I just spent the last week with my mother’s family in Charlotte, NC, where I celebrated Christmas Southern style. I’ve always had a special place in my heart for the South, since my mom’s family is from Atlanta, Georgia and now lives in North Carolina. I also spent four years back in the motherland when I went to Emory University in Atlanta.
You may be wondering why, being Jewish, I would be celebrating Christmas, and there are a couple of answers to that. For one, Southern Jews have a long history of great discretion when it comes to their Jewishness, and for many this meant embracing Christmas to one degree or another. My mother has a priceless home video from the year she turned two, in which she is crawling around the Christmas tree playing with the wrapping paper. So there is nothing particularly out of the ordinary about Jews enjoying a non-religious version of the holiday. The second reason is that my aunt is not Jewish, and so we can shamelessly break out the Christmas cookie cutters, the carols, and get a full dose of Christmas with her family under the pretense that we are just tagging along. As my sister-in-law has remarked, all Jews have a secret love affair with Christmas, perhaps since many of us didn’t get it out of our system as children. Perhaps we all have a nagging worry that just maybe, behind closed doors, there is some kind of magic going on – something as absurdly picturesque as a Thomas Kinkade painting – and we weren’t invited.
Anyway, so I thought I would share with you my North Carolina Christmas. We kicked off the weekend with my uncle’s Seafood Gumbo, which was fantastic. Rich with scallops, oysters, and shrimp, and blessed by the Holy Trinity of Low Country Cuisine which is bell pepper, onion, and celery, this dish is both light and decadent.
Low Country Seafood Gumbo (recipe adapted from one by Southern Living)
- 1/2 cup vegetable oil
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 cup chopped onion
- 1 cup chopped green bell pepper
- 1 cup chopped celery
- 1 cup chopped frozen okra
- 1 can chopped tomatoes, drained
- 2 teaspoons Creole seasoning (generally a mixture of paprika, thyme, garlic, onion, and cayenne pepper)
- 2 tbsp butter
- 2 teaspoons minced garlic
- 1 box seafood stock (Kitchen Basics)
- 2 lbs mixed seafood – chopped peeled shrimp, scallops, oysters (fresh or packaged)
- 1/2 pound andouille sausage, cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices (optional)
1. Heat oil in a large soup pot over medium-high heat; gradually whisk in flour, and cook, whisking constantly, 5 to 7 minutes or until flour is chocolate colored. (Do not burn mixture.)
2. Reduce heat to medium. Stir in onion and next 5 ingredients, and cook, stirring constantly, 3 minutes. Gradually stir in broth; add next 2 ingredients. Increase heat to medium-high, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes or longer. Add seafood, sausage, if using, and butter, and simmer 5 minutes or seafood is just cooked through. Serve with rice. Even better the next day.
My uncle making his magic:
The final result:
After the gumbo, we were treated to a variety of my aunt’s Christmas confections, including pumpkin cranberry bread, cinnamon buns, and shortbread cookies.
On Christmas Eve, we now have a tradition of going to my aunt and uncle’s friend Cookie’s house. In my eyes, no one creates a Christmas mood like Cookie. The house is decorated down to the gnomes that watch you in the bathroom. Candles flicker and the table is set with an array of delicious little bites.
One of my favorite things from the buffet were filo cups with pepper jelly:
Here is my take on a lovely, simple hors-d’oeuvre which is great for entertaining.
Pepper Jelly Filo Cups
- 1 package mini filo cups
- red pepper jelly
- 1 package brie or cream cheese, cut in bit sized squares
- slivered almonds
- Bake the filo cups according to package instructions. In each cup, place a small square of cheese and return to oven for 2 minutes. Allow to cool.
- Add a dollop of jelly, and a few slivered almonds.
When I asked my uncle about Christmas traditions in the South, he explained to me that true Southerners take their guns out and go hunting just before Christmas. They then roast their kill and eat it at Christmas dinner, spitting out the bullets as they go. Being the storyteller he is, my uncle may have been pulling my chain with all of this, but when I arrived at the party, I couldn’t help but notice the glistening rifles hanging in the living room.
In truth, I suspect most Southerners actually get their Christmas turkey at Harris Teeter, and I have it on good authority that the owner of these guns isn’t much of a shot, but Christmas is all about fantasies, right?
So while we’re dealing in fantasies, I will offer a decadent recipe for a Christmas goose that I have never tried. But it sounds perfectly wonderful. When I thought about serving game on Christmas, my mind immediately went to the Two Fat Ladies, the hilarious British duo whose peasant recipes and irreverent banter made them famous. If you haven’t seen them, they are two enormous, sweaty British women who make things like bacon-wrapped spatchcocked pheasant, and disparage vegetarians wherever possible. I knew they would not disappoint and they didn’t. So here is their Christmas goose, stuffed with a mixture of sweet prunes, port, foie gras, and butter, and roasted to a golden brown. This is definitely what you should make with the fruits of your Christmas hunt.
Christmas Goose (recipe and photo from Two Fat Ladies, Cooking Channel)
- 50 Prunes
- Earl Grey tea
- 1/4 pint (1/2 cup) dry vermouth
- 3/4 pint (1 1/2 cups) goose stock (made from the neck and giblets)
- 1 ounce butter
- 4 shallots, finely chopped
- Goose liver, blanched and finely chopped
- 1/4 pint (1/2 cup) port
- 4 ounces pate de foie gras
- 3 tablespoons fresh bread crumbs
- Pinch ground allspice and dried thyme
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 (10 pound) oven-ready goose
- Make sure you have a good-sized roasting tin to fit the goose and a grid to place under it. Preheat the oven 425 degrees F. You can make the stuffing in advance. Soak the prunes in hot tea (Earl Grey) until soft, stone them and drain, or get pre-stoned ones – easier. Place prunes, vermouth and stock in a saucepan, bring to the boil, then simmer for ten minutes until tender. Strain but reserve the liquid.
- Melt the butter in a little pan and gently fry the shallots and liver for a couple of minutes, stirring all the while. Place in a mixing-bowl which will hold all the ingredients.
- Boil the port in the same pan until reduced to two tablespoons, scrape round the sides and add to the liver mixture. Beat the pate, bread crumbs, allspice and thyme together and combine thoroughly with the rest. Season with salt and a good quantity of the pepper. Stir in the prunes.
- Put the goose in the sink and pour a kettle of boiling water over it. This ensures a good, crisp skin. Remove and dry with kitchen towels. Salt the cavity and fill loosely with the stuffing, then sew up the vent. Prick the skin all over but not the flesh. Place on the grid in the roasting pan and roast breastside up for 15 minutes.
- Lower heat to 350 degrees F, turn the goose onto its side. Halfway through, turn onto the other side, then for the last 15 minutes onto its back again. Throughout the cooking, baste every 20 minutes with three tablespoons of boiling water and remove the fat from the pan into a bowl. The easiest way to perform both these operations is with a bulb baster. The whole cooking time should be 2 1/2 hours. Test by piercing the thickest part of the thigh: the juices should run pale yellow.