Home for the Holidays

It is indeed the most wonderful time of the year. Poinsettias all over the place. The sound of bells ringing. Christmas tree stands on familiar corners. The inviting smell of pine that fills the house when I walk through our front door and immediately to the tree to plug in the lights. Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Covered Peppermint Joe Joe's. They are Girl Scout cookies on crack. Go buy a box if any are left. Actually buy two because you will peel through the first box at a speed that will shock even those with the best powers of will. 

There are always numerous nights of movies igniting the countdown to Christmas. Home Alone. The Griswold's. Love Actually. I still get goose bumps when the choir serenades the newly married pair with "All You Need Is Love". That and the scene when Hugh Grant references Harry Potter. The Breyer's heart Harry, Hogwarts, butter beer, Ron Weasley and anything Professor Dumbledore associated. I am quite confident that most have made this lovely film some part of their holiday tradition. 

Giving back to the community. This year we delivered toys to a local non-profit that benefits school children. Carefully finding the perfect gifts for loved ones. Humming and hawing down the countless and abundantly decorated aisles of Paper Skyscraper. This particular shop has the most exquisite wrapping paper in the city. It is also an outstanding spot for finding unusual, wonderful gifts. Once our wrapping was all set and done, the pile of gifts in their bright colors and bows was quite inspiring. 

Christmas music begins to fill my car sometime soon after Thanksgiving. "Do They Know It's Christmas" released by Band-Aid is by far my favorite of the songs. Dean Martin's "Baby It's Cold Outside" reminds me of my best friend who lives in NYC.  Don't ask me why, it just does and it makes me smile. The smell of cinnamon in my favorite grocers as well as the sights of overflowing wagons filled with beautiful turkeys, hams and all the trimmings. The endless holiday parties, ornament swaps and get-togethers to recognize and celebrate this special time of the year.

In college, one of the best parts about the Christmas holidays was hooking up with close friends who were also home for the holidays. Somehow socializing and getting into shenanigans in our own city was alluring. We usually convened at the home of a special member of our crew to draft our plan of attack. The home at which we met most often was very memorable as her parents were and still are, an integral component of the equation. I recall the kitchen was always stocked with peppermints. Back in the day, I attended every college football game with this young lady and her parents. In short, with my folks living overseas, they became my surrogate parents over the course of our four years at Chapel Hill. 

This allure of friends and the holidays still rings true many years later. This past Monday night, four of my favorite gals with whom I came of age in Chapel Hill, Florence and some places in between, reunited together with our partners for a holiday dinner.  The beauty of my friendship with these ladies is simple - no matter how much time passes between our seeing one another - we always pick up directly where we left off. We never skip a beat. Our gatherings always begin with a toast of sorts. This year we celebrate babies. One recently coming into the world and two on the way. 

These conclaves are always infused with outstanding food thanks to the husband of one who is an expert chef.  It seems to me that his speciality is beef tenderloin.  Not only does he prepare it beautifully but he is a master with the knife and presentation is always on point.  Alcohol is readily flowing. Everyone brings a bottle of this and that and we share. Last man standing. Those who have kitchens bring a dish and others help shape the meal accordingly.

I met these girls at some point during my first week of college. We were thick as thieves throughout. Adventures shared together. The one, a fellow Texan, used to drive us around our senior year with Rick Springfield's Jessie's Girl blaring through the open car windows.  It was the best of the best. We piled on top of one another in the backseat en route to the best parking spot in the city. Coincidentally, it was a mere stone's throw from our favorite watering hole - Top of the Hill. 

Another one of the girls I met at a party at a neighbor's house in high school. We met again on the deck of the Pi Beta Phi sorority house on bid day. I went on to live with her the following four years. I even did a brief stint on a cot in her apartment in Firenze. In fact, the summer after graduation we returned to Italy together. She is a magnificent cellist and was there in a musical capacity. I was there to revisit our old stomping grounds. We successfully checked both items off the list. Back in college, we used to take midnight rides in hot pursuit of Mexican food. 

