Christmas gives us an opportunity to pause and reflect on the important things and the people in our lives. It sometimes makes us sentimental and at times we are filled with warm loving memories of familial. As we enter into this special time of the year, I hope some of my own reflections on the most memorable Christmases past, will inspire you. (Be sure to check out my Christmas menu with a recipe included below.)
When your career choice is hospitality, such as mine was, it wasn’t always easy for me to plan Christmas gatherings, especially in Hong Kong. December was the peak season for my business. Christmas was and still is, however, my favorite holiday. I wanted my girls and my family to experience the best moments and nostalgia of our family Christmases together.
Hospitality has its advantages
Being in the food business affords one many advantages. I had a network of vendor relationships (butcher, wine shops, entertainment, musicians, florist, fabric store, pastry chefs, cooks, specialty food store) from whom I could pre-order and have delivered. I kept a running food list that I referred to annually and tweaked it as needed in November. I also designed my dinner menu around what I would be preparing for a catering event the week of, save for the roast of my choice.
The ability to coordinate and structure things in advance reassured me. ‘I can do this, I can make it happen for my family!’ And of course, I had my dear sisters close by, who would jump in at the drop of a hat and help me with whatever I may need.
Our home in Hong Kong was “Christmas grand central”. We would often have friends and unexpected visitors join us during the season. So, I would make sure to arrange extra bottles of wine and chocolates in decorated bags that I could have “Santa” hand over to our last-minute guests.
Trust me, this happened every year. The kids would invite a friend or two; or a family member would be travelling to Hong Kong. Or a guest would bring a guest; but, there was always room for one more at our Christmas tables! We celebrate Christmas to instill the idea of giving. Afterall, we are celebrating the greatest gift of all!
Make Memories, Build Traditions
In addition to giving, Christmas is a time to build traditions. Here are some of my favorite ways to create lasting memories:
Decorating the deep blue green almost teal colored, evergreen Douglas Fir. This tree has such good stability, always symmetrical so that it gives a sense of harmony and proportion. I think I chose the Douglas fir primarily because of the upward, erect growth of the cones, making it easy to hang my heavy ornaments. The needles are soft to the touch, making decorating less irritating on the skin. The pine has such an amazing fragrance that made the whole house smell like Christmas.
We would order a seven-foot tree (2.13 meters) – tall and wide in order to fill the space in front of the windows. Silhouetted against the backdrop of white silk drapes, the tree was showcased with its majestic blue beauty and tiny white pin lights that illuminated the hues of the gladly clad presents.
I remember the gleaming smiles of my nieces and nephews as they would walk in, look at the tree and explore trying to catch glimpses of shapes and size of the gifts positioned on the skirting. Their imagination would run as they speculated each gift trying to scout if any looked like something that they had written to Santa!
Christmas is Defined by Decoration
Our tree was always theme-based and usually a monochromatic color, a different color each year. My favorite was white with silver and gold ornaments. The ornaments were a collection of vintages, annual gifts from my mother-in-law and the ones the girls had crafted over the years. Instead of placing the poinsettias around the tree, I preferred placing them on the buffet table together with the White Amaryllis.
Christmas gifts in Hong Kong were not wrapped with paper. Rather, in sacks made of left-over scraps of fabric such as velveteen, taffeta, organza, faux fur, nylon, rayon, chenille, lame. I used a lot of this for décor that left a surplus for play.
A sewing machine to help fabricate the bags in moments rather than having to pull out the glue gun was handy. The drawstrings for the sacks were crafted from left over tassels, wires, and ribbons. It was exciting collaborating with my girls; they each brought their own ideas to the table. We learned how to avoid paper waste plus the guests could possibly multi-purpose the bags.
Our favorite year for wrapping was the year I decorated The Mandarin Oriental. There was so many interesting fabrics: green and red felt together with the white fleece trims and ribbons of green, red and gold with tiny gold and silver bells incorporated. A traditional theme which made the girls nod their heads in approval.
Christmas Eve dinner was initiated as a regular event at my home with family and friends. It was welcomed with open hearts and arms. One table for the grownups and another table for the kids. Different roast each year: duck, goose, squab, pigeon, chicken, crown of lamb, beef wellington, pork tenderloin. The girls participated as hostesses and helped with their little cousins.
I usually prepared the mulled wine in the kitchen with the girls just before the guests would arrive so they would be greeted with the sweet and spicy aromas of mulled cloves, star anise, cinnamon, apples, lemons and grenache.
No Christmas Eve dinner is complete without singing. Each year we would sing the classic carol, The Twelve Days of Christmas. I would print out the words, roll the sheets of paper into a scroll and tie it with a red ribbon bow for each place setting. A wonderful tongue-twister especially after a glass (or two) of mulled wine!
After dinner and dessert, we would invite visitors or family to take turns playing “Santa”. (I believe the kids appointed Salvadore, our golden retriever as Santa one Christmas!) Picture taking in front of the tree, more singing, dancing and opening gifts all followed, usually ending with the little ones falling asleep on the couch.
Those are the memories that make Christmas so beautiful to me.
