Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Christmas (Veg) Dinner, Part I

Although fleeing to somewhere warmer where I could hide until the holidays passed seemed like a brilliant idea, I stayed home this year and hosted Christmas dinner. Cooking for my family can be a bit of a challenge. My father has a more classic palate, while my mother is cautiously adventurous when it comes to food; then there is my brother and his girlfriend- if meat is not attached to whatever the meal is, it is cause to fret and wonder what on earth I may be feeding them. This year, with my Christmas dinner debut, I believe I successfully satisfied my mélange of guests.

To begin, I served a simple mixed baby greens salad with a balsamic dressing, classic and simple, but still able to hold its own. Next, for my dad, baked ziti. Because I believe a little heat can add another dimension to any meal, my pasta sauce includes chilies- just enough to give a bite, let you know they are there and warm your blood in these cold, dark months. Simple meals, but good, stick to your bones type stuff. Where I got adventurous was the other meal. Yes, I served two separate meals at my dinner-could it be any other way?

The second meal included Portobello Wellingtons with Madeira sauce, mashed potatoes with leeks and a touch of nutmeg and lemon haricot vert with almond slices. The Portobello Wellingtons with Madeira sauce are not for the faint of heart- these gems are labor and time intensive- without the holiday dinner debut looming over me, I don’t know if I would have attempted these. I wanted to wow my guests and these did it.

Knowing what was ahead of me, I paced myself. I began my pasta sauce the night before.

Pasta Sauce:

1 bulb of garlic, diced
1 large onion, diced
2 large cans peeled tomatoes
1 can tomato sauce
6 fresh Roma tomatoes, diced
Red wine
Fresh basil
Italian herb mixture
Black Pepper
Hot dried chilies
3-4 bay leaves
Olive oil

Sauté onion in 2-3 tbs olive oil until transparent in a thick bottomed stock pot, toss in the diced garlic. Once both the garlic and the onions are sautéed, add the fresh diced tomatoes and allow those to cook for several minutes before stirring in the 2 large cans of peeled tomatoes, the can of sauce and bay leaves. Pour in wine (approximately 1 cup or to taste). Let cook for 10 minutes stirring occasionally to avoid burning the sauce.

At this point, add basil, salt, pepper, hot chilies and the Italian herb mixture, all to taste. A good rule of thumb is to not over do it with the herbs and such- you can always add more as you go, but removal is almost impossible. Allow to simmer for at least an hour, stirring periodically.

After I remove the bay leaves, I puree my sauce with an immersion hand blender. It balances out the flavors and gives a nice texture to the sauce. Once finished blending, place the pot back on the flame and allow the sauce to simmer another 30 minutes or longer depending on desired thickness. Knowing I am adding this to pasta that will end up in the oven, I will make the sauce a little thinner because the oven will cause its own evaporation and thicken the sauce up a bit.

Once the sauce is “done” you can either serve it with pasta, let it cool and freeze it for later, or let it cool and place it in the refrigerator for use within the week. As a general rule, the sauce is always better the second day and, as with this batch, I allowed it to cool and then placed in the refrigerator for the following day’s final preparations for the baked ziti- after, of course, giving the sauce a trial run with a little pasta, along with a good red wine, such as Jazz.

I left the remaining, more daunting Portobello Wellington recipe for the coming day. To be continued…