Christmas Dinner, 2009: An Embarassment of Riches (with Recipes!)

This year, for the first time in my young life, no one cooked Christmas dinner.  Rather than travel to Missouri for the holidays, Mr. Luz and I stayed home in D.C., video Skyped with our loved ones, and ate leftovers--partially to recover from our Christmas Eve feast at Bistrot Lepic, and partially to mentally and physically prepare for the Christmas dinner we cooked for our friends the next day.

Yep...Mr. Luz and I cooked our very first Christmas dinner this weekend.  I'm no Julia, we were able to dig into our Favorite Flavors Repository and come up with a satisfying and kind-of-almost-healthy-ish meal to share with friends by the glow of the Christmas tree.

And for once, I didn't have even the tiniest of meltdowns. Mr. Luz and I worked together and managed to feed 12 people out of a kitchen the size of a refrigerator box without any injuries, tears, or low-blood sugar freak outs. And as everyone squeezed into our living room, and the volume got  louder and smiles got brighter throughout the evening, I felt blessed-like the richest woman in the world.  I'm really proud of our beautiful meal.  And Mr. Luz, thanks for being my calm, dedicated co-Chef this Christmas. I love you.

Christmas Dinner Menu for 12 (recipes below):

Assorted Appetizers

Smoked Turkey
Baked Acorn Squash with Butter and Cinnamon
Gremolata Greenbeans
Smoked Oyster New Orleans Style Stuffing

The Best Apple Pie In The World (recipe pending in future post)

Smoked Turkey RecipeSee this link to a previous post

Baked Acorn Squash with Butter and Brown Sugar Recipe:
This recipe is elegant, simple, and traditional.  If you don't want to serve the squash pieces individually, simply halve the squash, and after baking spoon out the squash and mash it to a puree for serving.

3-4 large Acorn Squash, seeds and strings removed
3 Tbs. butter
6 Tbs. brown sugar
salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Quarter the squash, and arrange on a rimmed baking sheet, skin side down. Add a few Tbs. of water to the baking sheet to steam squash and keep skins from burning.

Spoon pieces of butter and brown sugar into the concave part of the squash. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake for 45 min. to an hour, until the squash is soft all the way through and browned a bit on top.  Serve.

Gremolata Green beans Recipe:
This dish serves as the perfect bright, garlicky foil to a traditional rich, sweet holiday menu and it's so versatile.  Make it ahead of time and serve it at room temperature.  These green beans are so tasty, we eat them like dessert...a few bites at a time, all day long.  We acquired the recipe after a friend brought them to Thanksgiving this year, so I can't take credit, but they were too good not to pass along.

2 pounds green beans
4 Tbs. minced garlic
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Zest of 8 lemons (yellow part only)
2 bunches Italian parsley, leaves only, chopped
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. black pepper
Juice of 1 lemon, or to taste

Blanch the green beans in a pot of boiling salted water for 1 to 1 1/2 minutes; drain and plunge into ice water. Drain well. Transfer to a serving bowl.

Saute the garlic in olive oil over medium-low heat for 2 minutes or just until the garlic turns white. Do not let it brown. Pour over the beans and toss to combine.

Combine the lemon zest, parsley, cheese, salt and pepper. Sprinkle on the beans, and toss. Add the lemon juice, toss again, and taste. Adjust seasonings with salt, pepper and more lemon juice, to taste.

NOTE: Mr. Luz likes to throw the topping ingredients, raw garlic, cheese and all, into the food processer and then toss the blanched greenbeans, olive oil, lemon juice, and food processed topping all together before serving.  To him, flash cooking the garlic takes some of the fun out of the dish, and electronics are more fun than chopping.

Smoked Oyster French Bread Stuffing
I love a sweet, salty, umami-tasting oyster with just about everything, but especially when it adds unexpected elegance and subtlety to a holiday stuffing/dressing. I've been eating this stuff for breakfast since Saturday.

2 large loaves stale French bread, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
2 cups fresh oysters in their own liquor
1 1/2 cups smoked oysters, rinsed and coarse chopped
1 bunch fresh parsley leaves, chopped
2 bunches green onions, chopped
1/2 bell pepper, diced
1 large onion, diced
4 ribs celery, diced
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 Tbs. bacon grease
1 cup butter
2 Tbs. of your favorite fresh savory herb(s), chopped (thyme, sage, rosemary)
Salt and red pepper to taste
2 cups chicken stock
Dry the bread cubes on a baking sheet all day, or in a 200 degree oven, until crispy.

