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My Christmas dish list: 12 ways to stay green and red and thoroughly fed

Mike Sutter

What would Christmas pageantry be without green and red? And what would Christmas gastronomy be without green and red food from Austin's dinner wonderland? Here are 12 green and red dishes I want for Christmas, plus a bonus cocktail called the Bad Santa (watch the dirty jokes) from the yet-to-be unwrapped Second Bar + Kitchen.

GREEN

Burrito with spinach tortilla from Freebirds

Eight locations in Austin, Round Rock and San Marcos, including 1000 E. 41st St., 451-5514. More at www.freebirds.com .

Blend custom shades of green by starting with a big flour tortilla the color of eco-politics. Establish a black-and-white base palette with beans, chicken and Monterey Jack, then sub guacamole for rice and move through the line for mixed greens, chopped cilantro, shredded iceberg, poblano peppers, mild green salsa and sautéed bell peppers and onions. The Freebird size fills you up, tastes good and at $5.99, it's the right amount of green. Making presents out of the foil wrapper is absolutely free.

Candy from Big Top

1706 S. Congress Ave. 462-2220.

Waxy, artificial and really, really bad for you. If it was good enough for the bad old days, it's good enough for now, and the Big Top bins are full of the candies our great-grandparents loved (or just dreamed about), packed into a shop as tilted as Tim Burton's version of Willy Wonka. Put together a verdant batch of mint cookie balls, chocolate almond olives, green apple licorice and melon- and lime-flavored rock candy and pretend it's a salad. (From $1.77 to $2.27 per quarter-pound.)

Saag with chicken from Tandoori Bistro

1605 E. Oltorf St. 383-8210.

I wasn't looking for a lot from this new Indian place next to the La Quinta at Interstate 35 and Oltorf Street. Just something green from the lunch buffet ($7.95 weekdays, $8.95 weekends). What I got was saag with chicken, juicy red tandoori chicken and a little human kindness. With Indian spices both familiar and exotic, the saag was hot and rich, the same deep green as collards, soul food from another continent. I had skipped breakfast, and the bowl chattered on my plate as I carried it to the table. The silver-haired host patted my shoulder with avuncular affection. "Sit. Relax. You'll feel better after a few bites," he said. I did.

Deluxe Chicken Enchiladas with Deluxe Tomatillo Sauce from Chuy's

Five locations in Austin and Round Rock, including 1728 Barton Springs Road, 474-4452. More at www.chuys.com .

Creamy and tangy, lightly acidic, just a hint of heat. That's Deluxe Tomatillo Sauce. To order a little on the side, we make the universal gesture: thumbs and forefingers curled like crescent moons, overlapped to form a circle cradling an imaginary dish. It's pretty good on a plate of chicken enchiladas ($8.29) with green chile rice, charro beans and a side of guacamole ($1.49). But then, Deluxe Tomatillo would taste fine on anything: eggs, pasta, burgers, Styrofoam takeout boxes. If your kids wanted the recipe for Christmas, it's time to cover their eyes. (See recipe, left)

RED

Piquillos Rellenos de Queso from Malaga Tapas & Bar

440 W. Second St. 236-8020, www.malagaaustin.com .

The dish ($9.25), according to chef and owner Alex Duran: "It's pretty Christmasy, because it has red, white and green. They're the little peppers, the pimiento peppers from Spain that are used to make the smoked paprika. They're called piquillos, and they're bright, bright, bright red. We stuff them with goat cheese, drizzle them with a little bit of very nice extra virgin olive oil — Spanish, of course — and then drizzle a few little capers on top. Piquillos are always one of the top 10 sellers. You're talking about warm cheese, you've got a little fresh-baked bread, and the piquillos, they have this sweetness and smokiness to them. Then you've got the nuttiness of the olive oil that just kind of ties everything together."

Sushi from Midori Sushi

13435 U.S. 183 N., Suite 301. 257-1411, www.midorisushiaustin.com .

Driving along U.S. 183 in search of red, red sushi from somewhere, anywhere, I came across Midori crouching like a tiger in the strip-mall shadow of an abandoned Albertson's. I'd like to say I "discovered" Midori, but Micha Lee's restaurant has been here since 2001, hidden in plain sight. Inside, it's another world: low Japanese tables with pillows for seats, wooden booths set with geisha prints and engraved panels and a sushi bar where chef Peter An cuts elegant carmine-colored maguro sushi on rice ($4.95 for two pieces), the tuna clean and firm. With a sauce touched by star anise, he brings depth to a Midori Roll ($11.95) of eel and cream cheese wrapped in maguro and avocado. Tucked between the roll and the nigiri? A little snowman carved from daikon slices.

Becker Iconoclast cabernet sauvignon

Available at wine shops and grocery stores citywide. www.beckervineyards.com .

My colleague Michael Barnes knows how to entertain. A self-catered party at his South Austin home calls to mind a wedding reception, the kind you'd imagine if the Capulets and Montagues had decided to get along after all. It was there that I first tasted Becker Iconoclast, the bottles lined up along the sideboard representing a true Texas red, with a dry sense of humor but still congenial enough to mingle. Suggested retail $10.95, but easy to find for less than $10 a bottle.

Barbecued pork from Ho Ho Chinese B.B.Q.

13000 N. I-35, Building 6. 339-9088, www.hohochinesebbq.com .

Can I get a Ho Ho (Ho)? This shade of red is as completely fabricated as the commercial trappings of the season and every bit as completely irresistible. The texture ranges from juicy-tender to charred and chewy, all of it glazed in glycolic sweetness, served with white rice for $7.95 or as a combo plate with rangy roast duck for a dollar more.

