Christmas Traditions

Most people who love to cook can trace the roots of their passion back to someone in their lives. I learned to love cooking from my mother and father, as well as my maternal grandmother. Traditions handed down are, in my opinion, the best inheritance a person could receive. I cherish all of my familial cooking memories, especially those that include loved ones that are no longer here.

My mother’s family has had a Christmas tradition that dates back over 50 years called ‘Belch and Holler.’ It is a holiday cookie party with plenty of libations and a stationary caroling element. I have hosted a Belch and Holler for the last 8 years in Minnesota. Other than the traditional Christmas Caroling books my mother photo copied for me, it is a secular event. Last year the music was accompanied by a tuba, a guitar, and an accordion. The downstairs neighbors were warned ahead of time, and of course, invited. My partner conveniently had to work that evening. Needless to say, Belch and Holler isn’t for everyone, and that’s okay.

What should be for everyone is my grandmother’s recipe from chocolate bottomed Florentines. These lacy cookies are studded with nuts and candied fruit. The batter is cooked on a stove and is made up mostly of butter and honey. Once they are cooked and cooled, the bottoms are painted with bittersweet chocolate. As a child, I considered this a magical food. My grandma, Mutsi, would bake hundreds of cookies. Some were not magical, like her Danish ‘rocks.’ My siblings and I got to create the cookie trays that were placed throughout the entertaining rooms. There were usually less Florentines than Mutsi remembered baking. She was a benevolent woman with a generous heart, and wouldn’t scold us too much for chowing down on her bounty before the party began.

This year, I am going to serve hot chicken broth instead of hot cider at Belch and Holler. I had this idea a while back and haven’t tried it out yet. Hopefully, this new tradition will go over well. I will also make hundreds of Florentines to honor Mutsi’s memory. There will be some emotional moments as I make this magical food, my hands being an extension of her legacy. My hope is that you are able to reflect, with love and gratitude, on your family traditions this December as well.

Southeast Asian

I was inspired by Pete Wells’ restaurant review in the New York Times this week to escape November. He prescribes eating Singaporean cuisine as a remedy to any seasonal lethargy. Last night I made the Khmer lemongrass coconut curried chicken from “Hot Sour Salty Sweet” by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, and was transported to Southeast Asia. The humidity of the house was ratcheted up by the aromatic food slow cooking on our stove. We added seasonally appropriate Delicata squash and carrots to the curry. They were upgraded to tender, spice infused treats. We couldn’t wait to make the meal again, and to eat the leftovers.

When I’m not cooking Southeast Asian food, I am walking to University Ave in St Paul to have a heaping bowl of pho. In these dark, day-dreaming days of November, it’s easy to want to escape from Minnesota. Bundle up and get outside. A little vitamin D and some light cardio can really improve your mood. Then, get a window seat at Pho Ca Dao, order a bowl of their soup, bask in the sun rays and restore yourself over a steaming, curative bowl of traditional Vietnamese food. Two of you can have a mini-vacation for less than $25 and without taking any time off.

There is a lot of information on the merits of broth. I believe that consuming hot, clear broth is a good way to get hydrated, decongest, and sate your hunger. Beyond purchasing Taking Stock chicken broth, here is my completely subjective list of favorite Southeast Asian soups in the city:

Pho Ca Dao’s House Special Pho

Skip the eggrolls and go for the gold: their signature pho soup. The House Special has beef tenderloin, beef brisket, honeycomb tripe, and meatballs. I like to think that the tripe has magical restorative properties.

Bangkok Thai Deli’s Khao Soi

What inspired me to order this dish the first time is unknown. It has become my favorite over the top food. Tender bone-in chicken served in a yellow curry broth with both fried and boiled egg noodles and pickled vegetables knock this dish out of the park.

Pho 79’s Mi Hoanh Thanh

This restaurant on Nicollet Ave in Minneapolis has it all. Despite their extensive menu, they serve up one of the best phos I’ve had. If you’re in the mood for something else, try the Mi. Springy egg noodles and a lighter broth are a departure from the beef broth/rice noodle combination. Also, the pork wontons are really, really tasty.

Quangs’ Bun Ca Kieng Giang

This seabass soup is only available on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. They make a limited amount, and I have been disappointed trying to order it later in the day, so get your order in early! As an East Coast girl and a fish snob, I’m here to say that it may be the best fish dish in the city.