Thursday 30 November 2017

Thoughts as everyone puts up decorations

I was writing something about how most of our Christmas imagery -- Christmas trees, snow, carolers, mistletoe, holly, Christmas cards, Santa and so on -- come from Victorian Britain, especially Dickens' A Christmas Carol. The strange thing is, he was talking about London, and London never gets white Christmases anymore.

The reason, of course, is that Dickens grew up at the tail end of the Little Ice Age, that cold period that took place during the 1600s and 1700s. When Dickens was little London saw the last of the Frost Fairs, times when the weather was so cold that the Thames froze thick with ice, and people held public carnivals in the middle of the river without fear.

Why was there a little Ice Age? The leading theory is that when native Americans filled North and South America, they had cleared much of the land for farms. When the Spaniards invaded, they spread ten thousand years' worth of diseases for which the natives had no immunity, and perhaps 99 percent of the population died. The farms lay vacant, and within a century the forests had grown back, two continents of trees suddenly sucking millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

As you would expect, the global temperature dropped, and Europe began seeing harsher winters -- the Dutch masters painted scenes of men and women ice skating on the canals, which the Dutch could never do today. And in Britain, generations grew up associating the Christmas season with deep snow.

Hence, Dickens portrayed a snow-bound London with all the accoutrements that we now associate with Christmas. We still use such images even when few of us live in places that have white Christmases anymore -- even London itself. One wonders, as the climate continues to change in the decades ahead, what old imagery we will cling to long after the world has shifted and the imagery no longer makes sense.

But those can be melancholy thoughts, so I'll just end with recipes. This will appear in the Kildare Nationalist next week:

Everyone makes their own Christmas supper --- some with ham, some with turkey, some with Chinese they ordered out at the last minute. There’s no definitive Christmas recipe list, but this might give you some ideas for the big day. 

Turkey – We won’t go into all the details of roasting turkey, which are in many cookbooks and which vary according to the size of bird you have. I have found, though, that you can improve any recipe you have by finely grating 10g of ginger, 20g of garlic, 5ml each of salt, pepper, vegetable stock powder and lemon zest, and mix it in a bowl with 50g of butter. Then mix it all together and rub it under the skin of the turkey before roasting.

When I roasted a turkey, I made sure to take out the organs on the inside and stuff the cavity with the lemon halves I had recently zested. Then I laid it in a deep pan with the breast down -- that is, upside-down from the way it’s usually pictured, so that the breast didn’t dry out. I then packed skinned and quartered onions and chopped carrots, celery and potatoes -- each cut into about two-centimetre pieces -- and filled the space around the turkey with them. I then poured two cups of my mead -- honey wine from my beehive, but white wine would also do -- over the vegetables, and paid tinfoil over the whole thing.

Mine was a small turkey, so I roasted it for an hour this way, and then took it out, uncovered the bird, and mixed up the vegetables. Then I turned it over so that the breast part browned as well, and roasted for another 30 minutes. Generally you roast a turkey 10 to 12 minutes per pound (21 to 25 per kilo) if it is not stuffed, or until a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh reads at least 83 Celsius. Let the turkey sit at least 15 minutes before carving.

Cranberry sauce – put 200g of cranberries, in a pan with 100g of brown sugar, 50 ml of white wine in a pan, and simmer it for five minutes, stirring until the sugar is dissolved and the cranberries start to soften and burst. You can try to mix it into a finer consistency, or serve as is.
Potato salad: Rather than making a traditionally heavy potato salad to go with a heavy meal, make a light one with a small pot – say, 500ml -- of boiled waxy potatoes, and similarly-sized volumes of diced apples, diced hard-boiled eggs, and thinly-sliced celery. Mix together about 300 ml of dressing – for example, yogurt and lemon juice, mixed with lemon zest, sesame oil, cayenne powder and pepper, along with chopped mint, dill and chives.
As soon as the potatoes are boiled, drained and chopped – when they are still hot – mix them into the dressing, and they will absorb the liquid as they cool. Then mix in the cold apples, eggs and celery for an all-in-one meal. This is a general recipe; experiment until you get it right for you.

Kale: First lightly oil a pan and peel and dice a large onion. Toss the onion bits in and sautee them until they are yellow. Wash and chop about as much kale as will fit in a small pot – it will cook down, and the amounts don’t have to be precise --- and toss it in as well. Add a pinch of salt and stir frequently to make sure nothing sticks to the metal.

After the kale has shrunk and gone soft, drizzle it with several tablespoons of cider vinegar and one tablespoon of honey, and stir it in. I like to add a bit of concentrated stock and cayenne pepper, or you can use balsamic vinegar to make it sweeter.

Butternut squash: Cut up a butternut squash – just the flesh, not the skin or innards --- into cubes about 1 cm across. Take about 50 ml of stock – or perhaps hot water mixed with stock powder – and mix in 10 ml each of finely-chopped herbs like oregano, sage, parsley and basil, along with 3 – 5 ml of spices like cumin and coriander, 10 ml of soy sauce, 5 ml of salt, and a pinch of cayenne. Add a few dashes of lemon juice.

Line a baking dish with butter, and put in the squash. Pour the mixture over it, cover it with foil and place in the oven. Bake at 200 degrees for about 60 minutes, or until the squash is … well, squashable.

Finally, take it out of the oven and take the foil off. Grate some cheese – gruyere works well – and sprinkle it over the top of the squash. Put it back in, uncovered, for a few more minutes until the cheese is melted.

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