It’s Christmas Day!

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By the time you read this, you’re probably just reeling from a deluge of holiday cheer. The Christmas season brings out all the fun and insanity that spills on all over whatever it is you’re preparing for the ones close to your heart. The days leading up to Christmas have been zany, to say the least. Sometimes I just wish I could take a backseat and just let other people do the work for me, because sleep is something I’d love to do right now.
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But no, this Christmas is pretty special for me. There’s a force that brings me to the kitchen to make sure I make the most of the moment. It’s Christmas and I’m home for the holidays and on vacation, because my life is different now. It’s more chaotic, vastly different and really fast-paced. Deciding to shift careers has exponentially changed me. Home is more special and meaningful, simply because I don’t get to see my family that often. I love being home.

While I was in the kitchen, slaving away for two days straight just to get a dinner with my friends just right, I’ve been listening to Christmas songs mom loves to play. That’s one of the things I miss so much, because as early as November her holiday collection fills the house with songs both familiar and obscure. I’ve heard a lot of voices (better than mine of course) sing about the good old days, childhood Christmases and simpler times. I find so much joy in that because it makes me warm and fuzzy, a refuge of sorts. Thinking of that makes me feel safe like a little kid.

Right now there’s a stew in the oven, iced tea brewing on the stove and another ham curing in the fridge. Yeah, “another” ham, because the first one didn’t make it to Christmas day because it was so good. So there’s going to be ham on January 1st.
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But days before the festivities have already begun, when I invited a few friends over for Christmas dinner. We had roast chicken, gratin, pureed squash, salad with homemade mayonnaise, seafood with garlic butter, and of course…ham. I blame them for finishing the ham. Oh, and Julia Child’s chocolate mousse.
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The bulk of them are either working as nurses or studying to become doctors. I can’t believe I could have gone either way if I stayed. It’s all good, at least it could still be a useful friendship. I kid.

It was a great night of food and shallow conversations. It’s comforting to know that despite paths diverging, nothing has changed.

So here’s my Christmas gift to you, because it’s not too late to make that ham for the dinner you’re planning for the New Year. You need five days to cure this, but the patience is worth it. Trust me. I will probably never buy commercial ham ever again.
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From my kitchen to yours, may your feasts be delicious and conversations hearty. As Amy Besa would put it, “cook with much love and passion, and serve with generosity”.
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Homemade Ham (serves around 10)

1.5 kg pigue/leg, deboned and skinless

Brine:

  • 1.5 liters water
  • 250 ml pineapple juice
  • 1 tablespoon + 1.5 teaspoon curing salt/prague powder
  • 1 cup iodised salt
  • 1 1/2 cup brown sugar (or use a combination of brown and muscovado)
  • 1 teaspoon allspice
  • a few cloves

Braising liquid

  • 3/4 cups brown/muscovado sugar
  • 4 cups pineapple juice
  • 1 cup water
  • a few cloves
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic

In a really large bowl/container, mix all the components of the brine together. Add the pork and cover with cling wrap. Let it cure in the fridge for 5 days. When done, drain the brine and run the pork through running water to wash away the excess saltiness. In a pot, combine ingredients for the braising liquid, heat it to a boil and reduce to let it simmer. Add the ham and braise on low heat for four hours or more on the stove or in the oven. When ham is tender, remove from the pot and allow the liquid to reduce until thick. That will be your glaze. Adjust the taste with pineapple juice and sugar, because it may get a little salty because of the ham.

When ready to serve the ham, pre-heat the oven broiler to around 180 C. Sprinkle a little brown sugar and glaze on the fat of the ham. Place it in the oven and allow the sugar to caramelize, around three to five minutes. When done, remove from oven and slice the ham to serve.

And if I’m being totally transparent, I went the extra mile and finally, FINALLY, lived a childhood fantasy. Commercial hams are actually pretty good, but that thin layer of fat on top doesn’t seem like a lot for a very hungry child who loves pork fat. I bought a kilo of pork belly and cured and cooked it the same way. This was the finished product. A glorious slab of pork belly ham.
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I think I hear the choir of angels breaking out in song.

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Potato and Bacon Gratin

 I’ve been asked so many times how it feels to grow up having no brothers and sisters. At the top of my head I say it’s great: you get all the attention, financial and emotional support. I consider myself lucky. But there are some setbacks – I think about what could be, what could have been, and that’s when I feel the pang of loneliness. Don’t get me wrong I don’t wallow in it…I just want it sometimes. Then I wake up and reality sinks in. I might not have the biggest family, but I’m still happy and thankful.

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This afternoon we visited our loved ones at the cemetery. It’s nothing grand. The scorching heat expedited our trip, but before we left, we said our prayers, lit our candles and left our flowers. I looked around and saw more than a few tombstones unkept, with the paint virtually gone. Clearly they were forgotten. It’s a sad sight really. I know this is getting heavy, but I just need to put it out there: I don’t want to be forgotten. I want to live a full life and all the frills attached to it and still be remembered by the people I left behind.

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Yeah, I daydream a lot. I think about the things I can do, will do and should do. Sometimes I ask myself how I want people to remember me, what legacies I leave behind. I’m being romantic here, but I do want to be remembered because of my food and company, which go hand in hand.

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I made potato gratin yesterday and I wanted to savor that moment. The funny thing is, the first time I made it for class, it was undercooked. I’m happy that I have the luxury of time to make sure this heavy, hearty dish is cooked perfectly. It’s a thing of beauty in its simplicity.
With the same desire of not being forgotten long after I’m gone, I don’t want to forget the moment I opened the oven and just knew everything made sense and fell into place. I was vindicated.

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Potato and Bacon Gratin (serves 4 – 6)
  • 600 grams potatoes
  • 1 medium-sized red onion, minced
  • half a bulb of garlic, minced
  • 4 strips of bacon, sliced into small pieces
  • 2 – 3 tablespoons butter
  • 2 – 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup milk
  • parmesan cheese, to taste
  • nutmeg, to taste
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  1. In a pan, melt butter over medium heat. Add garlic and onion and saute until fragrant. Add the bacon and render the fat.
  2. Mix in the flour and keep on mixing until it becomes thick, almost like a paste (you’re making a roux). Once the flour-y taste has been cooked off, add in the milk. Stir to incorporate everything. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer.
  3. Season with salt, pepper and a little nutmeg. Add the parmesan cheese and adjust seasoning. Remove from heat and set aside.
  4. Preheat the oven to 180 C/350 F. Peel and eye the potatoes. Carefully slice the potatoes, around 1/16th of an inch, like potato chips.
  5. Place the potatoes in the sauce pan and carefully mix together to coat all the slices with the sauce. Reserve a few bacon bits.
  6. Arrange the slices on a 10-inch pie plate. Once done, top it with more parmesan, bacon and sauce. Cover with foil and bake in the oven for an hour to an hour and fifteen minutes, or until potatoes are done.
  7. Remove from heat, slice into individual serving pieces and serve warm. Enjoy!