Fri 23 Dec 2011
This Christmas will be my first here in Ireland, since last year I went home to Los Angeles to spend the holidays in my hometown. Though it will be a bit weird being away from home (come to think of it, this will be the first Christmas spent without my own family), I’m looking forward to spending it here with Mountaineering Man and his family.
I suppose in some ways it’s appropriate; ever since I landed here in March 2010, life has been all about embracing change. From adjusting to the cold wet weather to learning loads of Irish slang, I’ve come to realise the best approach is to just roll with it.
It’s been fascinating hearing about all the traditional Christmas foods my Irish friends are looking forward to this weekend – some of which are familiar, some not. Similar to Americans, the Irish love their ham and turkey as the centerpiece of their Christmas dinner table. But here dessert is all about Christmas Pudding, which isn’t what we Yanks know as pudding at all. It’s more like fruitcake, except instead of those hideous candied green cherries popular in the American fruitcake the Irish use raisins and sultanas and nuts. Most make their “puds” – as they call ‘em – about 2-3 months ahead of time because like American fruitcake, they’ll last practically forever.
I think I’ll be sampling all of the above at MM’s parents’ place this weekend, along with stuffing and gravy and perhaps parsnips and brussel sprouts (a very traditional Christmas side dish in Ireland). And at some point during the weekend we’ll connect with my family via SKYPE – ah the wonders of modern technology!
I’ve also observed a few newer Irish holiday traditions of late, one being the 12 Pubs of Christmas. Basically you go out with your friends and hit 12 pubs in one night, having at least one drink in each place. People usually dress up in Santa hats or other festive garb and go a bit nuts. Few actually finish; by pub #8 most are fairly sloppy and it’s time to crawl into a taxi and head home. I’ve seen many groups on this holiday pilgrimage, laughing and singing in the streets and at times falling off barstools and breaking a glass or two. Good craic, as the Irish say!
Though I haven’t taken part in the 12 Pubs ritual, I was happy to participate in another Irish Christmas practice: buying a present for a Focus Ireland child in need. Every year Focus Ireland hands out tree ornaments, each with one wish from a needy child. The one I got was from a little 9-year-old boy, who “loves The Saturdays” – a wildly popular girl band in the UK and Ireland. Because he probably already owns all of their CDs, I wanted to try and get him something truly unique – but what? Using my Los Angeles-bred networking instincts I sent out a few emails and got some help from friend-of-a-friend Jeff Craft of XRay Touring, who put me in touch with Niall Morris of MCD in Dublin – the production company that was managing The Saturdays’ tour in Ireland.
Working his Christmas magic, Niall got me the perfect present for this little boy – and it was no small feat. He brought back a glossy, multi-page show programme from the group’s Belfast show and then walked it over to the 02 Theatre in Dublin to have each Saturday sign it. Then he personally delivered it to my office; so fresh was the ink on the signatures we smudged it a bit by accident! Exhausted from a long night at the Belfast show, Niall still delivered the goods – and I can’t thank him, The Saturdays and Jeff enough. And also thanks to Gareth at Cybercom for introducing me to Focus Ireland’s Christmas wish campaign. I know that the collector’s item is now in the hands of this little fan, and that it likely made his Christmas.
On that note: Happy (Merry) Christmas to everyone!
Papa’s Lobster Bisque
For me, Christmas just isn’t Christmas without my dad’s lobster bisque – it’s tradition in our house. Since our Christmas Eve dinner is steak and lobster, my parents take the leftover lobster and create this wonderful bisque. We eat it on Christmas day with some roasted pork sandwiches and lots of other good eats. As we are going to MM’s folks’ this year, I made this for dinner tonight so I could have a little taste of home this holiday season.
Note: This recipe isn’t exact – my father has been making this for years and these are his notes, based on many trials making this bisque. I suggest reading over the entire recipe before getting started and really try and understand it first! I’m happy to answer any questions you might have! I’ve changed a few things as most people probably wouldn’t have lobster for dinner the night before, so this recipe is designed so you can just go out and buy your lobsters for the soup. The whole process will take two days.
The night before you’ll need:
2 whole large lobsters or 3 medium sized ones. I get mine alive at Oriental Market on Abbey Street.
Water to boil lobsters in.
In a pot large enough to fit the biggest of your lobsters, boil enough water so that the lobster will be fully immersed once you put it in. Bring the water to a rolling boil first, then drop in your lobster. If you are using live lobster, carefully place it into the water and immediately put the lid on and hold it down for a few minutes. Though I have never experienced this in the past some say they thrash around for a few seconds after being placed in the water. If you would prefer to kill your lobster first, the way to do it is to drive a knife through the top of its head – like this. Some will argue that putting a live lobster into boiling water is cruel; everyone is entitled to his/her opinion. Here is a balanced article on the subject.
Back to the method: Your cooking time depends on the size of your lobster. Mine were each about 1.5 lbs, and I cooked each for 15 minutes, one at a time but using the same water. After the cooking is finished, remove the lobsters and place on a baking tray to cool. But SAVE THIS COOKING WATER as it will be the basis for your bisque.
The day of:
After the lobsters are completely cooled, pick out all of the meat – including any “caviar” you find in the middle (it’s green and looks horrible but is really good flavouring for the bisque). Set the lobster meat aside.
Dump the empty shells into a large pot. Cut them up with kitchen shears to fit them in better if you have a lot. This will be cooked with other things, and then strained for the stock.
(To approximate quantities, the following is based on one 1½ pound lobster)
Reserved cooking liquid
Salt & Pepper to taste
Red pepper, dried
To the pot with the lobster shells, add 3 or 4 tablespoons of butter and heat. When the butter is melted and the pot is warm, add 2 or 3 tablespoons of cognac and continue to warm then flame with a match.
When this is done, add to the pot 2 roughly diced shallots, 1 clove of garlic, 1 tablespoon tomato paste, 2 cups of reserved cooking liquid, 1 cup of white wine, ½ teaspoon tarragon, ¼ teaspoon thyme, 1 red pepper (or a couple of shakes of crushed pepper flakes), and 1 or 2 bay leaves. Simmer, stirring occasionally, for half an hour or more, uncovered. Add more cooking liquid and or wine if you feel that what you started with seems to be evaporating too quickly.
Strain through a colander. Every drop of liquid you can get out of this is worth the effort, so really shake the colander before discarding the remaining solids. We’ll call it nectar.
Melt 1½ tablespoon butter and sauté 1½ tablespoons of finely minced shallot in a pot large enough to hold the finished bisque for a couple of minutes, then add 1½ tablespoon flour to make a roux. Dilute this with the nectar and maybe a little milk if necessary. Allow this to cool a little.
Whisk 2 egg yolks in a bowl, then slowly add some of the still very warm nectar roux and continue whisking the mixture. Return this and any remaining nectar to the pot and heat adding a cup or two of milk and tasting the result as the heat rises. Remember, you will finish the bisque with between ¼ cup to 1 cup of cream, possibly more and you want to have enough bisque for each of your guests.
Before you add the cream, but when the bisque is fairly hot, add the lobster meat which you have set aside. Stir. Taste and add salt and pepper at this time. Add whatever amount of cream desired tasting as you go.
This seems to improve by simply keeping it hot for awhile before serving. We use a large Crock Pot so guests can self-serve.
These measurements are approximates, based on a single lobster of a certain size.
The absence of cognac in this dish is more than noticeable! But too much of that good thing will destroy the dish. It is essential to the character of this bisque, but use it sparingly.