Planning the Christmas menu is always a challenge for me. I am a sort of irreverent traditionalist in that I like to refer to the foods that relate to the holiday, while at the same time, serving dishes that are a little unexpected. My idea of the perfect meal is one where the entire length of the table is filled with an astounding sea of platters filled to the brim with the flavors of the season.
I spent at least 6 weeks composing our Christmas dinner. This makes me sound a little intense and a tad overly meticulous, but I assure you most of the planning was done while day-dreaming about food while driving, or when lying in my bed late at night when my brain refused to turn itself off.
This year was more ambitious than others, with 15 people to cook for. Four close friends would be staying at the house, as well as my two brothers, one of whom was bringing his wife, three kids and mother-in-law! They were all traveling from places as close as New York City, to as far away as Colorado and Canada. Right there was pressure to please all of my wonderful friends and family who were making the effort to spend time with us. I wanted everything to be spectacular and fill them with so much goodness that they would think of nothing but that when they remembered the Christmas of 2012!
Everybody has now come and gone, and a quiet has descended upon my kitchen. It was a marvelous whirlwind of conversation, laughter, games, silliness (the silliness part being mostly my brothers’) and a joyously frantic marathon of cooking and eating.
The Christmas table had a parade of food including: slow-cooked pork with root vegetables, (recipe below), turkey breast with rosemary scented gravy, curried meatballs, roasted aromatic bread stuffing, baked rigatoni in a rich beef ragu sauce, Celine’s famous Meat Pie, creamed mashed potatoes, cranberry/orange relish, balsamic dressed green beans, romaine salad, and for dessert, Italian trifle, warm plum pudding, an array of Christmas cookies, and chocolates.
I am only posting one recipe, but it was one of the biggest hits and could be made any wintry night. It is rich, mouth-wateringly good and unusual. I was definitely pulling from and inspired by a recipe from one of my latest Saveur magazines, but as with all recipes I believe you should allow yourself the liberty of tweaking it to your own taste and convenience. For instance, the recipe called for juniper berries which I decided to pulverize and make into a paste using extra-virgin olive oil and the other spices. Also I used the vegetables of my choice (what was available in my supermarket) and added more liquid and wine. Feel free to ad-lib from my recipe below to make something that is more you!
Preheat oven 350*
You will need:
6 to 7 lb pork shoulder, de-boned and butterflied (I took this to the butcher right at the supermarket counter and got him to it – all you have to do is ask!)
2 oz pancetta (don’t worry if you don’t have this ingredient)
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tbs extra-virgin olive oil
10 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 1/2 tbs dried juniper berries (you can find this in well-stocked supermarkets or spice shop)
5 tsp caraway seeds
1 tbs fresh rosemary leaves
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp course sea-salt (I use Maldon sea-salt flakes)
2 pale green inner celery ribs including leaves, roughly chopped
4 big carrots, peeled & sliced thickly OR 2 cups baby carrots, left whole
3 big parsnips, peeled and sliced thickly
1 very large sweet potato, cut into big chunks
1 good quality stock cub (I use Rapunzel brand, herbs with sea salt)
1 cup red wine
4 to 6 cups water (more instructions in the method)
Equipment: Roasting pan or big saute pan (oven proof), kitchen string/twine
Preheat oven 350*
1 – Put juniper berries, caraway seeds, garlic, rosemary leaves, salt, pepper and the 2 tbs extra virgin olive oil in a food processor and grind to a rough paste (pulsing action works well). Open butterflied pork (like opening a book), and rub paste over every part of the inside. Lay pancetta in a single layer keeping about 1 inch from the edge. Roll the pork up as tightly as you can and lay on cutting board with opening facing down. Firmly tie with string.
2 – Put roasting pan or big saute pan on high heat and add the 1/4 cup olive oil. When it is hot, add the pork and brown on all side. This will take about 20 minutes. When done, place on plate and set aside.
3 – Turn heat down slightly and add the root vegetables and thyme sprigs. Cook, stirring occasionally for about 12 minutes. Add stock cube and stir. Add wine and cook on high heat for about 2 minutes. Add 3 cups water and bring to a boil. Turn heat off and place the pork on top.
4 – Cover with foil and place in oven until meat is done (until meat reaches 165* This will take anywhere between 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 hours. Check each hour and add water if it looks low (about 1 cup each time).
5 – When done, rest meat on a plate for about 20 minutes and keep veggies with au jus warm on low heat on stove top.
Slice meat and lay onto a serving platter. Pour the pan juices and vegetables over the top and serve. This is great with rice or mashed potatoes and a fresh green salad on the side.