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It’s the week before Christmas and chances are good that most people are just thisclose to either exploding or imploding, whichever comes first.  The sheer amount of nonsense and self-imposed misery people are willing to accept is mind-boggling – but we’re not here to talk about that.


Well, yeah. My blog. I CAN talk about that. I sometimes think I might implode myself if I hear one more person whinging about the commercialization of Christmas as they head out the door to shop for more presents for little Esmeralda and little Heathcliff – well, pull up your big girl/boy panties and accept responsibility for your part in that commercialization. “They EXPECT presents/ my mother-in-law will judge me/I don’t want to be Scrooge” – oh, put a sock in it. No one HAS to be out there in the mall. If you really feel that way, declare your home a commercial-free zone. Little kiddies WILL get over your giftlessness. If your MIL has a cow, tell her to give it lots of hay and milk it every morning.

The worst Christmas I ever had – and I’ve had some bad ones – I had to return a present to the store because the intended recipient died before I could give it to him. If you want to give presents, don’t think that Christmas is the only acceptable time. You see just the right veeblefetzer that Aunt Hilda would love, but it’s only April? Get it and hand it over. Aunt Hilda may not make it to December.

Where were we? Oh. Yeah. Meat and potatoes.

Among the many headaches at this time of year is the need to feed a lot of people. You’ve already had spaghetti and lasagna and take-out and bags of lettuce with bottled dressing; now you need to come up with something a little more festive but also substantial. This dish works on all those accounts. And it can be prepped ahead and left in the refrigerator until time to roast it.

I saw a friend make a roast this way, the meat balanced on top of new potatoes, and I marveled at its simplicity. The seasoning idea came from an episode of Man, Fire, Food on The Cooking Channel. Roger Mooking visited Rancho Llano Seco, which is about 70 miles south of here, where they prepared an amazing porchetta roast on a rotisserie, allowing the pork fat to drip down onto oysters. The thought makes me salivate.

For this dish I used a boneless pork roast just under 5 pounds – not a tenderloin. Ask to be certain that the pork roast you choose is ideal for the dry heat of an oven; some cuts are better suited to braising in a crock pot. To fill the 8″ X 11″ baking dish took about four pounds of potatoes. You don’t have to use pork – you could do a whole chicken, leg of lamb, or beef roast, though because they don’t take as long to cook, you’d want to start the pan of potatoes in the oven about 45 minutes before putting the meat on top.

You’ll need kitchen string and a meat thermometer.


  • 1 boneless pork roast, 5-6 pounds
  • 4 pounds new potatoes (use a thin-skinned type such as Red Bliss, White Rose or Yellow Finn; Russets or other baking-type potatoes will fall apart)
  • 2 heads of garlic, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons whole fennel seed
  • 1 teaspoon hot pepper flakes (the type you get in pizza parlors)
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • Broth or stock

Put the fennel seed in a small dry frying pan over medium-high heat. Shake the pan every few seconds until the seeds begin to lightly brown, pop, and smell fragrant. When they are lightly toasted, remove them immediately. if you have a mortar and pestle, pound them in that; if not, use a spice grinder. If you don’t have either one, put the seeds in a sturdy plastic bag and whack them with a hammer to break them up.

Wash and thinly slice the potatoes. Stand them on edge in a baking dish large enough to put the roast on top of the potatoes and not have any hanging over the sides.


Distribute plenty of chopped garlic throughout the potatoes; sprinkle lightly with salt and generously with freshly ground pepper. If you want, you can add another herb or two – thyme, rosemary, oregano, etc.

Unwrap the pork roast. This one was tied with string to keep it from flopping around. Snip and remove the string. DO NOT REMOVE THE FAT ON TOP! If the pork rind is still intact, leave it on too!


The boneless roast should have a flap where the bones were removed. Pull it open, so that you have a long somewhat flat roast; if necessary cut an opening so you can unfold it like opening a book.

Sprinkle the cut side with the toasted ground fennel, lots of chopped garlic, the teaspoon of hot pepper flakes, and salt and pepper.


Put a hand under each end of the flattened-out pork and carefully snap the roast back together, fat side up.

If there is a rind (skin) on the roast, score it lightly with a knife.

