Whoever moved Thanksgiving and Hanukkah this year to nearly Christmas had no mercy for the cooks of families who celebrate all three holidays. No sooner has the turkey stock been frozen than it is time to start thinking about Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, a time for which there is no real tradition in many American households, particularly ours.
In the past I have cooked a goose, which really doesn't go far enough to feed the extended family, but does have a large quantity of delicious fat, which makes terrific potatoes and cassoulet at a later time. A standing rib roast used to be my routine, but not everyone that comes to my house under 21 eats four-legged animals, much to my great irritation. That does away with ham, too, rack of lamb, a crown roast of pork and a leg of lamb.
Bah, humbug! I normally would let them eat only porridge, but well, after all, it is Christmas and I am trying to make them remember me when I am dead and gone, so I must try to please them.
So I turned to Facebook to help, and asked what other people were doing this holiday.
What surprised me the most was the number of people who serve fish as a main course for the highlight of the holiday, whether it is Christmas Eve or the next day for a mid-day dinner. Fish has many spiritual connections for Christians, from the loaves and the fishes to the sign of the fish indicating Christianity. And a whole fish is one of the easiest things to cook.
Bouillabaise, Pine Bark Stew and Seafood Muddle were tempting, but it seems to me that the amount of time needed the last two days is better spent with grandchildren. A few people mentioned shrimp and grits, and others oysters. Lobsters often are on sale at the holidays, but no one mentioned them. Stories of Christmas morning spent making scrapple or sausage made me envious of that kind of love and family tradition.
Other responses talked about eggy casseroles such as cheese grits and overnight breakfast casseroles, both cheesy delights, substantive and warming that can be eaten any time; and of course, yummy sweet breakfast goodies, perhaps forbidden at other times of year.
I expected Italian commentaries such as Seven Fishes and seafood-topped spaghetti, but many people also suggested lasagna, which is now on my list.
Searching for a large enough whole fish, with the head on, I contacted Dan Long of Crosby's seafood, who found three for me, the prettiest being a type of red snapper. A seven-pound fish is a challenge but seemed about right to ensure plenty for everyone to eat. The next day leftovers can be turned into a fish and rice leftover salad, or served on rice in a sauce.
When buying a whole fish, it is a good idea to ask that it be cleaned, scaled and the gills removed if it still has the head on. Otherwise all must be done before proceeding, and fish scales can fly long distances in a small kitchen. Here's a simple recipe for the novice fish cooker, and tips on how to tell it is cooked.
Shrimp and Grits Tart
This is nearly a tart, only baked in a larger pan so individual pieces can be cut into squares. It's perfect for serving and reheating any time of day, and is especially festive for a holiday. It gives that kind of satisfaction an overnight casserole does, but with a special touch. A store-bought crust works just fine, and gives it a rustic look.
1 double recipe pie crust dough
2 tablespoons butter
21/2 pounds raw peeled shrimp
1/3 cup white vermouth or dry white wine
10 eggs, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup tomato paste
4 cups heavy cream
1 cup cooked grits
1 cup chopped scallions, white and green parts
3/4 cup grated Swiss cheese
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh thyme (optional)
Preheat an oven to 350 degrees. Flour a board or the counter. Roll the dough out into a rectangle and fit it in a 9x13-inch metal pan, leaving a slight overhang on the sides. Chill until firm.
Line the dough-lined pan with crumpled parchment paper or aluminum foil and add dried beans, rice, or pie weights to weigh down the bottom. Bake until the pastry is set and partially cooked, about 15 minutes. Remove the liner and weights and cool.
Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed frying pan. Melt the butter. Add the shrimp and vermouth. Cook over medium-high heat for 2 to 3 minutes, or until the shrimp turn pink and the liquid is evaporated. Remove the pan from the heat. Beat the eggs, salt, pepper and tomato paste together in a bowl.
Stir in the cream, grits, scallions, shrimp and cheese and some of the thyme if desired.
Making sure ingredients are distributed evenly, ladle into the pie crust, stirring to make sure ingredients are distributed. Bake the tart until the filling is firm around the edges and fairly firm in the center, about 45 to 50 minutes, covering with foil if it browns while the filling is still runny. Remove and put on a rack. The center will finish cooking as the tart cools. When the tart has settled and cooled slightly, cut into squares and serve, sprinkling thyme over if desired.
Whole Roasted Red Snapper
There are numerous kinds of snappers in the South Atlantic waters, from pink snappers to vermillion and deep red ones. There are, however, many masqueraders with tough skins and scales hard like tiddlywinks that are usually more than 7 pounds and should be avoided, as should those that are overfished in a region.
