Sunday, September 18, 2011

Crispy Kale Chips

I’ve gotten a handful of kale chip questions lately. Kale chips are a snack I’ve made for years but never thought of as blog material. My mistake. They’re easy as pie to make and completely satisfy that crunchy, salty kind of craving. And if you’re someone who isn’t keen on the taste of leafy greens, this will change everything.

Kale is an unsung hero of sorts. It is one of the most nutritious foods you can possibly eat but doesn’t get nearly the attention it deserves. I’ve met a surprising number of people who only recognize it as that leafy salad bar decoration but wouldn’t have the slightest idea how to cook it. I have quite a few tasty ideas, but let’s start with the chips.

These are so simple you don’t even need a recipe. Wash a bunch of kale and strip the leaves from the fibrous stems (the stems have no place in the chip world; they won’t get crisp in the oven). Tear the kale leaves into large pieces and dry them really, really well. Place them on a parchment-lined baking sheet and drizzle with a bit of oil. Sprinkle with flaky kosher salt, toss well and spread out to form a single layer. It’s important not to overlap here – you might need to do this in batches. Bake in a 350°F oven for about 15 minutes or until the chips are dry and crisp.

You’ll be amazed at how delicious these are. Mine never last more than 10 minutes but if you can summon the willpower, save a few to crush over some freshly buttered popcorn. 

I’m somewhat of a purist so I like the clean flavor of lightly salted chips, but these would be the perfect vehicle for a multitude of spice combinations. Salt and vinegar, truffle, or chili garlic chips anyone?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Chinese Sticky Ribs

During my self-appointed day of cooking on Whidbey Island, I asked if anyone had a dinner request. Without missing a beat Minh-Hai piped up, “Chinese Sticky Ribs!” I like a challenge.

I’d never made sticky ribs before so I had to defer to the experts. But some of the more traditional recipes called for the likes of Chinese rose water, plum sauce and dried oysters, ingredients that the nearby Casey’s Red Apple probably didn’t carry. Luckily Cook’s Country came to the rescue.

Their recipe requires braising the ribs for a few hours in a flavorful mixture of soy sauce, sugar, fresh ginger, garlic, hoisin sauce, sherry and cilantro sprigs. After the meat is fall-off-the-bone tender, it gets brushed with a sticky, sweet glaze followed by a few flips under the broiler until deep mahogany in color.

We were on island time so it didn’t matter that the ribs reached the table well after 9pm. Despite the crappy lighting not doing them justice in this photo, you can trust me when I say this recipe is legit. The outside of the meat had those lovely sticky charred bits while the tender inside barely required chewing. They were so addictively delicious that I found myself gnawing on the bones well after the meat was gone.

As we were eating, fingers and faces covered in sticky glaze, Minh-Hai said, “I just dreamt this up and here it is!” That’s exactly what cooking is all about.

Chinese Sticky Ribs
If you don’t have dry sherry on hand, use one part apple cider vinegar and one part water. I wasn’t able to find hot pepper jelly but apple jelly worked beautifully. Since some of the heat was missing, I also upped the spice by adding a tablespoon or two of Sriracha sauce. Next time I’ll add even more! Slightly tweaked from a Cook’s Country recipe.

2 racks St. Louis style or baby back ribs (2-1/2 to 3-1/2 lbs each)

1 cup hoisin sauce

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup soy sauce

1/2 cup dry sherry (or a mix of 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar and 1/4 cup water)

1 6-inch piece ginger, peeled and sliced into rounds

1 1/2 teaspoons cayenne pepper

30 sprigs fresh cilantro stems (reserve leaves for glaze), chopped

8 scallions, white parts only, cut into 1-inch pieces (reserve green parts for garnish)
Optional: extra Sriracha or chili sauce (I added 2 tablespoons)


1 10-oz jar hot red pepper jelly or apple jelly

1/2 cup cider vinegar

1/4 cup minced fresh cilantro leaves

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Reserved scallion greens, thinly sliced
Extra Sriracha or chili sauce to taste

Adjust the oven rack to the middle and heat to 350°F. 

Remove the silver skin from the back of the ribs. Combine the rib marinade in a large roasting pan. Add the spareribs and coat well. Cover with heavy foil and cook, meat side down, 2 1/2 to 3 hours or until just tender. Remove ribs to a plate.

Strain the cooking liquid and put 3 cups into a large nonstick skillet. Skim the fat. Add the jelly and vinegar. Simmer over medium high heat until reduced to 2 cups. Off the heat, stir in the cilantro and cayenne (and Sriracha or chili sauce, if using).

