At Year's End

A light at the end of the tunnel

The Christmas tree is up with a few presents snug under its boughs. To-do’s I have jotted down include making truffles, putting up the garlands, and cleaning the pile of dishes clogging the sink.

But instead of doing anything productive, John and I decide to layer on waterproof clothing and head out for a hike in the rain. Yes, we are indeed crazy.

The rain turns to snow as we finish our loop at Snake Den in northern Rhode Island, and we spend a few minutes waiting in the car until the foggy windows clear; they’ve steamed up from our damp clothing.

A quick stop at the liquor store on the way home results in some cheap bourbon, expensive beer, and some cans of Shacksbury Vermonter cider, which is aged in gin barrels. The juniper flavor is bracing and cool, and invigorates my weary limbs. I decide to cook up some chicken breasts from a roaster I broke down a few days ago and make a meal of chicken curry katsu, baked fries, and a lovely little green bean dish with a tahini, soy, mirin, rice wine vinegar dressing and finely chopped peanuts.

I round out the night with a last-minute baking sesh and pop some peanut butter cheesecake brownies in the oven around 7:45.

John is playing video games with his friend, and I sip my cider in the light of the Christmas tree and wait for the brownies to finish. The smell of peanut butter and chocolate fills the apartment, and all is well with the world.

What I’m Eating

As the year winds down and my cooking becomes increasingly root vegetable-heavy, I find myself craving bright, fresh flavors. So the day after Thanksgiving, we munched on a crisp salad of romaine, cold Bartlett pears cut into slivers, toasted pecans and baked goat cheese— a bright meal on a dark winter’s night.

Pear and Romaine Salad with Baked Goat Cheese and Pecans

This salad is a mix of all things good: fragrant pecans, sweet pears, and warm, creamy baked goat cheese. The shallot dressing with red wine vinegar and Dijon adds a pop of acidity. And if you load up on citrus like I do during winter and have some extra oranges laying around, grate some of the zest into the dressing and add a squeeze of the juice. This salad is also lovely with chunks of creamy avocado.

Ingredients:

1 small shallot, minced

2 Tbsp red wine vinegar

1 Tbsp Dijon

1 tsp honey

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 tsp black pepper

1/4 cup olive oil

4-ounce log of goat cheese cut into six, 1/2 inch slices

1/4 cup panko bread crumbs

4 sprigs of fresh thyme, leaves picked

4 leaves of romaine lettuce, washed and cut into bite-size pieces

1 firm Bartlett or Anjou pear, cut into bite-size pieces (I like to slice in half, then each half into four slivers, then cut into pieces on an angle)

½ cup toasted pecans, roughly chopped

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees with the rack in the top third of the oven. 

  2. To make the dressing, whisk together shallots, red wine vinegar, honey, mustard, salt and pepper. As you whisk, slowly pour in the olive oil until the mixture is emulsified. Set aside.

  3. Cover a half sheetpan in parchment paper. Combine panko breadcrumbs, thyme, salt and pepper in a shallow bowl. Gently press each slice of goat cheese in the mixture, flip, and press again to coat, then place on the prepared sheet tray. Bake for 8-10 minutes, or until cheese rounds begin to turn light brown.

  4. While goat cheese is baking, arrange romaine on two plates, then tuck in pear slivers and scatter with pecans. Give the dressing a whisk if separated, then pour over, giving the salad a little fluff with a fork.

  5. Using a metal spatula, gently lift the goat cheese rounds and place on top of the salads. Serve immediately. 

Green Beans with Tahini and Peanuts

Inspired by Masaharu Morimoto’s recipe for sesame green beans, this version subs tahini for sesame seeds, adds a dash of rice wine vinegar and finely chopped roasted peanuts for extra crunch. Sweet, salty, nutty and with the grassy freshness of green beans, it makes a great side to rich chicken katsu or miso-marinated salmon.

Ingredients

6 ounces green beans, trimmed and cut in half

1 Tbsp light soy sauce

1 Tbsp mirin (Japanese cooking wine). If you don’t have some, you can substitute sherry for a slightly different effect, but nonetheless tasty

1 Tbsp tahini

1 Tbsp rice wine vinegar

2 Tbsp unsalted, roasted peanuts, finely chopped (you can pulse them a few times in a food processor if you’d like)

1/4 tsp white pepper

salt to taste

Instructions

  1. Make the dressing: Whisk together soy sauce, mirin or sherry, tahini, rice wine vinegar, white pepper and chopped peanuts. Taste and add salt as needed. Set aside.

  2. Prepare an ice-water bath by filling a medium-size bowl with cold water and adding a few ice cubes or an ice pack.

  3. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil, add the green beans and cook for ~3 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and place into ice water bath. This keeps them vibrant and green.

  4. Whisk the dressing to recombine, then drain green beans and toss in the dressing. Serve.

What I’m Drinking

Shacksbury Vermonter cider: John’s face crinkled when he tried a sip, but I’m a sucker for juniper and its bracing pine flavor. It brings me back to this past summer, when the juniper trees along the bike path are ripe with berries and their resinous scent mingles with the briny bay air. It also reminds me of my love of Greek retsina, a white wine that is aged in pine-resin lined barrels that’s worth seeking out.

