This feature is the first part of a series on holiday cooking by Joyce McCombs who wrote a food column for our sister publication, Delta Wind, for many years.
Welcome to the 2020 Holiday Season. Or as I’m going to call it, The 2020 Holi-DAZE since we’re all figuring this year out bit by bit. So many things are different this year, aren’t they? Sticking close to home, online learning, and modified celebrations are a few things that come to mind. A few surprises have come our way, too. Zoom sessions have been fun, and talking live with our far-flung family across the Lower 48 has been a lovely bonus to the once-a-year Christmas card routine.
I am content to be home enjoying retirement and my never-ending projects include reading, reading, and more reading. Followed not too closely by the occasional closet excavation and deep dives into boxes that were long ago tucked away “just for now.” I’m pretty good at tracking the pantry inventory, baking that slow rise bread that is so tasty, haunting Pinterest for garden/craft/house projects, winning huge piles of imaginary money on Jeopardy, and coming up with the answer to the biggest question of the day, EVERY day: What’s for dinner?
My husband Steve is on the job as the woodstove log butler, chief snow removal operator, morning coffee maker and has a daily guitar practice session. You all think he is Mr. Nice but let me tell you, he is a totally ruthless Scrabble player in our ongoing, “house rules” game. His input on the Daily Dinner Dilemma is valuable, as is his love of leftovers. Every year about this time I can’t help thinking that I truly married “up”. Forty years on December 27. Kind of proud of that!
When I was asked some time ago to consider writing this column, I said a cautious maybe, thinking the day was far in the future and I could crank one out in a hurry. And then suddenly there came a phone call and my “maybe” turned into a “SURE, I can do a Nostalgia kind of holiday column with memories and a recipe or two” and now it’s all hands to Panic Stations because I am a bit rusty at the keyboard and wasn’t sure if any words and recipes would appear like they used to. Bear with me as we waltz, ramble, reminisce, remember, and maybe even reject a few things I found when wandering down my personal Christmas Memory Lane.
Most of my Christmas memories revolve around the Great Gearing Up routine of getting our boxes of gifts and food, all the suitcases for five people and assorted Grays Harbor Washington monsoon level rain gear organized and into various cars/van/trucks and driving from Seattle down to Montesano with three antsy kids hyped up on candy canes crammed together in a back seat. Any two of which had murder and mayhem in their hearts because you know, he/she was looking at me that way or had trespassed over the imaginary line on the seat that was mine. As the eldest, I was supposed to keep order at all times.
Our ultimate destination was my great Aunt Martha’s big old beautiful house where Christmas Eve was scheduled every year. There were short stops at Grandma’s house in town and the ranch out of town to check in and unload some things/people and load up others, always in the pouring rain. Someone always forgot something urgent somewhere, so the round-trip express was employed by various drivers and vehicles at various times until things finally came together.
Add to this the constant prattle of kids debating gift opening on Christmas Eve vs. Christmas morning – we didn’t have a vote, but we pretended we did. Grownups deciding whether to go to early or late church, inhaling many good kitchen smells, setting out special serving dishes and fragile glassware, noticing exhausted elders who never quit cooking/cleaning/organizing/talking – bless their hearts – and parents agreeing and disagreeing and compromising or pouting when discussing the schedule of the day, last minute gift wrapping, never enough Scotch tape, worrying about the weather/cars/darkness, sharing the latest family gossip and everyone hoping we could convince Great Aunt Martha to play “White Christmas” on the grand piano in the parlor, despite her arthritis and recent stroke – she did and it was awesome. All this while waiting for the main event of opening presents and wondering what was on the menu. With two exceptions when we were quarantined at home, dreadful cases of Chicken Pox and Mumps that even alarmed our doctor, this was how Christmas happened in my family for years.
All this mayhem was fueled by the best chow of the whole year. While the rest of the time extreme frugality was in place, for Christmas all things good and glorious appeared on the table. There are many legends, lore and traditions about our family’s holiday eats and while some make sense, most just don’t, and they make me laugh today. I often wonder what the real story was behind them and since I’m of the generation where children were “seen and not heard” I can only guess at the answers. Let’s stroll through a typical dinner and see what’s there.