Cut four lengths of kitchen string long enough to go around the pork cross-wise, and two pieces to go around it length-wise. Slide the cross-wise lengths under the roast, spacing them apart, and one by one tie them tightly. Then slide the length-wise strings under the pork package and tie those. Snip off excess string.

Pour stock into the pan to about 1/2″ deep. (You can see some jellied stock on the left side of the roast here.) Put the porchetta package on top, fat/rind side up. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.


At this point, you can put the whole thing in the refrigerator as long as overnight. Bring it out about two hours before you want to roast it.

Here is a chart  from the National Pork Board detailing how long to cook pork. I usually figure about 25-30 minutes per pound at 325 Fahrenheit. This is where a meat thermometer comes in very handy.  I roasted this to 160F, then took it out of the oven and let it sit about 20 minutes, covered.


All roasts will continue to cook for a while; they will firm up and be much easier to slice if allowed to rest after removal from the oven.

Snip and pull the strings off. Slice the meat. If the roast has a rind, remove it, put it on a cookie sheet and run it under the broiler (watching CAREFULLY) to crisp it; slice it and put it on the platter with the meat.  Although the roast looks really spiffy on top of the potatoes, it is much, much easier to serve if you put the meat on a separate platter from the potatoes.



I think that you want a slightly sweet side dish like carrots, beets, applesauce, red cabbage, or parsnips alongside, as well as some sort of green like spinach, kale, or collards. This is a very rich dish; a big ol’ cheesecake for dessert would be too, TOO much. Some simple cookies and sorbet would be less overwhelming. And a big red wine or dark beer is appropriate.

Obviously the seasoning can be varied – one of those barbecue rubs that’s sitting around in your cupboard would work. A Mexican seasoning like toasted cumin seeds with garlic and oregano would be great, or a good curry mix. Google “dry barbecue rubs” and go wild. I particularly like the spice rubs suggested by Chris Schlesinger in Big Flavors of the Hot Sun.



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My apologies, if needed, go to Andrew Zimmern. You know him, the guy who will eat anything; if he doesn’t like it, you just know it’s got to be foul.  Anyway, a few months back I made his recipe for Grandmother’s Chinese Chicken Wings, and boy howdy were they good. I did have to tweak the directions a little in order to get them falling-apart tender, but other than that, the recipe is great. The original recipe is here at the Food Network website.

Last night we needed dinner that was easy and filling. My husband had been digging post holes; I had been mowing about 1/2 acre. We were both tired but didn’t want to get take-out. We already had leftover steamed rice and salad makings in the refrigerator – what to go with?  I dug around in the freezer and came up with a package of country-style spare ribs.

Not everyone is familiar with country-style pork ribs, or maybe they’re known by other names in other areas.

009   Country-style ribs are cut from the sirloin or rib end of the pork loin, which is a less exercised part of the pig – therefore, they are more tender than spareribs.  They are also much meatier and indeed, look like thick-cut narrow steaks. They lend themselves well to braising and are really delicious prepared with Asian seasonings. I thought with a little tweaking, Andrew Zimmern’s chicken wing sauce would be good on the ribs. I was right.

A few words on ingredients:

Mirin is an alcohol-based liquid made from rice and is used in Japanese cooking. At one time it was drunk like sake, but now is considered a condiment. Salt is often added to avoid the alcohol tax. It is available in Asian markets.


Sake is an alcoholic beverage made from rice; there are six zillion varieties available, but unless you live near a large Asian community you may be  able to only find a few.  It is thought of as rice wine,  but it is actually brewed like beer (in winemaking, alcohol is produced via the fermentation of naturally-occurring sugars; in sake and beer, the sugar has to be converted from starch before it can ferment). Available in liquor stores and well-stocked supermarkets.


Oyster sauce is – duh – made from oysters. It is a thick brown salty sauce that has the smell and flavor of oysters. Don’t run off screaming. When cooked in a dish like this, it becomes much less assertive and if you didn’t know it was an ingredient,  you wouldn’t be able to tell. Since it does contain oyster extractives, it is not suitable for people with shellfish allergies. Available in Asian markets and well-stocked supermarkets.

