For as long as I can remember, Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners have been identical: the oven-roasted turkey in the center of the table, surrounded by mashed potatoes, creamed onions, cranberries, and Mom's yams topped with marshmallows. Apple, pumpkin, and mincemeat pies await their turn on the sideboard. The food is all washed down with warm apple cider. We eat way too much, vow to never do it again, and spend the evening slumped on the couches. The Christmas meal will be at my home, and I've decided it's not going to be another Thanksgiving do-over. There must be a change in the family routine, and if Eve doesn't do it, nobody will. It's my house, dang it. There will be no turkey, no mashed potatoes, no cranberries this Christmas. Different, yet delicious, will be the theme for Kelly Christmas Feast '06, which means I had to pester every friend I have for their favorite out-of-the-ordinary Christmas dish.
"One year, I served a creamy turnip and carrots puree soup as a first course for Christmas dinner," said Nancy. "My chef-friend John asked for seconds, so I knew it was a winner. And my roasted-root vegetable dish is always a hit. You can use any root veggie you like: sweet potato, onion, parsnips, the more the merrier, sprinkle with salt and pepper, drizzle olive oil and maple syrup, and slow roast them for an hour."
I found a splashy main course dish from Patrick's pal Danny. "At our house, we make a boar's head, like the English Christmas carol. In old England, it was traditional to carry in a boar's head singing the carol. Though you can buy a boar's head from Korean markets, and I hear the meat on the head is delicious, I'm not keen on eating the brain. So we make our own boar's head. You cook the pork or beef meat rare, carve it into the shape of a hog's head, and then wrap it in pastry dough. You can use a pâte brisée, or I like to use brioche dough. Once it's finished cooking, you lay green or red peppers and black olives for eyes. We carve tusks out of raw potatoes or raw squash and stick them into the roast after it has cooked. And then it has to be garlanded -- lots of apples, flowers, holly. A simpler version is to just make a meatloaf and sculpt it into a boar's head." I liked the sound of the pastry-wrapped roast. I can see Uncle Max's eyes popping out of his head now.
My friend Shawn offered a potato plate. "My great grandmother lived in eastern Pennsylvania in the early 1900s and was very poor. She would make a potato filling, which I still make to this day. It's a mashed potato dish with bread crumbs to make the potatoes go farther. It has onion, celery, eggs, milk, butter, parsley, and poultry seasonings in it. I make it up to five days in advance of Christmas. It's a dense potato dish, really delicious served with a prime rib."
Or a boar's head, I thought. Bernice offered her Nanna's old-fashioned skillet potato dish, a gussied up warm potato salad with bacon, red peppers, onions, and red wine vinegar.
But perhaps I could have a potato-less holiday. That would really shake them up. My sister Cathy suggested German egg noodles. "At every feast in my husband's German household, the staple is the creamy egg noodles," she said. "It has sour cream, cottage cheese, and green onions topped with butter and bread crumbs."
I didn't think I could get away with not serving Dad's favorite part of the holiday meal: yams. But I drummed up an alternative to the white-trash marshmallow topping: my college pal Molly's streusel yams. She whips yams with eggs and then covers them with a layer crust of pecans, coconut, and brown sugar. "It's really a dessert in disguise," she joked.
Erica, my Mexican friend, has many fond memories of making tamales. "All the women would go a week before Christmas to my great-aunt's house and make tamales. They were delicious." Though I had some Mexican food fans, I had a strong contingent of non-fans, so Mexican as a main course had to be passed up.
But Kathy offered a Mexican salad option. "Though it's traditionally served for Christmas Eve dinner, I often serve it on Christmas day," she said. "It's called Ensalada de Noche Buena. It has beets, apples, oranges, bananas, limes, pineapples, carrots, and jicama in it, sprinkled with sugar, peanuts, and seeds of pomegranate. It can be served with lettuce."
Everybody seemed to have a dessert alternative. "I like to do a poached fruit, like pears or apples in red wine," said Nancy. "It's simple but so festive."
Kathy suggested her favorite party cake, lemon layer cake with lemon curd and mascarpone. "I found it in Bon Appetit ," she explained, "and the cake can be made a day ahead, which is ideal. It's a lemon curd cake with lemon syrup poured over the cake, all topped with a frosting made of mascarpone cheese and whipped cream. It sounds heavy, but it's actually a light dessert, perfect for following a heavy feast."
Pal Bernice offered a dessert that's always a hit with the ladies. "I make a cake called a Diplomatico. It's rum- and coffee-soaked pound cake covered in a whipped cream and shavings of chocolate," she stated. "And you make it a day ahead of time and let it ripen."
Finally, Bernice's husband Frank, cocktail lover that he is, had a holiday cocktail suggestion. "Take the juice of one orange and add a half shot of pure unsweetened cranberry juice. Add a shot of vodka, the juice of one quarter lime, a pinch of sugar and place in a cocktail shaker and shake, shake, shake."