I became bosom pals with another at the wedding of the one. We were 25 or so. We sat in a room getting ready one afternoon, she offered me wine and as it turns out, we had a lot in common. To this day my parents always ask about the girl they affectionately have coined "the lawyer". She was my knight in shining honor when I moved back to Charlotte some five years ago. All of our parents threw a graduation party for us back in 2002. We erected a tent on the front lawn of the now famous North Street. I gave a toast and quoted Churchill. Other valuable members of our group were also there. I will touch on them later. So it goes.  

Our reunion dinners are marked by a handful of givens. Volume. We are loud  Some of us more so than others. I will insert my name on the list here. We only speak the most colorful of languages. Always. Endless laughter. Lots of "remember whens" and filling in the gaps. These are the Christmas moments to which I most look forward. Halcyon times with family and just as importantly, lifelong friends.

For this year's gathering I brought a side. Farro is a wonderfully nutty and chewy grain and a nice reprieve from brown rice. The below is wonderful with meat. It is also beautiful with grilled shrimp thrown on top. Given the combination of grains, greens and veg, it also serves as a superb vegetarian dish. I will be mixing up a batch of this next week when I am in detox / hopeful weight loss mode thanks to the holiday inspired gluttony!

Adapted from Recipe4Living

The Loot

3 cups of cooked farro - I like the Trader Joe's 10 Minute Farro 
4 cups of roasted butternut squash
1 head of Tuscan kale, chopped
1 whole pomegranate
4 garlic cloves - chopped
6 TBS extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp sage
Generous amount of kosher salt
Juice of 1 lemon and the zest
1/2 cup of toasted walnuts 
1/4 cup Bragg's apple cider vinegar
1 TBS maple syrup
1 TBS stone ground Mustard
Fresh thyme - the leaves of 4 - 5 sprigs
3 chopped green onions

Kitchen Tip

Whenever a recipe calls for preparing a grain whether it be rice, wild rice, black rice, amaranth, rye berries, wheat berries, quinoa, barley, millet, farro. You name it - I always substitute chicken broth for water.  I also like to add 1 - 2 bay leaves. It gives the grain lovely flavor. Especially ideal if you plan to eat said on its own.

Get Cracking

1. Prepare the farro according to instructions. Remember, chicken broth instead of water. 

2. Chop the butternut squash and throw it in a pan. Drizzle with 2 TBS olive oil, the garlic, nutmeg, sage and a dash of salt. Roast for approximately 40 minutes at 350. Again, you know your oven best. Halfway through cooking, give the butternut squash a generous stir. It is done when everything is wonderfully caramelized. Give it a taste, sublime! Now let it cool for about 20 minutes before adding it to a big bowl.

3. Chop the kale and remove the messy stems but hold onto them for chicken broth! Let's say it in unison now - "We Recycle". Put the kale in a big bowl and drizzle with 2 TBS olive oil and the juice of the lemon.  Wash your hands and gently toss the leaves to coat.  Let this sit until you are ready to add it to the main equation.

4. Those of you who studied Greek mythology will remember pomegranate as the fruit that Persephone ate thus binding her to the underworld three months of the year. Attacking pomegranates is actually quite straightforward. Cut it in half, put it in a bowl of water and let it sit for about 15 minutes. Then begin the easy journey of carefully plucking the seeds from their cream colored encasement. Once you have plucked the fruit, strain the seeds and pick out the white bits. You should be left with a big bowl of lovely, plump, red pomegranate seeds.

5. You can toast the walnuts in a pan on the stove or you can throw them in the oven. As always, stay close and keep a keen eye out as they burn quickly. I like to throw them in a pan on high heat, toss a few times and you are done.

6. In a big bowl, mix the farro, roasted butternut squash, kale, walnuts and pomegranate seeds. Make a quick vinaigrette in a small bowl of 2 TBS olive oil, Bragg's apple cider vinegar, maple syrup, mustard and thyme leaves. Mix and drizzle over the salad.

7. Chop up the green onions and distribute on top. Grate the lemon rind on top.  A generous dash of salt and another quick mix.

Mazel tov - you're in business!

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