Sunday, 28 December 2014

Christmas 2014



I hope everybody had a fantastic holiday season! I just got back from my aunt and uncle's place this afternoon and edited what felt like a million photos. I spent four days with my aunt, uncle, cousin and her newlywed husband plus a family friend, my uncle's brother and his wife for the last two nights. Christmas this year was a little weird. Usually the entire group of us do Christmas dinner together. My uncle's brother's wife is Trinidadian and this year she had members of her family come up for a visit to Canada for the holidays so they weren't with us. The family friend had plans on his own for the big day as well, so it was just the five of us for Christmas Day. Instead, we decided to all get together on December 27th for our turkey dinner. On Christmas Day, instead of turkey we made a simpler rack of lamb dish with stuffed mushrooms and an incredible salad. 

If you're new to the blog, my aunt and I are the cooks of the family and every time we get together the two of us join culinary forces in putting together an epic family feast. We were cooking fools over the holidays. Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners every year are more or less the same but we decided to be a little adventurous this time around. We wanted to try brining the turkey before roasting it, which we'd never done before. The results were so magnificent that I have decided to make a totally separate blog post about it that is coming very soon. We always make the same delicious stuffing that my grandmother used to make. This year we made the same stuffing but a second variety as well. I was given full creative control of the alternate stuffing and I came up with an Italian inspired bread dressing. It was completely experimental and I basically made it up as I went along. The end result shattered all collective expectations and turned out to be a roaring success. There is not a single detail I would change. Due to how well the Italian stuffing turned out, I am also going to be making a separate recipe post for that which you can expect very soon. 

This post will be about everything else. First, I'd like to tap a little bit on the weather we had. I live in Southern Ontario and this time last year we had a history making ice storm with brutal sub zero temperatures that left thousands of homes without power on Christmas. It was nothing short of dreadful. This year was almost the exact opposite. The weather phenomenon known as El Niño is taking place right now which results in notably milder conditions during the otherwise colder months. Weather experts initially reported an expected snowstorm on Christmas eve which sparked a wave of "SantaBomb" hashtags throughout social media which was met with mixed criticism. Well, it turned out to be quite mild and that "snowstorm" was actually just a lot of rain and a little lighting and thunder. The following days were as nice as early spring. So not only did we get no snow on Christmas, but we had green grass and light jacket weather.

I cannot express how pleased this made me, lol. A lot of people in these parts appreciate snow on Christmas. It's thought of as "pretty" and "festive". Personally I am not a winter person in the least and any moment of any day I will always prefer blazing sun on the beach surrounded by palm trees to any other possible condition. So while many people were disappointed with the unseasonably mild weather, it was delightful to me and added to an already splendid Christmas season. Thanks, El Niño! :D

      




Alright, now back to the food. On two different mornings my aunt and I prepared Eggs Benedict for breakfast. For anyone who may not be already aware, Eggs Benedict is a preparation of a toasted English muffin, a piece of cooked ham, a poached egg and rich Hollandaise sauce. It's a technical and very delicious breakfast treat. I haven't made a lot of Hollandaise sauce in my career but in the times that I have before I whisked the butter and yolks in a bain marie until thickened. A skilled chef can master this task in a convenient time frame. It has taken me up to 15-20 minutes to do it properly. Obviously this is not practical, especially when trying to time it perfectly with poaching eggs for several people. My aunt found a version that can be done with an electric blender. The result was very good, but not quite as thick as a Hollandaise should be. I suspect that our butter may not have been quite warm enough. At any rate, it was delicious and the family loved it. Instead of ham, we fried up some peameal bacon (very traditional for Southern Ontario) and added some fresh tarragon both to the sauce and a colourful garnish on top. They were a big hit!   





