Thursday, November 09, 2006

An Early Berry Christmas

In little over a month's time, we would be leaving for Sydney. We are to stay in that seaside city for over two months. Guillermo is already speaking enthusiastically of jogging along the beach every morning - the reason for his exercise plan is his anticipation of all the great culinary indulgences that await him there.

Senior members of La Familia have come to terms with our absence during the upcoming festive season. Over the past year, they have finally woken up to the fact that our marriage is a merger, not an acquisition; therefore, they now understand they have to accept that Guillermo and I might like to spend time with my side of the family once in a while.

Having said that, I only wish my parents-in-law wouldn't look as if they had just been to a funeral each time the subject of our Christmas plans is raised. I would have been peeved if not for the mounting evidence of their separation anxiety, bless them.

Sensing my in-laws displeasure (Can you believe it? That's why I have given up on guilt), I suggested to Guillermo that we shall host a festive lunch for the immediate family, all 15 of them, before we leave.

When it comes to entertaining La Familia, my otherwise closeted Type-A personality comes out in its full glory. It is never too early to plan; cutlery, china, glasses, linens, then the perplexing question of "what to feed them?"

Last time we hosted lunch, a lovely three-course Mediterranean affair which took me days to plan, shop and prepare, both sisters-in-law rang the night before to make sure I cook some boiled plain pasta with butter for their kids.

Guillermo and I really don't want to judge them as parents; if they are not interested in introducing a variety of foods to their children, that's not our concern. On the other hand, we are only talking about normal and nutritious food such as mushrooms, roasted pumpkin, fennel, sweet potato and beetroot, baked fish, and chicken.

Besides, is it really socially acceptable these days to specify to your host what food to provide without even knowing what is on offer first? (Dietary needs and allergies are understandable exceptions but not applicable in our case.) It was a private affair, I wasn't running a restaurant.

Before an indignant parent tells me I wouldn't know until I have kids, a few years ago I helped taking care of my then young nephew and niece who tried everything offered to them; at 5 and 8 now, they are great fans of sushi, toro-tuna sashimi, smoked trout and red capsicum (morrón). I've a three year-old cousin who is allowed all types of junk food but his favourite food is carrot, followed closely by green seedless grapes and strawberries.
Our dear friends Miguel and Paula have an agreement with their young daughters – to try every food offered to them at least once; these kids (aged 2 and 4 now) enjoy a wide variety of foods, some of which are "grown-up" in taste such as olives, basil, rosemary, and bitter chocolate. We never had any problem with them whenever they had come for lunch. Kids don't start off rejecting food; bad eating habits are fostered by the parents.

While I have to appease the philistines, I would really like to pull all bells and whistles for our abuelos. Abuelo is a worldly gentleman who truly understands and appreciates good food and wine. The abuelas (Abuela and Abuelita) may not be able to eat much but they love to be fussed over. It is a real pleasure to cook for them.

Deep down I know I don't want to acclimatise to La Familia's practise in entertaining which means serving ham and cheese followed by shop-bought empanadas or media lunas stuffed with chicken. My reasoning? Very simple, if I have to sit around the dining table for over 4 hours, I'd like a hot meal so when playing hostess, I simply cannot bear treating my guests any worse than I'd treat myself.

Life is short; I always plan what I eat backwards by first looking at what is the pudding course. Since finding a new source of fresh berries, I plan on making a refreshing champagne and berries terrine. It is one of the easiest yet stunning last course – baubles of jewel-coloured fruits suspended in a block of festive champagne!

Champagne Terrine of Summer Fruits

425 ml champagne

50 g caster sugar
11 g gelatine leaves, soaked & softened
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
350 g small strawberries
225 g raspberries
350 g combination of blackcurrants, redcurrants, blueberries (any other combination you like)

You will also need 2 x 900 g loaf tins, each 19 x 12 cm x 9 cm deep, preferably non-stick but anyway with a good surface.

First prepare the fruit: remove the stalks and halve the strawberries if they are any larger than a quail's egg. Then mix the fruits together in a large bowl, being very gentle so as to avoid bruising them.

In a small saucepan heat half the champagne till it begins to simmer, then whisk the sugar and gelatine into it. Make sure that everything has dissolved completely before adding the remaining wine and the lime juice. Then pour the liquid, through a fine sieve, into a jug and allow it to cool.

While that's happening, lay the mixed fruit in one of the loaf tins – and it's worth arranging the bottom layer with the smallest, prettiest-shaped fruit as this will be on top when the terrine is turned out.

Next, pour all but 150 ml of the liquid over the fruit. Now lay a sheet of clingfilm over the tin, place the other tin directly on top, then put two unopened tins of tomatoes or something similar to act as weights into the top tin and put the whole lot into the fridge for about 1 hour, or until it has set.

Then warm up the remaining 150 ml wine mixture and pour it over the surface of the terrine. Re-cover with clingfilm and return to the fridge overnight to set firm.

When you are ready to serve, turn out the terrine by dipping the tin very briefly in hot water and inverting it on to a plate. Use a very sharp knife (also dipped first into hot water) to cut it into slices. Serve with chilled pouring cream or crème fraîche.

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