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First Class Fare for the Holidays

Ann Criswell’s Grandmother’s Favorite Dressing

The Yuletide season brings its own flagrant fragrance to family kitchens. First come the harvest scents of pecan, pumpkin, and mincemeat pies, intermingled with the delectable perfumes of sugary cookies and fruity cakes. The piquant tang of cranberries soon follows, accompanied by the rich, earthy smells of dressings and stuffings, squash and corn. Eventually, the meaty aromas of roasting turkeys and baking hams signal that the feast is nearing completion.

Ahhhhhh, the wonderful incense of holiday foods! Comforting, tantalizing, delicious.

Christmas—or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa—meals bring families together to savor the season’s simple joys. Sometimes the menu perpetuates a longtime tradition, sometimes it begins one, and sometimes it serves up festive surprises.

As a holiday gift to you, we have asked four of the state’s foremost food editors to share a few of their own seasonal favorites.

So, warm up the oven, grab a cup of eggnog, and consider these tasty offerings from Texas’ own food mavens—Kitty Crider of the Austin American-Statesman, Cathy Barber of The Dallas Morning News, Ann Criswell of the Houston Chronicle, and Nora Garza of The Monitor in McAllen. With this group’s culinary credentials, you can bet each dish is worthy of your holiday table.

Kitty Crider, Food Editor, Austin American-Statesman

For many Texas families, turkey is the star of both Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. But at my house, the Christmas dinner entrée can range from beef to pork to seafood. The menu often includes a new recipe I want to try, or a winning dish from the Austin American-Statesman’s annual Christmas Cookin’ Contest, or an entrée resulting from a new smoking technique I’ve talked my husband into testing. This makes Christmas dinner a fun, not a must, menu. I recommend this flexibility to others—it lets you enjoy the blessings of Christmas Day.

Here are some not-too-trendy favorites from years past. Yellow Velvet—a sensuous blend of corn and squash—won the Austin American-Statesman’s annual Christmas Cookin’ Contest almost 15 years ago. Yes, it’s rich, but we still get requests to reprint the recipe during the holiday season.

Yellow Velvet Recipe

You can substitute frozen corn-on-the-cob for the fresh corn, but the flavor won’t be quite as good.

4 to 6 ears fresh corn

1/2 c. chopped sweet red pepper

1/2 c. heavy cream

2 tsp. sugar

salt and pepper to taste

1 lb. yellow squash, trimmed and sliced

Tabasco sauce, to taste

6 T. butter, in pats (or less, to taste)

green onion (optional)

additional sweet red pepper (optional)

Cut enough kernels off cobs to measure 2 cups. In a medium saucepan, combine corn, red pepper, cream, sugar, salt, and pepper; simmer, covered, for 20 minutes.

In another saucepan, cook squash, covered, in a small amount of salted water 15 to 20 minutes, or until soft. Drain, and puree squash in blender or food processor. Add squash to corn mixture; cover, and simmer for 15 minutes more. (Recipe can be prepared ahead to this point.) Season with Tabasco sauce and additional salt and pepper. Stir in butter about 10 minutes before serving. Garnish with green onion and sweet red pepper, if desired. Yield: 6 servings.

My grandmother Lois Barrett O’Kelly (we called her Nannie) had a pear tree. Every fall she turned its harvest—what the squirrels didn’t get—into mincemeat for holiday pies. It’s one of her few time-consuming recipes I still use, but I have to admit that I have updated it. I use a food processor instead of a hand-turned chopper. I substitute hamburger meat for the suet originally called for in the recipe, and I cook the meat before stirring it into the mixture. And then, instead of canning the mincemeat, I freeze it (it keeps for a long time in the freezer). But I still think it tastes very much like hers did. And the house smells fragrant and wonderful while it is cooking.

Nannie’s Pear Mincemeat Pie Recipe

2 c. Mincemeat Filling (see recipe above)

2 (8- or 9-in.) unbaked pastry shells

1/2 c. chopped pecans

Spread filling in an 8- or 9-inch uncooked pastry shell. Sprinkle top of filling with pecans. Cover with a top crust, and flute edge. Make four slits in top crust, each about an inch long. Bake at 375° about 40 minutes, or until filling bubbles up in slits. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Note: This recipe may also be used to make empanadas. (To make 16 empanadas, you’ll need 1 c. of filling, to which 1/4 c. chopped pecans has been added, and 4 unbaked pastry shells.) Cut 4-in. circles from pastry shells, and spread 1 heaping tsp. of filling on half of each circle. Fold half of circle over the other half, and press edges together with a fork. Sprinkle empanadas with granulated sugar, and bake on a cookie sheet at 375° for about 15 minutes, or until golden.

