The 4 food groups of Christmas

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I am nostalgic at the best of times but at Christmas I am in overdrive.

For example, I am emotionally attached to every decoration I’ve grown up with so when one disappears from my parents’ tree I am immediately concerned. Last week I noticed that a (technically edible) decoration I made in primary school (a real orange spiked with cloves and dried) was gone.

“It rotted last year. I tossed it” said mum matter-of-factly without a shred of regret.

“Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat????????????” I wailed with my arms in the air (an appropriate reaction given the severity of the disaster and on par with mum’s reaction when she thought we’d lost her beloved Rod Stewart Christmas CD).

I was devastated. I made that decoration with my own two infant-sized hands, it was priceless! Rotting was no excuse for disposing of it, no matter how decomposed it was.

If I’m like that about decorations, imagine what I’m like about the food????

I am extremely attached to our Christmas eating traditions. We have developed a very specific style over the years, a mélange of Greek, English, Aussie traditions with a few other random European touches. It’s unique and reflective of the extraordinary cooking talent that exists in my clan. Spearheaded by my dear yiayias – Alexandra and Maria – and deftly continued by my mum, aunties and sisters.  

A highlights reel of Christmas day feasting over the past 25 years (spot the retro photography!)

In my typical nostalgic state over Christmas, I got to thinking about our foodie traditions and how special they are to me. So… what exactly is on our Christmas lunch* table?

(*I call it lunch but we’ve never eaten before 4pm.)

I’ve whittled down the magic into 4 key food groups. There are others of course – there’s always a healthy smattering of mezedes, salads, roast vegetables and carbs. But they ebb and flow with the seasons and the styles. Mum’s dining table wouldn’t have been caught dead without her signature potato casserole nestled beside her artichoke and avocado salad in the 90s. So chic. These days the salads are more artisan and the roast veg extend beyond the humble spud.

So here are the 4 key food groups of my family’s Christmas.

Prawns

Our family Christmas lunch always starts with prawns. I should know – I’m usually the poor sucker who has to peel and devein them. A facebook memory reminded me that 5 years ago I peeled 125. That was good context for this year as I peeled 65 and that felt like torture. I moan but it’s worth it – who wants to have to do all that work on their own plate? Apart from the effort, which is better channeled into pulling crackers, the prawn debris takes up valuable real estate for other delicious things. I happily take one for the team most years. And they are delicious whatever way you cut it – naked with lemon or in a salad with avocado and mango like this year.

Lasagne

Okay I know what you’re thinking. Lasagne is Italian. You’re Greek.

True.

(Although we are technically Italian too as my island was a hotbed for Venetians who used to sail past and get frisky with the girls. You only need to go about four generations back to see how our family name was Venetian. DNA tests show the same thing.)

But back to the food.

There are Greek variations of lasagne. Pastitsio – which uses penne instead of thin pasta sheets. There’s also the powerhouse of moussaka which switches pasta for eggplant and potato.

Why don’t we stay in our lanes here? Good question.

Yiayia Maria started it. Mum tells me that she remembers yiayia making pastitsio when she was young but at some point yiayia switched to lasagne and never looked back. Christmas isn’t Christmas without yiayia’s lasagne. It’s unbelievably delicious. She once showed me how to make it and technically there’s nothing flash about it and no secret ingredients but mine doesn’t even come close. Mum’s does though. The baton has been passed.

Big meat

For many years I thought everyone had a giant turkey, ginormous leg of ham and huge pork roast for Christmas lunch.

Nope. Just my family.

The turkey and ham are pretty self-explanatory, they are long-standing English and European traditions that have been appropriated by much of the world. The addition of pork is a nod to our heritage and the main ingredient of a traditional Greek Christmas feast because pigs were typically slaughtered in the weeks leading up to Christmas day.

The roast pork has faded out over the last few years. And we have all come around to the cold hard fact that a roast turkey is stressful, time consuming and never as tasty as the dream (making another one of yiayia’s lasagnes would have a better return on investment).

So instead we’ve gravitated to turkey rolls and even a turducken for kicks.

Does that mean less meat overall on the table? Hardly. We still had 60 souvlakia on the table this year, you know, in case anyone was still hungry.

Sweets

This is where our Christmas really shines. The meat, salads, carbs, etc are just a warm up for the main event – the sweet table! No matter how full you are, space can always be found for sweets.

I’ve never seen a Greek sweet table with less than a dozen (big) dishes on it. I remember once my mum was entertaining and accidentally forgot to serve a huge cake that was waiting patiently in a cupboard. No one even noticed its absence because there were at least 10 other mammoth desserts on offer.

This is where we weave back in Greek traditions.

Mum prepares this year’s batch of kourabiethes

Starting with kourabiethes  – those delicious toasted almond spiked crescent-shaped shortbreads that are groaning under the weight of icing sugar. Never sneeze while holding one or you’ll turn into a snowman. Apart from the toasted almonds, the other differentiating feature is the addition of ouzo.

There’s also melomakarona, a traditional orange and cinnamon scented biscuit doused in honey and crushed walnuts. And rozethes, a typical honey almost biscuit from my island of Kythera.

Purple-powered trifle

This is on top of an array of other sweet treats – tiramisu, trifle, mousse cake, white Christmas, fruit cake, pavlova and mum’s signature ice-cream cake made with glace fruit and Vienna almonds.

An obligatory fruit platter rounds out the offering and our bellies.

And because we’ve catered for a small army there are leftovers for days.

It really is the most wonderful time of the year.

Macey gets into the festive spirit

My Passion for Pisco

My passion for pisco_the fidgety foodie

Pisco sours and ceviche – the quintessential Peruvian combo

My obsession with pisco predates my adventures in South America.

