If you’re like us, Costco plays a supporting role in almost all of our holiday festivities. In fairly serious strategy sessions around the kitchen island, we try to figure out what things make sense to get there and how to get out FAST. Lists are made. Tactics are formulated (“you get the wine with the cart and I’ll meet you over at the beef tenderloin.”) But on our trip yesterday, I had a new found understanding of why I both dread our annual holiday pilgrimage to Costco, and actually kind of like it too: it’s a bizarre modern American version of the old bazaar.
Giant TV’s dazzle as you walk in. You try to not make eye contact with the guy hawking the latest and greatest in juicing technology. And it seems you’re always bumping into people at the aisle intersections.
We don’t buy many Christmas presents there anymore. In fact, we hardly buy any gifts like we did in the 90’s. Back then, the cheap imports were starting to flow into our country like water. It was weird and wonderful: the cost of clothing and unnecessary appliances seems to plummet 50% overnight. Our gift opening ritual sometimes went on for 4 or 5 or 6 hours. But life in 2016 is different. In both Alan’s and my families, we have secured every cheaply rendered creature comfort by now. Probably way too many. So buying big plastic things at warehouse stores does not hold the allure it once did at Christmas. Instead, we buy mainly food, booze and an occasional item of whimsy that seems to promise us a feeling of coziness there, like fuzzy slippers or comfy earmuffs. And then there’s the added bonus of all those Costco sampling carts!
There’s a silent tactical battle that goes on into securing a good food sample at Costco, for something like a whisper of turtle cheesecake, or a bite of panko-breaded mozzarella (I know you know what I’m talking about!). Here’s the scene: there’s no samples on the tray, and the demonstrator is dutifully preparing the next batch of say, chipotle meatballs.
you know you want that meatball
You know you want a meatball, but can you wait until they hit the tray? So you pretend to look at some items in the general perimeter of the forthcoming meatball, but your eye is really just focused on the prize. Your peripheral vision has never been this honed as you browse the assortment of tortellini. You know it’s a ruse, and so do the other 10 people waiting for that meatball.
But when those meatballs are finally released for public consumption, a tidal wave of people casually but nonetheless urgently rushes over to the cart. Parents, looking to feed their offspring, gently prod their young in the direction of the meatball- “get in there,” they urge. It’s like watching a pack of lions devour an antelope, just with slightly more polished manners. That old Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom show comes to mind.
I always feel bad for the people cooking up these mini treats because hardly anyone takes the time to say thank you or strike up a conversation. It’s a frenzy of grab-and-go, and then onto the next conquest, like the shrimp or something. So yesterday, Alan dropped the best shrimp sample joke: “$24.99? Hey, not bad for a little tail!” The hair-netted shrimp-sample-server roared with laughter. I groaned. “You can have as many shrimp as you want; you made me laugh,” the nice lady told us.
So we got the ingredients on our list, some artisan meats to go into my traditional antipasto salad, and got out. But we always get gas too (it’s so cheap), and so the familiar face who works as the gas station attendant came over to say hello. The neat thing about our Costco is that workers stay for years. They pay their employees extremely well, they have sane holiday shopping hours so that their workers can enjoy time with their families, and they offer very good benefits. So it seems no one leaves! At this point, I’ve developed a relationship with the gas station guy. We talk casually talk politics (he liked my Bernie Sanders bumper sticker), shoot the breeze, and for that reason, I come back again and again. I like seeing people I know when I shop.
Alan and I see holiday shopping differently now. With no one wanting or needing gifts, we instead decided to use our Christmas funds to donate to needy kids.
Presents on their way to the United Way!
But we still go to Costco, we just don’t buy the cheap stuff destined quickly for the landfill. We abhor their durable goods, like furniture, because we know that after that rush of the bargain, you’ll throw it away super fast and have to buy another one. These things are actually not durable at all , nor are they meant to be (look for upcoming posts about this). But we love their selection of foods and now Christmas has morphed into more of a Bacchanalian festival of food and drink more so than a gluttonous exercise in opening gifts.
And with the upcoming push from Amazon to sell groceries, I think we’ll still go to Costco for our holiday ingredients. It’s nice to get out to fight the crowds, get some great food and spread the cheer!
Wishing you the most joyous holiday season!
It’s right around now that looking at my calendar causes me to break out in a cool sweat. Parties, events, recitals- I’m sure you can relate!
So while I could go on about the fine points of the suspension system of sofas, I doubt that’s on your radar at this moment.
At this time of year, I’m always looking for dishes to bring to events. These two continue to be crowd pleaasers for me, and have now gone into the permanent holiday rotation schedule. They’ve also become a tradition in our family. Time-consuming? Yes, they are. Expensive? Yes to that too. Worth the effort? Again, yes, totally!
