I LIKE Christmas. I remember Christmas carols: our Mimi, soft focus on the cover. Christopher Parkening and Kathleen Battle still stir my soul. The anticipation of little ones (yes, me too) over Christmas packages, the smell of pine needles in the cool living room, the unwrapping of the tree decorations, the lights. The planning of the menu, the new flavours that have been discovered and shared throughout the year, and the old favourites that more or less only make their appearance on the festive table every year. Everything delicious.
The centrepiece of most Christmas tables is the meat dish; and it's also a thing families notice. The late Uncle Hannes Barnard from Barandas in the Karoo believed there is no tastier, more tender meat on this earth than syboklam for Christmas Day. I read somewhere that a kleinboer aunt from Sardinia recently insisted that Christmas is not Christmas without a fried cat on the table. Then it can be like that, as the bearded man's aunt Erina always said.
In our choice of meat for our Christmas Eve meal, our family believes in variation: juicy, still-pink-in-the-middle leg of lamb grilled over the coals, or a stuffed turkey, or a giant ham or a boneless pork neck, specially ordered from a professional butcher. Or the beef tongue in mustard sauce my brother-in-law loves so much.
If someone brought fresh fish from the sea, we consider ourselves lucky. And because we don't want its taste to be lost amid Christmas Eve's excesses, we save it for Christmas Day and make a simple oven-roasted fish with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and herbs. With homemade mayonnaise or a sauce, if you have to.
What Doornkraal's vegetable garden produces determines the snacks served and the vegetables on the menu. At this time of year there are rich harvests of spinach, eggplant, tomato, marrow pumpkins, sweet pepper, cantaloupe, watermelon, plums, figs and many herbs.
Cool gazpacho of ripe red tomatoes and cucumber is a much-loved favourite, as are smoked aubergine purée (baba ganoush), aubergine and pepper salad, marrow pumpkin soup, and melon or figs wrapped in pancetta with a shaving of parmesan cheese and rocket leaves.
Dessert is usually not too extravagant, but a must. My dad is a gelato maestro and has a whole repertoire of ice creams that he starts making weeks before Christmas. To everyone's chagrin, because like a real Italian, the kitchen is packed from side to side (read: messed up). And the freezer is stuffed with anonymous, suspicious trays. But all is forgiven when it comes to dessert time.
If we were given a fruit cake as a gift — unfortunately also something that is going the way of House & Home — we make a nice brandy sauce with it and serve it with vanilla ice cream. I ate lemon posset for the first time a few years back — delicious and elegant. Eton mess, the winning combination of whipped cream and meringues with berries or tropical fruit, is easy to make and cool for a hot day.
Here are a few recipes that use produce in season, and which have become stalwarts for me.
Refreshing watermelon salad
The combination of watermelon or cantaloupe with salt and pepper is strange but delicious. The watermelon or melon cubes should not be too small, otherwise you will miss the nice mouth feel of the crunch and the juice that is released with each bite. If you serve it as in the photo, you won't end up with a saucy dish.
- ½ small watermelon, without skin and seeds
- extra virgin olive oil
- Maldon salt or other flaky sea salt
- freshly ground black and pink pepper
- 50 g goat's milk or good feta cheese
- mint leaves
Cut the watermelon, dice and put on a plate. Drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper and the crumbled cheese. Garnish with mint leaves.
Festive yellowtail with tomatoes and cream
Fish prepared this way looks like Christmas on a plate.
- 1 kg yellowtail fillet with its skin on
- 50 g butter
- 200 g small tomatoes
- 1 t smoked paprika
- peel and juice of a large lemon
- 1 cup white wine — the better, the tastier the sauce
- 1 cup cream
- 1 large handful basil leaves
Put the fish fillet on its skin side in a greased oven pan. Heat the oven to 140°C. Melt the butter until nice and hot and fry the tomatoes to colour them a little. Add the lemon zest and paprika and fry for another moment. Add the lemon juice and wine and cook down to about half the volume. Add the cream and let it boil again for a while until slightly thickened. Pour the sauce over the fish and bake for 20 minutes until just cooked through. Serve with the basil sprinkled over and with vegetables — something like baked sweet potatoes, squashes or cauliflower purée that can serve as the carrier for the sauce.
Oven-roasted pork loin with crispy baked crackling
Pork is quite affordable and takes little effort to cook. Choose the meat from a free-range pig, if you can find it.