Heat the broiler (don't raise the oven rack!). Pour enough water into the roasting pan to cover the bottom. Fit pan with roasting rack, arrange ribs on rack and brush with glaze. Broil until the ribs begin to brown, flip over, and brush with more glaze. Continue flipping, glazing and broiling every few minutes until the ribs are deep mahogany (I only needed to do this 3 times). Move to a cutting board, tent with foil and let rest 10 minutes. Slice, glaze again if desired, and garnished with scallion greens. Serve with sticky rice and lots of napkins!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Creamy Polenta with Greens, Soft-boiled Eggs and Crispy Prosciutto

About five months ago we attended a fundraiser for the Prosthetics Outreach Foundation, an incredible organization with a mission to help the developing world walk again. Our good friend Jared sits on the board and we were excited to show our support.

In classic auction style, we perused the items, set our sights on one particular package, agreed on our maximum amount, and then went (well) over in the heat of bidding. But it was worth it. Last weekend we redeemed our splurge and ducked away to Whidbey Island with our friends Minh-Hai and Ben. 

There is something to be said for having zero obligations. For three straight days we sat reading, snacking and sipping cocktails on the deck of a beautiful cabin overlooking the water. Our momentum was only broken to take naps or go out to dinner. Now that’s a vacation.

Saturday morning, however, I was rearing to go. I had just seen an episode of Chuck’s Day Off on the Cooking Channel where he prepared a lavish brunch for friends which included three of my favorite things -- creamy polenta, greens and eggs -- and couldn’t wait to give it a try.

Polenta is somewhat of a stodgy Italian comfort food. But its first forms were nothing like the creamy, smooth starch we know today. In pre-Roman times it was made with ancient wheat, faro, chickpeas, millet and water and resembled a coarse mush or porridge. It wasn’t until the introduction of corn around the 15th century in Italy that the face of polenta was forever changed.

Nowadays you can find plastic, sausage-shaped tubes of cooked polenta on grocery store shelves, but I recommend walking in the opposite direction. Fresh polenta only takes 20 minutes to make and tastes so much…well…fresher. Plus, just like anything made from scratch, you have the benefit of knowing exactly what’s going into your food (in this case, milk, chicken stock, cheese and butter).

The combination of creamy polenta with the runny yolks, bright greens and salty, crisp prosciutto was well received by the vacationers. Even though we didn't deserve a hearty breakfast, it gave us the necessary energy to continue relaxing like no one's business. 

Creamy Polenta with Greens, Soft-boiled Eggs and Prosciutto
Two very interesting techniques are used in the preparation of this dish. First, instead of poaching the eggs, soft-boil them in their shells in order to retain their shape. Secondly, instead of dealing with the hassles of pan-frying, bake the prosciutto between two cookie sheets - a simple way to get crispy, evenly cooked, flat shards of cured meat. Adapted from Chuck's Day Off.


8 slices Prosciutto

2 cups chicken stock
2 cups milk (I like using whole milk)
1 cup polenta cornmeal 

1/2 - 3/4 cup grated Parmesan or Asiago cheese
Knob of butter

4 eggs

2 bunches kale, washed, dried and leaves stripped from their stems
1 tablespoon butter, olive oil or a mix of both
Juice of 1/2 a lemon
Salt and pepper to taste


Preheat oven to 350°F.

Arrange the prosciutto slices on a parchment-lined baking tray. Cover with another sheet of parchment paper and another baking tray so that the prosciutto is tightly sandwiched between the sheets. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes or until the prosciutto is crispy. Remove from oven and set aside on a paper towel.

Combine the stock and milk in a heavy saucepan; bring to a boil. Whisk in the cornmeal and cook over low heat, stirring often with a wooden spoon, for 15-20 minutes or until the grains are soft and creamy. Fold in the cheese and a bit of butter (about a tablespoon). Taste and season with salt if necessary. Cover and keep warm.

Bring at least three inches of water to boil in a large saucepan. Using a slotted spoon, carefully lower the eggs into the water and boil for exactly six minutes. Remove the eggs and place them in a bowl of cold water; set aside. Before serving, roll the eggs on the countertop to loosen the shells and peel.

In the same pot of boiling water, cook the kale leaves for 1-2 minutes. Drain and plunge the greens immediately into an ice bath to halt the cooking process.

