Someone just said that Xmas is just weeks away... that is so unfair. No time, nothing done, nothing planned and not even an inkling about what to do. I swore last year that I would not do it all again, I think maybe I might even stick to that.
What is this awful thing that seems to happen to our collective psyche at this time of the year? We become obsessed with strange things, buying presents, decorating houses, cooking festive food. I am no different, I succumb each year to the madness. Its almost like some switch is activated in my brain and a release of chemicals sets me off on some mad merry chase for reviving that which is past. This is a list of various issues surrounding Xmas
The strange thing is that I can only remember flashes of the festive seasons of my youth, the times in Port Fairy when we, as less affluent members of the clan, did not get to go to the hotel for dinner, but feasted instead on some ancient fowl that mum was endeavouring, with all her might to both give flavour to and make as tender as possible. Mind you the chook was so bloody big that the four of us could eat slices of white (or brown meat; that was taken from the legs and thighs) for days to come and they were slices, I can never remember my mother carving the chook up chunk like as we do today.
Its funny, I suspect that what we remember may well define our own passions, because as much as I have little memory of the setting, except on one occasion when I had tried to orchestrate the gifts and ended up in a small ball of misery as I contemplated the air rifle I had insisted on my mother buying me and now, in abject agony, was counting the cost of my appallingly bad choices. Finally after unwinding myself, I marched down to the local sports store, woke Alex Hill up from his slumbers and begged and pleaded till he agreed to swap over the gun for fishing equipment and I left a much more satisfied puppy. Needless to say this completely destroyed any vestige of belief in Santa.
Our Xmas day was always the same, we would get out of bed and head straight for the lounge room where we would find our presents gathered and wrapped beside the fire place, Mum was ever practical, she had been raised in a family with seven children and very little spare money, our gifts were mostly of clothing essentials and in my case, because I loved the beach, each year I would get something to do with swimming. My mother was never keen on the idea of Father Xmas and this was discouraged at an early age. I still recall the sense of confused disappointment when I watched Father Xmas drive through the town on the local fire truck having just been told that it was all just a story and that Father Xmas was just a local bloke dressed in the costume. Such revelations can have a profound effect on a small child and may well account for my recalcitrant nature now.
Mum liked to go to church on Xmas morning and my sister and I would join her. The church was always overwhelming in its size, smell and services, I was always glad when it was over and we could leave, having fulfilled our Christian duty as well as having been seen to do so. Dad would have waited at home in Bank Street for us to arrive, we would then walk around to Uncle Syds (Dad's brother) house, where the whole family would be gathered, including the fearsome grandfather for Xmas drinks. This was the first time that I knew I was not cut out to be a conforming social being, but rather was always going to be left of centre. The swamp that divided our house from Uncle Syds was my place of refuge and so after half and hour or so I would sidle up to Mum and just say swamp, she would nod and I was off.
Why didn't I turn out to be some sort of ologist? (comes from the Greek and means 'study) It wasn’t the biology or geology or any other ology the swamp had to offer, it was all about life, the swamp was teaming with life, the wind would move the water, the birds would protect their nests, the tadpoles turn into frogs and here was I able to sit in the middle of it all, not have to pass confused small talk nor justify my differences with anyone and yet, be part of it all... a very satisfactory way to spend Xmas day.
Sooner or later, my time in the swamp was brought to a halt with my Father bellowing my name and walking with Mum and my sister back to Dublin House and no doubt the over cooked chook that Mum would have left in the oven, I didn’t hurry, there was no need, Mum would have prepared the vegetables before she left for church, but they needed to be cooked, so I had a full hour before I had to be at the table. Mum had also read this recipe, Woman's Weekly I suspect, for a mock ham that was made from a leg of sheep, rubbed with salt and left for a few days and then encased in flour and water and baked. Mum had to use one of Dad's butchering cleavers to crack the now extremely hard casing and reveal the pink ham like meat that to me, simply tasted of sheep. But she was happy. I was always happiest with the pickled pork that was cured in brine at the butcher shop and then cooked slowly in water with a bay leaf and some spices, allowed to cool in the water, it was served barely warm with the chicken.
Mum was not into the cook ahead pudding, she made the pudding on the morning of Xmas to a recipe that had been handed down in her family for generations. It was made with suet and it was cooked for a good five or six hours in its cloth, when the time came to eat it, Mum would lift it from the pot and allow it to stand for a while to get all the water from the cloth, then peel the cloth away which in the beginning she had generously buttered and floured to reveal a creamy white skinned pudding under which was a deep dark rich brown deliciousness that only required the silver coins that she had boiled up, to be inserted, a good brandy custard for her and dad and a plain custard for my sister and I and all was in readiness. I must say that the suet did make a spectacular pudding, adding a depth and another layer of deliciousness.
