For the Holiday Cooking Season, Keep Some Stock Up Your Sleeve

by Diane Leach

20 November 2012

During the holidays you need every weapon in your personal arsenal: the fancy new cranberry chutney recipe, your grandmother’s gravy, an increased credit card ceiling, a bottle or three of wine, a strong stomach, and the knowledge that January 2nd, when life returns to normal, isn’t far off.

“There is almost nothing as reassuring as having some stock up your sleeve.”
—Fergus Henderson, The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating

Yesterday the mail brought the first thick Christmas catalogs, pages full of glossy, wealthy, healthy white families. The outdoor shots feature these American dreams gamboling in the snow, decked out in expensive sports gear. There’s the mandatory shot of the man of the family, schlepping a freshly whacked Christmas tree through the snow, leading me to wonder where the fellow is (Iceland? Antarctica?), or if the snow he was gallantly slogging through was manufactured. The indoor shots involve immaculate, beautifully furnished homes, the model standing thoughtfully in a velvet dress, a seemingly forgotten gift in hand. The gift is also an exercise in perfection, exquisitely wrapped, gold ribbons corkscrewing like Shirley Temple’s hair.  The two blond children, a girl and a boy, are naturally adorable, as are their drowsy puppies. All, I’m certain, are housebroken.
Meanwhile, the media—print and online—is awash in recipes for American Thanksgiving, approaching alarmingly fast, and then it’s full-on recipe insanity until Christmas. The assumption is that cooks across the land are utterly panicked at the prospect of preparing the holiday dinner. Flip open any newspaper or cooking magazine and learn yet another twist on pumpkin pie or the latest way to make your turkey turn out perfectly. Turkey manufacturers and the New York Times actually open turkey hotlines. You’d think we were performing neurosurgery rather than roasting a bird that demands lots of additional fats and basting to remain moist while cooking.

The truth is, there is nothing new to say about holiday cooking.  Further, while there are plenty of panicked cooks, there are also countless cooks who are perfectly capable of preparing a holiday meal, yet exhausted and resentful at the prospect. Consider: American Thanksgiving is always on the fourth Thursday of November. Wednesday is a workday. It’s also the day that all but the most prepared cooks must make one final run to a hellishly overcrowded market full of stressed, hostile people angling for parking spots, furious at the snaking long lines at the register. Last year I witnessed two men come close to blows in a grocery line at Thanksgiving time. 

All of this makes me wish fervently for a drink. And I am not alone. Laurie Colwin’s More Home Cooking features an essay titled “How To Face The Holidays”.  She writes: ”When Thanksgiving has passed and the leaves are off the trees, the harried modern person looks to the winter holidays like someone slumped across a railroad track contemplating an oncoming train.”

Elizabeth David, writing in the indispensable Elizabeth David’s Christmas, called the Christmas season “The Great Too Much”, referring to the ten days between Christmas and New Year’s as “The Great Too Long”, famously writing her preferred way to spend Christmas was in bed, with a tray of “smoked salmon, home-made bread, butter, lovely cold white Alsace wine. A glorious way to celebrate Christmas.”

Tamasin Day-Lewis, in Tamasin’s Kitchen Bible, begins her “Christmas Countdown” section with these words: “It is often difficult to know just when to stop trying to please everyone over Christmas, the pressure is so great.”

While I am the Thanksgiving chef, I am not responsible for Christmas, a good thing given my kitchen’s limitations. Thanksgiving is spent with my spouse and one dear friend who does not object to a very manageable duck. I am fortunate. But there are still too many platters of cookies and fruitcakes and gifts of Pannetone. There are mandatory work parties and then, if you are lucky, parties you wish to give or attend. All this adds up to a great deal of rich food and drink at a time when Jessica Prentice, in Full Moon Feast, writes:

”I have long regretted that just at the time of year when our bodies and souls want sleep, rest, dreamtime, hibernation… we find ourselves in the midst of the holiday season. We are encouraged to be at our busiest… No wonder so many of us get depressed and overwhelmed around the holidays.”

We also get sick. In addition to colds and flu, we suffer indigestion in its many manifestations. Add travel to the mix and only the most iron-stomached survive unscathed, not matter how delicious the food. 

I have what the English refer to as a dodgy digestion. I’ve had every hideous medical test imaginable; the results are invariably abnormal but never equal a diagnosis. “There are just people like you,” my Gastroenterologist finally admitted wearily. 

People like me do not fare well during holiday time. So while I could give you recipes for my grandma’s stuffing or fresh cranberry sauce or my Thanksgiving duck, I am going to give you a recipe for poultry broth with rice. When you are miserable, when solid food seems an impossibility yet you are hungry, broth with rice will see you through. 

