Posts Tagged ‘Odd Christmas Traditions’


January 06, 2016: “Little Night” on “Little Christmas”

January 6, 2016


Moo's Minestrone SoupI get this Christmas article done just under the wire: today is the last day of the “Twelve Days of Christmas.”

Today, January 6th, is known as “Little Christmas” or (in Irish) “Nollaig na mBan” otherwise know as “The Feast of the Epiphany” when the wise men, according to tradition, gave the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the Christ-child. It is also the day, James Joyce used to place in time one of my favorite short stories, “The Dead.”

It is quite appropriate that I should publish this on “Little Christmas” as it concerns the Christmas dinner I made for my family, which I called “Little Night.” Swaseys+DogsFor a while now, I have been promising a “Big Night” for my folks. This is a dinner based after one of my most favorite foodie films of that name. The film features some of the most amazing Italian food in cinema, and my idea is to make a number of dishes from the film to serve after my family seeing the film. Christmas, of course, has too much going on to devote all that time to cooking, so I thought I would give my family a scaled-down version to whet their appetite…hence, “Little Night.”

One of our family traditions for some time was developed when, years ago, I made Minestrone Soup at Christmas and it was a universal hit. Even the guys who won’t eat veggies (…and you know who are…Stephen Swasey…oh, did I just type that?!!!) liked it. A tattered copy of my recipe has been hanging around for some time, and the actual dish has been duplicated so well by others, that I haven’t made it at Christmas for years now. Moo did an excellent job with this years’ batch. The rest of the meal was mine, ‘tho. We had:

Moo’s Minestrone Soup Chicken Roasted in Spiced Dough Bow Tie pasta with Greens Fancy Salad Tiramisu Chicken B-Ball

The chicken dish is called “Pollo al Sal” or chicken roasted in a salted dough. The dough spices the meat as it traps all the delicious moisture in. The dough bakes as the chicken roasts. At the end of cooking (dubbed the “chicken basketball” by the guys by virtue of how it looked) and after resting, you break the dough with a hammer and you have the most tender chicken of your life! We decided to substitute fresh herbs (rosemary, and thyme) instead of salt for a healthier, tastier chicken.Hammering Chicken

My next dish was a bit of a flop…this time. I usually make the bow tie pasta dish with broccoli raab, a slightly bitter veggie that looks like broccoli gone to seed. It sweetens very nicely when you saute it with garlic in olive oil and sweet red peppers. Trouble was…I couldn’t find broccoli raab anywhere, so I substituted dandelion greens instead. This ended up a little too bitter for most of my family’s taste. I also made the mistake of grilling the parmesan cheese which ended up hardening the pasta a bit. Microwave always has worked for me in the past. Lesson: stick to what works for the basic dishes.Plated Chicken+Pasta Salad

My salad was nice with a center of lentils cooked in olive oil, garlic, tomatoes and spices. This was covered with exotic greens, matchsticked fennel, fresh mozzarella cheese, tomatoes, pomegranate seeds, clementine sections, all topped with a blood-orange olive oil and wine vinegar. The salad tasted very good, but I need to work on my salad-arranging skills for the next big meal.

My Tiramisu has been perfected over the years, and I love especially it near Christmas. When I found out that Nickki my niece liked it, I had to make it! Most recipes use beaten raw egg yolks. I cook mine with kaluha, beating all the while, to make zabaglionTiramisue, an Italian light custard, which I then cool before whipping in the marscapone (an Italian cream cheese.) I could not find espresso either, so I brewed a strong coffee and concentrated its brewing to get a good substitute. I also could not find spiced cocoa, so I made my own. Then, it’s all assembly: lightly dip lady fingers in the coffee, a layer of the custard, sprinkle of spiced cocoa, and shaved dark chocolate. Cover and chill. I save the top layer of chocolate shaving until just before serving. Steve+Sophie“Little Night” was my gift, but my family spoiled me rotten with gifts of their own, with the charming company of four lovely dogs, as well as their own sparkling personalities!

