Don't mess with Christmas dinner

"not in our family anyway"

Above are two shots from our recent Christmas dinner with the family before half of the family left for Spain and Portugal - they are in the air as we speak. It shows the two most vital components of the dinner - the turkey - although I suspect I really mean the stuffing - and the potatoes. Although the departed half of the family will not be here for actual Christmas, the rest of us will repeat the whole thing. I mean Christmas would not be Christmas without it.


I am talking about Christmas dinner, although it's a bit early, partly because of Sunday's feast, but also because this week's Guardian newsletter was full of alternative Christmas dinners - and I will come to that later. But first let me take you through our particular family's Christmas dinner tradition.


Number one is that it is served in the evening of Christmas Eve, not on Christmas Day. Which is the number one departure from the Christmas dinners of my childhood - for they were served at lunchtime on Christmas Day. When we married David and I would alternate each year whether we spent Christmas Day with his mother and family, or mine - Boxing day being spent with the other half. I wonder why we didn't all celebrate together, as we do today? - my younger son's in-laws join us for ours. My older son's sort of in-laws are in Sydney. I guess we didn't do the joint thing in England for two reasons. The relationship of the two families was still pretty new, and English houses were not built to accommodate large crowds of people. So the two families celebrated separately with their own separate little traditions, which I'm afraid I cannot remember now - other than that it would have been turkey, roast potatoes and Brussels sprouts at least.


We have settled on having our Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve, because it's just too much for Christmas Day. When we were young parents we would begin the day with mince pies and Christmas presents, then visit friends for drinks and lunches and then after all that we would come back and I would have to cook the turkey. I think it all came to a head one year, when at the end of a stressful day of cooking and partying, and present opening, I knocked the gravy over and burst into tears. From then on it was Christmas Eve - which gives you time to relax on Christmas Day and eat up the gorgeous leftovers. Moreover here in Australia it is not likely to be as hot in the evening as in the daytime.


As to food. Always turkey - and always the worry about whether there will be enough. Although these days we boost it with ham. There is always ham. To serve with the turkey is the vital stuffing. Vast quantities of this have to be made - an extra dish as well as inside the turkey itself. The recipe is online. It's called Celery and lemon stuffing and it's from Jane Grigson's book Good Food. The online version is presented by Anna Tobias who says of it:

"There's something addictive about the combination of lemony butter and the green flavour of the celery. Add to this the breadcrumbs, that become slightly soggy from the turkey juices and crunchy where they have been exposed to the heat of the oven, and you have a cheeky and irresistible snack."



There will never be any other kind of stuffing in this house.


Sides - well the roast potatoes, which in recent years have been Greek lemon potatoes from Evelyn of Athens. I have to say that unlike some roast potatoes I have made these never fail. I mean there's not much room for potatoes around the big turkeys that I have to buy.


I have given up on Brussels sprouts, and these days it's cabbage, from an old Cordon Bleu recipe for Alsatian cabbage. I can't find a recipe or picture for this but fundamentally you melt some butter, soften sliced onion and apple slices, toss with shredded, blanched cabbage and lemon juice. Cover with thickly buttered paper and a lid and cook slowly for at least half an hour. Yum. Oh and let's not forget buttery glazed carrots.


The turkey is cooked under cheesecloth according to an old Robert Carrier recipe and basted with a buttery orangey mix. And that too works. The ham is baked in the oven or a Weber with a glaze that varies from year to year.


In recent years we have added the tradition of a starter of gravlax and prawns. A nod to the Australian summer perhaps. Pudding though is a moveable feast and often provided by others. Probably because the traditional pudding is not embraced by my sons.


So when today I looked at the long list of alternatives provided by The Guardian's various writers I wondered whether people would really try something new - I'm sure the supermarket magazines will be providing choices too this month. I suppose the writers have to come up with something, but I wonder if they really would cook these things or whether they actually have their own traditions - because every family has their own. They might say that this is what they are going to eat, but I bet they don't.


"even curtailed Christmas celebrations in my house will, I know, rely on repetition and, what's more we'll luxuriate in it. We human beings need ritual; for me, at Christmas that need is met in cooking and at the table. All families create their own traditions. They're the ones that make you wake early in overexcitement as a child, the ones you feel stifled by in your adolescence, that you remember either in horror or in the glow of nostalgia as you get older. And then there are the ones you create yourself, allowing the cycle to start up all over again." Nigella Lawson


The Guardian's offerings were mostly pretty delicious looking, but for Christmas? Not for me and I suspect not for many. You just don't mess with Christmas. Some of them had some interesting thoughts about why you would do something different some not.


When Nigel Slater presented his alternative Christmas dinner - Pork with green olives and sauerkraut - he did say that it was not necessarily a Christmas dinner, but a special celebratory meal for the whole season:


"Christmas is not about just one meal. There are the smaller feasts to consider, meals for special friends and family who may be at someone else’s table on Christmas Day. A roast turkey may feel inappropriate on such occasions – a bit premature or over the top – but the event must still be special."


