The Night Before the Night Before Christmas: Starring Shepherd's Pie

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The drive up Fair Oaks to our house is long. We are not too close to the freeway, so patience is required. And as you sit in you car, patiently, you can't help but glance around and notice oh, convalescent home. Oh, mortuary! Oh, convalescent home! There's a good five blocks, which I've dubbed as Convalescent Death Row, where you pass about 10 or so convalescent homes and mortuaries. I guess the two are strategically close together. It's a bit of a downer. That is, until you get to the Taco Bell/Pizza Hut. By that point, you're really depressed and disgusted with society. But, a few blocks after that, the beautiful San Gabriel mountains emerge before you, and on a clear, crisp day like yesterday, you are in awe of them. 

As I made my way home on the eve before Christmas Eve, getting off work early and being able to enjoy daylight, I was struck by the beauty of the last 1/2 mile drive up to our street. The looming, majestic mountains, the old and intriguing Mountain View Cemetery, the quirky homes full of character -- I couldn't believe how lucky we were to have found our Altadena house. A bit out of the way, yes, but definitely worth the drive. I felt grateful, admiring the mountains and looked forward to sharing the evening with a small group of friends, for one of our newest traditions - Christmas Eve Eve. 

Only in it's third year, this special day has quickly become our favorite. A hearty, hassle-free meal, wine, eggnog, holiday lights, pine and candle smells, friends and good times. This year, I also pulled out my tripod and we had fun posing for the camera, before settling down on the couches before a fire. 

And although spending time in each other's company was great, and so was seeing our friend from Texas, everyone agreed the real highlight was the shepherd's pie. I didn't use a recipe. I just did what I pleased, tasted along the way, and trusted my instincts. It worked. One of our friend's called the pie fierce. I think she might be watching too much Top Model. 

Hope you are also enjoying this special time with friends and family, and reflecting on all the deliciousness that is life. Happy holidays my friends. 


Oven-Roasted Beet Soup with Watercress

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This is the final recipe left over from the husband's big 30 dinners. I almost didn't post, but the photos are so red and pretty, very Christmasy, seeing them changed my mind.

This silky soup was on the menu on night two. Roasted beets are delicious, and this soup has a unique, velvety flavor. It's super easy to make, the only time consuming portion is straining the soup, which we considered skipping, but after a test taste, decided the extra seven minutes were well worth it.

I am also now in love with crème fraîche. I've even been using it in my mashed potatoes.

Oven-Roasted Beet Soup with Watercress
From www.joanneweir.com
Serves 6

2 1/2 pounds beets, greens removed and washed
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 large red onion, minced
5 cups chicken stock
1 bunch watercress, stems removed, chopped
1/2 cup crème fraîche
1 teaspoon lemon juice

1) Preheat the oven to 375°F.

2) Place the beets in a shallow baking pan and drizzle with the oil and 1 tablespoon water. Roll the beets to coat with the oil. Season with salt and pepper, cover with aluminum foil, and bake until the beets are tender and can be easily pierced with a fork, 60 to 80 minutes, depending on the size of the beets. When the beets are tender, remove from the oven and let cool. This can be done a day in advance, which is very convenient.

3) In the meantime, pour the oil from the baking pan into a soup pot. Warm the oil over medium heat, add the onions, and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 7 minutes.

4) When the beets are cool, peel and chop them coarsely. Add them to the onions along with the chicken stock and 1 cup water. Increase the heat to high and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes.

5) Puree the soup in a blender or with an immersion blender, until very smooth. Strain through a fine mesh strainer into a clean soup pot.  The straining really make a difference in the texture of the soup. We did a taste test. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

6) Reserve 1/4 cup of the watercress for a garnish. In the blender, puree half of the watercress with 1 tablespoon crème fraîche until very smooth. Add the remaining watercress and pulse 2 to 3 times. Add lemon juice and season to taste with salt and pepper.


Brussels Sprouts Salad

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This salad will make its third appearance at our table this month for Christmas dinner. You might be thinking, "Really? It doesn't look very special" and rolling your eyes. But you'd be wrong. This, I have decided, is the perfect winter salad.

When I first saw this salad pictured in the October issue of Bon Appetit I turned the page without giving it much thought. But then, I noticed the brussels sprouts were barely cooked and this could be prepared the day before.  Raw brussels sprouts, eh? Interesting. With that, I decided to add the salad to night one of the husband's birthday dinners (if you're getting tired of hearing about his dinners, don't worry, I only have one more recipe to blog about!)

Now, the recipe is altered. I didn't like the idea of walnuts, so I used pinenuts instead, and I wasn't about to go buy walnut oil, so I used good 'ol olive oil. And when I first tasted the undressed radicchio and brussels sprouts, a worried look settled on my face. The husband noticed. It was bitter, I told him. And I like bitter. But, this might be too bitter. Well, not much I could do at that point, I told myself. Maybe the flavors will chill out?

