Some traditions are meant to be broken—quite literally in this case. When we moved back home, I’ve instituted the gingerbread house tradition, and soon after I tacked on a ritual for its demise, too: every year on New Year’s Eve, the kids get to tear it apart and eat it.
For me, homemade pieces make the house come alive. I realize, in this age of gingerbread house kits, that making your own gingerbread walls and doors and roof pieces feels hopelessly retrograde—but let me tell you, chomping the house is a lot more fun when the gingerbread and the frosting both actually taste good. And like my husband, Aaron, said as he carefully moved the house from perch to perch, real gingerbread houses smell so incredible.
I used to cast about for any holiday baking recipes, but now I just keep it simple, and turn to my very favorite Christmas baking book: Visions of Sugarplums, by the former New York Times critic and food writer Mimi Sheraton.
It’s a slim book packed with recipes that sound amazing and work even better: delicate Swedish gingersnap dough that begins with 1 1/2 cups of whipped cream and yields brittle, spicy cookies that actually snap; unusual Finnish rye cookies; Island-spiced eggnog from the Caribbean; and a recipe for a gingerbread house which includes an indestructible, yet truly delicious, citrus-laced molasses dough.
A single recipe makes enough for one house plus a bunch of rolled cookies. Hank and I went to town.
I think I love this guy best. He reflects Hank’s interest in the body, and has a heart (albeit a little low) and a single “nerve.”
And then we have Aaron’s glam warrior. And my pom pom man.
But the best part of a gingerbread house remains the story spun around it—the idea of entering the house, living in it, and nibbling on its trim. As we were making it, I told Hank the Hansel and Gretel story in all its dramatic, gory detail. His eyes widened, and it made me want to fill the insides with candy couches and chairs and reading lamps.
Hank didn’t want to let it go, but so sad, we couldn’t keep it around forever, gathering dust. He relented to its New Years Eve destruction, and he and his friend enjoyed the take-down, even though the gum drops were a bit hard and chewy. Hank had had his eye on the chimney for weeks. Was it as good as he imagined, I asked? Did it taste smoky?
He thought it did.
If you’ve planned your Thanksgiving menu and feel like it still needs a jolt of color to combat the brown-brown-brown, here it is: a roasted beet salad with tart dried cherries, radicchio, red wine dressing, and a garnishing pour of cream. With its big flavors and vivid contrasting hues, you’ll want to serve this one on the side, in its own little salad bowl.
I’ve pined over this concoction for years, after having committed to memory a photo of a beet salad with a pour of cream from a nameless, faceless, long-since-lost Scandinavian cookbook. When I set out to recreate it, other old influences demanded to be included—which happens.
I have never been able to shake the memory of an old dish we made on the fish line at Danube: beet juice and red wine were combined and reduced together to an inky deep red liquid which was used to coat fine strings of fresh square-off chittara. A coil of the red-stained pasta shared the plate with a puddle of melting horseradish cream, butter-glazed lobster tails and claws, and spots of shaved black truffles. Of course I don’t cook with the high luxe stuff in my own kitchen, but the notion that tart, reduced red wine can temper the natural sweetness of beets still hangs out in my head.
The red-and-white tiger striping on the radicchio makes visual sense, but it isn’t just there for our aesthetic pleasure. Every third bite, the bitterness is a welcome scene-stealer, toppling the goody-good, perfect sweet-and-sour.
It goes without saying that digging into this salad, forking around its center, rewards you with a riotous, blooming pinkness. In a way, it seems kind of like the way an adolescent might mood-shift, minute by minute, from sweet, to sour, to shocking.
Beet salad with Radicchio, Sour Cherries, and Cream
Serves 6 to 8
2 pounds beets
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup water
2-3 sprigs thyme
1/3 cup dried sour cherries
1 cup dry red wine
2 Tablespooons lemon juice
3 Tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon sugar, or to taste
4 ounces radicchio (1 small head), ripped into bite-sized pieces
1/2 cup heavy cream
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Wash the beets, throw them in a 9 x 13 baking pan, and season with salt, pepper, olive oil, and thyme. Pour 1 cup water into the bottom of the pan, cover tightly with aluminum foil, and bake until the beets are tender when poked with a thin fork. Depending on the size of the beets (and their age) this will take anywhere from 1 to 2 hours.
Uncover. When the beets are cool enough to touch, rub off the skins (holding them in a paper towel works well here) and cut into bite-sized pieces.
Combine the dried cherries and red wine in a small pan, and simmer gently over medium heat until the wine clings in a thin syrup to the cherries. Let it cool slightly, then add the lemon juice, olive oil and sugar to the cherries. Taste for balance, and season with salt and pepper.
In a large bowl, toss the radicchio with a bit of the dressing to coat. Add the rest, including cherries, to the beets and toss to combine. To serve, divide the beet salad mixture among the plates (6 to 8). Pour a little cream into the center of each and serve immediately.
They refer to it as knife season, or the time of year that hunters walk around with knives on their belts. (And they do.) But I’m pretty convinced that deer hunting weekend revolves around the table: the meals we share around it and the future roasts/sausages/pâté centerpieces that the hunters run around pursuing.
In fact, I’d say that for those who like to eat, this weekend is like a collective tuning-in. Setting something wild on the table gives even the most jaded eaters pause. And the hunting feast itself—flush with venison, venison liver pâté, and whatever wild thing I have in the freezer: wild duck saltimbocca, grilled hearts with garlicky chimichurri—feels like a rustic, ancient, Thanksgiving.
At the very least, it is Thanksgiving’s pre-party. It seems to magnetize our dearest and most far-flung friends and draw them in to our house. This year we were thrilled to pull in friends from both coasts and Wisconsin, in addition to friends who drove up from Minneapolis.