[Thanks to Stephen Swasey for all photos, except the one of the family (me) and the one of me and Sophie (Nickki)]


December 21, 2013: Boar’s Head

December 21, 2013

Boar's Head-MedievalAs they used to say at the beginning of every Monty Python episode: “And now for something completely different…”

You might need the intelligence and humor of a Python to fully understand the inventive, arcane, and fanciful dishes popular in the British Isles:
1. “Bubble and Squeak” [This one’s not so bad: just pan-fried potatoes and veggies.]
2. “Love In Disguise” [Stuffed calf’s heart. Yeah, “a rose by any other name” is still one pretty messed-up culinary concept!]
3. “Cullen Skink” [Haddock and potato soup. This one sounds quite good.]
4. “Star-Gazey Pie” [A fish pie with fish heads poking up through the crust!]
5. “Toad in a Hole” [Sausages in Yorkshire Pudding. Weird name. Sounds good.]
6. “Spotted Dick” [Yeeesh! Now you’re just pulling my leg!]
7. “Haggis” [Uggg! Don’t even ask!]

Which leads to an enduring dish of the Christmas Season, still celebrated with much pomp in Britain: “The Boar’s Head.” I’ve heard the carol many times and wondered at this odd dish, considered “the rarest dish in all the land” but I certainly never thought I would actually meet someone who has not only tasted it, but has prepared it…and that that person would be an American!

Boar's_head_heraldryWild boar has been considered a delicacy throughout the ages. The Romans served it first at their banquets. The Norse sacrificed boar at the Winter’s Solstice (December 21st) to gain favor from their sun-god, Freyr. The Celts revered the boar as a gift from the Otherworld and at their feasts. Celtic warriors would compete over the choice parts of the boar. The best example of this in Irish literature being “Bricriu’s Feast.” That choice part was most well deserved. One needed the courage and strength of a warrior to even attempt to bring down a hundred pound-plus of an intelligent, pissed-off, muscled and tusked monster in the wild!

"Boar Hunter" Dionisio Minaggio "The Feather Book" 1618 McGill Library

“Boar Hunter” Dionisio Minaggio “The Feather Book” 1618
McGill Library

In addition to emotional fortitude, one tool needed for a boar hunt was a boar’s pike. This was usually made of a short-ish and thick  staff of ash or oak, capped at the bottom with a short metal spike and topped with a longer pike with the most important part: a strong metal crossbeam. The trick then was to find and corner the boar and (providing you could stand your ground) the boar would do all the work. As the tusked behemoth charged, you planted the bottom of the pike into the ground and leveled it at the boar’s chest. The boar would run himself through the pike trying to get at you! The crossbeam (usually) stopped the boar’s charge and prevented him from running straight up the shaft and skewering YOU with his tusks, instead!

Being a vegetarian for some years, getting carnivores to talk about the odd meat dishes they’ve had, is bit like going to see a horror movie or a having a near-miss on the freeway for me: I know I’m ultimately safe, but the rush remains! It was a recent discussion about “favorite organ dishes” with the owner of my company, Jim, that I was surprised that his immediate answer was “Boar’s Head!” From previous discussions about food with Jim, I understood him to have a very adventuresome, but discriminating palate, so I trusted his opinion.

Bringing_in_the_Boar's_HeadJim had boar’s head years ago, as an English student attending college in Buffalo, NY. Close to Christmas, a British exchange-student, knowing Jim had a culinary talent, asked him to help prepare a boar’s head for a Christmas party. As boar is unheard of in America, they settled for a pig’s head from the butchers, and started the laborious (three hours worth) process of preparation. First they soaked the head in warm water to loosen the skin of the head. They carefully made a short incision at the back and peeled the skin off. They then removed the brain, eyes, and tongue of the beast for later. In a large pot they added boiling water to the skull to further remove any remaining meat and discarded the skull.

Now that they had all the meat, they chopped it all up (yes ALL…brains, eyes, tongue…the works) and added pork butt to extend the meat from the head. Added to the meat was stock, beaten eggs, leeks, onions, mincemeat, celery and spices (sage, thyme, and probably bay.)  To extend the stuffing further, they added cooked rice (Jim pointed out that bread would have been more traditional.)

Next, was reassembling of the head, putting the stuffing back into the “pig’s mask.” This, Jim says, was definitely a two-person job: one to hold the head together, another load the stuffing in and to stitch the back with butcher’s twine and a bone needle. Once assembled, the ears were covered with foil, the head was glazed with a jam or cherry sauce and the whole thing baked for several hours until the skin was crisp. As decoration, whole parsnips were placed in the mouth as tusks and cherries for the eyes, an effect Jim says was “demonic.”

Boars_Head_XmasJim told me that Boar’s Head is served with the main course, not as the main course, so would’ve traditionally been served with a roast (beef, goose, or turkey) on a silver platter surrounded by candied root veggies and greens (traditionally evergreens, bay, rosemary, and holly.) Boar’s Head is usually served with a gravy or hunter’s glaze.

