Friday, January 27, 2012

The New Go-To Condiment: Sambal Matah

Ingredients for Sambal Matah
Ketchup was so eighties.  Salsa so nineties.  Sriracha so aughts.  Just when I thought there could not possibly be a new go-to condiment worthy of this decade, sambal matah- an addictive mixture of fresh shallots and chilies- entered my life.  This vibrant side-dish-meets-chili-sauce is so vibrant, aromatic, and versatile I want to eat it with everything from scrambled eggs to steak.  Really, I would eat it with about everything but chocolate cake.

The good news is whipping up this potent dish at home takes little more than some elbow grease for chopping and a bit of market sleuthing to find a couple of less common ingredients. 

Sambal, broadly defined, is any chili based condiment coming out of Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Southern India.  These sauces and salads range from cooked to raw and might include garlic, coconut, palm sugar, ginger, tamarind, and kaffir lime, among other common regional ingredients. 

Sambal Matah Marinating
Throughout the island of Bali several forms of sambal prevail.  At Kafe Batan Waru in Ubud, a plate of three sambals is brought to the table on request, the level of hotness defined by three different sized slices of lime.  But among the mélanges of chilies, garlic, and spices I ate throughout that island, the one I kept asking for again and again was the strikingly different sambal matah.

Sambal matah is a sort of raw onion salad made of thinly sliced shallots, garlic, bird’s eye chilies, lemongrass, shrimp paste, sugar, salt, and kaffir lime.  When the flavors of this spicy salad mix and mingle the result is a harmonious, gripping burst of Southeast Asian flavors.  In Bali I ate this by the heaping spoon full alongside grilled turmeric chicken, fried tilapia, crispy duck, and banana leaf steamed fish.  I wouldn’t think to stop piling on the sambal until my lips had gone numb from the tingling spice. 

Grilled Tuna with Sambal Matah
Making this at home I made two important substitutions.  One: Balinese shrimp paste was going to be hard to find but I could still get the same umami affect from a hearty splash of Vietnamese fish sauce.  Two: fresh kaffir lime leaves (which every recipe I found called for) are also pretty difficult to source.  I bring dried kaffir lime slices and leaves back with me from South East Asia whenever I’m there.  They last forever and only need a little hydration from hot water and they are ready to go.  I found several sites available for shippingin the United States offering dried kaffir lime leaves at reasonable prices

Everything else- a pile of shallots, garlic, lemongrass, fish sauce, sugar, lime juice, salt- is all easy to find in most markets.  A little chop, chop, chop, some gentle mixing, and quick sit to let the flavors meld together and this condiment is ready to go. 
Beyond Asian food samal matah could pair well with smoked salmon, grilled sausages, or even a simple summer tomato salad.  Bye bye, ketchup.  Adios, salsa.  See ya, sriracha.  My new slather-on-everything condiment, sambal matah, is here to stay. 

Sambal Matah
Time: 30 minutes

5 slices dried Kaffir lime or 2 dehydrated leaves
8 shallots
3 cloves garlic
4-8 Bird’s eye chilies, depending on desired hotness
2 lemongrass stalks
1 ½ tsp. Vietnamese fish sauce
1 ½ limes
1 tsp. palm sugar, raw sugar, or brown sugar
½ tsp. Kosher salt
¼ cup vegetable oil

Pour hot water over Kaffir limes or leave and let sit for 10 minutes to rehydrate. 
Peel shallots and thinly slice crosswise.  Peel garlic and finely chop.  Discard stems on chilies and finely mince. Using the blunt edge of a chef’s knife, whack the lemongrass along the length of the stalk to bruise.  Remove tough outer layer.  Thinly slice white part of the lemongrass.  Finely mince the slices.  Into a large bowl mixt shallots, garlic, chilies, and lemongrass along with fish sauce, the juice of 1.5 limes, sugar, and salt. If using dried kaffir lime leaves, remove the woody spine then finely mince remaining leaves and add to the bowl.  If using dried slices, finely mince the whole slice and add to the bowl.  Stir in vegetable oil and gently mix the shallots with the rest of the ingredients so everything is well coated and evenly distributed.  Let the mixture sit for at least a half hour before using.  Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a week.

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

You Know What they Say About a Bad Apple

I spend a lot of time thinking about the nature of good service.  Probably too much time (thank you, degree in hospitality administration). 

