Tuesday, January 3, 2012

GI Janet

Ladies and gentlemen...Christmas has left the building.

Tree...untrimmed. Halls...undecked. Cookies...consumed.

The only hint of holiday that remains is a stack of green and red Rubbermaid boxes perched patiently in the corner of the room waiting to be slid into the rafters...hopefully sometime before Easter.

Yes, we have even carried out our ceremonial gingerbread demolition: an admittedly twisted tradition of New Year's catharsis designed to ring out the old with a flying flurry of petrified ginger cookie, neon sprinkles and hardened icing.

As I sat on the curb this morning observing the aftermath of the gingerbread Armageddon, watching the kids scoop up the last remnants of Christmas 2011, I couldn't help but wonder, when I look back at this Christmas, what will I say it was "the Christmas that..."?

My mind started to drift, as it does, and I thought for a minute about happy ghosts of Christmas past and a parade of holiday memories marked by people and places and presents that,for one reason or another, stick to my psyche like a wayward piece of unwrapped candy cane hiding at the bottom of my purse.

I remember the Christmas that Greg and I got a new baby brother and Mom let me wear my go-go boots to church.

I remember the Christmas that Diane got chosen to be Mary in the class Nativity tableau and all I got to be was a stinkin' angel.

I remember the Christmas that Charlie and I celebrated together for the first time as husband and wife in our very first house. Yes, I am wearing a jumpsuit and yes, the star at the top of the tree is made of aluminum foil.

I remember the Christmas that we thought it would be clever to photograph our 3-week-old infant as if she was popping out of a Christmas package only to realize that it was probably ill-advised given that she couldn't even hold her head up on her own. The photos ended up looking like she was being sucked down into some sort of Christmas vortex by Thing from The Addams family.
Then there was the next Christmas that we had better luck with the whole baby-in-a-box concept...

There was the Christmas that Carly got her two-wheeler...

...and the next Christmas that she got her baby brother.
And, a few years later, there was the Christmas that baby brother finally got his two-wheeler too... 

There was the Christmas that Mom got a pair of real diamond earrings, the Christmas that I got mono in high school, the Christmas that I sat on the couch most of the day holding my breath, and my water, hoping that I could get to the 26th without giving birth (thankfully William waited another week).

But, of all my "Christmases that...", the one that brings the biggest smile to my face is the one when GI Janet came to dinner.

It was 1974 and, as we did every year, Christmas was celebrated with Grandmas and Grandpas, Auntie Janet, Uncle Jack and their three kids. Each year we would alternate venues, one year at the cousins' home in Concord then the next at ours in Fairfax.

This particular year, Christmas was at home and was filled with the usual hopped-up holiday antics: kids running up and down the stairs dodging cousin cooties, an endless flow of crumpled wrapping paper swirling overhead, Karen Carpenter belting out Christmas tunes from the hi-fi and this particular year, it seems, an abundance of Almaden Chablis flowing from jug to glass.

The cousins, juiced on chocolate cake and adrenalin, thought it would be funny to heist the cigars my parents kept for guests in a cut glass jar on the coffee table and march around the house holding them between our teeth like a squad of tiny little Castros.

Not to let a parade pass her by, Auntie Janet put out her cigarette, grabbed a cigar for herself, lit it up, snatched my little brother's official General Patton plastic army helmet from beneath the tree and led her minions in triumphant splendor past the spectators laughing and raising their glasses of Creme de Menthe in tribute.

Ah, such a proud family moment. Check out Michael with the cigar in the lower right of the photo...I think he was about three.
Poor Auntie Janet never lived it down and has since been lovingly referred to as GI Janet. Even 25 years later at a family party, my Dad stuck a bowl on her head, gave her a cigar and had her strike a pose for posterity...
...at 5 or 55 I guess big brothers never really stop teasing their baby sisters.

Aside from her military fame, Auntie Janet is also a legendary cook. Perfectly prepared roasts, creamy mashed potatoes, meticulously decorated cakes, holiday meals were always a treat when Auntie Janet was at the helm. But, no matter who hosted Christmas each year, she would always be the one to belly up to the stove and take her place as the official gravy-maker in the family.