This being college, the boar’s head was served with much liquid Christmas cheer, and being Buffalo, also with the ubiquitous “Suicide Chicken Wings.” Jim says the students “attacked” the dish with relish, but when asked about the whole process, he summed it up nicely, “Ah…not for the faint of heart.”


December 17, 2012: Bittersweet

December 17, 2012

Bittersweet LayoutI know what you would say. “We have more than enough Christmas traditions. There is no need to concern ourselves with yet another Christmas decoration” and in one sense you’d be correct. We have all the holly, ivy, wreaths, mistletoe, Yule Logs, perfectly healthy conifers that we cut down and bring inside to put lights on. No, I’m talking a decoration for a very different set of folks. Let’s say the holly, ivy, etc. are for the “haves” of the world, because let’s be honest…few people with money collect decorations from nature. I know of no one now that actually goes out to chop down the Christmas tree, anymore. Most people buy Christmas decorations, and if you have the ready cash to buy temporary vegetation to decorate your home for the Christmas season, that pretty much qualifies you as a “have” as opposed to a “have-not.”

Here, I want to break off and say I hope you are a “have.” I sincerely want each and every single one of you to be a “have” because now that I have had the experience of a “have-not” there is no one I would wish this state upon. Yet, I am far from alone…not this Christmas anyway, and for most Christmases either. As the man said once,”The poor will be with us always.”

The Christmas decoration that I propose for the “have-nots” is that of the American Bittersweet. First, it is a true American plant, as opposed to the holly and the ivy, both which grow in the Americas, but it is the European varieties that we see at Christmas. Bittersweet has a festive coloring, forming red berries with the occasional yellow sheath covering, just before Christmas. It is found on a long, flexible vine that can be wound around like a wreath or cut into smaller pieces. It grows in abundance just about anywhere in the wild and is free for the taking. Symbolically, it is appropriate for us “have-nots” as like poverty, Bittersweet can surround and choke off all other life it grows around. Most symbolic is the plant’s name, because as we all carry memories of better Christmases, being poor at Christmas can be perfectly described as “bittersweet.”

Bittersweet_LThe Sweet
My first introduction to Bittersweet as a decoration was at my last “real” Christmas four years ago. I was visiting my sister in Western New York State and she had her house decorated in her unique and quirky artistic style. Every corner of her house had a different and usually antique, decoration or toy. I noticed she had tastefully placed vines of red berries with yellow accents behind a number of pieces of artwork and when I asked what they were and she told me it was Bittersweet. As always, she was the perfect chef and hostess and served the family a most wonderful Christmas Eve Dinner, complete with candlelight, champagne, and  a slew of wonderful Christmas desserts she is famous for. Christmas morning was the best because I had the money to spoil my niece and nephew with a shower of gifts. As Christmases go, it doesn’t get more sweet than that.

No Cash at Christmas is a Real Dickens
Probably the biggest success story of being poor at Christmas is famous because it has been turned into the best-loved Christmas stories in English literature. Despite having been the most celebrated authors of his time, just before Christmas 1843, Charles Dickens was having his own financial crunch. His last two novels were a critical, but not monetary, success. He had just come back from a bad tour of America, where he hoped to get new ideas. It wasn’t a good mix. Dickens found Americans crude and boorish. They found him foppish and irritating. With his fifth child born and overdrawn at the bank, Dickens needed a real good story, and he needed it quick! Dickens was forever haunted by the idea of poverty. When he was eleven, he was pulled out of school and had to work at a boot-blacker shop as his father was put into a debtors prison for his own bad money management. Not only was the work, messy, dirty, smelly and filling the long day with mind-numbing dullness, but Dickens had ignominy of having to perform his job in front of a window for passer-bys. He was never going down that road again if he could help it.

So, by locking himself in a room with pen and paper, in just six weeks, he Bittersweet_Cpounded out “A Christmas Carol” and self-published it just in time for the Christmas season. The rest, they say, is history. He had managed to not only eventually rekindle his bank account but also to capture the perfect and concise story of what it means to be human. He also, single-handedly reinvented Christmas from a not-so-special holiday into what we know of it today. He managed to do all this, while at the same time not sacrificing his moral or creative ideals. Due to his own experiences, Dickens was much concerned with the education of English youths and counted it as the only way to improve the welfare of his nation’s future. Witness, the youthful spectres of “Want” and “Ignorance” that are sheltered under the Ghost of Present Christmas’s cloak.