What makes someone empathetic when serving other people?  Is it something you are born with, some sort of hospitality gene?  Or is it all nurture, a childhood environment that taught the importance of caring for the needs of others?  Or can it be learned as an adult?  Is it all just acting, training your facial expressions to appear genuine and helpful when underneath you want to kill the annoying customer with their annoying questions standing in front of you?

We all must put on a good face from time to time even when we don’t want to provide good service.  But I’ve always felt it is pretty easy to tell when someone is going through the motions.  Even though the service is technically good, as a customer, sometimes I cannot shake the feeling of disingenuousness (Singapore to Doha crew on Qatar Airlines, I’m talking about you).  Then there are the people who seem to really care even about the mundane, who, for example, go out of their way to make sure your water glass is always full without ever intruding on your personal space (Doha to JFK crew on Qatar Airlines, many thanks for the exceptional service).  It’s a difference that is hard to describe, but you know the look in the face, the subtle actions.  It’s a level of service that divides the good from the great experiences. 

Then there are the proverbial bad apples, the single individual who so detests her job that she threatens to undo a business and all the hard work put in by colleagues by treating customers with an attitude that borders on contempt.  Such was case last weekend, when a female server rained down a torrent of sharp glares, rolling eyes and snide remarks on our table during a quiet dinner out with friends in New York’s Upper East Side.

The Bad Apple, a pretty girl looking to be in her early twenties with a light Eastern European accent, turned sour on our four top within minutes of being seated at this modest Turkish restaurant.  She demanded a wine order from us, insisting that buying the bottle was a better deal than ordering by the glass (could she have been any more obvious in her ploy for an upsell?).  She hovered, fast-talking us into a decision before John finally sent her away.  “No we don’t want your wine suggestions.”  Her wide eyes suggested we might have been the first people to voice our lack of appreciation for her hard sell. 

We ultimately selected the single bottle of Bordeaux on the list.  Bad Apple brought the bottle to our table and promptly drained it into our four glasses, not even pausing to so much as let us look at the label.  We had to sip carefully lest our precariously full glasses slosh over the edge. 

Attempting to order entrees at the completely normal New-York-Saturday-night-dinner-hour of 10:15 pm, we were informed that the kebab dishes had been sold out for hours.  “What do you expect?”  Our waitress replied to our astonished reaction.  “It is a Saturday night, you should have come here earlier.” 

Considering that these two dishes made up 50% of their entrée selection I asked what I thought was a reasonable question, “Don’t you think that might have been nice to tell us when we sat down, 45 minutes ago?” 

“You should have known.  We are busy on Saturdays.”

I will admit, not everything about this restaurant was bad, including the service when we finally demanded a replacement server to free ourselves of the wrath of the Bad Apple.  And though the wine selection was abysmal, the food was mostly good including the much talked about sesame studded flat bread, dolmades filled with cinnamon laced ground beef, and sweet and juicy grilled swordfish.

If there were a secret formula to good service, there would be a lot more successful hospitality professionals out there and a lot more satisfied customers.  But alas, there is not.  Some people seem born with it, others learn by example, some just fake it, and occasionally there is a bad apple that you can only hope a certain restaurant owner knows to get rid of before she spoils the whole barrel. 

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

Friday, January 20, 2012

Fishing for Truth in Balinese Cuisine

Tilapia from Lake Batur, Bali

 Prior to a big trip, you can usually find me curled up in a chair intensely studying a guidebook on my destination.  I like to know what I’m getting into.  Seemingly unimportant things, for instance that the population of Namibia is 80% devoutly Christian, can prove useful at some point, say when a corrupt cop is trying to trap you into paying a bribe for a made up traffic violation and you appeal to his Christian sense of forgiveness when assuring him that you “are only human, God knows we make mistakes and we can only ask to be forgiven.”[1]  When the factoids help get me out of trouble, I’m glad I studied up.

This past trip to Bali I did some guidebook reading, to understand the layout of the island and also how the culture there would differ from Java, where we had been last summer. I was surprised to read a line on cuisine asserting that fishing is not a traditional part of Balinese culture and thus fish not a part of the local diet.  Historically, this text claimed, Balinese have viewed the ocean as unclean and have preferred land animals, like duck and pig, to the gifts of the sea.  If this were true, it would be the first island I’ve been to where an abundant source of food available right out a people’s door is not used.

It was true we did not see many fishing boats during our two weeks, save for a few mid sized vessels off the coast of Candidasa, but we ate fish nearly everyday.  Given that the fish was listed as local, someone was fishing.  Mackerel in curry, local tuna cooked in banana leaf, and mixed seafood satay; when it came to eating, fish was everywhere.

