Embracing new Christmas traditions: Cioppino

Every Christmas Eve, J’s family, a somewhat traditional, South Philly Italian group, gathers for a seven fishes meal. I say ‘somewhat’ because they don’t use all of the traditional fishes normally served and most are typically fried. One of the biggest problems, however, is the lack of room everyone has after this fried fish feast for J’s mom’s delectable stromboli. This year, it was decided that something had to change. The fish portion of the meal needed to be lighter so that we have room for layers of cheese, meat, and doughy delight.

After much discussion and debate over appropriate recipes and presentation options, J and his folks agreed on cioppino, a California fishermen’s stew. At Thanksgiving, we agreed to cook this complicated dish for the family Christmas Eve.

Two weeks ago, J and I gathered clams, jumbo lump crab meat, mussels, cod, mahi, shrimp, and scallops, bottles of clam juice and pinot grigio, fresh herbs, and freshly made shrimp stock. We also gathered our nerve, for a lot was riding on the success of this dish. If we succeeded, we may be starting a new Christmas Eve food tradition in J’s family. That is a heavy and exciting burden.

If you’ve never made it, cioppino is a complex stew that involves accurate prep, fresh ingredients, several hours, lots of careful reduction, and precise timing when adding the fish so as not to overcook any one kind. But J and I are confident cooks and embraced the challenge with the abandon of fearless food lovers…and our first attempt was wildly successful! J’s parents enjoyed the deeply flavorful and satisfying concoction and so now we are set to make the dish tonight for the family.

Cooking for family and friends is always satisfying, and traditions are important, but when we are gifted the rare opportunity to change a central family food tradition, it should be handled with respect and love and fresh ingredients in the hopes that everyone embraces the new.

Happy Christmas Eve, everyone, and please share: What new family food traditions will you attempt this year?


Moms Gotta Cook, Kids Gotta Eat

A 16-year-old and a 16-month-old. That’s what I’m working with here. That means picky taste buds x about 1.5, which is why I was so happy to stumble upon a recipe (courtesy of my big sis) that made the whole household happy. That includes my near-vegetarian toddler, Mini Mo.

I first had the chicken/broccoli casserole at my big sis’s house over Labor Day weekend 2012. She had a pretty nice crowd at her house for the weekend in honor of her niece and nephew’s joint 1st birthday party. (Mini Mo and her cousin Gabe were born 3 weeks and 2  days apart!) The casserole we had the next day, then, was perfect for the group and pretty darn tasty to boot.

A combination of cut-up chicken and broccoli mixed with cream of chicken soup, topped with a layer of shredded cheddar and another layer of Ritz cracker crumbles, this dish is hearty and yummy. It’s simple to make, but it’s not to be done without solid planning ahead. You’ll find the recipe here in the Recipes We Love section.

After getting the verbal instructions from big sis that weekend, I attempted it at home. While the result was tasty, it was a bit too liquidy. I got it right the next time, though, and every time since–after a phone call here and a text message there to big sis. The important thing is that my picky eaters will eat it, which just warms me up inside. The first time Mini Mo finished her bowl and asked for more (or “moy” in Mini Mo-speak) made me about fall over with excitement.

This is one meal I know that will not go to waste and will not be picked over. PLUS, my finicky kids will get veggies and protein in one bite. It’s gotten to the point where I make this every other week now, and I’m perfectly fine with that. 🙂


Making the Divine

It was just the kind of day perfect for baking, making concoctions to take to family for the holidays. Nothing left to shop for, no errands to run—only home and a counter laden with supplies. Boxes of rice crispy treats, containers of cocoa, bags of dates and nuts, all of these things beckoned me, and I gladly complied. I swung open the back door to sunshine and balmy December breezes—ahhh, the South—and cranked Michael Buble on the stereo.

All should have been right with the world. No financial concerns, great friends, loving family, time off from work. Freedom and peace. Finally. So hard won. And yet, a sadness consumed me because I was alone, and it was Christmas Eve. Ink on divorce papers had barely dried when I moved into my house three weeks before, and I thanked my lucky stars for my blessings. Really, I thanked my Creator, for saving me from so very much, for providing a safe and wonderful place to call home, a place where new memories would be made.  And yet, tears flowed onto my apron while I thought of my precious 11-year-old girl who was across town with her dad.

