Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Giving Thanks and Holiday Feasts

I both love and hate this time of year. I love it for all the cooking shows and magazines full of fall and holiday recipes (that I drool over yet never make). I hate it because those same shows and magazines are a painful reminder that my husband and I are separated from our immediate families by a great big ocean and hours upon hours of travel that costs a bomb.  Oops, maybe I shouldn’t use the words “travel” and “bomb” in the same sentence… In any case, it’s around the holidays that I really miss family.  To be sure, my husband has extended family who are all very close to us and with whom we have spent recent Thanksgivings and Christmases.  We also have our share of friends that have become an extended family of sorts. But still, when you’re bombarded with ads showing happy families gathering around the table and children returning home from faraway places while coffee is brewing in the kitchen, you can’t help but feel a little empty.  I was recently talking about this very thing with a friend of mine who finds herself in a similar situation to ours. As a recent transplant to a new city not only does she miss her family and friends, but she feels extremely isolated because it seems everyone around her is gearing up for celebrating the Holidays with large family gatherings.  My take on this is that being separated from one’s family is actually more common than we all might think and that these cheesy holiday ads represent an ideal and not a norm. Families are scattered these days due to employment, deployment, or because they just don’t plain get along.  And not everyone can afford to travel even if they wanted to. 

Now that we are a family unit of our very own complete with our two year old little missy and less than 2 week old little guy I think it’s time to start thinking of establishing our own holiday traditions, especially when it comes to food.  With my Finnish background and my husband’s Irish heritage we have lots of dishes and traditions to draw upon.  I realize that my timing is not exactly on point with Thanksgiving a day away, but I have to start somewhere.  Thanksgiving was going to be a bit of a throwaway this year anyway as my son was due to be born a week later, and then decided to throw us a curveball by showing up a little early.  Not only that but with my gestational diabetes, I didn’t exactly feel like partaking in any feasts.  So, there is no turkey thawing in our fridge and no plans for oodles of the traditional side dishes.  But still, I feel the need to do something special.  Now, some of you may be gasping in horror that there will be no turkey, stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce, and biscuits in our household.  But really, is that necessary?  My husband doesn’t even like turkey, so what would be the point of making it, especially when you can’t seem to find any birds smaller than 20 pounds? 

This year, our menu will include a spiral ham, green bean casserole, Brussels sprouts, and potatoes of some sort.  Yeah, it’s pretty simple and not a lot of food but there are only three adults (with my mother here to help with the baby) and one very picky toddler, so why torture ourselves with loads of food to prepare and tons of leftovers?  And why put myself out cooking a feast when I am still recovering from giving birth and need to feed my baby every couple of hours?  Honestly, I’d rather spend that time bonding with my little man.  I am no Martha Stewart, so the ham is pre-cooked and just needs to be heated, the green bean casserole will be made with canned ingredients and the potatoes might, just might be a boxed mashed variety I have in my pantry (perhaps jazzed up a bit with cream cheese or something). The only fresh ingredient is the Brussels sprouts!  But the idea is to enjoy a nice meal with my family and contemplate the things for which we are thankful. Isn’t that what Thanksgiving is really about?  Oh, and since I do not have gestational diabetes anymore, there will be dessert; apple spice caramel cake (store bought). 

Monday, November 8, 2010

Grandma’s Finnish Meatballs

My mom arrived about a week ago to help me in the last few weeks of pregnancy, and the timing couldn’t have been better as I now have twice weekly prenatal appointments and there is just no way I could bring little missy with me.  As my due date nears, we are making plans for easy meals that my mom can serve to missy and that we can ideally make now and freeze for easy serving later.  I’m also interested in learning some of my mom’s recipes as I’ve always loved her cooking, even though she claims to not know what she’s doing.  Pretty much everything she ever served us was made from scratch, so in my book that means mad skills!

This afternoon while missy napped we made some simple yet delicious meatballs with a cool secret ingredient (that will not be so secret anymore).

