Our whirlwind trip to the Bay Area left us with no time to ourselves. Our first night there, we went into the city to pick my mom up from work, then to a really quick dinner (the restaurant we went to, Fish, closes at 8:30). And then the boy, my mom, and I sat around the kitchen table to discuss menus and grocery lists until the wee hours of the morning (with my dad watching us with a mix of interest and amusement on how we were going to "deal" with my mom). We discussed the pros and cons of everything, and I made a plan of action; and when it was all said and done, I told my mom that if she wanted to vary anything on the menu that she would have to discuss it with her project team (us) and we would agree (as a team and also because we were the stakeholders) to veto it or move forward with the change.
okay - I can already hear you - this tactic seems a little harsh, but my mom needs to be dealt with this way because otherwise we would have had two meat courses, 9 different appetizers, 14 different veggies, and 5 desserts - for 7 people. my mom doesn't plan a thing, and Dad had asked us to take over or we wouldnt eat Christmas Eve dinner until midnight.
Mom didn't like this plan of action too much; and she didn't take us seriously until the next day when we were at our third grocery store of the day and she was putting radishes in a produce bag. the boy and I zoomed in on her.
"What are those for? they're not on the grocery list".
"Do not worry about it".
"I will make a radish gratin".
"For what? for when? i've never had a radish gratin, never even heard of it. Did you just make this up?"
"Oh, you are annoying me. Tu m'énnerves. People will love it".
We let that slide and I didn't bring it up again. She bought the radishes, which sat in a bowl on the kitchen counter, unused.
Then was her mad search for parmesan cheese. At our fourth grocery store, she was busy talking to herself about the merits of paying 5 bucks extra for imported parmegiano versus some locally made product. Parmesan wasn't on the list either. She waved us away impatiently.
So, on Christmas Eve, we went to 4 grocery stores (one of them twice, so make that 5). we went to the smallest Whole Foods i'd ever been in, so wee that the boy and I dubbed it "Whole Shed" . The Whole Shed parking lot had valet parking - California!** and by the time we got back to my parents house after dealing with my mom all morning, I thought the boy was going to have a coronary. when we arrived back at the house, my father was surprised that we hadnt taken long to do the shopping (for the record - it took hours. but it was hours less than my mom normally takes). Now - the boy and I like grocery shopping. I know people who can't stand it, but normally I like to take my time shopping around for the food i'm going to put in my body. HOWEVER - Christmas Eve is not the time to leisurely stroll through the Safeway, even if you wanted to, because it was so packed full of people.
So when we got home, we made ourselves a couple of drinky drinks, rolled up our sleeves, and started to work. Once we got home, once the cooking and chopping and prepping started, we got along famously. We harmoniously cooked for 5 hours straight.
So what did we have?
For appetizers, we had Maryland-style crab cakes, which (according to the boy and I) are the only crab cake worth having, along with a spicy rémoulade. we also had two different types of marinated shrimp (we had only planned on one, but Mom was insistant - and after a glass of champagne the project manager in me just let it go). we had some foie gras Mom had smuggled back from France, along with some thinly sliced and toasted Acme baguette (in my opinion, humble as it may be, Acme makes the best bread in the Bay Area). we also had some smoked salmon, but I don't think we remembered to put that out until the next day. Marinated scallops wrapped in bacon. I know we had one other hors d'oeuvre that wasn't seafood related, but for the life of me I can't remember what it was.
For the meal, we had a salad comprised of baby greens, grapefruit sections, toasted almonds, and dried cherries along with a warm grapefruit and shallot vinaigrette (i'll post this recipe later for those who want it - it's at home and i'm not). Emeril's standing rib roast; twice-baked potatoes (made with a container of Boursin! you laugh, but they were good); green beans sauéed with bacon.
For dessert, my mom made a Tarte Tatin, and I made a chocolate Buche de Noël (yule log). Mom originally wanted a chestnut-flavored one, and I am rather fond of that myself; but I know from experience that the rest of the family isn't keen on it, so I made Gaston Lenotre's chocolate one from Faites Votre Patisserie (oh I wish I owned that book! I have an English-language version I bought off of Amazon's used books, but my mom has Lenotre's whole series). The recipe is so simple, it's stupid. Basically: a chocolate genoise, baked and cooled then painted with a rum simple syrup and rolled up with chocolate mousse (then chilled for a bit).
I cut off one end on the bias and used that as the stump, painted mousse around the outside, raked a fork through it and topped it with powdered sugar run through a sieve. This is only the second time i've made a yule log - the first one was disastrous. It was also for a Christmas Eve dinner at my parents house about 14 years ago, and I made a chocolate buttercream for the filling and frosting. However, I made the buttercream far too thin and the whole thing ran out all over the place. Lenotre's version is much more user-friendly. My dad said it was the best buche he'd ever eaten; my mom said she prefered it made with buttercream, and she would have prefered a white genoise, but all in all it wasn't bad. i'm definitely adding this one to my repertoire.
The next day, we all woke up with hangovers. Since it was just going to be us four for dinner (our guests from the night before left that morning to visit other relatives), we totally relaxed on the schedule.
On the menu for Christmas day was Duck à l'Orange (from the excellent Cook's Illustrated Chicken cookbook, which we'd brought with us from home), mashed sweet potatoes (with not too much other sweet stuff added - this went really well with the duck), endive salad, roasted carrots with tarragon, and the leftover appetizers from the night before. My mom took the night off from cooking, and she seemed to be impressed at my ability to cook duck (my first attempt at cooking duck). my only problem was that the orange sauce didn't get as thick as i'd have prefered, but the flavor was really excellent.
After I hauled the duck out of the oven, I poured all the duck fat out of the roasting pan and made my dad promise to freeze it for another use. I would have loved to take it back with us, but I could only imagine the interior of my suitcase and all of my belongings coated with grease and me being unable to ever get it out. While we were cooking, my mom got on the phone to all of her relatives and told them that I missed my calling in life, that I ought to have gone to culinary school when I was 20, etc etc (this is the highest praise i've ever received from her).
And the next day, 6 am, we left.
The problem with being married to a chef (and not being a bad cook myself) is that my family thinks we eat like this all of the time. A couple of days later, after we got home, while on the phone with my Dad, he told me to tell the boy to leave the cooking at his restaurant, because he's "alarmed at how much weight you have gained these past few years and you're getting fat".
Up until I was 30, when I lived in Savannah and was broke and ate beans and rice all the time and rode a bicycle everywhere because I didnt have a car (and this is the only sane way to get around Savannah), I was a size 4. now that i'm pushing 40, i'm a size 8. I am healthy. i don't eat festive and fattening food all of the time; in fact my regular diet is comprised of a lot of fish and salad. I was really irritated that my parents focused solely on their illusion that i'm overweight and not on the fact that the boy and I are really happy (compared to some other couples in our family), and that we were all together for Christmas. next year, we're skipping California and going back to our usual just-the-two-of us crab cakes and caesar salad for Christmas eve dinner. Okay, I feel better now that i've let that out, and I won't bring it up again. but man, did that ever piss me off.
** This made me think of Bruce Willis in the immortal Die Hard when he arrives at LAX , shakes his head and exclaims, "California!" at the super-blond-super-tan couple embracing.