FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD – A COZY CHRISTMAS DINNER
More often than not, a cast of thousands enjoys most Christmas feasts. At least that’s how it was, and sometimes still is, with our family. Years ago when it was simply Mama’s father, her siblings (which numbered six) and their spouses, which then made it twelve, plus all of their children brought the count up to thirty. Then, later when the children grew up, married and had their own children, we got up to almost fifty. We ate in shifts and the meal lasted over three hours.
It was always a great day, with gifts being exchanged along with hugs and family gossip, and the grown-ups sipping on after-dinner drinks while young children fell asleep on the floor under the Christmas tree. As I got older, my sister-in-law and I washed dishes for hours and sipped on coffee and brandy to fortify us.
But now the family has grown so large (we’re now into great-grandchildren), most of my siblings have their own family gatherings simply because the numbers have gotten out of hand. We do manage to get together for a big brunch during the week between Christmas and New Year’s in order to see everyone, though.
This Christmas it appears that my husband Rock and I will have a relatively quiet dinner at home. His two sisters and their spouses are expected to join us and that has worked out just right. Our dining room table can only seat six comfortably.
And I’ve already cleaned Mama’s crystal and polished her sterling flatware. I’ve borrowed some of her china, which was given to my brother and his wife, and I’m anxious to try and duplicate the beautiful table Mama always set. Rock and I have discussed the menu and although it’s not a traditional South Louisiana one, I think it is quite elegant.
The first course is a salad of spinach and cherry tomatoes.
RED AND GREEN CHRISTMAS SALAD
Makes 6 servings
8 cups fresh spinach, cleaned and torn
1 medium-size avocado, pitted, peeled and thinly sliced
1 pint cherry tomatoes, washed and stemmed
1 cup warm Champagne Dressing (recipe follows)
Place the spinach leaves in a large salad bowl and arrange the avocado slices in a circle around the edge of the salad. Arrange the cherry tomatoes in the center of the salad.
Pour the dressing over the salad at the table and gently toss. Divide into equal portions and serve on salad plates.
WARM CHAMPAGNE DRESSING
Makes about 2 ½ cups
1 cup Champagne vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
1 ½ tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons dry vermouth
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 egg, beaten
3 tablespoons heavy cream
1 ½ cups olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Combine the vinegar, sugar, flour, vermouth and mustard in a small saucepan. Heat to simmering over medium heat.
Gradually whisk in the egg and cream over low heat. Whisk in the oil in a thin steady stream. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from heat.
You will need only one cup for the salad, but the dressing can be stored in the refrigerator in an airtight container and used within a day or two. Warm to serve.
There’s no reason to prepare a turkey for a small party. Rock suggested Cornish hens and they’re ideal!
ROASTED CORNISH HENS WITH FENNEL
Makes 6 servings
6 Cornish hens, about 1 ¼ pounds each
Salt, cayenne and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 ½ pounds fennel bulbs, trimmed, reserving the ribs for stuffing the chickens, and the bulbs thinly sliced
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
½ cup dry white wine
½ to ¾ cup water, as needed
2 tablespoons Pernod or other anise-flavored liqueur
6 sprigs fresh parsley for garnish
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Season the outside and the cavity of the hens with salt, cayenne, and black pepper. Stuff the cavities with the fennel ribs, chopped, then truss the hens.
In a large heavy skillet, heat the butter and oil over medium-high heat until the foam subsides. Add the hens, two or three at a time, to the skillet and brown evenly, turning every three to four minutes. Transfer them to a roasting pan.
Pour off all but one tablespoon of the fat and return the skillet to the heat. Add the fennel slices and cook, stirring, until golden and soft. Spoon the fennel around the hens and add the wine and one-half cup of the water.
Roast the hens, basting then every 15 minutes and adding the remaining water if necessary, until the hens are tender and the juices run clear, 40 to 50 minutes.
Remove from the oven and transfer to the stop top. In a small saucepan heat the Pernod over medium-low heat until it is warm, carefully ignite it and pour it carefully over the hens and letting flames go out.
Transfer the hens to serving plates and garnish each with a sprig of parsley. Boil the pan juices until reduced to about two-thirds cup, season with salt and black pepper if necessary and pass at the table.
A side dish of potatoes with peas is all that is needed to accompany the hens.
POTATOES WITH PEAS AND MINT
Makes about 6 servings
20 (about) small red potatoes, rinsed by not peeled
1/3 cup olive oil
½ cup dry white wine
2 cups frozen small peas, thawed
½ cup chopped fresh mint leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Sour cream (optional)
Boil the potatoes in salted water until just tender. Drain and cut in halves, leaving the skins on. Whisk the oil and wine together and drizzle over the warm potatoes in a large bowl. Stir to coat evenly. Let cool slightly. Put the peas in a colander and warm with hot tap water. Drain well. Add the peas and the mint, season with salt and pepper, and toss gently. When serving, you may want to pass a small bowl of sour cream with the potatoes.
Dessert can be as simple as brandy freezes (ice cream, brandy and heavy cream whirled in a blender or food processor) poured in crystal glasses, or as extravagant as your favorite chocolate decadent dessert.
