Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Eve and Christmas dinners

On Christmas Eve, or the day before if they will close, pick up two rabbits (about two and a half pounds each) from the butcher, along with half a pound of bacon. Have the butcher cut each rabbit into six pieces: the saddle into two, each hind leg, and the fore-section in half through the backbone (so that the forelegs are attached to the ribs). Each rabbit feeds four people, or three if they're very hungry.

From the fish market, collect live crabs (one per every two people) and oysters (small is easier; two to four per person).

Also have the following vegetables from the local organic market: lettuce for two nights, one head celery, a few carrots, some fennel, six or eight parsnips, and plenty of Brussels sprouts. I assume you have plenty of dried herbs and spices on hand, but be sure also to have some white wine for cooking, two pints of heavy cream, and your best wine for the table.

From the bakery, pick up a loaf of good bread for Christmas Eve, and another for Christmas for good measure (they'll be closed).

Early in the afternoon, prepare the rabbit. Remove the livers, hearts, and kidneys and set aside in a covered bowl in the fridge for some other project (the hearts can go in a bad labeled "soup stock", or saute them and enjoy; use the offal within a few days, says the internet). Transfer the meat to a large bowl, season generously with salt and pepper, and add ¾ cup prepared Dijon mustard, 2 teaspoons ground mustard seed, 2 cups heavy cream (or 1 ½ cup crème fraîche), 8 large garlic cloves (peeled and barley crushed), 4 bay leaves, 2 tablespoons fresh or 2 teaspoons dried thyme, and 2 tablespoons fresh chopped sage. Cut the ½ pound high-end thick-sliced bacon into ¼-inch lardons, and add to the rabbit. With your hands, smear the ingredients all over the rabbit pieces to mix and coat evenly. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

Bring water to a boil in every large pot you have. Get very good at pot-juggling.

Melt a tablespoon or two butter in a medium pan. Add most of a head of celery, chopped (save the rest of the celery in a bag labeled "soup stock"). You can also add a leek if you like. Salt the celery, cover the pot, and let it saute until the celery is very tender, about twenty minutes. When ready, transfer celery and 1 cup dry white cooking wine to a blender and puree until smooth. Return to the pot. Add another cup wine and one to two cups cream, and bring to a boil. Simmer a little, adjust the salt, and keep hot.

Meanwhile, wash the oysters, and then shuck them. (Or try to anyway. Discover that the shucking knife you bought at the grocery store is useless. Call all the neighbors asking to borrow a replacement, only to discover that none of your neighbors have ever shucked an oyster. Eventually get into the oysters with an old-fashioned can opener and a large flat-head screwdriver.) Provided you do not break two many shells, prepare a platter with some of the nicer oysters for serving on the half-shell as finger food while the family waits for dinner. Save the rest of the shucked oysters and their juices in a bowl set over a little ice.

When the water is fully a boil, cook the crabs. Twenty minutes is usually the right amount of time; drain them, rinse in cold water until you can handle them, and proceed to clean them out and break the bodies into two pieces each. Save the outer shells in a bag marked "crab stock". The yellow "crab butter" is good too (if you trust that your crabs came from a clean stretch of ocean), but not so much the mustard-colored stuff near the inner organs. Don't save the inner organs — the gills in particular you should throw away, as they accumulate pollutants throughout the crab's life. At the end of the meal, gather the shells for the crab stock bag.

Wash lettuce for a salad, and thinly slice the fennel bulb into it. Dress the salad lightly with a vinaigrette made with a nice white wine or champagne vinegar.

When the crabs are about ready, return the celery puree to a full boil, and add the shucked oysters and their liquid. Poach the oysters in the bisque for three to five minutes, and then serve in small bowls or tea cups.

Serve the oyster-and-celery bisque and the crabs with a good French or sourdough bread, and a fine white wine. The meal appreciates slightly sweeter table wines; this is a good night to have that expensive Riesling you've been saving.

Happy Christmas Eve!

Begin the following day with the traditional presents rituals and a large breakfast of quince pancakes with maple syrup.

In the mid-afternoon, remove the rabbit from the refrigerator and let it begin to return to room temperature. Preheat both ovens to 400°F, and get out every glass lasagna pan you have in the kitchen.

Transfer the rabbit to two 9x13 pans. The meat should fit in a single layer but fairly snugly. Pour all the sauce and bacon over the rabbit. Bake 1 hour, checking occasionally and turning the meat as it browns. The juices should reduce a bit; if they reduce too much, add some white wine or chicken broth or rabbit broth. The rabbit should be cooked throughout and browned on top when ready; serve in its pan and juices, and set a spoon out at the table along with the meat fork.

While the rabbit is baking, halve the Brussels sprouts and slice the parsnips into ¼-inch rounds. Butter two lasagna pans, one for the sprouts and one for the roots. Add the vegetables and mix each with some dried thyme and salt. Top each pan with slices of butter. Add some broth or wine to the Brussels sprouts, and cover them with foil. Bake both Brussles sprouts (covered) and parsnips (uncovered) for thirty minutes or so; check them occasionally, and stir them if you don't feel like they're cooking evenly.

Wash lettuce for a salad. Slice up some carrots and green peppers. Dress it with plenty of olive oil and red wine vinegar.

Open a very good bottle of red wine — we had the Cakebread merlot — and enjoy the company of your family while dinner is in the oven. Set the table with enough pads to protect the table from four different hot lasagna pans. Serve the feast.

Merry Christmas!

The rabbit in mustard sauce is from the inestimable Platter of Figs by David Tanis, and was definitely the high point of quite a few meals. The rest of the two dinners did not follow published recipes, but were also delicious.

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