Christmas is a religious celebration observed around the world, and almost without exception, the high point of the holiday is a family feast. Certainly the ceremonies performed and the menu enjoyed afterwards vary region by region, but it is at the table, with friends and family gathered close and winter at the bolted door, that we come together like at no other time.
In France, Le Réveillon was the huge traditional feast served after Midnight Mass. In past times a daube of beef was served in Armagnac; goose liver and sauerkraut was the specialty if you lived in Alsace, and it was roasted goose in southwest France. Today roast turkey, a New World food, and chestnuts is the norm.
Christmas in Germany, Weihnachten, was once celebrated with a roasted carp, but in modern times the fare has turned to roasted goose, white sausage or suckling pig and sweets such as Christstollen, Lebkuchen and Dresden Stollen.
Christmas in Mexico is a colorful event and includes a piñata for the children, Midnight Mass, la Misa Del Gallo and days of feasting. On this Christmas table, look for Rosca de Reyes, a sweetbread that includes a plastic figure of Jesus hidden inside, similar to our king cake. You might also find tamales, chiles rellenos, roasted turkey (which is thought to have been first domesticated in Mexico) and a cider punch.
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Christmas in Vietnam, a holiday introduced by the French during their colonial rule of that country, shares similarities to Le Réveillon. The Vietnamese who have immigrated to this country have taken up our Christmas food traditions or prepare a family favorite such as pho, the beef and noodle soup that originated in Hanoi, or grilled pork and shrimp with vermicelli rice noodles. There would be lots of dishes to choose from.
Christmas is the most important feast day on our calendars, so some care should be given to selecting the menu, inviting guests (please remember those who might otherwise spend the day alone) and the presentation of the food. Careful
planning will reduce the stress of the event. Start with listing foods that can be prepared a day or two in advance. Don't put off shopping until the last minute. If at all possible, take a trip to your local farmers market and buy as many locally grown or prepared items as you can.
CIDER FROM MEXICO
1- 1/2 quarts apple cider
1 whole cinnamon stick (about 3 inches)
3 whole cloves
3 allspice berries
10 pieces of orange peel, cut into 1-by-2 inch strips
10 orange slices
Combine all of the ingredients except the orange slices and simmer for 5 or 6 minutes. Pour into your favorite mugs and garnish with the orange slices.
DAUBE OF BEEF
2 pounds beef chuck
1 chopped red onion
2-3 stalks chopped celery
1 chopped green bell pepper
1/2 cup grated carrot
3-6 chopped toes of garlic
1/2 bottle good red wine
2 cups beef stock (homemade is best)
2 tablespoons herbs de Provence
Salt and black pepper
Olive oil or butter as needed
1 bulb fennel chopped (optional)
Season the meat, add butter or oil to a Dutch oven and sear over high heat until well browned; take your time and get a good, deep sear. Remove the beef and add the onions, celery, bell pepper and carrot (and fennel if you like), season well and sauté for at least 10 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté 2 minutes more. Add the red wine and reduce by one half, then add the stock and simmer, with the lid on for 1- 1/2 hours. Taste and re-season as necessary.
Remove the lid and continue simmering until tender. Remove the meat and blend the stock and vegetables, preferable with an immersion blender, until smooth. This will make the gravy thick and delicious. Serve this sumptuous meal with buttered noodles or pasta or steamed jasmine rice.
This rich and hearty stew calls for an equally hearty wine.
A great side dish for a Christmas feast is a gratin of leek. Leek is a much under-used vegetable and makes one of the best gratins that is creamy, and the Gruyere cheese crust is just right.
4 large leeks
1- 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
2 teaspoons ground nutmeg
2-3 cups Gruyere cheese
1/4 cup white wine
Salt and pepper to taste
1 pinch red pepper flakes
Olive oil as needed
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Cut the root off the leeks, cut into long slices and then halve or quarter the slices. Wash very well and dry. Sauté the leeks in a little olive oil, season with salt, pepper and red pepper flakes until just done and tender. Add the wine and reduce by one half. Add the cream and the nutmeg and simmer until thick.
Place in an ovenproof casserole, top with the cheese and bake until golden brown, about 20 minutes. Allow to cool and serve hot.