I have never much liked trimming the tree at Christmas. I did a poor job of verbalizing the reason to my family who thought I was just being lazy, sleepy or bored. What I did know was that it wasn’t to do with the old metal (albeit shiny) trunk chest that belonged to my Father that needed retrieving, year after year, from under the stairs. Also required was a good under the stairs closet cleaning, first. This, so we could actually reach the trunk; important because it housed all of our Christmas ornaments (and trust me, we had more than a few). I actually liked this ritual, minus the cleaning. Seeing the shiny chest opened to reveal centuries worth of sentiment was good enough for me to play along.
It wasn’t because I kept pricking my finger with the re-purposed ornament hooks that needed a good deal of untangling before one could be set free. I was used to fishing (actual fish) so, I could put up with that.
It wasn’t even because of the tinsel, which Dad made us put on s t r a n d by s t r a n d (and yes, they came down that way too – back into the box… o n e by o n e). Those of you that have never had the happy fortune to experience real lead (yes lead, as in, red-list lead) tinsel – well, let’s just say, “they don’t make it like they used to”, as my Dad would explain in the same breath that instructed us the correct way to remove it from the box and apply it to the tree… no cheating by the way; no choosing more than one strand at a time… maybe three is okay – if he isn’t looking!
Now before you say that I’m a bah humbug, hear me out, because actually, I’m quite the Christmas bug (in an equally cute sort of way). I am! It’s just that I prefer to sit on the sideline, watching everyone happily discover old memories from the ornaments as they unwrap each of them individually, and box by box. There is always a story. The story accompanies every single ornament before finding that perfect spot on the tree. From my seat on the couch, curled up by the fire, I have the best view. I have always loved Christmas, and to me, it starts with the tree (usually the day after Thanksgiving, but NEVER before). Thanks to Dad, we always had a glorious tree, 20+ boxes of meticulously laid tinsel, a 100 year-old Santa doll, part home-made/part store-bought ornaments, and all!
Christmas-time begins with the tree. No matter how many fake Santa’s lined the malls with their so called “elves”, and fake snow sprayed onto stage sets. No matter how many shelves of candy, wrapped in red, green and gold that eventually turn stale. It is the tree that puts off the scent of Christmas, and can fill the home with a magical spell. For us anyways.
Since Tom and I recently returned from Hawai’i, and immediately got thrown right back into the rat race, I forgot, just for a moment… or two, that it IS indeed the holiday season of which we are usually fully emerged by this date. Why is it that we are not? We began the Holiday tunes in Hawai’i. Heck, even Ginger and Buddy had decorated themselves in antlers and bells (did any of you notice their antics up top?).
I looked around our house and it just felt the same. No snow was outside, no lights were shining (okay, maybe a few lights, which we leave in our backyard year ’round – holiday lights, turn to winter lights, turn to late night mood lighting, and then back to holiday lights…). It donned on me suddenly, we were still lacking a tree.
So, first things first, to start our festivities and bring in the spirit that makes me smile from within, we have gone out and fetched a most splendid tree, put it up and trimmed it (actually, real elf Tom did the trimming, as is often the case). Each year we proclaim this year’s tree to be more spectacular than the last. It can’t be too perfect or too tightly filled in. There needs to be character and openings to fit ornaments cradled just right. Tall ones and short ones, fat, skinny or wobbly ones.
Keeping with the traditionalist in me, Mr. Crosby (not to be confused with Bill Cosby in a reindeer jumper) is singing in the background as our first, most important ornament is hung. Tom bought this for me from a little country store outside Madison, New Jersey during our first Christmas together at my brother Scott’s old place; it began our tradition of snowmen-only trees. The second to go up is a silly picture frame ornament purchased at Eddie Bauer a zillion years ago, which contains a picture of Buffy, in my brother’s room as we wrap presents during the same trip; she was laying on the floor next to Christine’s red pumps and ended up wearing them thanks to Tom (not really her style, but we cherish the picture nonetheless).
“Almost Christmas” spaghetti (not to be confused with Christmas fettuccine) serves 2 (possibly 3)
Since it is a work night and a very long week, I decided to make dinner simple and comforting. A good quality Italian jarred tomato purée, lovely unfiltered, extra virgin olive oil, red wine and Unami paste, make for a remarkably quick but tasty sauce. Thanks for the much-appreciated treats Paula and Jeff!
LINGUINE BOLOGNESE the shortcut version
1TB olive oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 medium shallot, chopped
1/2 lb ground beef, seasoned with sea salt and pepper and brought to room temperature
1 cup cooked tomato puree (I used Mariangela Prunotto organic tomato purée)
3/4-1 cup red wine
1 tsp Unami paste (or more to taste)
1 tsp oregano
6-8 ounces good quality dried, Italian spaghetti noodles (such as Montebello)
Olive oil for tossing
Fresh parmesan cheese
Soft baby mixed greens
Pinch of salt
Freshly grated Parmesan
HEAT A SAUTÉ PAN over medium heat then add the olive oil to the pan. When it is warm enough to move freely when tilted, ADD the garlic and shallot, cooking for just a minute or two. ADD THE BEEF and BROWN undisturbed for a few minutes then stir and continue to let it brown. ADD 3/4 cup red wine and let it simmer down. ADD the tomato purée, Unami paste and oregano. BRING TO A SIMMER then cover the pan and turn down the heat to low.
This will be fine on it’s own for bit while you munch on a piece of cheese and pour a glass of wine while admiring the tree (and it’s decorator). It will want to cook for at least 15 minutes in order to let the flavors blend and the beef soften. This is a good time also to fill your pasta cooking pan with water and let it begin to come to a boil.
COOK the pasta as the package instructs. When cooked, drain (saving a little of the pasta water to refresh the sauce if needed). DRIZZLE the pasta with some nice olive oil then GRATE some Parmesan over top and TOSS.
CHECK ON the sauce and adjust the seasonings or consistency as you desire. ADD the pasta to the sauce to heat through.
DIVIDE the pasta between two warmed pasta bowls.
DRESS a handful of greens with lemon juice and salt, a little olive oil if you like, TUCK them into the pasta mound. GRATE over some fresh cheese and enjoy with a piece of crusty bread, with olive oil for dipping and (of course) a glass of red wine.