Serving Xmas dinner was special, Mum would get out the best crockery and cutlery and we would eat, not at the kitchen table like every other day, but at the dining room table which would be set up with a little holly, a beer for dad and a brown crinkly glass decanter of Woodley’s Est for Mum. It was rare that we would have any visitors for Xmas, but on a few occasions, some of Mum's family would make the trip to Port Fairy and help her to not feel so alone. It was much more likely that Auntie Mon, Auntie Dick and Auntie Nell would come for New Year and the house would become very lively, filled with the zest for life that these three strong women all had. Mum had two brothers, Uncle Lon who had a mystery and who came to Port Fairy often, he was a sort of Bing Crosby type, all tweed jackets, smoked a pipe, wore a sort of trilby hat and drove a small black car. His story is for another time, Uncle Charle was the black sheep of the family in every possible way, he was gay, a heavy drinker, in the navy and could not give even a slight damn who knew or who approved or disapproved.
Nanna Watson was a proper, god fearing woman who spent a great deal of her life being outraged and affronted by the behaviour of her now slightly unwieldy family who often pushed the boundaries that she had established for herself and her family, when Uncle Charle arrived home complete with boy friend for the Xmas festivities and paraded him around town and generally behaved in an outrageous way, she went to ground and refused to leave home or be seen and even missed the Xmas church service in shame. Uncle Charle left a day or so later, complete with boyfriend, much to the chagrin of his sisters who had been thoroughly enjoying the change of pace, the madness and general gaiety of he and his boyfriend. Uncle Charle was never seen by the family again, he was I suspect, shamed into feeling that his life choices were not only anti social, but against nature and proceeded to drink himself to death, dying in the arms of the nuns in Sydney who found him wandering along a railway line. But his story is also for another time.
Interestingly enough my mother was stepping out with the local Church of England vicar, in the end, nothing came of it, however his connection to Uncle Charle and Uncle Lon were somewhat 'curious' and years later when I met him and he was an unwed Bishop, he was clearly not straight. So many stories, so much to say and so few people left to even contradict me!
Xmas lunch was always a heavy meal and designed to get everyone sleepy, we all pitched in with the dishes and as I remember, Dad snoozed in his big chair, Mum dozed in her, I would have a quick spin around the town on my bike and then head for the beach to swim off the weighty meal. Good times.
On to now....
The Xmas Turkey... and in the end, all year round poultry.
All weird and sort of a non event, the family was scattering in numerous directions, we decided to have a festive breakfast. I don’t know about you, but breakfast for me is all about a decent cup of tea, pot not teabag, a slice of my own home baked 100% wholemeal, tastes good and satisfies health issues, butter and vegemite. I cannot, as hard as I try, get into the whole champagne, fruit juice and the million and one things that now seem to grace the breakfast table. There simply must be a limit to the ways you can serve eggs. I cannot bring myself to leap into meat at that hour and the prospect of cake, repels. Confusion. In the end, I made pancakes, it was the least I could do.
They came, opened gifts, ate breakfast and went. Those left holding the Xmas candle were left with a sort of vacant, what the hell happened and why, look on their face. In the afternoon as I settled into the snoozing and reading chair, I reflected that it did not feel like Xmas at all, even if the tree was draped in bits of xmases from years past, the pair of not quite right deer’s hauling a sleigh that had seen better days, graced the mantle shelf. Even the black crepe paper decorations I had purchased in a strange moment of anti celebration hung desolately over the dining table. Scene set, no action.
Boxing Day had been designated as family festive food day. The night before I had started the turkey brining, put some wine in to chill, worried all over again that no one in the household except me liked plum pudding, asked the promises of the vegetable run if they were ready, roasted the ham with a glaze that I was not fond of.... that whole glaze issue is fraught, you simply have to have some thick sugar laden number that will stick and rise to the occasion. I even took great care to skin the pork carefully, not being the patient and manually dexterous type, I have been known to rip a bit hard at removing the skin and leave the fat layer in less than pristine shape. Xmas had come and gone, this was another day, another event completely.