I’ve always had a fascination with the ‘sour’ and its perfect balance of four ingredients – spirit, egg white, sugar syrup and citrus. Success depends on getting the balance between them just right.

The amaretto sour was the entry point for me. Made with what I can only describe as liquid marzipan, it almost felt like cheating. Surely a mocktail in disguise? From there it was a quick slide towards its Latino cousin, the pisco sour. It wasn’t that long ago that it was rare for bars to even stock pisco so I’d often make them myself. It was around the time I worked for hospitality giant Merivale, and I remember incurring the wrath of Merivale’s head of bars at the time when he discovered I was blending the cocktail rather than shaking it (a crime in the world of mixology). I arrived at work one morning to find a photocopy of the recipe from a cocktail bible with the method highlighted for my benefit. Noted Paul.

Regardless of protocol I still blend my pisco sours. Because no amount of shaking (and I can shake!) matches the foaminess that blending creates.

My passion for pisco_the fidgety foodie

The port of Pisco

So… what is pisco? It’s actually a brandy, made by distilling fermented grape juice into a high-proof spirit. When the Spanish rocked up to Peru, they decided to start making it rather than importing something similar from Spain. The spirit used to travel to Spain via the port of Pisco so they decided to call it… Pisco.

Genius.

My passion for pisco_the fidgety foodie

Pisco tasting in Ica, Peru

With pisco sours a firm favourite of mine for a while now, it was always a dream of mine to visit the home of pisco. Or rather homes. Because depending on who you ask, pisco is from Peru and Chile and the two countries have bickered for years over ownership of the Appellation of Origin.

So, what’s the difference? Different grapes to start with. Peruvian pisco is distilled to proof in copper pots while Chilean is aged to a higher proof then cut back with water and stored in oak barrels. The Peruvians use the whole grape, the Chileans distil only the skin. Peru is filled with old-fashioned, tiny producers and Chile is dominated by larger, more commercial operations.

My passion for pisco_the fidgety foodie

Pisco cocktails for every palate

I’ve now tried pisco in Chile and Peru and because I prefer my pisco ensconsed in a sour, I would be hard pressed to tell the difference to be honest. I was more interested in the way each culture drank their pisco. In Chile they love a piscola – pisco and cola. It didn’t really work for me, but nothing mixed with cola really works for me (yes I’m talking to you Fernet & cola – the national drink of Argentina).

  1. My passion for pisco_the fidgety foodie

    El Pisquerito was one of my favourite bars in Lima

The Peruvians will shot it at home and drink pisco cocktails when out. When it’s not a pisco sour it’s usually a Chilcano, a refreshing mix of pisco, ginger ale and lime, served in a tall glass with lots of ice. I was a big fan of this drink. Read More

7 delicious things to eat in Brazil

the fidgety foodie_7 delicious things to eat in Brazil

Feijoada – Brazil’s national dish with all the trimmings

I’m not sure if it’s the samba or the caipirinhas but Brazil has always held an allure for me and I found the food scene intoxicating. This is hardly a definitive list, more a top 7 scenario – stay tuned for part 2.

the fidgety foodie_7 delicious things to eat in Brazil

Yes it’s deep fried sushi and yes it works

Deep fried sushi

Did you know that Brazil has the largest Japanese population outside of Japan? So the ubiquity of sushi joints was not a surprise. What was a surprise was the, how should I put it… originality of sushi the Brazilians have perfected. Would you like mango in your California roll? What about a strawberry and cream cheese hand roll? Deep fried sushi? All are in scope for the Brazilians. I’d been warned about a signature of Brazilian sushi, the Hot Philadelphia, so naturally had to try it. They start with salmon and rice in nori seaweed. What’s the big deal, right? Well then add cream cheese and deep fry the whole thing. In all fairness it actually tasted delicious, but any sushi connoisseur would surely be shaking their head.

the fidgety foodie_7 delicious things to eat in Brazil

Bolinhos de bacalhau 

“Whatever you do DO NOT leave Rio without trying these” said my Brazilian friend Rodrigo. I am never one to ignore a local’s recommendation, particularly when it’s a variation on fish cakes. In his eyes these torpedo shaped patties made from bacalhau (dried and salted cod), potatoes, eggs, parsley and onion are the defining dish of Rio. I must concur he was right as I saw them on almost every table every time I went out to a boteco to drink. When in Rio I did as the Cariocas do so ordered them a number of times and they never disappointed.

the fidgety foodie_7 delicious things to eat in Brazil

Feijoada from the Academia da Cachaca in Leblon, Rio

Feijoada

As Brazil’s national dish this is an obvious addition to the list but given its fame I was surprised at how elusive it was. Sure every buffet had a version (but by definition anything on a buffet table can only reach certain heights) and that was the first time I tried it, but I wanted to try it in its full glory with all the trimmings – and for that you have to track down certain restaurants and eat at certain times, namely Saturday or Sunday lunch.

the fidgety foodie_7 delicious things to eat in Brazil

Succulent cuts of meat along with off cuts in this feijoada

Feijoada is dish of slow cooked black beans stewed with a variety of meaty off cuts, ranging from salted pig’s ears to beef tongue. The traditional accompaniments are rice, farofa (toasted cassava flour), collared greens, bacon and orange to help cut through the richness of the stew. It’s an epic meal and pretty much all you’ll need to eat that day.

the fidgety foodie_7 delicious things to eat in Brazil

Feijoada with rice, farofa, collared greens, bacon and orange

The iconic dish was created by the West African slaves brought to Brazil by the colonial Portuguese but is now considered a dish that feeds the soul of the whole Brazilian population. Just make sure you fast before you eat it. Read More