Homemade poultry broth begins with some sort of bird bones: chicken, quail, pheasant, guinea hen, poussins. Chances are you have chicken, as it’s easiest to access.  Chicken is also cheaper than its game bird cousins.  Save your chicken bones in the freezer; hoard your necks and giblets, but not the liver. Liver makes broth bitter. Fry it in butter or olive oil and eat it. 

Your broth will be better with the addition of inexpensive chicken parts: wings, backs, necks, legs. But can you make it using just bones, or a chicken carcass. 

I make broth two ways: the first is what we’ll call Sunday morning broth, as that’s when I usually prepare it. Fetch your bone collection from the freezer and put it into a soup pot or large saucepan. Turn the heat on low to get the bones defrosting. Add wings, neck, and giblets if you have them. Now check the fridge and countertop for onions, garlic, leeks, carrots.  Leeks are especially wonderful in broth, as are corn cobs and shell bean pods, which many be frozen. Trim the vegetables and toss into the pot.  Add a bay leaf and some peppercorns, should you have them. 

To salt or not?  Some cooks abjure salting broth, wanting a blander canvas to work with. If you plan to reduce your broth, avoid salting as the end product will be oversalted. But if you’re making this pedestrian broth, a few pinches of salt won’t hurt. 

Now add enough water just to cover the bones, meat, and vegetables, turn the burner to low, and go away. Purists suggest skimming. You’re welcome to. I never do, as I find the sediment falls to the bottom of the pot and can be avoided later. 

Your broth will take three to five hours to cook. Taste it. Then take your largest bowl, set it in a colander, and using oven mitts, pour your broth through the colander into the bowl. Allow the contents of the colander to cool before tossing; it’s hot enough to melt a plastic trash bag.

Method two involves putting bones, perhaps some wings, and water into a pot on the lowest possible simmer, partially covered, just before going to bed. In the morning, your house will smell wonderfully of broth. A look into the pan may cause alarm, as all the solids will have congealed unattractively on top. Fear not: this is why you strain the broth. 

Cooking authority Barbara Kafka advises against adding vegetables to overnight broth, saying they become bitter. I have used leeks and carrot without trouble, but who am I to argue with Barbara Kafka? 

You now have a steaming bowl of chicken broth. What to do? 

You can ladle it into ice cube trays and freeze it, for additions to stews or vegetable sautés or when the steak is looking kinda dry. You can nuke a few cubes in cup with Japanese udonfor a quick, lovely lunch. You can pour the soup into a larger food storage container, allowing about an inch of headroom, and freeze it. 

Or you can make a variant of jook, Chinese rice porridge, which settles even the unhappiest gut. Ladle your broth into a pot—the serving size is up to you—and add a couple handfuls of white rice. Allow this to bubble gently. Do NOT put a lid on the pot: you’re not making rice. You want the rice grains to thicken and burst. You can add some minced fresh ginger, a wonderful stomach soother with the benefit of being delicious. You can add a few drops of soy sauce—it in your fragile state, a little extra salt may be just the thing. You can mince a clove of garlic and add that, if you feel up to it. I sometimes add a heaping tablespoon of hot chile paste, which sounds like death in a bowl but really gets all the bugs flying in the same direction. 

If you’re in pretty good shape, you can add some diced cooked chicken breast, normally dry and dull, but just right for the digestively challenged. Or you could poach chicken breast in the broth itself.  This takes about 25 minutes over a low heat; make sure the breast is cooked through by lifting it out, putting it on a plate, and slicing into it. If it’s pink in the middle, it needs more cooking.

Rice with broth, no matter how you prepare it, is amazingly restorative. Results may even be had with canned broth, especially useful if you are travelling and cannot ask your hosts to whip up a batch of homemade broth on your behalf. 

So there you have it: a holiday recipe intended to help you survive winter’s—hell, the year’s—most challenging time. You may be exhausted, the gifts may need purchasing, wrapping, tucking under the tree or placement beside the Menorah, but at least you won’t be in gastric distress, which is not only physically miserable but soul-crushing. During the holidays you need every weapon in your personal arsenal: the fancy new cranberry chutney recipe, your grandmother’s gravy, an increased credit card ceiling, a bottle or three of wine, a strong stomach, and the knowledge that January 2nd, when life returns to normal, isn’t far off.

Lest I sound completely curmudgeonly, may your season, whatever you celebrate, be bright.  As the French say, if there are not more of us next year at this time, let there not be less.

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