Melt 1/2 cup butter and bacon grease over medium heat in a large pan.  Add the bell pepper, onion, celery and saute until translucent.  Add the garlic, green onion, and parsley and saute 2 more minutes.

Combine the sauteed vegetables, bread cubes, smoked and fresh oysters, with their liquor, savory herbs, salt and red pepper and chicken stock in a large bowl and mix well. Spoon the dressing into a baking dish. Dot with the remaining 1/2 cup butter.  Bake at 350 until brown and bubbly--approximately 35-45  minutes.

How to Smoke a Turkey on a Weber Kettle Grill

OhmyGodohmyGodohmyGodohmyGod, Look What I Did!! Seriously, I did that. And I maybe cried a few happy tears when I saw that bronze lacquered skin, and heard the meat thermometer beep as it reached 160 degrees.

This post should be called "The Smoked Turkey Experiment," because I essentially read a few vague web pages, threw this big boy in the Weber kettle, chugged a few glasses of wine to take the edge off my fretting, and hoped that instinct and the aforementioned meat thermometer would see me through. (The thermometer is amazing, FYI--it has a pager that goes off when the desired temp. is reached. Drunk grilling just got a whole lot easier.) Hypothesis: If you can start a charcoal grill, you can smoke a turkey. Conclusion: Affirmed.

Let the record show, I have never even roasted a turkey. I've never really roasted anything--when your parents keep your spoiled ass set up with kitchen gadgets like a countertop rotisserie, you don't roast, you rotisserize. If I can pull this off, anyone can, and should.

The smoked turkey had a beautiful, flavorful skin and the meat had a juicy texture that was tender, not chewy. Mr. Luz carved the bird, and he kept sort of giggling and mumbling " tender...falling off the bone..." And it was so smooth, rich, and smokey in flavor. Later, after a few bottles of wine, Mr. Luz called it 1.) the best turkey he'd ever tasted and 2.) in the top 5 best tasting meats he'd ever had. (When asked to do impressions, a wine-soaked Mr. Luz did: Mama BaCon--"I got you some tupperware, and it fits the whole universe." Papa BaCon--"The Hunley is a magnificent watercraft, simply stunning." Me: "F*** you, you f****** b****." He doesn't remember doing them, but they were pretty accurate.)


1. If using a brine, thaw your turkey at least 32 hours before you cook it. Once thawed, prepare the brine and soak your turkey for 24 hours plus. This Serious Eats Food Lab article is the best I've read on how and why you brine a turkey. Before smoking, thoroughly rinse your turkey in cold water. *NOTE: I didn't get the turkey in time to brine it, and it was still fantastic, but brining would take it to the next level. *

2. If not brining, thaw your turkey in the fridge for two days, or use the cold-water method just before smoking. (Soak in cold water, in the packaging, changing the water ever 30 minutes. It takes approximately 30 minutes per pound.)

3. Soak 3-4 handfuls of mesquite wood chips in water. 1 hour minimum for chips, 4+ hours for large knots of wood.

3. Once the turkey has thawed, remove giblets/neck from turkey and rinse inside and out. Pat dry. If your turkey is 16+ lbs. you might want to cut the entire turkey in half at this time. Yes, this is the cheater way to do it, but you'll avoid black turkey skin, and you won't fret/gulp wine for 8+ hours, wondering if the damned thing is even cooking.

4. Prepare 1 chimney of hot charcoal. Place a pan of liquid on the center of your bottom grate (water, wine, beer, broth, ect.) and spread the hot coals around it. Add 5-7 cold coals to the hot coals. Put the 3/4 of the soaked wood chips on top of the hot coals, open the bottom and top vents on the grill, and close the lid.

5. Cover your turkey inside and out with olive oil/melted butter and salt, pepper, dried thyme, and cayenne pepper. Put the turkey on the grill grate, breast side up, placing the turkey directly over the liquid-filled drip pan. (If you cut your turkey in half, put the meat facing up and the bones facing down.)