As with our dreams, storytellers tell stories about what they know…and what they know best is themselves. It is understandable that in “A Christmas Carol” Dickens is at once Cratchit, Fezziwig, and Scrooge, especially when chastised for his avarice from his young finacee with, “You fear the world too much!”

Bittersweet_RThe Bitter
Yet who could blame anyone for “fearing the world too much” when you are under the threat of poverty? The fear is generating from the idea that you have no real control over your life. Having some experience with this, now for the fourth year, I would like to offer some thoughts that may possibly help others in my “have-not” condition (and might not hurt those of the “have” category as well!) Most of these are indeed old chestnuts, so roast them long and slow over your Christmas hearth:

No amount of wretchedness can remove your good memories. Those are yours forever. Use them to remember a time when things were not as bad. All things pass.

Never lose your ideals. There is one thing worse than being poor and that is being poor and not being able to look yourself in the mirror from being bad to yourself or others.

The only real thing you have control over is your attitude. Misery hates laughter. Find the humor. You might even find (like Dickens) with a little imagination, you have a good story.

You might feel embarrassed because it seems  you are failing. Please stop. The only people your condition matters to, are the ones who love you anyway and sincerely want you to improve. Just do your best.

The world tends to obscure blessings through the cataract of misery. Look closer. You will find blessings behind the veil.

Find solace in the free (or cheap) stuff…it is usually the best stuff anyway. Libraries, laughter of children, exercise, sunlight, fresh air, the occasional moment of grace….and just a whiff of hope, are all not to be undervalued.

I would be doing a disservice if I didn’t point out that like most Christmas decorations, Bittersweet is also slightly poisonous and should not be placed in households with pets and small children.

To my friends and family: to all the “haves” and “have-nots;” I wish you a most lovely and wondrous Christmas season. Oh…one more exceptional free thing…a good wish. Yet…if I had wealth of millions that sincere good wish would still be the best of what I could offer.


December 12, 2012: Christmas Filberts

December 12, 2012

Christmas FibertsThere is something about filberts (hazelnuts) that somehow for me make the holiday season. Maybe it is that growing up, I never saw them all year round except for the holidays. I wanted to do something special with them, to commemorate all those past memorable Christmases. The danger is that this time, I exceeded my own expectations. Living alone, as I do, there is no one to stop me from scarfing down all these delicious Christmas Filberts. Luckily, I have you, dear reader, whom I feel obligated to distract me long enough to write this recipe down, before it gets too stale in my mind.

Nice and glossy, a little bit sweet, a little bit spicy, a little bit salty, with a delicate citrus accent to the tasty woody nut…you are wanting to double this recipe…quadruple if it is for a party!

Christmas Filberts
Shell 1 Lb. Hazelnuts (sadly, this only yields about 2C.) In a small pan bring 1/4C. H2O and 1/2C Dark Brown Sugar to a slow boil and reduce heat. Add 1/4 Tsp. Orange Zest, 1Tsp. Cinnamon, 1/4 Tsp. Ground Clove, 1/4 Tsp. Nutmeg and 1/4 Tsp. Cayenne Pepper. When the sauce is thick, remove from heat and add hazelnuts and stir, coating the nuts. Spoon hazelnuts from liquid-sugar and add to a cookie sheet lined with parchment. Sprinkle with fine sal de mer, turn hazelnuts with spoon, and salt again. Bake at 325°F for about 15 minutes, turning often. Do NOT over-cook! [remove from heat if you find the excess sugar turning solid] While still warm, push the hazelnuts from the puddle of caramelizing sugar-spice, turning until they cool. Remove to an airtight container. Delicious anytime, but best while still a little bit warm!


December 26, 2011: Good Masters All

December 26, 2011

I will be getting back to the Asian recipes real soon. I’m not quite Christmased out, just yet. By the way, this it the third Christmas I’ve had to spend away from my family (and even friends, this year) and as such, the blog has been a great comfort, so thank you, kind reader.

Today is the day of my patron saint, Stephen. It is also called “Boxing Day” in England, as it was the custom there to give servants a “Christmas Box’ on this day. This has always sounded rather elitist to me, as in “Jeeves, you did a smashing job with the roast goose yesterday, slaving all day making sure each and every one of our needs were met…here, take this box.” I’m hoping that there was always something pretty amazing in that box, like a month-long getaway to the Bahamas or at least a really, really good tip.

