It has been nearly 20 years since my mother died, but every year when the Christmas holidays approach, I find myself following in her footsteps preparing for the upcoming family gathering. On the Friday after Thanksgiving, I begin the countdown much as she did. The first task of the day is a trip to Broussard for poinsettias at Girouard’s Nursery. On the way home, I stop at my favorite butcher shop and put in my order for a pork roast (fresh ham) and a small turkey. When the cocktail hour arrives, I can put my feet up, sip on a martini, make my Christmas day menu and think about who is going to bring what to the table.
Baby Brother Bruce and his wife Nancy will be in charge of appetizers — boudin and hog head cheese. (I suggested several times that we could have shrimp canapés and smoked salmon mousse, but I have been voted down every time.)
The turkey, which is sometimes known simply as Aunt Git’s pepper-stuffed turkey, is also affectionately called the funeral turkey or the christening turkey, depending on the occasion.
Sister-in-law Maria is a whiz at big-pot cooking so her task is to make the eggplant dressing. It was a favorite of Mama’s. She sometimes used sweet Italian sausage (removed from the casing) rather than ground beef and pork.
¾ pound lean ground beef
¾ pound lean ground pork
2 cups chopped yellow onions
½ cup chopped celery
½ cup chopped green bell peppers
4 medium-size eggplants, peeled and cubed
1 cup water or chicken broth salt, freshly ground black pepper and cayenne to taste pinch of thyme
3 cups cooked long-grain rice
2 tablespoons chopped parsley leaves
Brown beef and pork in a large heavy pot. Add onions, celery and bell peppers and cook, stirring often, until they are soft and golden, about 15 minutes.
Add eggplant and water (or broth) and cook, stirring, until eggplant is very tender and soft. Mash with a fork if you want a smoother consistency. Season with salt, black pepper and cayenne. Add thyme.
Mix in the rice and garnish with the parsley. Serve warm.
Makes 8 to 10 servings
Since Mama spent the weeks leading up to the big day making Russian taffy, pralines, tassies and roasted pecans, luscious desserts were not a big part of the Christmas menu. However, this year I’m going to offer this delectable praline cheesecake in hopes it will make the cut for future Christmas menus.
1½ cups graham cracker crumbs
3 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons butter, melted
3 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, softened
¾ cup, firmly packed, light brown sugar
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
½ cup finely chopped pecans whipped cream toasted pecan halves
Preheat the oven to 350 F.
Combine graham cracker crumbs, sugar and butter and mix well. Press mixture into a 9-inch springform pan. Bake for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool.
Beat cream cheese until it is smooth. Gradually add brown sugar and flour, mixing well. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Stir in vanilla and chopped pecans. Pour mixture into prepared pan. Bake until mixture sets, 40 to 45 minutes. Remove and cool to room temperature on a wire rack. Refrigerate for at least 8 hours. Remove the sides of the spring form pan. Top the cake with whipped cream and pecan halves.
Makes 10 to 12 servings
Aunt Git’s Pepper-Stuffed Turkey
2 sticks butter, cut into ¼-inch slices
8 teaspoons salt
4 teaspoons cayenne
1 cup chopped onions
½ cup chopped bell peppers
2 tablespoons chopped garlic
8-10 Cajun Chef Tabasco Peppers
3 tablespoons pickle juice from the pepper jars
1 small turkey, 10 to 12 pounds
Preheat oven to 400 F.
Put butter slices in a bowl and season with 2 teaspoons salt and 1 teaspoon cayenne. Freeze for 30 minutes.
Combine 4 teaspoons salt and 2 teaspoons cayenne in a small bowl. In another bowl, combine onions, bell peppers, garlic and sport peppers, the remaining 2 teaspoons salt and 1 teaspoon cayenne with pickle juice.
Prepare a work surface, either a large tray or cutting board, topped with a large clean towel to prevent the turkey from sliding around while you work. Remove the neck, gizzards and livers from the cavity of the turkey. Rinse turkey under cool water and pat dry with paper towels.
Place turkey, breast side up, on work surface with cavity facing you. Make 2 to 3 slits on either side of breastbone, inside cavity, with a sharp pointed knife, without piercing through to skin.
