Sunday, December 27, 2009

Mele Kalikimaka

The Chistmas holiday is always jam packed for us.   It really begins on Christmas Eve.  Other children can't wait for Christmas morning to rush down to the Christmas tree and tear into their presents.  But when I was really little, my parents would let me wait up until midnight on Christmas Eve, and then open all of my presents.   This was a holdover from my dad's childhood, because when he was little and times were tougher his parents worked at their business, Goo Laundry, every single day of the year, Christmas included.   So he would have to open his presents at night rather than in the morning.  As a result, I never really had to wait for Santa, because on the stroke of midnight, I would have my presents in hand already.  Christmas Day was then spent, first at my mom's side for lunch with more presents, and then at dinner with my dad's side and more presents still.   It was a really hectic schedule, and as I grew older, we eventually conslidated everything to Christmas night (which meant that we now opened presents later than everyone else who did Christmas morning).  When I got married, things changed again, and when I had kids things changed yet again.   I think it's something that every young couple in Hawaii faces, simply because whereas on the mainland going home to family means travelling to different cities, in Hawaii its a matter of a 15 minute drive and you've got to juggle both sides of your family.

My Strawberry Sugar Free Jello Christmas Cookies
This year, Christmas Eve was thankfully quite peaceful.  After an early dinner with my wife's family at Golden Duck, and checking on Santa's status via NORAD, we were able to tuck our kids in to bed and have a quiet night for just the two of us.  We turned off all the lights except for the Christmas lights and settle in to snuggle and wait for Santa.  But in waiting for Santa, it dawned on me that we didn't have any cookies for him (or ourselves).   In years past, I would really enjoy the ready to bake sugar free cookies from Pillsbury, but recently I haven't been able to find them in any of the stores.  I'm not even sure that Pillsbury still makes the sugar free ones.  So I had to settle for a sugar free recipe from the Internet.  Unfortunately, while I may be a pretty decent cook, baking is a complete mystery to me.   It may be because cooking to me is all about improvisation and artistic interpretation, whereas baking requires rigid adherence to a set recipe.   My wife is a far better baker than I am, and my feeble attempt at baking cookings was both laughable and nigh unedible.  They had a bizarre doughy center, that resembled sticky mochi within stale bread.  My wife likened them to something Dr. Seuss would've cooked up.   But at least they smelled good, filling the house with a comforting strawberry baking smell.   So we had cookies and some sugar free hot chocolate.  We put on a little fireside music from Hapa.   And we settled in under the Christmas tree to open our presents to each other.   It was so very romantic.   Let me tell you, a lit Christmas tree on Christmas Eve is so much better than mistletoe (which is usually infested with nargles anyway).  

Christmas day was another story.   For me, the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve meant tearing into my presents, but in my wife's childhood it meant attending Midnight Mass.   Since the advent of our children however, Christmas morning mass has been much easier.  So we all got up (way too early for me), to head off to church like good little sheep.  Then we went over to her parents house to open presents there.   Following which, we had lunch at Tsukiji Fish Market (which was packed to the brim with people).  Then we came home and let our kids open our own presents to them.   After which, I just crashed for an hour or so (which was bad because my wife really need the sleep even more than I did).   Only to wake up just in time to cook our dishes for dinner, before heading up to my parents house for Christmas dinner and opening even more presents.   It's a frankly a little exhausting, a little overhwelming, and by the end you're running on nothing but pure adrenaline.  But then again, it's Christmas, and if your biggest problem is how to cram in time with all the people that love you, you're in pretty good shape.  In the end, you're left with nothing but a a feeling of joy, love, and happiness.

Our Christmas Feast 2009
Christmas dinner in my family, is essentially Thanksgiving dinner, Part II.  Like Thanksgiving, each of us cooks something to bring to the table.   In order to try to not repeat ourselves, we attempt to bring something a little more seasonal to the table.  It's usually winds up being all kapakine, but at least it gives us a big variety of styles and given the expertise in the kitchen my family has, it's always scrumptious.

My Mom's Turkey
In the past, my mom has made honey glazed hams or some beautiful crown roasts to differentiate Christmas from Thanksgiving.   But since my sister moved to the mainland, and hasn't been home for Thanksgiving, we've been having turkey again at Christmas, just so she has a chance to enjoy it as well.   None of us ever complain about it, because my mom's turkey is simply the best in the world.   While other turkeys can easily get dry and tough, my mom's is always supremely succulent and flavorful.   And of course, it gives me a second chance to enjoy my precious turkey tail.  Besides, as Mel Torme sang "A turkey and some mistletoe help to make the season bright."

My Mom's Christmas Bun Wreath
To add a more Christmasy element to her contributions, my mom also baked a festive Christmas wreath of buns.  They were nice and herby, and as visually appealing as they were tasty.  