006Star anise is the fruit of an evergreen tree from Asia; it is harvested green and dried. It has a strong anise scent and flavor; anise seed could be substituted for it.  Interesting note: star anise is the source of one of the main ingredients in the prescription drug Tamiflu. Available in Asian markets, spice shops, and well-stocked supermarkets, and possibly health food stores.


About soy sauce:

I use either Shoyu Low-Salt Soy Sauce or San-J Low-Salt  Tamari.  Soy sauce contains wheat; tamari does not (but check the label). For God’s sake, throw out the La Choy and get a decent brand of soy sauce. Asian markets have a good selection; at the very least, get some Kikkoman.

Grandmother’s Chinese Country-Style Pork Ribs

  • 4 to 6 country-style pork ribs, about 1/2 to 3/4 pound each
  • 1/3 cup sake
  • 1/3 cup soy sauce
  • 6 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 3 tablespoons mirin
  • 3 tablespoons oyster sauce
  • 6 large thin slices fresh ginger
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 2 cloves star anise
  • 1 dried hot chile or 1 teaspoon hot pepper flakes (pizza parlor type) – more if you want
  • 1 cinnamon stick (do not substitute powdered cinnamon)
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 2 carrots, sliced


  • Green onions/scallions
  • Fresh cilantro (coriander)
  • Sesame seeds

Heat heavy skillet or Dutch oven. When hot, add a little vegetable oil and then the ribs. Do not crowd the pan! If the meat is crowded in the pan, the meat will not brown and instead will steam. Do this in batches if necessary, removing meat as it is browned.



While ribs are cooking, combine all the sauce ingredients. Stir to dissolve brown sugar.

When all the ribs are browned, return all to the pan. Pour in the sauce and 1 cup water.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and cover, leaving lid slightly ajar so the sauce can begin to reduce.


Either cook on lowest heat on the stove, or put in a 300 degree oven and bake slowly until ribs are tender, 1 hour to 1 1/2 hours. Edit: a friend asked if this could be made by browning the ribs in an electric skillet, then braising in a crock pot. I don’t see why not. You’d have to reduce the sauce later in the skillet, but I think it would work well.

Prepare the garnishes: thinly slice three or four green onions (scallions). Chop 1/2 cup cilantro (coriander). Lightly toast 2 tablespoons sesame seeds by putting them in a small dry skillet over medium heat and shaking the skillet frequently until they begin to pop and turn brown. Remove them from the pan as soon as they are toasted.


When the ribs are tender, remove them to a serving dish and keep warm. Put the pot containing the sauce on the stove and turn to high heat, boiling the sauce to reduce it.  When the sauce has thickened, pour it over the ribs and then add the garnishes.


This sauce is very intense and rich, so accompaniments should be simple: steamed rice (or possibly mashed potatoes or polenta), steamed or grilled asparagus, sliced fruit like oranges or grapefruit, sauteed chard or spinach. Serve this with a ballsy red wine like a Zinfandel or Sangiovese – a big fruit-forward Cabernet Sauvignon would work too.


Christmas is when we gather up everything good in our life, all the warmth and the light and all the good memories, and draw it close and enjoy it as much as we are able to.  We gather up our children, make food, light the lights, sing the songs. We come as close as possible for as long as possible.  – Garrison Keillor, Now it is Christmas Again

I went grocery shopping Saturday morning at Winco. Normally it’s chaotic, loud, crowded. Saturday morning, it was subdued. But what I saw was this: people with their children, and they weren’t yelling at them. They were paying attention to them, talking with them instead of at them. A father helped his daughter – about seven years old – pick through a stack of jigsaw puzzles to help her find one with puppies. A mother wheeled her cart around with her small son riding in it, and they talked about what kind of cheese to buy. If there’s a good side to the horrors of Friday, maybe this was it.


Anyway. Recipes. Times like this call for comfort foods. No one turns to aspics and caviar when they’re experiencing the kinds of grief that we’ve had. What we want to eat: It has to be good, and filling, and you have to want it.

Here, then are two recipes that are variations on the same theme. They’re easy to make, budget-friendly, warming, filling, and can be varied according to what you have on hand. Nothing ground-breaking or earth-shattering here, but something just slightly out of the ordinary.

