I had forgotten about a particular tradition until Lindz visited one of her professors before Christmas. Her professor receives a box of citrus from one of his former students every year during Advent. When Lindz showed up to visit, he had just gotten his yearly present and he realized that he couldn’t eat it all before it went bad. So, Lindz ended up with a box of fruit.
The tradition that I forgot about was the giving of a certain bag of “goodies” at Christmas time. This bag consists of an orange (maybe an apple too), nuts in the shell (usually peanuts), and some form of candy (candy canes, old fashioned ribbon candy, chocolate coins, etc). With a bit of research on the good ol’ internet, I found that a lot of people used to get these in their stocking from their parents. Personally, I received it from our priest every year as a youngster. I’ve heard of this custom off and on over the years, but never knew the origin. I’ve always assumed that it was a “healthy” and/or “inexpensive” gift. But the more that I heard about it, it slowly dawned on me that this wasn’t just a local Catholic thing, it was far more widespread phenomenon. This year I finally took the time to do the research. It turns out that the actual origins are pretty murky. Frustrating, but not surprising. On the web, a lot of people remember this as a kid, and many continue it with their own children. Most people are comfortable with the answer of “I don’t know. It was just something that grandma (or whomever) always did.” They assume that it either came from the old country, (Italy, Poland, England, etc) or it dates back to the time when oranges were a rarity and hence an actual treat, or some combination of these two factors. While I can see these two reasons being factors, it just didn’t feel right for how widespread and long lasting this experience is.
Wiki to the rescue!
In his (St. Nicholas) most famous exploit, a poor man had three daughters but could not afford a proper dowry for them. This meant that they would remain unmarried and probably, in absence of any other possible employment, would have to become prostitutes . Hearing of the poor man’s plight, Nicholas decided to help him . . . and drops the third bag down the chimney (where) the daughter had washed her stockings that evening and hung them over the embers to dry, and that the bag of gold fell into the stocking.
Ok, but how do we get from a bag of gold to an orange? Here is where symbolism comes into effect. The best explanation is that an orange is a similar color to gold and that oranges are similar in shape to bags of the shiny stuff. Also, in some European countries, oranges have symbolized Jesus’ love for the world. I’ve listed a bunch of the more interesting links that I’ve found at the end of this post.
Now that the history lesson is over, on to the food!
We weren’t eating the box of oranges as fast as we should have and they were in real danger of going bad. So I had to come up with something to use a whole bunch of oranges at once. I’ve had a venison loin sitting in the freezer since last fall and it seemed like it would be a perfect pairing for an orange pan sauce that I had in mind.
Since the sauce was going to be the star of the show, I simply cut the loin into medallions and pan fried them in a bit of oil.
As a side, I went with roasted potatoes, carrots, onions, and garlic all mashed up together.
Once the venison was fried off and resting, I made the pan sauce. The recipe that I borrowed quite heavily from is the Orange Pan Sauce with Middle Eastern Spices from the Cook’s Illustrated cookbook. I really wanted the sauce to be a “Friday-night-drunken-barroom-brawl” explosion in your mouth, so I went very heavy on the OJ and zest.
- 2 Shallots, minced
- 2 tsp Sugar
- 1 tsp Ground Cumin
- 1/4 tsp Pepper
- 1/4 tsp Ground Cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp Ground Cardamom
- 1/8 tsp Cayenne Pepper
- 1/4 C Orange Zest
- 3 Tbs Red Wine Vinegar
- 2 C Orange Juice
Pour off all but 1 1/2 Tbs fat from the skillet (of whatever meat you are making). Place skillet over medium heat. Add shallots and cook until softened, about 1 minute. Stir in sugar, cumin, pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, and cayenne; cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in vinegar, scraping bottom of pan with a wooden spoon to loosen the fond. Add the orange juice, increase heat to medium-high and simmer until reduced to about 3/4 C, about 10 to 15 minutes. Off heat, season with salt to taste. Spoon over meat and serve.
