Happy Chanukah–tonight was the first night–and as per usual, a belated Happy Thanksgiving too. I hope everyone ate nice, had fun, enjoyed and helped do the dishes wherever you gathered.
Now that it’s over, I have a few more additions to the list of things I’ve learned–good or bad–about How To Travel With Food ™. Because my in-laws, who usually host Thanksgiving, are traveling in Africa (!!!–think elephants coming up to their cabin porch), my ex-brother-in-law invited all the rest of us to join him for the weekend instead. In Sonoma. At what turned out to be not a cabin with or without elephants, but a luxurious private residence he’d booked for the group as a vacation rental. And it was out and out marvelous. If a little weird and unsettling in its own way.
When we were still deciding how to reach Sonoma from Pasadena, we realized with dismay that it’s about 10 or 11 hours by car at the best of times, and Thanksgiving week is not the best of times. When we lived on the east coast, a trip like that would have us thinking airplane automatically, but out here we usually just suffer. My niece and her boyfriend drove up from San Luis Obispo, usually 4 hours north of us, and it took them 9 hours instead of 5 or 6. So I was really grateful to my husband for finding affordable plane tickets for an hour’s flight into Oakland. So far, so good, and it took a lot of the strain out.
But all those airline rules. And we were the ones bringing pumpkin pie. In carry-on. My ex-BIL offered to pick up a couple of big stalks of brussels sprouts for me up there (I don’t think we even had any more at down here by this time; Trader Joe’s was out of them by weeks) as well as a green cabbage for Greek cabbage salad. These are big heavy scary-looking items you just don’t want to schlep on a plane unless you’re auditioning for the live version of Shrek. As the shopping list got longer, I decided to just bake the pies at home, cool them, freeze them as far as possible, and take them in a stiff box with some ice packs stuffed in the corners and hope for the best.
It would have been so nice if I’d just done the sane thing and baked the pies the night before so they’d have a chance to freeze and stay cold without help, but I specialize in last-minute-itis. So…Wednesday morning I dropped the cat off at the cat sitting service, raced home, got the pie dough and filling together and baked the pies. I couldn’t picture flying with a heavy ceramic pie dish so I had to bake them conventionally in foil pans, which takes a lot longer than microwaving. Even with the heat a little higher than usual, they took about an hour to bake. And they usually take about two hours just to cool to room temperature, which was going to be around the time we took off.
I decided to call on my college lab rat training and just sit them in a couple of spare baking trays with some ice cubes and cold water floating around them. It’s not elegant, but it worked really well–got them down to slightly cooler than room temperature in under an hour and allowed me to double wrap them and stick them in the freezer for another hour, which is about all we had left, and find a big enough snaplock box. I stuck in a couple of small ice packs and a bag of fresh herbs and a lemon (you can never have enough) to brace the pan and keep it from sliding around, and we got on the road. Where the holiday traffic was already revving up. Yay.
…I left one pie behind in the freezer (where it was perfectly fine). Ignore what it says on the Libby’s can–who cares if the filling supposedly separates from the crust more easily once you freeze it? It really was not noticeable at all.
We got to Burbank and through security with about 10 minutes to go until our flight. And just then the lady at the other end of the scanner said she needed to hand inspect the bag with the pie box, and donned a pair of latex exam gloves.
I asked her, was it because of the foil? I wasn’t sure they’d even allow pumpkin pie on the plane. She said no, people bring all kinds of stuff on the plane, even fully-iced birthday cakes. It was the ice packs–she wanted to make sure they were actually ice packs and that they weren’t leaking. Good thing I’d just taken them out of the freezer moments before leaving the house. I think the bag of scallions, dill and mint I’d managed to squeeze in convinced her I was just a desperately klutzy packer and not attempting some kind of in-air herbal attack. Not that I’m joking; in light of recent events it’s still kind of creepy whichever way you think about it.
The pie was still remarkably okay when we got out to the car rental in Oakland, despite having been slung around vertically, sideways and probably upside down a couple of times. And stuck in with some airport-quality tuna sandwiches for dinner. Then we got out into the countryside north of SF and found ourselves being greeted at the house. I mean, the Lodge.
The Lodge in Kenwood is frankly incredible and for most of us, usually way out of reach. It’s the kind of house and wooded grounds you only see featured in House Beautiful or the like. Or maybe Sonoma Wine Country-type magazines. Hot tub, swimming pool (covered for the winter; it was getting down to 30 F at night), multiple decks and patios, Viking stove in the kitchen with a large island, custom-carved oak wet bar, lots of fireplaces, separate furnished mother-in-law apartment, white marble floors with under-floor heating, screening room, the works. Walking distance from local wineries at one end of the road and Sugarloaf Mountain hiking trail at the other. If you opt for it ahead and have the moola to go extra all-out, not just the regular all-out, they can supply you a private chef and winery tours too. Way out of our league. Way, way.
For the first hour or so my niece and I just tiptoed through the five bedroom suites goggling at it all and wondering were the owners completely mad to agree to rent it out to ordinary schmoes like us?
After we got over ourselves and calmed down, we realized it was much more comfortable and less intimidating than it looked at first glance–well, except for the custom cowskin-and-longhorn-horn bar stools, which looked like they belonged in a Southwestern craft gallery and not in a kitchen with raw turkey anywhere nearby.
