Every time someone sends us a Christmas/Holiday card, I’m amazed and pleased. I’m shocked that people still buy cards, fill them out, pay for stamps, and navigate the icy roads to stick them in the mail. Cutesy cards, holiday greetings, animal cards, family photo cards, what’s not to love about them all. And what’s even better are the Christmas/Holiday letters. The photos, the heartfelt sharing, the funny bits, the sad bits, the bragging, the enthusiasm and the hopefulness of them all. The kids, the grandkids, the travels. The friend who wrote about her bout with cancer that I didn’t even know about; the sad bit, but with a happy ending.
But, because I have handwriting like a serial killer and will go crazy from the repetition of addressing the envelopes, I have to make do with this easier, lazier medium.
A chronological approach to my last year would include turning 60 (aka Black Thursday), going back to work full-time, friends come and gone, and the lousy running year I’ve had because of a hip injury. I could tell you about the fun I had with my stepsons and their families and how our dogs are doing. It’s all good. And there have been some very fun trips here and there, between soul-numbing work and our 30th anniversary. All great stuff!
But I think I’ll take an entirely different approach to a Christmas/Holiday letter, but which probably won’t surprise you at all:
Food. Just food.
No dogs. No sports. No scenery. No graduations, weddings, or grandkids. Just food. Ah, but there will be photos…
Dear Fellow Food Lovers,
In the spirit of holiday gluttony and upcoming awards ceremonies, as I take a moment out from wiping the dust off of my bathroom scale in preparation for January 1, here are some of my fondest memories from 2016, in no particular order. After all, food memories cannot be ranked like movies or college football teams:
Most Expensive and Memorable Meal…Ever
Truly, there is no better way to survive a 60th birthday than to spend it with a bunch of like-minded hedonists in a restaurant worthy of high praise for the last fifty years. Five courses, five legendary and, in some cases, unpurchaseable-at-any-price, single malt scotches, good friends, and family. I have already written about this meal in agonizing detail, here, but good heavens, it’s worth mentioning again.
A time capsule of exquisite hedonism, spent with many of my very favorite people on the planet: Gary, Mike, Jeff, Bill, and Jim. To have shared these decadent calories with all of you is an honor. When I think back on it, I am flush with the warm deliciousness of the scotches, the perfectly dim and elegant atmosphere, the ridiculously delicious and overly-abundant foods, and the joy of knowing that if I died that night, I would die a truly happy woman. But I didn’t so let’s move on…
Most Memorable Birthday Breakfast
Without going into the details, the day before my 60th birthday was not a good day (and not because it was the last day of my 50s). So, to wake up to a perfectly orchestrated and executed surprise birthday breakfast like this was appreciated beyond words:
My stepson, Jeff, and his wife, Kristina, really pulled it off. They had it all waiting for me the minute I stumbled out of bed: Champagne and orange juice, hot coffee, fresh fruit, the best macaroons ever on the face of Planet Earth, a delicious egg dish, and crumpets with jam. Sixty never started off so well! Have you ever seen such a spread? I still tear up when I look at this photo. Thank you again…
The least I could do to reciprocate was make dinner that night, since it was a “school night.” By then my other stepson, Mike, and two good friends, Viji and Babu, were also there. And the two handsomest guys at the party – our grandsons, Max and Isaac – were there too, which made it all the better. For the record, Max and Isaac were not drinking Moscow Mules.
Most Memorable Meal Paired with Fine Bourbons
Rob and Barb are bourbon experts, with some 200+ varieties kept in a large (obviously) etagere in their living room. I have asked them if they are adopting, but they don’t seem interested, sadly. After a moment of inspired and possibly irrational exuberance, they hatched a plan for a five-course meal, pairing a variety of carefully-selected bourbons perfectly with beautifully crafted foods and six other thirsty and hungry souls. We were lucky enough to be invited and blame them almost entirely for inspiring us to create our first scotch-themed dinner (later on in this list).
What an amazing meal of honeyed scallops, gorgonzola and watermelon salad, grilled filets with sweet potato hash, and two varieties of bourbon pudding. And did I mention the bourbons? Glad you asked: Basil Hayden’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Waitsburg Bourbon Whiskey (numbered bottle!), Labrot & Gramah Woodford Reserve Double Oaked Bourbon Whiskey, and Four Roses Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.
I think the Four Roses was our favorite, but I think we should have the whole meal again, just to be sure. Barb and Rob, I’ll be calling soon to get this on our calendars. And Greg, Trish, Phil, and Sandra, it was a blast sipping and laughing with you!