My duck-hunting friends are getting antsy for the season to arrive. They’ve been busy preparing for what I believe is one of men’s favorite times of the year. Shotguns have been cleaned and oiled, and probably a small fortune has been spent on shells. The duck blinds have been reworked and stand ready for that first cold front to blow in from the west. Decoys have been retrieved from storage to be marked or tagged. Now it’s just a matter of time before they can go forth to their camps, get up before dawn, walk through the wind, rain, and mud, then sit in a wet duck blind. Not my idea of fun.
I too am ready and waiting for the season to begin, only because I enjoy the spoils of the hunt. I am quite fond of a roasted duck or a good sausage and duck gumbo, or duck prepared in any number of ways for that matter.
Whenever I’m fortunate enough to receive a gift of a couple of ducks, I get out Papa’s recipes.
PAPA’S ROAST DUCK
Makes 4 servings
4 teals or 2 mallards or pintail ducks
3 cloves garlic, slivered
2 cups coarsely chopped green bell peppers
2 cups coarsely chopped onions
1/2 cup dry sherry
4 strips thickly sliced bacon
1 cup chicken broth
8 ounces fresh mushrooms, sliced
1 pound tompinambours (Jerusalem artichokes), peeled (optional)
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Make one or two slits (number depends on the size of the duck) in the duck breasts with a sharp, pointed knife. Insert one or two slivers of the garlic in each hole. Rub the outside and the cavities of the ducks with a liberal amount of salt and cayenne. Place the ducks in a large deep bowl. Combine the bell peppers and onions in another bowl and mix. Stuff half of the mixture in the duck cavities and put the remaining half around the ducks in the bowl. Add the dry sherry. Cover and refrigerate for at least four hours, turning the ducks once or twice in the marinade. Remove the ducks from the refrigerator, drain and reserve the marinade.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Dust each duck liberally with flour and set aside. Fry the bacon in a large cast-iron pot over medium heat until crisp. Remove and drain on paper towels. When the bacon is cool, crumble and reserve. Add the ducks to the pot and brown them in the bacon grease, turning often to brown evenly.
Add the chicken broth and cook for 10 minutes. Add the reserved marinade, cover and bake in the oven for about one to one and a half hours, or until the ducks are tender. Baste occasionally with pan gravy and add more broth if gravy becomes dry. Add the mushrooms and the topinambours, cover and cook for 30 minutes, or until the topinambours are fork-tender. Remove from the oven. Add the reserved bacon and the parsley. Let the duck sit for 10 minutes before carving to serve.
GRILLED DUCK BREASTS
Makes 2 servings (3 per serving)
1 stick butter
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
8 ounces fresh mushrooms, sliced
6 duck breasts (preferably mallard), removed from the bone and skinned
Freshly ground black pepper
6 thick bacon strips
6 slices of white bread, toasted and buttered
Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the Worcestershire sauce, garlic and mushrooms. Cook, stirring occasionally, for three to four minutes, or until the mushrooms are slightly soft. Remove from heat and set aside. Light a fire in the barbecue pit and allow the coals to get glowing red hot. Rub the duck breasts generously with salt, black pepper, and cayenne. Carefully wrap each breast with a strip of bacon, securing it with toothpicks. Let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes. When the coals are ready, grill the breasts quickly, three to four minutes on each side if you like them juicy with a little blood in the meat; longer if you prefer them well done. Baste with some of the butter sauce. To serve, place the duck breasts on the toasted, buttered bread and pour the remaining butter and mushroom sauce over each breast.
Accompany the breasts with a tangy, tossed green salad and wild rice tossed with a handful of chopped roasted pecans.
When a cold front blows through, there is nothing better in my book than this gumbo.
DUCK, OYSTER AND ANDOUILLE GUMBO
Makes 6 to 8 servings
2 mallards, dressed, rinsed in cool water and patted dry
Salt, black pepper and cayenne
1 ¼ cups vegetable oil
1 cup all-purpose flour
3 medium-size yellow onions, chopped
2 medium-size green bell peppers, chopped
8 cups (about) water or chicken stock
2 pounds andouille sausage, cut crosswise into ¼-inch slices
2 dozen oysters with their liquor
¼ cup chopped green onions (green part only)
Cut the ducks into serving pieces and season generously with salt, black pepper and cayenne. Set aside.
Heat ¼ cup of the oil in a large, heavy pot (preferably black iron) over a medium-heat. Add the duck pieces and brown evenly on all sides. Remove and transfer the duck pieces to a platter and set aside.
Drain off the oil in the pot.
In the same pot, over medium heat, combine the remaining 1 cup oil and the flour, and stirring slowly and constantly, make a dark brown roux. Add the onions and bell peppers and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are soft and golden, 8 to 10 minutes.
Return the ducks to the pot and slowly add enough warm water or stock to cover the ducks completely. Add the andouille and reduce the heat to medium-low. Simmer, uncovered, until the ducks are tender, about 2 hours.
Add the oysters and their liquor, and the green onions and cook until the edges of the oysters curl slightly, 3 to 4 minutes. Serve hot over rice.