There was plenty of room for my other much younger nephew and niece to play Legos out by the couches without getting any of their intergalactic creations stepped on (this being Star Wars season), and the rest of us were able to gather around a big kitchen island either prepping dishes or snagging satsumas and apples from a great big serving dish on a pedestal in the middle. A row of shined-up glasses and several bottles of wine were lined up in anticipation at the bar behind us, and both (!) dishwashers were on recyc duty throughout the weekend. Pretty much the picture-perfect, magazine-worthy, utterly gracious foodie idyll. At least if someone else is taking the pictures.
I never really thought of myself as belonging to that fashionably unstudied in-crowd sort of thing. But I do like cooking with garlic, and so does everyone else in the family, and my ex-brother-in-law had supplied a very large bag even by my standards. Hot and cold roasted heads of garlic made it just about perfect.
And after all, Thanksgiving is about cooking together as much as eating, and we all got down to both pretty handily. I even got the honors of being up to my elbow prepping the turkey (the magazines somehow never show that part; too much like an episode of ER), defeathering and defatting beforehand (double-never), setting it breast-down in the roasting pan and two hours later showing off unsuspected muscle and craftiness with barbecue forks (since I was the only one not out hiking at that point) to wrestle the damn thing back over halfway through cooking and back into the oven without letting it skid out onto the Very Expensive Marble Floor. Where it would probably stain indelibly, knock over one of the cowhorn stools and cost my hard-working ex-BIL his deposit. Yes, that was uppermost in my list of worries, well above whether the turkey would be salvageable if that happened. Of course I’m now one up on Julia Child, not that I wouldn’t have faked it if I’d had to. As I said, the ideal cooking vacation.
As to vegetabalia…This year’s crop of foodie magazines has dropped even the usual boring green and orange vegetables from the November cover photos altogether, very disturbingly. But our group all pretty much agree on adding vegetables of worth and not out of a can.
One dish I’ve been wanting to try out for several years is roasted brussels sprouts (hence the shopping list for the ex-BIL) with hazelnuts. My mother once took me to a local restaurant in Virginia that served them, and they were incredible. My version uses a little olive oil rather than a stick or so worth of beurre noisette (browned butter) with the noisettes (hazelnuts), so it’s a bit skinnier and a good bit faster than theirs, but it’s still pretty good. Even though one of my sisters-in-law expressed horror at the thought that I might microwave the brussels sprouts lightly before roasting them. Her reasoning was more spiritual than scientifically or culinarily sound, but I relented for her sake (not at home tonight, though–see below).
True to his word, my ex-BIL had brussels sprouts waiting rustically atop the kitchen island to be snapped off the huge green ogre’s-club stalks and peeled and halved for cooking. There’s a lot of waste on fresh sprouts–not quite as bad as trimming artichokes, but a bit daunting anyway. Bon Appétit never mentions this kind of thing either… Of course there was a thoughtfully provided bag for composting the remains, but I’m not sure I feel all the way better for it.
I steamed the sprouts for about 10 minutes on the stove in a lidded pan with a little olive oil, a couple of cloves of chopped garlic and a half-cup of water before sticking them in a casserole and adding a head’s worth of pre-roasted garlic cloves and a drizzle of olive oil. I coarsely bashed a couple of handfuls of toasted hazelnuts from my Armenian corner greengrocer’s (these were fantastic and turned out to be a surprise hit for noshing too) by pouring them into a plastic bag and rolling over it with a rolling pin (an empty wine bottle will usually do just as well) and sprinkled them on top and stuck the sprouts in the oven for a bit, hoping they’d brown a little before serving time.
Unfortunately there were too many brussels sprouts in the pan and not enough time to pan-brown for Thursday night’s feast. They were still pretty decent. But we pan-browned the leftovers to reheat them for Friday’s “taco night” party and it really brought out not just the flavor of the sprouts but the roasted garlic and hazelnuts as well. Definitely a step up.
Tonight, I made the dish again at home with about 3/4 lb. of sprouts just for the three of us on the first night of Chanukah. The microwave did its thing beautifully and instead of oven-roasting at length, I just pan-browned the sprouts with some roast garlic cloves and toasted hazelnuts in a bit of olive oil. The whole thing took maybe 10 minutes other than peeling the sprouts.
So if you make this kind of dish, get out a large nonstick frying pan and a little olive oil and split the pre-steamed sprouts into batches as needed, and brown them with the nuts and garlic a few minutes until they color and the fragrance comes up. It’s worth it and you might not need to stick them in the oven as long or possibly at all. And obviously, if you don’t have a prejudice against microwaves I say go for it and do the preliminary steaming that way.
There was one other major culinary hit on the table: my niece’s boyfriend makes and hand-sells incredible homemade salsas of all degrees of heat, and he brought his latest batch with him. Cilantro/lime/jalapeno with something else, but the main thing is the method. It was very finely ground–maybe with a stick blender?– and a thick, delicate, creamy light green. Very very deceptive. So hot it could wake the dead, or at least reanimate the exhausted hikers and cooks among us before we sat down to supper.
It was also completely addictive. The next couple of days, we realized the salsa was the essential missing link for almost everything but the desserts. So I’m really hoping he can get his cottage production up and running for wider distribution. As soon as he does, I will be very excited to let you know where you can buy his salsas, and with any luck a recipe book as well. Heck, I’ll be very excited to let myself know. Because if his salsa was this good at Thanksgiving, it’ll be incredible with the latkes this week, and again at New Year’s. And the morning after, or the afternoon, with eggs.