I needed comfort, so on a whim, I shoved my supplies aside and pulled out the Kitchen Aid and my binder of recipes. Times like this called for drastic measures, or in this case, drastic (and daring) recipes. Flipping until I found it, I sighed in relief when I pulled out the stained index card with one simple word scrawled at the top: “Divinity.” Memories flooded my mind: my country grandmother, known as Maw-maw, making this white, persnickety concoction every Christmas (and sometimes Thanksgiving, too, if we were lucky); my mom perfecting it in certain years, and in others creating disastrous white goo that we had to eat with spoons; various aunts who had varying success with it as well. I decided, right then and there, that I needed to join their ranks on Christmas Eve 2011.

As the Kitchen Aid did its glorious work of spinning egg whites into frothiness, then stiff-peaked merengue, I went about the business of carefully cooking the sugar. The required precision for this candy puts off most people, but it didn’t deter me that afternoon. I tested the hardness of the syrup, I consulted my confectioner’s thermometer to the exact degree, and I poured the syrup into the merengue carefully, just as the recipe stated. The Kitchen Aid whirred and stirred and then finished its work. Tears long gone, I happily looked at the bowl of divinity, and then I began the work of dropping it by the spoonful onto waxed paper lining my counters. Only…..it didn’t stick together into delicious little balls like it was supposed to. It oozed onto the paper and created tell-tale puddles of the divine turned disastrous. I had seen this before, in my mom’s kitchen. In a panic, sticky fingers grabbed the phone and soon Mom was on the line.

“How do I save it?” I panted. “Hurry! I know my time is very limited!”

“Quick, put it back under the mixer and beat it more until it thickens. You didn’t cook the syrup long enough, but this will help. It won’t be as good, but at least you’ll be able to form it into balls.” Mom gladly shared her expertise, and we laughed together across the miles.

So, I did what she recommended and ended up with slightly chalky, grayish-looking divinity, not the smooth, delectable white candy that it can be. But, it was edible. And best of all, the loneliness was gone, banished by one holiday tradition of the wonderfully strong women in my family.

**You can find my recipe for divinity (if you dare try it) in the recipe section of this blog. Good luck!


The joy of holiday cookies

Ginger. Cloves. Cinnamon.

Flour dust. Sugar sprinkles. Butter smears.

Teaspoons. Tablespoons. Cups.

These are the technical tools of the baking season. The holidays. A time to unleash my inner baker and create deliciousness to share with friends, family, and my love, J.

Upon gobbling another orange-glazed cookie this past weekend, he looked at me and said, “You bake a good cookie.” Delivered with all of the seriousness normally reserved for more serious subjects, this warmed my heart. He has talked before about what a good cook his ex-wife was, and although I know he dislikes her immensely, his praise of her cooking stung just a touch. So weeks later, when he praised my cookies, I felt we had passed another threshold of sorts.

Twenty-two months and going strong. Our second holiday season together. More importantly, our second cookie-baking weekend.

J and I share cookie baking duties, dividing executive and sous chef responsibilities, moving around one another like two people who have known each other much longer than 22 months. This ease and comfort of being together, working together, talking and laughing together, continues to be evidence of the lasting nature of our relationship, or at least our confidence in this idea.

The harmony we feel as a couple is poured into the seven different kinds of cookies that we work together to create: Oatmeal Raisin, Chocolate Chip, Bourbon Date Bars, Holiday Biscotti, Orange-Glazed, Walnut Balls, and Ginger Snaps (recipe listed in the “Recipes we love” section of this blog).

As we pack up and deliver boxes of these delectable treats for friends, co-workers, and family, the reviews start. “Love the little spice cookies!” “What’s the recipe for those date bars?” “Oh, that biscotti! Yum!”

These affirmations of the cookies resonate with me in a more personal way, simply because I know of the work, effort, and time we put into their creation. “Baked with love” is such a cliche, but in this case, it is a positive reminder that the energy we put into whatever we create will spill out into the world in equal measure, making it doubly nice when that energy is driven by compatibility, kindness, and love.

Happy Holidays to one and all!

– AMo