Nobody ever used this word, but there were always tasty bits and pieces laid out buffet style before the big ham dinner appeared. Black olives, but never any green ones. Of course, the best way to eat olives is to stick them on your fingertips and walk around showing them off. The great uncles and grandpa love this kind of performance. Mixed nuts were presented in a large dish every year, and everyone pawed through them in search of cashews. Aunt Betty’s legendary cheeseball with the only official family approved crackers – Triscuits, Ritz and Wheat Thins – took center stage. Since nobody had discovered ranch dip yet, it was Lipton Onion Soup sour cream dip or a strong bleu cheese version that went with the Ruffles potato chips, an un-heard of luxury.
Once I remember a bowl of exotic looking clam dip, too, which everyone muttered about and was suspicious of and I noticed it was devoured in mere minutes. There were all kinds of pickles in shallow crystal dishes scattered about, each with small serving tongs that all the kids desperately wanted to use as swords. Deviled eggs, with paprika for most of us and a few with the barest hint of black pepper just for Uncle Jim, who shocked his four sisters-in-law with this outlandish pepper preference thing, which they, discreetly, blamed on his Canadian birth.
There were crisp celery sticks in a lovely green dish, and sometimes carrot sticks, but never raw cauliflower or cucumbers, because cauliflower was supposed to be cooked so there was a reason to make delicious cream sauce. All December cucumbers were suspect because they were not “from around here” meaning they didn’t come from the ranch garden. One year the celery tray was offered to someone who seemed stressed out by the noise and flap of all things Christmas, and the celery giver said they’d read in a magazine that celery was “good for your nerves”. From then on, celery was politely offered to EVERYONE who had “nerves”, which caused much mirth. I’m now the owner of the Celery Dish, a Fiestaware treasure I cherish. For us kids, these treats were just to look at and long for until we were carefully supervised by a grownup and able to choose a few to put on a small plate to carry around – and spill at least once – while getting underfoot in the kitchen or checking out the gift pile under the tree.
Chopped shrimp salad is one of my most vivid taste memories. Savory, balanced with a bit of seafood sweetness and the tang of citrus, the tiny bits of shrimp and veg soak up the dressing perfectly and make for a refreshing change from green salad. I had to call in my family recipe resource, my pesky little brother, who reconstructed this several years ago. Here’s my panicked text and Bob’s enthusiastic response. I’m up for the challenge of figuring out exact amounts on my own, hope you are, too!
Joyce to Robert: “I desperately need the chopped shrimp salad recipe...the one Martha always did at the ranch for Christmas or Thanksgiving or maybe summers when it was hot? I just see her chop chop chopping away in the big wooden bowl with that round salad chopper thing (looks like the Ulu knives we have up here). I know you made it once when we were down and we had dinner at Betty's and it tasted EXACTLY right and you mentioned a bit of whipping cream, I think? I'm doing a Christmas feature for the paper… I think besides shrimp pulverized to bits, there was lettuce... maybe celery? Maybe cucumber? I don't remember any onion... but maybe? Any lemon or other seasonings? Help a struggling columnist out and share the secret!”
Robert: “Hi, no lettuce! It was shrimp and lots and lots of celery, but very finely chopped. A bit of onion, not much, maybe 1/4 onion, also very finely chopped. Dressing is lime juice, mayo, and a bit of half n’ half (did they ever buy heavy or whipping cream except Thanksgiving or Christmas?) A pinch of white pepper, salt to taste. Garnish with parsley. I sometimes add fresh blanched green peas, petit pois. The secret ingredient is 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce. You can substitute cilantro or mint for parsley. I sometimes add dill instead. No garlic! When I don’t have Worcestershire, I cheat and use Thai fish sauce for some extra umami. In this salad, let the celery talk. Less seasoning is more.”
My gratitude for Brother Bob in answering the call of the recipe quest, and I really can’t wait to make this, though I’m short on white pepper and have to wonder if the great aunts even had that back in the day? Nothing would surprise me anymore, because the older I get and the more I remember, the more mysteries there are with that bunch!
Here’s another salad that looks festive on the table and is easy to prepare ahead of time. Folks are pleasantly surprised at how tasty these different ingredients are together. Easily adapted to your own taste or meal plan by leaving out the bacon, using whatever works for you as mayo, and my personal choice – using onion powder instead of raw onion.
Vintage Pea Salad
1/4 cup mayo
2 Tablespoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons dill weed
Pepper to taste
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 of a sweet yellow onion, finely minced
1/4 cup water chestnuts, roughly chopped
2 or 3 large dill pickles, diced (about 1/2 a cup)
1 cup mild cheddar cheese, chopped into 1/2” cubes
1 bag frozen green peas
3 or 4 pieces crisp bacon, crumbled.