I am a creature of habit, up early on Boxing Day, cup of tea, toast and turn the oven on high. I had a Ledoux turkey to roast to perfection. I was well behaved and followed the recipe (below). I have this 45 year long argument with some family members who want to eat everything seeringly hot whereas I want it mildly room temperate. Allowing for the size of the bird, a 2 hour cook and good rest after all that heat and indignity would be about right. Stuffing was a separate thing and was already in the loaf tin. We have always had a Swedish style potatoes and they were lying in their bath of cream garlic and anchovy, beans topped and tailed and someone was running up a cauliflower cheese. Someone else was inspecting a bowl of ripe tomatoes preparatory to roasting them with whole garlic cloves and basil leaves. The ham was out and on the sideboard, a side of smoked salmon with a Swedish dill mayonnaise (is there a theme emerging here I am unaware of?) shared the location. In my over enthusiasm I had also purchased a standing rib roast and that was rubbed with salt, anointed with oil and waiting its turn in the now pulsating oven. Gravy was not even a remote non event, it was demanded by several family members and would be closely tasted and critically assessed, so I had to get that happening. I went down the middle road, roasted a bunch of beef and turkey bones until they were brown, added some water, the turkey neck and giblets for a damn fine stock and then reduced it a bit. Gravy started. A salad or two would see it all done.
Time for a bit of reflection.
I doubt that Poppy or Aunty Pearl, or my father and mother had ever tasted turkey... it was just not often eaten or even available. I remember once when going with Dad on his 'country round' delivering meat, one of the farmers had a flock (called I think a rafter of) of turkeys that sort of ran wild, along with a gaggle of geese and essentially intimidated the entire farm. I was completely freaked out and refused to get down off the horse and cart dad used, the horse was not impressed either. They were destined for the table the farmer said, My family were butchers, I cannot ever recall seeing them selling poultry of any kind. I suspect that a few of the top enders of Port Fairy ate turkey and goose for Xmas, Dad usually killed one of the older chooks stuffed, very long cooked chook that was maybe one of just six eaten during the year. Ducks we ate when Dad went out in duck hunting season and brought home a bunch of wild ones. Hearn’s Hotel always offered turkey for Xmas lunch, we just never went, Mum would have viewed that as a great extravagance.
In time, we all tasted turkey and became seduced. Why it was turkey and not goose or duck is a mystery, it is a native of the America's http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turkey_(bird). Geese are found in many countries including Asia, Ducks are world wide. Perhaps again another example of the formidable power of the USA in influencing. Turkey it is then.
I searched and hunted and I think in the end, found a great, no, bloody fabulous bird, produced by the Ledoux family in Gippsland, free range, organic (genuine) and tasty. Judy Ledoux just told me that they supply just 4000 birds in any one year, she says that it keeps the quality high and allows them to be sure of it. She is the sort of supplier that we all need to find.
I am going to repeat myself... this is the BEST way to cook big bird.. (Nigella calls it that.. and good on her, she deserves a break)....
Brining Turkey's is good, makes the bird moist, keeps a great flavor. So choose either the salt brine (for big birds like Turkey this is best) or the lemon juice method (best for smaller birds)... but do please give the high temperature a go. It will produce a moist crispy skinned bird.
Salt water/Sugar brine
You must start the evening before... the turkey must be fully thawed the bird should be submerged in the brine solution and preferably kept in a cool/chill (refrigerator) situation. It would be an 8 hour, no longer brine.
This solution should be enough for a 5 kg to 8 kg bird.
3 litres of chicken stock 275 grams of table salt 1/4 cup sugar (brown is best) 1 tablespoon dried sage 1 tablespoon crushed dried rosemary 1 tablespoon dried thyme 1 litre of iced water..
Bring stock, salt, sugar and herbs to the boil, allow to cool add the litre of iced water. and cool completely.
I like to use a clean plastic bucket that will hold the turkey easily with the brine. Place the brine into the bucket.
Wash and dry the turkey and lower the bird breast first into the bucket making sure that the cavities are filled with the brine. Place the bucket into the refrigerator over night. If the refrigerator is otherwise occupied, consider using a chiller or even a styrene box. Remove the turkey and dry completely. Make a mixture of Olive Oil, garlic, finely chopped herbs and pepper, rub this well into the cavity of the bird.
Salt and Lemon Juice.
The salt and lemon juice method is more for me about taste. I love lemon and I love what it does to foods. I also acknowledge that this method is slightly 'awkward, but give it a shot.
Your object is to cover the turkey in lemon juice, generously and then also generously, cover the bird in salt. No, not a snow field of salt, rather a scattering, 7 kilo turkey would take about 1/2 a cup of salt. Having done both of the above, wrap the bird in plastic film and put aside (on the bench) for 45 minutes. This will allow time to heat the oven. Prepare a seasoning.
Stuffing or as we always called it, seasoning.
Cooking a turkey without stuffing is better. The argument goes that the stuffing will impede the heat from reaching the inside of the bird and make if more uneven in cooking. This is not something that I have ever suggested, I have held the view that the stuffing added to the deliciousness of the bird, but I have to reluctantly admit minus stuffing is better, is true. Your stuffing can be cooked separately and we suggest our new Persian stuffing mix.
