Thanks and Giving.

Thanksgiving has come and gone for 2012. This one was probably one of the best in my (not so great) memory. It wasn’t huge and crazy, and it wasn’t teeny tiny, but it maintained both social and intimate qualities, friends and family. I didn’t go too far overboard with the menu (some may argue that), but there was still enough for the all-important turkey sandwich fixins leftover. Most importantly, I was - and still am - quite cognizant of all that I am thankful for. During the toast, I looked over the room - the beautiful, beautiful room, filled with some of my favorite people in the world, filled with wonderful food and wine, our dogs, a fire in the fireplace - and tears welled up in my eyes. I was warm with love and happiness. And a calm that I rarely experience.

Of course there were minor dramas. Of course some people wouldn’t or couldn’t eat or drink certain things on the menu. Of course there was that frenetic energy in the kitchen right as all of the food was coming out to the table. Of course some people didn’t want to be seated next to certain guests and there was also that mysterious adjustment to the seating chart. Of course there was a monumental mess to clean up. 

Of course, of course, of course. 

But then there also were these moments: The moment Maggie showed up, before she began to decorate and turn the living room into a dining room - we both plopped down and took a breath to reflect on our previous Thanksgivings together and toast with a glass of sparkles. The moment Fred made me take just thirty seconds of time to dance with him in the hallway before we went to sit down at the table to eat. The moment I looked across the table, all decked out in my grandma Janie's ruby china, and felt so proud. The moment my mom was so into our game of charades that she was excitedly shrieking her guesses for both teams. The moment Nadia traded her five-inch black Gucci heels for my knitted socks and Crocs to go on an after dinner hike with the gang. The moment we all sat down in the den, after the meal, after charades and after the hike, to bask in the pleasure of a wonderful day and finish it off with Home For the Holidays and one more glass of lambrusco.

The turkey, the stuffing, the potatoes, the gravy, the pie - yes, they were present and delicious. But what I will remember about this Thanksgiving, what stands out from the turkey, the potatoes, the gravy and the pie, are those moments shared with those people. And that can never be duplicated. Not the moments.

And for that, for what we all gave one another, I am so very thankful.

*In addition to the very traditional menu we served this past Thanksgiving, there were a couple wild cards in there. A couple of dishes where I felt the urge to flex a bit. Usually this comes in the form of a soup. And though I heard a little hemming and hawing about this soup being on the menu, and how it would make everyone too full to truly appreciate the presumed star of the meal, the turkey, I made it anyway. As we all began to eat something pretty awesome happened: I immediately got three or four shouts from the other end of the table about how amazing the soup was. And the praise kept coming. Go figure.

I’ve already got the Christmas menu pretty much planned. The soup for that one will be an oyster stew, but this chestnut soup would be just perfect for your Christmas dinner.

Chestnut, Celery & Apple Soup with Sage Oil

Makes 6 to 8 servings
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, peeled, trimmed and thinly sliced
1 shallot, peeled, trimmed and thinly sliced
3 small McIntosh apples, peeled, cored and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
4 celery stalks, chopped
1 bay leaf
1 sprig thyme
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
3/4 pound peeled fresh chestnuts (from about 1 1/4 pounds chestnuts in the shell) or dry-packed bottled or vacuum-sealed peeled chestnuts
2 quarts chicken stock 
1/2 cup heavy cream

2 tablespoons of cream sherry
8-12 fried sage leaves
2-4 tablespoons sage oil
Heat the oil in a stockpot or large casserole over medium heat.  Add the onion, shallot, apples, celery, bay leaf, thyme, nutmeg and salt and pepper to taste and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes, or until the onions and leeks are soft but not colored.  Add the chestnuts and chicken stock and bring to the boil.  Lower the heat to a simmer and cook, skimming the surface regularly, for 35 to 40 minutes, or until the chestnuts can be mashed easily with a fork.  Add the heavy cream and sherry and simmer for 5 to 10 minutes more, then remove from the heat and discard the bay leaf and thyme.
Puree the soup until smooth using a blender or a food processor, and working in batches if necessary, then pass it through a fine-mesh strainer.  You should have about 2 quarts soup.  If you have more, or if you think the soup is too thin -- it should have the consistency of a veloute or light cream soup - simmer it over medium heat until slightly thickened.  Taste and, if necessary, adjust the seasoning.  (The soup can be cooled completely and stored in a covered container in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days or frozen for up to one month.  Bring the soup to a boil before serving.)
Serve topped with a couple of fried sage leaves and a drizzle of sage oil.

Three years ago: Bouchon Beverly Hills


This Bud’s For You.

I talk about my family a lot here. Mostly my mom and dad, but also Aunt Babe and my paternal grandparents, Janie and Paw Shaffner. And, of course, Breeda (family by proxy). Although it’s been almost five years since I’ve seen any of the Shaffner posse, and about ten years since I’ve been able to go back to spend Christmas with them, we keep in touch to a degree via social media and updates from my dad. And though we all differ greatly spiritually, politically and socially (and socio-politically) we all love each other and I miss them terribly. Especially around the holidays.

I know. I sound like a broken record since I say that every year. Around the holidays.