Pork chops are very often bargain-priced.  Recipes for Stuffed Pork Chops usually call for extra-thick-cut chops, but those are expensive! Instead, look for large “family-pack” trays of chops – those are usually thin-cut – and boneless, if possible (otherwise, just remove the bone at home with a sharp knife).

Stuffed Pork Chops

For each person you need two pork chops. Lay one chop in a baking dish and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Then cover that chop with about 1/3 to 1/2 cup stuffing. Lay the other chop on top of the stuffing. Toothpick the two chops together (or use wooden skewers, broken into smaller lengths). Sprinkle more salt and pepper on top. When you have as many stuffed chops as needed, pour a little liquid into the baking dish, cover the dish, and bake at 350 for 45 minutes.

Stuffing suggestions:

  • Dried fruit (apricots, raisins, dates, prunes, mangoes, etc.) chopped with some minced onion and diced cheese, and some bread cubes if you want
  • Canned green chiles and cheese
  • Cubed bread, chopped onion & celery, mixed with thyme & sage
  • Whole-berry cranberry sauce mixed with cheese cubes
  • Sauteed mushrooms
  • Chopped pears or apples mixed with cornbread cubes, chopped celery, chopped onion
  • Pineapple slices brushed with soy sauce
  • Sauteed & drained spinach with golden raisins

Vary the liquid added: broth, apple juice or other fruit juice, leftover gravy, tomato sauce, teriyaki sauce, etc.

This dish goes very well with baked cheesy cauliflower or broccoli, greens such as spinach, or baked sweet potatoes.

Stuffed Hamburgers

Same idea as the pork chops.  Ground beef is much cheaper if you can buy a large package, and you don’t need to buy the extra-lean.

Make two very thin patties for each person, seasoning each patty. Spread some delicious filling in the center of one patty, top with the other patty and crimp the edges. Broil or pan-fry (these tend to be a little delicate, so be careful transferring them in and out of the cooking vessel).

Suggested fillings:

  • Cheese, especially blue or feta
  • Sun-dried tomatoes
  • Sauteed mushrooms and onions
  • Sauteed bell pepper strips
  • Cooked and drained spinach
  • Green chiles and cheese
  • Sour cream & green chiles
  • Cream cheese and chopped olives
  • Diced avocado & chiles
  • Salsa (drained a little)

These are very good with the same accompaniments as for the stuffed pork chops.


Today is a rainy autumn day, and scrapple is a great breakfast or brunch dish for such a day – though it could easily be served for dinner as well. You make it in advance and refrigerate or freeze it, then fry it up to serve.

Scrapple is one of those dishes borne out of the “Use it upwear it outmake it do or do without ” ethic. Though versions of it date far, far back in time to pre-Roman Europe, as well as white pudding, black pudding, and hog’s pudding currently served in the UK, in the US we associate it with the Pennsylvania Dutch. Traditionally it was made at this time of year – hog-slaughtering time – along with its counterpart, head cheese (AKA brawn or souse). All of these dishes used the parts of the hog not used for anything else – boiling the carcass to remove small bits as well as the gelatin in the bones. (Before you make retching sounds,  let me just say that anyone who eats McDonald’s or hot dogs doesn’t have much room to complain.)

This version doesn’t require procuring an entire hog. You do need plain ground pork, which isn’t always readily displayed in the supermarket. If it’s labeled sausage, it’s been seasoned already, so get the unseasoned. Ground turkey or chicken would also work here.

Simple Scrapple

  • 1 pound ground pork
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 1 teaspoon powdered sage
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon thyme
  • 1/4 teaspoon rosemary
  • 1/4 teaspoon hot pepper flakes
  • 1 cup cornmeal or polenta (not corn flour)
  • 1 quart chicken broth

Start by cooking the pork and onions together in a wide frying pan.

Clockwise from top: thyme, powdered rosemary, rubbed sage, hot pepper flakes. In center: sea salt.

Add seasonings to pan and cook for a couple of minutes.

Then pour in the broth.

Slowly pour in the cornmeal or polenta.

