Christmas trimmings

The Christmas sides – stuffings, compotes, chutneys and salads – make the festive table special, says Brigitte Hafner.
Antonia Pesenti

When my parents first came to Australia from the foothills of the German Alps, naturally enough their Christmas traditions came with them. We would light real candles on the European fir tree and eat roast goose, braised red cabbage with speck and apple, and rich potato dumplings to mop up the juices – it took a few years before we conceded that this kind of food just didn’t make sense on a sweltering hot day. So, like many of those who came from afar, we adapted. The goose became turkey, the hot vegetables became salads and seafood took on a starring role.

Planning the Christmas menu is some­thing in which I now take great pleasure.

I mull over it for weeks, consulting with family members, weighing up traditional versus non-traditional ideas, working hard to ensure the entire feast is well balanced.

What I love about an Australian Christmas is that we can choose to follow tradition, but we’re not tied to it – we can bring different flavours and influences to the table. While I like to follow a traditional approach with the roast turkey and the glazed ham, it’s in the flavours and accompaniments that I take the menu down a different path.

I once made a beautiful turkey stuffed with burghul, buttery onions, grated orange zest, allspice, pine nuts and currants. These exotic Middle Eastern flavours are festive and relate so well to the spices and fruits used in traditional European Christmas cooking.

I served the Middle Eastern turkey with an orange, date and mint salad drizzled with a Sherry dressing and jewelled with golden fried almonds. It’s a salad that’s especially good on a hot summer’s day.

You could also use the flavours of South East Asia and serve a ham glazed with pineapple and star anise, say, with a salad of watermelon, coriander, mint, finely sliced Spanish onion and a dressing of fish sauce, lime and palm sugar. The rind of the watermelon can be made into an interesting pickle to go with the ham (see our glazed ham with pickled watermelon rind recipe). A finely sliced cabbage and daikon salad with sesame dressing would also work well.

At the risk of stating the obvious, when you’re planning your Christmas menu, think first about what’s in season, then shop at quality grocers or farmers’ markets to ensure you buy ingredients of the best quality and flavour. If I were going to make a fresh tomato salad, for example, I’d buy organic, heirloom varieties because they simply taste the best.

Asparagus is great at this time of year and it adds a bright splash of colour to the table. It’s lovely boiled and topped with salty French butter, or char-grilled and dressed with extra-virgin olive oil and a great aged-balsamic vinegar. Or, for something a bit different, try asparagus topped with chopped boiled egg and a dressing made with mayonnaise, yoghurt and herbs.

It might just be my genes talking, but I think a good old-fashioned potato salad is a must. My favourite dressing is crème fraîche, white wine vinegar and mayonnaise with crisp bacon, cornichons and parsley. A salad of Nicola potatoes dressed in extra-virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar, sea salt and loads of chopped parsley is also good. The key here is to buy waxy potatoes (if you can’t find Nicola, try kipfler), boil them in their skins, peel and then dress them while they’re still warm, so they better absorb the flavours of the dressing. An abundance of soft herbs such as chervil, chives and tarragon is a must.

An interesting chutney or fruit compote is essential to my Christmas lunch. Roasted and salty meats are great with that dollop of spicy sweetness. Figs with star anise and cinnamon, or prune with apple and walnut, or nectarine chutney with coriander and fennel would all be lovely. For jelly, redcurrant and cranberry are obvious winners, but keep an eye out for medlar or crab-apple – they’re both delicate and beautifully scented. I also like to have a bowl of fruit on offer to cleanse the palate during the day. I’ll buy a bag of the tastiest tree-ripened apricots from my local farmers’ market and simply serve them chilled.

There are some foods, too, like roasted chestnuts, that may not be in season here, but are fun to serve at Christmas regardless when they connect us with memories of childhood. The scents and tastes of foods are the most evocative of memories. For me, baking my mother’s stollen is essential – the combination of those particular spices is everything that spells Christmas for me, so I wouldn’t change a bit of it.

Frohe Weihnachten!

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