Christmas Eve is a special night — if only in our mind’s eye, where it has taken on a Norman Rockwell sort of warmth and tradition.
Indeed, we all say we want to bring a little of the Christmas spirit — the magic and hope of the season — into our lives. But realistically speaking, when that time actually rolls around, most of us are approaching total meltdown.
Which makes it all to easy to say, “Oh well, NEXT year will be better.”
My response, however, is a resounding it’s not too late.
There’s still time. Even if we don’t have Mr. Rockwell’s grandmother bustling about in our kitchen all day preparing a cozy little five-course pre-Christmas repast.
Here’s a simple open-faced sandwich of sorts that is simple and fast to assemble, yet comes with my guarantee to warm heart and soul of each and every guest you bring to your Christmas Eve table. Because it’s such a snap to prepare, you’ll still have plenty of hours left in the evening for festivities
Of course, if you have the time to assemble a collection of really fresh fish in the next few hours, consider throwing together a pot of my fabulous cioppino, which I like to remind folks about every year around this time when fresh crab hits the local markets.
There are as many renditions of this classic San Francisco fish stew specialty as there are folks who’ve left their hearts there, but this one is one of the tastiest I’ve ever encountered.
What makes it especially great during the holidays is the fact that the tomato base can be prepared days ahead so you may want to back-burner it for next week’s New Years Eve festivities if it’s too late for tonight.
Then, just before you’re ready to serve, you can heat it up and begin adding the fish and shellfish in the appropriate order so that everything turns out tender and cooked to perfection. Just make sure the ingredients are fresh!
I’ve also included my favorite make-ahead Christmas brunch strata that can be assembled the night before, then popped in the oven on Christmas morning.
FOCACCIA BREAD SPECIAL WITH ONIONS AND OLIVE OIL
1 bunch green onions, thinly sliced to measure about 2 cups of onions
1/2 cup chopped yellow onion
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1/4 cup olive oil, divided
1 141/2-ounce can Italian-style stewed tomatoes, chopped
Salt and white pepper to taste
11/2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 8- or 9-inch round of focaccia bread
Saute the onions and garlic in 2 tablespoons of the olive oil just until the onions are softened, about 2 minutes. Add the stewed tomatoes and simmer until mixture thickens, about 10 minutes. Adjust seasonings with salt and pepper.
Place the loaf of focaccia bread on a lightly greased 9-inch round cake pan. Brush the surface with the remaining oil (you don’t have to use the entire 2 tablespoons), and broil briefly just to crisp the top.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Spread half of the onion mixture on top of the toasted loaf, making sure it gets down into all of the holes on the surface. Sprinkle on half of the cheddar and Parmesan.
Top with remaining onion mixture, then sprinkle with remaining cheddar and Parmesan.
Bake the loaf in a 425 degree oven about 20 or 25 minutes, until top is beautifully browned and bubbly. Remove from the oven and let the loaf rest for about 5 minutes before removing from pan and cutting into serving-sized wedges.
A delicious meal on its own with a big green salad. For more substance, it can be served alongside a plainly grilled chicken breast or chop.
Yields 4 to 6 entree servings.
Adaptations abound: To the onion mixture, add any number of chopped vegetables as they come into season, such as sweet bell peppers, Walla Walla Sweet onions, and celery. Other delicious toppings include pepperoni, cooked sausage, sliced olives, and mushrooms.
Although there are dozens of renditions, I think this is one of the best.
3/4 pound red snapper
3/4 pound halibut
1/2 pound scallops
2 tablespoons oil
2 cups chopped onion
4 fresh cloves garlic, minced
16 ounces salsa (any salsa will do, but I prefer Pace’s “medium” picante sauce)
5 141/2-ounce cans diced tomatoes (see note)
11/2 cups dry white wine, such as Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Gris
2 teaspoons each, dried (or 1 tablespoon each fresh): basil, thyme, marjoram and oregano
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
1 pound steamer clams (optional, but very tasty)
1 small, freshly cooked Dungeness crab, cleaned and broken into pieces (shells on)
2 cups shrimp meat
Salt and additional pepper to taste
Cut the snapper and halibut into 1/2- to 1-inch chunks; set aside in refrigerator until needed.
Heat the oil in a large, heavy pot and saute the onions and garlic over medium-high heat until the onions are tender. Stir in the salsa, tomatoes, wine, herbs, black pepper, and parsley and bring to a boil.
Reduce heat, and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the sauce has thickened enough to have enough substance to coat a spoon.
The stew base may be refrigerated at this point for several days (or even frozen for up to 4 or 5 months).
When ready to assemble. bring the tomato mixture to a boil, then add the fish chunks and simmer until just barely cooked through. Add the scallops and clams and cook just until the clams open (discard any clams that don’t open). Add the crab pieces and let cook another 2 or 3 minutes, just to heat through. Add the shrimp and remove the pot from the burner; the shrimp will heat through nicely and not become tough.
Add salt and additional fresh ground black pepper to taste.
Makes 8 generous servings of 21/4 cups each.
Note on diced tomatoes: I use 1 can of diced tomatoes with jalapeno, and 4 cans of regular diced tomatoes. That little bit of jalapeno adds just enough zip. However, if you think you’ll be serving some sensitive palates, just use 5 cans of regular diced tomatoes.
Adapted from: The New American Diet, by Sonja L. Connor, and William E. Connor.
Assemble this the night before, then pop into the oven about 45 minutes before breakfast.
EASY CHEESE AND VEGETABLE STRATA
1/2 11/2-pound loaf of unsliced bread, crust removed (see note)
1 pound grated cheddar cheese
8 slices bacon, diced (or 3/4 pound bulk sausage; or a combination)
1/4 pound fresh mushrooms, sliced
1 cup chopped celery
1 cup chopped red, green or yellow sweet bell pepper
1 medium onion, chopped
6 large eggs, beaten (or the equivalent of a low-cholesterol egg substitute mixture)
2 cups milk
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon white pepper
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
Dice the bread and mix with cheese in large bowl; set aside. Saute the bacon or sausage until browned, crumbling the sausage thoroughly if used. Strain off all but 2 tablespoons of the grease.
Add the mushrooms, celery, bell peppers, and onions and continue to saute until the vegetables are softened; remove from heat.
Whisk together the eggs, milk and seasonings. Add the egg mixture and vegetable mixture to the bread cubes and mix well. Pour the mixture into a 9- by 13-inch greased baking dish. Refrigerate at least half an hour or up to 24 hours.
Bake in 350 degree oven for 45 to 50 minutes, or until golden and puffy.
Delicious served with fresh fruit on the side.
Note: Any style of bread will do, it’s your choice, but the lighter the bread, the fluffier the strata; Albertsons or Safeway brands of French bread work nicely, and you can’t go wrong with heavier breads, even though the strata will be a little heartier in texture.
Makes about 8 servings.
Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis, Ore., food writer, cookbook author and artist. Readers can contact her at email@example.com, or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.