Funny thing, memories.
Seems to me they sort themselves according to the most oddball logic. When I think back on my childhood Christmases, what zooms instantly to mind is the year that I got that drugstore-issue cello-pack of yellow circus stickers. I absolutely loved those 99-cent stickers. Not far behind is the year I begged hard and landed the flocked plastic Rudolph from Ernst-Malmo (R.I.P). Also, the year I was given the battery-operated baby that somersaulted and stole my heart and broke within the week. And (unfortunately) the year I wore my brand new pink leg-warmers, pulled stylishly high over my Levi's 501s. Can't seem to erase that last one, though it's not for lack of trying.
I am fairly certain the correlation between these and my mom's memories is something like zero, give or take. I'm just assuming here (I forgot to ask, darn it), but I think it's safe to say grown-ups remember The Other Stuff. The Big Stuff. The Headlines. Like the Christmas I got the flu (I've heard tell, but don't remember a thing). Or each year's Big Gift (why can't I recall these?). Or the up-late, night-before assembly sessions. I'm totally projecting here, but I don't think I'm far off, if my own past ten years' parenting is any indication.
It is possible, therefore, that I'll remember this Christmas as the year we got totally and completely whooped.
It wasn't the plan, not even close, but the day Mamo landed, Zoë coughed. And didn't quit. And within two days' time, neither did we. I'm well-acquainted with colds; I have three kids. We do at least two dozen, every year. I have never, ever, ever met the likes of this cold. This was some take-no-prisoners, have-no-mercy super strain, cold with a capital C, O, L, D.
We drank lemon-honey-ginger tea by the gallon, went through tissues by the warehouse pack. There were late-night runs for humidifiers, and eucalyptus baths to buy an hour's sleep. Christmas carols were pretty much one-upped by our very own whooping crane-meets-barking seal soundtrack. Some people ring in the New Year with champagne. My mom and I, we tossed back Nyquil shots. (The camera didn't get out much. I figure you've seen one Kleenex®, you've seen 'em all.) We felt pretty IKKE for the better part of three weeks. Being a dull adult, I could file 2010 away this way.
The loveliest thing about memory, in my experience, is that it's deeply impressionable, open to influence. And it doesn't require much nudging, in this case, to call to mind all the twinkling bits.
I'll remember, for sure, how Henry came into a new-to-us trove of vintage legos. And how, thanks to one solid square box titled "MAX", we can now settle Catan, ad infinitum. (It really is all it's cracked up to be, deceptively simple, fast, and fun.) And the universal truth, confirmed once again, that remote control cars are ridiculously entertaining. The kids, they seemed to like them, too.
I'll not soon forget how Zoë woke up to the dollhouse of her dreams on Christmas morning. It is likely that Santa never made it through her list — that's Henry reading the intro, up top, there. It ran on like that, across the kitchen floor, and right along into the next room over. But somehow Mamo divined my little girl's heart, and crossed off all those many lines with one spot-on show-stopper.
I'll long hold onto this big lump of gratitude over family coming to us, our second year here. Holiday travel's not exactly the bee's knees, and I consider those many miles the best gift we were given. And after our 5 a.m. Christmas-day departure last year, this year's at-home ease seemed like luxury's finest hour.
I'll think back on the way winter went on sabbatical, the snow actually melting, the green re-appearing. I didn't think we'd see grass again until March. I'm pretty sure I wasn't alone. The squirrels bounced about like it was Second Coming, hoovering acorns, dawn to dusk. The weather was cold, but crisp, bright and blue, and on the year's final day, it was sixty-two. It's not that this was surprising, exactly. Sixty-two was completely and totally surreal. Three weeks earlier, it was three below. You'd better believe we walked to the park.
(And mom, those clear skies that saw you through to Seattle? Gone the next morning, in a flurry of snow.
And although there was not nearly as much out-and-about'ing as last time, staying in is it's own kind of calm, quiet nice. There was peppermint play-dough and pomander balls and 500-piece puzzles, done in a day. We never made it out to see neighborhood lights, but had time for lazy-gazing at our own Christmas tree. I finally figured out how to make fortune-tellers, by de-constructing one ldevilishly clever guest's masterpiece. I'm thinking, between these and those advent envelopes, 2011 may just be my Year of Origami.
(Not to mention the Year of the Banjo. Santa brought me a banjo, bwww-ang a'twang twang! Now, to learn how to play... )
And for all that, we did make it out, here and there. An afternoon in the company of antiques, a Christmas Eve birthday brunch of cream scones and tea, an eleventh-hour jaunt to a hidden gem of a Children's Museum. A quick tour of Amy Butler's adopted hometown. An entire day away to Cincinnati, to wallow in Gainsborough and two centuries of white silk. Oh, that was fine.