Toss the peas in a strainer and run some warm water over them to thaw a bit and let drain. Chop the salad ingredients (except for the peas) and set aside. In the bowl you’ll serve the salad in, combine the mayo with the lemon juice, dill, sugar and pepper and whisk well. Taste and see if it needs more pepper and adjust. Stir in the onion, water chestnuts, and pickles and until coated with dressing. Add the peas and cheese last, tossing gently so the peas don’t break. If it seems dry, add a bit more mayo. Crumble the bacon over the top. Refrigerate at least two hours, overnight is even better.
The Dreaded Tomato Aspic Molded Salad Terror
The Carefree Gourmet column mentioned this “salad” many years ago, with a slight shudder. Tomato aspic appeared beside every plate, with a limp lettuce leaf as a supporting actor and a plop of Miracle Whip on top. There was much furtive poking by the kids to see it twitch and wiggle, followed by the horrific thought that someone would actually eat tomato flavored Jello. Much fuss was made over the production of this dish, because of the tiny molds painstakingly filled by loving hands the day before the dinner. Not forgetting the thrill of purchasing an exotic tomato-based product that wasn’t catsup. The small aluminum ring and crown molds used would bend way too easily during dish washing chores so there were many backups in a kitchen drawer. One or two may have gotten dented from being run over by a bicycle but you didn’t hear that from me. Now, all these years and taste bud changes later, I’m fascinated by aspic and love all things tomato, and I’m thinking of making it. Looking back, it seems like the earnest efforts of the great aunts were wasted, and yet everyone raved about how colorful it looked on the table, and how it was just too pretty to eat. And nobody did, except the aunts and Grandma and they were just thrilled, so no harm done, I guess. I also realized that this where the green olives that were never on the appetizer table, but always purchased, came to rest.
Quick and Easy Tomato Aspic
2 cups V-8 vegetable juice, divided
1 small box lemon-flavored gelatin
1/2 teaspoon onion salt
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 rib celery, finely diced (optional)
green olives, sliced (optional)
Bring one cup of the V-8 juice to a boil and pour over gelatin in a large bowl. Stir to dissolve. Add one cup cold V-8, onion salt, and Worcestershire sauce. Add celery and sliced olives, if desired. Pour into large ring mold or five individual crown or ring molds. Refrigerate until firm.
Fun fact: This serves five people, has no fat and total calories are 25.
There are some hard and fast rules about potatoes in my mostly Irish family. First, if you serve them mashed, you must never run out and you must use the biggest bowl you have to serve them. Second, real butter is a must and so is salt, and get away with the sour cream, chives, cream cheese, bacon bits or heaven forbid, garlic. To each his own on the pepper. Third, potatoes can appear in any form at any meal at any time of the year.
I was gifted with Steve’s grandmother’s potato masher many years ago, the same one his Mama Patti used to make spuds for her three boys and Papa Chuck during their long and happy life together. No masher I’ve ever used has done a better job. Lumps disappear at once and the end results are smooth and creamy. Pleases me every time I use it that women I knew and loved held that handle before me.
I’ve learned it’s good to heat the milk and butter a bit before starting to mash, and to drain the spuds well and put them back in the pot over very low heat to dry out a bit. Be patient and add the warm milk and butter mix a bit at a time, not all at once. “You’ll know when it’s right” Grandmother Edna Maye told me once, which made me smile, because my Grandma Beth had told me exactly the same thing. I don’t make mashed potatoes very often because we love them far too much, but there will be some at McCombs Manor on Christmas Eve. If you need a reminder recipe or are still learning, here’s some guidance for my favorite old fashioned comfort food. If you have a great big blue ceramic bowl to serve them in, all the better.
3-4 Lbs. Russet potatoes
1/2 c. milk
1/4 c. butter
salt to taste
Peel potatoes and cut into quarters. Rinse well and place in a large pot, cover with water, and add one to two teaspoons salt. Cover the pot and bring to a boil for 20-25 minutes or until the potatoes fall apart when poked with a fork. Heat or microwave butter and milk until butter melts. Drain potatoes and mash gently to break up large pieces. Gradually add milk/butter mixture until the potatoes are creamy and hold together easily. Add more milk if you want a thinner consistency.