Best Tribal Meal
There were several meals with my fellow project manager gal-pals this year to pick from, but the best has to be St. Patrick’s Day at Durant’s in Phoenix.
It’s no coincidence that this was also the sight of the Most Expensive and Memorable Meal, but that just proves that lightening can strike twice. It’s all a memorable blur of martinis, wine, oysters, filet mignon, crème brulee…I could go on, like I did in a previous blog. It was a very special night with some of my favorite girls on the planet, before Cindy left Boise for good, for what might be the “Cicely, Alaska” of Arizona: Meadview. Miss you! (If you want your old job back, just let me know.)
Best New Dessert
It’s a well-known fact that I don’t bake; I don’t need to: Gary owns all the baking in the household. As fearless in the kitchen as he is enthusiastic, he has conquered many a complicated chocolate dessert, including the second runner-up in this category – Chocolate Eclairs. But my favorite new dessert of the year is his Lemon Bars with Olive Oil and Sea Salt.
The lemony shortbread base holds up perfectly under the creamy lemon curd, topped with flaky sea salt. My previously favorite summer dessert was Lemon Meringue Pie, but I believe this trumps (I’ve got to stop using that word) it. It was the perfect summer dessert and made its debut at the Mole Party (below).
Best Memorable Mexican Moles in a Mountain Setting
How fortunate we are to have good friends who love to cook and share! How could we possibly turn down an opportunity to eat almond and chocolate chicken mole in a mountain condo, on a gorgeous, late summer day?
Primed with a few sips of tequila and mescal, we dug into the mole and rice as if it were our last meal.
Time stopped up there, and not because we’d had too much tequila and were unconscious. It just simply was a magically beautiful summer day, with the perfect temperature, mountain breeze, no mosquitos, and fabulous food. Jim, you did a fantastic job! Of course, you had some great help from Eric, Dan, and Victoria – the best!
Best Four-Course Lunch
I’m not sure I’ve ever had anyone over for lunch, per se. Brunch? Maybe, rarely. But not lunch. When I think of great lunches, I mostly think of eating almuerzo in Chile, which would start mid-day, last for several hours, include a Pisco Sour, and end in a long nap. I could get into that. But my almuerzo days are twenty-plus years behind me and my memories of them are now rather dim, sadly.
So, when Jim invited us over for lunch and to see his new condo in Phoenix, we knew we’d be in for a nice lunch and a visit but, really, had NO idea what we were about to enjoy. A consummate cook and entertainer, Jim took the free-form concept of lunch and turned into a level of afternoon delight long since forgotten.
As you may know, I am not a big fan of salads in general, but this salad is a whole different deal. The first course was Zucchini Carpaccio, wherein the pedestrian zucchini was raised to the highest level possible, accompanied by a lovely Albaimo Val de Sosego wine:
Then there was the soup which Gary forgot to photograph (we had probably already finished one bottle of wine by now), so sadly, I remember it was very good but I can’t quite recall exactly what it was.
Then we moved on to the main course of pasta with Jim’s grandmother’s meatballs and sauce. An Italian making Italian food; is there anything better? Oh, my. I silently thanked myself for wearing stretch jeans. Paired with a Gaba do Xil Mencia 2012, we settled in happily for the long haul.
We then had the very difficult but very enjoyable decision of what to drink while we took a short break between courses to visit the rooftop for a great view. We sampled 10 YO and 15 YO Springbank single malt scotch. We considered Doniene Aguardiente de Orujo, Dolin Rouge Vermouth, and Osborne Sherry.
After trying each, we each made our choice and followed Jim up to see a spectacular view of the Phoenix area:
One more spectacular course to go…and, of course, there was not one dessert, there were two: A chocolatey custard concoction drizzled with olive oil and topped with sea salt (I still would love to have that recipe, hint hint) and a Tarta de Campanilla.
The ultimate four-hour lunch eventually came to an end. Jim handed me a bottle of Springbank 12 YO single malt for my birthday, we said our goodbyes, and this dreamy lunch bubble burst as we staggered to the car. We spent the drive back to Tempe trying to figure out to rally for our upcoming family dinner out an hour later. And agreeing that this lunch redefined what lunch could and should be.
I still haven’t had anyone over for lunch, but maybe I will in 2017. Four courses sounds about right to me now.
