THE GOCHISO GOURMET: The most wonderful time of the year

columnist-logo_ryantatsumoto_FINALOK, maybe it’s not the most wonderful time of the year. It’s probably because Andy Williams always seemed so cheerful and merry that swayed us with the lyrics. Or maybe it’s because of all of those Hallmark series Christmas specials on the cable network. You know, there’s the one where the poor housekeeper meets the billionaire owner of the company who falls in love with her, or the secretary who meets the crown prince of some mystical country with the same end result.

Maybe it’s simply because I’m a grinch by nature, or just a pessimist, but this time of year usually seems a lot more stressful. There’s no parking at Ala Moana Shopping Center, even on an early Sunday morning, and everyone is asking for last-minute time off from work, so you’re now swamped with the extra workload. Or maybe it’s just because Christmas seems to have leap-frogged Thanksgiving for the past three decades. But it’s that time again and we have to make the most of it.

Cooking Time Saver
Because we invariably get invited to hordes of parties during the season, the last thing we want to do is toil over a hot stove or oven to create that perfect roasted bird or ham.

Skip the oven and the stovetop and simply reach for your pressure cooker. I’ve mentioned it several years ago, but one of my favored cooking devices is my Fagor combination slow cooker, rice cooker and pressure cooker.

Forget the perfectly baked and glazed ham. Simply purchase a ham butt — the opposing end of the ham shank which is usually baked then spiral sliced — which includes part of the animal’s hip bone. Because of this aitch bone, the butt end isn’t conducive for perfect slices. However, when cooked at lower temperatures over an extended period of time, the meat literally falls off of the bone like proper barbecued pork. And it remains juicy and succulent. But why even wait those fuss-free eight hours with a crock pot when a pressure cooker does the same in one-third of the time?

The Gochiso Gourmet’s Pressure Cooked Pulled Ham is a go-to dish for those who are pressed for time. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

Pressured Cooked Pulled Ham
5 to 7 lb ham butt
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1 cup pack brown sugar
1/4 cup brown mustard
1/4 cup honey
About 20 grinds coarse black pepper

Place the ham in the pot of your pressure cooker — if the ham goes above the top of the cooking vessel, cut off chunks so that the whole ham butt remains totally within the cooking vessel. Mix the next five ingredients and pour over the ham. Cook under pressure for two and a half hours. I usually let it slow cook for another 30 minutes on the slow- cook setting to gradually reduce the pressure. Use two forks to shred the ham, which should easily slide off of the aitch bone. Serve as you would pulled pork or in sweet buns with mustard sauce.

Baked Leftovers?
OK, I’m not asking you to take leftovers to your next holiday party, but because the base of this dish is stale bread, it’s almost like using leftover bread. When seasoned properly, a strata is not just delicious, but also can function as either a starch side dish or a main course. And because this version has flecks of red and green, it does look like you created it just for Christmas.

The red and green ingredients in his Strata Italiano make for a festive dish for holiday get-togethers. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

Strata Italiano
About four to five cups of 1/2 cubed stale bread
One package of fresh Italian sausage, four to five links with casing removed then cooked until brown
1 lb package of frozen chopped spinach, defrosted
6 to 8 ounce bottle of roasted red peppers, chopped
4 cups milk
5 eggs, beaten
About one cup shredded white melting cheeses (mozzarella, fontina and/or provolone)
About 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 tsp Italian seasoning
1 tsp ground fennel seeds
Salt and fresh cracked black pepper to taste

Toss the cubed bread with sausage, spinach, red peppers, cheeses and herbs/seasonings. Mix the eggs with the milk then pour over the bread mixture and let sit for at least 10 minutes until the liquid is absorbed into the bread. Sprinkle a little bit of grated Parmesan over the top then bake at 350 degrees for 45 to 55 minutes until the custard mixture (liquids) are set. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Liquid “Food”
Finally, the holidays aren’t the same without a special libation, and this cocktail also contains the licorice qualities found in fennel seeds. In fact, it also contains fennel syrup and that licorice flavored liqueur, Ouzo. I mean, which culture is more festive than Greek culture? They smash dinner plates just for the heck of it and often break into spontaneous song and dance on a whim. So here’s my festive tributary cocktail.

Yasou-Good-Lookin’ Fennel Syrup
Heat equal parts of water and sugar (1 cup water, 1 cup sugar) just before the boiling point (just as small bubbles appear) then add one-half cup of chopped fresh fennel and remove from the heat to “steep” for 30 minutes. Strain out the fennel for a clear fennel syrup.

1 ounce fennel syrup
1/2 ounce Ouzo (if you can’t find Ouzo, Sambuca works just as well)
1 1/2 ounce Metaxa (sweetened Greek brandy)
3 ounce Q Tonic water.

Pour over the rock in a tall highball glass and garnish with a fennel frond.

So hopefully, some or all of my suggestions will take a little stress out of your holiday season. After all, the holidays weren’t meant to be a stage for a family cooking competition. Simply breaking bread and uncorking a bottle of wine with family and friends is what it’s all about. Remember, it’s not what’s on the table that matters as much as what’s on the chairs. But if you still find yourself stressed, then simply have three or four Yasou-Good-Lookin’s and the stress will fade like a distant memory… just make sure you have a designated driver …

The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the University of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, HI and can be reached at gochisogourmet@yahoo.com.

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