Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!
Sometimes, Less is More
I hope you’re all happily cooking up a storm, or lucky enough to be around someone who is, while enjoying a little time off in the company of people you love.
After weeks of holiday festivities that involved relatively little time in the kitchen for me, and much less extravagance and fussing overall, I realize what a most wonderful Christmas I had. Somehow, I didn’t over indulge either - just a tad. Maybe there is really something to the ‘Less is More’ thing.
I’ve always loved Christmas (minus the excessive commercialism), mostly because it is the one time of year when most people make an effort to slow down and allot time to be with family and friends, to kick back and be jolly, to give and receive. It brings out the best in most human beans. Besides, I just love a party, I love feasting, I love carols, I love rituals. I still hold true to sending out cards by snail mail, unsure if anyone really cares. I’m the anti-Scrooge. But logistically, it can all get somewhat stressful. And like most of us (chefs), I can’t help but let the food part take up a lot of space in the ordeal, in energy and dollars spent, in hours slaving and agonizing, wanting it all to be perfect, for everyone to feel spoiled. But in the end, the food is never all that important is it? Great festive get-togethers are so much more about people’s spirits, ie. good will, a minimum of pressure and often, a generous amount of wine. My silly Christmas tree shades I wore on every visit proved more worthy than any one dish I made, ha.
Deep down, I’ve always known that Christmas is not the time to get all fancy pants – special yes, elaborate no. It must be the momentum of what I do that tends to lead me into special equals fancy territory. I have the fondest memories of Quebecois reveillons at childhood friends’ places eating macaroni salad, ham sandwiches, tourtière, beans, creamy greens and pickled beets, complete with jiggy music and hilarious drunken uncles. As a kid, I was always curious about what others were doing and eating at Christmas, so I managed to get myself invited to all kinds of different holiday meals. I was with Jewish friends for Chanukah early in the month and then on the 24th, I had a selection of shin-digs to attend since my peers were largely French Canadian and we, the English oddballs, did our thing on the 25th . Every family had their own unique tradition, all so much more exotic than ours it seemed, and I loved them all! Sometimes it was ragout de pattes (pig knuckle stew with meatballs) or roast beef on the menu, or lobster, and always pies (paté à viande, paté au poulet, paté au saumon…). Honestly in Franco-Quebec, the only staple at the buffet seems to be some version of tourtière; they like to put everything in a crust. I am now equally enamoured with the Italians’ succession of fish courses, and the newly discovered Kwaanza, the seven day African celebration of seven principles, featuring a whole new panoply of dishes to bring onto the season’s menu.
I soaked up more than my fair share of Christmas cheer over the years, up until I began working holidays as a country chef, and caterer. I continued to make a big deal out of Christmas in any way I could, planning ‘before’ and ‘after’ visits and gifts, a turkey for staff meal, Champagne toasts at the end of a shift. I will always remember forcing my kitchen crew at l’Eau to form a Christmas cracker ring and put on the tissue paper hats, so completely foreign to them, while they thought I was the most ridiculous chef they had ever met and just wanted to high tail it home. For years, I only dreamed of an English style turkey with stuffing, gravy and mashed potatoes, which I will forever appreciate, whether technically successful or not.
Oh yes, I was supposed to making the point that food isn’t so crucial. And then I followed with paragraphs of food talk. Oh well. That’s because of course, it is. Good food certainly helps in any situation, bringing welcome punctuation to the array of activities, giving everyone something to talk about, to savour or to offer distraction when the conversation lulls or goes in a dreaded direction. Especially when there is no crazy weather to talk about like this year, it all being so perfect with the white landscapes, mild temperatures, crunchy snow and decent driving conditions.
The bottom line is that food is very important, and mostly more so than the weather, but not something to get too worked up over. However much I like to complicate things, I’m eventually learning that the holidays is not the time to go that route.