Mincemeat Filling

about 10 lbs. firm cooking pears

3 lemons, quartered and seeded (leave peel on)

11/2 lbs. ground beef

2 lbs. raisins

2 T. salt, or less, to taste

1 T. cinnamon

5 lbs. brown sugar

1 T. cider vinegar

1 tsp. ground cloves

1 tsp. allspice

Peel and core enough pears to measure 4 qts.; place in container of a food processor. Add lemons, and process lightly (do not puree); set aside.

Cook ground beef in a Dutch oven until well done. Add pear-lemon mixture and remaining ingredients, mix well, and refrigerate 4 hours. Boil 20 minutes, stirring constantly. Cover tightly, and refrigerate overnight. Boil 20 minutes again, and pack into pint containers, allowing room for expansion. Freeze. Yield: 12 pints, or enough filling for 12 pies.

Cathy Barber, Food Editor, The Dallas Morning News

When I asked my mom, Louise Saathoff of San Antonio, to give me the recipe for her cranberry salad, we both realized that the sugar was missing from the ingredient list. The recipe had been circulated around my family, and it turns out my mom had given me her cousin’s copy. I guess her cousin had just estimated the amount of sugar when she used it. So my mom had to go back and dig out her own copy, the original version of the recipe. It needs lots of sugar to offset those tangy cranberries.

Louise’s Cranberry Salad Recipe

2 T. unflavored gelatin

1/2 c. cold water

11/2 c. sugar

2 (16-oz.) cans whole-berry cranberry sauce

1 (8-oz.) can crushed pineapple

1 c. chopped pecans

Dissolve gelatin in cold water in a shallow casserole. Add remaining ingredients (including juice from cans), and mix well. Cover, and refrigerate overnight. Cut in squares, or spoon out to serve. Yield: 10 to 12 servings.

We don’t serve venison as our main holiday meal, but we usually have it sometime during the holidays. My husband, Dan, always makes sure we have a freezer full of venison. To create this dish, he started with a similar recipe from a cookbook, but the current version is all his. I call it his “spoon venison” because it always comes out tender enough to cut with a spoon. We serve it over rice.

Dan’s “Spoon Venison”

1 T. olive oil

2 lbs. venison shoulder steaks

1 T. minced garlic

1 medium onion, chopped

1 lb. mushrooms, sliced, or 2 (7-oz.) cans mushrooms, drained

1 c. red wine

1 c. chicken stock

1 (16-oz.) can tomato sauce

1/2 tsp. Cajun seasoning, or to taste

1 sprig rosemary

6 leaves of fresh basil, minced, or 1/2 tsp. dried basil

Heat olive oil in a cast-iron Dutch oven over medium-high heat; sear venison on each side. Remove meat, and set aside. Brown garlic, onion, and mushrooms in remaining oil. Stir in wine and next 4 ingredients. Bring to a boil; add seared venison, and return to a boil. Cover, and bake in a 325° oven for about 2 hours. Remove from oven, and remove rosemary, if desired. Stir in basil, replace cover, and let stand in Dutch oven for 5 to 10 minutes before serving. Yield: 4 to 6 servings.

Ann Criswell, Food Editor, Houston Chronicle

This recipe for cornbread dressing is a combination of recipes from my grandmother Emma Compton, my mother, Alma Minick, and Lady Bird Johnson. It’s a Texas classic. Sometimes the cooks in our family add several chopped, hard-cooked eggs.

Grandmother’s Favorite Dressing

4 c. day-old bread crumbs

4 c. crumbled cornbread

4 c. crumbled biscuits

1/4 c. green onions with tops

3/4 c. chopped onion

1 c. chopped celery

1/4 c. finely chopped fresh parsley

11/2 tsp. rubbed sage

1 tsp. salt

1/4 tsp. ground black pepper

1/2 c. melted butter or margarine

2 eggs, slightly beaten

2 to 4 c. defatted turkey or chicken broth

sweet red and green peppers (optional)

parsley (optional)

In a large bowl, combine bread crumbs, cornbread, biscuits, onions, celery, parsley, sage, salt, and pepper. Toss well. Add butter, eggs, and broth (mixture should be extra moist, just this side of soupy). Mix well, but toss lightly.