Young Fishermen in Pekutatan
It would be possible to conclude that demand for fish has evolved from tourists, the source of 80% of Bali’s economy.  But a trip to Lake Batur had me questioning that assumption.  The lake rests at the eastern slope of Mt. Batur, Bali’s only still active volcano.  Three hundred feet deep at the center, the lake was formed from the collapse of what was once a much larger mountain.  Now the lake and rich volcanic earth feed an active agriculture business in the caldera.  The lake also supports tilapia, a thriving business for some locals, including our hiking guide who supplements his guide income with a small fish farm. For two meals during that visit we dined on "lakefish", tilapia deep fried and smothered in Balinese sambal.

Wrapping up our trip on the west coast of the island, we stayed near a small town, Pekutatan, a Balinese fishing village.  At sunset on this deserted strip of black sand beach it appeared that fishing was exclusively traditional.  No boats patrolled the coastline just solo fisherman untangling nets in the setting sun and fathers with fishing poles, thigh deep in the tide side by side with their sons. At dusk the small boys were sent in with the days’ catch, a dozen fish for each set of small hands, and I imagined a mother waiting at home to cook up a fresh fish dinner.   
Guidebooks can be invaluable for basic information, but hotel listings change, restaurants come and go, and sometimes the local people change too.  There may have been a time where fishing was not a part of Bali’s culture or economy, but it is now.  And judging by the tasty results, that’s one guidebook claim I was happy proved wrong.

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

[1] This actually happened less than one hour into our two-week road trip in Namibia.  John’s expert use of that factoid got our “fine” reduced to US$20.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Beyond the Book: Ubud, Bali

Spanish Mackerel with Yellow Curry and Fern Tips at Batan Waru

 I had heard many great things about Ubud, the artistic heart of Bali.  And then I saw one thing that scared me: a very long trailer of Julia Roberts biking through unnaturally green terraced rice paddies as the lead character in Eat, Pray, Love.  A popular book plus a Julia Roberts movie could only spell the eminent demise of anything vaguely authentic about a place. I could only hope I made it in time, before the city was entirely consumed by tourists.

John had been raving about Ubud as he had visited on several occasions, pre-blockbuster movie.  We settled into a villa at Pertiwi Resort, a charming hotel in the heart of town.  Walking to dinner that first night, we batted off several children and a few sad looking women begging for handouts.  John insisted it had never been like that, in the years he had been coming to Ubud he had never seen beggars.  This was not a good sign. 

But as our days continued, there was little else about which to complain.  Aside from the hoards of day-trippers coming to scoop up bargain souvenirs at the labyrinthine central market and feed the residents of the Monkey Forest, there was much to love about this town.  To begin with, we were able to load up on good wine for the duration of our trip at an excellent little store appropriately called “Wine Shop”.  (It is visible as you drive North into Ubud on Jalan Pengosekan about 200 meters before the sharp left onto Monkey Forest Road.)  There we found a decent collection of Australian wines, some costly French Bordeaux, and the lowest prices on liquor in the city.

Slow Roasted Goat at Ary's Warung
The best surprises came at dinner where beyond the Aussie bars with Dave Matthews cover bands, we discovered there is sophisticated dining to be had.  Ary’s Warung is the sort of restaurant that sticks out like a pair of Manolo Blahnik strappy sandals in a closet full of flip flops- it is just too sophisticated looking for its surroundings.  Maybe that’s why no one was there except for two or three tables the occasions we dined at Ary’s.  Too bad for everyone else, because the food is mostly exceptional.  Slow roasted goat in Indian spices, steamed duck Balinese style, beef cheeks Rendang- these are the sort of dishes that would cost a fortune at a trendy restaurant in the West, but here, no entrée was more than $15.

Noodles with Five Spice Chicken at Lamak
Another favorite, and equally empty restaurant: Lamak on Monkey Forest Road.  You can hardly tell Lamak exists from the street, but inside the room opens up to reveal two floors of spacious, comfortable tables with open walls looking out onto the surrounding foliage.  The female chef is doing refined versions of Indonesian food like Mie Goreng with five-spice chicken at lunch and a dinner menu that spans the globe for inspiration.  Our best dishes included a smoked tea infused duck broth with duck tortellini and a coconut laced opaka ceviche to start, and a plate of butterfish medallions surrounded by a riot of flavors from crispy lentil patties to sweet tomato chutney. 