6. Every hour, quickly check your coals and baste your bird with more butter/olive oil. Halfway through smoking, prepare another chimney of hot coals and add it to your Weber grill, along with the last 1/4 of the wood chips. Your bird will generally need 30 minutes per pound to cook, and if you cut it in half then count the time based on the weight of 1/2 the turkey. Every time you open the lid, you increase your cooking time so do it sparingly. Trust me, it's cooking.

7. When a meat thermometer inserted in the breast but not touching the bone (ESSENTIAL) reaches 160 degrees, your bird is done and safe to eat. Carefully remove it from the grill, let it rest at least 15 minutes, carve, and

Merry Christmas To All, with Snickerdoodles

Ok, really, Merry Christmas this time.

It's 1pm on Christmas Eve, and I'm just about to leave work to go watch Harry Potter, eat snickerdoodles, and sleep on my couch until Mr. Luz gets home.

After that, we will get gussied up and go eat lots of confit'ed meats and cheese at Bistrot Lepic's Christmas Eve dinner. I supremely hope that the restaurant is decorated with pine garlands, red velvet bows, and candles. I don't know...that's just how I picture a romantic, grown-up Christmas dinner, just me and my man. (In my head, I'm also wearing the most amazing mile-high purple stilettos amidst the pine garland. Just so you get a complete picture.)

Also, because I know you're wondering, here's the etymology of "gussied up": it's a fairly modern term, and "Gussy" or "Gussie" was originally applied to an effeminate or weak person. British or Australian in origin.

I'm very, very excited for our grown-up Christmas. How will you celebrate the holidays this year?

Snickerdoodle Recipe, from

1/2 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup shortening
1 1/2 cups white sugar
2 eggs
2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
2 Tbs. white sugar
2 tsp. ground cinnamon

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Cream together butter, shortening, 1 1/2 cups sugar, the eggs and the vanilla. Blend in the flour, cream of tartar, soda and salt.

Shape dough by rounded spoonfuls into balls. Mix the 2 tablespoons sugar and the cinnamon. Roll balls of dough in mixture.

Place 2 inches apart on ungreased baking sheets. Bake 8 minutes, or until barely set. Let cool a bit, then remove from cookie sheets to cool

Gingerbread Rowhouses & A Very Daring Bakers Christmas

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and a Joyous New Year to you, dear readers and ravenous eaters!

Mr. Luz and I are having our very first grownup Christmas, just the two of us and Foxy, this year. I'm so very excited that I'm not getting on a plane and leaving my Christmas tree behind this December! And as we're snuggling on the couch by the glow of our tree this Christmas, I will be thinking of you guys, and I'll feeling very thankful for all of the friends I've come to know or gotten closer to thanks to the blog.

This month's Daring Bakers challenge was, of course, a gingerbread house! I made a gingerbread version of our row house and our neighbors, Val and Lauren's, rowhouse. The whole process was really fun and not as difficult as I was expecting. Apparently, royal icing fixes a multitude of sins.

The December 2009 Daring Bakers’ challenge was brought to you by Anna of Very Small Anna and Y of Lemonpi. They chose to challenge Daring Bakers’ everywhere to bake and assemble a gingerbread house from scratch. They chose recipes from Good Housekeeping and from The Great Scandinavian Baking Book as the challenge recipes.

Anna's Recipe: Spicy Gingerbread Dough (from Good Housekeeping)

2 1/2 cups packed dark brown sugar
1 1/2 cups heavy cream or whipping cream
1 1/4 cups molasses
9 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 Tbs. baking soda
1 Tbs. ground ginger

1. In very large bowl, with wire whisk (or with an electric mixer), beat brown sugar, cream, and molasses until sugar lumps dissolve and mixture is smooth. In medium bowl, combine flour, baking soda, and ginger. With spoon, stir flour mixture into cream mixture in 3 additions until dough is too stiff to stir, then knead with hands until flour is incorporated and dough is smooth.*At this time, the dough was a little dry. I added more milk Tbs. by Tbs. until it held together.*

2. Divide dough into 4 equal portions; flatten each into a disk to speed chilling. Wrap each disk well with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 4 hours or overnight, until dough is firm enough to roll.

