I remember sitting at my kitchen table on the first day of break several years ago with my sister, mother, and father. The tension in the air was so thick you could have carved it with prongs and a knife. We were not discussing some hooliganism that my sister or I had been a part of, or some serious family crisis (well, that is open to interpretation) but the menu of our Christmas feast.
Every year we had rotating sides, from fried onions and green beans to some strange Jell-O dish with what I believed to be sour cream topping and chunks of fruit suspended in it—neither of which have ever have made my hypothetical “baby’s first Christmas” menu. But just as with classic Christmas songs, such dishes would make our table and take their leave with little notice, less a quiet applause or groan.
However, when it came to the main course, one would have a better chance of quietly hiking into Iran or trolling into North Korean waters. The lines were always drawn along three fronts: turkey, prime rib, or ham. The debate could rage for an hour before, a la Versailles, we would recline either content with the day’s work or left unsatisfied, plotting for great resurgence come next Yuletide.
I myself feel as though each main course has its graces and failings.
Turkey: Turkey has always seemed to be main course of choice during the holiday season. I’m not sure why that is… Though it is certainly the traditional option, it may be the most difficult to cook properly out of the whole bunch. Because poultry has such a high occurrence of E. coli and other bacteria, it is necessary to thoroughly cook a bird to 165*. This creates a high chance of over cooking the turkey and creating an inedible, sawdusty bird that only is good for the Bumpus hounds or mayo-drenched sandwiches the morning after.
To combat this, many have taken to frying whole birds with mixed results. Either you have the most amazing turkey that you or yours have ever had the pleasure of enjoying or a garage fire. The key there is making sure the turkey is fully defrosted. For those of us who don’t have access to industrial fryers, there is always brine and basting. These two techniques ensure that the flavor inherent to the bird is enhanced and retained within the meat. This Thanksgiving, in fact, I experienced a ginger ale brine and baste that was absolutely splendid, leaving the turkey with a jerk seasoned quality. Regardless of your turkey cooking tradition, the key is a level of comfort with the finished product, prior to overcooking it.
Ham: Ham is always a popular choice in our household. Of late our holidays have been dominated by the presence of my little brother Ned, 11, who now holds a trump card on any major family decisions—I guess that’s what my sister Annie and I get for leaving the nest so early. That being said, he has become a rather big fan of “Fred Meyer spiral-cut flame crated ham”, which he recites like diction. While this ham doesn’t challenge the cook’s ability, as do other meats—which is a blessing for both our mother and her guests—it does highlight some of the meat’s qualities.
Ham, like turkey or any other meat, runs the risk of being over cooked. However ham, like poultry, needs to be fully cooked. However most large hams come precooked, only needing to be heated and seasoned to taste. If a good ham has the misfortune of being treated like a raw cut, then the result is an unbearably dry, chewy and unsavory slice of pork. If, on the other hand, the cooking process is used to instill flavor from the seasoning—I opt for brown sugar and cloves—the result is a succulent roast that will provide a great base for a breakfast, brunch, lunch, or dinner.
Prime Rib: I am of the opinion that a properly cooked prime rib is one of God’s gifts to mankind, along with monotheism and fermentation. However, the key phrases here are “properly cooked” and “prime rib”. All meat is not created equal—this is why a filet mignon from Capitol Grill costs more than our beloved steak and side at Lower, regardless of the fact that the price of the poor cardboard adjunct that is the Lower steak is grossly inflated. In this case it is not only the cut of meat used, but also the quality of that meat. In the case of the prime rib, there is rich and even marbling of fat throughout, resulting in the cut of meat being graded as prime. This is why it is important to examine the roast being purchased, lest you are sold a choice cut under false pretense. While you are likely to have been sold a good piece of meat, you probably also have overpaid and will produce a roast that is not as tender as desired.
The second problem concerns proper treatment of the meat. If you have the misfortune of living in a household of passionate omnivores or obstinate vegetarians, you may experience what I call the “hamburger effect”. This is a phenomenon that occurs in millions of homes across the country every holiday season overcautious hosts ruin a perfectly fine prime rib roast by exposing it to high heat for a prolonged period of time in an attempt to “kill” the bacteria that may be lurking in the confines of the roast. This results in well browned, hockey puck-esque slices of roast that even Parker Milner would have a hard time stomaching. However, if cooked properly and seasoned well—I prefer rock salt and rosemary, served with ajus and horseradish—it is probably my favorite feast meal.
Comment below and let The Rock know what you had for Christmas and your feelings on the final product.