Ho Ho Ho! It's time to think about what to have for our Christmas and New Year Eve dinners!
Well, I believe Christmas is a rather personal and traditional holiday, so everyone has dishes served in the families for years and, sometimes, generations. Therefore, I decided to dedicate my next posts to New Year's Eve dinner options. Usually, this holiday is rather eclectic and forgives all sorts of experiments and table set ups. But before recipe and ideas sharing, let me introduce you to the cooking and dinner planning principles I believe in!
Rule #1: The recipe is only a guideline! Most of the chefs and cooking books would disagree and advise you to stick to their recipes to the letter! Well, at the end they need to earn money. But there are, at least, two reasons why I believe it's wrong:
- Based on my experience of cooking in at least 6 countries, the reality is that even in the same country the same ingredients might be totally different and across the globe the difference can be compared to the Grand Canyon.
For example, the gluten content in flours (even if they are marked as "strong", "cake" etc) varies by producer and the country of origin. The gluten content is important to achieve the right consistency of the dough. So, one might find out that a German recipe, stipulating 2 cups of flour, calls for 2.5 cups in the US or vice versa. Eggs vary by quality and size too, sour cream in the UK is not the same as bought in Russia and, trust me, meat sold as beef in the US is miles away from the one sold in Sweden. So, if one day you pick up an interesting recipe in Internet, to avoid disappointment, please, use your best judgement and cooking experience to adapt it to realities of the cooking ingredients you have in hand.
- Only through experimenting one does become a confident and skillful cook. Not all of the experiments will work out great, but after several trials and errors you might become a proud owner of your own culinary masterpiece that your future generations will be passing to their grandchildren :) And being a confident cook also means that through experimenting you will know which ingredients do go together, which ingredients are interchangeable or, when things go wrong, realize it halfway and salvage the dish which might not work out to the intended shape but will be still delicious.
Rule #2: When it comes to cooking, there is nothing wrong with cutting the corners! I enjoy watching "Come dine with me" and the likes on TV, but one of the things that greatly annoys me is when people complain about or ask whether the dish was prepared "from scratch". If one needs to ask does it really matter? I recall an episode of "Hell Kitchen" where contestants were asked to try several dishes and tell their opinion about it. These dishes were defrosted supermarket meals, artificial caviar etc and most of the contestants could not praise them enough until they were told what those are. If professional chefs can't tell, why it matters for ordinary party goers? I believe that as long as you buy the "cheats" of the reputable brands and they are healthy/tasty, go on and save yourself some time to spend it on something that really matters or this absolutely unique time consuming recipe! At the end some of companies recipes were developed and perfected for years.
I recall I had an acquaintance who pride himself on being a great cook and gourmand. Once he had a chance of tasting one of my cakes. This cake was all about the frosting and presentation, so to save myself some time I used Betty Crocker Devil's Food cake mix because I don't believe there is a huge difference between various chocolate sponges bases. The feedback from this gourmand was "Oh this is a proper home made cake, the base is so deliciously moist, how do you achieve this?" :)
In addition to the Betty Crocker range, one of my favorites for a quick afternoon tea is Swedish Kungsörnen Pepparkaka - Soft Gingerbread mix. It's delicious and so quick, I buy it from Ocado, but one can buy this from Amazon too, if bought in multiples packs the price is OK. I prefer a "moist" preparation method with an egg and butter and cook it as muffins. Yum!
Cheating applies not only to cake mixes, but some sauces, frozen vegetables mixes, spice mixes etc. If you expect many guests and the time is limited, again what's is wrong with putting some easy ready-made snacks on the table while you spend your time on real masterpieces, or as I call it "Talking Points"! At the end, few cooks can pull out a better home made houmous than the ones sold in supermarkets :) With twins on-board, this year I also plan to get some of my dishes from M&S and dedicate the spare time to spending quality time with my family.
Rule #3: Presentation does matter, but no-fancy tools needed! In my opinion, what really differentiate between the day-to-day food you serve your family for lunch and special occasion food is presentation! People "eat" first with their eyes. I've been to multiple restaurants where the food is just OK but presentation is OMG and these places get raving reviews and huge crowds in.
And one doesn't need to be a professional or have multiple fancy cooking or carving tools to "upgrade" their dishes. With my shopaholism I did buy too many of kitchen helpers and gadgets and most of them are getting rust and taking space in my kitchen now. With a bit of imagination some rather basic things can help you to reinvent your dishes again and again. Take a look at the pictures to the right - all of the dishes were prepared using the same cheap bundt form I bought in Lidl ages ago.
The same can be said about other kitchen gadgets. For example, after being hooked on "Great British Bake Off" I invested in a "proper" standing mixer. Wrong move! It's bulky, it's heavy, it's a huge headache and adds time to every recipe I make! My 6 EUR handheld mixer bought in a German discount store 8 years ago is still my best friend for most of my cooking. My standing mixer is only useful for some of the yeast dough recipes, but these were handled by my bread machine dough function in a much quieter and no less efficient way before too!
Rule #4: Traditions and experience are good, but, living in Internet era and with variety of books published, do look for the inspiration and ideas elsewhere too! I recall my grandmother had a fat big notepad filled with multiple recipes she collected over the years. And twenty five years ago I started mine too with some recipes taken out of this book. Years passed and now I rarely get this book out of the shelf, because really good recipes I know by heart now and most of the new ones are either in the books I collected over the years or saved on my computer in my favorites. When you have an entire planet's imagination and recipe collection at the length of your fingertips with the Internet connection, it really helps! Some would say that the printed recipe books are also dying, but I disagree - there are still advantages of the book over the Internet recipes:
- the book content is verified and more reliable than Internet
- you can make some notes on the fields of the book for the next time in case the recipe requires some improvements
- it's more difficult to "loose" a book than the digital content
I have many recipes books and will be sharing my reviews on those with you. But my favorites so far are by Jenni Fleetwood, I tried multiple recipes from her and they were always great. Besides she has a perfect narration mode - concise yet clear and detailed with perfect step by step illustrations. My favorite of hers so far are stuffed baby squids and spiced bean soup! Also, her books usually have hundreds of recipes and they are quite special, unlike some books with 10 recipes altogether and of the fried eggs with bacon sophistication level.
Rule #5: For me, it's all about the fusion! It always amuses me when my international friends having a dinner in the restaurant, which serves the cuisine of their origin, end the meal with something like "Oh, sorry, it's not really authentic, it tastes completely different to how I remember it". Well, even though there is some validity to such comments, I do think that each region's cuisine was greatly impacted by the availability of certain ingredients in the country, and it's availability rather than taste that sometimes shaped the dish. But in the era of globalization when one can procure almost every possible cooking ingredient why limit yourself? The taste that what should matter not authenticity! For example, in my country up until 90s few had an opportunity to buy brown sugar or heard of galangal, while today I do believe that for many of our dishes adding those is a must! Alternatively, many Asian and African dishes contain coconut milk but isn't it because cow milk was not common in some of these areas? And, as per my taste, some of these dishes are much more delicious with the double cream than coconut milk ;)
And, finally, one must be really careful when serving authentic food, if it's too different from the one your guests are used to. I found out that some nationalities or people are more willing to experiment but some are more likely to stick to familiar and safe supermarket chips option. I had cases when some dishes remained completely untouched, only because some of the ingredients sounded "scary" to my guests. Not everyone is keen on the liver and the likes, some doesn't know that there are mushrooms beyond shiitake and porcini, and some can't stand the thought of jellied meat though never tried one and so on! So, fusion cuisine is the compromise for all!
Anyway, this is now a very looong post! I will have to continue with actual recipes suggestion for the New Year next time...