I managed to create the citrus barrage that I was intending. Plus, the other spices weren’t lost in all of the citric acid. They were a nice background note in the sauce. What is even better, is that the sauce worked equally well on both the meat and the roasted veggie mash. All in all, I was quite pleased with this meal. In fact, I am hoping the bag of lemons that we have in the fridge right now linger around a bit so I have an excuse to try this with a different citrus.
p.s. Sorry if there is less snark in this post than usual. Lindz has been hoarding our household’s share of it lately.
An informative page, with emphasis on the Canadian Prairies.
A well-researched page (much more effort than I put into mine) that is a nice narrative.
This page looks at this Christmas tradition with regard to its English origin.
A sugar- and food-centric page that emphasizes the sweet and preservative aspect of fruit.
An interesting audio story from Minnesota Public Radio about the impact of a couple from Minnesota and their influence on the Christmas orange tradition here.
A not very helpful page with regards to Christmas oranges, but a still very interesting read.
A wonderful page full of Polish Christmas time traditions.
The more I experiment with trying the stereotypical “high society” food, the more I laugh at that whole cuisine. So far it’s mostly been stuff that I’ve already had before, or really similar to something I’ve already had. Polenta, for example, is the same as the “mush” that Mom made when I was growing up. The difference is that Mom would chill hers after it cooked to set it, and then slice it and fry it. Served up with butter and syrup. This is as near to breakfast perfection as one can get in my opinion. Well, served with bacon. Everything is better with bacon. Like I posted previously, bone marrow reminds me of dipping your bread in bacon fat. Venison? Grew up on the stuff. Gnocci? Terrines? Fancy words for potato dumplings and headcheese, both were regular items growing up. I could go on, but I want to get to my latest addition to this list of peasant food that was stolen and given highfalutin names. Pate. Very tasty, but really nothing more than liverwurst. And I’m sure you’re tired of me saying this, but grew up on that stuff too.
One quick aside before I get to the recipe. A while back Lindz and I went to Andrew Zimmern’s book signing here in the Cities. When he was signing it, I told him that I grew up on a lot of traditional Polish foods and most of what he showed on Bizarre Foods wasn’t all that different from what I ate. He agreed with me and said that as you travel the world you discover that food basically isn’t all different. I’m beginning to understand this. You start to learn to appreciate the nuances in the seasoning and the quality of the cook. And an aside to the aside, if you ever get the chance to meet Zimmern, do it! He’s a great speaker and a genuinely nice guy. We had a blast at the book signing.
Now, onto the pate!
This whole little adventure started with a trip up to Mom and Dad’s. I was rummaging through the deep freeze looking for meat to swipe. Mom was down in the basement with me and asked if I wanted a package of liver. I hesitated for about a half a second and then said yes. At that point, I was just planing on pan frying it with some onions because that’s what you do. After I got home, it occurred to me that I could make some pate. After a bit of digging, I found a really basic recipe that sounded good, also it was one of the very few that called for beef liver instead of chicken.
- 1 lb Beef Liver, cut into pieces
- 1 small Onion, chopped
- 1/2 C Red Wine (did not use)
- 2 cloves Garlic, crushed (used something like 8)
- 1/2 tsp Dijon Mustard
- 1 sprig fresh Rosemary (used about 1 Tbs dried)
- 1 sprig fresh Thyme (used about 1 Tbs dried)
- 1 Tbs Lemon Juice
- 1/2 C Butter
- Salt and Pepper
Saute the liver and onions in a couple of tablespoons of the butter until the livers are browned and the onions are tender.
Add wine, garlic, mustard, herbs and lemon juice and cook uncovered until most of the liquid has gone.
Cool and blend to a smooth paste in the food processor (or a stick blender like I did) along with the rest of the butter. This is easier if the butter is not fridge cold. Add salt and pepper to taste. Check the consistency of the pate. If it seems dry and crumbly rather than smooth and creamy, add more butter.
