Throw Your Nuts
It's time to think about what holiday traditions you'll adopt.
Thursday, November 25, 1999
It was a Czechoslovakian Christmas blessing, but now all anybody can remember is that the first part sounded like "kuti, kuti." Once, in a very different life within this same lifetime, my then-father-in-law, Frank, would stand at the head of the table on Christmas Eve and say the holiday blessing for health and prosperity. My then-mother-in-law, Esther, would get everyone''s attention by saying something like, "Shush! Frank''s getting ready to throw his nuts!"
We would all laugh on cue, just like all the other Christmas Eves past. I would elbow my then-husband who would be making a not-very-sly attempt at a preliminary slurp of wild mushroom soup, and Frank would toss an unshelled walnut into each corner of the room where they would remain for the whole year, signifying lasting health and posterity on all the souls residing within. >"Nazdrevya!" we would toast, raising our glasses and laying into the soup that wafted the scent of damp, leaf-fallen woods, rich cream and brandy.
For years, some faithful cousin from Prague would harvest and dry the mushrooms, sending them off to a distant family in a strange land, unseen. When they stopped coming one year, Esther and I began a new tradition. The domestic ones we sliced and laid out on screens to dry didn''t have the same intense flavor, but posterity was at stake. The next year we dried more, for more flavor. We added more brandy, less cream. Then more cream, less brandy. At its best, our fine-tuned America-nized version still came in a close second.
The important thing was that the soup tradition stayed. We keep the things we can, I suppose, and relinquish the rest. I still make Esther''s mushroom soup this time of year, taking advantage of the good-quality, dried wild mushrooms that I can buy right off the shelf. And I''ll probably bring home a bottle of the Rock and Rye that Frank loved, and raise a toast to him, remembering him in those days when he radiated the health that his Christmas blessing seemed to insure in us.
Maintaining culinary traditions (even if they''re borrowed) in an intrinsic responsibility during this season rather than a birthright--and one of the defining ways that every culture is passed on. Sunday, Dec. 5, marks the seventh year that Claudia and Evwin Moritz will throw their annual St. Nicholas Celebration at Stammtisch Restaurant in Seaside. "It''s an old-fashioned family-style party," explains Claudia, "with Santa Claus handing out presents for the kids, and children under eight eating for free." Roast goose with homemade dumplings and red cabbage co-star opposite Santa in this traditional German three-course spread. It''s a deal at $29.50, with one seating at 5pm, by reservation. It''s the exact same menu that the Moritz''s enjoy at home on Christmas Day--usually with a glass of gluehwein, the hot, spiced red wine that tends to get everyone in the Christmas spirit.
Over at the French Poodle in Carmel, chef and owner Richard Zoellin designates this time of year as the season of caneton a l''orange, the classic roast-duck dish that is one of the most requested items at the Poodle''s holiday parties. He says caramelizing sugar to the stage that''s called "black jack," almost to the point where it becomes bitter (and just before dousing it with vinegar), is what gives the sauce its unmistakable piquant flavor. All it wants is a perfectly roasted duck to go with it, and when the last order goes out, a glass of ''66 Pomerol Bordeaux--Zoellin''s present to himself.
If you love cioppino, it''s a good time of year to be Italian. They don''t just have it on their menu at Tutto Buono, the Spadaro sisters put on a pot for all the family and friends on Christmas Eve. "We always have seafood on Christmas Eve," says Michelle, "it''s a tradition. And Christmas Day is usually a leg of lamb or veal osso bucco." To drink? Plenty of red wine, grappa and al Verna, a licorice-y liqueur.
In case you can''t decide what culinary tradition you might want to sport this season, there''s always International Deli in New Monterey. Alex and Donna Keremian''s place is a magical mystery tour of edible earthly delights when you''re feeling culinarily unimpressed. Feta fiends can choose their cheese from Greece, Bulgaria, France or Cyprus. Russian sausages like Kabanosa and Krakowska are piled up behind the deli counter, along with smoked sturgeon, salmon and seabass. And Scandinavians have been known to storm the place this time of year, too, making a beeline for herring.
What the heck? Why not make it a multicultural smorgy, and take some of everything? Throw some walnuts around! Nazdrevya!