The Story of Us

It’s been more than a month.  A month that included carols and trees and cards and food and champagne and presents and wrapping and travel and family and friends and general good cheer.  Followed by two weeks of the Bon Appétit Food Lover’s Cleanse.  Happy 2015!  I’m back …
I love the holiday season.  I love decorating the house and baking cookies and listening to Christmas carols (I have 10 hours and 50 minutes worth of merry tunes on my Christmas play list).  There was that year I cancelled Christmas.  That was the year my Daughters began Christmas wish lists in September and started to get upset thinking about what they might not find under the tree.  That’s not the spirit of Christmas!  Come on girls, don’t I read the Grinch over and over every year?  Haven’t you learned the lesson that “What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store”?  Don’t expect much under the tree, I told the girls.  You have everything you could possibly want and need anyway.  And then I told them about my childhood of meager possessions and how Christmas was so special because it was the one time of year (save our birthdays) when we got stuff.  And we didn’t get a ton, just one “big” present that was left unwrapped under the tree and maybe a book.  (Ok, I exaggerated a little, but I was trying to make a point).  I’ll show them the true meaning of Christmas, I thought, and signed us up to help serve dinner to the homeless at St. Anthony’s Dining Room on Christmas Day.  It was a strange and, I thought, wonderful experience.  And maybe a little scary for my 8 and 11 year old Daughters.  We followed that year up with annual Christmas Day visits to shut-in seniors through a program at Little Brothers.  This was a little more to the girls’ liking.
Traditionally we host some (not all) of the holiday dinners.  For years we traded hosting Thanksgiving with good family friends, dividing the cooking work load.  As my Daughters got older, and proximity to their bedrooms and stuff got ever more important, we became the default host house, but the cooking has always been a joint effort.  Our numbers at dinner can range from 12 to 24, friends and family.  We have oysters and champagne in the backyard, traditional Thanksgiving feast served buffet style with plenty of good wine, all nine kinds of pie Harold likes best with port and Sauternes.  We insist folks Uber, Lyft or cab it.
We used to host Christmas Eve dinner and then went to friends’ for Christmas Day, the same friends with whom we share Thanksgiving.  This was the perfect set up for us.  My Husband would plan an elaborate, indulgent, multi-course, sit down dinner; Daughter 1.0 and I would make a bûche de Nöel; everyone got Christmas pjs (adults too) and changed before heading home; my Husband and I would stay up to the wee small hours after the girls were in bed, cleaning the kitchen and fulfilling our Santa duties (sorry girls, it really was us eating the cookies and carrots and drinking the milk for all those years).  On Christmas Day after the madness of opening presents, we took our bleary-eyed selves to our friends’ for prime rib and Yorkshire pudding.  Perfect!  Merry Christmas to all!
Three years ago, independently, both families made plans to be away for Christmas.  They went to New York, we went to Maui.  And while I love Maui, (who wouldn’t?) where the hardest decision of the day is whether to have our beach chairs set up in the corner by the rocks or right in the center of the beach and whether 11:00 am is too early for a Mai Tai (no!), I missed being home for Christmas.  But our friends really like being in New York.
My Husband put his foot down – he would not cook both Christmas Eve and Christmas day dinner (not to mention Thanksgiving!).  Last year we went to friends for Thanksgiving, went out to dinner Christmas Eve and my Husband cooked (pork roast) for Christmas dinner.  And while Thanksgiving was incredible at our friends’ house, and the restaurant meal was superb, I missed having the dinners in our home.  My Husband didn’t.  He seemed to be relieved not to cook.  And this made me sad.  You see, cooking for people has always been a part of who we are.  It’s the story we tell of us.  We feed people – in college, in law school, in our grown up life.  And my Husband is a cook.  I fell in love with him for his killer Caesar salad and because when I had to have my tonsils out in college, within months of meeting him, he fed me (soft food).  Cooking and feeding feel synonymous with love.
This year, somehow (oops!), we ended up hosting all three holiday meals.  And yes, it was a tremendous amount of work, but it made me happy.  And I would argue that it made my Husband happy too.  I could see it watching him shuck oysters and fuss over his barbecue turkey.  I could see it when he went to the cellar and brought up a bottle of beautiful Sine Qua Non wine.  I could see it when he artfully plated his perfectly cooked Christmas Day quails.
I promised my Husband I wouldn’t make him host all three dinners again, but I have 10 months to work on him.

