Dim Sum For Christmas: Creating A Holiday Tradition At Home

dim sumWith very few exceptions, I’ve spent the last 17-plus Christmases going out for dim sum. No matter where I’m living at the time, once December rolls around, I start researching the best places to indulge my har gow habit. Why? Because I’ve worked in the service industry for over two decades.

I’ve either waited tables or worked retail (usually in the food industry) since I was in my 20s. In layman’s terms, it means that the holidays ceased to exist for me starting in 1995, when I started culinary school.

I’d always loved Christmas as a kid and in college. Yet, I willingly sacrificed the holidays, because it meant I’d finally embarked upon the career path I’d long dreamt of: becoming a cooking teacher and food (and eventually, travel) writer. I naively failed to realize that decades of restaurant work, flogging farmers market produce, and slinging cheese and meat would be required to supplement my occupational pursuits.

I’ve been able to travel overseas a couple of times over the holidays, and the Christmases spent in Thailand and New Zealand were memorable from both a cultural and universal perspective. If I had the financial means, I’d always travel during the holidays. In general, however, being in the food industry means you stay at home this time of year, even if home is somewhere most people would kill to visit (I’ve been fortunate to work the holidays in Vail and Telluride).christmasUnable to take Christmases off to see my family (they always get Thanksgiving, which is extremely important to my parents), I started going out for dim sum as a way to pass the time, stave off loneliness and get a good meal.

Dim sum parlors and Cantonese restaurants are always packed Christmas Day, with Chinese-Americans as well as diners of varying ethnic and religious persuasions. I’ve learned over the years that many people have a Christmas dim sum tradition, usually because they don’t celebrate for whatever reason (not having kids is a big one).

In my case, I’m single and childless, but that’s not why I do dim sum. Ethnically, my relatives on both sides of the family were immigrant Russian Jews, but my agnostic parents celebrated Christmas when my brother and I were growing up. To them, it was a way to unite family and allow us kids … to be kids. As a child, I never imagined Christmas and I would part ways.

As an adult, I shun Christmas not because I have to work, but for the same reasons many people do: it’s a stressful, bank account-depleting, heavily commercialized guilt-fest. I don’t miss it, although I do my best for my teenaged niece (who received a rescue kitten from me this year) and nephew.

The truth is, if I’m unable to travel, I relish having one day a year where I can have 24 hours off and not feel bad about it. I eat delicious dumplings, maybe go for a hike or see a movie. Call family and friends. It’s unabashed me-time, and until or unless I meet someone I want to create a more traditional holiday with … please pass the bao.

[Photo credit: dim sum, Flickr user Jason Hutchens; tree, Flickr user Ian.Kobylanski]

Video of the day: a goaty guide to pronouncing foreign cheeses

The holidays are Cheese Season. At no other time of the year are cheese and specialty food shops as thronged by dairy-seeking customers. They’re hungry for a fix or searching for a gift, recipe ingredient, or the makings of a cheese plate. Cheese is love, and one of the easiest, most elegant ways to kick off a cocktail party or conclude (or make) a memorable meal.

With that in mind, the folks at Culture: the word on cheese magazine (full disclosure: I’m a contributing editor) have produced this clever (and utterly adorable) video to aid you in pronouncing some of those delectable but tricky foreign cheeses from France, Spain, and Switzerland. Happy Hoch Ybrig, everyone!


Bizarre foods: European “delicacies,” by country

European foodsWhat constitutes “food” is relative, depending upon what part of the world you call home. In Asia, pretty much anything on no (snakes), two, four, six, or eight legs is up for grabs. Europe, however, has its own culinary oddities, as detailed below. Got maggots?

Iceland
Hákarl: Fermented, dried Greenland or basking shark. This tasty treat is prepared by burying the beheaded and gutted shark in a shallow hole in the ground for six to 12 weeks. Unsurprisingly, the end result is considered noxious to pretty much everyone on the planet aside from Icelanders.

Norway
Smalahove: Boiled lamb’s head, traditionally served at Christmas. The brain is removed, and the head salted and dried before boiling. Because they’re the fattiest bits, the ear and eye are eaten first. More fun than a wishbone.

Sardinia (yes, it’s in Italy, but this one deserved its own listing)
Casu marzu: This sheep’s milk cheese has maggots added to it during ripening, because their digestive action creates an “advanced level” of fermentation (also known as “decomposition”). Some people prefer to eat the soupy results sans critters, while the stout of heart go for the whole package. Be forewarned: according to Wikipedia, irate maggots can propel themselves for distances up to six inches. Here’s fly in your eye.

Northern Sweden or Finland
Lappkok: This charmingly-named concoction consists of blodpalt–a dumpling made with reindeer blood and wheat or rye flour–served with reindeer bone marrow. Well, Santa’s herd had to retire sometime.

[Photo credit: Flickr user fjords]

European foodsSweden
Lutefisk: This dried whitefish treated with lye is beloved by Scandinavians and their American Midwestern ancestors (let’s just say it’s an acquired taste). It’s traditionally served with potatoes or other root vegetables, gravy or white sauce, and akvavit.

Scotland
Haggis: Who doesn’t love a cooked sheep’s stomach stuffed with its lungs, heart, and liver, combined with oatmeal?

Poland
Nozki: Literally “cold feet,” this dish of jellied pig’s trotters isn’t as repulsive as it sounds. The meat is simmered with herbs and spices until falling off the bone, and set in gelatin. Think of how much fun this would be as a Jello shooter.

Ukraine
Salo: The cured fatback of pork is actually quite delicious, and similar to Italian lardo when seasoned. It’s chopped and used as a condiment, or eaten straight-up on bread. Plan your angioplasty accordingly.
European foods
England/Ireland
Black (or blood) pudding: Technically a sausage, this mixture of animal blood (usually pork), spices, fat, and oatmeal or other grains is surprisingly good. It’s served uncooked, fried, grilled, or boiled. Sound bad? At least it’s not called Spotted Dick.

Italy
Stracotto d’asino: A northern Italian donkey stew, often served as a pasta sauce. Donkey and horse are eaten throughout Italy, but this particular dish is a specialty of Veneto, and Mantua, in Lombardy.

France
Tête de veau: You have to love that the venerable French culinary bible, Larousse Gastronomique, describes this dish of boiled calf’s head as, “a gelatinous variety of white offal.” Mmm. While there are many different preparations for the classical dish, it was traditionally served with cocks’ combs and kidneys, calves sweetbreads, and mushrooms.

Eastern Europe
P’tcha: A calves’ foot jelly enjoyed by Ashkenazi Jews throughout this part of Europe. It’s uh, high in protein.

Germany
Zungenwurst: This sausage is made of pork blood and rind; pickled ox tongue, and a grain filler, such as barley. It’s available dried, or can be browned in butter or bacon fat before eating. And bacon makes everything better.European foods

Netherlands
Paardenrookvlees: Culinarily-speaking, the Dutch usually cop grief for their proclivity for pickled herring and eating mayonnaise on their french fries. That’s because most Americans don’t know this smoked horse meat is a popular sandwich filling. Trust me: Seabiscuit tastes pretty good.

Greece
Kokoretsi: Lamb or goat intestines wrapped around seasoned offal (lungs, hearts, sweetbreads, kidneys), threaded onto a skewer, and cooked on a spit. You know what’s good with grilled meat? Meat.

[Photo credits: black pudding, Flickr user quimby;lutefisk, Flickr user adam_d_; kokoretsi, Flickr user Georgio Karamanis]