3. Grease and flour large cookie sheets (17-inch by 14-inch/43x36cm)

4. Roll out dough, 1 disk at a time on each cookie sheet to about 3/16-inch thickness. (Placing 3/16-inch dowels or rulers on either side of dough to use as a guide will help roll dough to uniform thickness.) *Rolling out gingerbread dough is a Great workout, FYI*

Cutting out my template, using a book from my Feminist Theory class in undergrad so I can conceptualize my lil' rowhouses AND get some education at the same time.

5. Trim excess dough from cookie sheet; wrap and reserve in refrigerator. Chill rolled dough on cookie sheet in refrigerator or freezer at least 10 minutes or until firm enough to cut easily.

6. Preheat oven to 300 degrees F.

7. Use chilled rolled dough, floured poster board patterns, and sharp paring knife to cut all house pieces on cookie sheet, making sure to leave at least 1 1/4 inches between pieces because dough will expand slightly during baking. Wrap and reserve trimmings in refrigerator. Combine and use trimmings as necessary to complete house and other decorative pieces. Cut and bake large pieces and small pieces separately.

8. Chill for 10 minutes before baking if the dough seems really soft after you cut it. This will discourage too much spreading/warping.

9. Bake 25 to 30 minutes, until pieces are firm to the touch. Do not overbake.

Complete template & obligatory DB glass(es) of wine (with extra roof for 3rd rowhouse I gave up on after baking for 4 hours)

10. Remove cookie sheet from oven. While house pieces are still warm, place poster-board patterns on top and use them as guides to trim shapes to match if necessary. Cool pieces completely before attempting to assemble the house.

Assembling the House:

Decorate your pieces with piped and painted royal icing and edible decorations--Recipe Below--before assembling your house.

To "paint" your gingerbread like I did, put a moderate amount of royal icing in a small bowl, add 1 Tbs. of water and add food coloring to get the desired color. Paint on with a paintbrush.

To create caramel windows, put your gingerbread pieces with the windows cut out on a silpat or parchment paper covered with non-stick cooking spray. Mix 1 cup of sugar and 1 Tbs. of water in a heavy-bottomed pan. Bring sugar mixture to medium-high heat and as sugar begins to melt, slowly stir unmelted sugar into the melted sugar. Once it's mostly incorporated, stop stirring and instead gently shake the pan to even out the heat distribution and stir the mixture. (If you stir it, you'll get little bubbles throughout your caramel mixture and your windows will be too opaque.)

When a small bit of caramel dropped into a glass of water forms a "hard ball" you're ready to pour your mixture into your window cutouts. Let the caramel cool until it's hard and easily releases from the parchment paper/silpat. *Note: If you choose to light your gingerbread house with corded vs. battery operated Christmas lights, tape them to your base to keep them from knocking your gingerbread walls around, and cut a small notch in your gingerbread piece to accommodate the wire.*

Once your decorated pieces have dried, carefully assemble them using tension and various household items to keep them standing while they dry. IF you make a dual or triple row house, be sure to include an inside wall between the rowhouses so that your roof doesn't collapse.

My house with supplies in the background. I read that the 100 calorie pack Oreo snacks made great shingles, and they did! Adorable, and a fun shape to work with.
Complete Gingerbread Rowhouses, with Happy Holidays cookie-message on top.
Royal Icing Recipe:

3 egg whites
1/2 Tbs. cream of tartar
4 cups powdered sugar

Beat egg whites and cream of tartar till fluffy. Add powdered sugar, 1/2 cup at a time, until incorporated. Your mixture should be stiff and slightly cement-like. Use immediately and cover any unused portions with a damp cloth until you're ready to work with it.

Foxy, looking frightened of the GIANT bag of flour I had to buy for this challenge

Snowed In! Famous Barr's French Onion Soup Recipe

Famous Barr's french onion soup is renowned in St. Louis, and for good reason. My parents' generation would line up at the old department store's restaurant just to get a bowl after a day of window shopping. My generation has grown up hearing about the soup, and I was lucky enough to have a mom with the recipe and the patience to make it. Mama BaCon sent me this recipe years ago, and I love making it as much as I love eating it--your house smells so amazing as the onions simmer in pure sweet butter for 1 1/2 hours (yeeessss!!!).

