I had forgotten about a particular tradition until Lindz visited one of her professors before Christmas. Her professor receives a box of citrus from one of his former students every year during Advent. When Lindz showed up to visit, he had just gotten his yearly present and he realized that he couldn’t eat it all before it went bad. So, Lindz ended up with a box of fruit.
The tradition that I forgot about was the giving of a certain bag of “goodies” at Christmas time. This bag consists of an orange (maybe an apple too), nuts in the shell (usually peanuts), and some form of candy (candy canes, old fashioned ribbon candy, chocolate coins, etc). With a bit of research on the good ol’ internet, I found that a lot of people used to get these in their stocking from their parents. Personally, I received it from our priest every year as a youngster. I’ve heard of this custom off and on over the years, but never knew the origin. I’ve always assumed that it was a “healthy” and/or “inexpensive” gift. But the more that I heard about it, it slowly dawned on me that this wasn’t just a local Catholic thing, it was far more widespread phenomenon. This year I finally took the time to do the research. It turns out that the actual origins are pretty murky. Frustrating, but not surprising. On the web, a lot of people remember this as a kid, and many continue it with their own children. Most people are comfortable with the answer of “I don’t know. It was just something that grandma (or whomever) always did.” They assume that it either came from the old country, (Italy, Poland, England, etc) or it dates back to the time when oranges were a rarity and hence an actual treat, or some combination of these two factors. While I can see these two reasons being factors, it just didn’t feel right for how widespread and long lasting this experience is.
Wiki to the rescue!
In his (St. Nicholas) most famous exploit, a poor man had three daughters but could not afford a proper dowry for them. This meant that they would remain unmarried and probably, in absence of any other possible employment, would have to become prostitutes . Hearing of the poor man’s plight, Nicholas decided to help him . . . and drops the third bag down the chimney (where) the daughter had washed her stockings that evening and hung them over the embers to dry, and that the bag of gold fell into the stocking.
Ok, but how do we get from a bag of gold to an orange? Here is where symbolism comes into effect. The best explanation is that an orange is a similar color to gold and that oranges are similar in shape to bags of the shiny stuff. Also, in some European countries, oranges have symbolized Jesus’ love for the world. I’ve listed a bunch of the more interesting links that I’ve found at the end of this post.
Now that the history lesson is over, on to the food!
We weren’t eating the box of oranges as fast as we should have and they were in real danger of going bad. So I had to come up with something to use a whole bunch of oranges at once. I’ve had a venison loin sitting in the freezer since last fall and it seemed like it would be a perfect pairing for an orange pan sauce that I had in mind.
Since the sauce was going to be the star of the show, I simply cut the loin into medallions and pan fried them in a bit of oil.
As a side, I went with roasted potatoes, carrots, onions, and garlic all mashed up together.
Once the venison was fried off and resting, I made the pan sauce. The recipe that I borrowed quite heavily from is the Orange Pan Sauce with Middle Eastern Spices from the Cook’s Illustrated cookbook. I really wanted the sauce to be a “Friday-night-drunken-barroom-brawl” explosion in your mouth, so I went very heavy on the OJ and zest.
- 2 Shallots, minced
- 2 tsp Sugar
- 1 tsp Ground Cumin
- 1/4 tsp Pepper
- 1/4 tsp Ground Cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp Ground Cardamom
- 1/8 tsp Cayenne Pepper
- 1/4 C Orange Zest
- 3 Tbs Red Wine Vinegar
- 2 C Orange Juice
Pour off all but 1 1/2 Tbs fat from the skillet (of whatever meat you are making). Place skillet over medium heat. Add shallots and cook until softened, about 1 minute. Stir in sugar, cumin, pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, and cayenne; cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in vinegar, scraping bottom of pan with a wooden spoon to loosen the fond. Add the orange juice, increase heat to medium-high and simmer until reduced to about 3/4 C, about 10 to 15 minutes. Off heat, season with salt to taste. Spoon over meat and serve.
I managed to create the citrus barrage that I was intending. Plus, the other spices weren’t lost in all of the citric acid. They were a nice background note in the sauce. What is even better, is that the sauce worked equally well on both the meat and the roasted veggie mash. All in all, I was quite pleased with this meal. In fact, I am hoping the bag of lemons that we have in the fridge right now linger around a bit so I have an excuse to try this with a different citrus.
p.s. Sorry if there is less snark in this post than usual. Lindz has been hoarding our household’s share of it lately.