And we obviously ate, maybe even often, though I don't recall many details (darn congestion). There were popovers and lemon curd and this gingerbread, which I loved still more, the second time. There were holiday feasts and popcorn dinners and chicken soup and stuff like that. But the edible I remember most and best was a simple side dish of, well, hold it right there. I hesitated over whether to mention it here at all, because I can just barely bear to call it by name. But because I stand firm on flavor over form, and believe pride shouldn't get in the way of flippin' good food, I'm going to close my eyes and grimace and get it over with: broccolini with browned butter and balsamic. Phew.
If you're anything like me, you see the problem straight-away: it sounds hopelessly precious and glossy and twee. I don't much want to eat any one of those adjectives. Balsamic's about as over-exposed as Brittany, and browned butter always sounds like it must be said butt-ah, and broccolini, oh man, where to begin. What is broccolini, anyway? Some strange man-made hybrid nature never intended? Like zedonks or Grapples® or the inexplicable Snuggie®?
But here is the thing: that is the whole of it. Broccolini. Browned butter. Balsamic. Period. Three ingredients, though they taste like twenty. And I mean that in the best, most addictive way. Let's start with the finish, that sultry sauce tango, butter and vinegar, busting a move. Doesn't sound promising, when I see it spelled out, but there's an awfully lot going on under this hood.
Browned butter, for one thing, is one of life's best-kept secrets, easy and fast and never-look-back delicious. You just set some butter on the stove to melt, then let it run, lemming-style, over the edge. Cheering all the way, if you've got your wits about you. The milk solids toast and caramelize, turning plain drippy butter nutty, amber and exquisite. Takes all of five minutes. Not bad, for nirvana. (And the nose-in-the-air bit? So not required.)
So then, to that, you add a serious splash of balsamic, which, cliché or not, is ripped with good flavor. It's sweet and tangy and complex and tart, and when added to browned butter, devastating. I'm sure the end result would be grand on asparagus, or green beans, or the muddy mat outside our front door.
But every time I've made this, I've served it with broccolini. And every time I've made broccolini, I've served it with this sauce. And while I can't vouch for broccolini in any other context, it is (whatever it is) absolutely perfect here. The small ruffled ends make ideal mops, all the better to soak up the sauce. The slender stems are sweet, tender and long, which will require a knife and fork in polite company. But for a quiet weekday lunch, between you and me? They make excellent handles for dipping and sweeping, if you get my eat-with-your-fingers drift.
One more thing. I meant to get you a better picture, but a funny thing happened, along the way. Henry came in, asked after the broccoli, and after "that other good smell in the air". "Balsamic", I told him. "All-bamic?", he confirmed, then loitered and sniffed and finally begged a bite. People. Henry likes broccoli, but only plain as anything, and five is far from experimental in the eating department. And furthermore, sauce is so not his thing. But darned if he didn't swipe a stalk, consider, then proceed to eat his way through a dripping dozen more. I'm not suggesting your kids will go for it (I'm still shaking my head over my own). But I'm telling you, it is that good. And you never know. Anything's possible.
Broccolini with Browned Butter and Balsamic
adapted from Peter Berley, Fresh Food Fast
Berley makes this with broccoli rabe (rapini), the bitter-edged Italian green which I absolutely adore. But whenever I've made this, I've mis-remembered the vegetable, and have grown to love broccolini's sweet stems and mop-like heads, here. If you give it a go with broccoli rabe (and I mean to), use two bunches instead of three, as they tend to run larger.
I drain the cooked veg briefly in a single layer on a clean towel (instead of a strainer), to help absorb the excess boiling water. It stops the cooking quickly, and prevents the dreaded water-logged broccoli.
My go-to balsamic is Kirkland Signature (Costco) bottle, nothing fancy, reliably good.
6 tablespoons salted butter
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
3 bunches broccolini, ends trimmed
2 tablespoons kosher salt (for boiling water)
Have a clean dish cloth laid out for the veg.
Brown the butter in a small, light-colored pan or skillet over medium-high heat. Browning butter will first melt, then foam and sizzle, then bubble quietly, before the milk solids turn color. When the butter is amber and smells nutty and fantastic (about 5 minutes), it is done. Stir in the balsamic and cook over medium for 30 seconds. Remove from the heat.
Bring a large pot (i.e., pasta-size) to a rolling boil. Add the 2 tablespoons of salt, then the broccolini. Boil 2-5 minutes, until stems are just-tender when pierced with a knife. I'll often fish out the thinner stems with my tongs after 2-3 minutes, then fetch the bigger ones, as they finish. Do not overcook.
Lay broccolini on a serving plate, pour balsamic-brown butter over all, and eat immediately.