My Chinese Style Lup Cheong Stuffing
Since I knew my mom was making turkey, I decided to make stuffing, but not just any stuffing.  I decided to give it a local spin, and make a Chinese style, lup cheong stuffing.   For one thing, I figured that the red and green of the lup cheong and the choi sum would make it a little bit more visually festive than the usual Thanksgiving-esque earthtones of regular stuffing.  Besides that, you gotta cook to your audience, and naturally my family really enjoyed the Chinese flavors.  For me, the contrast of the strong Chinese flavors like lup cheong, ha mai, and hau yau (oyster sauce), against the traditional Americana of the turkey and mashed potatoes, is in minature what our lifestyle is all about.

My Sister's Chiles en Nogada
My sister, being home from the mainland, brought to the table some new (and frankly quite foreign) flavors with her Chiles en Nogada, a Puebla dish that she learned from the SF Gate.  Like me, she chose the dish because of the green and red colors of the chiles and the pomegranate seeds (which really were strikingly beautiful).  However, unlike mine which was filled with familiar comforting flavors, hers was an excursion into some vastly unfamiliar territory.   The pork tenderloin was quite tasty with a Mexican spiced crema sauce to it.  Like how you usually see pork chops served with applesauce, her cubes of pork were offset by cubes of Korean pear.  But whereas the Korean pear is sweet familiar flavor, the pomegranate seeds on top are certianly not.   All of which were kicked up with the spiciness of the chiles.   It was my first time ever trying fresh pomegranate seeds, whose bright red colors are so vividly alluring.  They are sweet, but with a bit of a bitterness to them as well, and I frankly don't care for the hard seeds within.   In fact, whereas in my dish everything kind of softens and converges in texture, hers was a complete rocky road of pork cubes, pear cubes, and hard little pomegranate seeds.  It was tasty and brilliantly executed, but at the same time underscored the different person she's become and a reminder of how we've grown apart since she's been gone.   It's something I try very hard to get used to, and I really try to get to know the person she is now, but it isn't always easy.

My Wife's Cauliflower Medley Casserole
While my sister and I are quite different the way we were when we were kids, my wife and I seem to grow more like each other over time, the way that all married couples take on each other's traits.  This Christmas, she walked in to Foodland, not having any idea what to cook, and just looked around to listen to the food for inspiriation.   For someone who rigidly sticks to the recipes, this was something that just put a smile on my face.   What she saw, were all different colors of cauliflower; orange, purple, green brocoflower, and the original white.   So it dawned on her to make a classic casserole out of all of these different colored cauliflowers.  It was at once beautiful, tasty, and inspired.   Of course the whole day, she was worried that it would be a lame dish, after all it was "only cauliflower".  But as I expected, everyone loved it.   My uncle even said that he could discern the slightly different flavors of each different color (some being more bitter than others).  I'm not sure if this was a trick of the mind or not, but it was creamy, cheesy, and delicious.

My Aunty's Mashed Potatoes with Potato Skins
My aunty of course made her awesome traditional mashed potatoes.   This time, she opted for a little bit of cream of mushroom in it just to give it an even more creamy texture and just the hint of mushroom flavor.  It was just a little so as not to overpower the awesome potatoey goodness of real potatoes.  This time, she also decided to remove the potato skins instead of mixing them in as I usually request.  But she baked them separately, giving them a fantastic crispiness, akin to that of stomping on dried leaves.  They were a fantastic contrast in texture and color as garnish, with even more potatoey goodness to add.

My Aunty's Stuffed Mushrooms
Aunty also decided to thow in a few stuffed mushrooms.   With mushrooms and potatoes, she was basically catering to my wife with her favorite foods.   The mushrooms were plump and mouthwateringly juicy, and a perfect little side dish.

My Son's Tuna Macaroni Salad
Finally, to indoctrinate our traditions into my son, as well as to pass on my passion for cooking (and to keep him busy while I was trying to cook my dish), we again tried to bring him into the kitchen for his own contribution.   Of course, being only 4 years old, we were limited as to what would be safe for him, keep his attention, and not overstretch his abilities.   So I thought back to my own beginnings as a cook, and pulledout a Hawaiian classic, macaroni salad.  As it basically just involves a lot of mixing, it was perfect for him.   He just sat there mixing, while I helped him throw in some macaroni, mayonnaise, tuna, peas, a touch of pepper and a little relish.  The result was a dish that he could proudly call his own, and that the family could gush over in front of him.   He actually enjoyed eating it as much as he did making it, having 3 big servings, before rushing off to tear into his presents. 

My Uncle's Okinawan Sweet Potato Pie
To top it all off, my uncle, made a fantastic Okinawan sweet potato pie.   Somehow the texture of the purple Okinawan sweet potato was a little better to me than the regular (orange) sweet potato pie he made for Thanksgiving.   The consistency was a little firmer and a little more even, while the filling he made for Thanksgiving was slightly on the mushy side for my taste.  Besides the even texture, the purple of the Okinawan sweet potato is always such a beautiful, striking color to me.  It was the perfect way to top of the evening, after opening all of those presents and putting some exhausted babies to sleep.

Christmas may be plain exhausting and a little unduly stressful, but it also means family, and food, and a literal feast for every single one of your senses.   It always fills me with an inescapable sense of magic and wonder and excitement that I thoroughly enjoy sharing with my boys and the rest of my family.

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