Stir the polenta thoroughly to eliminate any lumps. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer, stirring frequently, until thickened. This would be a good time to use a splatter screen, because the cornmeal mixture tends to pop like crazy, and if it hits you it burns like crazy.

Let it cook over low heat about 15 minutes. Then pour it into a loaf pan.

Refrigerate until cold.

Slice about 1/2″ – 3/4″ and panfry until crisp. Serve with maple syrup and eggs. You can also slice it, wrap in freezer wrap, and freeze until needed.


Every December I host what I call “dinner with a Christmas tree” – a dinner party for about a dozen guests. While the Christmas lights twinkle in the corner and the fire burns in the wood stove, we enjoy festive appetizers, good wine, and a special dinner.  I give a great deal of thought to what will be served, and try to come up with dishes that might not be familiar to many Americans. Over the years I have made cassoulet with sausages and duck, choucroute with fresh sauerkraut and ham hocks, Jewish-style brisket of beef with latkes, cioppino, and sometimes less exotic mains like beef roasts, Cornish game hens, and whatever else seemed appealing.

For the party in December 2011, I was planning nochebuena. Nochebuena – the Good Night – is what Latin Americans call Christmas Eve; according to chef Norman Van Aken, the traditional Cuban Christmas Eve dish is a marinated pork roast.

Two pork roasts had been purchased and were cooling their heels in my refrigerator when, one week before the dinner, I was struck with cluster headaches. If you’ve never had one, I hope you never get one. It is by far the most painful thing I have ever experienced and it completely incapacitated me. The headaches waned now and then; not yet fully aware of how disabled I was or how long this would go on, I forged ahead during my lucid moments and put together the marinade, poured it over the pork in a giant plastic bag, and optimistically planned for the dinner.

I was also planning a Julia Child cake, made with layers of baked meringue and a gooey, boozy apricot filling. The layers got made but the cake was never assembled.

Crippled with pain, the day before the dinner I called my most trusted, bestest gay boyfriend and asked him to please call the other guests and tell them the dinner was cancelled. I stuck the pork, marinade, plastic bag and all, in the freezer.  Time passed just because it always does. There was a trip to the emergency room and a cat scan and a lot of morphine. Christmas came and went. Eventually I got better.

Fast forward to last night, February 7. It was high time to deal with that frozen pig, for better or worse, so I separated the two roasts, put one back in the freezer, and cooked the other. It was divine. The two months of marinating in a winter wonderland had not hurt it at all. My husband pronounced it the best roast pork I had ever made, especially the cracklings.

So here is the somewhat amended recipe from New World Kitchen by Norman Van Aken, plus a few notes about what I did with it.


  • 1 5-6 pound boneless pork roast
  • 3/4 cup fresh lime juice
  • 1/4 fresh orange juice
  • 3/4 cup olive oil
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 1 tablespoon cumin seeds, toasted in a dry frying pan, then ground
  • 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 5-6 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced

Put the pork in a large and sturdy plastic bag. Whisk all other ingredients together, pour into the bag, and kind of smoosh the marinade all over the pork. Refrigerate for at least 2 days and up to 4 days, turning the bag occasionally.

Put the roast in a large roasting pan; discard the marinade.  Roast at 350 for 25-30 minutes per pound, until pork is practically falling apart. Remove from oven and cover with foil for 20 minutes. Carve and serve.

Now, then: I had about two cups homemade chicken stock which I poured into the pan around the meat along with 4 bay leaves. After 2 hours, I sliced about six unpeeled Russet potatoes and pushed those into the stock. After another hour, I drained two cans of cannelini (white kidney beans) and poured those in too, along with several spoonfuls of minced garlic from a jar, plenty of freshly ground black pepper, and a good hefty sprinkle of dried basil.

After another hour I took the pork out of the pan and let it sit on a plate, covered. If I had been thinking, I would have removed the fat cap – the cracklings – and returned that to the oven for another ten minutes or so, but I didn’t.

When we were ready to eat, I tore up some fresh basil and sprinkled that over the beans & potatoes in the pan. The pork didn’t carve so much as just fell apart. We had that along with steamed broccoli and sweet & sour red cabbage with cloves and aniseed. It was wonderful.  The cracklings were like crack.

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