My Christmas Menu to you all this year
Mulled Wine (Grenache or Malbeck)
Bosc Pear & Spinach Salad with Warm Camembert & Caramelized Pecans
Prime Rib Roast au Jus & Horseradish Cream
Wild Rice Pilaf with Toasted Chestnuts & Cranberries
Persimmon Pudding with Hard Sauce (Brandy)
Recipe: Prime Rib Roast
Christmas Dinners need a pause for effect, a little more elegance. If not a “Crown Roast of Lamb” then a “Prime Rib Roast” is a must when the occasion calls for it.
Otherwise known as the crème de la crème of roasts with incredible texture and pronounced beefy flavor, this ‘King Cut’ takes precedence at most tables.
“Prime” contributes to heavy marbling with even distribution, whereas “Choice” offers moderate marbling but still a high-quality option. This primal cut is best enjoyed when served as medium rare, once it is cooked past medium the meat becomes dry and chewy, as all the fat will have rendered out, imperative that the temperature reads 125 degrees when pulled out of the oven. Carry over cooking continues to rise a few more degrees as the meat sits out to rest for 20 minutes, (loosely tented with foil to keep it warm) before carving.
Accompanied with “Red Wine Pan Jus & Horseradish Cream”
1 whole standing rib eye roast, 6 lbs., boned & tied with butcher’s string to allow for even cooking & slicing.
2 tbs. olive oil
2 tbs. softened butter
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp. minced garlic
2 sprigs rosemary
2 sprigs tarragon
Pan Jus ingredients:
4 shallots peeled & quartered
2 whole garlic cloves
1 cup of either cabernet, syrah or merlot
2 tbs. butter
Freshly ground black pepper
2 sprigs of rosemary
2 sprigs of tarragon
Pull out the rib roast from the refrigerator 2 hours before cooking to let it come to room temperature. Sprinkle with kosher salt and let it stand. The salt will help release the moisture.
Pre heat oven to 450 degrees. Pat the meat dry with paper towels, to remove any moisture and excess salt. Season the roast with salt and pepper.
Heat a heavy iron skillet over high heat, drizzle in the 2tbs. of olive oil as well as 1 tbs. of butter and pan sear the meat on both sides 2-3 minutes each side.
Place the roast onto a shallow roasting pan and spread the minced garlic and butter all over, tuck in the rosemary and tarragon sprigs under the strings. Transfer to preheated oven and allow it to brown for about 15 minutes without turning the meat.
Lower the oven temperature to 325 degrees and continue to cook for 1 hour and 30 minutes or till thermometer reads 120 degrees for medium rare.
Let the roast rest for 20 minutes before carving, the juices will redistribute and yield a tender roast. Cover it loosely with a tented foil.
Whilst the roast is resting, use the same skillet it was seared in, pick up the excess grains of salt and pepper with a paper towel, do not wash the skillet, you want the fond (brown bits) of the seared meat on it as this is all flavor.
Heat skillet on medium, add 1 tbs. of butter, quartered shallots and 2 whole peeled cloves of garlic. When the shallots are softened and browned add the herbs, wine, salt and pepper, slowly whisk in the remaining 1 tbs. of butter to give the sauce a sheen. The wine will take a few minutes to reduce. Once it has thickened and reduced, tun off the heat and keep it warm. Do not lid it as this will cause it to steam and water down your rich sauce. If you prefer a thicker creamier sauce consistency then you can add a little bit of slurry (mixture of flour or corn starch & water), alternately you could use a little roux (flour & butter) in it and cook it whilst whisking. Please note when adding a thickener, the flour must cook out to avoid the raw pasty taste. I prefer a straight lighter pan jus because the meat is quite rich in itself.
Once the roast has rested, use the thermometer again to check the temperature, you will notice it has gone up a few degrees from the carry-over cooking caused by the heat in the meat and pan. Transfer the meat onto a cutting board. The resting juices in the roasting pan can now be poured into the jus in your pan/skillet for added flavor.
Time to cut away the strings and slice meat across the grain, using a sharp carving knife.
Strain the sauce for smoother consistency and pour into a gravy dish for table service. Place the pan roasted shallots and garlic cloves around the platter, arrange the slices bone-in on the platter. Add mushrooms or potatoes or parsnips or green beans around the platter if these are part of your sides, it makes for a stunning presentation. Serve with the horseradish cream on the side.
Perfect accompaniment to this juicy buttery roast; horseradish cream is a velvety must:
1 cup of crème fraiche (the French, lighter more elegant version of sour cream with a little less tang) or heavy cream beaten lightly to thicken.
2 tbs. freshly grated or prepared horseradish, if you like it a little tarter, add a tsp. of either Dijon mustard or cider vinegar.
Keep horseradish cream covered and refrigerated till service, keeps up to 2 days, the flavors will continue to intensify.
If you want a milder, sweeter cream, use less horseradish. Fresh horseradish is a pungent root vegetable with heat and intensity, available from spring thru late fall. This needs to be freshly grated, preferably in a food processor. Delicious with vegetable fritters, batter-fried fish, crab cakes, baked potatoes, deviled eggs, and smoked salmon blinis canapes.
Wishing you a season full of light and laughter, an extra measure of comfort, joy, and hope.
Merry Christmas & Happy Holidays!