One year, when I was in high school, I think, she summoned me to her post and told me it was time I learned the tricks of the trade. For a couple of years after that, until our families started to grow and spend the holidays apart, I stood by my Auntie's side and assisted as she patiently coaxed a silken gravy out of what started out as the seemingly unsavory dregs of a steaming hot roasting pan.

One year, I realized that, without any pomp and circumstance, the whisk had been passed to me and I had become our family's "Queen of the Gravy."

This year, I asked Carly to babysit the pan while I tended to some brussel sprouts or the like. Little does she know that I have begun her clandestine initiation and my little heir, like it or not, will one day wear the dubious crown. There she is, in action below..."just a little more stock, Princess...that's it...keep whisking...".
So, if you were to ask me how I will remember this Christmas, I'm actually not quite sure how I would respond. Maybe it's the year that Patti gave me that killer Toasted Pine nut and Rosemary Brittle recipe or the year Laura made me that vintage Christmas apron complete with red dingle ball trim. Or maybe it's simply the year that an unspoken family tradition began it's journey from one generation to the next.

It's kind of OK, I think, that every year isn't a big fat "Christmas that..." marked by a landmark gift or a special event, so I'm just fine looking back at Christmas 2011 and remembering with a smile that we got through the year just fine, thank you, and stand together walking strong into the new year.

In hopes that you too might give my gravy a go and share it with your family, I roasted a chicken and snapped some photos to walk you through my version of Auntie Janet's yummy goodness. It might not fit into your January resolution for low fat living, but promise me you won't wait until next Thanksgiving to give it a try.

Here's what the roasting pan looked like after I pulled out the bird to rest on a plate nearby. Not so pretty, I know, but this is where almost every bit of the gravy's flavor originates. Before roasting,I had rubbed the chicken down with generous amounts of butter, chopped garlic, salt and pepper and shoved an onion and a lemon into it's nether regions which, despite the indignity for the chicken, gave this gravy a really, really delicious, tangy, roasted garlic flavor. 

Pour the pan juices off into a measuring cup or a gravy fat separator. The fat will rise to the top and the flavor-packed drippings will sink to the bottom. Reserve it all.

Straddle the roasting pan over two burners on the stove top and set the heat to medium-high. Pour about two tablespoons of the fat back into the pan, add two tablespoons of butter and, using a wooden spoon, scrape up the brown bits from the pan.

Sprinkle about 4 tablespoons of flour over the melted fat and blend together over the heat being careful not to burn your concoction.

Now you have a roux. Cook this for a few minutes until it starts to thicken, darken and bubble.

Start to add your stock (chicken if you have roasted a chicken, beef if you have roasted a beef), slowly incorporating it with a whisk, waiting for the gravy to thicken slightly before each addition. My gravy took about two cups of stock this time to get the the consistency I wanted.
When your gravy is almost where you want it, skim as much fat as possible off the drippings you have reserved and add the gooey goodness that remains to the mix for a real flavor boost.

Adjust your seasoning with salt and pepper if you need it and serve warm over your perfectly roasted meat. This gravy ended up light brown with little flecks of roasted garlic...one of my best I'd say. Your version may be darker or lighter depending on the state of your drippings to start. If you look at the photo of Carly working the turkey gravy above, you can see that it was really deep and dark which had a lot to do with the hours and hours of roasting and the basting of butter and white wine...yum!  Any way you slice it, it's good stuff.

GI Janet's Pan Gravy

  • Pan drippings
  • 2 Tablespoons butter
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 2 cups stock

1.) Pour all of the roasting liquid from your pan into a glass measuring cup or gravy fat separator and reserve.
2.) Straddle the pan over two burners, set the heat to medium/high, add the two Tablespoons of butter and two Tablespoons of the reserved fat which has risen to the top of your measuring cup. Scrape brown bits from pan with a wooden spoon.
3.) Sprinkle flour over melted fat and cook the roux for a few minutes until it is thick and darkened.
4.) Begin to add the stock and little at a time, incorporating fully and letting thicken after each addition.Continue adding stock until you reach your desired consistency.
5.) Remove any remaining fat from your reserved juices and add to your gravy the rich dark drippings that remain.
6.) Season with salt and pepper if needed.
Makes enough to accompany one roasted chicken and some mashed potatoes on the side.