My craving for Famous Barr's french onion soup was so strong this weekend that Mr. Luz went out in 17 inches of snow to pick up the necessities for the recipe. (Truth be told, we were out of beer and wine and the Saints were playing that night, so he had to go out anyway.) After he'd dug the truck out of the alley and mentally prepared to slide his way to the Safeway, Mr. Luz peeked his head in the front door and asked "What do you need for the recipe?" My reply-"Cheese, bread, 5 lbs. of onions, and 7 large cans of beef stock." This is truly the stuff of dreams, people.

I'll post the recipe exactly as it was originally published, with my tips and comments at the end (I've read that the St. Louis Post Dispatch published the recipe some time ago, but Mama BaCon got a copy when she bought these adorable Scandinavian-inspired soup crocks from the department store before it closed.)

This is what 5 lbs. of onions, peeled & sliced, looks like before the 90 minute saute in butter
This is what 5 lbs. of onions looks like after a 90 minute saute in butter. Nom. Nom. Nom.
Famous Barr's French Onion Soup Recipe:

5 lbs onions, unpeeled
1/2 cup butter
1 1/2 tsp. black pepper
2 Tbs. paprika
1 bay leaf
7 (16 oz.) cans beef broth, divided
1 cup dry white wine (optional)
3/4 cup all-purpose flour or instant flour
Caramel coloring (optional) or Kitchen Bouquet (optional)
2 tsp. salt
French baguettes (optional)
Swiss cheese (optional) or gruyere cheese (optional)

1. Peel onions and slice 1/8 inch thick, preferably in a food processor.
2. Melt butter in a 6-quart (or larger) stockpot. Add onions; cook, uncovered, over low heat for 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally.
3. Stir in pepper, paprika and bay leaf; saute over low heat 10 minutes more, stirring frequently. 4. Pour in 6 cans broth and wine. Increase heat and bring to a boil.
5. Dissolve flour in remaining 1 can broth.
6. Stir into boiling soup.
7. Reduce heat and simmer slowly for 2 hours.
8. Adjust color to a rich brown with caramel coloring, season with salt. Refrigerate overnight. To serve, heat soup in microwave or on stove top.
9. If desired, pour into ovenproof crocks or bowls.
10. Top with a slice of bread and a sprinkling of grated cheese. Heat under the broiler until cheese melts and bubbles, about 5 minutes.
11. Leftover soup can be frozen.This recipe makes about 1 gallon of soup.

Tips and Tricks:
  • I have to split my recipe into two pots to add the correct amount of broth. After the 2 hour simmer, I can usually put them back together.
  • I increase the salt a bit, and add some cayenne pepper and extra black pepper for the tiniest bit of zip.
  • Don't skip or skimp on the paprika. Besides the caramelized onions, it's what makes this recipe.
  • This recipe says that the cheese and bread are optional. They are NOT optional.
  • Rather than putting the whole bowl of soup under the broiler, I make cheese toast in the broiler or toaster oven to float on top. No burnt paws that way.
  • I also slice the edges of the french bread pieces so that you can easily separate one bite of cheese bread with your spoon. If you don't slice the edges, you can sit there hacking away at the chewy french bread crust with an ineffectual lil' spoon forever.
  • "Kitchen Bouquet"...tee hee.

Spicy Cioppino Recipe with Fennel and Herbs

Two weeks ago, Mr. Luz and I had the pleasure of cozying up for the weekend in beautiful Berkeley Springs, West Virginia with two of our favorite people.

We laughed alot, ate alot, and didn't change out of our pajamas at all on Saturday. It was preeettty fantastic, and just what we needed.

Whenever we go to WV, I like to cook something super-tasty as a "Thank You" to Rick and Kate, our hosts, for inviting us to their perfect get-a-way.

This time I decided to make cioppino, a tomato-based seafood stew, because it's tangy, rich, and so filling. My favorite part of the cioppino is the fennel--it adds a freshness to every bite and nicely complements the the tomato and seafood flavors without overpowering the dish.

I especially like this recipe because blending the base adds flavor while letting the seafood really steal the show-presentation-wise. And you can make the base ahead of time and then throw in the seafood right before you serve it for maximum freshness. It seems like a daunting list of ingredients and steps, but everything cooks quickly and provides great flavor. To speed up the process, you can skip the blending step and just let your cioppino be chunky, and you throw the fish into the pot to cook with the rest of the seafood, but it will fall apart once you start stirring it up with those mussel shells.