In a skillet heat the butter/olive oil over medium heat. Remove the kale from the ice bath and squeeze to remove as much water as possible; chop it into bite-sized pieces. Saute the kale in the skillet along with the lemon juice for a minute or two. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Check the polenta before assembling. If it’s too thick, stir in a splash of stock or water to loosen things up. Divide the polenta among four plates. Top each with greens, an egg and two strips of crispy prosciutto. Garnish with a grind or two of freshly cracked pepper and a sprinkle of grated cheese. Eat immediately then take a nap.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

An Ode to Sorrel

Have you ever tasted something for the first time and thought, “Where have you been all my life!?” That was me with sorrel.

I wasn’t even familiar with this leafy green until last year when Beryl suggested we plant some in our garden. It tasted so bright and lemony, and I dreamt about turning it into creamy sorrel soup once harvest time rolled around. Well, that time came and went while we were on vacation and the plant bolted. So much for soup.

This year I was determined not to repeat history. I did my research and found that sorrel, which is hugely popular in French cuisine, is often served as a sauce for fish. So I picked our plant clean and melted a heaping bowl of leaves into a just-creamy-enough white wine shallot sauce. Paired with pan fried cod, this immediately shot to the top of the best-dishes-I’ve-ever-eaten list. 

While there is some difference of opinion regarding the origins of the word “sorrel” --some say it comes from a French word, others claim Germanic roots -- both origins mean “sour.” The plant contains oxalic acid (also found in rhubarb), which gives it that characteristic lemony, tart flavor. It can be served raw in salads or sandwiches, pureed into soups or pesto, or, in this case, made into a lovely sauce for fish.

My first experience with sorrel was nothing short of a revelation, and in an attempt to make up for lost time (and eat as much of it as possible this summer), I immediately ran out and bought more starts for the garden. Perhaps next year I'll plant an entire patch...

This could get out of hand. 

Fish with Sorrel Sauce 
I used cod but have heard that this sauce tastes magnificent with salmon. Adapted from The New York Times.

Serves 2

2-3 shallots, diced finely
1 tablespoon butter
Glass of dry white wine
1 - 1 1/2 cups vegetable or fish stock
1/2 cup cream
1 bunch sorrel

2 tablespoons high heat oil 
1 pound cod fillets (sole, perch, haddock or trout would also work)
Salt and pepper

In a large skillet over medium-low heat, sweat the shallots in butter until soft and translucent. Add a glass of white wine, increase the heat to high and reduce completely. Add the vegetable stock (if it's a subtle stock, use 1 1/2 cups; if it's strong, start with 1 cup) and reduce over high heat until 1/4 cup of liquid remains, about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, strip the sorrel leaves from their stems. If the leaves are big, rip them into large pieces (there is no need for tiny pieces since the sorrel will wilt down tremendously). Wash and spin dry.

After the broth mixture has reduced, lower heat to low and stir in the cream. Add the sorrel and wilt down completely (it will look like a lot at first but won't take long to melt like spinach). Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary.

In the meantime, heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Lightly season both sides of the fish with salt and pepper and place in the skillet. Cook until fish flakes easily, about 3 minutes per side.

Divide the sorrel sauce between two plates and top each with a fillet of pan fried fish. Roasted or steamed parsley potatoes make a nice accompaniment.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Bagna Cauda

Crudités platters tend to bore me. Quite honestly I can't imagine anyone getting very excited over sticks of supermarket vegetables and "white dip," not to mention that serving raw cruciferous vegetables should be considered cruel and unusual punishment. Don't get me wrong, fresh veggies are a welcome addition to any party table but let's be honest, that same old, sorry tray just isn't bringing it.
Then about a month ago I was planning a dinner party that took on a Northern Italian theme. Instead of serving the usual green salad after the entree, I thought it would be fun to start the meal with bagna cauda, a Piedmontese crudités platter. I had read about it multiple times and thought that if anything could change my crudités attitude, it was this.
Bagna cauda literally means "warm bath." Garlic and anchovies are slowly warmed in olive oil until the salty fish dissolves and the oil is completely infused with flavor. It is then served in a dish over a candle (think fondue) with an assortment of raw and cooked vegetables for dipping. Although cardoons (a vegetable resembling celery but tasting of artichoke) and Jerusalem artichokes are traditional accompaniments, pretty much any seasonal produce can be used. 

In the Piedmont region of Italy, this fragrant dish was traditionally served as a warming snack in late Autumn and early winter to the chilled vineyard workers out pruning the vines. It tastes best, according to experts, with the new season's wine and a convivial atmosphere.
By the way, I now adore crudités platters.

