I come from a long line of Southern cooks (that’s that terribly interesting and crazy and beautiful and frustrating region in the United States of America that’s produced some of the best writers known to man, along with some of the best food and cooks anywhere) who begin planning their Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts every year on December 26, people who never miss a date with a giant pot of black-eyed peas and collard greens on New Year’s Day. Tradition, spiced up by something new every year, a recipe or dish that my mother wanted to make, was the comforting norm, and that is a good thing. I taste still my grandmother Ida’s cornbread stuffing, and it’s been 15 years since I’ve actually put a spoonful of it in my mouth.
This year is going to be a bit different, however. Christmas Eve dinner’s main course will star pork and rice noodles and lots of bok choy (plus garlic and ginger and Thai chiles and cilantro and scallions and a good bottle or two of Riesling). Angela and I will be cooking with a friend who lost her mother this year; she also dealt with the death of her dog. Loss is everywhere all the time, of course, but this woman, whom I met only recently, is full of life and spirit and hope. It’s a lesson to me, her determination to tackle her grief while at the same time saying “yes” to life, embracing and respecting the sadness but pushing for communion and solace. She invited Angela and me into her home to cook and share a meal, and that’s as good a tradition as any.
I’m missing my parents this year — I spent Christmas with them last year — and making the distance worse is the reality that my father is dealing with a disease that has forced him to use a walker. He doesn’t sing any longer, but the songs are still in his smiling eyes. I’ll travel down to Florida next year to be with them in December, and I hope to start planning the meal with my mother soon. I want to recreate one of our holiday meals of yore, with all the trimmings. And I’ll bake the best chocolate cake that’s ever existed.
Here’s the recipe for the pork and rice noodles, if you want to make your own. I based it on one I found in The New York Times.
5 heads baby bok choy
2 ounces ginger root (choose one that fills the palm of your hand)
10 ounces thick rice noodles
3 tablespoons peanut oil
1.5 pounds ground pork
1.5 cups soy sauce
3 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
3/4 cup sliced scallions
4 garlic cloves sliced thinly (so one can see through them)
1 thai chile, stemmed and seeded (or 2 chilis, if you prefer if hotter)
3 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
2 tablespoons (or more) sesame oil
cilantro or basil, torn
black vinegar (feel free to use balsamic vinegar as a substitute)
How to cook it:
Wash bok choy thoroughly, and shake off excess water. Cut green leaves from the stalks, then slice the stems thinly (discard the woody, thick bottoms of the stalks). Peel a good chunk of the ginger, perhaps 2 ounces of it, and finely chop half of it and matchstick the rest.
Heat half of the oil in a large skillet over medium heat, then add pork and cook until browned and cooked through, using a fork or spoon to break it into small pieces. Season with salt, 2 tablespoons of soy sauce, and 1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar. Stir well and taste, then remove mixture to a bowl.
Bowl water in a kettle; put rice noodles in a large bowl (heat it first in water if you are worried about the heat cracking it). Pour bowling water over noodles and stir, then let them sit for one minute. Drain the noodles, then rinse them in cold water and let them drain again, well.
Pour the remaining peanut oil into the skillet and turn heat to medium. Next, add half of the scallions, the garlic, the chile, and the chopped ginger. Cook for 2 minutes or so, allowing the flavors to mingle and intensify. Now’s when you add the bok choy stalks, and more oil if desired. Cook the stalks until they begin to soften, 2-3 minutes. Next, add the bok choy leaves and the pork to the skillet, and stir and cook all a few minutes longer.
Add the noodles to the skillet a bit at a time, so they untangle, along with the remainder of the soy sauce and the rice wine vinegar. Heat through gently, taste for salt, and season as you desire. (I add more soy and rice wine vinegar, most of the time.)
When the mixture is hot, pour it into a large serving bowl, then toss the torn cilantro or basil on top and bring to table. Lay the ginger matchsticks in a small bowl and pour the black or (balsamic) vinegar over them, put the scallions in a small bowl, and sit down. Pour more wine, and enjoy.
Whatever you are cooking and drinking this year for the holidays, do it with love and share it all with good people.