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The Secret to a Happy Christmas Dinner

happy Christmas dinnerChristmas is my favourite time of year, and Christmas dinner seems to epitomize the festive season: the food and drink and best of all, the company. Just think – at what other time of year can you argue about whether the dressing should be traditional or adventurous, or agonize over which tablecloth would look nicer, and which serving pieces to put out to make sure Aunt So-and-so sees the gift you never otherwise use! (Okay, maybe in the closest families that happens every Sunday, but it seems most of the other days of the year we are far too busy to spend that much time on dinner.) On that point I agree with the Chef – be grateful you have those people you care about enough to argue with, and toast their good health before you dive into that sumptuous dinner.

As far as the menu goes, I have always been one who liked to “upset the apple cart” so to speak, by trying to suggest some new (or old) twist on the Christmas dinner. I wanted to try goose after having read Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”. I always wondered what Brussels sprouts tasted like and figured they couldn’t really be as bad as my Dad said. And who wouldn’t marvel at the idea of marshmallows at the dinner table, all toasted over a dish of sweet potatoes! Then there was the stuffing. This was a topic that was hotly discussed by my parents, as my Mom read more cooking magazines and my Dad pined for the “good old days” when celery and sage were all it needed. (Years later, he would be the one saying why hadn’t we added walnuts or used cornbread earlier!)  But if you ask me what I remember about Christmas dinner, it is not the specific menu items but rather that warm and fuzzy feeling that came once the plates were empty.

I for one don’t think it was merely the tryptophan that made me groggy and light-headed at Christmas; it was more that sense of euphoria that comes over you when you immerse yourself in the spirit of Christmas. If you truly believe in the essence of Christmas then as you let it into your heart and take active part in the festivities and the giving, you cannot help but feel better yourself. Children know this intuitively, and it is only as our hearts harden if we don’t practice such things that we lose sight of the true meaning of this holiday. Christmas is not for children, but for the child that lies within us all, hoping for a chance to believe in something pure and good, and listening for that magic signal which says that something exists.

Grinch carving the roast beast

So if you need a dose of “It’s A Wonderful Life” or “The Polar Express” before Christmas dinner to get you in full gear, go right ahead. When you sit down to dinner, cherish the meal, and those around you, and of course the cook who made it possible. It is important to take Christmas to heart, for if you do it right, it just might stay with you until next year. Wouldn’t that make the world a wonderful place?

As Tiny Tim said so long ago, “God Bless us every one.” Merry Christmas from our table to yours. Tiny Tim Bless Us Everyone

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Let’s Talk Turkey

This is a guest post by my husband, Chef Martin Laprise. Martin offers many of these tips at his festive season dinner parties and they are always met with lots of grateful thanks and visions of light bulbs over the head. I hope they offer you some assistance in enjoying the holidays as much as possible and not stressing out 🙂

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Cooking a holiday feast is always a lot of pressure for the cook. There are lots of dishes to prepare for this dinner, and everyone expects it all to arrive at the table hot and beautiful. I have news for you – this takes practice, and just like the girls on the covers of magazines are retouched, so are the turkeys! So set yourself up for success with these few pointers:

  • Brining your turkey adds moisture, so if you are worried about a dry bird, use this technique before you cook (usually overnight for a turkey). There are lots of great recipes on the internet for brines – choose the one you like. NOTE: basting your turkey will NOT make it more moist. I don’t care what Gramma told you. Once the meat starts to cook, no moisture will go in. This is not my opinion, it’s a scientific fact.
  • If you want a beautiful turkey to present on your table, start out with it covered in foil paper. You can always make it darker at the end of the cooking with a blow torch (like the magazine people do), but if it gets too dark, you’re stuck. Also, during the cooking time rotate the turkey at least 3 times (make sure it completes a whole circle) – even if you are using a convection oven. This will help it to cook evenly.
  • To make a stress free gravy, buy an extra turkey leg and make the gravy with that while your turkey finishes cooking. Brown the leg really well, make a stock, thicken with flour and voila! Awesome gravy that didn’t have to happen at the last minute.
  • If you want a stuffing recipe, you can check out the one I put up on my website for Thanksgiving turkey – it works great at Christmas too.

