This year my family tried something a little different for Christmas. Instead of flying home to Tallahassee, we decided to all travel. Our presents were dinners we would cook every night. As you can tell the apple does not fall far from the tree in my family. We love a couple of things immensely – food and travel.
We waffled about where to go; eventually settling on Key West. Then there was lots of confusing emails back and forth about where to stay. Sensing the travel was doomed unless a place was picked quickly we all settled on what seemed like a nice place; a five-bedroom house right on the water in Key Largo. We found it on Craigslist. Here’s a travel tip for you – don’t rent a place on Craigslist. They are not accountable for a community and there are no reviews. Visit a travel rental Web site such as homeaway or VRBO instead. The place was not a complete *&^$ hole. It was pretty close. Ants marched all over the counter tops and there never seemed to be a stop to their steady stream, the microwave door was held up by duct tape and almost fell on my mother’s foot, there were wires poking out of places that previously held a sound system and the sconces and general design looked a lot like Miami Vice filmed there. But from the outside, it was beautiful! It was right on the water and we got to visit with manatees and even a huge lizard.
Forget the awful house. I was with family – my mom Janis, my dad Jack, my little sister Kara, her boyfriend Eric, my younger brother John and his wife Ginger. Ginger’s family also spent some time with us as well. Ginger’s mom Janice, Janice’s boyfriend Jeff as well as Ginger’s sister Debbie were all there too. It was definitely some intense family time spent canoeing, deep-sea fishing, diving, sleeping in and mostly eating. And the highlight of each day were the dinners. Our numbers changed each day. A lot of the family is from Florida so one night there would be nine people, then 11. But each night was filled with the same wonderful conversation, food and ease (mostly fueled by excessive wine and margaritas). Couples were assigned a night to cook. And we spared no expenses. This was our Christmas present to one another.
The first night was kind of an open night. So for about an hour everyone argued about what to eat. Finally, Chris and I just told everyone we were making grilled kabobs. Some people complained (you know who you are – mom :), but in the end it was a very succesful meal. I think a certain someone even said it ended up being one of their favorites. Chris and I marinated shrimp, pork and chicken then grilled it up. We also had kabobs with bell peppers, onions and mushrooms. We also made a salad and some cheesy potatoes. Oddly, it was my salad dressing that was a big hit. It’s just a simple french vinaigrette with a small twist.
The next night was by brother John and his wife Ginger’s turn. I think my brother is an excellent chef. Ginger as well. So I was pretty excited about their dinner. They decided to go a very South Florida route and created a grilled seafood dinner with some Cuban touches – plantains, black beans and rice and a yummy tropical fruit chutney. And for dessert they made poached pears in a red wine sauce. It was absolutely yummy.
The next night was out turn. It was kind of hard to beat John and Ginger, but Chris and I tried our hardest. We also wanted to use a lot of seafood. But we opted for an Italian feel to the meal. We made a really simple pasta dish with just diced tomatoes, garlic and wine; and we poached shrimp, scallops and lobster in butter then skewered it in between basil and then grilled it. If I must say so myself it was outstanding. My mother who hates seafood said the lobster was her favorite (haha John and Ginger and Kara and Eric ). Now that I am done rubbing that in I will discuss our dessert choice. We opted for a simple dessert since our dinner was kind of labor intensive. We made a blueberry and strawberry shortcake. It was pretty yummy, but very simple.
One night we decide to take a night off from cooking and we all piled into a car and drove the two and a half hours to Key West. Key West is ok. It’s pretty touristy and is very crowded. But there is one saving grace – one of my favorite restaurants, Blue Heaven. Chris and I ordered the jerk chicken and it was awesome. Please, do yourself a favor and if you go to Key West go to this restaurant. It’s a great slice of simple and tasty food that is not touristy.
The next night was Christmas Eve and we have a tradition in our family that we eat Polish food. It’s kind of weird, I know. My mom is part Polish, but that’s not even why we eat it. My parent’s first real date was Christmas eve and according to legend it was supposed to be a party. But the only one who showed up was dad. Well that night my mom made her Polish Christmas eve. And my dad was hooked. So in celebration of the date that ensured my brother, sister and I were born we eat kielbasa, sauerkraut, potato pancakes and apple sauce. Unfortunately, this year I forgot to take pictures. But let me assure you it was as yummy as ever. My parents actually picked up some fresh kielbasa in Miami. It was heavenly.
For Christmas morning, we somehow were in charge of cooking again. But we had an ace up our sleeves. Chris has a family recipe that is pretty awesome. It’s called a “Magic Pancake”, but basically it’s a Swedish Pancake. It’s lovely because it’s not too sweet, but not too savory either. The finishing touch is some powdered sugar and a spritz of lemon juice. We also pitted some cherries and made a lovely cherry glaze with some port and sugar.
You might think at this point we would be so tired of eating. You would be right. Well, we were at least tired of cooking elaborate meals anyway. So when it came time for my sister and her boyfriend to cook we were ready for some good, old-fashioned burgers. And boy were they awesome. They stuffed them with all kinds of goodies – blue cheese, jalapenos, bacon and much more. For sides we ate grilled corn and oven roasted potatoes. For dessert my mom made a tres leches cake.
In the end, I am a little mixed about the travelling Christmas experiment. It was so much fun to be with my family in one house for a whole week. But because of the weather and lack of presents it just did not feel like Christmas. But I will tell you the meals and conversation at the end of the day were presents enough.
Below are some more photos from the trip. And a recipe!
Magic Pancake Recipe (not the Nugent recipe, but very similar)
3 tablespoons (1 1/2 ounces) butter
1/2 cup (2 ounces) Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
small pinch of nutmeg
1 tablespoon (1/2 ounce) granulated sugar
1/2 cup (4 ounces) milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons (1 ounce) freshly squeezed lemon juice (juice of half a juicy lemon)
2 tablespoons (1/2 ounce) confectioners’ sugar
Preheat the oven to 425°F.
Melt the butter in an 11″ straight-sided skillet, or a 12″ skillet with straight or sloping sides. Make sure whatever you use is oven-proof. Or melt the butter, and pour it into a 10″ square pan, or 12″ round deep-dish pizza pan. Yes, the size of the pan matters. Too small, it’ll overflow. Too large, it won’t puff as high. Try to find a pan or oven-proof skillet whose square-inch cooking surface is about 100 square inches.
Whisk together the flour, salt, nutmeg, sugar, milk, vanilla, lemon oil, and eggs till fairly smooth.
Pour the batter into the pan. Bake the pancake for 18 to 20 minutes, or until it’s very puffy and golden, with deeper brown patches. Remove it from the oven, and sprinkle with the lemon juice, then the sugar. Cut in squares, and serve immediately, garnished with fresh berries, if desired.
Yield: 4 generous servings.