Easy Cranberry Brisket

An easy holiday recipe from my friend Ellen, who helps me keep up with my fines at the Welty Library. It’s beautifully succulent, with a sweet/savory tang, rather colorful—as roast meats go—and has a wonderful aroma. Ellen uses a 14-oz. can jellied cranberry sauce to a packet of Lipton Onion Soup Mix for each two pounds of untrimmed brisket. That’s it. She places the brisket in a lightly oiled baking pan, puts slices of cranberry jelly on the meat, shakes the soup mix on top, covers and cooks in a 300 oven until meat is tender. Doubtless more elaborate, “foodie-friendly” versions of this recipe exist, but—speaking strictly for myself—I stand with mouth agape in admiration for the sheer 60s simplicity of this version. Serve with onion rolls and red cabbage slaw.

Thanksgiving Muffins

Kitchen innovation emphasizing technique rather than ingredients can have impressive results, especially when you’re dealing with what’s familiar, and this one is simple: bake dressing in a muffin pan. It’s easy to do, and the result is a morsel that’s eaten handily, stored easily and kids love them. I like to top some of them with a bit of whole-berry cranberry sauce. They also look good piled on a pretty plate alongside your other buffet items. They take a little more care than simply pouring your dressing into a casserole dish as is usually done, but they more than make up for the initial effort by freeing up space in the refrigerator and freezer, space you’ll no doubt need for other holiday leftovers. You can make these days before, freeze, and heat when needed.

Spoon dressing batter into oiled paper liners in a muffin tin and fill to the top, since these do not rise as much as a bread muffin would. Place your pans in the middle rack of the oven and bake at 350 until the tops are firm and the edges have just begun to brown, about 25 minutes. Top with whole berry cranberries when they’re about half-way done. Brush with melted butter and let them cool before taking them from the pan (use a fork) and removing the paper. Store for later and reheat on a cookie sheet.

Sandwich Cake

While browsing through my old Time-Life Foods of the World cookbooks, I ran up on a sandwich cake, or smörgåstårta, a Swedish buffet standard made by layering bread with savory fillings. It seemed just the kind of thing to serve for a little holiday get-together. So I called my Swedish friend, Sven Larsson, for advice on how to make a smörgåstårta.

I met Sven when he worked at the Swedish consulate in New Orleans, “Issuing passports to stupid Americans,” as he put it. We met at a wedding party in the French Quarter well over a decade ago, and found common ground as mutual devotees of A Confederacy of Dunces. The consulate is on Prytania, and Sven would often make the long walk to the theatre where Ignatius railed against Doris Day movies. He had since married a girl from Texas, divorced, and moved back to Stockholm, but we’d kept in touch.

When I got him on the phone, the first thing he said was, “You can’t make a smörgåstårta. You don’t have the right bread. All you have is that stuff, what do you call it? Ja! ‘Wonderful Bread!’ Like little Styrofoam.”

“But we have much better bread here now,” I said. “I can even get locally-baked loaves of rye and wheat.”

Ach! And your beer!” he said. “Your beer is like a cat’s piss. UschI! How can you eat a smörgåstårta and drink that?” This is the way Sven and I always begin any conversation, but we always end up laughing.

Sven said a smörgåstårta can be as simple as three layers of rye with sliced cucumbers and smoked salmon as a filling, or it can be as elaborate as a wedding cake. Use a sturdy bread. Wonder Bread might be great for a finger sandwich, but it will turn into doughy mush in a smörgåstårta. The better the quality of your bread, the better your cake will hold up, and the better it will take. A sturdy rye, wheat, or sourdough is best. Remove the crust, then cut and slice your bread to the shape and size you like, round, square, or rectangle.

Use a seasoned whipped cream cheese spread for both filling and for a “frosting”; you can buy the Philadelphia blends, or make your own by thinning room-temperature cream cheese with sour cream. Do not use mayonnaise. Spread each side of your bread layers with a thin coating of the cream cheese spread. Be creative with your fillings: thinly-sliced vegetables, hummus, cold cuts, sliced cheeses, egg salad, tuna salad, chicken salad, smoked fish, pâtés, guacamole, sliced pickles, whatever you like, but vary your textures. Mix vegetables with your egg salad, add water chestnuts to your salmon; try to have a bit of crunch in each layer. Finally, coat with cream cheese, garnish lavishly, and refrigerate before serving.

French Market Bean Soup

Somewhere among the cuneiform tablets found scattered around Ur there’s bound to be a bean soup recipe, and likely soups using multiple varieties of dried beans have been around almost as long. This particular recipe is comparatively quite recent—it’s only been around about as long as I have, which dates it to around the time Sputnik was launched—and its connection to New Orleans’ French Market is likely speculative at best. But it is a rich, hearty winter soup, and much of its appeal is that it lends itself to gift packaging. You can easily combine these dried beans and parcel them out in jars to give away over the holidays.

A typical recipe calls for one pound each of navy beans, pinto beans, split green and yellow peas, black-eyed peas, lentils, both baby and large limas, black beans, red beans, Great Northerns, soybeans and barley pearls, but you can use whatever combination you like, the more the merrier, and a variety of colors is a plus. Divide your bean mixture into 2 cup (about a pound) gift packages, cloth sacks or jars, whichever you find most attractive. Including a couple of bay leaves in each portion is a nice touch.

You’ll also want to include the recipe: For 2 cups beans (and 2 bay leaves), place in a heavy pot with 2 quarts water, a ham joint or hock–some people use a smoked turkey neck or tail–a large onion chopped, about a cup of chopped celery, and a hot pepper or two. Now, a lot of recipes will tell you to add a can of chopped tomatoes at this point, but don’t; if you do, your beans will take forever to cook. Bring to a boil and simmer until beans are soft, adding water if needed. Remove meat from bone, chop and add back to the pot. Add tomatoes now if you like along with a clove of garlic or two (crushed and minced) little thyme and basil, salt and pepper to taste. Serve with cornbread or French bread.