preteen Amey in front of the Christmas fire
I still love to sit on the floor in front of the fire.
Every year of my life, for as long as I can remember, my family has had Christmas Eve dinner at my parents' house. Back in the day, it was a particularly big and festive gathering. My mom's parents would be there, both of my mom's sisters, my cousin, my brother, my parents, and any other family members or partners who were in town. My grandfather in particular was such a special man, and he always wore a beautiful bright red vest with gold buttons on Christmas. We all dressed up, because this was a special occasion.
This is the only picture I could find of my grandpa in his red vest. Plus my darling parents, looking so young!
And my mom's fashions looking so '80's! It's kind of nice that it was so hard to find any pictures of our Christmas eve dinners. I like that we were all too busy enjoying the time together.
The great thing about traditions like this is that they build momentum. It's not really that you remember any one year necessarily, but you remember year after year after year. I could list out each moment of each Christmas past - the whole cadence of the evening, from the building of the fire to the beautiful toast my grandpa would stand up and deliver at the table, to the pumpkin pie, to the inevitable return to the fireside... which by then would need to be revived with new logs after a long dinner.
The problem with traditions like this, though, is that - like all things - they are impermanent. Several years ago, my grandparents died, first my mom's mom, and then my mom's dad. I miss them so much. I'm lucky to have known them and loved them as much as I did. But their passing changed things. Not as many family members come home since my grandparents aren't here. Things just feel different. I'll tell you: this has been hard for me to accept, mostly just because I liked it the way it was, and I was a little heartbroken that things just really can't ever stay the same.
Playing cards by the tree with my grandma, my brother, and some close family friends.
I like this picture of my grandma, this is really how I remember her.
I think maybe this year was the first year since my grandparents' deaths that, in my heart of hearts, I finally sent up the white flag and surrendered to the hands of fate: fine! things will change!
A few weeks before Christmas, I was telling my friends "I really want to do an Italian Christmas dinner someday!" But I didn't know when I would ever have the chance. Because every year in our family, for all my life, we've had the same sort of dinner at Christmas time that we have at Thanksgiving: turkey for the non-vegans, a vegan entree, mashed potatoes, veggies, gravy, pumpkin pie, etc. And, y'know, that's how we do it. So, when my mom - out of the blue - said "I was thinking maybe we could mix it up and do something different this year..." -- I was surprised, but I was also ready to embrace something new. We talked about a few ideas, and we quickly decided that everyone could get excited about Italian food for Christmas.
I did some research online about Italian Christmas dinners, and we started to come up with a plan... and something new was born: a wonderful, delicious Italian Family Christmas together. Maybe it will be a new tradition, or maybe our new tradition will be to do something different every year.
So, with that long, shmaltzy introduction, I present:
Italian Christmas Dinner!
served in three courses
My mom sets a beautiful Christmas table
This is the same table that I grew up with.
I used to hide my undesired peas on the little crossbar underneath the table.*
*one time my mom separated the table to add a leaf, and found lots of little dried peas hidden on the support bar under the table. hee hee. It's kinda funny, because I remember liking peas... but I guess that wasn't always true!
First course: Antipasti
My mom was in charge of most of the antipasti and she did an amazing job!! She spent all day marinating and roasting various veggies : Artichoke hearts, wedges of fennel, eggplant slices (holy macaroon, these were SO good), bell peppers, and string beans. There were two plates full of these goodies, circulating around the table.
Beans beans beans!
She also prepared these simple and delicious white beans - they had a light, lemony dressing on them, plus a bunch of fresh parsley. I really love beans, and I gotta say, my mom has a magic touch with dressing, and the flavors in these beans really were great. I could have happily eaten that whole bowl of beans and called it quits!
and of course olives!
ya gotta have a few bowls of beautiful assorted olives!
Vegan cheeses & carbs
We also had some vegan cheeses and bread and crackers. When we were in Puglia (Southern Italy) a couple of years ago, my parents and Mr. VE&T and I all fell in love with taralli - these super crunchy ring-shaped crackers. I was so happy to find some in the local natural foods store (imported from Puglia!), especially in the classic Fennel Seed flavor.
I contributed a few top-shelf vegan cheeses: Winter Truffle and Black Ash from Miyoko's Creamery, and the Herb & Scallion cheese from Treeline. All very different and very good. Plus, my parents got some fresh "Herb Slab" french bread from Trader Joes/Acme Bakery (you can see my mom slicing it up in the back corner). That bread is delicious, and was perfect with the marinated veggies and cheeses.
My dad is a perennial goofball and before we even started eating, he had two taralli for eyes!
I love this beautiful centerpiece. I think it came from my parents' friends in Denmark. If you look closely, you can see the little red hearts around the frame. It also has four spikes for poking into fresh apples and four candle holders. It's so pretty, and it reminds me of every Christmas celebration ever.
Main Course : Lasagna!!
Foreground: My Vegan Lasagna
Background: Vegan No-Salt, No-Oil, No Noodles Lasagna
Well, as you may know, we are a complicated culinary family! My brother and his family prefer to eat a standard American diet, more or less. My aunt and her boyfriend are vegans like me, but, unlike me they also eat no salt, no sugar, no oil, and very few foods that are processed. So, in order to have a lasagna course that satisfied all hearts and palettes, we had 3 different lasagnas in attendance! ha ha.
