By Donna Cornelius
Even the most industrious cooks can find it hard to meet the culinary demands of the holiday season.
One foolish person has in the past made her own food gifts for friends and neighbors, invited her Friday night supper club to a small party, hosted a Christmas Eve dinner and committed to making an app, three side dishes and a dessert for her family’s main dining event on Christmas Day. (We shall call this person “Donna Cornelius” because that is her name.)
That year, instead of visions of sugarplums dancing in my head, I had nightmares of ravenous, unexpected guests showing up hoping to be fed. Oh, the horror of being caught with bare cupboards and thus feeling more like Old Mother Hubbard than Mrs. Santa Claus. I found myself wishing that a merry band of elves who also were sous chefs would magically materialize in my kitchen.
But there’s a much more realistic solution for those who overcommit to cooking this time of year: your favorite supermarket.
I recruited my foodie friend, Pam McNutt of Vestavia Hills, to join me on a treasure hunt for holiday treats at two locally owned Over the Mountain grocery stores: Piggly Wiggly in Crestline Village and Western Market in Mountain Brook. We discovered so many tasty options that we wished we could visit other supermarkets. But we ran out of time – and also money, because we left both stores with bags full of goodies we couldn’t resist.
And that was before we even got to the wine departments.
We looked for everything from ready-to-serve items for quick dinners to party bites, sweets and gift ideas. Here’s just a sample of what we found.
At Both Stores:
One of our favorite sweet treats was Magoosa’s Pecans (1) Take a tin of four flavors – milk chocolate, white chocolate, crunchy praline and salted roasted – as a hostess gift, and you’re sure not to be stricken from next year’s guest list. The company’s based in Birmingham.
Cheese straws are a must at our house during the holidays. But since they’re a pain to make, it’s good to know I can turn to another local favorite: Merry Cheese Crisps. These round, bite-sized bits of cheesy goodness come in bags and tins.
Stock up on Birmingham’s Holmstead Fines chutneys (2). Try pairing the balsamic red onion with a nice cheese for an easy appetizer. The small jars fit nicely into Christmas stockings, too.
If you’ve had a busy day of shopping, nothing’s easier for dinner than soup and sandwiches. Spoon & Ladle, another Birmingham company, has a variety of products and flavors, from soups such as shrimp and crab gumbo to amped-up pimento cheese. Western has Over the Mountain favorite Ashley Mac’s chicken salad, and both stores have Daddy Bob’s Small Batch Pimento Cheese with bacon. Check the delis for more sandwich fixings, too.
If your Christmas mornings are busy, you can make an easy breakfast or brunch with a quick trip to the freezer section. Fill Millie Ray’s rolls and Mary B’s tea biscuits with thin slices of ham or tasty jams, and you can kick back and enjoy your coffee or, even better, a restorative mimosa.
If you’re feeding young guests, you can’t go wrong with a platter of chicken fingers. Add a bowl of chicken dipping sauce – both stores have their own versions – and you’ll probably be shooing away the adults.
Need a dessert? Marta’s Bakery, based in Vestavia Hills, has several tasty creations, including blueberry pound cake and pumpkin bread. Pam’s suggestion: heat up Marta’s double chocolate brownies and then top them with ice cream and chocolate sauce.
Wandering Through Western
Fans of Stone Hollow Farmstead in Harpersville know you can find its fresh-from-the-farm products at The Pantry in Crestline. But Western also has a Stone Hollow display. The extremely fun Stone Hollow Bloody Mary mixes (8) come in several varieties, including Quirky, Sweet, Dirty and Scary. Add a jar of Stone Hollow’s pickled okra, and you’ve got a great gift. Equally interesting are jams such as tomato-vanilla and sauces such as cajeta, a Mexican caramel confection.
Don’t pass by the bakery. (We don’t know why you would; we’re just saying.) The friendly pastry experts at Western say the market’s top sellers are tiramisu, caramel fudge cheesecake (3) and Mississippi Mud cakes. You can please party guests with an assortment of these. And maybe add some conversation-starting chocolate-covered bacon with sea salt.
Your next stop: the cheese section. One best seller is the Fromager d’Affinois French double-cream brie with black truffles. Toss a bag or two of Marcona or fried Valencia almonds with herbs in your buggy, too.
You can create a sophisticated antipasto tray with a pair of scissors and packages of savory goodness from Il Grilliatore: grilled mushrooms, artichokes with spices and herbs, Borretane onions in balsamic vinegar, grilled aubergines (eggplants, people – but it’s more fun to call them aubergines) and roasted tomatoes.
Almost everyone appreciates a nice bottle of wine – and Western has one that will really make a splash. The store’s wine director, Scott Atkinson, suggested Naveran Cava Rose (4) – a 1.5-liter bottle that’s reasonably priced. “We’re the only store that carries this,” he said. “It’s not a champagne but utilizes some of the same methods used to make champagne.”
Prowling Around The Pig
At Piggly Wiggly, two great products join forces with Uncle Ed’s Wine Jellies from Hokes Bluff. Try the pinot grigio with habanero and curry or the cabernet with Brazilian coffee. Your holiday PBJs will never be the same.
Another antipasto tray-made-easy starts with the olive bar, where you’ll find stuffed grape leaves, marinated mushrooms and an assortment of olives. (My friend Pam told me to try heating olives up a bit to really bring out their flavor). Grab a container of deviled eggs from the deli for a more substantial platter. Piggly Wiggly’s own pita chips are light and crispy – and you get a great big bagful.
Ever stopped in Andalusia on your way to the beach at Dean’s Cake House for one of its seven-layer cakes? I was thrilled when a friend told me you also could find them at The Pig. I’ve never met a Dean’s Cake (7) I didn’t like, but I’m especially partial to the caramel and coconut versions.
It’s the wise person who has several casseroles from Dirt Road Gourmet (6) in his or her freezer. The Eclectic-based company makes it easy to come up with a quick supper with its chicken and grits, poppy seed chicken, or Better Than Chicken & Dumplings dishes.
Don’t forget the sides. Tracy’s Love-in-a-Tin frozen dishes include broccoli casserole, squash casserole and mac and cheese.
Piggly Wiggly’s wine department has plenty of selections that will show what good taste you have without breaking your holiday budget. Thomas Warren, wine consultant, had high praise for Collet (5), which he said is the most affordable champagne of the season. Also among his suggestions are the Brancatelli Valle de Stelle Toscano, a full-bodied super Tuscan; the Amalie Robert pinot meunier, a light-bodied wine with a cranberry-raspberry flavor; and the Nigl Freiheit Grüner Veltliner, which he described as “one of our favorites if you’re trying to find a good white wine.”
More to Love
Of course, the two supermarkets we visited aren’t the only places in the Over the Mountain area where you can shop for holiday food. Here are a few other tips from friends:
Christmas dinner isn’t complete without hot rolls, so pick some up at Savage’s Bakery in Homewood. They’re a holiday favorite. Find more breads and pastries at Continental Bakery in Mountain Brook’s English Village. Both places will have holiday confections, too.
Get a very special Christmas-themed cake from Olexa’s in Mountain Brook Village. (And treat yourself to lunch while you’re there.)
Need help with the star of the show food-wise? The smoked turkey from Miss Myra’s Pit Bar B-Q in Cahaba Heights has earned rave reviews.
For a distinctly different Christmas Eve dinner – and for holiday football-watching parties – Saw’s Juke Joint in Crestline has a very yummy catering menu. Who doesn’t love pork, chicken and sausage paired with my new favorite side dish, grits and greens? Add banana pudding, and your work is done.
And so is mine with this article. Hope your holidays are merry and bright!