Bagna Cauda
Some recipes emphasize the olive oil while others call for larger proportions of butter. This preparation uses both in a wonderful balance but can be tweaked to personal taste.
3/4 cup olive oil
8 cloves garlic, finely minced 

One 2-ounce can oil-packed anchovy fillets (about 12 fillets), chopped
3 tablespoons butter

Salt, if needed
Assortment of raw and blanched vegetables for dipping

In a small saucepan heat the olive oil, garlic and anchovies over medium-low for 6-8 minutes, whisking occasionally, until the anchovies have dissolved and the mixture looks muddy. Add the butter and whisk until melted. Taste and sprinkle in a bit of salt if necessary. Pour into a serving dish, ideally one that fits over a flame (but not necessary) and serve with crudites.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Homemade English Muffins

I’ve never been a morning person. While my sister managed to go to bed at a reasonable hour and wake up at the crack of dawn, every morning presented itself to me with a struggle. I needed at least three wake-up calls before reluctantly rubbing the sand from my eyes and scurrying to make it out the door on time. Thank goodness for my mom. Not only was she diligent in the wake-up process, she always left a little breakfast on the chest in the hall for me to grab as we left. My trusty stand-by, which still happens to be a favorite, was a toasted English muffin with butter and peanut butter.

English muffins make me happy, perhaps for that sentimental reason, but I never considered making them from scratch until seeing Clotilde’s post a few years ago. To my surprise I learned that they were cooked in a hot skillet like pancakes, which shouldn't have been all that surprising considering their two flat sides.

But I didn’t have any crumpet rings so the idea got shelved. It wasn’t until I bought my beloved copy of Peter Reinhart’s Artisan Breads Every Day that my enthusiasm was reignited. I promptly went to Sur La Table and got myself a set of these (and only 5 bucks to boot). 

The origins of the English muffin are a bit nebulous but they may have taken root in 10th century Wales where small, round yeast leavened cakes were baked on hot stones. The type of English muffin we know and love today became very popular during the Victorian era. The light, crusty muffins made out of dough scraps (and according to some accounts, leftover potatoes) were originally eaten in the servants’ quarters but once the ladies of the house got a taste, they quickly became fancied by everyone. And after tasting this homemade batch, I can see why.

Now I have to warn you, these aren’t the type of muffins that can be whipped up 30 minutes before breakfast (although the crumpet ring box provides such a recipe). You’ll need to plan this one out.

The dough itself is simple and straightforward but, like most of Mr. Reinhart’s recipes, requires an overnight fermentation in the refrigerator. The next morning, a baking soda slurry gets folded in (essential for that bubbly texture) before the little blobs of dough get cooked inside cornmeal-crusted rings. The result? English muffins like no other. 

The interiors are a thing of beauty - moist, yeasty and tender (all words that I generally despise using) - and the dusting of cornmeal gives the outsides that characteristic crisp texture. But I think we can all agree that the best parts of an English muffin are the many nooks and crannies. To take full advantage, be sure to fork split them instead of slicing. And if you’re going to pop them into the freezer, remember to split them ahead of time (a good rule of thumb for bagels, too).

Thomas’ English muffins? Puh-leez. And you’re welcome.

Homemade English Muffins 
Don't let the lack of crumpet rings stop you from making these; you can also use the rims of quart-size canning jars. Recipe from Artisan Breads Every Day.

2 teaspoons honey
1 tablespoon vegetable oil or olive oil
1 1/2 cups lukewarm milk (about 95˚F)
2 2/3 cups unbleached bread flour
3/4 teaspoon salt or 1 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons instant yeast (or 2 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast, proofed)
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
3 tablespoons warm water
Cornmeal for dusting

In a small bowl add the honey to the oil and milk; stir to dissolve. In a mixing bowl, whisk the flour, salt and yeast together, then pour in the milk mixture. Whisk for a minute, scrape down the bowl and whisk for a few more seconds (you should see gluten strands forming). Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight or up to 4 days. The batter will bubble and rise as it cools down.

On baking day, remove the batter from the refrigerator 2 hours before baking. The dough will be stiff and sticky and will bubble as it comes to room temperature.

Right before baking, dissolve the baking soda in the warm water and gently fold it into the dough, just like folding egg whites into cake batter, until it is fully absorbed. Let the dough rest for 5-10 minutes or until it starts bubbling again. Heat a flat griddle pan or cast-iron skillet over medium heat (or 300˚F if using an electric skillet).