Most Remarkable Vegetables
We have a tie in this category, from two disparate vegetables. The first is a simple and superbly yummy dish from Anthony Bourdain’s new cookbook, Appetites, called Cauliflower Sesame. And when Bourdain says “This shit is compulsively delicious,” he is deadly serious, and you know he isn’t the kind of guy to mince words. I’ve made this dish a handful of times since, and each time I do, it receives rave reviews. And if there are leftovers, I hide them, like Gary does with the leftover Halloween candy. It makes me want to be a vegetarian again. Here’s the recipe, in case you’re as curious as I was:
The second vegetable discovery came from Spain in the form of guindilla peppers (also known as piparras peppers). Jim brought us some seeds from Spain to see if we could grow them in our southwest Idaho garden, and boy, did they grow. Next year, we’ll grow more of these and fewer jalapenos, I think. They are a mildly hot pepper and when poached in hot oil for a few minutes and sprinkled with a little sea salt, well, you can eat lot of them with a cold beer. Next year, I’ll have to use them fresh for a Bloody Mary garnish.
Best Out-of-State Hangry Meal
We’ve all been there. On the road too long, trying to meet an impossible deadline, Mother Nature getting in the way, blood sugar running low, and nerves getting rattled. We usually travel with food in the car, but we couldn’t even take the time to get it out of the back of our Subaru Outback.
Our goal was the dining room at the Crater Lake Lodge. Thanks to several feet of snow in the previous days, the shorter, north road into the Lodge was closed…little did we know until too late. Their web site said the dining room was open until 10:00 pm but actually it was only open until 8:00 pm. It was a long haul down to the south entrance at sunset, with skies finally clearing, and then back north to the Lodge on snowy roads. Gary slowed the car down just enough at the entrance for me to jump out at 7:59 and beg for food mercy, while he parked the car.
And then we heard the angels sing. I begged for mercy to the hostess who smiled, said this happens all the time, and seated us as if we were her best friends.
After a bread basket or two and half a bottle of the Crater Lake cab, we soothed our travelers’ nerves with duck and New York Strip. Life is good.
Most Successful Transgenerational Food Sharing
Most families have a food tradition of some kind, right? (Gary’s didn’t because his mom was a lousy and sometimes dangerous cook; there was, however an alcohol tradition that continues to this day.) Well, there’s usually something we decide to try out on the grandkids when they visit, in hopes that they will enjoy it as much as we do. It’s always risky with kids, as you know; no telling what they will like, from one day to the next. But you just have to keep trying.
The Woodinville Greens came to Idaho for Camp Green this year, so we pretty much had a captive audience (part of our nefarious plan).
Two of our two successes this year, with Jackson and Elliott, were:
Apple Pie – made by Jackson and Elliott, with Grandpa’s help. The boys preferred it served with vanilla ice cream; they weren’t quite willing to take the dessert risk of white cheddar instead like their dad did (maybe next year).
Sausage Rolls – A super easy and kid-friendly breakfast. Elliott proved that he could eat his body weight in sausage rolls with no problem whatsoever. Jackson could hold his own as well.
Most Insane Culinary Undertaking
Fueled by Barb and Rob’s success with the bourbon dinner and our Most Expensive and Memorable scotch-themed meal experience, we decided to create our own version. And one night in May, the meal that took a 90-line Excel spreadsheet to successfully plan, was hatched. Ten people, seven courses, seven scotches, oysters, lamb, scallops, dark chocolate torte, morel mushrooms…it went on…and on…for hours. I think we used every glass, plate, and fork that we own…more than once.
Many thanks to Jim for bringing the special Glengoyne teapot dram direct from the distillery (I just checked and there’s still some left, by the way, for the next time you come over), to Bill for his remarkable dishwashing skills and boundless energy, for everyone’s staying power through all seven courses, and to Gary for all of his help and patience with my uber-planning. It’s what I do. Sandra, Jeff, Barb, Rob, Phil, Jim, Bill, and Judy – you guys are made of sturdy stuff.
And these are only some of my 2016 food memories. I know I’ve rambled on for too long. Maybe you’ve dozed off by now…or headed into the kitchen to cook something because you’re suddenly hungry. Wouldn’t blame you a bit.
We will end 2016 with New Year’s Eve dinner out, for once, with a couple of new friends who just got married. What could be a better way to end the food year than that?
Oh, I said this was just about food, didn’t I? I lied. It’s actually about all of the friends and family that we shared these meals with. That’s why we do it. And that’s why we’ll do it all again in 2017. And why I’ll never be as thin as I’d like to be. It’s just too damn much fun being a hedonist with you. Don’t you agree?
2017 promises to be another great food year…especially during my 12-day culinary tour of Barcelona, Sevilla, and Madrid!
Here’s to you (taken fireside after dinner at the Crater Lake Lodge)! Happy New Year!
Thanks for reading. I know how busy you are.