Friday, December 29, 2017

Christmas Eve nachos

Here is my favorite Christmas memory: I was 20 years old and home in Haines, Alaska, on break from college in So Cal. Our family tradition is attending the Presbyterian Christmas Eve candlelight service. It attracts quite a holiday crowd and is a great chance to see everyone who is visiting. As a college student, it was an opportunity to sit with my childhood friends, all of whom were spread out around the US. With my family, it was a chance to connect over a well-loved tradition. As we funneled into the sanctuary, we picked up a service program and small white candle punched through a heavy paper round. The paper round serves as a drip protector for the candle wax. The service can vary from year to year in the opening carols and text of the message but it always ends the same: the congregation lights their candles, starting from the front of the church, passing the flame to the neighbors in the pew and then the church overhead lights are extinguished and we all sing "Silent Night." This moment feels the most like Christmas to me- the sound of our voices swelling to the music and the glow of candlelight.

This particular year I was sitting with my friends and two sisters. As one does, we had been a little jokey and teasing to each other through the service but nothing too disruptive. Reliving childhood antics, we used our hands to warm the bottom end of our candles to shape the wax into hooks or small twists- an activity that entertained us through many a childhood Christmas Eve service. I never fail to be amazed that everyone who walks in the door is given a candle- even kids. In a residential setting I would never give a five year old an open flame and then ask them to sit still for eight minutes, but it is such a sacred activity that I think we collectively overlook the logic of it.
This year felt special. I was engaged and this would be my last Christmas home with my family as a single person. In this same church, in just six short months, I would walk down the aisle. My friends and sisters, in dusty pastel dresses and dyed to match pumps, would stand up with me.

As we neared the end of the service, the interior lights were turned off and at first, the room was dark, but the candlelight glow increased as more candles were lit. We were sitting in a row of chairs at the back of the room, in the overflow section. Momentarily, there was a hush through the group and then the congregation stood and began to sing "Silent Night, Holy Night" led by a lone piano accompaniment. I believe somewhere around the third verse, in the space where we all paused for breath between the lines "Silent Night, Holy Night" and "Son of God loves pure light", my younger sisters voice rang out clearly across the silence, an emphatic "SHIT!" Turns out the paper round "drip protector" had not quite done it's job and, at just the right moment, her drippy candle rolled hot melted wax onto her hand, startling her with it's blistery pain. My friends and I lost it in giggles. It was all we could do to keep from howling out in laughter. In an attempt to maintain some composure, I remember closing my eyes so I could not see the expressions on my friends faces, tears rolling down my cheeks to hold the hilarity in. The faithful gathered in the church soldiered on with the song and when the service concluded and the lights went up, our row and the rows in front and behind us, exploded in laughter. I turned to see my sisters face, beet red in embarrassment. She had been concerned that she would get in trouble or be chided for her expletive slip but it was so damn perfect in it's execution that we couldn't help but find it absolutely hilarious.

That was 17 years ago and still, every time I sing "Silent Night" at the end of any candlelight service, I have to check myself to not start cracking up. I guess I like a little profanity with my sacred moments. Or maybe what I like is a little reality. I am all for Christmas magic. I believe in it. The way Christmas lights symbolize such optimism in our dark nights, the hope of the redemption that Jesus' birth brings to the world. But sometimes I think I put too much pressure on myself to manufacturer some movie set of a Christmas experience: the perfect food, lighting, table setting, gifts under the tree, and velvet and bows picture. I was thinking about Mary, Jesus' mother, and wondering what she would think of the lyrics in "Silent Night." Would she say "Yes, it really was a holy experience- I felt the presence of God the whole time." Or would she confess that she was worried that the cattle would accidentally nibble on baby Jesus in the hay manger if she nodded off? I wonder if the reality of the experience was not one of reverence but rather scary, painful and cold. All that to say, if our holiday traditions are feeling a little ragged around the edges or if the impossible logistics of Christmas wore you down, I think it is okay if our Christmas does not look like how we think it is "supposed to look". I don't think Jesus' birth looked the way we think it should either.

