If this holiday season is any indication, we’re beginning to see a backlash in values brought on by the worsening economy. People everywhere are simplifying, getting together and willing public celebrations into being as an antidote to the collective breath-holding pending the transition of power in Washington and all of its perilous promise.
Our family’s holiday has been almost embarrassingly Frank Capra-esque. It began at our friend Ted Boerner’s house in San Francisco on 20 December, where we met a small group of friends for cocoa and tomales before joining the Unsilent Night procession through the back streets and alleyways of the Mission District. The next night we attended a solstice party at Cindy Daniel’s farm in Healdsburg, where we were entertained by live Klezmer music while we munched latkes, smoked salmon, white fish, bitter herbs and rugulah and sipped champagne over a boisterous din. The party peaked at the launching of dozens of multi-colored, paper air balloons fueled by paraffin fires, whose fading glow we collectively watched fade into the upper atmosphere. It all felt like the ending of an era, and a poignant touchstone for the uncertainty ahead.
We spent the next evening in the banquet room of the Union Hotel in our home town of Occidental, singing carols and munching free cookies generously supplied by the Gonella family. For 25 years, the Gonellas have hosted a night of cookies and carols at their family-owned/operated restaurant, and the banquet room jams full of local families, with many college kids home for the holidays unselfconsciously singing alongside toddlers and elders, local characters, familiar faces and newcomers like us.
This time of year in West Sonoma the Dungeness crabs are practically dropping from the sky, so we made a huge batch of bisque for our Christmas dinner with Ene’s family in anticipation of a need for lighter fare after the traditional Estonian feast on Christmas Eve. Among my favorite meals, Christmas Eve dinner begins with a cold plate of assorted herring, dense brown bread and ice cold vodka. The second course features roast pork with potatoes, verhiworst (blood sausage), sour kraut and lingonberries, washed down with a melange of beer and ginger ale. After exchanging a few gifts among family we settle down to a dessert of ‘fruit compote’ with fresh cream and coffee.
Clean and remove the meat from 4 pre-cooked Dungeness crabs. Set the meat aside. Rinse the cracked shells in fresh water, and boil them slowly in salted water with a teaspoon of whole peppercorns and 3 or 4 fresh bay leaves, about one hour, to make a stock.
In a Dutch oven or heavy saucepan, slowly saute one large onion, finely chopped, in 2-3 tablespoons of butter, stirring in about 1/3 cup minced fresh cilantro when the onions soften. When the mixture liquefies, mix in the crab meat and then add 2-3 tablespoons flour, toasting the mixture over a slightly higher heat. Slowly add the strained crabstock, stirring to maintain an even consistency. Reduce heat and simmer the bisque, slowly adding cream and seasonings until just right. Serve immediately, generously sprinkled with cayenne flakes or chili powder. Serves 8-12 depending upon appetite and generosity.
Option: add 1/2 cup sherry or dry white wine before flour, especially if cilantro is substituted with parsley. Having made gallons and gallons of more traditional bisques and chowders in my youth, I prefer cilantro for its brighter, latin/asian nuance. I did not want to complicate the cilantro-infused flavor with sherry, but next time may try plum wine. Suggestions?