And the flavors did mellow. Once the salad was dressed, it only had traces of slight and pleasant bitterness. The mustard, shallot and pine nut vinaigrette was tangy and complimented the hearty greens. The lemon zest added freshness and lightness to the dish. My only complaint here is that is takes so long to separate the leaves of the sprouts. Those little heads of green are tight and don't want to come off. So a bit of patience is required.  Hopefully Santa will bring me some more patience this weekend as I prepare the salad one more time on Christmas day.
Brussels Sprouts Salad
Adapted from Bon Appetit
Serves 8

3 3/4 cups brussels sprouts, halved, cored, leaves separated
Kosher salt
1/2 cup toasted pine nuts, divided
2 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil plus more for drizzling
1 medium shallot, minced
3 tablespoons plus 2 tsp. Champagne vinegar
1 1/4 teaspoons Dijon mustard
Pinch sugar
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 medium head of radicchio (about 5 oz.), cored and thinly sliced
Parmesan (for shaving)
3/4 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

1) Blanch brussels sprouts in boiling salted water for 30 seconds; drain and immediately transfer to a large bowl of ice water to cool. Spin in a salad spinner to dry leaves (or pat dry with kitchen towels). (Can be made 2 days ahead. Wrap in a kitchen towel, transfer to a resealable plastic bag, and chill.)

2) Melt butter with 1 Tbsp. oil in a small saucepan over low heat. Add shallot and half the pine nuts; cook, stirring frequently, until shallot softens, about 2 minutes. Whisk in vinegar, mustard, and sugar. Remove vinaigrette from heat; season to taste with salt and pepper. (Can also be made 2 days ahead. Transfer to a container, cover, and chill. Let vinaigrette come to room temperature before serving.)

3)Place brussels sprouts and radicchio in a large bowl. Pour vinaigrette over brussels sprouts mixture and toss to coat well. Transfer to a serving dish. Using a vegetable peeler, shave cheese over. Sprinkle with lemon zest and remaining pine nuts. Drizzle with olive oil.


Roasted Cauliflower Soup

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I'm not sure if this is a cauliflower or butter soup. I think I used equal parts of both, but, it is delicious -- rich and creamy. I served this soup on night one of the 30th birthday dinners

It's a simple soup to make, with only a handful of ingredients. But it looks and tastes fancy. Probably due to all that butter. I think roasting the cauliflower first adds a nice depth of flavor. I've found that to be true with most vegetable soups. So if you have some extra time, just pop your vegetables in the oven first. You won't regret it.
Roasted Cauliflower Soup
Adapted from Bon Appetit

1 large head of cauliflower (about 2 lb.), leaves discarded
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened, divided
Kosher salt
1 large onion, minced
1/4 cup heavy cream
4-6 cups of chicken stock

1) Preheat oven to 350°. Place whole cauliflower head in a large baking dish, rub with 4 Tbsp. butter, and season with salt. Add 1/2 cup water to dish. Bake uncovered, tenting with foil if cauliflower begins to brown, until a knife inserted into the core meets no resistance, about 1 1/2 hours. Remove cauliflower from oven; let cool. Coarsely chop and set aside.
2) Melt 2 Tbsp. butter in a large saucepan over medium-low heat. Add onion; cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is soft and translucent, about 15 minutes. Add cauliflower and 4 cups  stock. Simmer until cauliflower is very soft, about 10 minutes. Let cool slightly. Puree.
3) Return soup to pot and bring to a simmer, adding more stock if too thick. Season with salt. Remove from heat and whisk in remaining 6 Tbsp. butter and cream. Serve warm in shallow bowls, drizzle with olive oil.


Holiday Cheer, Minimalist Style

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This year, we've decorated early. Since we're skipping town for a getaway the day after Christmas, we decided to get the most out of holiday decor. 

We keep things simple. Unlike some people we know, we don't have 27 large boxes of holiday decorations stashed away in our attic. Everything we own, fits into two, flat ornament boxes that we keep in our guest closet. And it's just enough stuff to add a festive touch to the place. We've both agreed, if it doesn't fit into those boxes, it has got to go. This prevents us from purchasing anything we don't love. Besides, no amount of stuff can compare to the fresh smell of a tree. 

Enjoy our minimalist decor below. Happy holidays my readers! 



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I love dumplings. Steamed, pan fried, with seafood, meat or vegetables. For breakfast, lunch or dinner. Recently, we had some delicious dim sum, and it reminded me that I never posted my gyoza attempt from way back in October. We hosted a sushi night, and these little pork pillows stole the spotlight. 

These are easy to make, you can customize your filling, and if you make a large batch, they freeze well and make a great snack later. So make a large batch. It's always a pleasant surprise to open the freezer and hey, there's dumplings!
Pan-Fried Pork Potstickers
Makes about 30

1 lbs of ground pork
3 large scallions, chopped
4-5 leaves of napa cabbage, sliced thin
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 inch piece of ginger, grated
2 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp sesame oil
drizzle of chili oil

gyoza wrappers
water for steaming and sealing the wrappers
peanut oil

dipping sauce:
soy sauce and rice vinegar (I use a two to one ratio)

1) Combine your ingredients in a large bowl and mix until everything is incorporated.
2) Lay out your wrappers, and place about 1 tablespoon of filling on each wrapper. Fold and seal, using a bit of water along the edge.
3) Preheat a nonstick skillet with a bit of peanut oil. Once pan is hot, add the postickers, and brown both sides. You will need to do this in batches, make sure not to overcrowd your pan.
4) Add 2-3 tablespoons of water to the pan, cover and steam the dumplings until cooked through about 3 minutes. Uncover, and cook an additional 2-3 minutes until all the water is evaporated.
5) Serve while hot with soy sauce and rice vinegar.