Like I said earlier, very, very good, but it tastes just like the liverwurst I grew up on. Good memories.
That’s right. I’m talking about Spam in a can. The much maligned meat that kept our GI’s going in WWII and helped feed countless people since.
No, nutritionally it’s not the best for you, but it’s not really worse than a Big Mac and people have no problem scarfing those down. The problem, as I see it, is all in the societal perception of it. For example, Spam in Hawaii is not a big deal. They are the largest consumers in the U.S. because fresh meat is expensive and Spam is a cheap alternative. They even have a dish called Spam Musubi which is grilled Spam is paired with rice and nori to form a sushi variant. In other words, haute cuisine. Okay, maybe not in the strictest definition of the word, but definitely in that “cultured” direction.
But here in the Lower 48, it carries an image of being a poor person’s or an uncultured person’s food. Which admittedly, does have a certain amount of truth to it. But then what about venison or rabbit? You pay a pretty penny for those in a fancy restaurant, but all these hillbillies and rednecks have been eating these critters for generations and they don’t have a bad rap. (Trust me. My family: we hick.) Another problem is that people just not willing to try it based on its looks. Again, I point to haute cuisine: oysters on the half shell. Take a close look at one once. They look disgusting.
So what I’m getting at is don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. Then if you don’t like it because of smell, taste, texture, or whatever, that’s fine. You can actually say that you’ve tried and don’t like it because of “blah-blah” instead of going “eww, gross” and possibly miss out on something wonderful.
p.s. This post is the result of a conversation that I had with my boss over fried Spam sandwiches. Seriously, try it, they’re good.
When people hear the phrase “canned meat,” their first thought is usually Spam. Honestly, that’s not fair to all the canned meat that I’ve eaten my lifetime. Granted, most of that has been homemade, so it really is like comparing apples to penguins. But since most people associate canned meat with Spam, it is really hard to get them to try it (I actually like Spam, but it seems like I’m in the minority, as usual). I’ve tried several times with Lindz, but I haven’t been able to trick her into it. Yet.
What I think people fail to realize is what the canning process does to the meat. You take the meat and put it in a jar with about a teaspoon of salt, put a lid on it and put it in the pressure cooker. You then cook it for an hour or so under pressure (I can’t remember how long Mom told me she cooks it for, but with her cooker it was at 10 psi). The pressure does two things, first it vacuum seals the contents of the jar so that it is shelf stable for quite some time (I’ve eaten canned stuff that was close to two years old). But more importantly, it does the equivalent of several hours worth of slow cooking in a fraction of the time. That is why you see them use it all the time on Iron Chef and other shows. The slow cooking / pressure cooking process breaks down all of the connective tissue and the resulting meat is even more tender than “fork-tender.” Because the juices have no where to escape, the meat is succulent beyond belief. If you don’t believe me, try some canned chicken breast. It is one of those notorious cuts that always seem dry and flavorless. The canned version is so unbelievably juicy and tender you will swear off any other way of preparing it. Yeah, it may look a bit nasty in the jar, but heat it up and turn that juice into a gravy and no one will be any the wiser.
So Lindz had the late shift at work one night and I needed something fairly low stress to make for supper. I had already used the canned chicken that I stole from Mom, but I did have the canned venison left!
I have yet to find a better preparation of canned meat other than heating it up and making a gravy to go with it. I did however mix it up a little bit this time. I did a variation of chipped beef but did a brown gravy and served it on mashed potatoes instead of toast. When the meat was heating up, I broke it apart with the spatula and added a cube of chicken bouillon, a heaping tablespoon of flour, and about 4 ounces of water. I then let this reduce and thicken to a “proper gravy consistency.” For me, that means that when you scrape the pan, it stays clear for a very brief second before filling back in.
By this point, my potatoes were done. So I mashed them, added a couple of tablespoons of butter, and mixed to a nice creamy consistency. If you are a meat and potatoes type of eater, this is a perfect supper anytime.