I’ve turned the Calendar to November, and when I look out and see frost on the rooftops, I know it’s time to think about the Holidays. No matter how we celebrate, as it gets darker, our hearts get warmer, and we gather friends and family close. Nowadays, family can mean the one in which you were raised, or your chosen “urban family”.
After Thanksgiving, the next holiday is Hanukkah, the Celebration of Light.
I had the good fortune to attend my first Hanukkah celebration last year. Not only did I learn how to play the Dreidel game, it was also a lovely celebration centered on traditional foods. Since Hanukkah celebrates the miracle of the oil lamp with one day worth of oil that lasted 8 days, the traditional dishes are foods fried in oil: Latkes and Sufganiyah. Latkes are addictive, crispy, tender pan-fried potato pancakes. Sufganiyah are delicate and delicious doughnuts filled with jam or custard, often eaten as treats throughout the celebrations.
While there is no set meal for Hanukkah, many families celebrate with Latkes, vegetables, salad, Kugel, and their own version of beef brisket. Recipes are handed down through generations, continuing each family’s tradition. If you eat the Latkes as a starter, I’d suggest a sparkling wine or light white such as Pinot Gris to ameliorate the fat. Of course, the main meal with the brisket cries out for a hearty red such as Zinfandel, Merlot or a Bordeaux blend. Our brisket with garlic and caramelized onions with Kugel was a smash hit with a rich California Zinfandel. If you keep a Kosher table, check with your local wine merchant for Kosher wines.
If the adults want to match the Sufganiyah with a glass of wine, a simple, slightly sweet sparkler like Asti would be perfect.
Then we get to Christmas. Christmas menus are a toss up. In America, there is no one traditional Christmas meal – it’s not like Thanksgiving where nearly every household roasts a turkey. There many regional variations, combined with each family’s heritage and traditions.
When I can’t make it home, my friends and I have a potluck, negotiating between our own regional and family favorites. I have especially fond memories of a meal of seafood bisque, apple and spinach salad with bacon, and traditional roast beef with Yorkshire pudding. Dessert was a bounty of pies and Christmas pudding, and we had Chardonnay, Riesling, an old vine Cabernet, Port and Brandy. Needless to say, we weren’t very energetic afterwards, preferring to lounge like boneless lizards while watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” for the umpteenth time. By the time Clarence got his wings, we caught our second wind and headed out for a brisk walk along the beach.
My memories of Christmas dinner in the Midwest include cold weather favorites, harkening back to my European ancestors – roast beef, mashed potatoes, green beans and mincemeat pie for dessert. We went for the hearty reds, often a Barolo or Cabernet Sauvignon. We followed with Madeira for the mincemeat pie, and then a game of Monopoly in front of the fireplace.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, we often celebrate with our bounty of seafood, including steamed mussels and clams, Dungeness crab, or roasted salmon. Local Pinot Gris from Oregon or a unoaked Chardonnay go well with all, and of course, an Oregon Pinot Noir will go with salmon.
A bit further South in California, I have had either Cioppino or turkey for Christmas dinner – I even made goose one year (Not advisable in an apartment kitchen – the smoke detector blared until I yanked the battery out!). We had a dry Rosé with the Cioppino, and a Merlot with the sausage and apple stuffed turkey. That crisp skinned, rich goose was delicious paired with a Gewürztraminer.
In the South, Christmas dinner often includes ham and turkey. If you’re in Cajun country the turkey is often deep-fried. A dry style German or Alsatian Riesling, or Pinot Gris will both match the sweet qualities of the ham and foil the crisp skin on the turkey. Pumpkin pie cries out for Muscat Canelli or late harvest Riesling.
In the Southwest and Mexico, Tamales are a traditional holiday dish, often made with pork. Try a sparkling wine such as Cava or a bottle from the New Mexico producer, Gruet. If you serve flan for dessert, an Ice Wine or Late Harvest wine would go well, as would a Muscat Beaumes – de Venise.
Horse drawn wagons gliding through pristine white snow, cozy stone houses with smoke drifting out of the chimneys – this is our vision of Christmas in the Northeast. This traditional Christmas dinner includes turkey with oyster stuffing. Here we have to honor the dominant flavor of the oyster and go with a light, crisp Chardonnay, either a French Chablis or Macon. Plum pudding, spectacularly flambéed tableside requires something special like a Banyuls or Tokaji. My friends in New York State tell me that after dinner, they love to tromp through the snow under the stars, and then have a warming glass of spiced mulled wine.
However you celebrate the Holidays, have fun with it. Christmas dinner isn’t as fraught with peril as Thanksgiving because we aren’t comparing our turkey with our neighbors. Hanukkah and Christmas are joyous occasions often with simpler menus, so just relax, pick a few good dishes and have fun with friends, family and good wine. Remember, it’s more about who’s around the table than what’s on it.