A year after that night of candlelight service hilarity, my new husband and I had to decide how we would celebrate Christmas Eve. Holiday's in the early years of marriage are leaving the familiar comfort of your family's traditions and expose the awkwardness of not yet having honed your own new traditions. There is some negotiating for which traditions you keep and which you alter or discard. On Christmas morning of our first year of marriage I was alarmed to discover that my husband had hidden my Christmas stocking. With a huge grin on his face he explained "It's like a big game of 'hot and cold'- you have to find the stocking!" I responded that a Christmas stocking is not an Easter basket and I was not in the mood for games. (Just so you know who prevailed, I now have 17 years of experience both hiding and finding Christmas stockings.) But this first Christmas Eve, we didn't quite know what to do with ourselves. Christmas Eve with my parents always included a beautiful oyster chowder, but with Southern California temperatures in the 80s, that did not sound good. As an homage to our new warm-temperature Christmas life, we settled on making nachos with homemade pico de gallo: it was something that we love to eat, felt a little indulgent and we could enjoy making together. Christmas Eve nachos are now our annual tradition. I love it's simple beginning but also the ease of it. While I love the formality of a big holiday meal, it feels like a bit much to have them back to back on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Also, it's fun to have a slightly dressed up version of a guilty pleasure. The crunchy salty gooeyness of the chips and cheese and seasoned beef, the tang of tomatoes and onion and, because it is a holiday, we eat as much sour cream as we want. Now that we have moved away from California, this tradition feels even sweeter.

These nachos are, of course, welcome at anytime.

Christmas Eve nachos
The recipe below yields enough for 2 large sheet pans of oven nachos but if making for more than 3-4 adults, I would definitely double the nacho topping and pick up a 2nd bag of chips and more cheddar cheese.

taco seasoning- makes enough to season six pounds of burger
1/4 cup chili powder
3 tablespoons ground cumin
1 tablespoon each paprika, crushed red pepper, and salt
1 1/2 teaspoons each garlic powder, onion powder, dried oregano, black pepper

nacho topping
1.3 pounds ground beef (splurge on good quality, like sirloin, if you can. It's Christmas time!)
2- 3 tablespoons taco seasoning (see above)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
15.25 oz can of black beans, drained and rinsed

pico de gallo
3 pounds roma tomatoes (about 15 tomatoes)
juice from 1 lemon
1/2 - 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt (see note at step 3)
9 scallions (1 bunch), chopped on the bias
1 cup chopped cilantro
1 small serrano or jalapeno (optional)

2 ripe avocados
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
good squeeze of half a lemon or lime

to assemble
15 oz large bag of salted tortilla chips
4 cups shredded medium sharp cheddar cheese (2 cups per sheet pan)
1 pint sour cream
pickled jalapenos
guacamole (see recipe above)

1) Make taco seasoning: in a small bowl, stir all taco seasoning ingredients together, until evenly mixed. Save 3 tablespoons for this batch of nachos and store the rest for later use. Alternately, you can use one of the pre-mixed seasoning packets at the grocery store.

2) Make nacho topping: in a large skillet over medium high heat, cook the ground beef. Use a spatula to chop and cook until beef is completely browned. To drain, transfer the ground beef to a plate lined with paper towels and wipe the skillet out. Return beef to the skillet and add 1 cup of water and 3 tablespoons of the seasoning. Stir to combine and heat mixture until it boils, then reduce heat to a simmer. While beef is simmering, make pico de gallo. (Keep an eye on the pan and add additional water to keep from drying out). The longer the burger simmers, the more tender the meat will become. Think of this almost like making a taco meat bolognese.

3) Make pico de gallo: Cut roma tomatoes in half and scoop out and discard seeds. Chop tomatoes into 1/2 inch dice and add to a large bowl (you want a very large bowl to mix it all together.) To the bowl add the juice of one lemon and the kosher salt. Give it all a big stir. (Note: I HIGHLY recommend starting our conservative on the salt and tasting the salsa mixture with your tortilla chip, as you may want to adjust the salt level to the salsa based on the saltiness of the chip- i.e. the saltier your tortilla chip, the less salt you'll want in your salsa.) Then chop the scallions and cilantro and add to the tomatoes and stir together. If making the salsa in advance, cover and refrigerate but allow 20 minutes for it to come to room temperature before serving.

