Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
Dec 2, 2013
11:26 AMSmall Dishes
'Tis the Season
PHOTO BY DAN CURD
Like most holidays, Christmas has its traditional foods. Fruitcake is often considered one of them.
Driving down the street a week before Thanksgiving, I happened to notice my neighbors’ Christmas tree, shining brightly through their living room window. Slowing down to gawk, I realized they actually had three Christmas trees! I’m willing to bet, come the week before Valentine’s Day all three will still be there, still illuminated—along with all that other supposedly festive bunkum in their yard.
The Holidays—I’m talking about that period that now starts at Halloween (or even earlier at many of the big box stores) and runs through New Year’s Day—are for many an orgy of excess, driven by an insatiable desire to make each better than ever before. I admit, I’ve been snared into this trap. I use to have an annual Christmas party. Each year I would try to outdo myself from the year before and unfortunately I succeeded. Finally, I asked myself why I was doing this. It exhausted me, nearly bankrupt me and certainly wasn’t any fun. There can be too much of a good thing. Sometimes less truly is more, and that’s especially true when it comes to food. The concept is at the heart of both the locally-sourced and slow food movements.
I think we could do with more holidays rather than seeing The Holiday Season continually being stretched. I could do with fewer artificial Christmas trees, re-gifted hostess gifts and candy cane lattes. More Monday holidays would especially be welcome. In England they have bank holidays—Mondays strategically designated at appropriate times for no reason other than to take off work. I think it an insult that both Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are observed on a Sunday!
The holidays should be special and each one anticipated for what it brings to the table. I look forward to turkey and pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving, but don’t want to see them reappear a month later. For me Christmas would be incomplete without an impressive standing rib roast and Yorkshire pudding. Keeping to tradition is important when observing our family rituals. Most of us long for that inimitable joy that was inherent to these celebrations when we were children. When it comes to food, innovation or deviation is rarely appreciated on a holiday. An exception is New Year’s Eve, which is all about the future and moving along. Falling on the heels of weeks eating and drinking debauchery, a lethargic palate needs a shock.
One of the reasons I look forward to Mardi Gras so much is that it puts closure on Christmas. Like its predecessor, it’s a season, properly called “Carnival,” that begins on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany. In New Orleans, it means down with all things red and green and up with the purple, green and gold (unless the Saints happen to be in the Super Bowl which dictates a brief interlude of black and gold). As with any festive occasion, eating and drinking accompanies much of its observance up until its conclusion on Mardi Gras, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. The King Cake is its most renowned food. In reality it’s an unremarkable coffeecake—except for its overload of icing smothered in bands of purple, green and gold sugar. Regardless, come January 6 I’m sure to have one or otherwise feel disgruntled.
With Mardi Gras done it’s officially Fish Fry season. I realize that in Wisconsin every Friday night is an occasion to eat fried fish. However, the now iconic weekly meal began during Lent in the Great Depression (a ploy by the hospitality industry to attract more patrons). The Lenten season isn’t one that most celebrate, but nonetheless I do each Friday with fried lake perch or walleye. Cheers!
Growing up, we always had ham for Easter, but it wasn’t the pink, wet stuff sold at the supermarket. Living in Kentucky, it was one of the local specialties—country ham. Dry-cured and aged, it’s similar to prosciutto. Unlike its Italian cousin, it’s sometimes smoked, and after soaking, cooked. In my adulthood, I’ve gravitated toward leg of lamb for my Easter feast. I also favor asparagus and strawberries, produce that herald the advent of spring. Unfortunately, now both have become too common on tables year-round, and sadly for me have lost some of their specialness.
The trilogy of summer holidays—Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day—demand an outdoor barbecue with at least one of the picnic trinity of sides—potato salad, coleslaw and baked beans—and a fresh fruit pie. Similar to the movie Groundhogs Day, these dates marked in red on the calendar repeat, and thankfully so.
Just like Christmas when I was a kid, food is so much more savored when it’s eagerly awaited. I can buy an apple any day of the year, but none is as sweet or crisp as the first fruit of autumn. As I’ve grown older my taste has become more cultivated, more global and less satiable. Still, when it comes to planning celebratory food, I tend to stick with the tried and true; it’s risky to tamper with magic. Instead of trying to make the moment last, I prefer to keep an eye on what is yet to come.
RECIPE: Kentucky Boiled Custard
Similar to eggnog, this drink is much preferred in the South and is a holiday favorite. It’s often served with fruitcake. Contrary to its name, if you actually boil it, it will curdle and be ruined.
10 large eggs
2 1/4 cups granulated sugar
1 pint half-and-half
1 pint heavy cream
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup bourbon (or to taste)
Whipped cream (optional)
Freshly grated nutmeg (optional)
In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan, beat together the eggs and sugar. Stir in the half-and-half. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens (it should coat the back of a spoon and reach 160 degrees). Remove from the heat and stir in the heavy cream, vanilla and bourbon. Cool to room temperature and cover and refrigerate until thoroughly cold. (It will be even better if made the night before.) Serve cold in old fashioned glasses with a dollop of whipped cream and sprinkle of nutmeg if desired.
Make about 8 cups.