Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Xmas Eve Dishes

In case you haven't noticed, I've been on extended hiatus from the blog the past few weeks owing to a Disney World trip, holiday prep/obligations, and myriad illnesses affecting the residents of the Commissary. With all of that finally behind us, it's time to sneak in one more posting for 2010 before we flip the calendar and begin a new year of culinary escapades. I was hoping to bring back from Florida enough foodie material for a report; however, the trip was noteworthy only for its extreme cold temperatures (three straight days of record lows, probably not what the local Chamber of Commerce had in mind when they beckoned us) and relatively unremarkable cuisine (truth be told, we did have a couple of good meals while staying at the resort, but nothing that would really warrant mention here).

As a result, we're going to focus on the dishes I put together to take to the annual Xmas Eve gathering at Mrs. Hackknife's parents' place. This year, I volunteered to do 2 appetizers and 1 dessert. I've been making a seafood-based appetizer on Xmas Eve for the last few years to establish a little connection to my Italian heritage, that is, a very small nod to "La Festa di Sette Pesci" or "The Feast of the Seven Fishes", which is a tradition in some parts of Italy on Xmas Eve. Being a mostly Catholic country, good Italian Catholics would abstain from eating meat that night, instead opting for a series of fish dishes (7, or 9, or 11, depending on the family or region). Once I heard about this tradition (completely unaware that my Dad's relatives in Ohio had been doing just this same thing for many years), I thought I'd try to follow suit with at least one fish dish to bring to my in-laws. Anyway, for this year, I found a couple of good candidate recipes, namely taramasalata (carp roe dip) and anchovies in green sauce, the former being traditionally Greek, the latter more Northern Italian, or Occitan (sort of French-Italian Alpine) to be exact.

Mrs. Hackknife loves taramasalata - we get it almost every time we dine at a Greek restaurant. I discovered that it's basically peasant food, consisting of day-old bread, onion, olive oil, lemon juice, and whatever roe or fish eggs are left over from the local fisherman's haul. Maybe unsurprisingly, the trickiest part was finding the roe (I opted to use cod roe, not for any particular reason other than I misread the word "carp" in the recipe as "cod"). After coming away empty-handed from several ethnic grocery stores in the Southwest Suburbs, I gave up and bought it online from a Russian food products company in Manhattan called Moscow on the Hudson. Given the clipped-English emails I received confirming my order, I surmised that this was no doubt a front for the Russian mafia doing God knows what with the profits from my cod roe. In any case, I did receive a nice package with the requested merchandise ($3.99 for the jar of goods, $10.31 for the shipping), at least I think it's what I requested, although I can't really verify since the label is in Cyrillic. It certainly tastes like fish eggs.

Getting back to the matter at hand, once I got the roe, the rest was easy. Mix chopped up wet white bread into food processor along with chopped onion and cod roe, mix in olive oil and lemon juice, adjust seasonings (in our case, 2 extra Tbsp. of roe) and coloring (a wee bit of red food dye to give it the usual pinkish hue) and voila! We had a nice bread/cracker dip that went over well at the party and is still being enjoyed at the Commissary at the time of this writing. Here's the recipe: taramasalata recipe.

Moving on to the anchovies in green sauce, it was considerably easier to procure the necessary ingredients. The deli at my local ethnic grocery has large cans of salt-packed anchovies, which are recommended for this recipe. In order to remove the illness-inducing level of salt on them, Michael Ruhlman recommends soaking them in milk for 30 minutes before rinsing them under water - I did this and it seemed to work pretty well. To finish the anchovy prep, I simply had to butterfly them with a small paring knife and pull out the backbone, which came out relatively easily. The only other tricky step was creating the hard-boiled egg yolks. Before you raise a question mark, please know that other than Easter, I've never hard-boiled eggs before (not a big fan of the taste), so Mrs. Hackknife had to help me w/this part (it's ok to snicker now). Layer the anchovies with a mixture of olive oil, white wine vinegar, chili flakes, parsley, basil, salt, garlic, and the egg yolks, let it rest for an hour, and we're there. At first, it's a little aggressive, but mellows out once everything settles. Again, crackers or bread go with it: anchovies with green sauce.

Last but not least comes dessert. After considering various Xmas cookies and cakes, I settled on a very traditional English holiday dessert: the trifle. For those of you unfamiliar, a trifle involves the layering of cake, fruit, custard or pudding, and whipped cream, sometimes with liquor, sometimes not, but it can come in about a million different versions. My December issue of Saveur featured a nice one on the cover containing homemade ginger cake, custard, sherry, and kirsch (cherry liqueur) - it looked great (in fact, dramatic presentation is part of the trifle wow factor). This version, however, was a little ambitious for my liking. Surely there's an easier trifle recipe out there for the half-assed amongst us, no? Of course, the answer is yes, and I found it here: chocolate banana berry trifle, which included Cool Whip, packaged brownie mix, instant pudding, and toffee bars (we don't always have to be gourmet here, do we?). I'm sure that a fully-made-from-scratch one would taste better and I didn't exactly have the right serving dish for it (it came out a little lopsided), but the partygoers enjoyed it and it was perfectly adequate (if not a bit gloppy) for leftovers.

Happy holidays and New Year to you and yours.....

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