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Wednesday, August 10, 2022

A Gratin that honours tradition while still bringing something new to the table

The calm of January provides me with an opportunity to reflect on the weeks that have passed and make sense of it all if I want to do so. Traditions pique my curiosity, especially the way they nearly creep up on us and startle us, despite our false belief that we are in complete control. As a result, I can think of no greater evidence of the fluidity of tradition, its virtually arbitrary character, than our — and by “our,” I mean the whole human race, more or less — reaction to recent events.

In many cultures, family traditions reach their zenith in late December, when we get together in groups, each with its unique set of traditions, to re-establish the circles that define our identities. However, as a result of the massive disruption caused by a pandemic that has now been ongoing for over two years, virtually everyone has had to alter their vacation plans to some degree.

For me, the contradiction between my idealised notion of a “large vacation” and reality was most visible in the size of our group. Because of the conflict in Israel, my mother, my niece, and her husband were unable to go to Northern Ireland, where my husband’s family resides. Additionally, inviting people at the last minute did not seem comfortable. Instead of the usual 12 or more people, there were just seven of us.

As a result, we gathered around half of the large dining table and, in the intervals between meals, played cards and took walks down the blustery coastline. Our two sons, the only youngsters in the group, spent more time on their tablets than we would have liked, but this was necessary so that the adults could recuperate from the deluge of food and wine that had been consumed earlier in the day. Our power did not come from our sheer numbers, but from our closeness and understanding that, yes, this is not a typical Christmas, but rather a Christmas that has been altered.

The food has always been a source of contention between me and my husband, Karl, but I believe we’ve found a good balance between the Christmas traditions he grew up with and wishes to pass on to our sons, and my natural inclination to mess things up in the kitchen — to throw ingredients in the air and see where they land — that works for both of us.

However, in the days leading up to and after Christmas, there is greater latitude to experiment with traditions. A ramen-like soup prepared with leftover turkey and simmered with ginger, cilantro, lime leaves, and chile was the centrepiece of our post-Boxing Day feast, which also included turkey chunks, Chinese broccoli (gai lan), bok choy, and soft-boiled egg, with soy sauce and chile oil on the side.

Potato made an appearance in every meal, as is customary in Northern Ireland (after all, we are in Northern Ireland after all). Even so, we found space for a certain amount of ambiguity: We came to an agreement that we would take baby steps away from the traditional method of roasting in goose fat. Initially, we used leftovers in a spiced-up variation on a Spanish egg; then in a mash with scraps of cheese from the fridge and a homemade herb paste; and finally in a gratin with celeriac and caper brown butter, which was similar to this one, with the goal of using up any orphaned root vegetable and all of the remaining herbs. Once it was cooked, it tasted like the whole season had been stuffed into each and every mouthful.

The night before we were due back in London, I attempted to predict which of the activities we played to pass the time and which of the foods we made to use up leftovers from our smaller feast would survive the epidemic and become new family traditions. That isn’t inherently a terrible or a good thing; it is just the way things are at this point in time.

Jonathan James
I serve as a Senior Executive Journalist of The National Era
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