One way I convinced my Husband to host Christmas Eve dinner, in addition to Christmas Day, was to assure him that I would make it, and that it would be easy and casual.  My Husband’s sole responsibility was to pick up the focaccia bread from Liguria Bakery (turns out the line was 3 hours long, so he did worked for it, but if you have ever had Liguria’s focaccia, you know it’s worth it!).

Christmas Eve Lasagne Two Ways (red and green)

For both lasagnes, I used fresh pasta sheets (store bought).  I rolled the sheets in a pasta maker to make them extra thin.

For the red:

One package of fresh pasta sheets
Freshly grated reggiano parmigiano cheese

One batch of Bolognese (we often double or triple the recipe and freeze it):
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 tablespoons butter
Small yellow onion, chopped into small dice
2 celery ribs, chopped into small dice
2 large carrots, peeled and chopped into small dice
1/3 pound ground chuck
1/3 pound ground pork
1/3 pound ground veal
1 cup whole milk
Whole nutmeg
1 cup dry white wine
1 28 ounce can whole San Marzano tomatoes, drained

Put the oil, butter and onion in a large pot over medium heat.  Cook until the onion is translucent, stirring occasionally.  Add the celery and carrots, cook for about 2 minutes, stirring the vegetables.
Add the ground meats to the pot with a large pinch of kosher salt and a few grindings of black pepper.  Crumble the meat with the back of a wooden spoon and cook until it has lost its raw color.
Add the milk to the pot and adjust the temperature to a gentle simmer.  Simmer until all of the liquid has bubbled away.  Add a tiny grating of fresh nutmeg and stir the pot.  Add the wine and simmer until all of it has evaporated, stirring occasionally.
Add the tomatoes, crushing them in your hand as you add them to the pot.  Stir well to combine all the ingredients.  When the sauce begins to bubble, turn the heat down as low as possible and simmer very very gently for 3 hours.  Add water (1/2 at a time) if the sauce appears to be drying out.  Taste and correct for salt.

Béchamel Sauce:
3 cups whole milk
6 tablespoons butter
4 1/2 tablespoons flour
1/4 teaspoon salt

Heat the milk just to the verge of boiling.  In a separate pan, melt the butter over medium low heat.  Add the flour and cook, stirring, for about 2 minutes.  Slowly add the warm milk to the flour/butter mixture (the roux).  Add the salt and stir until the sauce is the texture of heavy cream.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Smear the bottom of a lasagne pan with butter and spoon in some béchamel sauce to coat the bottom.  Line the bottom with a single layer of the pasta
Combine the bolognese sauce with béchamel sauce.  Spread a layer on the pasta.  Sprinkle with parmesan cheese.  Add another layer of the pasta and repeat, layering, until all of the pasta and sauce are gone.  Finish with a thin layer of sauce on the top layer and sprinkle with cheese.  Dot the top with butter.
Bake in the top rack of the oven for 10 to 15 minutes.

For the green:

One package of fresh pasta sheets
Freshly grated reggiano parmigiano cheese

Pesto with Ricotta:
2 parts basil leaves to 1 part Italian parsley for a total of about 2 cups, loosely packed
1 – 2 cloves of garlic peeled
3 Tbsp pine nuts
1/3 a cup or so of freshly grated reggiano parmigiano cheese
Salt and pepper
1/2 cup good olive oil

3 tablespoons of butter at room temperature
1/2 pint of fresh ricotta cheese

I make my pesto in a food processor.  If you use a blender be sure to put the oil in first followed by everything else.
  Put all the ingredients except the oil in the bowl of a food processor.  Process for a few seconds then add the oil through the food tube and continue to process until all the oil is incorporated.  Scrape the pesto into a bowl and blend in the butter and the ricotta.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
Thickly smear the bottom of a lasagne pan with butter.  Line the bottom with a single layer of pasta.  Spread a thin layer of the ricotta pesto on the pasta and sprinkle with parmesan cheese.  Add another layer of pasta and repeat the process, layering until all of the pasta and sauce are gone.  Finish with a thin layer of pesto and sprinkle with cheese.  Dot with butter.
Bake in the top rack of the oven for 10 to 15 minutes.

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