Monday, December 31, 2012

Baked Ham, Sweet Potatoes, and Squash for Christmas

Baked Ham with Honey Whiskey Glaze

I was never really like other kids I knew growing up when it comes to the holidays. For me, the perfect Christmas was never actually about the presents (or at least it wasn't unless there was something I really, really hoped I would get that year). It was about the food -- especially once I grew older and learned my lessons in regards to things like cholesterol levels and expanding waistlines.

The holidays eventually became the best possible excuse to do things like load your plate up with seconds, indulge in dessert, and take whole days off so you could spend all day cooking. As an adult who was free to create her own traditions instead of always following other people's, this only became more the case.

That's not really the type of Christmas I grew up with though. There are people in my family who love to eat for sure, but Christmas was never really a big "cooking holiday" in my home the way it is for some people. Relatives never flew in from out of town or stayed for a while. There was never a big turkey or ham on the table or anything. Nobody baked or had a special Christmas cocktail that they wanted everyone to try. Dating a string of picky eaters before winding up married to a picky eater who was also a vegetarian didn't exactly help matters either. My holidays really never looked like the ones you see in the movies and -- while the ones I had were certainly nice enough -- I always longed to spend Christmas with another foodie like myself.
Roasted Sweet Potatoes

Then my marriage hit the skids and I met Seth. Thankfully he not only likes the holidays, but he likes to eat... and not only does he like to eat, but he likes to eat meat, and cheese, and carbs, and rich gravy, and all those good things that no holiday is complete without. As a result, I've been able to create the Christmases I've always wanted to have with him by my side.

This year, we started out wanting to roast a duck again like last year, but we wanted to do more of a Peking-style duck with Asian side dishes to kind of mix things up. Unfortunately though, the store was all out of the damn things by the time we got around to getting down there to buy supplies. We bought a roast to have instead (in the event nothing better presented itself before Christmas arrived). Then my mom brought us a ham to bake if we wanted, so we eventually decided on that.

This year's ham probably turned out to be one of the tastiest ones I've baked so far. Instead of cooking the ham on it's side the way I normally do, I baked it cut side down the entire time. I also properly scored the fat as usual and added a glaze that contained the last bits of this wonderful Tennessee honey whiskey from Jack Daniels that we had on hand. I thoroughly recommend this baking method, as it produced a tasty and very juicy ham with a wonderfully complex flavor. In fact, I'll be baking my hams this way from this day forward. The honey whiskey certainly didn't hurt matters either.

Baked Yellow Squash
The sides were oven baked sweet potatoes with ground garlic, parsley, and basil paired with roasted, seasoned yellow squash. Really pretty tasty... and easy, too! When I was younger, I didn't think there would ever be a proper substitute for regular potatoes in my heart of hearts, but I really do love the way sweet potatoes compliment so many dishes so much better while actually being healthier and lower in calories, especially if baked.

Yellow squash was something I started making as a Thanksgiving side way back when I was married to my ex and I got hooked on the organic produce from Whole Foods. Everyone liked them so much at the time, they've sort of stayed on as part of the regular rotation when it comes to holiday meals. Add some crusty rolls and plenty of butter and you've got a feast that really hit the spot.

We've been thoroughly enjoying all of the leftovers the ham created. It's made plenty of platters, sandwiches, and snacks. I may or may not make some sort of chowder or chili with the leftover bone. We'll just see! There's just so much you can do with ham and so many ways you can use it to dress up all of your existing favorites.

We eventually decided the roast we originally bought would make a great New Year's dinner. Normally I do some sort of pork dish paired with greens and a black-eyed pea option like Hoppin' John. I'm sort of sick of the idea of cooking the same old thing this year though, so I'm not sure if I'll actually be doing that or not. I'm more on board with a nice roast, au jus sauce, and some sort of baked macaroni and cheese side dish at this point.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Semi-Homemade Spaghetti and Meatballs

Spaghetti and Meatballs
I don't know how the time flew by so quickly, but we're right in the middle of one of my favorite times of year now -- winter time. For those of you who do not know about my sick, sick hatrid of heat and summer time, let it be known that I look forward to the cooler months all year round. In just over a week or so, it will be the winter solstice again, so it will all be official. Naturally, that means I've been finding it within myself to really indulge in my favorite comfort foods again.

Case in point, spaghetti and meatballs. Lately, we've been buying a lot of ready-made stuff that is easy to heat up because I've been slammed at work for the last few months. However, I actually have a little bit of a lull going on right now thanks to the fact that I just got rid of a pretty demanding client, so we've been able to cook a little bit more. That's been nice to say the least! 

Last night, we kind of did the semi-homemade thing (yes, I believe in Sandra Lee -- deal with it) with some spaghetti and meatballs. It was definitely the best spaghetti and meatballs I've ever personally made or served. I'll have to think about it, but I may just have preferred this to even the restaurant versions I've had. I will definitely be doing this again in the future. It was easy, fast, and convenient... but so flavorful and tasty we just couldn't believe our taste buds.

All it was was a jar of spaghetti sauce with one of those McCormick spaghetti sauce seasoning packets mixed in for extra kick. I also doctored it up with about 3/4 of a cup of Burgundy (nothing fancy, just some boxed wine we had on hand) and some things from out of the herb cabinet (basil, thyme, parsley, red pepper flakes, and ground garlic). I simmered it in a big pan until it started to bubble, adding water as needed to keep it from getting thicker than I wanted. Then I just dumped in a bag of "homestyle" Safeway meatballs and let the whole thing cook until the meatballs were hot.

Delicious Garlic Bread
I don't know why it never occurred to me to actually simmer the meatballs in the sauce like that, but it hadn't until I saw this ancient episode of Kitchen Nightmares on Netflix a little while back. Gordon Ramsay was telling some dude that owned an Italian restaurant that if he absolutely had to use meatballs that had been frozen, that that was a good way to make sure they were as delicious as possible. I decided to try it with the frozen Safeway meatballs as a sort of experiment and was really pleased with the results. 

The sauce made the meatballs really tender and flavorful. The meatballs made the sauce really rich and amazing. You'd never know this was just a bunch of prepared foods and dried herbs from the spice cabinet that were on hand. The whole thing was out-of-this-world delicious, especially when served alongside some garlic bread that consisted of my famous garlic butter on a loaf of "everything bread" that my mom brought home the other day. 

Seriously, I don't know why so many people bag on techniques like the ones Sandra Lee uses to make semi-homemade meals. Yeah, meals made from scratch are pretty damned awesome... but they're not really realistic for most of us really busy people to put together at the end of a long day. We literally don't have time and when we have time, we probably don't have the energy. That said, it's sometimes a necessity to turn to convenience food in order to keep bellies full. It's so much nicer to simply use them as ingredients in creations of your own though. 

I'd take this over a can of Chef Boyardee or a frozen TV dinner any day of the week. It was certainly just as convenient and probably 50 times tastier and more cost-effective. This made enough to not only feed us last night, but definitely for at least two more meals going forward as well. Can't beat that! It was fast and easy, too.