Regardless that I was off for a change, I kept things simple (and my engagements to a minimum). Breaking from custom, in the jam packed weeks leading up to the big day, I didn’t undertake a major production of tourtiere (with my usual confit and mix of game meat) and sweet treats. (It’s ok to skip a year right?) That’s only because I was sidetracked, busy trying to keep up with the Christmas markets - making my soups, stew, foie gras, confit, rillettes, smoked duck and stuff, as well as flavoured butters and all our little pots of mustards, jellies, syrups and pickles for the business. Oh and packaging tisane and mushroom mix. While it was relatively quiet at the restaurant, everything pre-made and ready to serve or suitable as a quick gift, went flying out the door. It appears that people are cooking (or assembling fine meals) at home more than going out to restaurants, as well as seeking out food oriented gifts for their friends.
In the process, I made a little more of it all so that I could snag some for my gift packages. Of course, I officially shopped for kiddie presents because they don’t want duck for Christmas. Even Morrocan clementines, a step up from the Florida oranges of my childhood X-mas stockings, don’t elicit enough excitement to forgo a trinket or two for the kids these days (what’s the world coming to?).
When it came to Christmas dinner, I tailored my menu around François’ mom and her desires, all while keeping it simple (she has a mini stove, 6 inches of counter space and a small appetite). She really wanted a seared foie gras starter for a treat, which I hate to do outside a restaurant kitchen and I was stressing about it, until François ordered me to open my present before dinner - an All Clad fry pan duo. After setting off the smoke alarm with the foie in my scorching hot pan, we sat down to an iceberg salad with blue cheese dressing, cranberries and almonds. The iceberg! is not because I’m trying to be retro-trendy but because it’s the only salad green his Mom digests well, apparently (?). Don’t question mothers. The main course was leg of lamb with Panch Foran pan jus, a red pepper spice condiment I made, du Puy lentil stew, roasted root vegetables, spinach with garlic. Dessert was a buche with homemade Nutella buttercream, chocolate ganache and wintergreen ice cream.
Quite a minimalist menu for me don’t you think? Especially that I swiped the dessert from my restaurant Mise en Place, all part of the plan.. For the Hinton clan, everyone chips in (ten siblings and co., c’mon), so I brought soup, charcuterie and dessert (the same dessert). How smart.
It turns out that my brothers and sisters have grown up to be quite good cooks too, having not been able to count on me for so many years. My brother Bruce made a striking buche as well, Liz made the biggest batch of ratatouille of her life, my little brother Dave made a gi-normous Lac St-Jean style deep dish tourtiere, the likes of which I have never seen and all totally scrumptious; Maggie took care of the basic turkey and sides which kicked. I think my mom’s spiced lentil stew is the best condiment for turkey and potatoes ever - forget about cranberry sauce here on in. Afterwards, Elsa’s gang fed me with duck, duck fat potatoes and green bean, tomato feta salad; we ate moose with roasted cauliflower, mushrooms and leftovers the next day. Another brother made quiche and salad for a quick meal, all from scratch, and so delicious. This holiday season, I was touched by everyone else’s offerings. There is nothing like a homemade dish produced with heart (and good ingredients). At holiday time especially, a kid brother’s concoction is bound to hit the spot way more than any top chef’s or restaurant meal could.
For New Year’s when I host again, Isabelle the pastry chef will be bringing dessert, so the buche will happily get a rest, but I’ll have to take it up a notch on the savoury side – enough smooth sailing, after all. As a chef , I can hardly rely on the student-brother factor to woo. You gotta have oysters on NYE, and seafood too right, charcuterie always, then hmm, I dunno.. There will be venison somewhere. Cheeses for sure. For the main dish, François wants lamb again; he bought a whack of shanks that arrived too late for Christmas. I want to do a game bird, we’ll see. For this one, we already have a wine plan, starting with a sparkler with elderberry (counter flu), and ending with a layered Quebec version of B52. You see, François bought two maple liqueurs, so enamoured with the artisan upon meeting him although we never drink that kind of sweet thing; it so happens that I have the perfect little glasses for it that otherwise just sit in my cabinet.
As the preparations get underway and I’m tempted to add layers of excitement (and work) to the menu, I must keep reminding myself of my Christmas revelation - that it’s not all about the food. Staying Zen is worth a bit of compromise – be it a course less, or store-bought bread and crackers instead of hand made. All laid out, nothing plated, no hydrocolloids. My guests better not be disappointed though.