Understanding holiday taste – and how to make two original festive treats.
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Ritual and celebration at solstice time has been the norm around the world long before the commercial “holiday season” was recognized. Many cultures, including Pagan, Norse, German, Native American and Japanese, have solstice-related symbols and myths in common with our own, such as the decorating of an evergreen tree, the use of lights to compensate for the absence of sun or the telling of stories about rebirth when the world is dead.
Another common tradition at the beginning of winter is the act of getting together for a feast. It’s a time when the harvest is in and the hunt is done. Everybody is snuggled into cozy corners and in need of social contact. And of course, we need to inflate some of our empty fat cells in order to help keep the sharp teeth of winter at bay.
Metabolically speaking, little has changed since the ancient times. During warmer seasons, we don’t need as much antifreeze in our pipes, and can survive by grazing on leafy greens. But as the days cool, salad alone just won’t cut it – unless it includes cheese, bacon bits, ranch dressing, olives and is served with warm soup and buttered bread. This time of year our eating habits respond to the need for extra insulation.
An arctic explorer I once heard on the radio mentioned that when you’re off exploring and freezing your butt off, there is nothing you’d rather eat than a stick of butter rolled in sugar. Every calorie counts when your body is a delicate fire that needs to be fed and protected from the forces that would otherwise extinguish it. While that diet might not appeal to you on the couch, the colder you are and the harder you’re working, the more you need those calories. Plus, rich food tastes better.
WHEN YOU’RE OFF EXPLORING AND FREEZING, THERE IS NOTHING YOU’D RATHER EAT THAN A STICK OF BUTTER.
Consider a nice steak drenched in salmoriglio, an oily, lemony, oregano garlic sauce. In this sauce the acidic lemon mixes with the fatty olive oil, creating a context for the oregano to permeate the mouthful with its herby volatility while drenching the protein with a balance of fat and acid. The fat coats the taste buds, and the acid cuts through the fat to stimulate them.
The fat/acid phenomenon is enjoyed in oil and vinegar dressing for salads, lemon butter in sole meuniere, wine and cheese, and French fries with ketchup. In each case, the fat and acid are combined with the thing that’s eaten: salad, sole, potatoes. This acid-fat-thing flavor equation works throughout the year, of course, but it’s especially poignant now, when rich foods are tastier than ever.
While the creative tension between acid and fat can create great flavor, the two substances don’t easily mix. When forced to commingle, they move apart as quickly as possible, causing many a sauce or dressing to separate.
When acid and a fat are coaxed to mix into a stable form that doesn’t separate, it’s called an emulsion. Many of the world’s best sauces are emulsions, like mayonnaise, hollandaise, béarnaise, ranch dressing-aise, and even some sauces that aren’t white, like that salmoriglio, which can be made as follows.
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While your steak (or other “thing”) is cooking, ideally on glowing coals, quickly whisk or beat a half-cup of olive oil in a small bowl or food processor. Add a half-cup of hot water, poured slowly into the oil in a thin stream, while constantly beating the oil. Continue beating as you add the juice of a lemon, in a thin stream. Finally, stir in a clove of minced garlic, a few sprigs of minced parsley and minced oregano and a teaspoon of dried oregano. Adjust seasoning with salt, and serve the salmoriglio on your thing.
To complete the dish, sprinkle some pomegranate seeds on the salmoriglio-drenched thing. The occasional seed will explode in your mouth, a tart bite of sweet acid cutting the richness like a sip of wine.
Warm camaraderie further thickens the sauce as we gather, swap stories, work together in the kitchen and reflect upon the spread before us. Don’t let the dying of the light and the empty, cold, dark days threaten to swallow us whole. It’s time to battle back, rub our hands together, light candles, gather indoors, extend our glasses and dive into our fatty feast.
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Rich can work for drinks as well. Pour four cups of coconut milk into a large saucepan, and add six tablespoons white sugar. Heat, but do not boil, slowly over a medium heat, stirring continuously.
Meanwhile, beat eight egg yolks in a large bowl with two tablespoons vanilla extract. Pour half the heated coconut milk and sugar into the yolks and whisk briskly. Add the remaining coconut milk and sugar.
Pour the combined mixture back into your large saucepan (and rinse the large bowl because you’ll need it again). Cook over a low heat, but do not boil, stirring continuously.
When the eggnog thickens enough to coat a spoon, pour the eggnog through a strainer back into the bowl. Let it cool to room temperature. Stir in eight tablespoons dark rum. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least three hours, but preferably overnight.
Just prior to serving, combine ground nutmeg and cinnamon in a small dish, and sprinkle the mixture on top of each served glassful.