Christmas

strawberryguavas.jpgWhat is the complete opposite of Christmas cookies? I just did some research; turns out that the complete opposite of a Christmas cookie is a strawberry guava. It's no wonder this sexy fruit is native to Brazil, the land of beautiful bronzed bodies and gorgeous beaches. Everything about a strawberry guava says, "look at me."

Eating a strawberry guava is a memorable sensory experience. First it entices you with its intoxicating perfume of ripe summer strawberries and tart pink grapefruit. Its butter cup yellow rind is smooth and soft to the touch, evoking warmth and sunshine. One bite of a strawberry guava will make you understand why it's called "exotic." The creamy, fruity flesh is the color of roses, while the flavor is a beautiful combination of tangy, sweet grapefruit, juicy, ripe strawberries, and late summer grapes.

Most U.S. guavas are grown in Hawaii and Florida, though the strawberry guavas you see here were grown in Southern California and generously given to me by our friend, Adel. These strawberry guavas have a pastel yellow skin yet also come in bright red or deep purple. When buying strawberry guavas or any variety of guava really, look for a fragrant fruit that is free of blemishes and soft to the touch. Hold it in your hand, and give it a gentle squeeze; it should give slightly, being neither too hard nor too squishy.

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sevenfishestunapastaWhen I was a kid growing up in Rhode Island, I never could understand all the fuss some families made about Christmas Day dinner. It always seemed weird to me. After all, who could eat a huge ham or turkey dinner after a gargantuan Christmas Eve feast?

Of course, when I got a little older, I realized that not everyone celebrated the Italian Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve. I thought that was weird too.

Turns out it's not weird at all. The Italian Feast of the Seven Fishes, is celebrated primarily among southern Italians. And Rhode Island, the state with the highest percentage of Italians, is home to many southern Italians.

This centuries-old feast celebrated on Christmas Eve has its roots in Medieval Italy and the Roman Catholic tradition of abstinence. When Catholics abstained from meat on holy days, they typically ate fish. Why seven types of fish? Historians believe it may be symbolic of Roman Catholicism's seven sacraments. Why Christmas Eve? Because Catholics would await the stroke of midnight, which was the time for the birth of the baby Jesus. That also explains why so many Italians attend midnight mass on Christmas Eve.

Of course, it's not always easy staying awake after savoring a seafood dinner of epic proportions. Though most families enjoy classic southern Italian dishes such as fried smelts and linguine with white clam sauce, many families (like my husband's) have their own specialties, such as Gram's stuffed squid in tomato sauce.

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fruitcakeeI've never been able to understand why Christmas fruitcake is hated so much. What makes it such a dreaded gift, one that gets passed about or relegated to the back of the fridge? I must say I'm not the biggest fan of the cake, some are rather good, but others are just too dense and way too boozey. But this year for Christmas, I was willing to make a better fruitcake. So when a friend suggested I try making the cake from a recipe she loved just to see if I could possibly love it, I decided to give it a wholehearted try. I usually love other cakes that contain dried fruit, so what could be so bad about fruitcakes? And if they turned out better than expected, I'd have something more traditional to hand out as gifts to my fiends and neighbors.

First, I set myself some ground rules: I would under no circumstances use bright technicolor candied fruit, but instead use naturally dried fruits. And I would not soak the cake in booze and age it for days as most recipes suggest; I would only soak the fruit in booze. I simply don't like a soggy cake and I don't intend to preserve it for years to come, which in the medieval past was the reason why these cakes were so laden with alcohol. I wanted a lighter cake that had the likeness of a good nut bread but with a holiday flair. And I believe I was able to achieve that and more.

I was surprised by the results. The cake was dense but had a nice texture. The dried fruit was very flavorful from my combination of rum, a traditional ingredient, and vermouth, a fortified wine flavored with herbs and spices. The many ground spices also contributed to a fragrance and flavor reminiscent of pumpkin pie. For a beautiful cross-sampling of colors, I used dried papaya, cranberries, pineapple, golden raisins, dark raisins, and dates. A bit of crystallized ginger added hot spiciness.

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mccrestaurantChristmas traditions abound all over the world. For instance, in recent years KFC has become somewhat of a Christmas meal tradition in Japan, mind boggling tidbit that it is. However did you ever wonder how noted chefs and restaurateurs celebrate Christmas? As it is usually their busiest season, with all of the parties and holiday dining, some shine it on and let someone else do the cooking, preferring to lay low and veg out on the couch in front of the tube. Others go the busman’s holiday route, keeping their home fires burning while stirring their pots and aiming those meat thermometers straight into the middle of the roast.

Michael McCarty, the iconic restaurateur, creator/owner of Michael’s in Santa Monica and Michael’s in New York City is definitely your DIY Christmas Traditionalist. He’s the whiz kid/enfant terrible who brashly and boldly opened the Santa Monica restaurant at the ripe young age of 25, and did he ever cause a ruckus! In what has proven over the years to be both his nature and his signature style, even at 25 he had the knowledge, taste, and chutzpah to wake LA and shake it up. He created a glorious outdoor dining patio and interior rooms where diners could look at museum quality art by LA’s top artists including David Hockney, Ed Ruscha, Ed Moses and Robert Graham to name a few. The excellent cuisine, made from the finest, freshest ingredients, was perfectly and elegantly served in this beautiful art filled environment. It may sound like a big reach for one so young, but not for Michael who set himself on this course 35 years ago and hasn’t strayed since.

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From the L.A. Times

marshmellows.jpgConsidering everybody on your holiday gift list – friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, your kids' teachers – you might be needing a stimulus package before you even get to the big-ticket items this year. So why not take a page from your grandmother's playbook and make the smaller gifts yourself?

Not only are homemade gifts less expensive, they also capture the spirit of holiday giving in a way that purchased gifts simply can't. And if you consider the ubiquitous traffic and holiday crowds, a leisurely morning spent baking breadsticks or whipping up a batch of homemade marshmallows seems positively Zen-like by comparison.

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