Holiday horrors

It was a frightening day for me as I made my first plunge into the holiday-bedecked edition of Target. It’s no use to rail about Christmas decorations going up alongside the Thanksgiving turkey stuffing – that sleigh has sailed.  But the Christmas CD display that blurted out carols every time someone strolled by – I don’t know why employees don’t smash that thing with a yule log by the end of the day.

Nothing says “Merry Christmas” like a useless, counter-space-sucking small appliance, and I saw three today . One was a cupcake baker. Shaped like a cupcake and colored shiny pink, it can hold six cupcakes, which it purports to bake in 10 minutes. I believe I own a thing called an “oven” that bakes many more cupcakes in the same amount of time. If you wanted to waste your time making cupcakes, that is. The cupcake baker does not frost them for you, unfortunately.

Because every baked good requires its own dedicated machine, right next to it was a doughnut baker. But what I fear is a sign that the deliciousness that is pie is being co-opted by The Man sat next to it: the Pie Magic pie maker. It looks like a George Foreman grill from the outside; inside are spaces for four small pies – tarts, really, I’d say. The description says the contraption has a “unique edge crimper.” So do I. It’s called a fork.

Weakened by these sights, I beseeched The Hub to meet me for lunch. I needed an hour in his peaceful presence, and to consume leafy greens with feta cheese. But the worst vision was still to come.

I gazed up to the restaurant’s TV and saw Paula Deen, holding a Barbie doll version of herself. (Yes, I could tell the difference; Paula was taller.)

What fresh horrors will the season hold?

Holiday menu time

I am pondering my Christmas menu. I know, y’all probably had yours mapped out weeks ago, but I have lollygagged. I have had the “proteins,” as chefs like to say, set in my mind for a while, but the auxiliary dishes, no.

Christmas Eve will be fried oysters. I roll them in cornmeal because I love the crunch, maybe toss in a little Cajun seasoning if I’m feeling sassy. I think with those, some simple sides like salad, baked sweet potatoes or roasted green beans. Green beans are great tossed with some olive oil and salt, then roasted in a 425-degree oven. I need to remember the horseradish for the oysters’ cocktail sauce (so simple to make your own: ketchup, lemon juice, Worcestershire, horseradish and Tabasco).

For Christmas Day, a huge hunk of meat: Standing rib roast. Once (maybe twice) a year, we deserve it. The main issue is that this beast will take up my oven, at a low temperature, for some time – I use the slow-roast method. Things cooked on top of the stove, like steamed broccoli or sauteed greens, are a good idea. There’s a wild rice casserole recipe that I really like, but requires baking. I may make it the night before and reheat. The recipe is from “Simply in Season” by Mary Beth Lind and Cathleen Hockman-Wert (Herald Press, 2005). I use butternut squash, which is really convenient now that you can purchase chunks in most supermarket produce sections.

Wild Rice Vegetable Bake

1 cup wild rice

2 cups chopped onion

1 cup pearl barley

6 cups sweet potatoes, winter squash and/or parsnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces

1 pound mushrooms

1 cup cider or apple juice

3 cups chicken or vegetable broth

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Boil the wild rice gently in 4 cups water for 10 minutes, then drain and place in 9-inch by 13-inch baking pan. Saute the onion in 2 tablespoons olive oil or butter, then add to the rice. Add the barley and stir. spread the vegetables on top of the grains and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Pour on the juice or cider and broth. Cover tightly with aluminum foil or a lid. Bake for 1 hour.

Serves 6 to 8.

Veg out

Sugar cookies, fried oysters, chocolate cheesecake, spicy chili, crispy sweet potato latkes…I love all the foods that fall out of Santa’s pack this time of year. Yes, even eggnog and fruitcake. Deck the halls with lots of excess, I always say.

But even the most dedicated festive feaster needs a palate cleanser at some point. Last night, it was vegetable soup. I chose the recipe because it would be easy to prepare and serve before two other couples and the Hub and I went to a concert. But it also seemed to hit some cleansing, warming spot with me and everyone else. I’m glad, because I worry about expectations. When you’re a professional food writer, some people seem to think that you prepare lobster risotto with truffle oil every night, or some such thing. Sorry to burst your champagne bubble, but we need our vegetable soup, too.

The soup is so easy: About two cups each of chopped carrots and celery, about three cups chopped onions, all cooked in olive oil in the biggest pot you have (it makes a LOT) until they’re soft, not brown. Add about four cups of chicken broth and about four cups of water, or all broth if you want. Then about one and a half russet potatoes, peeled and chopped, and a can of diced tomatoes. Cook it all about 30 minutes, covered, on a low simmer, then add about a cup of shredded cabbage. Taste for salt and pepper. Maybe a dash or two of garlic powder (not salt, powder; read the label for once). That’s it. There are glorious leftovers in my refrigerator now, waiting to be frozen.

And before you think I’ve already gone over to the January dieting – as I write this, I am munching on my second piece of the day of Moravian sugar cake made by my neighbor, The Queen of Pie. I’ve earned it, after chopping all those vegetables. And I didn’t even deep-fry them in bacon grease.

Food news roundup

Sorry for the late post. My site wasn’t cooperating yesterday. But a few burnt herbs on the keyboard and the right incantations, and all is well. Don’t have enough Christmas cookies yet? Fear not. The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer has pretty goodies that it swears aren’t hard to make. Read more here. It’s also in The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.), along with word here about a spot that makes ye olde mead. Quaff away.