Mist the griddle and insides of the crumpet rings with spray oil, then dust the insides of the rings with cornmeal. Cover the surface of the pan with as many rings as it will hold, then dust the pan inside the rings with more cornmeal. Lower the heat to medium-low (actually, a bit closer to low than medium - you'll have to use trial-and-error to find the perfect temperature. I experimented with one English muffin first).

To bake, mist a 1/3-cup measuring cup with spray oil, fill it with dough and pour the dough into the ring. Fill all the rings and then sprinkle cornmeal over each muffin. The dough will not spread immediately but will slowly rise and bubble. Cook the muffins for at least 12 minutes or until the bottoms are golden and crisp and the tops lose their wet look. Flip the muffins over, rings and all, and cook for 12 minutes more. If it takes less than 12 minutes per side, your griddle setting is probably too high and you'll end up with undercooked muffins.   

When both sides are golden brown and the dough is springy to the touch, remove the muffins from the pan. Cool them in their rings for 2 minutes, then pop them out. Turn the muffins on their edge to cool; this will help prevent sinking and shrinking. Cool for at least 30 minutes before serving. After they cool, split them with a fork to accentuate the interior nooks.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Coconut Tapioca Pudding

If I were a superhero, my kryptonite would probably be anything custard or coconut. And if the two merged into one glorious dish (coconut cream pie, coconut crème brûlée, etc.) I’d be done for. This tapioca pudding fits snugly into that category.

Tapioca seems to be one of those things that befuddles people in that it's not an actual plant but rather the extracted starch of the cassava root. Cassava, also called manioc or yuca, is native to South America and is one of the top sources of carbohydrates consumed around the world. The woody tuber contains a naturally occurring toxin and therefore must undergo processing to become edible. It can then be boiled, steamed or fried and used as a starchy side dish, in soups and dumplings or baked into sweet cakes.

The familiar tapioca pearl is produced by drying the processed cassava. The result is a virtually protein-free starch which happens to be very digestible (it was actually considered a healthy food for the young, old and infirm in 19th century America).

These days I mainly consume tapioca in the form of bubble tea, thickened fruit desserts, or my personal favorite, pudding. 

Bob’s Red Mill has a fabulous recipe on the back of their small pearl tapioca package, one that involves whipped egg whites. You saw what they did for pancakes; you won’t believe what they can do for pudding.

So I experimented a bit and came up with this version, which uses coconut milk in addition to regular milk. The result is quite nuanced, not at all over the top. What IS over the top is the texture. The whipped egg whites elevate it from the pudding category to more of a whip.

Have you ever eaten a cloud? Well here’s your chance.

Coconut Tapioca Pudding
I like serving this pudding topped with fresh mango or pineapple. For a more intense coconut flavor, increase the ratio of coconut milk to regular milk, or try folding in some unsweetened shredded coconut. Inspired by the tapioca recipe on the Bob's Red Mill package.

1/3 cup small pearl tapioca (not instant)
2 cups whole milk
1 14-fluid ounce can coconut milk (light is fine)
Pinch of salt
2 eggs, separated 

1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

In a medium saucepan, soak the tapioca in the milk for 30 minutes. Add the coconut milk, salt and lightly beaten egg yolks; stir over medium heat until it comes to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring frequently, for 15 minutes.

In a medium bowl, beat the egg whites with the sugar until soft peaks form. Slowly fold about 1 cup of hot tapioca into the egg whites, then gently fold the mixture back into the saucepan. Stir over low heat for 3 minutes. Remove from heat and add the vanilla. 

Serve the pudding warm or chilled (if you choose to chill the pudding, cover the surface with plastic wrap to prevent a skin from forming).

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Lemon Yogurt Pancakes

Every year over the holidays my mom and I watch The Sound of Music and, subsequently, get the songs stuck in our heads for weeks. I always enjoyed the scene where Maria calmed the children by singing about her favorite things, but I have to admit, my lyrics would be a heck of a lot different than whiskers on kittens and cream colored ponies:
“Thin New York pizza and dry apple cider
Custard-filled cream puffs and wine by the fire…”

Ok, Tristan said I have to stop before everyone knows that I'm a dork. But if I were allowed to continue, I would certainly work savory pancakes in there. Zucchini, sweet corn, green pea, you name it. But the love ends at the standard buttermilk flapjack. I like the idea of ordering a piping hot stack but they're just too starchy and inevitably leave me feeling 10 pounds heavier.