Think of making them as cooking therapy for a snowed in day (which are sure to come). And they travel extremely well for parties.
This first one is adapted from an old recipe book my mom adores, Noteworthy, which came from the Ravinia Festival. We oddly serve this in the late morning on Christmas day along with Champagne and a smörgåsbord of other munchies (I’m sure you have weird traditions too, don’t judge).
Marinated Shrimp with Oranges
Makes 4 servings, but we always double, even triple sometimes!
- 1 pound large raw shrimp, shelled and deveined
- 1 orange, peeled and sectioned
- 1 small red onion, sliced very thin
- 1/4 C. vegetable oil
- 1/2 C. unfiltered cider vinegar
- 2 T lemon juice
- 2 T ketchup
- 1 T sugar
- 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
- 1/2 t salt
- 1/2 t mustard seeds
- 1/2 t cilantro leaves (dangerous for a crowd and therefore optional)
- 1/2 t capers
- 1/4 t celery seeds
- 1/8 t ground black pepper
- Romaine Leaves or crackers
- One day or at least 8 hours ahead, marinate shrimp. In 4-qt saucepan, heat 3 inches’ water to boiling. Add shrimp, return to boil and cook covered, 2 minutes or until shrimp are cooked through. Drain, rinse in cold water and drain well again.
- In large bowl, combine shrimp, orange and red onion. In medium bowl, combine vinegar, oil, lemon juice, ketchup, sugar, garlic, mustard seeds, cilantro, capers, celery seeds, and pepper. Pour over shrimp mixture and stir to coat well. Refrigerate 8 hours, or preferably overnight. Serve on crackers or romaine leaves.
This next one is the holiday recipe one that I hang my hat on year after year. I make gallons of it and swear I’ll never do it again after seeing my grocery bill. But I do, every year without fail. Don’t skimp- the guy behind the deli counter will curse your name, but your guests may well kiss you harder this year. If there was ever a perfect leftover intended for a hangover, please let me know too.
Mixed Antipasto Salad
adapted from Epicurious. I think the secret is actually the fennel flavor. People think it’s celery but when they get a bite of anise flavor from it, it’s a surprise, and not an unwelcome one. I humbly nominate this also to be the perfect leftover holiday hangover nibble too. Near the end of parties, people will fight over tupperware containers with this inside.
For the marinade
- 1 large garlic clove, minced
- 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
- 2 tablespoons red-wine vinegar
- 1/2 teaspoon crumbled dried rosemary
- 1 teaspoon dried basil, crumbled
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled
- 1/4 teaspoon dried hot red pepper flakes, or to taste
- 1/2 cup olive oil
For the salad
- 3 large carrots, cut diagonally into 1/4-inch-thick slices
- 2 small fennel bulbs (about 1 1/2 pounds), cut crosswise into 1/inch-thick slices (about 3 cups)
- 2 red bell peppers, roasted and cut into strips (or jarred)
- 2 yellow bell peppers, roasted and cut into strips (or jarred)
- a 12-ounce jar pepperoncini (pickled Tuscan peppers), rinsed and drained well
- 3/4 pound black or green brine-cured olives or a combination ( I use a mixture of green Cerignolas and black Kalamatas)
- 1/4 pound sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil, drained and cut into strips (or fresh cherry- either way)
- 3/4 pound marinated or plain bocconcini (small mozzarella balls, available at specialty foods shops and some supermarkets)
- 1/2 pound pepperoni or soppressata (hard Italian sausage, available at Italian markets, some butcher shops, and, some specialty foods shops), cut crosswise into 1/4-inch-thick slices and the slices quartered
- two 7-ounce jars marinated artichoke hearts, rinsed and drained well
- 1/3 cup minced fresh parsley leaves plus, if desired, parsley sprigs for garnish
Make the marinade: 1. In a small bowl whisk together the garlic, the vinegars, the rosemary, the basil, the oregano, the red pepper flakes, and salt and pepper to taste, add the oil in a stream, whisking, and whisk the marinade until it is emulsified. 2. In a large saucepan of boiling water blanch the carrots and the fennel for 3 to 4 minutes, or until they are crisp-tender, drain them, and plunge them into a bowl of ice and cold water. Let the vegetables cool and drain them well. In a large bowl toss together the carrots, the fennel, the roasted peppers, the pepperoncini, the olives, the sun-dried tomatoes, the bocconcini, the pepperoni, the artichoke hearts, the marinade, the minced parsley until the antipasto is combined well and chill the antipasto, covered, for at least 4 hours or overnight. Transfer the antipasto to a platter, garnish it with the parsley sprigs, and serve it at room temperature.
So back to shopping and gifting!