An informative page, with emphasis on the Canadian Prairies.
A well-researched page (much more effort than I put into mine) that is a nice narrative.
This page looks at this Christmas tradition with regard to its English origin.
A sugar- and food-centric page that emphasizes the sweet and preservative aspect of fruit.
An interesting audio story from Minnesota Public Radio about the impact of a couple from Minnesota and their influence on the Christmas orange tradition here.
A not very helpful page with regards to Christmas oranges, but a still very interesting read.
A wonderful page full of Polish Christmas time traditions.
While I was working and living in Decorah, Iowa, a couple of my friends and I would always be on the look out for new and interesting places to eat. One place we found in a neighboring town was a Mexican grocery/restaurant called Sabor Latino, which translates as Latin Flavor. Within a year after we had first visited this place they opened a restaurant in Decorah. The new place was such a regular stop that the whole staff knew our names, our order, and what was going on in our life. Plus, they would throw in some freebies on a regular basis. Which, of course, just encouraged us to come back all the more often. They closed their doors shortly after we stopped making it a regular stop. Possibly a coincidence, possibly not. The reason why we stopped going was that one our trio graduated from college and stopped coming into town on a regular basis. Of course, the fact that they got raided for having illegal immigrants working there may have been a factor. (Just for the record, we did not know that some of the workers were here illegally).
There were several things that I learned from our frequent visits. I fell in love with their pico de gallo (fresh, uncooked salsa) as well as relished their guacamole. In fact, when I make either of these items at home, it is their recipes that I try to emulate. We also discovered a drink called horchata. Horchata is a rice milk beverage made with cinnamon, sugar, and sometimes with almonds or vanilla. It is a cool and very refreshing drink that I have surprisingly not attempted to make. I’ll have to put that on my list to try. I’m not sure if it’s the same one as in his cookbook that I have or if it’s a different recipe, but here is a link to Aarón Sanchez’s horchata recipe (Right now I’m too lazy to get up off the couch and look). But, the most relevant thing to this post is that I discovered the method how Mexicans prepare their tacos. Forget about what you normally see in the U.S., i.e. covered in lettuce, tomato, and all sorts of a salad, the way we were shown was to just put some diced onions and some cilantro on top of the meat. I’m not sure what it is about that combination, but it helps to liven up the meat flavor as well as add its own dimension to each bite. I much prefer “Mexican style,” as the boys at Sabor liked to say, as opposed to what normally passes in the U.S.
While flipping through the latest issue of Cook’s Illustrated, I was very pleasantly surprised to find a Tacos al Pastor (shepherd’s style taco) recipe. I was even more surprised when they just called for cilantro and onions for a topping. Given this gift of a recipe and the memories that I have connected with eating this dish, I couldn’t wait to cook it. At this point in time, we had already made plans to go down and visit one of the people that I had spent so much time with at Sabor Latino. It seemed almost sacrilegious not to cook it for him. It was even more fitting in my brain to cook this for Narren because he has cooked for me countless times in the past. Granted, it was often payment for helping him with something (hence him dubbing me a food-whore). But the occasional payback is nice too.
I did end up making several modifications to the recipe because I wasn’t cooking in my own kitchen. As usual, I’ll put my notes in parenthesis.
- 10 large dried guajillo chiles, wiped clean; can substitute New Mexican chiles (I used a Tbs of Crushed Red Peppers)
- 1 1/2 C Water
- 1 1/4 lbs plum tomatoes, cored and quartered
- 8 Garlic Cloves (I used 1 1/2 small bulbs)
- 4 Bay Leaves
- Salt and Pepper
- 3/4 tsp Sugar
- 1/2 tsp ground Cumin
- 1/8 tsp ground Cloves
- 3 lbs boneless Pork Butt Roast (the one I got weighed 3.5 lbs and had a bone, but it dressed out to 3 lbs)
- 1 Lime, cut into 8 wedges (I used 2)
- 1/2 Pineapple, peeled, cored, and cut into 1/2″ thick rings (did not use at all)
- Veggie Oil
- 18 Corn or Flour Tortillas, about 6″, warmed
- 1 small Onion, chopped fine
- 1/2 C fresh Cilantro, coarsely chopped
Toast guajillos in large Dutch oven over medium-high heat until softened and fragrant, 2 to 4 minutes. Transfer to large plate and when cool enough to handle, remove stems. (Obviously, I completely skipped this step.) Bring toasted guajillos, water, tomatoes, garlic, bay leaves, 2 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp pepper, sugar, cumin, and cloves to simmer in now-empty Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer, stirring occassionally, until guajillos are softened and tomatoes mash easily, about 20 minutes (I only cooked it about 12 minutes).