Insert 2 to 3 slices of frozen butter into each slit. Next, spoon about ¼ teaspoon of salt and cayenne mixture into the slits. Insert about 1 teaspoon, more if possible, of vegetable mixture into each hole, pushing with your fingers.
Gently pull drumstick forward and outward to expose inner thigh. Pull skin away from meat. Make a slit following bone lines from the top of each leg. Use your index finger to make a path and repeat the stuffing procedure described above.
Where the skin is loosened on the inner thigh, spoon in about ¼ teaspoon salt and cayenne mixture.
Turn turkey breast side up, with neck opening facing you. Lift skin flap and make a slit down each wing from the shoulder, again following bone lines. Repeat the stuffing process on both wings.
Season outside of turkey with the remaining salt and cayenne mixture. Place any leftover butter or vegetable mixture inside cavity. Secure wings by folding lower half back over top of the wing. Tie legs together with kitchen twine. Place turkey in a large deep roasting pan. No fat or cooking liquid is required.
Roast at 400 F for 15 to 20 minutes to get the browning process started. Lower temperature to 350 F. Cover with a lid and bake for 3 to 3½ hours or until juices run clear.
Remove from the oven and let cool for 10 minutes. Lift turkey out of the pan and carve. Serve warm with pan juices. (Lay the carved pieces in gravy if you’re serving on a buffet.)
Makes 8 to 10 servings
Mama’s Stuffed Pork Roast
One 10- to 12-pound fresh ham shank
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 large green bell pepper, seeded and finely chopped
10 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
3 teaspoons salt
3 teaspoons cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon black pepper vegetable oil
2 cups water
Preheat the oven to 450 F.
Set roast on a large cutting board or platter. Combine onion, bell pepper, garlic, salt, cayenne and black pepper in a small bowl and mix well.
With a sharp boning knife, make several deep slits in the roast spaced several inches apart. Using your index finger, stuff seasoning mixture into the slits, packing it in firmly. Season the outside of roast generously with more salt and cayenne pepper. Rub roast lightly with vegetable oil.
Place roast in a heavy roasting pan and put it in the oven. When the bottom of the pan begins to sizzle, carefully add water. Bake roast until it browns evenly, 30 to 45 minutes.
Cover and bake, adding more water as necessary to prevent the pan from drying up. This will mix with roast drippings and make a dark gravy that can be used for basting the roast, then later to pour over steamed rice.
Reduce the heat to 350 F, cover, and cook until juices run clear and the roast is tender, 3 to 4 hours.
Remove from oven and cool slightly before carving.
Makes 12 to 14 servings
Rather than sending out electronic invitations to holiday parties, consider having some custom made. They don’t have to be fancy or expensive, and they are so much fun to receive. Mail the invitations at least two weeks (maybe even a month) before the function since everyone’s calendar fills up quickly. Guests: be sure to respond in a timely manner if an R.S.V.P. is requested.
Decorations can be simple or elaborate, depending on your style and the size of your home, and of course, your budget. Pots of fresh poinsettias, lots of votive candles, fresh greenery (I love the scent of pine and cedar), and a Christmas tree usually does the trick. If you (or your friends and neighbors) have camellia bushes loaded with blossoms, float three in a crystal or silver bowl. Consider putting a blossom in a silver sugar bowl and another in its companion creamer — that is if you’re not using them for the party.
If you plan on having a full bar, you’ll need bourbon, vodka, gin, scotch, rum, white and red wine, and beer. Don’t forget the mixers — cola, 7-Up, club soda, tonic, water and such. You’ll need ice — lots of ice — garnishes such as lime and lemon wedges, and cherries. Oh, and remember to have plenty of cocktail napkins and cocktail glasses as well as wine glasses. White bev-naps (cocktail napkins) are fine, but I like buying seasonal ones when they go on sale after the holidays. Stash them in your bar or linen closet for next year.
You might consider setting up a martini bar. Assorted olives (pitted and stuffed with pimento, blue cheese or anchovies) can be put in small silver or crystal bowls, and of course you’ll need some lemon twists as well. Put out stemmed martini glasses and dry vermouth. Have a shaker available just in case someone wants them “shaken” rather than “stirred.”
I have a collection of various champagne glasses (flutes and coupes), and I sometimes set up a champagne” bar. Offer moderately-priced champagne or good sparkling wines. Check with your favorite liquor and wine merchants for suggestions.