December 25, 2014

journey to Bethlehem

Every year we spend the day before Christmas "journeying" to Bethlehem.  I play "Mary," my Farmer plays "Joseph," and the children play our nieces and nephew, travelling in the same caravan en route to our ancestral city of Bethlehem, for the census.

It all started quite simply, about a decade ago when Sugar was a toddler, and we used the figures of our nativity scene to act out the Bible story for her.  As Mary & Joseph made their long trip to Bethlehem, they stopped along the way to eat.  (We "stopped" with them, sharing raisins to ensure Sugar's rapt attention).

Each year it's gotten a little more elaborate, until it has blossomed into an annual theatrical production - at least for mealtimes.

We spread the blanket on the floor and lay out the food in the center.  We sit around the food in a circle, sharing from the common bowls (handmade pottery, or wood, if possible).  Sometimes Joseph (or, more rarely, Mary, who has also been known to fake pregnancy with a pillow) wears a plaid bathrobe to really get into character.  Conveniently, the children all have biblical names and it's only "Mommy" and "Daddy" which are discarded in favor of stage names.

Our "simple peasant" fare has gotten a bit more substantial over the years as the children have gotten larger and hungrier.  From the initial almonds, raisins, and bread, the menu has grown quite a bit.  I offer it here, in case anyone else wants a spark of an idea to ignite their own tradition.

Journey Menus
breakfast:  bread, curds (cottage cheese), dried or preserved fruit, and almonds.

lunch:  fish (tilapia or swai are inexpensive, and are tasty baked simply with a pat of butter), barley loaves, honey yogurt, olives, pistachios and grapes.

supper:  lentil stew, tortillas, plain yogurt, goat cheese [I also made risotto this year, since growing children cannot live on tortillas alone, and not everyone at this house has developed a taste for lentil stew yet.  Let's just call it poetic license, shall we?]

There are many possibilities for substitutions, and our menus vary a bit from year to year.  Dried fruits that could have come from that region of the world include raisins, dates*, and figs.  Fresh fruits include grapes and pomegranates.  Nuts could be almonds, hazelnuts, or pistachios.  Dairy products of all kinds would have been common.  Come up with something else?  I'd love to hear about it!

Christmas Day Feast
Breakfast is supplied in the stockings - granola bars and juice boxes and craisins and such - and lunch is normal fare.  But for our supper we pull out the stops with a Moroccan dish called Lamb Tagine with Dates (adapted from Betty Crocker's New International Cookbook).  We've made this dish with lamb, beef, chicken, and venison, and it's always delicious.  I've followed the directions to the letter, from browning the meat to adding the dates in at the end, and I've thrown it all into a crockpot at the same time, and it's still always a hit.  I think this recipe is one of those rare ones that you just can't mess up.  Here's the all-at-the-same-time version:

Put into a crockpot:

3 lbs meat (lamb, venison, beef, or chicken all work just fine)
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. saffron
2 cups water
1 T honey
1 cup pitted dates*, chopped (don't use your yummy varieties here; deglet noors will do nicely)

Cook on high 4-6 hours, or on low 8-10 hours.  Or whatever.  Crockpots are wonderfully flexible.  This year I put the meat in frozen around 11 a.m. and am hoping it will be done (on high) by 5pm. (I'll let you know if it's not!)

Serve with naan and millet if you're having an energetic year.  If not (like me, this year) then plain rice and a vegetable will do fine.  I have some olives left over from yesterday that I'll put out, and we'll have pomegranates and clementines and dates* (the yummy ones!) for dessert, along with some completely inauthentic Christmas cookies that my industrious children made with my mother one lovely day while I was out.

Merry Christmas, and may God bless us, every one!

* a word on dates:  Your health food store may have medjools (which are a lot tastier than the deglet noor variety usually sold for baking), and other varieties if you're lucky.  Otherwise, is a reliable and cost-effective choice for barhi, jumbo medjool, khadrawy, and halawi varieties.  They also have great customer service and a delightful sense of fun.

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