Thursday, December 16, 1999
"Pouf it out, toward me," she insists. "No, no--to the left. That''s it. Right there. Now swoosh the one above it. No, not that one, the next pouf over. More pouf! Give me more! Think poufs on a grand scale!"
I think briefly of hurling a gilded gold pinecone at my friend, the interior design queen, from my tenuous perch on a stepladder at the top of an 11-foot Noble Fir. It could backfire, however, since I''ve lost half my vision, stuck in the eye by a Noble Fir needle. Plus my arms are pretty shaky, the result of pouf-fatigue and cappuccino. I doggedly demur.
"OK, now. Let''s re-pouf the other side and balance it out."
"Oh!" I cheer under my breath. "Let''s!" Shakily, I move the ladder for the hundredth time. My eye is watering. The tips of my fingers feel like tiny, raw pincushions, stung by thousands of iridescent diamond lights unstranded and strung, decking the halls of the damned. "This time of year is made for certifiable loonies," I morbidly muse. "The kind of people you see going in those Christmas stores in June. The kind my friend just luu-uvvs. What if the hokey pokey is what it''s all about?"
"Perfect!" she gushes. "Done!" "Now we''ll do the topiaries. No, wait. First we should flock. Now, where exactly did you put the flocking kit?"
"Flock this kit!" I assail, but under my breath. The flocking kit, after all, was right here, hanging around my neck. Exactly like the scissors, and of course the tape, giving me cause to wonder, all total, how many times during this fevered season these paranormal items disappear into the ethers. Later, I hug my friend goodnight, marveling at her generous spirit, wondering how long purgatory lasts. When the smoke alarm goes off in the wee hours signaling that the last batch of cookies is done, I awaken from a jittery, caffeinated sleep on the sofa. I behold the twinkling, bejeweled fir, deposited from the ethereal wings of sprightly fairies in the half-light. Every joint cries for deep tissue therapy, every muscle screams for shiatsu, but awakening to the 40-carat tree and a counter-full of pfeffernussen, I taste the glory of what it is to be Martha.
Here we are, in the throes of the most ambivalent weeks of the year when the primal urges to flock and garnish reach their peak, and the leisure to enjoy their aesthetic fruits are threatened by extinction. There is the cure of course; we may purchase the services of professionals. Seems to me to be the case of choosing between a shrink, a decorator, and a caterer. Or in the best of circumstances, perhaps all three. If you''re lucky, you get a caterer with a sense of pathos who loves to decorate.
Take Jon Kasky, of Birds of Paradise catering, for instance. One of his fave tricks? "I love to do a big display of lady apples and Seckle pears, fruits that can be so small they''re almost walnut size. You can actually create holiday centerpieces by arranging the fruits around big wedges of cheddar and fontina," he explains. "Then I decorate the platters with fresh bay leaves from my trees, choosing the ones with red berries." Little satsuma oranges, the kind with the leaves, and chestnuts are also fun to play with. "This is chanterelle season, too," he reminds. He likes to sweat them in butter for the chanterelle-chardonnay sauce he pairs with mesquite-seared Sonoma lamb.
Kathy Baptista, owner of A Taste of Elegance, goes along with the idea of edible centerpieces. One of the hottest appetizers she gets requests for is seared rare ahi in wasabi aioli and lime. "They''re visually enticing," she notes, "because you cut the tuna in triangles and place them on rice crackers. And the fish is marinated in garlic, ginger and olive oil before searing, so the taste is there, too." You''ve got the shiny, almost varnished finish of the rice cracker, the tuna, in earth tones, and the knock out green wasabi sauce, drizzled in a geometric pattern. On a high-sheen red lacquer tray, you''ve got drama that''ll roll Martha''s socks up and down.
Terry Teplitzsky, owner of Michael''s Catering, says he and his staff spend a lot of time looking through culinary literature to come up with ideas. "Sometimes, you pull from dishes that are considered ''from the past'' to come up with something altogether new. Like in the case of [last week''s] Feast For AIDS event. All the chefs had to use pheasant for the second course. I decided to do a galantine, a beautiful preparation that you don''t very often see around anymore."
One reason might be that it''s labor-intensive; for this one, Teplitzsky stuffed the pheasant with a forcemeat, rolled it into a loaf that''s wrapped in cheesecloth, and then poached it in stock. After chilling it off, giving it a glistening coast of aspic, you''re ready to garnish with a frenzy. All kinds of cool stuff will adhere to the aspic (truffles, olives, nuts, car keys) so you''re only limited by your imagination. "To give it an updated twist, I served it with curry slaw and apple cranberry chutney," he finishes. For a platter presentation, arranged in a snappy pattern on a sturdy mirror, you''ve got some high drama looking right back at you.
The ultimate one-dish festive party eats has to be paella. Served in a big, shallow round pan (cleverly called a paella) that invites rubbing elbows, it''s a guaranteed party-starter. Chef Uwe sells a boatload of it this time of year at Santa Lucia Market. Bright yellow saffron rice, studded with mussels, loaded with chicken, chorizo, and prawns, this is panache in a pan. And garnished with a cascade of green peas and red peppers and poufing it just so, it looks a lot like Christmas.