Around ten years ago, my wife and I started a holiday tradition: we put together a Christmas Eve dinner menu that we loved and decided to use it every year. We selected lobster tails as the primary component of the dish. We so rarely ate lobster, and it seemed like a nice way to treat ourselves. Plus, while they’re expensive (especially if you buy massive ones like I did!), they are actually straight-forward to prepare.
But what to serve with it?
Around the time when we first started this tradition, we had just discovered something amazing: fried spinach. One of the restaurants we used to frequent served spinach that they fried briefly in peanut oil until it became translucent and paper-like. With the addition of a bit of salt and pepper, the spinach transcends its mundane vegetable status and becomes something truly awesome. Fascinated, I tried to replicate this recipe at home, and I was happily surprised to find it wasn’t that difficult.
To round out the plate, we decided to make horseradish mashed potatoes with scallions — a recipe we’d already perfected and enjoyed. (Pro tip: you can use a forkful of the mashed potatoes to blot your plate and pick up all the flaky little bits of fried spinach you missed!)
(You’ll have to pardon the crappy photo – years of Instagram-ing my meals have trained me to take better food porn pictures than I did back then.)
Over the years, we tweaked and modified these three recipes to the point where they weren’t even separate recipes anymore, but one recipe (to rule them all!) for the entire meal, optimized so all the components could be plated and served together at the right temperature. Ah, how satisfied we were with ourselves. <Sigh>
We were able to maintain this tradition for a while once we had kids, but it became apparent that it wasn’t really going to work. We tried serving them lobster, which resulted in us spending a bunch of money only to have them turn up their noses at it. I considered cooking them something different, though the thought of serving hot dogs alongside our very elegant meal made me cringe. Then I realized that our dinners had ceased to be elegant a long time ago, so who was I kidding?
Still, I didn’t like the idea of excluding them from our holiday tradition by serving them something else. It seemed… unfair. I began to imagine a future in which our despondent, Christmas-hating children whined to their therapists about how their parents never included them in their holiday traditions. I knew I had to figure out something we could all enjoy. I was determined, however, not to revert to something pedestrian. I didn’t want to make something from the standard dinner rotation. I still wanted it to be special.
In the end, I selected stuffed chicken breasts. It’s a recipe my wife and I love, though we avoid it because it’s simply too much work for a typical evening. There are a variety of choices for the filling, but we picked our favorite: smoked mozzarella with broiled asparagus. It’s a rather complicated recipe from Cook’s Illustrated, but it’s worth the effort. (This is true of most of their recipes, by the way.)
Believe it or not, the children eat this. Sort of. To the extent that they eat anything I make, I suppose. We decided to stick with the potatoes and spinach as sides because we love them and DAMMIT, STOP RUINING EVERYTHING.
So, we have a new holiday tradition – at least until the kids learn to appreciate lobster. Problem solved.
And that’s when I realized my kids had tricked me into making chicken nuggets (albeit fancy ones) for Christmas Eve dinner.