December brings many celebrations including Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and the Dongzhi Festival (Asian). But my favorite is the lesser-known winter solstice. This day marks the shortest day (and longest night) of the year, falling on December 21 (in 2012). It has been celebrated for thousands of years by most cultures, dating back to and including Neolithic people (Stonehenge), the Romans’ Saturnalia, the Incas’ Inti Raymi, the Zuni and Hopi tribes’ Soyal, and northern Europe’s midwinter Yule festivals. Vestiges remain today in the greenery, lights, candles, and feasting present in many December traditions.
For my family, our winter solstice celebrations started some 20 years ago: we began inviting friends over for a drink and to bang pots and pans at sunset to remind the sun to return the next day and shine a little longer. Soon, we started hosting a dinner after the sunset fanfare, a kind of alternative holiday party for whoever could fit around our table. Ten years later, the dinner had morphed into a gourmet winter solstice feast thanks to the cooking forte of my close friend Cathryn.
The Roast Goose
Soon we will sit down to a meal that surpasses even our much-beloved Thanksgiving repast in preparation time and variety of dishes. The centerpiece is the roast goose, stuffed with figs and apricots, which fills our home with an irresistible aroma, and its accompanying potatoes (roasted in goose fat), which are truly to die for, even though I would normally run away from the calories.
Roast goose, a Christmas staple in Old England, is still popular in Northern Europe today. In the United States, goose abdicated its reigning position at the holiday table in the face of American turkeys bred for unnaturally huge breasts. Centering a meal on a goose means more emphasis on appetizers and side dishes, since even the biggest goose cannot satiate the hunger of a large dinner party crowd. The meat is rich and flavorful, but not gamy, so eating a smaller portion with more accompaniments works well. And you won’t have to worry about leftovers!
Should you choose to try cooking a goose, ask your local butcher several weeks before you plan to serve it. Goose is considered a specialty item, and will likely need to be ordered in advance. Sweet, fruity flavors go well with the meat, so consider serving chutney or fruit compote on the side. Stuffing the goose with dried fruits provides a perfect accompaniment.
One of our favorite side dishes, full of winter harvest flavors, is roasted brussels sprouts with walnuts. Often steamed or boiled, roasting the little cabbage-like buds allows the bottoms to caramelize, which contrasts beautifully with the crunchy walnuts. It is a dish that works well with goose and any of the traditional main dishes at holiday celebrations, including turkeys, hams, and roast beef. It is also very easy to make, another plus, and is hard to overcook.
And on the solstice don’t forget to ask the sun to return and shine longer—it is time for the days to start getting longer!
Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Walnuts
Courtesy of Rebecca Taggart
brussels sprouts, preferably fresh on the stalk
Large salt crystals
Herbes de Provence
- Preheat oven to 375ºF.
- Remove sprouts from stalk, wash, then trim the stems and remove any wilted outer leaves.
- Cut each sprout in half, and place in a heavy baking dish.
- Drizzle just enough olive oil over the halved sprouts so that they are lightly coated when mixed with a spoon. Place each half-sprout face down in the baking dish in a single layer. You may need two baking dishes.
- Sprinkle with herbes de Provence, salt, and lemon pepper.
- Add walnuts to fill some of the space available on the bottom of the pan.
- Cover with aluminum foil and place in oven for 30 minutes.
- Check whether the face-down sides of the sprouts are browned. If not, place back in oven for 15 more minutes, or until undersides are browned.
Cook’s note: This dish can be made before the meal and reheated just before serving. It is also good served at room temperature.
Winter Solstice Goose
Recipe courtesy Cathryn Domrose
Dried apricots, prunes, figs (sufficient to stuff goose cavity, plus for 1 skewer per person; generally not more than 1/2 cup per person)
1 yellow onion, peeled and chopped
Butter, 1 stick, softened to room temperature
3 tablespoons peppercorns
2 teaspoons allspice
3–4 shallots, finely chopped
¼– ½ cup demi-glace (or reduced chicken stock)
Cognac or Armagnac (about 1 ounce)
Apricot jam, 1 heaping tablespoon
- Poach dried fruit—apricots, prunes, figs—for 20 minutes in water.
- Preheat oven to 450°F.
- Mix softened stick of butter with whole peppercorns and allspice until blended. Set aside.
- Clean goose, pluck any remaining pinfeathers, and remove any excess fat. Set on roasting tray.
- Rub carcass with soft butter mixed with peppercorns and allspice.
- Drain the dried fruit, then stuff the goose cavity with half the fruit and the chopped onion.
- Use cooking twine to tie the legs together and to sew closed the neck cavity.
- Thread the remaining fruit on the wooden skewers and set aside.
- Roast goose for 30 minutes, then baste it with rendered fat, and lower the temperature to 350 °F. Baste it every half hour and cook until meat thermometer reads 165 °F at innermost thigh.
- During last hour of cooking, tuck fruit skewers under the wings.
- While goose is cooking, finely chop the shallots for the gravy.
- When done, remove to carving board and cover loosely with foil. Pour off and reserve fat for roasting potatoes.
- Remove fruit from the goose cavity and the skewers and place in a serving bowl.
- Goose should rest at least half an hour before carving. If it gets cold, put it in a 450-degree oven for a few minutes to re-crisp the skin.
- Serve with gravy and cooked fruit.
- Add minced shallots to drippings pan and clarify with splash of Armagnac or cognac.
- Cook off the alcohol and add demi-glace (can be purchased from gourmet stores), or substitute with a reduced chicken stock, and a heaping tablespoon of apricot jam.
- Cook on low flame, stirring regularly, until slightly thick and then strain.
Potatoes (smallish—about size of a woman’s fist)
Rendered goose fat
- Preheat oven to 350°F.
- Wash and peel the potatoes.
- Toss potatoes with goose fat and spread out on baking pan or tray.
- Sprinkle with salt.
- Roast until browned, turning potatoes every 20 minutes or so.
- Remove and serve hot.