My cousin, bless her, is a little finicky about meat in general and rack of lamb doesn't appeal to her. So we made stuffed portobello mushrooms as a replacement and everyone else got to enjoy a sample as a side. This was mostly my aunt (with my uncle manning the grill) and little effort from myself. Basically, they are portobello mushrooms caps stuffed with shallots, garlic, pine nuts, fresh herbs, Parmigiano Reggiano and goat cheese. You better believe that once the mushrooms were stuffed they were then grilled to perfection. They turned out awesome. 





The salad was a concept that my aunt came up with and we both tackled together. Very simple, though exquisite in every way. Roasted beet root combined with chopped segments of orange and salad greens tossed with Marcona almonds from Spain and creamy goat cheese. Dressed with a simple mixture of olive oil, orange juice and red wine vinegar (though sherry vinegar would make a fantastic substitution if you decide to make a version of this yourself). 








Now let's get on to the star of the dish, the rack of lamb! We put together a flavourful crust of panko breadcrumbs, fresh herbs, garlic and scallion and applied it to some beautiful sections of French-cut rack of lamb which we previously seasoned and seared in a pan. Then we placed them in the oven to do two things: give a golden crispness to the panko and warm the meat through. 




Rack of lamb is always and should only ever be served rare to medium rare. Trust me on this one. This expensive and highly sought after cut of meat can be very treacherous if you take it any further than that. You're dealing with a fine line. On one side you have juicy and mild meat that is blushing with an inviting pink colour and tough and pungent disappointment on the other.





So between the stuffed portobellos, the gorgeous beet salad and the herb and panko crusted rack of lamb, we put together a non-traditional but spectacular Christmas dinner. Now that I think of it, this was probably the first time I didn't have roasted turkey for dinner on December 25th since I was a baby. Different cultures observe Christmas (if at all) differently but I come from a turkey tribe. Granted, we did get a fantastic turkey experience just a couple of days later.






Moving on to the sides of the turkey dinner, we made garlic mashed potatoes combined with fried cubes of pancetta and peas. Comfort layered in more comfort, buttered up and speckled with bacon. Need I say more?



 


Our vegetable side dish was suggested by my cousin which was caramelized cauliflower with cremini mushrooms and garlic. We dressed the trio in lemon juice, olive oil and white wine vinegar just before serving to brighten up the flavours. It was splendid. In the last few minutes of sautéeing we added the green foliage which frames the cauliflower, often discarded but are as edible as they are delicious. I could not have been more in favour of the suggestion because I am an enormous fan of cauliflower, mushrooms and garlic and they perform together so well. The cauliflower provides crunch and earthiness while the mushrooms bring a slightly chewy and nutty element balanced by the sweet and savoury symphony of garlic all elevated by the bright and acidic dressing. Golden. 






Next is our traditional family stuffing. My mom and my aunt differ slightly in their preparation of this bread stuffing but they both link back to my grandmother's original recipe. Pork sausage rendered with onion which then hydrates cubes of stale white bread, complimented by herbs and seasonings and brought together with chicken stock (my mom sometimes adds apple juice). This is our classic family turkey stuffing which has been enjoyed for generations now. My aunt was mandated in preparing a batch of our traditional stuffing which we all love. Stay tuned because I will share my own Italian spin on this concept in a flawless upcoming recipe.


 


One last photo, this was my complete plate for the turkey Christmas dinner we had on the 27th. It includes brined and roasted turkey, my Italian bread stuffing, the caramelized cauliflower dish, mashed potatoes with pancetta and peas and a cranberry sauce which we reduced with a cinnamon stick, a splash of Grand Marnier and clementine zest. We also had some turkey gravy but it was a little thin so it's not as apparent in the photo. Everybody was so pleased.  The results were very satisfying.





Thanks so much for joining me for this little exhibition of my Christmas eats this season. Stay tuned because, as promised, I'm going to share an incredible method for brining a turkey and a memorable Italian bread stuffing that will tantalize you and your guests.

Once again, I hope everybody had a fantastic holiday season and I'll see you again soon!

B

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