It’s been said that the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is now.
The same, I think, can be said traditions made with family and friends. If you’ve established a few over the years, your life is richer for the experience. But if you lament the fact that you don’t have enough of them in your life, well then, there’s no time like the present.
They are powerful things, traditions. The right ones — the ones that lend a positive force to your life — can actually kindle memories of the special people and events that have made your life particularly sweet or poignant. And because the human mind is so fantastically wired, repeating the simplest of acts can rekindle them.
Especially traditions centered around the holidays. It could be the making of your great aunt’s turkey dressing recipe, or the first night’s lighting of the menorah passed down through the family, or the hanging of an ornament on the Christmas tree. Each act will inevitably trigger a cascade of comforting memories.
For me, an essential tradition each December is the making of my grandmother’s Scottish shortbread. It just wouldn’t feel like Christmas without it.
If I had one wish for the holidays, it would be to travel back in time to sit at one more family dinner surrounded by my loud, lively and oh-so-loving relatives now gone. And with that impossibility as my goal, the very least I can do is make the food that had meaning to us then and share it with those who mean the world to me now.
I still make my Christmas shortbread by hand, even though a food processor would make the task much easier. Each time I do, it lands me back in the family kitchen on Paloma Avenue where I feel the warmth of Grandma Skinner’s hands guiding me through the process. So I share it with my expectant relatives who are also invested in its significance.
Remember: Food should be designed to pull friends together, so keep it manageable. My mother lived by a simple rule when it came to hosting: The meal is never more important than the people eating it.
She also believed in not fretting the small stuff. So try to remember that the magic, hope, and joy of the season is all around us. Set aside time to break bread with the folks you really care about, at a time of year when we’re all buoyed with the feeling that anything is possible.
Potato, cheese and beer soup
I guess you could say this is the most traditional soup in the Roberts-Dominguez household. And for good reason: It’s delectable, hearty-rich and cheesey. When relatives hit town, this is the soup we make. We pack it along for day hikes in the Cascades and cross-country skiing. I’ve shared it with readers so often over the years that perhaps it’s well-known. But it bears repeating.
1 quart chicken broth
2½ pounds potatoes, unpeeled, coarsely chopped
2 cups chopped green onions, whites and about half the green stalks
1 quart half-and-half
¼ cup soy sauce
1 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
6 ounces shredded Swiss cheese
6 ounces shredded cheddar cheese
½ cup craft beer (see note)
Note: I prefer to use an amber or brown ale, such as Rogue’s Hazelnut Brown Ale. If you’d rather not put beer in the soup, you can add ½ cup of dry white wine or dry sherry instead. Don’t want any alcohol in it? Just add extra chicken broth.
In a heavy-bottomed soup pot, bring the chicken broth to a boil. Add the potatoes and simmer for 30 minutes, or until the potatoes are very soft. Add the green onions and remove the pot from the heat. Add the half-and-half to the pot.
Puree the potato-broth mixture in a blender or food processor. Blend the soup in batches: When blending, fill the blender or processor half full and cover the lid with a dish towel — the soup “spurts” quite violently as it’s being blended. Return the puree to the pot.
Note: If you’d like some chunks of potato in your soup, just blend half of the soup.
Stir in the soy sauce and pepper, and slowly bring the soup back to a simmer. Stir in the grated cheeses gradually, a handful at a time. Then gently whisk in the beer, wine, sherry or extra broth.
Garnish each bowl with chopped green onions and shredded cheddar cheese. Serve with crusty bread. Makes about 8 servings.
Easy chocolate truffle sauce
This has been a specialty of mine for many years — and I get requests for it every December. Nobody realizes just how easy and fast it comes together. In no time, I have a decadently rich and chocolately topping for ice cream, cream pies or brownies. It also makes a great Christmas gift. I present it in lovely jars with a simple-yet-colorful homemade label. The recipe can easily be doubled or tripled.
1 pound semisweet chocolate, cut into ¼-inch chunks
1⅓ cups heavy cream
5 tablespoons butter, softened, cut into chunks
Place the chocolate chunks into a large heat-proof bowl. Place the bowl over a saucepan filled with hot (not boiling) water. Set aside. The chocolate mixture will melt slowly.
In a small saucepan, bring the cream to a boil, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and immediately pour it over the chunks of chocolate, stirring constantly until the chocolate has melted. Keep the bowl positioned over the hot water because this will help keep the temperature at the melting point.
Once the chocolate is smooth and creamy, stir in the butter and continue stirring until the mixture is smooth. Pour the sauce into clean jars and let cool completely before screwing on the lids. Keep the sauce refrigerated. Makes about 2½ cups sauce.
Note: The sauce will become firm in the fridge, but it can easily be warmed up in a pan on the stove or at low power in the microwave. Of course, most folks end up just eating it directly from the jar.
This chocolate sauce is so easy to make that in no time you’ll have a decadent topping for ice cream, cream pies or brownies. (Thinkstock)
This soup is made with chunks of potatoes, a nut brown ale, chopped green onions and two kinds of cheese. (Thinkstock)