And…thumbprint cookies in the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal here. Boy, is Santa gonna need to hit the treadmill. It makes me remember my days in the food editor office, when people who usually used their ovens to store paper plates decided to have a homemade Dickens-Martha Stewart Christmas. It was in December when a caller asked me what the difference was between salted and unsalted butter.

Is there no place to escape the rampant cookies? Not at JanNorris.com, where there is a recipe for dunkable, doughnut-shaped Armenian cookies.

The Independent Weekly (Durham, N.C.) chronicles a novice shopper’s search for stocking-stuffers that cost less than $5. You’d have to have a stocking fit for Dumbo to hold a box of beignet mix, but see the other ideas here.

It’s not too late to prepare homemade goodies, especially if you’re going to leave them at my house. The candy looks delightful in the Dallas Morning News, here.

Finally, the questions asked by millions is answered: What the heck is figgy pudding? It’s on CNN’s Eatocracy, here.

Back in my mother’s day, you couldn’t purchase a big package of chicken breasts. If you wanted parts, you had to take knife in hand and do it yourself. The Minneapolis Star Tribune details one woman’s face-off with a whole bird here.

Food news roundup

A freezer full of dinners – what a great holiday gift. The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) gives step-by-step instructions, focused on meals for retired parents. But it would be a nice idea for busy moms or harried caregivers, too. And the article makes it sound easy. It’s in the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, too, along with a blog on the idea that recipes, like the pirate code, are really just guidelines.

Cocktails are back? Heck, they never left my house. Really, I know the refined mixed drink is making a resurgence (no bottled mixers or frozen daiquiri mixes). Read more in the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal here.

Can you imagine not being able to lick the bowl when Mom is making cookies? That’s what happens when a kid is allergic to most of the things in the cookies. The Feed With Care column in the Independent Weekly (Durham, N.C.) solves the problem deliciously, and little fingers can go to town. It’s here.

Speaking of cookies – and who doesn’t like to do that? – the Chai Spice Girl cookies in the Post and Courier (Charleston, S.C.) look mighty good. A few of those left with your humble blogger would be nice. Also, Sean Brock of Husk will compete on Iron Chef America this Sunday. Read it all here.

Easy, breezy hummus is often overlooked as a party snack. It appears in our house a lot because, one, it’s good, and two, it contains no dairy that would trouble the dairy-allergic Hub. Find a simple recipe at JanNorris.com.

Cookies, cookies everywhere! Leite’s Culinaria has some beautiful ones, and by watching the slide show, you consume no calories whatsoever.

Even congresspeople need comfort. Old-fashioned junk-food spots have sprung up around the Capitol as thick as lobbyists, so says the New York Times. Read more here.

Food news roundup

Haul out the gift guides! The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) has suggestions of North Carolina products for holiday giving, including, yes, barbecue sauce. Check your list here. It’s in the Charlotte Observer, too.

The winner of the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal’s holiday cookie contest wasn’t sugar cookies or even Moravian spice. It was a rugelach, a filled cookie traditionally served for Hanukkah, which coincidentally begins tonight. The recipe, which has only nine ingredients, is here.

Another Hanukkah treat is in the Post and Courier (Charleston, S.C.), but this one has a twist. Instead of potatoes, the recipe and video of preparation for Zucchini Latkes is here. Personally, I make mine with sweet potatoes, but anything fried in oil has got to be good.

More on latkes is at JanNorris.com, this time gluten-free, low-carb Cauliflower Latkes. The recipe is here.

Those fancy, rolled-up yule log cakes aren’t as hard to make as you think. But let your guests believe they’re tough to create, while you watch the latest how-to video on it at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. It’s here.

You just can’t get enough cookies this time of year, and there are more in the Chicago Tribune with the winners of its cookie contest. Luscious photos and recipes are here.

I hope that’s enough for y’all to chew on today – I need to finish putting up my holiday yard art. Maybe they’ll see me from the space station this year.

Your holiday party tips

The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) recently offered holiday party dos and don’ts from experts. They’re useful enough, and I heartily agree with the advice to start with an empty dishwasher. But they don’t cover all the possible things that can happen at a festive soiree. So, here are my personal tips, gleaned from at least 20 years of holiday party throwing. I can’t tell you exactly how long the hub and I have been holding our annual Cajun holiday fest because, well, we get a little fuzzy on dates after so many Abitas. But the following advice is rock solid.

– Don’t invite two women named Erin (with the same hair color), then agree on the day after the party to fix up a guest with the woman named Erin that he met at your house. You will, undoubtedly, pick the wrong Erin.

– If you invite guests to use the hot tub, make sure none of them arrive with scuba gear.

– Moravian beeswax candles + long wicks + decorated paper tablecloth = festive conflagration.

– Make your house easy for partygoers to find by placing some unusual object in the yard, such as a five-foot lighted flamingo with a Santa hat.

– Disconnect your VCR or DVD player, in case someone shows up with martial arts practice videos. Claim the machine broke last week.

Now, go forth and entertain!

More Moravian Sugar Cake

Homemade sugar cake will be sold at Raleigh Moravian Church at its Candle Tea on Dec. 5. Rev. Suzanne P. Miller, associate pastor, says that more than 18 members will spend several days baking and packaging the goodies. The tea at the Ridge Road church will run 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., and include performances by area school choral groups. Crafts including the 26-pointed Moravian stars, also made by church members, will be for sale. More information here.