- 1 whole pork leg with skin on
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
- 2 t coarsely pounded fennel
Heat the oven to 230°C.
Cut only the skin of the meat with a sharp knife into strips about 1 cm wide — try not to cut into the meat. Rub the olive oil and salt thoroughly between the strips.
Put the meat on a rack in an oven pan and roast for 30 minutes until the skin is beautifully crispy. Watch so the crackling doesn't burn. Reduce the heat to 140°C. Season with black pepper and fennel seeds and bake for a further 2½ hours until tender.
Braised red cabbage
Cabbage is a good match for any pork dish, but also good with turkey, goose, duck and fish.
- 1 large red onion, thinly sliced, or a regular onion
- 3 tablespoons butter, oil or fried fat
- 2 cloves of garlic, finely pressed
- 6 cups grated red cabbage
- 2 t caraway seeds and 1 bay leaf
- 1 peeled Granny Smith apple, grated
- ¾ cup chicken stock
- ½ cup red wine
- 1 cup red wine vinegar
- 1 cup sugar
- ¼ cup chopped parsley
Fry the onion over medium heat in the oil or fat until slightly soft, add the garlic and fry a moment longer. Add the cabbage to the pot with 1 t of salt, a sprinkling of black pepper and the other ingredients, apart from the parsley. Cook with the lid on for 10-15 minutes until just tender, stirring occasionally. Boil off the extra liquid (if any) quickly with the lid off. Taste and season if necessary. Sprinkle over the parsley before serving.
Flattened fried new potatoes
These potatoes are a nice variation on the indispensable roasted potatoes for the festive table.
Cook whole, small potatoes gently in salted water. Drain the water and flatten the potatoes with the palm of your hand or a potato masher. Scoop with an egg spatula into an olive oil-greased oven pan. Drizzle with a mixture of olive oil and melted butter, season with fresh pepper and a sprinkling of salt and bake for about 25-30 minutes at 200°C until golden brown and crispy around the edges.
Nice as a side dish with roast pork, game or turkey, but also nice with ice cream, mascarpone or ricotta for dessert or even with yoghurt and muesli for breakfast. The flavour of the plums becomes more intense and the spices add sophistication. Nectarines and apricots are also delicious prepared in this way.
- 8 plums, halved and pitted
- 2 t honey
- ¼-⅓ cup brown sugar, depending on how sour the plums are
- 1 t vanilla sprinkling
- fine cinnamon and cloves
Heat the oven or air fryer to 200°C. Grease a baking dish large enough to hold the plums in one layer. Put the half plums in a mixing bowl and drizzle over the honey and vanilla, as well as the spices. Mix with hands. Arrange cut side up in the bowl and sprinkle generously with brown sugar. Bake for 8-12 minutes until heated through and until the skin begins to wrinkle and the sugar melts and bubbles, but not so long that the plums lose their shape. Leave to cool for 5 minutes and spoon into a serving bowl with the syrup.
Lemon cream, aka lemon posset
- 2 cups cream — thick cream gives a richer result and will set harder; plain cream gives a lighter dessert
- ⅔ cup sugar
- 1 tablespoon grated lemon peel
- 90 ml fresh lemon juice
- To serve: a large handful of fresh berries
Heat the cream, sugar and zest in a saucepan over a medium heat until it boils. Stir until the solution has evaporated to about 500 ml — this takes about 10 minutes.
Remove from the heat, stir in the lemon juice and leave uncovered for 15 minutes. Strain the mixture through a fine sieve and divide into small cups. Place uncovered in the fridge until completely chilled, then cover. Garnish with berries and sprinkle with icing sugar before serving. It's enough for 4 people.
Every year, toiling in front of a hot stove while everyone is busy, at some point the cook feels like saying with Ogden Nash: “Roses are things which Christmas is not a bed of." But with the satisfaction of a long feast of togetherness and conversation and good eating and drinking, then I know that it was the one meal that was worth it all. And that the leftovers will be even tastier the next day.
And yet. One year I want to follow Elizabeth David's recommendation for an ideal Christmas Day meal: an omelette with cold ham and a nice bottle of wine for lunch. And in the evening, on a tray in bed, a smoked salmon sandwich and a glass of ice-cold champagne. Just to know what it feels like.
♦ VWB ♦
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