Speaking of wine, I’ve been stocking up on Las Jaras Glou Glou, a juicy delight that goes down easy. It has a raspberry tartness and slight fizz that makes every pour feel like a small celebration. Serve in a cut crystal glass.

The cranberry-ginger cosmo from my last newsletter would also be a lovely Christmas/holiday sipper, or you could kick it back with a Dicken’s era mulled wine drink called the Smoking Bishop.

Smoking Bishop

Made with roasted oranges and/or lemons studded with cloves, this mulled wine gets a boost from port, which had the code-name “bishop” in the 19th century. The ‘smoking’ part comes from its preparation, which involves slowly heating it until steam curls from the surface—take care not to boil! The New York Times has a recipe you can check out here, or you can try my less-intensive, slightly-unorthadox version. It’s quicker to make, uses a dash of cider for sweetness, and serves two. It’s still smoking, though.

1 orange, washed and cut into 1/2 inch thick slices

18 whole cloves

1 cup red wine

1 cup port

3 Tbsp sugar

1 Tbsp honey

1/2 cup apple cider

  1. Preheat oven to 415 and set rack two notches from the top.

  2. Place three cloves in each orange slice—one in the center and two on each side. Place orange slices on a sheet tray lined with parchment paper, and cook for 45 minutes.

  3. Mix wine and port in a saucepan, and add sugar, honey, clove-studded orange slices, and cider. Warm slowly over medium heat, until starting to smoke. Remove from heat and, if you have fancy glassware lying around, strain into a cut crystal glass with metal base (a mug works, too) with a roasted orange slice for garnish.

CHRISTMAS SPECIAL BONUS DRINK(!!!)

John was feeling crafty in the kitchen and designed this cheery sake and cranberry based cocktail, which I’ve made a Christmas bonus cocktail in this newsletter ;). He calls it the Gaijin Gulp (gaijin means foreigner in Japanese) in a nod to his lack of knowledge about sake. It’s pretty tasty regardless!

Gaijin Gulp

Serves 1

3 oz. sake

1 oz. curacao

1 Tbsp lime juice

1.5 oz cranberry juice

Mix all ingredients together in a glass, and serve. (Note: John literally just drank his like this, but if it’s too intense, you can serve it with some ice.)

Gifts for cooks

I’m usually disappointed by gift guides. Too often, they pitch buying your boyfriend a $300 dollar pair of sweatpants or an $800 camera for your sister who *occasionally* posts artful photos to Instagram. I love my boyfriend and my sister, but that’s a bit…excessive (Who makes these lists? whoever they are, they have one lucky boyfriend and sister). Hopefully, this gift guide for the cook in your life (or you, if you’re looking to round out your kitchen gadgets) is a little bit more reasonable.

For the cook who is always cutting open their chicken breasts to make sure they are cooked

Thermopen Mk4, on sale for $89

Yes, after everything I just said, this is an expensive gift, but a good thermometer makes life as a home cook 10 bajillion times easier. Need to heat up oil to a specific temp for those doughnuts you’ve been wanting to make? Thermometer. Want to sear a steak that is perfectly medium-rare? Thermometer. And you don’t necessarily need the fancy instant-read, super-accurate Thermopen; any thermometer is better than none.

For the person who will be making lots of pies this holiday season

Victorinox paring knife, $6

A sharp paring knife is essential for coring apples, slicing pears, and for other general vegetable and fruit-cutting wizardry. I like this handy Victorinox because it’s sharp and comes in an array of colors, plus it’s cheap enough that if you lose it, it won’t break the bank to buy another (I’m speaking from personal experience here).

For the person who loves comfort food (and we could all use some comfort this year)

Lodge 12-inch cast-iron skillet, $31.95

I love my cast-iron skillet to the point that I use it for things I shouldn’t (cast iron isn’t necessarily meant for stir-frying, but I’m a rebel at heart). The great thing about this type of pan is that while it’s slow to heat up, it retains heat, making it great for baking (baked mac and cheese), searing (salmon, steak, or chicken thighs) and frying (fried chicken, doughnuts). It’s an old friend in my kitchen.

For the messy cook (e.g. me)

An apron like this one with a large pocket, $19.99

You don’t need a fancy apron. You don’t need a fashionable apron. The only thing you need in a good apron is pockets and an adjustable neck loop. And if it so happens to be a cute apron, that’s an added bonus. My apron of choice is the old green number from my Starbucks days (it has two pockets and is made of surprisingly tough cloth). It won’t win any compliments from professional chefs or food magazine editors, but that’s okay with me.

And finally…

Since we’re at year’s end, I just want to thank you for following this modest newsletter since its inception in May of the year of Covid. If not useful, I hope it’s at least a nice email to get in your inbox once a month. I know I enjoy making it.