Transitioning into my new life, I knew that the only way I was going to survive this holiday season was if I embraced change. It meant downsizing to a smaller tree with less decorations. It meant paring down the number of gifts given. It meant eliminating the expense of sending Christmas cards to friends and relations. It meant not hosting and cooking a large holiday dinner. Of everything I was giving up, the latter bummed me out the most. I live for cooking and the thought that I would not be preparing a holiday feast felt odd.
Two days before Christmas, as I am preparing my grocery list it dawned on me, instead of making Christmas Day dinner, I could make dinner on Christmas Eve for my kids and I to enjoy. I am not sure why I didn’t think of this earlier. I usually plan my holiday celebration weeks in advance. But between still adjusting to being a single mom and the unreliability of a college student’s schedule, I hadn’t even thought of the possibility of cooking a Christmas Eve meal.
With less than a day to plan, I searched for a simple yet elegant meal from my Christmas cookbooks. I settled on a dish by the late Italian cuisine expert, Marcella Hazan, published in the compilation cookbook, Christmas Memories with Recipes. Her contribution to the cookbook, Pollo in Umido alla Contadina (Fricasseed Chicken with Tomatoes, Peasant Style), was served as part of her family’s first Christmas dinner post World War II at their farm which they had abandoned during the war. The simplicity of the dish was ideal for a time-strapped holiday meal. I also like the story that such a simple dish could be served as Marcella’s family sought to rebuild their lives following a war. While the end of my marriage does not compare to damages incurred from the destruction and loss due to war, this dish seemed ideal as I continue to rebuild my life much like Marcella’s family did when they celebrated that first Christmas home post World War II. You can find the recipe online at Le Belle Cuisine.
Still, as a holiday meal, the chicken dish could not stand alone. It was originally intended as an extra course to the main meal of capon. With little thought I whipped up two side dishes that I thought would complement the chicken. The first was orzo pasta cooked in broth, and accented with peas, lemon zest and parmesan cheese. The second was green beans sautéed with garlic in Italian dressing and topped with diced pancetta and crushed red pepper flakes. Recipes for both are posted below.
Timing for the meal was a little problematic. My son Keller, the college student, had secured a job at local restaurant and his shift was scheduled to end at 7 that night. I had to pick up a present that had been stored at my friend Kristin’s apartment and deliver it to the marital homestead, but not before dropping off my five-year-old daughter with her father so she could drift to sleep before Santa’s arrival. The solution? To bring Christmas Eve dinner to Kristin, after picking Keller up and dropping Ilsa off. Luckily she was gracious to allow us to crash her quiet Christmas Eve of watching Frasier reruns for an impromptu Christmas Eve dinner.
After spending the weekend running around, taking care of last minute holiday-related errands, it was nice to have a respite from those last minute chores and the stress of staging Christmas. Much like the Christmas Eves of my recent past, that time with Keller and Kristin provided the levity to recharge and forge ahead with the difficult task of putting together a dollhouse with my ex and to solider through Christmas morning with a smile on my face knowing how challenging my presence at my old home would be for my ex and my son as the kids opened their presents. Finally, making an intimate Christmas Eve meal allowed me to take joy in my passion and share it with some of the people I care for since I would not have the chance to do so on Christmas Day. That honor went to my sister who hosted me this year and did a lovely job with an assist from our mother.
When I look back on this Christmas, I hope I don’t dwell on what I’ve lost but continue to take pleasure in what I am gaining from this point forward. I want to look back and be proud that I was able to embrace the changes in my life and not falter in my duties to my friends and family for the holidays. Like Hazan’s family the real gift of this Christmas season was “the gift of a life regained”.
Orzo and Peas
When I made this dish the other night, all I had on hand was turkey broth that went unused at Thanksgiving. It was a little overpowering for the dish but worked in combination with the chicken and green bean dishes. However, cooking this independently, I recommend chicken broth.
32-oz chicken broth
¼ teaspoon salt
1lb orzo pasta
9 ozs frozen sweet peas, defrosted
2 teaspoons grated lemon rind
Freshly ground pepper
¼ cup of freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus more for individual taste
- Pour the broth into a 6-quart pot and bring to a boil.
- Add ¼ teaspoon salt and the orzo to the broth. Cook the orzo according to the directions on the package.
- While the orzo is cooking, place the defrosted peas into the colander where the orzo will be drained.
- Once the orzo is done cooking, pour the orzo and water over the peas in the colander.
- After the orzo is fully drained, pour the orzo and the peas into a bowl and mix the two together with the grated lemon rind the grated cheese.
- Season the pasta mixture with salt and ground pepper to taste and mix.
- Serve with extra grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
Hot Green Beans Sauté
In my rush to get the veggies done, I overdid it with the red pepper flakes. I took the whole lid off and poured it over the green beans in the pan when I meant to flip the tip and dash some red pepper flakes over the vegetables. It was still edible and when paired with the mild flavors of the chicken and pasta, it complimented the dish nicely. I dialed back the amount of red pepper flakes in this recipe. Like in life, you can accept your mistakes, even think of them as happy accidents, and move on.
Also, instead of pancetta, I used bacon because there wasn’t any pancetta at the Shopper’s Food Warehouse two days before Christmas Day. Bacon works in a pinch.
4 ozs of pancetta or bacon, diced
1lb fresh green beans, rinsed and trimmed
1 clove of garlic, pressed
¼ cup Italian dressing
½ tablespoon crushed red pepper flakes
- Heat a large sauté pan over medium-high heat.
- Add the diced pancetta to the pan and cook until crispy.
- Drain the diced pancetta into a colander. Return the pan to the range.
- Add the green beans to pan and sauté them for two minutes.
- Add the pressed garlic to the green beans.
- Cook for one minute longer.
- Add the Italian dressing, lower range to medium and cover the pan. Cook for three minutes.
- Uncover and add the crushed red peppers.
- Pour the green beans into a bowl. Add the pancetta to the green beans and mix.
- Serve immediately.