I don’t hunt myself, but I’ve spent the past five consecutive years of deer camp installed in front of the stove playing camp cook, and last weekend was no exception. Over the course of the three days of hunting I pulled together some stews, some simple lunches, big pots of wild rice, countless batches of strong coffee and, to cap it off, a grand venison feast for 15-20 people, which began with an incredibly fresh pot of venison liver pâté, well-lubricated with bacon, butter, and booze (the three b’s that give venison liver its unique palatability).
The above pan of apple cider scone cake (which overflowed so sweetly onto my oven floor) was a scene-stealer, or would have been if our bellies hadn’t been so drum-tight. A bowl of the moist, crusty cake atop the cider caramel beneath made a good breakfast, too.
Trimming venison is putzy work, and Brian and his brothers Todd and Darrin were up early, getting to it. The fat and the gristle don’t have good flavor, so we trimmed every bit of each.
Oh! Hank in his orange vest. He was by turns photographer and videographer throughout the weekend.
Cubed venison and pork sits in the porch-fridge (around 30 degrees F), awaiting the grinder.
By our estimation, we made 80 pounds of venison sausage this year: a ruby-red merguez, an all-purpose sweet Italian, and a kicking hot Italian. And we did not even fight over it.
Certain days in the late fall in northern Minnesota drift hourly, indecisively, between the seasons, and Sunday was one of them. Afternoon brought some seasonal duck-plucking in the bright fall sun, but the morning began much gloomier. When I woke up and stepped outside, it looked like this:
My fuchsia. I’m sorry, you were a lovely companion but now you’re done.
Aaron had rented the tiller from town the day before, so snow or no snow, he was going to till the manure and compost into the garden beds. He plans to throw a big plastic cloche over one of the beds, the one with carrots still in it, to shield it from future impending snow. That bed will also heat up the quickest in the spring and will be the one we plant with early lettuce.
I took these cabbages in and they were still fine—frost-nipped enough to add sweetness, but by no means frozen through.
And dug some more beets (chiogga and golden) and gilfeather turnips, otherwise known as rutabagas, their gem-tone skins glowing even brighter against the drop cloth of snow.
By the time we were sipping our celebratory first-snow hot chocolate (with cinnamon and an indulgent dribble of cream), the sun was beginning to shine and melt the snow, and we drove over to our neighbor’s house to pick up some of the chickens they had raised this summer and—I was hoping—one of their barnyard ducks. I was relieved to see that the ducks weren’t still quacking, but they weren’t quite yet in the bag, either. Hank ran off to play with TJ and Esther’s boys and we stood at the clothesline and helped them pluck.
(Loose thought about feathers: does anyone know how to clean these to use for pillow stuffing?)
None of us had ever cleaned ducks, including TJ and Esther, but once we started tugging it seemed pretty obvious. As TJ says, he’s “an internet farmer,” and has been learning how to raise his two cows, two pigs, and flock of chickens via a combination of googling and good old-fashioned trial-and-error. (Now if only some kind company would run the fiber optic cable past both of our houses, he could be a proper high-speed internet farmer.)
TJ and his friend Joe had a hot pot of paraffin waiting and we each dunked our ducks, one at a time, into the wax, and then after waiting a minute for them to set, into a clean bucket of cold water. If we did it right, peeling back the wax did remove most of the feathers. The stubborn pin feathers required finer tools, though. Esther ran for her eyebrow tweezers (which I can work like nobody’s business, due to practice) and some needle-nose pliers.
I worked so long on this baby, they gave him to me.
We invited them back to our house for dinner where a pork roast was baking, but they had the very same meal in process in their house. (Two pigs in the freezer; of course they did.) Walking in our front door was like entering a humid cloud of 6-hour-pork roast potpurri—a deep-reaching, addictive, memory-tugging aroma for me. To be honest, it’s the only kind of perfume I like.
I have a garden full of vegetables crying out to be picked and cooked, and yet here I am in the dark kitchen frying up chunks of thick-cut oats and pecans and sour cherries in brown butter and glazing it all in maple syrup. I swear that it’s my inner temperature gauge that’s causing the fall craving. The nights have been dipping into the ‘40s or lower (love you, Minnesota) and I guess I am just like any other animal of the woods; that is, my diet is not as intentional as I think it is. Nature sways me.
My love for oatmeal came late, as I came from an eggs-for-breakfast—steak-and-eggs, even—tribe. I remember my friend Sarah teaching me how to make oatmeal in her sunny kitchen one day while we were in college. She emphasized the point of doneness as that moment when the oatmeal turned sticky and held together, and made sure we shoved a wedge of butter into the center of each bowl.
I’ve never heard of anyone else craving leftover oatmeal, but I do love it more the second day than the first—probably because I’ve taken to frying the chunks of it in a hot pan full of brown butter until it pops and the edges turn brown and crispy. The dark edges have an addictive quality of their own, but they also serve to emphasize the creaminess of the interior. And lately I’ve made this little pan concoction even better by adding whole pecans to the pan to toast and plump black sour cherries, expensive though they are (about 58 cents each by my estimation), and glazing all of it with a sticky coat of maple syrup.
These particular oats are a gift from Noreen Thomas of Doubting Thomas Farms, located just outside of Fargo-Moorhead. Her place is other-worldly-magical. During a visit there to film her and her Icelandic sheep for this week’s TV show, she handed me a bag of oats—organic oats from their fields that they had hand-rolled at the farm, “using a bicycle-powered oat roller that we’ve rigged up.”
Picture that one for a second. I might have to go see this thing for myself.