The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Okay, maybe it’s not the most wonderful time of the year. It’s probably
because Andy Williams always seemed so cheerful and merry that we got
swayed with the lyrics. Or maybe it’s because of all of those Hallmark series
Christmas specials on the cable network. You know, the poor housekeeping
girl meets the billionaire owner of the company who falls in love with her or
the secretary who meets the crown prince of some mystical country with the
same end result. Maybe it’s simply because I’m a Grinch by nature… or just a
pessimist but this time of year usually seems a lot more stressful. No parking
at Ala Moana Shopping Center even on an early Sunday morning. Everyone
asking for last minute time off from work so you’re now swamped with the
extra workload. Or maybe just because Christmas seems to have leap-frogged
Thanksgiving for the past 3 decades. But it’s that time again and we have to
make the most of it.

Cooking Time Saver

Because we invariably get invited to hordes of parties during the season, the
last thing we want to do is toil over a hot stove or oven perhaps to create that
perfect roasted bird or ham. Skip the oven and the stovetop and simply reach
for your pressure cooker. I’ve mentioned it several years ago but one of my
favored cooking devices is my Fagor combination slow cooker, rice cooker and
pressure cooker. Forget the perfectly baked and glazed ham. Simply purchase a
ham butt – the opposing end of the ham shank which is usually baked then
spiral sliced – which includes part of the animal’s hip bone. Because of this
aitch bone, the butt end isn’t conducive for perfect slices. However when
cooked at lower temperatures over an extended period of time, the meat
literally falls off of the bone like proper barbecued pork. And it remains juicy
and succulent. But why even wait those fuss free 8 hours with a Crock pot
when a pressure cooker does the same in 1/3 of the time?

Pressured Cooked Pulled Ham

5 to7 lb ham butt
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1 cup pack brown sugar
¼ cup brown mustard
¼ cup honey
About 20 grinds course black pepper

Place the ham in the pot of your pressure cooker – if the ham goes above the
top of the cooking vessel, cut off chunks so that the whole ham butt remains
totally within the cooking vessel. Mix the next 5 ingredients and pour over
the ham. Cook under pressure for 2 & ½ hours – I usually let it slow cook for
another 30 minutes on the slow cook setting just to gradually reduce the
pressure. Use two forks to shred the ham which should easily slide off of the
aitch bone. Serve as you would pulled pork or in sweet buns with mustard

Baked Leftovers?

Okay, I’m not asking you to take leftovers to your next holiday party but
because the base of this dish is stale bread, it’s almost like using leftover
bread. But when seasoned properly, a strata is not just delicious but also can
function as either a starch side dish or a main course. And because this version
has flecks of red and green, it does look like you created it just for Christmas.

Strata Italiano

About 4 to 6 cups of ½ cubed stale bread
One package of fresh Italian sausage, 4 to 5 links with casing removed then
cooked until brown
1 lb package of frozen chopped spinach, defrosted
6 to 8 ounce bottle of roasted red peppers, chopped
4 cups milk
5 eggs, beaten
About 1 cup shredded white melting cheeses (mozzarella, fontina, and/or
About ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 tsp Italian seasoning
1 tsp ground fennel seeds
Salt and fresh cracked black pepper to taste

Toss the cubed bread with sausage, spinach, red peppers, cheeses and
herbs/seasonings. Mix the eggs with the milk then pour over the bread
mixture and let sit for at least 10 minutes until the liquid is absorbed into the
bread. Sprinkle a little bit of grated Parmesan over the top then bake at 350
degrees for 45 to 55 minutes until the custard mixture (liquids) are set. Serve
warm or at room temperature.

Liquid “Food”

Finally, the holidays aren’t the same without a special libation and this
cocktail also contains the licorice qualities found in fennel seeds. In fact, it
also contains fennel syrup and that licorice flavored liqueur, Ouzo. I mean,
which culture is more festive than Greek culture? They smash dinner plates
just for the heck of it and often break into spontaneous song and dance on a
whim. So here’s my festive tributary cocktail.


Fennel Syrup
Heat equal parts of water and sugar (1 cup water, 1 cup sugar) just before the
boiling point (just as small bubbles appear) then add ½ cup of chopped fresh
fennel and remove from the heat to “steep” for 30 minutes. Strain out the
fennel for a clear fennel syrup.

1 ounce fennel syrup
½ ounce Ouzo (if you can’t find Ouzo, Sambuca works just as well)
1 & ½ ounce Metaxa (sweetened Greek brandy)
3 ounce Q Tonic water.

Pour over the rock in a tall highball glass and garnish with a fennel frond.

So hopefully, some or all of my suggestions will take a little stress out of your
holiday season. After all, the holidays weren’t meant to be a stage for a family
cooking competition. Simply breaking bread and uncorking a bottle of wine
with family and friends is what it’s all about. Remember, it’s not what’s on
the table that matters as much as what’s on the chairs. But if you still find
yourself stressed, then simply have 3 or 4 Yasou-Good-Lookin’s and the stress
will fade like a distant memory… just make sure you have a designated driver…