Grandma’s Meatballs
1 lb ground beef
1 yellow onion, finely minced
1 package baby bella mushrooms, finely minced
2 eggs
2 tbs uncooked cous cous
Salt & pepper to taste

Sauté the onion and mushroom, adding salt and pepper to taste. Allow to cool.
Thoroughly mix sautéed onions and mushrooms, ground beef, egg, and cous cous.  Add salt & pepper if needed (you may heat up a sauté pan and cook a small amount of the mix to safely taste it).
Form ground beef mixture into meatballs of your desired size with your hands. Ours were approximately 2 tbs of meat, so pretty small. We got about 40 meatballs. 
Place meatballs on a baking sheet and cook in a 375 degree oven 15-20 minutes. Clearly cooking times will vary depending on the meatball size. 

Can you guess the secret ingredient? Yeah, cous cous!  The cous cous cooked up perfectly within the meatballs and took the place of the more traditional breadcrumbs.  If you think it’s an odd addition to meatballs, you don’t notice them at all texturally, but they definitely make for a more moist and soft meatball because you lose hardly any of the juices as the meatballs cook, as they get absorbed by the cous cous. 

Of course you cannot make meatballs without sauce, so we made a somewhat traditional brown sauce.  Now this is not quite like the Swedish sauce most of us are familiar with, but it’s not far off.  The big difference is the Swedes add nutmeg to their well known meatball sauce and the Finns do not use nutmeg as much in everyday cooking (it’s more of a Christmas spice).  Of course, you can certainly add it to the sauce if you wish.  Basically all you do is make a béchamel sauce incorporating any drippings collected from the meatball baking sheet and add some beef stock to it. 

Brown Sauce:
1 tbs flour
1.5 tbs butter
Meatball drippings
Milk (approx ½ cup) or cream (if you want to be decadent)
Beef stock (approx 1 cup)
Salt & pepper to taste (keep in mind that if you use salted stock, you may not need to add any salt). 
I apologize that some of the amounts are approximate as I pretty much eyeballed the ingredients as I added them to the sauce.  Of course depending on how much sauce you want to make, you can add more or less liquid.   

In a saucepan or sauté pan, create a roux using the butter, flour, and meatball drippings.  Cook until the mixture resembles wet sand (this will enhance the brown color of the sauce).
Stirring constantly, add the milk and allow the sauce to thicken.
Once the sauce has thickened, gradually add the beef stock, stirring continually to avoid separation. The sauce will look thin at first but will thicken up again as it heats up.
Add salt and pepper to taste.
Add the meatballs to the sauce and heat them through. 
According to my mom you can give this a Russian twist by adding some diced sour pickles and sour cream to the sauce. 

What would you serve this with?  How about some simple boiled or mashed potatoes, egg noodles (a la a meatball stroganoff), or some lovely crusty bread, and of course your favorite vegetables?  I might add some pickled beets, but that’s my Finnish roots showing.  Now, this was a dangerous dish for me to be making with my gestational diabetes and I certainly didn’t think I could make a meal of them, but I still couldn’t resist tasting the end product. I mean a couple of small meatballs (with cous cous) with a little bit of brown sauce can’t have that many carbs.  Plus being in the last couple of weeks of pregnancy, that’s about as much as I can eat anyway!  Little missy was happy as a clam with her meatballs and even asked for seconds!  Well, she did the Oliver Twist thing, picking up her empty plate and holding it up to me. When I asked if she wanted more, she said, “more.”  Because my mom and I were lazy, we did not make the potatoes or noodles to go with the meatballs, so missy had hers with her favorite diced raw red peppers on the side.  Now, I mentioned earlier that we were planning to freeze foods but I would not freeze these in the sauce as I’ve read that a béchamel sauce will separate and just turn ugly when you freeze it.  So, if you are freezing, just freeze the meatballs on their own.