High Heat Cooking Method
As a preparation for the cooking, remove the wing tips from the turkey and if you have been given the neck and the giblets, place them in about half a litre of water and cook for 45 minutes, use this to make the pan gravy.
Cooking the Turkey on HIGH heat is the best way. This method requires a bit of preliminary work... a very clean oven, a baking pan with sides no higher than 5 cm and nerves of steel. The cooking is done at 240 to 250 Celsius and the oven MUST be preheated. The rule is 18 minutes per kilo. For the first 45 minutes, no matter what, do NOT open the oven. Resist the temptation to baste. And cook the bird on a V trivet breast side down, don't truss the bird. It will or should be brown and crisp and very moist at the end of the cooking time. After 45 minutes, take the bird from the oven and turn it over breast side up, return to the oven for the balance of time, still on high heat. If the bird is getting too browned, cut some foil and make a double layer draped, but not tucked in on top of the bird, (remove the foil 10 minutes before the end of the cooking time) and continue cooking. For a near 7 kilo bird, the cooking time should be about 2 hours. The bird should be allowed to stand for 20 minutes after cooking, covered, but not tightly or you will loose the crispy skin.
Make a gravy (sauce) but please no flour... just pour off as much of the fat as possible, add a couple of cups of stock (turkey stock if you have it as described above, if not chicken stock) and bring to the pan to a good rolling boil, this sauce is thin, but very tasty. The other option is to stir in a couple of big spoons of a very good Red Currant Jelly (PW brand is good and made in house) to enrich the sauce. Turkey sorted, now for the ham.
All I ask is that you get one full of taste, free from as much water as possible. The prices will vary between $8 to $40 a kilo. Be aware that you will get what you pay for, but also be sure that you have tasted the top end hams. Myself, I favour a ham from Bangalow but that is my taste memory from the days when Mum bought her ham, sliced from Swintons Your Grocer in Warrnambool. Why is taste memory always so good.
Glazing the ham is something that I like to do. There is a question about glazing with skin on or off. In my case it's simple, I like to drape the turkey with the ham skin for the hot fast cook, removing it for the last 20 minutes to brown.
In which case... remove the skin. As a suggestion, don't try and do this when the ham is chilled, it will work a lot better at room temperature (20 Celsius) or a degree or two warmer. Simple start to peel the skin back with a small knife and then, using your fingers, ease it right off. Keep for draping purposes. With the same small knife, cut into the fat and make a pattern, a criss cross is usual.
Bring the glaze to hot, but not boiling, using a brush, begin to paint the ham, allow to cool a little and coat again. Put the oven on to 180 Celsius and after it has reached heat, put ham in and cook for about 40 minutes. If there is some glaze left, pour it over the ham and return to the oven for a few minutes. Allow to cool.
The stuffing should be made up according to the instructions, it is best cooked in a loaf tin, usually I would cover it in foil and add a little extra oil.. You can cook this in advance and simply warm it.
If you want roasted vegetables, do NOT cook them with the turkey, they can be done in advance, or as the turkey is having a rest after the heat of the oven, twenty minutes rest is suggested.
There you go...Now let me tell you the very good news, you can apply all of this to any poultry, the brining, the the high temperature roasting works really well on ducks and geese, it will remove a lot of the fat and you will end up with desirable crisp skin and moist flesh.
Felice Navidas, Buon Natale, Happy Xmas, it was all go. Years of being in food had left me a bit bad at the whole feast thing, it is some sort of subconscious thing that forbids me from nose diving into food and so, I sit back. I don’t like a piled high plate, so sitting there nibbling a bit of this and that worked well.
Dessert in the house fell a bit short of my personal festive season expectations, I like a plum pudding, I love a trifle, I love a big pavlova, I like a great bowl of chocolate mousse. Instead I felt like I was on restrictions, a fine thing for ones figure, but not altogether a great end to a festive meal. We live and learn.
In the run down, my biggest moan was that we did not have a Xmas cake... that luscious fruit filled cake that was then topped with heaps of icing. I think its essential. The logic was that since I am the only one who likes it and, the only one who should NOT eat it, problem solved. Bugger.
Mustard Sauce “Hovmästarsås”
6 tbsp sugar
Pinch of salt
2 tbsp white wine vinegar
4 tbsp of PW"s Imperial Russian Mustard
6-8 tbsp vegetable or olive oil
¼ cup chopped fresh dill
Pour the vinegar in a small bowl, mix with sugar and salt and stir until somewhat dissolved. Add mustard and oil and stir until well mixed. Cut the dill finely with scissors in a cup. Add dill to the sauce and stir to mix.
The sauce is ready to be served and can be stored for several week in the fridge.