But he did indeed say he was going to have pork on Christmas Day - true or false I wonder. And his side of mushrooms with herbed hummus, whilst probably delicious, is not at all traditional. Is he really going to eat that I wonder?


Yotam Ottolenghi who sticks with the turkey - Spiced Creole turkey with bourbon and pineapple - but in a very different way, is trying something that embraces the world - or so he says:


"My plan this Christmas is to make up for how little travel has been possible with a feast of flavours from around the globe: Italian parmesan, Japanese sake, African cassava, Greek feta, Middle Eastern date syrup, French brie and a Creole turkey, all bringing into question the whole notion of there being just one “traditional” way of doing things. The chairs around the table will be equally various and many, and the toasts will be to the whole big, wide, wonderful – and connected – world." Yotam Ottolenghi


But then he sticks to the Creole theme with roast cassava and Sautéed rainbow chard with ham hock and cranberry and chard stem pickle. One thing's for sure - if you go the Ottolenghi way you will be faffing around in the kitchen for hours, not to mention the extra shopping. It would be pretty sensational though.


Back in the day I guess we had chicken rather than turkey. Turkey was expensive and not everyone could afford it, and so you could try Ravinder Bhogal's Honey and lemon roast chicken with jewelled pilau rice. A chicken would not feed a crowd though would it? But then it would be perfect for a couple. We married just before Christmas, partly so that we could have Christmas on our own. It was a good excuse. Well I guess we all go through a phase of not wanting to do the big family thing. So I cooked a duck - even smaller than the chicken. It barely fed the both of us.


There are of course, thousands of ways of cooking roast chicken, though I think Jane Grigson's stuffing is really the thing that would make it special - a lemony kind of roast.


What about the ham? What did The Guardian have to offer here. Well this was left to Thomasina Miers who offered Guajillo and pineapple adobo roast ham. Guajillo are yet another kind of chilli, and pineapple is beginning to look like the ingredient du jour. I'm not sure when the ham became a Christmas thing. I do think that we did sometimes have it when I was growing up - or was that Easter? I know I started offering it because I am always afraid of running out of turkey and ham is easy and feeds lots of people. And it keeps and the leftovers are very versatile. Really, with ham it's all in the glaze isn't it?


As I said earlier, I have taken to serving gravlax as a first course - very easy and absolutely sublime, but The Guardian's Emily Scott provided a recipe for a whole side of salmon as the main event - Baked salmon in citrus vodka with clementines and crème fraïche. The English are very much into clementines at Christmas. I don't think I remember them at all, and you don't seem to be able to get them here. I think they are a tart kind of small orange.


And finally, of course, you have to cater for the vegetarians and the vegans. Now what do you think of this statement from Holly O'Neill? The 'she' she refers to here is Anna Jones:


“Christmas has to be the day where no one feels left out,” she says, and she puts thought into finding something to please all palates. “Cooking something everyone can share and enjoy is generous in spirit, and I think that’s important.” ... Instead of a token vegetarian gesture, veg-omnivore households could do a vegetarian main with token meat sides" Holly O'Neill/Anna Jones


I mean the first part is fair enough. Of course nobody should feel left out, but then she suggests a vegetarian main, with 'token meat sides' - she suggests pigs in blankets. This is Christmas dinner we are talking about. No omnivore is going to be satisfied with a few sausages wrapped in bacon. They want the whole thing. Surely if you have vegetarians or vegans at your table you would just produce another main dish that would suit their needs. A bit more fuss and bother to make two main dishes but it's Christmas - season of goodwill.


Meera Sodha - The Guardian's vegan food columnist suggests this rather grand looking Christmas pumpkin and there are probably a few omnivores who would be more than happy to tuck into it as a side to their turkey. The stuffing is made up of mushrooms, nuts, leeks and onions plus herbs and spices and so on.


All of the above are very of the moment I think. Lavish in response to the whole COVID depression thing. Experimental - another COVID thing - we've had nothing else to do. Multicultural - because that's what the world is like these days. There would be very few nations today that did not have some infiltration of other cultures' foods - from MacDonald's hamburgers to pizza and baguettes. Innovative - because that's what Instagram, cafés on every corner, celebrity chefs doing their thing on your TV screen and supermarket magazines, food influencers on the net, are doing to change our taste. Dietary variations - how many different diets and allergies, and intolerances do we have to pay attention to these days?


But Christmas - I wonder do we really want to experiment at Christmas? Maybe the days surrounding Christmas - a Boxing Day feast perhaps. Really though - how many people will change their traditional Christmas meal - whatever that might be? I know I wouldn't dare - not the turkey and the stuffing anway. These two - now middle-aged men would not allow it. One may be gone overseas, but the other one is still here, and his children expect tradition too.


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