Snapper is a succulent, light white fish with a clean taste. It is best when fresh, or flash-frozen and cooked immediately upon defrosting. It should smell of the sea and not "fishy." Its eyes should be bright and protrude slightly and its flesh be firm and bright but not iridescent. Its skin and scales should not be tough.
Any white fish may be substituted with this method. For a smaller fish, reduce the amount of butter or oil and lemon juice proportionally.
1 (5- to 7-pound) snapper, including head, scaled, gills removed and cleaned
1/2 to 1 cup butter, melted or olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
Juice of three lemons, to make 1 cup lemon juice (optional)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cover a large baking pan with aluminum foil and oil lightly, or oil an oven-to-table baking dish.
Rinse fish with cold water and pat dry. Move the fish to the prepared pan or dish and make 2 to 4 diagonal slashes in the skin of the fish. Brush both sides with butter or oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Pour on the lemon juice. Measure the thickness of the fish, from the foil to the top side of the fish, at its thickest part. Roast uncovered, 9 minutes to the inch of thickness, until meat is firm to the touch and springs back. It should register 135 degrees at its thickest part when cooked.
Slide the fish off the foil using two large spatulas or any number of fish gadgets. Peel off the skin. The top fillets will be prettier than the bottom two, so serve first from this side. Use two large implements to slide the fillet off the bone and onto the plate. When top flesh is removed, flip over the body of the fish and serve the bottom fillets, using the same method. The cheek is regarded as particularly desirable as it is tender and flavorful.
Overnight Biscuit, Sausage, and Apple Casserole
Sausage and apple is one of my favorite food combinations, and I find ways to cook it into everything from quiches to this souffle-like casserole, great for a brunch or long weekend.
2 tablespoons butter or oil
2 pounds turkey sausage
2 tart apples, cored and sliced
6 cups torn or cut biscuits in 1?2-inch pieces
9 eggs, beaten
3?4 teaspoon Dijon mustard
11?2 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese
3 cups milk
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Fry the sausage in a skillet, breaking it up as it cooks, and drain on a paper towel. Reserve the fat and let the sausage cool. Saute the apples in the reserved fat, remove from pan, and let cool.
Move the biscuit pieces to a large resealable plastic bag.
Whisk together the eggs, mustard, cheese and milk in a large bowl. Stir in the sausage and apples. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer the mixture to the plastic bag. Place the bag inside another resealable plastic bag with the zipper facing another direction in order to prevent leaks. Refrigerate at least 2 hours, preferably overnight or up to 2 days.
When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Pour mixture into a buttered 13x9x2-inch baking dish or divide between two 11?2-quart casseroles. Bake covered 30 minutes. Uncover and bake another 30 minutes until eggs are set and the center measures 200 degrees on an instant-read thermometer.
Apple-Stuffed Roast Goose with Muscadine Jam
Goose is a very glamorous holiday dish, but needs lots of side dishes to serve more than six abundantly unless there are a few children in the crowd. Do be careful to gather the fat from the pan at regular intervals as it produces a gracious plenty, worth saving for another time for decadent fried potatoes and other goodies. Substitute red currant jelly if no muscadine jam or jelly is available.
1 (8½-pound) goose
1 to 2 apples, washed, cored and sliced into wedges
1 onion, peeled and quartered
½ cup muscadine jam
3 tablespoons apple cider or Armangac brandy (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Remove giblet sack from cavity, as well as any excess fat from the bird, and pat dry. Tuck the wings tips behind the back of the bird. Stuff the bird with apples, onions, rosemary, and season with salt and pepper. Tie the goose legs together, if desired, to close the cavity for a nicer presentation and to allow for more even cooking.
Place the bird breast side up on a rack in a deep roasting pan, large enough to hold the bird and in addition contain the 1 to 3 cups fat.
Bake for 1 hour, remove goose from oven and ladle fat from the pan. Turn goose onto its back and return to the oven, reducing temperature to 325 degrees, and cook for an additional 45 minutes or follow package directions.
While goose is finishing, mix together the muscadine jam with apple cider or Armangac brandy to thin and blend. Remove bird from the oven when it reaches an internal temperature of 165, or if there is time to rest before serving, 155 degrees, brush with the muscadine sauce, and let it rest covered for at least 10 minutes, or one minute per pound, allowing for carry-over cooking to raise the temperature to 165. Carve and serve.
Nathalie Dupree is the author of 13 cookbooks, most recently the James Beard award-winning "Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking." She lives in Charleston and may be reached through Nathaliedupree.com