5) The beef should still be simmering and to it add the drained and rinsed black beans.

4) Make guacamole: Cut the avocados in half and remove the seed. Take a butter knife and, while the avocado is still in it's skin, score the flesh into cubes. Then, take a spoon and scoop the flesh into a medium bowl. Add the salt and a good squeeze of lemon or lime and stir but take care to not smash completely into a puree- I like guacamole that has a bit of the avocado cube textures in it.

5) To assemble: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a sheet pan with aluminum foil and scatter a good layer of tortilla chips. To the tortilla chips, sprinkle about 3/4 cup of the shredded cheddar cheese and then top with half of the ground beef and black bean topping. Top with 1 1/4 cup shredded cheese and bake for 7-10 minutes or until cheese is melted and gooey. Remove pan from oven and serve with salsa, guacamole, sour cream and pickled jalapeƱos.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

split pea soup

First off, my most sincere thanks for all the kind words and messages on my last post. It really meant a lot to me. I read every single comment and felt your love and care. Thank you.

We have now entered the time of year where I want to eat and do all the holiday things. There is no shortage of activities and to-dos and I am on board for all of it. Really, sign me up. But I also don't want to be shackled to my kitchen while everyone else is off having fun. My latest trick has been making a big batch of soup and freezing half of it. I know, this is not new nor really a trick. I bet most people already do this but it's kind of like I just remembered it and man, am I glad I did. In the past month I made the following soups: chicken noodle, tomato carrot, spiced lentil, and split pea. With each batch I freeze a portion for future consumption and I when I arrive at that future need, I am so thrilled with my own foresight: "Well done me from 10 days ago! Look at how well you planned ahead!" I pull one of the frozen soups, put in the fridge to unthaw for a couple days and we have a wonderful weeknight meal.

Split pea soup has been a favorite since I was a kid and my Dad used to put a batch in the crockpot, to cook all day with a ham hock. It was a comfort to walk in the door, from out of a cold snowy day, and have a bowl of it.

If there is split pea soup on a menu, I almost always have to order it. For years if I went to California Pizza Kitchen with friends, I ordered the split pea and barley soup. People would talk about the CPK barbecue chicken pizza and I had no idea what was being referenced because I was too busy eating soup. (My husband and I also used to really love their waldorf chicken salad but they changed the recipe a bit and it's no longer my favorite.)

While some soup recipes requiring doubling so that there is enough for leftovers, this recipe makes a whopping large batch of soup. I'd be impressed if someone had a soup pot large enough for doubling it. But what I really love about this recipe is the addition of dried oregano. In a million years I would not have thought to include it but Ina Garten, as she does so well, knows that the subtle herb note provides the perfect lift to the split peas.

The only slight change I have made to the recipe is to add all the split peas at once and to cook until they are soft. Ina's original instructions have to cook 1 1/2 pounds of the split peas and then halfway through the cooking time, add the remaining half pound. The idea is that this adds a little bit of texture to the soup but I've found that I prefer the split peas cooked all the way through and smooth.

split pea soup

2 cups chopped yellow onions (about 2 large onions)
1 tablespoon minced garlic (about 3 cloves)
1/4 cup good olive oil
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
4 cups medium-diced carrots (about 6-8 carrots)
2 cups medium-diced red boiling potatoes, unpeeled but well scrubbed (about 6 small)
2 pounds dried split peas
8 cups chicken stock (for vegetarian split pea soup, please feel free to use all water)
8 cups water

1) In a large stockpot over medium heat, add the olive oil and, once heated, add the onions, oregano, salt and pepper. Do not let the onions brown, but cook until they are translucent, about 10 to 15 minutes. Then add the garlic and saute for about a minute.

2) Add the carrots, potatoes, split peas and stock and water. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat so that the soup simmers. Split peas take a good long time to soften up. I find I need to cook for about an hour. While the soup cooks, a bit of foam with form at the surface. Take a spoon to skim off and discard. Give the whole mixture a good stir, every once in a while and take care that the bottom of the soup is not getting burned.

3) Before serving, taste for salt and pepper. It is at this point that I divide the soup and serve half and freeze the remaining portion.