Today was also called “The Day of the Wren” yet another odd (and old) English custom was to hunt a wren down this day, and kill it. The first kid to do so, got a prize. Boy. Rewarding children’s cruelty to animals.The “reason” or rather, I should say, the connection is that St. Stephen, captured by soldiers in Scandinavia, was about to make his escape, but a wren made some noise and woke the soldiers up and they killed Stephen. Mmmmm…I guess you have to be British for that tradition to make sense.

Yet another Christmas connection is that this is the day, that in the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslaus” he “looked out” and is a good day to talk about a rather obscure Christmas theme that I see coming up in Christmas literature and songs, that of “Good Masters.” Now, I’m not talking about the golf tournament, I’m talking about people who have authority and treat workers well.

One of the most popular Christmas stories that concern “Good Masters” is “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens. In that story, the ghosts all try to convince Scrooge that he could be much better to the Cratchit family, the father of which, is Scrooge’s clerk. The saddest part of this story is that Scrooge had an ideal Master in his youth, the character of Fezziwig, whose example should have set Scrooge on his own path of being a Good Master, but Scrooge, initially, rejects this fine example. We only see Fezziwig just as he finishes his workday, but one gets the impression that he works as hard as he plays…and he plays hard. Wrapping up work as fast as they can on Christmas Eve, Fezziwig and Scrooge set up for music, dances, food and games for the company’s family and sundry visitors. Fezziwig is generous, playful, loving, funny and just full of life! Scrooge himself defends his former boss, for when the Ghost of Christmas Past calls Fezziwig’s efforts “a small matter” for spending a few pounds on the party, Scrooge retorts:

“It isn’t that, Spirit. He has the power to make us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words an looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count ’em up: what then? The happiness he gives is as great as it cost a fortune.”

Scrooge is already on his way to being a Good Master. He just needed the example put before him once again. By the end of the story, Scrooge is finally proclaimed “…as good a friend, as a good a master, and as good as a man, as the good old city knew…”

Good King Wenceslaus (and if you’ve never heard the carol before, you may find the lyrics here) was a real person and from all accounts was good…he just wasn’t a king (at least not when he was alive.) Wenceslaus was Duke of Bohemia from 921 until his murder in 935. Because he was devout and pious Catholic, a decent ruler, and an all-around stand up guy, the church increased his status to king right about the same time they made him a saint. Oh…and the person that murdered him…was his own brother: Boleslav, “the Cruel.” Boleslav may have gotten to be the next Duke, but Wenceslaus is elevated to not only king, but saint; is called “Good” and has people sing a song of praise about him, hundreds of years later. Boleslav is called “Cruel” and has spiraled from obscurity to the level of hell fratricides go to. He and Cain can commiserate.

In the carol, Wenceslaus notices a poor subject and pities his hard plight in terrible weather and seeks to comfort him with a warm meal and drink. Wenceslaus is adamant in helping the man, despite the weather. In his efforts, he forgets his young page who is suffering from the cold. Wenceslaus then shields his page with his own body to protect him. Noticing, pity, seeking to comfort, shielding, protecting…these are the qualities of a Good Master!

I’ve had my share of good and bad masters over the years. The good ones inspire me. The bad ones…well…I can only shake my head. I tease my current boss that he is like Fezziwig, if Fezziwig were a wise-ass! That’s just my way of telling him that I think he is good man and interesting as well!

So, in review: Don’t harm little birds (despite tradition.) For pity’s sake, don’t harm your brother!!!! Do all you can to be a Good Master. You will set an example that just may reverberate further than you know.

Remember what the carol says:  “Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.”


December 25, 2011: Yule Log

December 25, 2011

My Yule Log [an oak log from the recent storm, decorated with ribbons, English Ivy, & Bittersweet] after a very nice (vegetarian) Christmas repast:

  • Stuffing: Wheat Bread with Soryizo (meatless soy Chorizo); Apples, Crasins, Walnuts, Onion, Sage, Fresh Thyme & Veggie Broth.
  • Baked Potato: Crusted with Butter, Sal de Mer, and Herbs de Provence
  • Tofurkey: Baked with Butter and Crasins
  • Acorn Squash: Basted with Butter, and French Thyme
  • Béchamel: Infused with Tarragon and Ground Pepper

After dinner, I lit the Yule Log in the chimenea out on the deck and had it with a mug of warm mulled wine and probably the best cigar I’ve ever had (the perfect size; undertones of chocolate.) In anticipation of Peppermint-Stick Ice Cream for dessert.

“Fiercest heat-giver of all is green oak…” [from “The Death of Fergus Mac Leide”]

Merry Christmas World of Okonomy Readers!

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