If you would like more cooking tips from a handsome Okanagan chef, book me for a dinner in your home. I will come to your house with the ingredients and cook everything from scratch. You can watch and ask as many questions as you like 🙂 Feel free to send me an email to arrange a booking. To see more of what I do, check out my website at www.thechefinstead.ca

Epiphany – not just while brushing!

Have you ever heard someone say they “had an epiphany” while brushing their teeth? Well, Wikipedia lists the secular meaning of an epiphany as “the sudden realization or comprehension of the (larger) essence or meaning of something… (when someone) has new information or experience, often insignificant by itself, that illuminates a deeper foundational frame of reference”. My Mom calls them “a-ha moments”.

Arthur Fry, the inventer of the post-it note, with one on his forehead. He came up with the idea for marking the pages in his hymnal using a glue he made that didn’t stick well!

Well, Epiphany is also a holiday, one that occurs on January 6, and celebrates traditionally the baptism of Jesus Christ and/or the coming of the Magi. There are different interpretations of the dates of all the pieces of Christ’s history, but the common thread is that this day celebrated recognizing Christ as the Son of God. It was as big as Christmas, at one time. This is where the Twelve Days of Christmas comes from – January 6 is the “Twelfth Night”. In some Christian cultures, such as South America, this season was extended for 40 days, to Candlemas (February 2 – tune in to a later column to see the nifty history on that).

Of course, since this was a celebration, there was a feast and activities. Epiphany marked the end of the Christmas celebrations – the yule log would burn on the fire until this night, when the ashes would then be kept til next Christmas to rekindle the good spirit of the season. The Christmas tree and wreath were kept up until Epiphany and any dried or candied fruit that might decorate either one would be eaten as part of the feast (remember, fruit was hard to come by in winter, and so was a treasured gift and would not be wasted.) People would go singing door to door, and they or sometimes the priests would bless the house after a sip of wassail punch, and mark it with the year’s date in chalk. Shakespeare even wrote a play for this time, in which many elements are reversed, as was common during this bit of celebrating (this tradition seems to go back to pagan rituals, which celebrated Epiphany as the end of the season that started at All Hallow’s Eve, when the world turned upside down.) And in many cultures there would be a “king cake”, baked with a bean or pea in the filling. The person receiving the bean in their piece would be crowned king or queen for the evening.

I was not aware of any of the ceremony that was Epiphany until I spent time in France, and I must admit I was charmed and awed by this wonderful way of closing out the Christmas season. Whether you are religious or not, it helps to have the focus on moving forward and hoping for a better tomorrow, don’t you think? I felt it helped me understand more about the big picture.

We will be celebrating Twelfth Night at Rabbit Hollow with my traditional French recipe for the Galette des Rois or Twelfth Night Torte, which is in the Recipe Archives. I will enjoy a last look at the Christmas tree before it comes down, and reflect on the good things to come in 2012. I wish you and yours a happy start to this new year.

The Heart of Winter

For those of you who do not enjoy this season, fear not –

we are past the worst. The winter solstice was yesterday, so the days are now getting longer. And Christmas is days away, so you might as well get in the spirit (the expression, “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” comes to mind :)). One Christmas during my retail tenure,  I remember the store manager saying to us before we opened on December 24th, “Anyone saying they are ‘just looking’ today is deluded. Take them around the store until they have their whole list crossed off, and then you can send them to the pub once they have paid!” This was a bit focused on the capitalistic side of the holiday season, perhaps, but it has always reminded me to have a sense of humour about my obligations  and spirit of the winter festive season. I’m just not a “bah humbug” type of person, I guess.

In truth, I am a much bigger supporter of solstice celebrations in spirit. Perhaps it is my Icelandic roots, or maybe it comes from not belonging to any specific religious tradition, but I enjoy the celebration of winter and family and nature. If you are looking for new ideas to boost your enthusiasm this season, I recommend Circle Sanctuary‘s website. They have many ideas on planning a celebration. Food and drink is an integral part, of course (that always makes for a good party!).