GREEN AND RED

Gelato and sorbetto from Mandola's Italian Market

4700 W. Guadalupe St., Suite 12, 419.9700. Also at 12815 Shops Parkway, Suite 400, Bee Cave. 600-8500, www.mandolasmarket.com .

Greenish and reddish count, don't they? You bet they do, especially with mint chocolate chip gelato and strawberry sorbetto in the same cup ($5.50 for a large) made in-house at Mandola's. Like its soft green color, the gelato's creamy mint flavor is subtle, letting big flakes and chunks of dark chocolate do the talking. The strawberry tastes oddly like ... strawberries, sweet and icy without being grainy. With its olives and peppers, breads and meets, pastas and sweets, Mandola's is like an extreme makeover version of the Italian markets in the Detroit neighborhood where my wife grew up.

Pinwheel steaks from Sprouts

Four locations in Austin and Round Rock, including 10225 Research Blvd., Suite 1000, 225-9101. More at www.sprouts.com .

Grocery stores are really just do-it-yourself restaurants. These roll-ups of skirt steak, spinach and provolone cheese are a main course and side dish in one for $6.99 a pound. Two of them (about a pound and a half) form the cornerstone of a dinner for two adults and two kids, as long as Dad isn't a lumberjack. We seared them in a cast-iron skillet (to catch the melting cheese) on high heat for two minutes per side, then put the pan in the oven at 375 degrees for 12 minutes. The colors wilt in the heat, but the spinach and cheese keep the meat moist.

Pizza from Promise Pizza

Takeout and delivery only at 10225 Research Blvd., Suite. 110, 345-7492. Dining-in available at 1500 A.W. Grimes Blvd., Suite 410, Round Rock. 674-2642, www.promisepizza.com .

The holidays favor the omnivores, but Promise Pizza can take an organic wheat crust, top it with organic tomato sauce and natural cheese and turn out a pretty decent pie. A large cheese pizza is $9.99, with toppings for $2 each. Fit the season with green pepper and slices of tomato. Fit your diet with gluten-free crust or dairy-free cheese.

Sandia galletas from La Mexicana Bakery

1924 S. First St. 443-6369, www.la-mexicana-bakery.com .

These half-moon sugar cookies decorated like watermelons (75 cents) are always in season at La Mexicana. In fact, they're in season 24 hours a day from a bakery case full of doughnuts, empanadas, orejas and a pastel array of pan dulce. The seeds are chocolate chips. No spitting.

Chuy's Deluxe Tomatillo Sauce

This is a two-step recipe. You must first cook Chuy's Tomatillo Sauce and then add ingredients for the Deluxe Tomatillo.

Step One: Tomatillo Sauce

4 Tbsp. margarine

1/4 cup cilantro, chopped

5 oz. green onions, chopped

1/4 cup jalapeño slices, with juice

2 tsp. fresh lime juice

4 lb. (about 50) green tomatillos, cleaned, roughly chopped

10 Tbsp. cornstarch

6 cups water

3 Tbsp. vegetable base (concentrated vegetable bouillon)

1 pinch salt

1 pinch garlic

1 pinch sugar

Heat margarine in a large stock pan.

Put cilantro, green onions, jalapeños, lime juice and 1 pound of roughly chopped tomatillos (about 12) in a food processor. Blend at low speed. Add the rest of the tomatillos and blend until puréed.

Add tomatillo mixture to margarine. Sauté 10 minutes until it stops foaming.

In separate pan, mix cornstarch completely in water. Stir vegetable base, salt, garlic and sugar into cornstarch mixture.

Add vegetable stock mixture to tomatillo purée. Bring to a boil, then continue to simmer (low boil) for about 10 minutes, stirring constantly until sauce thickens. Season to taste.

Makes 1 quart.

Step Two: Deluxe Tomatillo Sauce

1 quart Tomatillo Sauce, hot (from recipe above)

1/4 cup cilantro, chopped

16 oz. sour cream

1/4 Tbsp. salt

1/4 Tbsp. garlic salt

1/4 Tbsp. black pepper

Add cilantro to hot Tomatillo Sauce and blend with handheld blender until mixed. Add sour cream and spices. Blend at high speed until thoroughly mixed. Heat on stovetop on low heat setting if needed.

Bonus: Bad Santa cocktail from Second Bar + Kitchen

Let's call this the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come because Second Bar + Kitchen hasn't quite opened yet. But if the fates allow, this casual arm of chef David Bull's new venture at the Austonian — which includes the upscale restaurant Congress and its lounge, Bar Congress — will be ready sometime this holiday season. Lead barman Billy Hankey designed the Bad Santa cocktail for this story as a chalkboard special. The red comes from cherry liqueur, the green from a sprig of rosemary, an herbal aesthetic Hankey brings from his time at the Good Knight, where a bloom of fresh basil in your drink wouldn't be out of the question. "Aroma's a big part of our flavor palate," he said. "Fresh herbs are always a good way to get your tastebuds going. Who doesn't like the smell of fresh-cut grass on a Sunday morning?"

Bad Santa

2 oz. Flor de Cana rum

2 dashes Fee Brothers cranberry bitters

2 dashes Peychaud bitters

1 bar spoon maraschino liqueur

Bundaberg ginger beer

Rosemary sprig for garnish

Build in mixing glass all liquid except ginger beer. Stir contents with ice. Strain into a chilled "Nick & Nora"-style glass. Top with ginger beer. Clap rosemary sprig for garnish.

— Billy Hankey, Second Bar + Kitchen