That said, I recently had an inexplicable hankering for sweet pancakes, and my cravings don't go away until they're satisfied. To avoid the infamous flour-induced coma, I decided to make a version using yogurt, lemon zest and whipped egg whites. The result? Seriously fluffy, light-as-a-feather, uncommonly good pancakes.

The key here is separating the egg yolks from the whites. You could easily skip this step (simply mix whole eggs into the yogurt) but you'd be missing out on some incredible texture. Folding in whipped egg whites produces a batter that's impossibly airy and delicate. 

Requiring only 7 tablespoons of flour per batch, these lemony little cakes will simultaneously satisfy your pancake craving and perpetuate it.

Lemon Yogurt Pancakes
A lighter version of the American breakfast classic, these are made with yogurt instead of milk and a bit of lemon zest for freshness.

Makes 14 3-inch pancakes

1 cup plain yogurt (I use organic whole milk yogurt)
2 large eggs, divided
Zest of one lemon
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
7 tablespoons all purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt

In a medium bowl, whisk together the yogurt, egg yolks, lemon zest and vanilla. In a small bowl, stir together the flour, sugar, baking soda and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the wet and stir until just combined (do not over-mix).

Using an electric mixer beat the egg whites on high speed until stiff peaks form. Gently fold the egg whites into the batter, being careful to retain as much air as possible.

Heat a cast iron skillet or griddle over medium-low heat (err on the side of lower heat to avoid burnt outsides and raw middles). Add enough melted butter to lightly coat the bottom of the pan - you can do this by brushing, swirling or, as I do, running the end of a stick of butter over the pan's surface. Pour in the batter in scant 1/4-cup-fulls. Cook for 2-3 minutes or until bubbles appear on the surface. Flip carefully and cook another 1-2 minutes. Repeat with remaining batter.

Serve in a stack with butter, yogurt and real maple syrup.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A Look Back

 New Year's Eve dinner at Tristan's family's home in Arlington, VA

Happy New Year everyone!

I couldn't jump into 2011 without paying a bit of homage to 2010. It was an eventful year of cooking experiments, dinner parties, culinary classes, new cookbooks and a good deal of travel. But one of my favorite parts was going to New York over the holidays. Why? Because I got to spend time with my family and eat some darn good holiday food.

As tradition dictates, we always make an Italian Seven Fish Stew on Christmas Eve. It has a spicy, flavorful broth of clam juice, stock and tomatoes and is chock-full of scallops, haddock, flounder, shrimp, calamari, mussels and clams. The only necessary accompaniment is a loaf of good bread (I strongly suggest making some No-Knead) to sop up all those glorious juices.

Unlike the anticipated main course, dessert on the 24th is up for discussion. This year my mom made mini pavlovas with fresh fruit and whipped cream. Named after the Russian prima ballerina, Anna Matveyevna Pavlova, who toured Australia and New Zealand in the 1920s, the dessert lives up to its muse: light, airy and elegant (the meringue shells were meant to simulate her tutu). 

Christmas morning at our house always begins with a breakfast of Züpfe, the beloved bread of Switzerland. Back in the home country it's eaten on Sundays with butter, honey and jam and perhaps a soft boiled egg. Nowadays, for those of my family in America, it only makes an annual appearance over the holidays.

No two Züpfe recipes are alike and in my humble (and certainly biased) opinion, my grandmother's was the very best. She took great pride in her work and guarded her recipe like a Swiss Guard in front of the Vatican. When she passed away, it took years of experimentation and refinement for my father to develop his version, which, we all concur, is the closest we've ever had to the original.

Our traditional Christmas dinner is unabashedly English-themed: roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. My favorite part, hands down, is the pudding. Similar to a popover, it has a puffed, golden exterior with an eggy, custard-like middle. Back in old England, it used to be a filler dish for poor people who couldn't afford much meat. Also called "dripping pudding," it was made by placing a simple batter of flour, milk and eggs under the roasting meat in order to catch all the savory drippings. Despite its humble beginnings, it's easy to see why Yorkshire pudding has found a place at a New York Christmas table. 

No English meal would be complete without a proper trifle. My mom makes a wonderfully traditional version with sherry soaked cake, layered with egg custard, fruit and whipped cream. If this doesn't say festive, I don't know what does.

I can't think of a better way to end a year than with family, food and friends. I'm already looking forward to repeating it in 2011.