Pepes Ikan, Fish in Banana Leaf, at Batan Waru
For more everyday eating we frequented the busy Kafe Batan Waru.  Indonesian and Balinese classics are clearly crowd pleasers and they do them well.  Extra sambal is necessary as they dumb down the spice a bit, no doubt to suit most Western palettes. But on request, the staff kindly brings out a plate of sambals with three levels of hotness from which to choose.  Some of my favorite dishes here were specials, like the Spanish Mackerel in Yellow Curry Sauce with fern tips.  A bit much for lunch but somehow I found room. 

Oh yes, and for the art lovers there’s plenty of that in the galleries scattered around town.  For traditional dance and music there is at least one show a night going on somewhere.  And for those who are chasing a more holistic than hedonist experience, there are more than enough organic cafes and yoga clothing stores for that set too.  For people who like to straddle the worlds of indulgent eating and healthy living like my boyfriend and I, there’s daily yoga classes at Taksu Spa open to all levels and even a decent gym, Ubud Fitness Club, where for $5 you can cram in some reps before heading back to Batan Waru for a lunch of fish steamed in banana leaf and a watermelon juice. 

There may now be occasional beggars, and I’m sure that many yoga shops did not exist five years ago, but Ubud is a surprisingly charming place with a level of sophistication mixed with tradition that should appeal to many kinds of people.  It certainly appealed to us- we liked it so much the first time we came back again a week later. 

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A "Passion" For Balinese Fruit

Passion Fruit 

It is fruit season in Indonesia.  Or at least that is what the hotel employees tell us as we bat flies away left and right while trying to have a quiet lunch outdoors.  The flies may bother me, but it is a small price to pay for eating Bali’s wealth of tropical fruits in their peak season.

I have always gorged on papaya when traveling in South East Asia but this trip I have been drawn to even more exotic fruit.  Spikey, gooey, pulpy, I can’t get enough of the abundance of weird tropical fruits in this part of the world.

Driving through central Bali, it is hard not to notice the abundance of the region.  Lining the roads through the vibrant green terraced rice paddies, fruit trees hang heavy with durian the size of dinosaur eggs while bamboo big enough to be a giant’s straw stands at attention.

In a place this enchanting, it is no wonder some of my favorite fruits are the strangest looking.  The custardy filling of a durian with the stink of gorgonzola is not one of my favorites.  But for every durian that are even more baby bananas, mangosteen, passion fruit, and rambutan.

Rambutan when removed of its husk is often mistaken for the more common lychee. Both have milky sweet fruit flesh surrounding a hard brown pit.  But it is the skin of the rambutan that makes it special.  Brilliant red and covered in soft, hairy spikes, it looks not of this world.

Passion fruit, my latest obsession, is quite the opposite of rambutan in looks.  From the outside, it appears not so much different than a smooth, unripe orange.  The skin, though hard, is quite thin.  Once pierced with a butter knife, or thumbnail, the shell easily gives way.  But I tear gently in two so as not to disturb the prize inside.

Beneath the shell is a treasure of gooey pale yellow translucent fruit bundled together against the foam interior walls.  Inside each pea sized pod is suspended a miniature brown seed, crunchy and edible.  These little blobs then attach to each other, a mass of alien eyes. 

I spoon out the pulp or, if I’m feeling particularly greedy, I gently prod the seeds to release them from the skin, tilt my head back, and let the fruit slide right into my watering mouth.  Sweet, tart, crunchy, silky- passion fruit seeds are a taste experience quite unlike any other.

Passion fruit are becoming easier to find in the US at stores that stock a special section for exotic produce.  When I’m not in a tropical climate, it is nice to give the fruit a little more attention worthy of its overseas journey than a simple “cut and slurp”. 

At a hotel I was recently given a dish of sorbet, topped with passion fruit seeds and ginger beer served in a martini glass.  At home this would be a simple, unusual dessert for a dinner party- store bought sorbet in lemon or orange, half a passion fruit per person, and some good ginger beer.  A cannot imagine a more elegant presentation to show off those delectable little seeds. Then again, classy or not, eating them straight from the shell is pretty delicious too.

Passion Fruit Ginger Beer “Martini”
Serves: 6

1 pint lemon sorbet
3 passion fruit
1 ½ cup ginger beer
Mint leaves for garnish

Place a scoop of sorbet in each of six chilled martini glasses.  Remove the seeds from the passion fruit.  Divide up among glasses on top of the sorbet.  Top each glass with a couple of ounces of ginger beer each.  Garnish with mint leaves.  Serve immediately. 