Let’s see here, I can tell you that my Uncle Doug and his wife, Aunt Janice, have both had some health issues, but they seem to be on the up and up now. Cousin Carey is very happily married, been doing some travelling and tattooing himself. His sister, my cousin Lisa, sometimes has some pink in her hair and  is very exercisey and in shape (damn her). Aunt Babe moved in with her daughter Noel in Alexandria. Scott and Dolly and their kids live pretty close to Richmond and Scott just visited with my dad today. My dad tells me they are simply amazing parents. Uncle Pat and Aunt Trish always seem strong. Pat, as always, is the big brother, oldest of the sibs and essentially patriarch of the Shaffner clan. His daughters, Kim and Missy are both happily married with kids and great jobs and much success.

But what, or rather on whom, I want to focus today is Uncle Joe. Uncle Joe and Aunt Connie. Aunt Connie is my dad’s sister, and if you followed the paragraph above you can pretty much put together this particular cluster of Shaffners. You see, Uncle Joe passed away rather unexpectedly a couple of days ago. And with this news, I am left a little bewildered and, of course, quite sad.

When Dad and I made our annual Christmas trek to Roanoke, we always, always stayed with Connie and Joe. Dad would stay in the front bedroom upstairs and I would sleep on the couch downstairs by the Christmas tree. Suffice it to say, this was torturous geography when I was a child; the temptation of all of the beautifully wrapped presents just begging to be opened. It was also torturous from ages 18-28 when I drank a little too much holiday fun times and the family assembled in the living room EARLY Christmas morning - way earlier than I was ready to start the holiday coffee and present opening. But it was the ritual. And ritual is very important to me (I’m not sure why).

There seemed to always be a cat or two around. Usually at least one of them was finicky or scared or mean or fragile or an escape artist or never came out from the basement. There was always a fire in the fireplace. Uncle Joe always had a can of Budweiser in his hand. Until the Christmas Eve dinner at Aunt Babe’s. Then it was wine. A big beef tenderloin (mouth-watering and delicious) was an annual tradition and the centerpiece of our Christmas Eve dinner, which Joe was responsible for after Aunt Babe tapered off her chef-sponsibilities. 
But even back when Aunt Babe bought it and cooked it everyone would laugh about how Joe would show up and immediately warn her not to cook it too long. He was also a gun toting, very far right wing, Republican. And he was my Uncle Joe. He was family.

It’s funny. When I was in high school I dyed my hair a lot and often pierced things. I especially loved going to Roanoke for Christmas for the expressions on my family’s faces. The shock value. In college, I considered myself a bit of an upstart, and I loooved to protest almost anything I could involving government. I was very easily the leftiest lefty of the Shaffners. And probably lots of other families as well. Again, I still think there was some satisfaction in the shock value of that, too. I almost looked for some extreme sentiment to spill out of Uncle Joe’s mouth so that I could heave a huge sigh and clomp out of the room. And though I still lean pretty far to the left, what I love about my family, and people, and hell, this country, is that we all get to have those opinions and we get to talk and laugh and argue about them. And who better to experience all of those things with, who has to stick by you through decades of change, hair dyes, piercings and political protests? Your family, that’s who.

I’ve been looking back at Connie’s online photo albums that she’s been archiving for years. There are tons of pictures of the entire family spanning as far back as my Great Grandparents. I was particularly drawn to the ones from the seventies, with Connie, Joe and my mom and dad and their hippie friends, everyone with long hair - so iconic, camping at The Fiddler’s Convention in 1972, in New England in 1973, and Okrakoke in 1974. They all look so rad. My mom laughed as she told me about one of these trips to Okrakoke where everything seemed to be going wrong. Dad stabbed through his hand with a knife while trying to shuck an oyster, Mom was pregnant
and wasn't in the mood to have sand in her pants and big green flies feasting on her. Joe insisted on camping as planned. Ordinarily Joe would have emerged victorious, but not this time. Mom and dad checked into a hotel with Joe kicking and protesting all the way. But so very Joe. Such a contrarian. So badass.

Idiosyncratic, nuanced, difficult, compassionate, generous, kind, opinionated, honest, interested, interesting, intelligent, a great cook, camper, fisherman, smoker of meats (and cigars), true to himself and good to his family. Salt of the Earth. That’s what comes to mind when I think hard about Joe.

Normally I would wrap up this post with a recipe, or sometimes a restaurant review. This time I decided to drive out to an old hamburger stand, deep in the Valley; Bill's Hamburgers. It's been there, unchanged, with it's eight (8) stools, since 1965 (which is really old by LA standards), and run by 85 year-old Bill who is as salty as his burger. Bill, and his jokes-to-offend-and-enchant every race, creed, sex, and color, has been there since day one flipping his burgers - and on the very same griddle that is but a few years his junior. Joe would like this guy and this spot, for sure. So I grabbed Maggie and six pack of Budweiser (in the can) to sit on the side of the road, eat a burger and make a toast. 

This one's for you Uncle Joe.

One year ago: M.B. Post
Two years ago: Homemade Pasta
Three years ago: Griiled Cheese Night at Campanile