Tangerines and nuts help greet the season

December 17, 1997|By Rob Kasper

I AM MAKING MY LIST of foods and beverages I "gotta have" to make the holidays smell and taste right.

At the top of the list are tangerines. Christmas morning is supposed to smell like tangerines. I have great expectations for my Christmas tangerines. I think there should be a tangerine in every stocking. And every tangerine should have a flavor as sweet as your favorite Christmas memory.

Many times the tangerines I buy have a wonderful perfume, but their flavor is as mediocre as my high school math grades. I can't figure out what the secret is to picking sweet tangerines. I have tried several varieties -- clementine, Dancy, Honey. They always look promising, so orange, so bright. But, like unwrapping a Christmas present, after I peel the tangerine I am sometimes disappointed by what I find inside.

I also "gotta have" nuts at Christmas. Mainly I crave walnuts and peanuts, but a filbert or two and some stray pecans are always welcome. These nuts have to be in bowls and stuffed in stockings, and their shells have to show up underneath the sofa cushions. That's the nut tradition I come from.

When I was a kid growing up in the Midwest, the arrival of Christmas peanuts was an especially joyful occasion for me. Bags of peanuts were part of the annual Knights of Columbus Christmas party thrown for us by our dads at their clubhouse. At that party we got to play pool, to drink great amounts of soda pop and to eat mounds of fresh-roasted peanuts. Moreover, this libertine behavior took place a day or two before we would get out of school for Christmas vacation. The event made such an impression on me that years later, when I eat fresh roasted peanuts, I feel that happy days are ahead.

My kids, who grew up in Baltimore, "gotta have" the fresh-roasted peanuts sold at the A. D. Konstant & Son stand outside Lexington Market. It is a seasonal request I am happy to indulge. For me, a trip to Lexington Market or any of Baltimore's various indoor markets is a sensual delight. The air is filled with the sounds and aromas of merchants selling foodstuffs. And at Christmas, when the shoppers are bundled up in thick coats and steam is rising off the hot peanuts, the scene at the Konstant stand strikes me as something right out of Charles Dickens.

Another item on my "gotta have" list is popcorn. I eat a lot of popcorn, but at this time of year most of the corn I pop is supposed to end up strung around the Christmas tree. After I pop the popcorn, I let it cool off, then I put it in the freezer. Spending a night or two in the freezer makes the popcorn tougher. This toughened corn is less likely to fall apart when I attack it with a needle and thread and make the long strings of popcorn that decorate the tree. This year I am going to try using microwave popcorn to decorate the tree. I will use one of those horrible, no butter, no oil, no flavor varieties. This kind of popcorn does not leave any residue on your hands when you string it. And because it tastes so bad, there is little temptation to eat it.

The kind of cookies I "gotta have" at Christmas are wedding cookies -- butter cookies made with ground walnuts and covered with powdered sugar. Some folks call these Greek wedding cookies, and other folks refer to them as Mexican wedding cookies. I know them as Aunt Mary Alice's cookies. My aunt bakes them in her Chicago kitchen and mails them to her relatives. For me, one of the truly magical aspects of this season is how it transforms the nature of daily mail. For most of the year, the daily mail delivery is not something I anticipate. It carries bills and other notices of obligations. But during December, the daily mail can bring handwritten notes from old friends, and, if I am especially lucky, a tin of Christmas cookies from Chicago.

As for Christmas beverages, I "gotta have" a crisp champagne or sparkling wine, and a full-bodied coffee.

At our house, I like to sip a Schramsberg Blanc de Noirs on Christmas morning, after the tangerines have been eaten and the presents have been passed out. The bubbling wine puts a nice glow on the morning.

Later, to keep the champagne sippers from falling asleep, I make a pot of full-bodied coffee, usually mixing a blend of Sumatra and Yergacheffe beans.

Then, after sniffing a tangerine, sipping champagne and stepping on a walnut shell, eating a wedding cookie, admiring the popcorn string and drinking good coffee, I know it is Christmas.

Pub Date: 12/17/97

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