It really comes down to making the most of it. By that I don’t mean look for the sales and put more under the tree or on the table. I mean take the time to bake one batch of cookies with a loved one, instead or worrying about making four kinds. Enjoy a meal in view of the Christmas tree and think of all the things for which we can feel grateful. Perform a random act of kindness, for no other reason than to see someone else smile. Wish someone a Merry Christmas or Happy Hannukah when they bump you in the mall or steal your parking space. I guarantee you will feel less wintery and more festive. All of the cultures in the Northern hemisphere celebrate some kind of winter festival to make it through the cold and dark. Embrace the celebrations! (And what the heck, if you feel the best way to take part is to support the economy by shopping more, who am I to stop you? Fill your boots!)

And if you would like to make the most of tradition by using technology, guess what? They have an app for that!… check out this breaking news on experiencing the winter solstice at Stonehenge.

Just remember to pour yourself an eggnog before you start to fiddle around with it 🙂

The spirit of the season

I don’t know about you, but I am one of those people who believes. I believe in a happy childhood, and I believe in wishing on a star, and I believe in Santa Claus. In an age when we seem to be duped or even ripped off on a regular basis, I think it is important to have something as a counter-balance, and the spirit of Christmas is mine.

Santa busy at work in his shop

Last night we had Santa visit our Girl Guide troop. Our girls are 12-14 (they are called Pathfinders), and they were helping younger girls (Brownies, aged 8-10) to write their letters to Santa. I am sure you can imagine some of the looks on faces when they heard the jingle bells coming down the hall. The younger girls stopped in their tracks for just a moment, and then many of them rushed up to him for a closer look. He was dressed not in his official suit but rather a pair of red coveralls under his Santa jacket. He told the girls he had heard they were having a meeting and talking about Christmas, so he thought he would stop by.

The girls asked him questions and he furnished them with simple answers.

– “Is Rudolph’s nose really red?” – – of course. That story has been told for a long time.

– “Do the elves celebrate Hallowe’en?” — yes, but it’s hard to tell, as they are dressed up all the time.

– “How old are you?” — How is your math? Do you know my birthday, December 6th? (St. Nicholas Day, of course!) I was born in the year 343.

– “Do the reindeer need to practice?”– yes, and they love to practice in the Okanagan, where they can fly over the lake and under the bridge in Kelowna.

– “Do you use magic?” — yes, but only when I need to, like getting through some of those new green, small chimneys

They took it all in, and when he told them how important it was to “be prepared” (the Girl Guide motto) they all nodded knowingly. He told them to keep being good, and that he would see them all soon. Then off he went, down the hall with the Pathfinders.

You see, the older girls were helping out by writing the replies for the Santa letters. So Santa was there to make sure they knew proper protocols. He told them it was important to not promise a particular gift; he said he often told kids,”If you do your best, I’ll do mine”. He told them that if anyone asked for a pet, he would always check with Mom and Dad first before making a delivery. But it was when he mentioned a special secret for gifts that might not arrive promptly that he got everyone’s undivided attention. He told the girls that he had an example this year of a handmade gift that looked like it would not arrive for Christmas. So, he was going to produce the letter mentioning the gift to show that he hadn’t forgotten. One of the girls then piped up, “So, are you the real Santa?” He smiled, and reached in his pocket. “Oh, darn,” he said. I left my driver’s license in the sleigh. (I will mention here that I have seen said license, and it does indeed say Santa on it.) This group of usually rambunctious teenage girls got unusually quiet and thoughtful. Santa closed by saying that including personal details in the letters was also important – he knows what school they go to, and what awards they have won, etc. Then he headed out, back to the workshop he said, and as he went out the door he told the girls they would feel good about what they were doing.

The letters they wrote were wonderful. They all added their own touches – one girl is a beautiful artist, so for her girl who loved cats she drew a kitty with reindeer antlers at the bottom of the letter. Another has literary talent, and her letter was lovely prose. They were all proud of their efforts, and wished they could see the girls’ faces when they read the letters. For my part, I was happy that these modern girls had experienced the true meaning of Christmas.

When I talked to my Mom this morning on the phone, she told me I should be proud of sharing my faith in such a spirit. I was certainly proud of the girls and I am happy to be a part of making sure that despite all efforts to the contrary, we maintain a belief in something positive.

I wish each and every one of you a very Merry Christmas. May its spirit follow you into the New Year.

(If you need more encouragement to feel festive,check out the recipe page where I have posted a few more entries.)

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