Requisite Cute Foxy Shot.....
Cioppino--Tomato and Fennel Seafood Stew Recipe

3 Tbs. olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
6 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1/4 cup tomato paste
2 cans of diced tomatoes in juice
1 bunch fresh basil
2 sprigs fresh thyme
2 large fresh parsley sprigs
1 tsp. dried oregano
1 bay leaf
1 tsp. cayenne pepper
4 cups shrimp stock
1 cup clam stock

1 lb. mussels, scrubbed and debearded
1 lb. large uncooked shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 1/2 lb. firm fish, cut into 2 inch chunks
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
1 large fennel bulb, thin sliced
2 cups white wine
3 Tbs. flour
2 Tbs. butter
Salt and Pepper to taste

To make the base:

Heat the oil in a large pot. Add the onion and garlic and saute until cooked. Stir in tomato paste and saute, stirring frequently, until slightly browned. Add the tomatoes, herbs, and shrimp and clam stock. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Simmer for 1 hour, uncovered.

Allow the base to slightly cool. Remove bay leaf and any remaining thyme and parsley ribs. Add the base to a blender and blend to a thick, slightly chunky soup.

To make the stew:

Bring the blended base to a simmer. Add the wine, chopped parsley, and fennel and simmer for 10 minutes. Taste and season with salt and pepper if necessary.

Rinse and pat dry the fish cubes. Dredge the fish in flour with salt and pepper. Melt the butter in a large, shallow pan over medium heat. Add the fish to the pan and cook, stirring gently, until browned.

Add mussels and shrimp to the stew base, cover, and cook until the mussels are open and the shrimp are done. 5-7 minutes. To serve, put the fish in the bottom of a bowl and cover with the stew.

Mr. Luz doesn't hold back with his handmade Sourdough breadbowl...

Louisiana in Two Parts: What's Happiness All About?

Two conclusions from recent studies strike me as...well...interesting.

Conclusion #1: Louisiana ranks as the worst state in the U.S. for overall quality of life.
Conclusion #2: Louisiana ranks as the "Happiest State" in the U.S.

Methodology aside, both conclusions have merit. Louisiana is a corrupt state, sometimes unabashedly and unapologetically so. That leads to insufficient infrastructure--poor schools, a lack of funds for important government programs as money gets shoveled to cronies and cousins rather than to the public where it belongs, and businesses left to fend for themselves in a state with few exports. People talk trash about New Orleans, but the corruption is everywhere. Just do a quick google search of the scandals surrounding the Louisiana Public Service Commission, and you'll see that in Baton Rouge "who you know" means so much more than "what you know."

But Louisiana is also a state where people have fought to maintain a highly satisfying way of life that's counter to the fast-paced, million-dollar-paycheck culture we've come to accept in the rest of the U.S. In Louisiana, food, family, and community are generally prioritized over money and prestige (unless you're in govt., of course). People look out for and genuinely enjoy one another, and the hours are marked by Abita beers consumed, stories told, and the number of friends who stop by. It's a place where you're well-regarded so long as you're just being yourself--the local heroes are the folks who are the kookiest and also the most comfortable with their eccentricities. (See Granny Cart Lady to the left. She attended Tulane classes...and got kicked out of Tulane classes...on and off and would show up at many a Mardi Gras parade. R.I.P. GCL)

It's impossible to be alone in New Orleans...even and especially after a Category 5 hurricane comes knocking down your door. Everyone is your friend, and every day is a special occasion to be celebrated.

I can come up with a handful of hypothesis that explain these seemingly incongruous conclusions, but each of them would oversimplify the deep memory and collective soul of a place as diverse and storied as New Orleans. Instead, I'll just think about the following: Residents of New Orleans and the inhabitants of Louisiana in general largely came to the state with their own unique culture and history, and settled there as a place of last resort. Over time they have struggled together to thrive, rather than just survive, in an inhospitable place prone to swampy conditions, hurricanes, and the rampant abuses of the oldest Good Ole' Boy network in the U.S. And together, they have come to conclude--among many, many other things--that every day is a gift to be shared with loved ones and enjoyed, rather than wasted on 15-hour work days and superficial pursuits. They have created their own happiness out dire circumstances. In sum, we could all learn something about happiness from the bunch of drunken, garrulous 'yats that I'm proud to call my

Christmas Memories

The first thing that my mom ever sat me down and taught me was how to decorate a Christmas tree.

