A Gratin That Embraces Tradition, and Innovates on It
LONDON — The quiet of January offers me a moment to look back at the weeks that came before and make heads or tails of them all. I am particularly interested in traditions: how they almost sneak up on us and surprise us, despite our misguided assumption that we are fully in control. And I can’t think of a better illustration of the fluidity of tradition, its almost arbitrary nature, than our — and that’s a big our, the entirety of humanity, more or less — response to recent times.
In many cultures, family traditions have their big moment in late December, when we gather in groups, each with its own customs, to re-establish the circles that define us. But the colossal disruption brought about by a pandemic that’s now nearly two years old has meant that just about everyone has had to adjust their holiday plans, to some degree. (That is, if they were lucky enough to keep them at all.)
In my world, the tension between my idea of a “big holiday” and reality was most apparent in the size of our gathering. My mother, my niece and her husband couldn’t make it from Israel to Northern Ireland, where my husband’s family lives. It didn’t feel safe to invite others at the last minute, either. Instead of the usual 12 or more, we were seven.
So we rallied around half of the long dining table and, between meals, played cards and went on walks along the windy coast. Our two boys, the only children in the group, spent more time on their tablets than we usually tolerate, but that was just so the adults could recover from the onslaught of food and booze. Our strength was not in numbers, but in the intimacy and the acceptance that, yes, this is definitely not a normal Christmas, but Christmas, adjusted.
As for the food, it has always been a bone of contention between me and my husband, Karl, but I think we’ve reached a pretty healthy equilibrium between the Christmas traditions he grew up with and wishes to pass on to our boys, and my natural inclination to mess things up in the kitchen — to throw ingredients in the air, so to speak, and watch where they land.
The main holiday meal looks pretty much identical to those that Greta, Karl’s mother, served when he was a child: no-fuss roasted turkey; smoked ham studded with cloves and glazed with brown sugar; potatoes roasted in goose fat; slow-cooked brussels sprouts; roasted carrots and parsnips (though we mashed them with nutmeg and marbled them with sour cream); and a bunch of condiments and sauces.
But, in the days just before or after Christmas, there is more freedom to play with tradition. Our post-Boxing Day feast, for example, was a ramenlike broth made with leftover turkey and cooked with ginger, cilantro, lime leaves and chile, to be served with turkey pieces, Chinese broccoli (gai lan), bok choy, soft-boiled egg, and soy sauce and chile oil on the side.
Keeping with local custom (we’re in Northern Ireland, after all), potato managed to materialize in every meal. Still, even in that, we found room for fluidity: We tacitly agreed to move away from the orthodoxy of the roasting in goose fat in small steps. First, we used leftovers in a variation on a Spanish omelet, spiced up a notch; then in a mash with scraps of cheese from the fridge and a makeshift herb paste; and finally, a gratin, not dissimilar to this one, with celeriac and caper brown butter, where the aim was to use up any orphaned root vegetable and all the remaining herbs. Once baked, it tasted like the whole of Christmas was crammed into every bite.
As I packed for our return to London, I tried to guess which of the games we played to pass the time and the dishes we cooked to use up leftovers from our smaller feast would outlive the pandemic as new family traditions. But then I realized that I have no way of knowing what next Christmas may look like, or the one after it, and that uncertainty means surprises in store for all of us. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, or a good thing: It’s just the way things are.
Recipe: Potato and Celery Root Gratin With Caper Brown Butter
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