An Unplanned Holiday Meal

I know this is really late enough to be embarrassing, but I really wanted to share our Christmas Eve dinner with all of you, mostly because I pulled this one out of my hat all by myself and with basically no advanced preparation. Believe it or not, it is entirely possible to make a delicious and impressive holiday meal more or less on the fly.

See, when we did our meal planning for Christmas week, we did so with Christmas Day’s shenanigans in mind but completely forgot about Christmas Eve until AFTER we’d done all of our grocery shopping. I think that J would have been fine with just eating one of our planned meals that evening, but I simply could not allow Christmas Eve to go by without something special on the menu. Luckily, my job gives me a lot of time off around the holidays and I knew that I would be home all day Christmas Eve, giving me plenty of time to plan the meal, make a grocery store run, and cook.

I spent most of my free time on Monday and Tuesday thinking about it. I knew I wanted ham, because that just screams Christmas to me, but I also knew that I didn’t want to just buy a ham and bake it. Baked, glazed, spiral-sliced ham is probably one of the most delicious food inventions I can think of, but I wanted to do something different. Something creative. Something a bit more sophisticated. I had the time, I thought, so why not use it to my advantage and experiment a bit? Of course, I also didn’t want an entire spiral-sliced ham sitting in the freezer afterwards, because after all, there’s only two of us.

I knew I had some puff pastry shells sitting in the freezer, and for some reason that stuck in my mind. I suspect it was partly because I’d seen Ina Garten make a simple appetizer of deli ham and swiss folded up in a sheet of puff pastry on her show over the previous weekend, and I just couldn’t stop thinking about how deliciously easy that would be. I wasn’t quite satisfied with repeating that idea, though the pastry component kept knocking around my head.

Similarly, I got myself latched onto the ham and pineapple combination, which is nothing new for sure but is definitely always delicious. I had several thoughts on that – ham and pineapple skewers, perhaps, brushed with a sweet chili glaze and broiled until caramelized and crunchy on the outside. Or ham steaks dusted with cinnamon and ancho and pan-seared, topped with sweet and sour pineapple chutney. Or maybe a riff on Ina’s dish, adding thin-sliced pineapple rings to the ham and cheese puff pastry filling, somewhat reminiscent of Hawaiian pizza. Nah, none of that really rang true either.

At the same time I was considering sides. I still had some kale leftover from the farro salad a few days before, and some prima donna cheese, and thought that the addition of a potato would make a pretty fantastic gratin. And of course, once potatoes came onto the playing field, there were ideas for her-roasted potatoes and mashers and croquettes to contend with. Even sweet potatoes starting kicking around in my head, vying for attention, crying about how a chipotle-lime sweet potato mash would be a killer pairing with that ham steak idea, or how some sweet potato steak fries would be easy to make if I already had the oven/broiler on for those skewers. And then there were green veggies options – sauteed spinach, salads, green beans, broccoli. About the only side I was sure of from the get-go was my mom’s orange and maple glazed carrots, because I love them dearly and feel no Christmas season is complete if I haven’t had them at least once.

So, Christmas Eve arrived, and there I was with two days-worth ideas for mains and sides and not a single, satisfying, cohesive menu among them.

That morning I sat down with some paper and a pencil and wrote out all of the ideas that I’d narrowed down from the masses, and started drawing lines and sketching permutations, exploring the potential of each possibility. And an hour or so later, after a bit of brainstorming and a new main dish on the menu, I was off to the store with shopping list in hand and a meal planned that was simple, festive, creative, and (I hoped) delicious.

And so it was.

Sauteed Ham and Pineapple w/Black Pepper-Brown Sugar Glaze
in Puff Pastry

Maple-Orange Glazed Carrots

Simply-Dressed Arugula Salad
(red wine vinegar, good extra virgin olive oil, dijon, minced chives, salt and pepper)

Potato and Young Kale Gratin
with Prima Donna and Fresh Chive

The meal may have tasted fantastic, but the most rewarding part was sitting down on Christmas Eve with the man that I love, and enjoying a meal that I’d put together from the ground up with all the love and joy of the season as the secret ingredient.

I hope that you all had a wonderful holiday season, and I have nothing but high hopes and good wishes for all of us in the year to come.

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