She went through, step by step, and told me how to add the lights without showing too much of the wire, and how to make sure that the tree was evenly lit. She spread out all of the ornaments on the coffee table, and we chose where each one would go. Some were large, and needed alot of space to hang. Some looked best hung in front or behind a light bulb. And of course, the smallest and lightest ones go on top. Together we stepped back from the tree to see if there were any blank spots in need of an ornament, a candle, or some ribbon. Decorating the tree was a process, a project, and when we were done I was so proud of our creation, and felt so lucky that she trusted me with our beautiful family tree.

I miss you Mama BaCon. Thanks for all of the wonderful memories, and for teaching me about the important things in life.

Wild Mushroom Risotto Recipe and Eff-You, 2009

Like most food bloggers, I've been a total slacker this holiday season. I've continued cooking and baking like a mad woman, but I've fallen off on blogging, mainly because of what I'll call The Macro Effect.

The Macro Effect is the term I came up with to describe the hyper-styled, "perfection in a food photo" approach that magazines, cookbooks, and now food blogs take to recipe sharing (and named after the setting on my camera that conveniently allows me to zoom in on the pristine image of the food and shut out all of the dusty crap and empty wine bottles in my dining room). If I'm being honest, my blogging declines when I'm busy thanks to the Macro Effect, because I don't have enough light/time/creativity to take the food photos that I want to for my posts. Sure, I dream of book deals, but I blog to express myself and connect with people who share my passions, so I shouldn't let the Macro Effect keep me from posting. (Also, I wouldn't trade places with Julie Powell for a second. Nora Ephron and Amy Adams?! Are you kidding me?!)

Folks who write about these things hypothesize that the Macro Effect has caused food blogs to become more commercial to their detriment. The argument is that we get enough glossy perfection every time we turn on the TV. Food blogs should allow people to connect on a real and personal level about real life and real food, rather than simply tossing around recipes and cutesy, sterilized anecdotes while painting a reality where people eat on adorable china with a fresh-picked bunch of yellow daisies "casually tossed" next to their tomato bisque every day. Food bloggers keep a majority of their stresses--illness, heartbreak, or just run-of-the-mill disappointment--out of their blogs. The internal reasoning goes something like this: Journalists don't talk about their messy divorce in an article on seasonal preparations of spaghetti squash, so I should keep my personal life private as well. But again, the argument goes, food bloggers shouldn't hide behind their commercial aims because part of what they "sell" is the experience of being human, and all the emotions and difficulties that go along with that.

I can understand their criticism, though I'm not entirely ready to give up my cutesy anecdotes and my serving plates sourced from Salvation Armys far and wide. However, as penance for me letting the Macro Effect keep me from posting, and posting honestly, I will: post an ugly photo (see above) for my Wild Mushroom Risotto with Manchego Cheese recipe (see below) and tell you, readers, that it has been sort of a shit year, emotionally, here at BaCon. In the grand scheme of things, I am very blessed. I have a close, happy family that is made up of some of my favorite people on the planet, a great job, and an understanding and deeply passionate partner who loves me for all of my imperfections rather than in spite of them. I have also lost two very close friends in the past 4 months--they haven't passed away, there has just been a decision to "part ways," and it's been very difficult for me. I know it seems silly, but here are 2 people who know me better than anyone, and in the past 120 days they've both decided after years of friendship to give me up in one way or another. And although I'm very blessed, all of that doesn't keep me from feeling sad, hurt, and sometimes angry about how everything has worked out.

I'm hoping reconciliation is possible with one of them. But I didn't want to just write about the reconciliation, citing peace and the magic of forgiveness and all that, after the fact and without the mess. Because that would just be soo Macro Effect, wouldn't it? So, here's the mess. I'm a lucky, lucky girl who sometimes feels very lost, and who maybe has done something to drive her two best friends away in completely separate instances. Or maybe they weren't really my best friends. Or maybe they were, and relationships just change. And maybe I can be close with one of them again, some day.

