For some folks, this season is about peace and good tidings. For others, it’s just about the presents. In my family, the holidays were, and still are, all about the food.

There are many items that must be on the table at my house, or it simply isn’t Christmas. Among these are the wild rice dressing, cornbread, grandma’s cranberries, and mom’s bourbon pound cake. Now that pound cake is a very closely guarded family recipe, but the other recipes are below.

Wild rice

Wild rice.Photo: WhitneyI would have never thought wild rice dressing could be improved upon until I discovered the magnificent flavors of real Manoomin, a traditional Native American “rice” that is hand-harvested and hand-parched in the Great Lakes region of Minnesota. If don’t you live in Minnesota, the real Manoomin can be ordered online from the White Earth Land Recovery Project, a group that works to restore native foods and traditions. It’s a bit more expensive than the industrialized “paddy rice” coming out of California, but it is worth every penny. The flavor is far richer, far more intense, and the nutritional value is far higher. Add to this the spiritual benefit of knowing you’re helping a community in need become more self-sufficient, and it becomes downright rewarding.

Kurt’s Mom’s Wild Rice Dressing

It’s easy enough to make this dish vegetarian (or vegan, in fact). Simply leave out the sausage, increase the mushrooms, substitute vegetable broth for the chicken stock and olive oil for the butter.

1 pound Manoomin wild rice, washed three times in cold water
4 cups chicken broth
1 pound pork sausage (I use homemade but any high quality breakfast sausage will do)
1/4 pound butter
2 portobello mushrooms, or about 10 crimini mushrooms, diced
1/2 onion, minced
1 tablespoon parsley, chopped
1 stalk celery, diced
1 pinch fresh thyme

Preparation

Boil rice in broth for 20 minutes.

Brown pork in butter until fully cooked. Add remaining ingredients. Simmer for 10 minutes, then mix in rice and remaining broth. Bake covered at 350 degrees for 20 minutes, then uncovered to desired consistency (I like it to get crunchy on top).

Serve immediately or store (it freezes well). Makes about 8 servings.

Cranberries

cranberry setFor many families, “cranberries” have come to mean the red jelly that comes in a cylindrical loaf that slides from a can. This form of “cranberry sauce” had become so ubiquitous by the beginning of the 1960s that my mother-in-law actually received, as a gift, a WM Rogers Silverplate Cranberry set, designed specifically to serve a 15-ounce can of the stuff.

Of course, it was also the Native Americans who first created cranberry sauce — sweetening with maple sugar or honey — long before European settlers had arrived on these shores. They would often eat cranberries raw, a practice which the modern inhabitants of the new world would probably find difficult at best. They prized the berry not only as a food but also as a fabric dye and a poultice for wounds. The acid content of cranberries is extremely high, which made them extremely valuable as a winter food because their shelf life more closely resembles a chemical “half life.”

As far as I have been able to discover, there is no one farming cranberries in Iowa, where I live. To find the nearest (and therefore freshest) berries, we must look to our neighbors to the north in Wisconsin and Minnesota. One of my favorite farms is Alder Lake Cranberries in Wisconsin. Theirs is a family-owned farm that’s been growing strong for more than 60 years.

Cranberries.Photo: catharticfluxGood cranberry sauce is very easy to make and relatively cheap. My grandma was famous in our family for writing out recipes that began with things like “Take a bottle of cream … ” without any indication, for those of us who grew up in the post-milkman era, what the size of a “bottle” might be. And so here, in her words, is my Grandma Friese’s “Whole Cranberries.”

“1 cup water, 1 cup Port wine, 1 cup sugar, 2 cinnamon sticks, lemon rind, all together to a boil for about 10 minutes.

“Then add 1 lb. whole cranberries. Cook slowly so berries do not burst too much. After mixture looks about right, add one more cup of wine and let cool.”

That’s the whole thing. She used to make it way ahead of time and let it ferment; it had quite a kick.

My recipe is a bit more complicated than my grandmother’s, but is also quite tasty.

Cranberry Sauce

2 pounds fresh cranberries
2 cups sugar, or to taste
Water, to cover
1 orange, split
1 lemon, split
1 lime, split
2 nutmeg, cracked
5 cardamom pods, cracked
2 sticks cinnamon
2 cups port wine
1/4 cup candied ginger root, julienned

Preparation

Combine the orange, lemon, lime, nutmeg, cardamom, and cinnamon in a cheesecloth pouch, tie together with a string, then place in the bottom of a large saucepan. Add the cranberries, water, and sugar. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and let simmer for about an hour.

Add the port and the ginger, simmer for an additional 5 minutes, then remove and let cool. Serve hot or cold.

Cornbread

Cornbread.Photo: Tristan FerneMy wife Kim’s family had different food traditions, including oyster stew and tamales. But the best tradition from her side of the family, and the one that made it so easy for us to combine our holiday traditions when we married almost 25 years ago, was cornbread and beans.

Kim’s mother and grandmother both used Jiffy Mix for their cornbread, but Kim married a chef, so now we make it from scratch and eat it with beans every Christmas Eve. It’s a fitting counterpoint to the the rich, luxurious feast we’ll have the following day, and it reminds us of a time not so long ago when our families could afford no more than cornbread and beans for their holiday supper.

To keep with family tradition, the cornbread must be served warm, sliced horizontally, and spread with butter (not margarine). The beans must be navy beans, cooked simply in salted water, and ladled piping hot over the buttered cornbread. The dish is then garnished with diced yellow onions, hand-chopped pickled hot peppers, and white vinegar.

Though it divides in half easily, this cornbread recipe makes a large batch, in case you’re planning to have a crowd of family and many friends surrounding your holiday table this year.

Iowa Sweet Cornbread

3 cups stone ground cornmeal
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons salt
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup buttermilk (or 1 cup milk plus 1 tablespoon vinegar)
1/2 cup butter or lard, melted
1/2 cup Monterey jack cheese, shredded, optional
4 scallions, sliced, optional

Preparation

Preheat oven to 425 degrees and grease a pyrex dish (8″ x 10″ x 4″ or equivalent).

Combine all dry ingredients thoroughly in a large mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, combine the beaten egg, buttermilk, and melted butter or lard. Add the liquid to the dry mix (and add the cheese and scallions, if desired) and fold to combine until just evenly moist.

Spoon the mixture into the greased dish and bake in center of oven for 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the bread comes out clean.

Allow it to stand for 15 minutes before serving. Makes 10-12 healthy portions.