While the sauce simmers, trim excess fat from exterior of pork, leaving 1/4″ thick fat cap. Slice pork against grain into 1/2″ thick slabs.
Transfer the pepper-tomato mixture to blender and process until smooth, about 1 minute (I pulled out the bay leaves). Strain puree through fine-mesh strainer, pressing on solids to extract as much liquid as possible. Return puree to pot, submerge pork slices in liquid, and bring to simmer over medium heat. Partially cover, reduce heat, and gently simmer until pork is tender but still holds together, 90 to 105 minutes, flipping and rearranging pork halfway through cooking. Transfer pork to large plate, season both sides with salt, and cover tightly with aluminum foil. Whisk sauce to combine. Transfer 1/2 cup to bowl for grilling. Save another 1/2 cup for use later. Squeeze 2 lime wedges into sauce in bowl and add spent wedges; season with salt to taste. (This is where I stopped with the recipe, I just used the bit of sauce to keep the pork moist for serving it.)
Heat grill until hot. Clean and oil cooking grate. Brush one side of pork with 1/4 cup reserved sauce. Place pork on one side of grill, sauce side down, and cook until well browned and crisp, 5 to 7 minutes. Brush pork with remaining 1/4 cup of sauce, flip and continue to cook until the second side is well browned and crisp, 5 to 7 minutes longer. Transfer to cutting board. Meanwhile, brush both sides of pineapple rings with vegetable oil and season with salt to taste. Place on other half of grill and cook until pineapple is softened and caramelized, 5 to 7 minutes per side. Transfer to cutting board. Coarsely chop pineapple and transfer to serving bowl. Using tongs to steady the pork, slice each piece crosswise into 1/8th inch pieces. Bring remaining sauce to simmer, add sliced pork, remove pot from heat, and toss to coat pork well. Season with salt to taste. Spoon small amount of pork into each warm tortilla and serve, passing chopped pineapple, remaining 6 lime wedges, onion and cilantro separately.
Normally, I try and stick pretty close to the recipe the first time I follow it. I make notes and change it on the subsequent tries. The reason I deviated so much on this one is because I was cooking in an unfamiliar kitchen (Narren’s) and using a grocery store that I was unfamiliar with, i.e. I would have picked up the peppers somewhere else had I known I couldn’t get anything close to them. I’m going to go one of two ways the next time I do this recipe. Either I will follow the recipe as intended and grill the meat and pineapple, or, more likely, I will do a slow roast in the oven instead of the stove top treatment. Really the only critique that I had with the way I did it was that the meat ended up a bit tough. But through some creative slicing, I was able to minimize it. Which is why I’m thinking of doing a slow roast, and almost going for a pulled pork sort of effect. Although I do like the idea of crisping up the pork. Well, we’ll see where my whims take me.
A favorite soup around here is butternut squash soup. While digging through my back issues of Cook’s Illustrated (Sept / Oct 2011), I came across one that had a recipe for it, so I just couldn’t resist giving it a try.
- 2.5 lbs Butternut Squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into 2″ chunks
- 2 Tbs Butter
- 1 Leek, white and light green parts only. Quartered lengthwise, sliced thin, and washed thoroughly
- Salt and Pepper
- 4 cups Veggie Broth
- 1-2 C Water
- 1 Tbs Thyme
- 1 Bay Leaf
- Pinch Cayenne Pepper
- Sour Cream
Place the squash in a bowl, cover, and microwave until a paring knife easily slides through, 14-18 minutes. Stir halfway through. Transfer the squash to a colander set in a bowl, drain for 5 minutes and reserve the liquid. Melt the butter in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add squash, leek, and 1 tsp salt, cook, stirring occasionally, until the squash starts to break down and brown fond forms in the bottom of the pot, about 10-13 minutes. Add 2 cups of broth and scrape the bottom of the pot to loosen and dissolve the fond. Add the 2 remaining cups of broth, the reserved squash liquid, 1 cup of water, thyme, bay leaf, and cayenne. Increase the heat to high and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to medium and simmer until the leeks are tender, 6-7 minutes. Remove and discard bay leaf.
Using a stick blender puree the soup until smooth. Bring back to a simmer. Add water to create desired consistency. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve with a dollop of sour cream and fried leeks (see below).
