Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The Week Leading up to Christmas Dinner

Baltimore's Lexington Market

A week ago, we were reduced to writing about a lousy can of Sharks Fin soup. Then suddenly the Holiday season is upon us. The thought process leading up to Christmas dinner begins to evolve. Simplicity of preparation and favorite dishes beckon jointly, sometimes in conflict. A standing rib roast has worked more than once in the past. A refrain is in order. Turkey is not an option, even though one Christmas we duplicated the one gracing that December’s Gourmet Magazine cover.

One possibility is to do a relatively complicated dish a day or two in advance, all the better in terms of letting the flavors to blend before re-heating on Christmas night. A vegetarian family member loved the West African peanut and vegetable stew we did a couple years back. Another year, we pre-prepared a curried lamb stew recipe from the island of Martinique that worked great.

We get started on Saturday, Dec. 17, 2005, at the Lexington Market. Despite ongoing physical improvements in and surrounding it, the Lex remains pretty constant. As would be expected, the vitality level is enhanced with the approach of Christmas. At Faidley’s raw bar, the oysters from Grasonville are cleaner, clearer, fresher and more satisfying than any Maryland oysters we recall from recent years.

The seafood that excites us most is not to from Faidley’s, but at farther into the market at Harbor Seafood. Its shiny rockfish are all but jumping on the crushed ice. At least at the Lex, and for that matter all the city markets, you can check eyes and gills for clarity then poke flesh to ascertain resiliency. Even at the "best" supermarkets, your choice is between filets that could have been cut from fish with eyes long milky if not hollow. Rockfish this fresh if available as promised at Harbor Seafood on Christmas Eve could be an option for Christmas dinner.

Poultry presents fewer such concerns. We contemplate going with a Christmas goose and being done with it? Somewhat haphazardly, we check out the poultry stalls and don’t see any. We spend more of our time searching produce stalls for the limes needed for tonight. None are available anywhere in the Lexington Market complex, east or west. For us at the Lex, this is déjà vu.

Soul food, of course, is abundant. The Country Kitchen has a large selection. We want something healthy, which typically nixes soul food. However, the collard greens at Country Kitchen look too good to resist. Further temptation arises when we learn they’re cooked down with turkey necks and chicken breast rather than the expected pork products. Such a combination intrigues us enough to forget to request our obligatory dousing of vinegar and hot sauce. These greens are pleasing nonetheless.

Three days later on Tuesday, Dec. 20, our enthusiasm for goose is increasing, and we return to the Lex for another look. Packaged in white plastic, they are available at Dave Green’s, the first poultry stall we approach. The price is about $3.70 a pound. We’re told that if we come back Thursday, they’ll have " fresh" ones.

Having unrelated business to the west of town on Route 40, we stop at Rolling Road to visit the Asian supermarket Han Ah Reum. They offer what to the best of our knowledge is far and away the Baltimore areas’s most vast and diverse produce selection. Noting fresh English peas and fresh yard long beans, we vow to return on Friday or Christmas Eve hoping as fresh a selection will be available.

By Wednesday, Dec. 21, we’ve decided that green soup will be Christmas dinner’s first course for which the main ingredients, potatoes, onions, milk, frozen spinach, chicken broth, and heavy cream we can get anywhere. Another decision is to do a sweet potato dish flavored with the one vanilla bean remaining in our kitchen cabinet. To obtain our basics and some not-so-basics alike, we target the new Wegman’s in Hunt Valley. We’re rewarded to find both Pepperell Cove Oysters and Gerrish Point oysters, both from Maine. The Pepperell Cove ones are smaller and have a bit of green on their shells. The Gerrish Point oysters look like small Bluepoints. At a buck an oyster, we spring for $48 to buy two dozen of each. We find also a reasonably priced five pound chunk of fresh lean lamb that promises to be perfect for stewing with Sunday’s quinces from the Farmer’s Market. Wegman’s had no geese, however.

So on Thursday, Dec. 22, we’re back to the Lex to buy one at Dave Green’s. Once again, we visit Country Kitchen to try their greens this time with vinegar and hot sauce. Washed down with a honeydo and green tea smoothie from the Honolulu Stand, they're delicious, but we remain undecided whether cooking them down with turkey necks and chicken breast works as well as pork. Before leaving, we check Faidley’s to see if they have terrapin. In years past they did. They even had people to clean it. A befuddled fishmonger leads us to believe that those days are probably over.

For us, Friday, Dec. 23, will be the last day for assembling ingredients. We return to Han Au Reum for yard-long beans and whatever else appeals at the last minute. We get English peas to serve tonight. For a snack we grab small package of seasoned baked dry file fish. You eat it like you eat jerky.

A stew made with fresh quince purchased Sunday at the farmers market and the lamb Wegman’s is simmering on our stove by evening. We enjoyed them on Christmas Eve along with the Pepperell and Gerrish Cove Oysters from Wegman’s and the fresh peas from Han Au Reum. Everything else was served Christmas night.