Place dressing in a well-greased 21/2-qt. baking dish. Bake, uncovered, at 325° for about 30 minutes, or until browned. Garnish with red- and green-pepper “bowtie,” if desired. Yield: About 12 cups.

Note: To cook dressing with turkey, loosely stuff body cavity with dressing before roasting turkey according to directions. Place remaining dressing in a well-greased baking dish, refrigerate, and then bake during last 30 minutes of turkey-roasting time. Before serving, blend dressing from turkey with that baked separately.

My late husband, Jim, found this recipe in a magazine in a doctor’s office probably 30 years ago or more. It became a family tradition during the holidays. Through the years, I cut back on the onion soup mix and began using low-sodium bacon to keep the dish from being too salty.

Green Beans Oregano

Frozen green beans work fine in this recipe. Just prepare them without salt according to package directions, and drain well.

6 c. (about 2 lbs.) fresh green beans

6 to 8 slices crisply cooked low-sodium bacon

2 (10 3/4-oz.) cans condensed cream of mushroom soup

2 (3-oz.) cans sliced mushrooms, drained

1/2 (1-oz.) envelope onion soup mix

1/4 to 1/2 tsp. crushed dried oregano

Wash beans and remove strings. Cut beans into pieces, if desired. Cook beans in unsalted water, covered, until crisp-tender; drain.

Place beans in a large bowl. Chop or crumble 4 or 5 slices of bacon, and add to beans, along with soup, mushrooms, onion soup mix, and oregano. Stir well, and refrigerate overnight, covered, to allow flavors to blend (very important). Bake in a 3-quart casserole, uncovered, at 350° for 30 to 40 minutes. Garnish with remaining bacon before serving. Yield: 10 to 12 servings.

Nora Garza, Features Editor, The Monitor

When I moved back to the Rio Grande Valley last year after being away for 25 years, I proudly served a Candy Cane Coffee Cake at work during the holiday season. My co-workers thought it was a variation of rosca de reyes, or “Three Kings Ring.” (On Epiphany in Spain, Portugal, and Mexico, celebrants traditionally share a rosca de reyes. Baked inside the ring are four symbolic gifts from the Three Kings. “Good luck” comes to the three persons who find the coin, the bead, and the charm. The finder of a porcelain figure of the Baby Jesus becomes king or queen for the day, as well as the host of a party on día de la Candelaria, or Candlemas, on February 2, which recognizes the presentation of Jesus in the temple.)

This Christmas, I’ll make the Candy Cane Coffee Cakes and a rosca, just for the sake of tradition.

Candy Cane Coffee Cakes

2 c. sour cream

2 (1/4-oz.) pkgs. active dry yeast

1/2 c. warm, but not hot, water

1/4 c. butter or margarine, softened

1/3 c. sugar

2 tsp. salt

2 eggs

about 6 c. flour, divided

11/2 c. finely chopped dried apricots

3/4 c. drained, finely chopped maraschino cherries

3/4 c. candied pineapple

1/3 c. melted butter or margarine

Thin Icing (see recipe below)

red and green maraschino cherry halves (optional)

additional dried apricots (optional)

mint leaves (optional)

Heat sour cream over low heat just until lukewarm. Dissolve yeast in warm water. Stir in sour cream, 1/4 cup softened butter, sugar, salt, eggs, and 2 cups of flour. Beat until smooth. Mix in enough remaining flour to make dough easy to handle. Turn dough onto well-floured board; knead until smooth (about 10 minutes). Place in greased bowl; turn greased side up. Cover; let rise in warm place until double, about 1 hour.

Punch down dough; divide into 3 equal parts. Roll each part into a rectangle 15x6 inches; place on greased baking sheet. With pizza cutter or scissors, make 2-inch cuts at 1/2-inch intervals on long sides of rectangles (will resemble fringe). Combine apricots, cherries, and pineapple; spread 1/3 of mixture down center of each rectangle. Starting at the bottom, crisscross strips over filling. Stretch dough to 22 inches; curve to form cane. Bake at 375º for 15 to 20 minutes, or until golden brown. While warm, brush with melted butter, and drizzle canes with Thin Icing. Decorate with cherry halves, chopped apricots, and mint leaves, if desired. Yield: 3 coffee cakes.

Thin Icing

2 c. confectioners’ sugar

2 T. water

Blend ingredients together. If icing is too stiff, stir in a few drops of water. Yield: Enough icing for 3 coffee cakes.

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