And now a word about gravy.
Use a mix, for gosh sakes and save your sanity. Browning flour, whispering magical incantations to avoid lumps, and running sad looking gravy through a strainer are all activities to be avoided during intense holiday cooking times.
Here’s a photo of my great-grandmother’s gravy boat, still being used today. I love those green salt and pepper shakers, too! Thanks to brother Bob for the photo. I’m pretty sure he made this gravy from scratch, and also grew those carrots in the corner. Oh, and there’s a product called Kitchen Bouquet – get it in the packaged gravy mix area in a lovely little brown bottle. If you do make gravy from scratch, it adds a boost of flavor and a lovely color to your efforts. No great aunt or grandma of mine was ever without it. Also, good basted on moose roasts and caribou burgers. No apologies needed for gravy mix, promise!
Not a lot to report here. Green beans, corn, pea, carrots and cauliflower made regular appearances at holiday dinners. I was in favor of all of them, except for the cauliflower, but that didn’t stop me from sneaking spoonfuls of the white sauce onto my plate. If there was rutabaga, I have intentionally forgotten. Same for turnips, parsnips, and Brussel sprouts. Not even white sauce can save those for me!
Basic White Sauce
This is the first sauce I learned to make, with my Grandma Beth coaching me to stir, stir, stir. I was all of ten years old and so excited to be using the big stove. Beth LIVED for cooked cauliflower with this sauce on it. Me, not so much, which disappointed her terribly, but that certain class of vegetables and I have never gotten along. I loved learning this fool proof method with her literally at my elbow, though, and it’s never failed me yet.
2 Tablespoons butter
2 Tablespoons flour
Pinch of salt and pepper
1 cup milk
In a small saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Whisk in the flour, salt and pepper until smooth and let it bubble a minute or two so the flour taste will cook out. Reduce the heat and gradually whisk in the milk. Cook and stir until thickened – it will take a few minutes so don’t rush it. A handful of grated sharp cheese is a nice addition.
Because the Thanksgiving Turkey was such a recent memory, Christmas main dish for us was usually a ham, which was always discussed as a very big deal. How big? Who to buy it from? Spiral sliced? Picnic style? Who was going to bake it? What about the glaze? How will it get from here to there? Ham reigned supreme on Christmas and was sliced paper thin and laid out on a big platter that took two hands to pass around the table. Steve’s family often had prime rib on Christmas, which was a total revelation to me…so tender and juicy and studded with garlic cloves, the smell and taste were beyond compare. I loved that Patti and Papa Chuck took the prep process seriously and remember them huddling together in the kitchen stuffing garlic slivers into the meat and giggling about how good it would be when it was all roasted. And it was.
Back to Ham – here’s a few Handy Ham Facts:
Don’t glaze it until the last 20 minutes of baking or it could burn.
You need about a cup of glaze for hams between 5 and 10 pounds.
Bake at 325 for 15 minutes per pound.
Put half a cup of water in the bottom of the roasting pan.
Wrap the ham in foil, set it on a rack and it will stay lovely and moist.
I promise that removing the foil to glaze it won’t dry it out.
Let it rest a good 20 minutes before carving.
Ham sandwiches require Swiss cheese and decent mustard.
Split pea soup made with the leftover ham bone is delightful.
Ham and eggs for breakfast the day after Christmas is easy on the cook.
Here are two superfast and easy glazes that you can make ahead of time and stick in the fridge and grab when you’re ready to baste. Brown sugar is ham’s best friend, and a couple of these give you an extra kick of spice or citrus to balance out that sweetness.
Beth’s Basic Ham Glaze
My Grandma only used dry mustard for this recipe and couldn’t imagine ever using it in anything else. She had the same tin of Colman’s dry mustard for years. It’s the only kind I use, too. For both of these, just mix together and baste the ham during the last 30 minutes of baking.
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
3 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon dry mustard
Joyce’s Favorite Ham Glaze
Ham and pineapple are my favorite pizza toppings, and the kick of ginger in this adds some tasty zing – I use this one most of the time.
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup pineapple juice
1/2 teaspoon each ground ginger and allspice
We always had tons of those brown and serve white bread squishy rolls at Christmas. They came on flimsy aluminum trays that were easy to slide into the oven right before dinner. I don’t remember anyone making homemade bread or rolls, though we kids all had an unholy desire for Pillsbury Crescents for some reason. I blame those giggly Pillsbury Doughboy commercials! The jam was always homemade blackberry, and if it had been a good orchard and bee year, we had wonderful honey. Brown and serve rolls were planned to become ham sandwiches the next day so the cooks could have some time off. Can’t argue with that!