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

Monday, January 9, 2012

Better Bebek: A Taste of Balinese Duck

Bebek Pelalah at Bebek Bengil, Nusa Dua

 Ever since I first learned to cook the perfect seared duck breast at cooking school, I’ve been hooked.  Skin scored in a cross hatch, cooked low and slow until the fat renders, the skin dark caramel and crisp, and the breast the dusty rose of medium rare.  Sliced thin on a diagonal with little more than maybe a slick of jus or vinegar spiked gastrique, it is a hard dish to improve upon. 

At least, it seemed hard to improve upon until I tasted my first Balinese duck.

In the last nine days in Bali I have eaten duck at no fewer than five meals, each occasion no less interesting and often more delicious than the last. 

It helps to start with an excellent product.  Balinese duck, or bebek, is smaller than what we are used to finding in the West with a noticeably lower fat layer- presumably ducks don’t need so much insulation in tropical climes- and an intensely meaty flavor that is rich without tasting gamey.

The restaurant turning out one of the best examples of this local specialty and winner for most creative restaurant name: Bebek Bengil.  The translation, Dirty Duck, has no relation to the sanitation at the restaurant that, at the Nusa Dua location, was a bright, airy pavilion with comfortable low tables and piles of cushions-  ideal for eating cross-legged on the floor while watching the surf. 

Bebek "Betutu" at Ary's Warung, Ubud
Bebek Bengil deep fries its ducks, sold by the half, and serves them with an array of spicy sambal and rice.  But it was the Bebek Pelalah that blew me away on a later visit.  Fried like its plain counterpart, this half duck comes artfully displayed, breast and wing stacked up against the leg portion, and covered in a traditional Balinese sauce of stewed tomatoes, chilies, and spices.  It has all the textural appeal of the plain fried duck with a deep and nuanced sauce so addictive I continued to lick the bones long after the last shreds of duck meat had disappeared.   

Fried is not the only technique the Balinese employ in preparing duck.  At Ary’s Warung in Ubud, duck leg and breast had been long simmered in a broth redolent of the local spices- nutmeg, cloves, chilies, black pepper- in an homage to the island’s famous whole steamed duck betutu.  The textural affect was the opposite of the fried duck- all the flavor of the other in the meat but so tender it melted on the tongue. 

The strange thing I realize now, that for all the duck I’ve eaten this trip, I have yet to see one running wild.  Perhaps the heavy rains of the past week have kept them away from the terraced rice paddies where I’m told they like to hang out. Wherever they are, I am sure they’re enjoying the idyllic free-range life because who, man or beast, could not live well in paradise?  And judging by the consistently tasty results, these Balinese ducks have a very good, very delicious life, all the way to the end.

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

Friday, January 6, 2012

What a Difference an Oven Makes: Tony’s Pizza Napoletana

Tony's Pizza Napoletana, San Francisco

They serve 10 styles of pizza cooked in gas, coal, electric or a 900-degree wood fired oven.  But if you want to eat the famous Margherita Pizza at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco, you better get there early.  Tony’s only makes 73 of this pizza each day.  As the 2007 winner of the World Pizza Cup in Naples, Italy, it goes to reason that this is one popular pie. 

It behooves one to get to Tony’s at an early hour for more than just the famous Margherita Pizza.  It is one of those rare restaurants with rock star status- everyone wants to be in Tony’s aura and they are willing to wait a long time during peak hours just to get a glimpse of what makes this pizza as legendary as it is.

On a recent holiday trip through San Francisco I endeavored to introduce John to Tony’s.  Although not quite experts, John and I have eaten more than our share of pizza around San Francisco- A16, De La Rosa-, New York- Otto, Bleecker Street Pizza-, and LA- Mozza, Gjelina-, to know a good pizza when we taste one. 

I had eaten at Tony’s several times always with groups large enough to justify the order of at least three different pizzas all done in different cooking methods.  Our waiter was a bit skeptical when I ordered two pizzas for just John and myself.  “Have you dined with us before?”  He asked, eyebrows conspicuously raised. 

I confirmed, yes, we were ordering two pizzas.  John had to understand what a difference an oven makes.

Our late dining hour meant the crowds had gone but so had the award winning Margherita.  In its place was a pizza with the exact same toppings but made with caputo flour instead of the San Felice flour of the limited edition pizza.  We ordered one of those, cooked in the wood fired oven, along Diavola Con Rucola done in the “Classic Italian” 650 degree gas oven. 

