LAST Christmas was cancelled in our house. I was convalescing in Calvinia with my parents; recovering from surgery. My mom has apparently decided she’s done enough cooking in her life. (Not that she was the most enthusiastic cook to begin with.)
So we had toasted cheese sandwhiches and cheap, tasteless Christmas cake from the local supermarket that no amount of dosing with extra brandy could rescue. I hadn’t truly grasped until that morning that an era in my life had ended.
It was strange to wake up in a house with no cheap, plastic tree half-heartedly covered with tattered decorations, no wrapped gifts, no choir music from my mom’s kitchen radio and no cooking smells drifting through my parental home.
There I was: suddenly with an empty nest and feeling every year of my middle-age.
I’ve always admired families who look from the outside like they have their shit together for Christmas. You know, who look like they really know how to celebrate and have traditions and rituals and elegant matching decorations and a menu full of passed-down recipes that has been pored over and considered.
It wasn’t until last Christmas that I realised how many of my own traditions I’ve created since becoming a parent. How much I’ve loved and come to rely on our own random and quirky way of celebrating the end of the year. How empty it suddenly is when kids grow up and leave to make their own way. And the reality of parents that age and can no longer keep up with the traditions. How were they the same age for 45 years then suddenly old overnight?
Suddenly there is no longer a reason to make a gigantic pavlova that necessitates getting up at 6am on Christmas Day so it can cool in the oven before the roast goes in. You’d think I’d relish the chance to sleep in and the freedom from the obligations the season often brings.
Instead, I silently wept. I remembered all the years of hosting others. Kids, family, orphan friends. The hot cars full of groceries and the even hotter kitchens, trays of crispy potatoes and the dishes to be washed, followed by food comas. And above all, making everyone’s favourite dish and trying to get it all just right and perfect. I guess somehow I thought it would always carry on. I remember, too, how I often over-extended myself, got grumpy and tired and perhaps just a tiny bit dramatic and overbearing as I carried the heavy weight of trying to please everyone.
I thought I was doing it for them, but now I realise I did it all for me. Because I am the sentimental and nostalgic one in the family. The one who wanted to spin a thread of meaning and belonging and golden moments through everything. The one who seemed to think that if I did more, things would be better.
This year we have a new baby in the family — my brother’s first. The start of a new family tradition. A new opportunity for us grown-ups to make-believe and celebrate and spin threads together that will hold this child through her life.
I look forward to spending less time trying to get the food perfect and more just enjoying the company and finding that sweet balance between the joy of doing for others and the slow pleasure of simply being present. Together. Gathered.
So I present you with this simple Christmas menu. Great complementary dishes from my columns this year are the slow-cooked lamb and this roasted garlic lemony sauce over crispy potatoes. This olive and nut spread is great spooned over roasted beetroot, especially with a couple of anchovies in the mix. If you want to make your life really easy, these sauces can be made a week in advance, which will significantly reduce your prep on the day.
Serves four people.
This chicken can be roasted or braaied and eaten hot with crispy potatoes or cold and shredded on a tangle of cos and radicchio leaves.
A serving suggestion is extra yoghurt sauce alongside the chicken. Double the herb sauce ingredients below and swirl them through an additional cup of yoghurt. I particularly like making a salad with some of this yoghurt sauce and leftover cold chicken.
- 1 large chicken, butterflied
- 1 cup (250 ml) Greek yoghurt/buttermilk
- 2 tbsp (30 g) butter
- 3 cloves garlic
- bunch of spring onions, edible parts only
- bunch of tarragon, picked
- ½ lemon, zest and juice
- 2 tbspns (30 ml) olive oil
- pinch of sea salt
- pinch of black pepper
1. Cut down the back of the chicken with a sharp knife to flatten it or ask the butcher to do it.
2. Use a stick blender or a food processor and pulse all the herb sauce ingredients to a rough paste.
3. Place the chicken in a roasting dish in which it fits snugly. Rub half of the herb sauce all over the chicken and pour the yoghurt over it. Leave in the fridge overnight. (It’s not the end of the world if you don’t have time, but it will render the meat juicier and more tender.)
4. Preheat the oven to 200°C.
5. Roast the chicken with the skin side up for 50 minutes. Dot the butter and the rest of the herb sauce over the chicken and return it to the oven. Switch the oven off and leave undisturbed for 15 minutes. Check to see if the chicken is cooked.
Tip: If you can’t find fresh tarragon you can add 2 tablespoons of dried tarragon to the sauce as well as a bunch of fresh parsley, or you can use dill, fennel, basil or coriander.
Serves four people.
The sweetness of the dates and the heat of the smoky chilli is such a great combo with these carrots, and they go with chicken, roast lamb or even gammon. Use a tub of smoky store-bought baba ganoush to elevate these carrots to something truly spectacular.
- 20 baby carrots, scrubbed
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 2 tbsp almond slivers, toasted
- 2 tbsp pumpkin seeds, toasted
- 2 tbsp date syrup (or honey)
- 1 tbsp smoked chilli flakes
- ½ cup baba ganoush (smoky eggplant dip)
- ½ cup labneh (yoghurt cheese) or cream cheese
- 1 cup of mixed soft green herbs such as rocket, dill, basil, chervil
- ½ lemon juice and zest
- salt, to taste
1. Roast the carrots and olive oil in a single layer in a roasting tray at 180°C for 30 minutes.
2. Toss with the date syrup and almonds, pumpkin seeds and chilli flakes, season with salt and return to the oven for 10 minutes.
3. Combine the baba ganoush and labneh and spread on a serving plate.
4. Arrange the carrots with nuts on top.
5. Pulse the herbs and lemon juice and zest with a stick blender and drizzle over the carrots. Serve with extra herbs. Best served at room temperature.
- To make date syrup, if you can't find it, blend a handful of pitted dates with a splash of water, simmer for 5 minutes and remove from the heat. Store in a glass jar in the fridge.
- Not a fan of baba ganoush and labneh? Replace them with a cup of thick Greek yoghurt mixed with a tablespoon of tahini. For a dairy-free alternative, use hummus.
- For even less prep, replace the herb drizzle with your favourite pesto thinned with lemon juice.
♦ VWB ♦
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