I don’t remember many Christmas cookies at the Christmas Eve parties or dinner. Dessert was pie – blackberry or apple, or cake – angel food with strawberries or chocolate layer cake. My siblings and I usually cranked out some basic sugar cookies at our Seattle house and we usually had Russian Tea Cakes and sometimes Spritz if we had enough patience to fuss with the cookie press. Nobody seems to have been eager for gingerbread cookies or tarts and I had yet to discover the life changing glory of seven-layer bars. Steve’s mom, Patti, made world class sesame cookies that she said had nothing special in them, though we all begged to differ. Grandma Beth’s pecan sandies were a year-round treat and she kept them tucked away in a low cupboard in a glass mixing bowl in a corner of her bright kitchen, well out of sight from the grownups – or so we believed. We always felt like they were a special little secret between Grandma and her grandkids. Not that we actually talked about them. She made them when nobody was around, put them in the magic glass dish without any fuss, and it was just understood they were there for us whenever we needed one. At Christmas, a pecan half would be in the center of each cookie as an added bonus. What a sweet gift that was.
1 1/2 sticks butter, slightly softened
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon ice water
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
2 cups flour
1 cup finely chopped pecans (walnuts will work also)
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Preheat oven to 325 and line baking sheets with baking parchment or use silicone mats.
Using your big electric mixer and beat the butter and sugar until very smooth, creamy and light. Add all other ingredients and use a low speed to gently combine. Chill dough (covered) for at least 30 minutes.
By hand, firmly form dough into one-inch balls. This dough is a bit dry and crumbly so press it firmly together. Place dough balls on parchment lined baking sheets about two-inches apart. Using a buttered, flat bottom glass (a small canning jar works great, too) flatten balls to about 1/2-inch thick.
Bake at 325 for 20 minutes. Hide as needed from grownups.
Patti’s Sesame Cookies
Our very first Christmas as husband and wife, we came out from Sand Point, Alaska where we were living and working, and stayed with Steve’s folks in Bremerton. One morning right in the middle of the craziness of all things Christmas, Patti made these as a special treat. One taste brings back the memories of that happy family time and P & C’s lovely home on the inlet. Their beautiful decorations and Christmas tree welcomed us into such a warm and loving family embrace. We were tickled at their delight at the impending birth of their first grandchild, who was due on Christmas Day, but decided to wait until January 7 to make his appearance. Dave never arrived late for anything since then!
1 cup butter
1 1/3 cups brown sugar
1 large egg
2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup lightly toasted sesame seeds
1 cup flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
Cream together the butter and brown sugar until light and fluffy.
Add the egg and vanilla extract and beat well.
Slowly add the sesame seeds, flour, baking powder and salt.
Chill the dough for at least three hours then drop teaspoonfuls onto a parchment lined cookie sheet about two inches apart.
Bake at 325 for about 15 minutes or until they are golden brown throughout, even in the center to make sure that they are crispy. Watch them carefully because they can burn quickly. Cool on the cookie sheet for 15 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely. If you can bear to wait 24 hours for the flavor to develop, they’ll taste even better.
If you need to toast the sesame seeds, use a dry skillet over low heat for a few minutes, stirring until golden.
So that’s as far as I can go down memory lane for now. I avoided so many branches and side trails and did so many U-turns, you have NO idea. I know Christmas will be different this year – and you know what? It’s different… and also the same… every year. All memories are piled up and connected to our gloriously jumbled pasts, no matter our age or where we fit in the family or where we live, worship or work. Sharing meals, especially on holidays, is a valuable tradition, and I like to think setting the table is as important as gathering around it. The food we share and give thanks for can help us recall both silly and somber memories. One minute I remember celery and cheese balls and the next I the hear the faint echo of the call to “wash up for supper” from beloved voices that are long silent. You never know what will stick as a tradition, what will become a family legend, who will surprise you with a story, a random act of kindness or a sudden insight into the past. Tell your stories, share your memories, make new ones, dine well, snack often, and pause now and then to care deeply for the ones you love and who love you, both near and far. Thank you for tagging along on this journey. Much love and Merry Christmas to you all!.