- 1 leek, white and light green parts, halved lengthwise, sliced thin, and washed thoroughly
- 2 Tbs AP Flour
- Salt and Pepper
- 1/4 C Olive Oil
Toss leeks, flour, and a pinch each of salt and pepper in a bowl. Heat oil in a skillet until shimmering. Add half the leeks and fry stirring often until golden brown, about 6 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to a paper towel lined plate, sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Repeat with the other half of the leeks.
Potato dumplings or kluski or gnocchi, depending on where you are, can be very airy or denser than lead. I’ve had both, unfortunately it’s been mostly the latter. Sorry Mom, they taste great, but they are little rocks. So when I found a recipe for “Light-as-Air Potato Gnocchi” in the Sept-Oct issue of Cook’s Illustrated, I was intrigued. The ones that my mom makes uses raw potatoes and the CI recipe that I found uses cooked potatoes which may be one of the reasons. They are actually many variables that can cause denseness in this whole process. Which is remarkable considering how few ingredients are present. Basically it all depends on technique and choosing the right version of an ingredient. The average moisture content of different potatoes will affect how it reacts with the flour. The type of flour will affect the final taste, as I found out. The amount of kneading will also affect the texture. Even how you cook and mash the potatoes is a factor. The ratio of potato and flour is the biggest, and most important, component. Like I said, a lot of variables. Just in the interest of full disclosure, I learned most of this by reading the article before the recipe and not through personal experimentation. Someday I’ll get to that point.
Like always, I’m typing the recipe as I did it. Which, as always, pretty closely follows the original recipe.
Potato Gnocchi with Browned Butter and Sage
- 2 lbs russet potatoes
- 1 lg egg, lightly beaten
- 4 oz AP unbleached flour, plus some for the counter
- 1tsp plus 1 Tbs salt
- 4 Tbs butter, cut into 4 pieces
- 1 small shallot, minced
- 1 tsp dried rubbed sage
- 1 1/2 tsp lemon juice
- 1/4 tsp salt
Adjust the oven rack to middle position and heat to 450 degrees. Poke each potato several times with a paring knife. Microwave the potatoes on high until the ends are slightly soft. About 10 to 13 minutes. Flip the ‘taters about halfway through. Transfer the potatoes directly to the oven and bake until a knife glides easily through. Around 20 minutes. After the potatoes are done, hold it in a towel and peel the skins off with a paring knife. Mash the potatoes immediately (preferably through a ricer), and place them onto a baking sheet. Gently spread into an even layer and let cool for 5 minutes.
Transfer 16 oz of the potatoes to a mixing bowl and gently mix in the egg.
Sprinkle the flour and 1 teaspoon of salt onto the mixture and gently combine with a fork until no pockets of dry flour are left. Press the mixture into a rough ball and transfer to a lightly floured counter.
Gently knead until it is smooth, but slightly sticky, about 1 minute. Line 2 baking sheets with wax paper and dust with flour. Cut the dough into 8 pieces and gently roll each one out into a 1/2″ rope on a floured counter. Cut each rope into 3/4″ pieces.
Roll each piece across the back of a fork to get the traditional grooves in the gnocchi. If the dough sticks at any point in this whole process add some flour to the various surfaces.
To make the sauce, melt the butter in a 12″ skillet over med-hi heat, swirling occasionally, until the butter is browned and emits a nutty aroma. About 1 1/2 minutes. Off the heat, add the shallot and sage stirring until the shallot is fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in the lemon juice and the salt. Cover to keep warm.
Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot and add 1 Tbs of salt. Using the wax paper as a sling, gently lower the gnocchi from one pan into the water and cook until firm and just cooked through. About 90 seconds. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the cooked gnocchi to the the sauce. Repeat with the remaining gnocchi. Gently toss the dumplings with the sauce and serve.
For this supper, I was using the gnocchi as a side dish for the walleye that my family and I caught on Lake of the Woods this last August. I know. It’s okay to be jealous. I just did a cornmeal crust on the fish and fried it in a little olive oil. Nothing fancy, just tasty. Since we haven’t had brussel sprouts in quite a while, I figured that would be a nice veg to throw into the mix. These I just steamed and dressed with some butter, salt, and pepper.
There is only one minor thing I would change for this whole meal. I would use bleached AP flour instead of the unbleached because the unbleached masked the potato flavor a little by adding a distinct wheat taste. It wasn’t a bad combination, I just would prefer a stronger potato flavor in potato dumplings.