My brother's fiance brought a decidedly non-veg lasagna (which I obviously didn't take a picture of!). I made myself my favorite lasagna. I don't make 'zag all that often, but I really really love it. While I was making my vegan lasagna, I also made a smaller version for my aunt and her partner - I used roasted slices of zucchini and eggplant instead of noodles, and just left the salt/oil/miso out of the tofu ricotta, cashew creme, and tomato sauce. I also added about a cup of cooked green lentils to the tomato sauce for both versions - I got that idea from Somer's book The Abundance Diet - they add a little extra nutrition, but also a little extra chew and bite.
As a vegan, I know how it is to feel either included or left out, so I wanted to make sure my aunt and her partner felt like they were part of our lasagna vision! When we sat down at the table, I realized that we hadn't prepared any crudite or SOS-free (salt-oil-sugar-free) antipasti for them, and I felt sorry. I'll remember that for next year.
My Christmas Dinner
My Aunt brought along some delicious roasted butternut squash slices. I love roasted butternut so much, partly because it's just so darned tasty, and also because it was one of my grandma's favorite foods, and so I feel a little closer to her whenever I enjoy a slice.
My mom also made a giant bowl of simple steamed chard, and then had some nice high-quality vinegars out of the table to douse the greens with. And she made some DYNO-MITE baked polenta wedges that were somehow the most tastiest polentas ever of my whole life. How did she do it? Maybe she will leave a comment and tell us, since she is a loyal blog reader.
In the end, only Mr VE&T and I tried my lasagna, so we went home with a ginormous platter full of vegan lasagna! I guess it woulda been kind of nice if more people were curious about my vegan contribution, but on the other hand, we just finished eating leftover lasagna for four nights in a row, which is truly a best-case-scenario as far as I'm concerned. Tomorrow I"ll have to get back in the kitchen and cook again, and I'll be missing that never-ending lasagna for sure.
Here's our festive gang (minus Mr. VE&T who was behind the lens!)
Sweeties, Fruits, and Nuts
Almond Coffee Cookies
I found this recipe online and it looked promising - and it really delivered! These cookies were easy to veganize, and were naturally gluten free. Here are the changes I made:
I made a half batch - and instead of soaking/blanching/grinding almonds, I just started off with a 1/2 lb of almond flour. (way easier!). I used most of a decaf Starbucks Via packet for the ground espresso. And I used the liquid from a can of chickpeas (aka aquafaba) for the egg replacer. I used 4.5 tbsp to equal roughly 1.5 eggs.
As you can see, these cookies turned out super cute and perfectly plump. As you can't see, they also turned out super delicious. You'll just have to take my word on that! I'll definitely keep this recipe in mind for future cookie needs, especially for my gluten-free loved ones!
Soft Anise Cookies
I saw several mentions of these delicate Christmas cookies, and so I went with them. I doubled the anise extract suggested in the recipe, but they were still quite subtle. I tend to prefer a more sassy cookie, but I enjoyed these. I especially enjoyed how they all poofed up PERFECTLY and were round little balls of cuteness. They're essentially a gentle sugar cookie with a super cute round shape, dipped in icing and covered in sprinkles. Maybe not my favorite cookie ever, but I still ate several... so not my least favorite either! ha ha. Plus, really, I think a plain cookie like this has its place in the world. If you are a fan of sugar cookies, you will like these too.
As with the previous cookie variety - I made a half-batch of these, and subbed almond milk for the dairy-milk, and used 4.5 Tbsp of chickpea liquid instead of 1.5 eggs. The results of my veganizing were really superb! Also, if you try your hand at this recipe, I probably got 20-24 cookies out of a half-batch, so I think the numbers in the original recipe are a little off.
In addition to the cookies, I also had a special Panforte that one of my friends had brought back from Italy for me earlier in the year, and I had been saving it for a special occasion. I love Panforte so much, and so do my parents, so this was a fun thing to share.
Also, I love my new holly plate that I got at Marshalls right before Christmas -- and I really love the beautiful platter that the cookies are on. I have a smaller platter that matches it that my mom and dad gave me a while ago. On Christmas morning, my mom and dad and I were talking about this pretty platter, and my dad was telling me that this was the nice china that they used for special occasions when he was growing up. It had so many memories for him! I was so honored when they gave it to me on Christmas day! I promise to take good care of it, and keep it together with its smaller companion.
Fruits & Nutzos
I also arranged a big platter of nuts and fruits (and there was a bowl of whole walnuts in the shells too). These are all winter fruits - apples from our tree, persimmons from a friend's tree, red & black grapes from the farmers market, tangerines... all surrounding a bowl of raw almonds and pecans. By the end of the evening there was pretty much nothing left of this bounty. As the fireside chatting went on and on, the little nibbles also continued into the night.
three wonderful Christmas doggies:
Santa Dottie Bonkers, Elf Snoopy, Santa Stevie Wonder
the bitter is a little more bitter, because of the sweet
& the sweet is a little sweeter, because of the bitter
Of course it's all a little bittersweet. Accepting Change feels both easier and harder than resisting it. Hopefully we can keep the warmth and the feelings that were in our hearts all those years, even as life evolves. I think we've done that pretty well over the last several years. I totally loved our new Christmas cuisine this year, and I had such a wonderful evening. But also, I still miss those old years. I think those two feelings will just have to learn to live side-by-side in my heart from now on.