Now that taking photographs is free, we are taking pictures of everyone and everything, especially grandkids engaged in sports or other activities. It might be Ethan rock climbing or teaching a drawing class at his mom’s school, or it could be his younger brother, Nick, playing guitar or drums. Granddaughter Emma texted photographs of her art portfolio that she’s sending to colleges, and we wish that her younger sister, Maddie, had sent us some shots of her Thanksgiving with her boyfriend in Washington, D.C. We now document our lives and those of our loved ones in a way that was unimaginable when I was a child, including delightful videos of family members that are truly precious, and we pass them around instantaneously by way of email or text. While this is great, it would also be nice to have some prints so the pictures can have a physical presence in the house and be shown to friends.
We had a little Brownie camera when I was a child that took simple pictures and whenever I come across one of those old photos, it is so exciting. There are some family members for whom there may only be one or two such snapshots — taking pictures was an expensive and drawn-out process then, and we had little money for such luxuries. Still, there is one of Noni and Nono at the dinner table, probably at Christmas, and there are others showing other family members at weddings, baptisms and holidays, but these are posed shots of special events. How nice it would be to have candid photos of my grandmother cooking at her big wood burning stove or my grandfather digging in the sand for clams. And how about video! I would die to be able to see these long-gone loved ones interacting with the family and to have those recordings to share with the grandchildren. Just to hear their voices again would be so thrilling — my grandmother had such a laugh!
Often this time of year people talk about how they like to spend their holidays. Some friends still like to use their free time for ski trips, something that I did for years when my kids were young. Journeys to where the warm sun is shining are more to our liking these days. Day trips are also a nice break from the normal routine, with visits to cities like Newburyport, Boston, and Portland, Maine, offering so much fun for everyone. I would love to take the kids ice skating at the Frog Pond at the Boston Common and have a hot chocolate in one of those cafes on Charles Street. The food scene has never been better, and pizza today, coming out of those Neapolitan dome-shaped wood-burning ovens that are everywhere, has become fine food. We love the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, and combining a visit with a pizza at Bambolina around the corner is a great way to spend the day.
I am looking forward to the next few weeks in preparation for the holidays, but I do less than I once did. I am always reminded of the more ambitious days in my youth. Where did I get the energy? Brunch for 50, ladies only, at my house in Marblehead. A normal menu might have been broiled half-grapefruit with a dash of maple syrup, spinach pie, grilled steak, caramel bread pudding and hot mulled wine. Clearly, I was over the top! Decorating the house, inviting people from the past and present, cooking for a crowd was my passion. Memories of those years are still vivid, and looking over pictures now I am reminded of people I cared about who are no longer here.
Today I prefer small gatherings and I keep the menu very simple. An overly ambitious menu keeps you too busy and away from your guests and from you enjoying yourself. Lately I’ve been loving making gnocchi. I will make the dough and a Bolognese sauce and when the guests arrive they will help me make the gnocchi. Even the kids make them, they are so simple and fun to produce at home. Everyone loves a homemade pie, which can be made in advance to make things easier. Just remember to pick up some ice cream.
We have spent Christmas Eve with my son and his family for the past several years. Memories of those dinners Italians call the “Vigilia” — the vigil — bring to mind the seven courses of various fish dishes: lobster sauce over linguine, fried smelts, stuffed shrimp, baccala (cod) fritters, many desserts. My brother still makes all the dishes for his family and a few years ago we broke tradition with my family and enjoyed “Vigilia” with him and his family. It was wonderful. I go back and forth thinking about what I will bring for Christmas Eve, which is pot luck. Everyone requests my stuffed Italianelles, with fresh bread crumbs, pinenuts, raisins, Parmesan, and a hint of anchovy. But fish is the tradition, so I might do a cod loin dish which should work well for a crowd because it is a thick cut and will reheat well without drying out. It’s terrific with a lemon sauce Piccata.
Creating your own memories is a beautiful thing. Making a garland of popcorn for the tree when the kids were little, writing a note to Santa and leaving a plate of cookies for him — anything to make things special for the young ones makes for special memories. Todd’s dad, reciting “A Night Before Christmas” from memory, is also a lovely memory. Document these memorable times, take lots of pictures, you’ll be glad you did. And if you really want to make people happy, get them printed and send them off via snail mail so others will have the chance to enjoy them!
Cod loin piccata
Choose a 1-inch thick piece of cod loin. Allow about ¼ pound per serving. Rinse fish well in cold water and pat dry with paper towel.
In a soup dish, place about 1½ cup of panko crumbs. Toss with 1 tsp. of freshly-chopped thyme leaves and 2 tbsp. chopped flat leaf parsley.
In another soup bowl, place 2 eggs and beat well with a little salt.
Heat 3 to 4 tbsp. of olive oil in a fry pan with Teflon bottom.
Cut fish into four pieces. Dip each piece in egg, and then in crumbs; coat well. Do this twice.
Place fish on an oiled plate. Fry fish in hot oil and allow to nicely brown on each side.
Remove to a shallow baking pan and place in a 325-degree oven while you continue the recipe.
Wipe the fry pan clean with a paper towel.
Add 2 tbsp. butter and 1 tbsp. flour and whisk for 1 minute. Add 1 ½ cup of chicken broth and the juice of a good-size lemon, 1 tbsp. chopped flat-leaf parsley and simmer for a few minutes until the sauce thickens slightly.
Off the heat, whisk in 2 tbsp. cold butter.
Cook 2 cups of couscous and toss with 2 tbsp. butter and a sprinkle of fresh thyme.
Place a heaping spoonful of couscous on each plate and place the fish on top, pour sauce over each piece, and garnish with more flat-leaf parsley.
You can do this ahead of time and reheat in a hot oven.