In the spirit of Christmas...

In the spirit of Christmas...

Christmas today may be all about gifting and partying, but food remains a focal point of the festive fervour, writes Ajit Saldanha

Just as we were getting to grips with Zoom calls and social distancing, December has crept up on us. “Tis the season to be jolly, fa-la-la-la-la, la” and all that, but one can’t help thinking Roald Dahl was right when he said he loathed Christmas with its flaky message of “peace on earth, goodwill to men.” Call me pernickety, but I draw the line at fake fir trees made in Shanghai. I blame the Americans: no sooner have they wiped the cranberry sauce off their faces from Thanksgiving (was ever a festival more ironically named?) than they segue seamlessly into the Yuletide season with holly and tinsel.

Jim Reeves Muzak echoes relentlessly in malls, while one is besieged online by festive sales: it’s a bit like being stalked by an elf disguised as Jeff Bezos. The new spirit of Christmas is consumerism on steroids — forget about the season of giving, it’s the season of maxing out your credit card until you hear it squeal. 

Takes the cake...

Unfortunately, nowadays Christmas means shopping and parties while virtuously convincing oneself that this is the best way to kick-start the economy. Inevitably, consumer culture has transformed Christmas into the busiest time of the year.

As a born and never again Christian, I was taught that the festive season was supposed to represent love, sharing, charity, selflessness, and community; I often wondered why it cost so much? Now that I’ve let off steam, let me get down to the things we enjoyed at Christmas when I was an innocent little boy who still believed in Santa Claus. For starters, there’s plum pudding.

My mother made a kick-ass version with suet, breadcrumbs, eggs, almonds, candied peel, raisins, orange zest, spices and dried fruit that had been soaked in Army rum for weeks. Man, it was insane! Halfway through Christmas lunch, our family retainer, Mary, would fire up the steamer and carefully lower the pudding, encased in silver foil, into its mysterious, bubbling depths. The moment the meal was over, the pudding would be ceremoniously unwrapped and the lights would be dimmed while my father carefully poured a heated ladle of brandy over the top before flambéing the pudding. We children would carefully pick through it to see if we had been lucky enough to get the magic ingredient, a 25p coin, in our slice. If that dates me, what can I say? Just keep in mind that inflation is the only thing that has maintained a steady rate of growth.

Tuck in

I’ve never been a fan of turkey even though most of my Parsi friends rave about this silly, leathery bird that tastes like blotting paper dredged in chicken soup. And yes, I’ve tried the brined butterball turkey, which still tastes like blotting paper which has been left way too long in salty soup. Give me goose or duck, any day, preferably on Dec 25th.

Jamie Oliver is a bit of a prat but he does know how to duck if you will forgive a ghastly pun! He recommends marinating the bird overnight in ginger, garlic, chilli, 5 spice powder, sea salt, soy sauce and hoisin sauce and then sticking it in an oven for 2 hours with a pan below to catch the drippings.

The pan contains duck giblets (spare parts) and shallots which caramelise beautifully through the cooking process: these along with the pan juices
can be used to make zesty gravy to serve with the duck. In order to maintain optimum levels of moistness and flavour, you could slice a blood orange in two and stick both halves in the cavity during the roasting process. If you are an evolved chef, you could pull out all the stops by adding some cranberries to the caramelised onion, stock made from duck bones, pan scrapings, honey, rice wine vinegar and orange juice to make gravy that approaches divinity to go with the duck. Goose works just as well but is far more of a challenge to source, so unless you’re the ambitious Type A sort, stick to Donald. That’s duck, not Trump!

The mains

Pork chops, marinated in homemade barbecue sauce, lightly pressure-cooked and then glazed in the oven make for a hearty main course, served with steamed bok choy and baby potatoes roasted with rosemary and garlic.

Or perhaps a lovely glazed ham, studded with cloves and sliced pineapple, served with mashed potatoes and freshly ground mustard. For my vegetarian friends, I make a mushroom and carrot ragout, made with vegetable stock, white wine, herbs, shallots, garlic and tomato puree, enlivened with fresh thyme and parsley and finished off with freshly cracked pepper. A spinach and mushroom quiche is an excellent option which you might want to order ahead since shortcrust pastry can be quite a challenge for the amateur baker.

Beetroot and kale salad, apple walnut and rocket salad with feta, carrot and raisin salad with ginger-lemon juice and freshly toasted almonds make a pleasant alternative to boondi raita.

My aunt Marie used to make an exotic starter: prunes stuffed with cream cheese, wrapped in bacon and baked for ten minutes in the oven. 

If plum pudding is too much of an ordeal, pick up a simple ginger cake from
Iyengar Bakery and serve it topped with caramelised apples, powdered cinnamon and whipped cream.

(The author is an old Bengalurean and impresario of comedy and musical shows who considers himself fortunate to have turned his passions — writing and theatre — into a profession.)