Sweet potatoes (also known as yams) have long been a part of Louisiana’s history and cuisine. It is believed that the sweet potatoes originated in the West Indies and Central America.
According to history, when the French began settling in south Louisiana in 1687, they discovered the native Indians—Attakapas, Alabama, Choctaw and Opelousas tribes—growing and enjoying the tasty, nourishing sweet potatoes. It wasn’t long before the French and Spanish settlers soon made it one of their favorite food items.
It’s no wonder that a variety of sweet potato dishes hold a place of honor on holiday tables at Thanksgiving and Christmas. They can be boiled, baked, fried, mashed and combine well with a variety of ingredients to create an endless list of delicious concoctions.
When I was toddler, Mama and and I enjoyed a baked sweet potato, lathered with butter and drizzled with cane syrup, on many a cold autumn afternoon. As I got older, I came to adore them fried, much like French fries, sprinkled with salt and black pepper, or sometimes sugar and cinnamon. Of course, I ate my fair share of them candied, creamed with milk and butter, in pies, and sometimes rolled in honey and chopped pecans. I consumed so much of these golden tuberous roots that I had the nickname of “Patate Douce” well into my teens.
What I didn’t know then is that they are highly nutritious. A diet rich in a vitamin A precursor, beta-carotene, is associated with a lower incidence of lung and other cancers. Beta-carotene is the bright yellow/orange pigment found in vegetables such as carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, winter squash, and red peppers, both sweet and hot.
Lucky for us in Louisiana, our climate and soil are quite suitable for farming several varieties of these healthful vegetables.
In the 1940s and ‘50s, Louisiana was the Number One sweet potato producer in the nation, supplying almost seventy percent of the nation’s sweet potatoes. In fact, it was back in 1946, when the town of Opelousas in St. Landry Parish, in the heart of sweet potato country, held the first annual Louisiana Yambilee celebration. The story goes that the festival was born over a cup of coffee. J. W. “Bill” Low, a native Texan, who came to live in Opelousas suggested an idea of a celebration to his friend, Felix Dezauche, a yam shipper and processor, endorsed the idea. Thus, one of the oldest and largest Louisiana festivals came into being.
We don’t have to wait for the holidays or a special occasion to enjoy our sweet potatoes. Have them any time, on any number of ways. Here are some ideas to get you going.
This happens to be one of my favorite preparations.
SWEET POTATO PONE
Makes 6 to 8 servings
1 cup sugar
1 stick (8 tablespoons) butter or margarine, softened
2 cups grated raw sweet potatoes
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup milk
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Beat the egg with the sugar and butter in a mixing bowl until creamy and smooth. In another bowl, combine the sweet potatoes, salt and milk and mix well. Add the butter mixture to the potato mixture and mix well. Pour the mixture into lightly buttered baking dish and bake for 30 to 35 minutes. Remove from the oven and sprinkle the top with the pecans. Return to the oven and bake for 30 minutes, or until the mixture sets slightly.
These potato chips, made with Idahos and sweet potatoes, are great for casual meals to serve with burgers, grilled chicken or pork chops. If you have a mandoline with a slicing blade, adjust it to the smallest possible setting. If you don’t have a mandoline, a very sharp knife and a steady hand should work. You might even consider using the slicing attachment on your food processor.
Makes 6 servings
3 sweet potatoes, peeled
2 Idaho potatoes, peeled
Vegetable oil for deep frying, heated to 360 degrees
Cut the potatoes crosswise into very thin slices. Soak them in ice water in separate bowls for at least one hour. Drain the potatoes and pat them dry with paper towels. Fry the sweet potatoes and the Idaho potatoes separately in batches in the hot oil until they are crisp. Remove and drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. To keep them warm and crisp, spread the potatoes on a baking sheet and keep them in a 300-degree oven.
This next preparation is quite simple and can be served with anything.
MASHED SWEET POTATOES
Makes 6 servings
2 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and diced
4 tablespoons butter, softened
1/4 cup heavy cream
Cook the sweet potatoes in lightly salted water, until tender. Drain. Transfer them to a food processor and puree, adding the butter and cream. Scrape into a bowl and season with salt and pepper.
This final recipe is one you can serve anytime, but it certainly deserves a place on your next holiday table.
RUM-GLAZED SWEET POTATOES
Makes 8 servings
3 pounds sweet potatoes, pricked several times with a fork
3 Golden Delicious apples, peeled, cored and sliced lengthwise
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1 cup roasted pecan halves
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter
1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup honey
2 tablespoons dark rum
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground mace
Bake the sweet potatoes in a 400-degree oven for 45 minutes, or until tender. Let cool and peel. Cut the potatoes crosswise into 1/4-inch slices. Toss the apples in the lemon juice. Arrange the sweet potatoes and apples in a buttered baking dish. Sprinkle with the pecans. In a saucepan, combine the butter, sugar, honey, rum, cinnamon, ginger, and mace. Cook the mixture over medium heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Spoon the syrup over the potato and apple mixture. Bake for 30 minutes at 400 degrees, basting occasionally with the butter sauce. Then place the pan under the broiler, about 4 inches from the fire, until the edges of the potatoes and apples are slightly brown.