The Margherita was as I remembered: sweet sauce made of San Marzano tomatoes, sea salt, creamy mozzarella, extra virgin olive oil.  The crust was perfectly browned, nicely chewy on the edges, thin and crisp under the toppings.  John looked happy.

Then came the Diavolo.  The coal oven seems to produce a thinner, crispier crust than the wood oven, with a denser edge.  This was well suited to the pile of toppings- spicy sopressata, mozzarella, parmesan, topped with a scattering of arugula and drizzled in hot red pepper oil.  John’s face changed with one bite.  “The Margherita was like drinking a fine pinot noir. Now this,” pointed to the Diavolo, “is like moving onto a well aged Napa Cab.” 

I couldn’t have put it better myself.  Whether Tony’s makes the best pizza in the world or even the best pizza in San Francisco is up for debate (2007 was several years ago after all).  But it is the only place I can think of where you can do a virtual vertical of pizza, sampling your way through the icons of the pizza world from Italy to Detroit.  At the near toddler age of two and a half years old, one can only hope that like a fine wine, Tony’s Pizza Napoletana keeps getting better with age. 

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Ghost of Christmas Goose Past

Peking Duck from New Moon Cafe, San Francisco
Many years ago my parents called me from California just days before I was to return home from New York for the holidays, to ask if I could help procure a goose.  Apparently my then teenage brother had been reading a bit of Dickens that year and got it in his head that a proper Christmas dinner was not the ham our family ate every year on December 25th but rather, a goose. 

Days before Christmas a goose was not going to be possible.  Should I find one in New York on short notice, I couldn’t exactly tote it home in my suitcase.  And there was zero chance of sourcing one in my dusty desert hometown in Southern California. 

But it was that call that nonetheless started a yearly mission to outdo ourselves in the category of Christmas dinner year after year.  The next year I was able to get a goose.  A meal that each member of our family enjoyed except for the boy who’d asked for it.  The years that followed would produce majestic standing rib roasts, racks of venison, and duck done two ways- confit legs paired with seared rare breast. 

Peppercorn Crusted Ahi
It turns out to be rather exhausting to come up with a completely new menu each year that will surprise, and please, every member in a growing family of relatives and significant others.

Per a special request, last year I revisited Duck Two Ways and this year brought back the standing rib roast- weighing in at 16.6 pounds, the single largest piece of beef I have ever cooked. 

But just because the main courses are now settling into a rotation of greatest hits does not mean the holiday is free from invention.  For Christmas at my grandfather's house in Sonoma this year, we started off the weekend with a light but filling seafood chowder and a tray of peppercorn crusted ahi on spinach salad.  Because it was the holidays, I went the extra mile to make the seafood stock from scratch with Dungeness crab shells leftover from the previous night’s dinner.  It wasn’t exactly a feast of seven fishes but in taste and flavor it was a welcome departure from the heavier meals to come. 

Me carving the Standing Rib Roast
In case anyone was missing duck, for midday noshing John and I brought a couple of Peking ducks up with us to Sonoma from New Moon Café in San Francisco’s Chinatown.  A large step up from a grocery store rotisserie chicken and it sure beat the two-week process of making my own duck confit. 

Potato gratin and Brussels sprouts were far from inventive sides for the beef at Christmas dinner, but we changed things up a bit from our normal routine with a spicy butternut squash and apple soup to start.  And for dessert, pecan pie turned extra decadent with a layer of bittersweet chocolate on the bottom.

Even day-after leftovers where not relegated to ordinary.  As most of my family lounged in front of a football game on TV Monday evening, reviving foggy heads from a day of wine and beer tasting, John and I whipped up something just a little new.  He worked his magic with sweet potatoes, impressing all with his crispy orange cubes roasted with garlic and rosemary, and I made up several trays of crunchy baked kale. 

Chocolate Pecan Pie
The boy with the Dickensian dreams of a Christmas goose is not so young anymore- he is now my tall and lanky, knife-wielding sidekick in the kitchen, working beside me each year to turn out Christmas dinner on time.  Where the goose may not have lived up to his fantasies, he proved yet again to inspire enthusiasm for new entrants to our family’s world of holiday food.  “Amy, this has changed my life,” he said to me, eyes wide with passion.  Was it the standing rib roast of which he spoke?  Or maybe the chocolate pecan pie?  No, my brother’s life-changing moment this year was, drum roll please, the baked kale we served alongside the reheated beef the day after Christmas.  Perhaps a new tradition is born. 

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell