My Christmas dinner menu

My Christmas dinner menu

‘For me, that celebration of fire translates into my stove and the preparation of food for the people I love’

BRATTLEBORO — December is the final month. It begs contemplation of the year about to pass, it encompasses the darkest and longest night, and it embraces the commingling of mindless consumption and simple, lovely hope.

I am far from a practicing Christian, yet I harbor a deep fondness for Christmas and its message of peace and goodwill.

I love the ritual of bringing a tree into the house, yet I embrace my cynicism with a vengeance. I am drawn to the secular notion of solstice and the celebration of light, yet I sing O Little Town of Bethlehem in the shower.

Even we here in Vermont are part of a larger confused and confusing culture, and I find myself plopped right down in the middle of it.

Should I train myself to say “Happy Solstice” instead of ”Merry Christmas”? Should I desist from the habit of giving my adult children frivolous presents they might not need?

Should I cook a politically correct localvore holiday dinner, abandoning the standing rib roast and Stilton cheese of tradition?

What is one to do?

I want to believe in the conventional message of Christmas. I want to believe in good will toward men and peace on earth. I want to believe that the birth of a baby, that the return of light, that the passage into yet another year of life are symbols of hope and regeneration.

So I do.

Our ancestors celebrated fire this time of year, not just because they were cold, but also because we as human beings are drawn to it, are drawn to the light.

I do believe in that simple, lovely message of hope that this season brings. Life and winter are hard. We need the promise of the sun, the promise of spring, the promise of renewal.

And for me, that celebration of fire translates into my stove and the preparation of food for the people I love, nourishing them, giving them pleasure from my cooking.

Here is what I will be feeding my family on what I still call Christmas Day. It is a combination of tradition and innovation that joins the best of what present-day Vermont has to offer with the enduring legacy of the hard-working cooks and farmers from all over the world who came before us.

And as this particularly difficult and emotionally wrenching year comes to a conclusion, I intend to meet its challenge by presenting the very best in my culinary arsenal. I want a meal that exemplifies not just survival but also exultation, joy, and triumph over the dark.

* * *

Vermont produces some of the very best cheese made today in America. Readers of my column will know that I tend not to serve cheese before a meal, and here you will find no exception.

But just as my Thanksgiving menu included some simple cheese crackers, this Christmas menu starts with a recipe that transform great cheese into pastry. Here I am using a classic of French hors d'oeurvres, the Gougères.

Normally made with Gruyère, my version is made with Spring Brook Tarentaise, a fantastic raw-cow-milk, Alpine-style cheese made in Reading at Spring Brook Farm, part of a property owned by the Farms for City Kids Foundation.

This nonprofit brings groups of children to the farm for a week at a time to experience a farm-based curriculum. The Tarentaise cheese is fantastic, as is the farm's other variety, a Raclette-style cheese called Reading.

These are really delicious and just the thing with some festive sparkling wine.

Tarentaise Gougère

¶½ cup water

¶½ cup of whole milk

¶ 4 ounces of unsalted Vermont butter

¶ 1 cup of all-purpose unbleached flour

¶ 4 large local eggs

¶ 1 cup of grated Spring Brook Tarentaise plus ¼ cup grated for tops

¶ freshly ground pepper and nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a medium saucepan, combine the water, milk, butter, and salt, then bring to a boil. Add the flour and stir it in with a wooden spoon until a smooth dough forms; stir over low heat until it dries out and pulls away from the pan, about 2 minutes.

Scrape the dough into a bowl; let cool for 1 minute.

Beat the eggs into the dough, one at a time, beating thoroughly between each one. Make sure the egg is vigorously incorporated into the dough before adding the next.

Add the cheese and a pinch each of pepper and nutmeg. Transfer the dough to a pastry bag fitted with a ½-inch round tip and pipe tablespoon-size mounds onto the baking sheets, 2 inches apart. Sprinkle with cheese.

Bake for 22 minutes, or until puffed and golden brown.

Serve hot, or let cool and refrigerate or freeze. Reheat in a 350-degree oven until piping hot.

Makes 28 to 30 puffs.

* * *

Vermont has no salt water, alas, although its absence perhaps saves the state from being completely overrun by vacationers. So this next course steals from our ocean neighbors, who kindly share with us their fresh and briny oysters.

Oysters have been part of New England cuisine for centuries and can be found featured on American Christmas menus dating back to 1685.

Some find the idea and texture of raw oysters just too much, and I find oyster stew just too rich, so this recipe provides a lovely compromise and a great first course.

Baked oysters with bacon and leeks

¶ 6 ounces of bacon, chopped

¶ 3 large leeks, cleaned, trimmed and finely chopped

¶ 1 small bay leaf

¶ ½ cup white wine

¶ 1 cup heavy cream

¶ 12 medium oysters, shucked but in bottom shell, or 24 pre-shucked

¶ ¼ to ½ cup fresh bread crumbs

¶ 2 tablespoon finely minced fresh parsley

Sauté the bacon until crisp and remove, then place onto paper towels to drain.

Add leeks and sauté over medium-low heat until soft. Add bay leaf and wine. Cook briskly until wine is absorbed into the leeks. Add the cream and cook until mixture is thick and silky.

Place each oyster on its shell on a baking sheet or place 3 pre-shucked oysters each in small ramekins. Divide the sauce evenly among the shells or ramekins, add the bacon, and top with a scant sprinkling of bread crumbs.

Preheat the broiler and, when hot, place the oysters under the heat and cook until golden and bubbly.

Serve immediately with some baguette and a dry white wine.

Serves 6 (2 oysters per person on shell, or 8 pre-shucked).

* * *

Now we get to the meat of the matter, and I mean meat.

The center of this meal is a juicy and pink prime rib with Bordelaise sauce, a golden rich Yorkshire pudding, and a platter of crispy locally grown brussels sprouts.

There is also a divine abundance of locally grown meat in Vermont, and it is easy to find in your favorite local food market.

For my dinner for eight, I choose a four-rib roast that weighs around 8 pounds, and I use an old and great recipe from a 2007 Saveur magazine.

The rib roast takes about 1¾ hours and the brussels sprouts about 45 minutes. Cook them together in the same oven at the same temperature.

Wait to cook the Yorkshire pudding until after the meat is out of the oven resting and you are making the Bordelaise sauce. That way everything should be ready at the same time.

Standing rib roast with Bordelaise sauce

¶ 12 cloves garlic, peeled

¶ 1 four-rib roast

¶ salt

¶ freshly ground black pepper

¶ 1 bottle red wine

¶ 4 carrots, peeled, trimmed, and chopped

¶ 4 ribs celery, chopped

¶ 2 sweet onions, peeled and chopped

¶ 5 bay leaves

¶ 1 bunch fresh thyme

¶ 4 shallots, peeled and finely chopped

¶ ¼ cup minced fresh parsley

¶ 4 tablespoons unsalted butter

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Mince 8 cloves of the garlic.

Rub roast with all but 1 Tbsp. of the minced garlic, and season with salt and pepper. Roast beef, bone side down, in a roasting pan until well browned, 30-40 minutes.

Reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees and roast for 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, boil wine in a pot until the liquid is reduced to ¾ cup.

Remove roast from pan and pour off drippings (save for Yorkshire pudding). Return roast to pan and scatter carrots, celery, onions, remaining garlic cloves, 3 of the bay leaves, and all but 3 sprigs of the thyme around the roast.

Roast the beef until the internal temperature of the meat registers 120 degrees for rare, about 30 minutes more. Transfer the roast to a carving platter, discard twine, loosely cover with foil, and let the meat rest.

Transfer vegetables and the drippings from the pan to another saucepan. Skim off fat, setting 1 Tbsp. aside.

Add 3 cups water to the roasting pan and bring to a boil on top of stove over medium heat, scraping browned bits stuck to bottom of pan with a wooden spoon.

Transfer pan juices to saucepan and add reduced wine, ¼ of the shallots, and the reserved thyme and bay leaves. Simmer over medium heat for 20 minutes.

Strain sauce into a bowl, discarding solids.

Return saucepan to medium heat. Add reserved fat and remaining shallots and minced garlic and cook, stirring often, until soft, 3 to 5 minutes.

Add strained sauce to saucepan and bring to a simmer. Remove from heat, then whisk in parsley and butter. Adjust seasonings.

Carve roast and serve with sauce on the side.

Serves 8.

Roasted brussels sprouts

¶ 2 pounds of brussels sprouts

¶ 3 tablespoons of olive oil

¶ salt and pepper to taste

Use the already preheated oven at 425 degrees.

Cut off the brown ends of the brussels sprouts and pull off any yellow outer leaves. Mix the in a bowl with the olive oil, salt and pepper. Pour them on a baking sheet and roast for 35 to 40 minutes until crisp on the outside and tender on the inside. Shake the pan from time to time to brown the sprouts evenly.

Sprinkle with more salt and serve.

Serves 8.

Yorkshire Pudding

¶ 1 cup flour

¶ ¾ teaspoon salt

¶ 2 eggs

¶ 1 cup milk

¶ ½ cup beef drippings from the roast

Sift flour together with salt into a medium bowl. Make a well in center and add eggs. Whisk in milk. Mix until smooth. Set aside at room temperature for 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Pour beef drippings into a 10” x 12” baking pan. Heat in oven until smoking hot, 10 minutes.

Pour batter into the pan and bake without opening the oven door (to avoid collapsing the pudding), until the pudding has risen and is golden (20 minutes).

Serve immediately, offering a generous square with each piece of roast beef.

Serves 8.

* * *

After such a sumptuous meal, dessert seems downright illegal. My vote is for a cheese course. I love cheese at the end of a meal, specifically one of our Vermont blues. Who needs Stilton?

A few of your choices are Bayley Hazen Blue from Jasper Hill Creamery in Greensboro, a very popular and, at its best, creamy blue. Serve with a touch of chocolate.

Bonnieview Farm from Craftsbury Common makes a spectacular Seaver Brook blue from raw sheep milk, like French Roquefort. And then there is a mild, bloomy-rind blue like Kind of Blue from Woodcock Farm in Weston.

Whichever cheese you choose, serve it at room temperature, toast some walnuts in the oven, and peel a perfect pear.

Serve it all with a glass of port, and your belief in yourself will be restored, if not your belief in humanity at large.

As you sip and nibble and talk, I send my personal wishes for a better new year, one filled with generosity, kindness, hope, and memorable meals.

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