Weekly Wire
NewCityNet Yule Tried And True

By Ben Winters

DECEMBER 13, 1999:  There are no great holidays without great food. Halloween comes with a pillowcase full of candy, St. Valentine's Day with romantic candy hearts, St. Patrick's with sugar-dusted cookies and green beer. President's Day, on the other hand, has no good food (or bad food, for that matter), which is why, as far as holidays go, it pretty much sucks.

It's the Christmas season, though, that takes the cake: All those chestnuts roasting on open fires (or being hustled out of carts on Michigan Avenue for five bucks a bag), the gorgeous goose on the family table, the candy canes and gumdrops and all the rest. Hanukkah is a culinary spectacular in its own right; I don't know about the rest of the Jews out there, but a nice hot plate of potato latkes (along with a couple of gold-wrapped chocolate coins) always seemed more than fair recompense for Santa not coming to my house. Alas, even the best things can get old after December rolls around enough times, and maybe this is the year to add some new flavors to your holiday fare. Before you set your first chestnut to roast, mull over some alternatives to the same old holiday repast. Norman Rockwell might spin in his grave, but your dinner guests will overstuff your stocking for it.

In the finest holiday tradition, let's start with drinks. To try a little concoction called Hriatuo, a Christmas Eve favorite (and alleged cough suppressant) from the Upper Hron region of Czechoslovakia, warm up some honey in a pot, add geese lard (or butter), and stir in a little vodka. Serve it hot—naturally. Once your guests have had a couple sips of their Slovakian aperitif, it's time to roll out the first course. For the soup, try a vegetarian option: broccoli, cream cheese, pear and almond soup. It's just what it sounds like, with a little bit of oatmeal for texture and a whole lot of butter for cholesterol. But Christmas only comes once a year, and it's got to be healthier than fruitcake.

Let's jump religions for our main course, stewed white beans. Many Hanukkah foods, like the classic potato pancakes, are fried, the sizzling oil in the pan subbing for that which famously burned for eight days and nights in the Maccabean temple. While lacking that symbolic quotient, stewed white beans are a more healthful alternative, and easy to make: Sautee some celery, onions, a can of tomatoes and your favorite seasonings (bay leaves are nice), open a can of navy beans in there, and let it stew until everyone's done with their Hriatuo.

If the stew looks lonely on your holiday table, there's plenty of other alternative entrées to be found, from all over the world. You can travel all the way from northern Norway (lutefisk, or baked cod) to eastern Norway (pork patties and spiced cabbage) to western Norway (salted lamb's ribs and sausage). But the quintessential Norwegian Christmas meal is a crackling rib roast; unfortunately, it takes several days and careful attention to prepare, and doesn't taste right without stirred lingonberries.

Somewhat easier to prepare is a Hawaiian holiday favorite called wiki wiki salmon. Served ice cold—leave it to Hawaii to have iced Christmas cuisine—wiki wiki is a tasty mixture of de-boned salmon, tomatoes, green and yellow onions, and cilantro. Back in the continental U.S., Emeril Lagasse (who you may know as "that clearly insane guy from the Food Channel") suggests a New Orleans classic, beef tenderloins with fresh horseradish and a black pepper crust. For a side dish, we leave New Orleans and move to whatever dimension it is that Cher comes from. In his seminal work "Cooking for Cher," the singer and celebrity-at-large's longtime personal chef Andy Ennis lists the full holiday menu oft enjoyed by Cher & Family. Along with old favorites like gingerbread cookies, the list includes Cher's Ambrosia; made with pieces of orange and grapefruit, sour cream, coconut, marshmallows and walnuts, the sweet fruit side dish is suspiciously similar to that concocted by my Great Aunt Ruthie. More distinctive is Chastity's Italian Spinach and Onions: Boil the spinach, and sautee it in olive oil with garlic and onions for twenty-five minutes.

Finally we come to dessert—the heart and soul of any holiday celebration. There is a Chilean Christmas bread created with lemon, almonds and vanilla; Egyptian lebkuchen are little almond cookies dusted with nutmeg and cinnamon. I've come across several incredibly complex recipes for chestnut chocolate ice cream, which involve maple syrup, canned chestnut puree and an extremely high failure risk. Buy it at the store, or just bust out the gingerbread cookies.

After all, a classic is a classic.


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