And for bearing with me through all of this, here's a yummy, creamy and rich (vegetarian!) Mushroom Risotto recipe for you. Thanks for listening.

Wild Mushroom Risotto with Manchego and Parsley:

8 cups mushroom or vegetable broth
1 oz. dried wild mushrooms, reconstituted with 1 cup hot water & chopped
1 1/2 Tbs. olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 lb. portabella mushrooms, gills removed and chopped small (or 1lb. baby bellas, chopped)
2 bay leaves
2 Tbs. fresh thyme, chopped
1/4 cup fresh Italian parsley, chopped
1 tsp. Cinnamon
Salt and black pepper to taste
2 cups Arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 cup Manchego cheese, chopped

Bring broth to a simmer. In a deep skillet or heavy bottomed pot, heat oil over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and saute until translucent. Add the portabellas and cinnamon, salt and pepper, and saute until browned. Add rice and reconstituted mushrooms and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Don't let the rice brown. Pour in wine and cook until almost completely absorbed.

Add about 3 cups of warmed broth into rice and cook, stirring often and vigorously, until it's all absorbed. Add 2 cups and repeat. Add fresh herbs. Repeat broth/stirring steps, adding 1 cup of broth at a time until rice is tender and the sauce is very creamy. (This takes awhile. Grab a glass of wine and call me to talk about what's stressing YOU out. I owe you.)

Stir in cheese and continue cooking until melted. Serve

Pure Hedonism: Bistrot Du Coin's Beaujolais Nouveau Release 2009

I pulled on my gold lamé top, wiggled into my black tights, and asked Mr. Luz, "are the heels on these shoes too high for a night of drinking and dancing?" on a typical Wednesday night, just like any other in D.C. Ok, if you insert "red velour tracksuit" for the gold top and tights, and change the quote to "How many Top Chef episodes do we have to watch to catch up before tonight's show?," then that would be the case. In reality, I was preparing to celebrate the most glorious of holidays in D.C....Beaujolais Nouveau Release Day.

On the third Thursday of November, France releases its most recent Beaujolais Nouveau wine vintage, (made from Gamay grapes grown and handpicked in the Beaujolais region of France) creating a festival-like atmosphere around the release and a virtual "race" to be the first to enjoy that year's harvest. It is rumored that by the time all of the Beaujolais Release events around the world have handed out their last bottle and swept their last revelers out the door, over half of the region's annual production (65 million bottles, ya'll) has been imbibed.

Of course, this is just a bit of brilliant marketing on behalf of the wily French. Except for exceptional vintages, Beaujolais Nouveau is not meant to be aged. It's a fruity, floral, light-bodied wine for quaffing within 9 months of bottling, so the French create a stir around the release to promote the early enjoyment of its baby wine. I'm happy to say that I enjoyed this year's Beaujolais Nouveau early and often at this year's Release Party at Bistrot Du Coin in D.C. You're welcome, France.

My hedonistic pursuits on the night of the Beaujolais Release Party did not stop with the black ankle strap 4 inch heels and plasticy metallic apparel. From there it snowballed into a cholesterol-laden feast, with Bistrot Du Coin's velvety chicken livers, luscious veal sweetbreads and cream sauce in a puff pastry, brothy mussels, crispy frites, and a big skillet of dark and rich lamb stew. After dinner and because we could only squeeze our party of 10 into the 7pm seating, we were forced to drink too much champagne and be merry until the actual Release at midnight. (Reservations for BdC's Beaujolais Release Party are slim, and good luck trying to get in as a mere drinker/dancer after the restaurant hits its fire-code capacity.) With the champagne came the dancing as diners cleared the floor, waiters cleared their tables to the far edges of a previously quaint restaurant, and the disco ball and club lights came up. And finally, as the bartenders began handing out plastic cups and free bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau at midnight, with the wine came dancing on the bar and (don't you wish you knew what was in this parenthesis?)

So maybe I'm not going to spill all my secrets, but suffice it to say that no one escaped BdC's Beaujolais Nouveau Release Party without doing something embarrassing, wearing purple wine-stained clothes, and giggling into a plastic cup of Beaujolais Nouveau. And I'm already counting down the days till the next third Thursday in November. France, you are