shredded monterey jack cheese with jalapenos  (mom actually uses Cougar Gold, the best cheese for delicious casseroles ever cheddared).

Cook sausage in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, stirring until sausage crumbles and is longer pink.  Remove from pan; drain well, pressing between paper towels.

Melt butter in a large nonstick stillet over medium heat.  Add green onions and cilantro, and saute 1 minute.  Add eggs, salt, pepper and cook, without stirring, until eggs begin to set on botom.  Draw a spatula across bottom of pan to form large curds.  Continue to cook until eggs are thickened still moist; do not stir constantly.  Remove from heat, and gently fold in 1 1/2 cups cheese sauce and sausage.

Spoon about 1/3 cup egg mixture down the center of each flour tortilla; roll up.  Place, seam side down, in a lightly greased 9x13 baking dish.  Pour remaining cheese sauce evenly over tortillas; sprinkle evenly with monterey cheese. 

Bake at 350 for 30 minutes or until sauce is bubbly.  Serve with desired toppings like sliced tomatoes, sliced cilantro and sliced jalapeno peppers.

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