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How to prepare for a massive Christmas feast (before flying off in a couple days for a wedding in Bangladesh)

  • Published at 05:36 pm October 29th, 2020
Photo: Jason Tuinstra

Layering a showcase fish pie

Several months before virtual cooking sessions on Zoom became the nouveau ordinaire (yes, I asked Google Translate to make “new normal” sound fancy), two massive pots were being stirred 5000 miles apart. The ingredients: a sprinkle of winter cheer, a dash of deadline-related nerves, and whoops-I-accidentally-tipped-in-a-whole-jar of wedding preparations.

In the UK, the wife, the brother and I were deep in preparations for a Christmas lunch party. Or rather, let us call it lunch-slash-dinner because, apparently, when I invite people to lunch, they typically do not feast until dinner-time. Corollary: be wary if I invite you over for dinner. During the holiday season, our availability had been mutually exclusive for years. Having been granted an upcoming opportunity to finally get into each other’s hair last December, we had planned to have some friends, family, and, of course, family-friends over for a dawaat.

Christmas is so commercialized, anyone can celebrate it

Not content with treating our guests to the same old -- but no less delicious (my mum and mum-in-law have spoiled us rotten with their unparalleled curry skills) -- Bangladeshi dishes, we had agreed on a suitably eclectic menu. The culinary journey would start on these fair shores, cross the English Channel, and then somehow abscond to East Asia. Thus had we spent the last couple of days purchasing crispy vegetables, collecting tender lamb, and pondering how best to pronounce niçoise without sounding too ooh-la-la. The night before had us tossing adorable salad potatoes in oil, spices, and salt (you should know which one by now) before roasting to a crisp finish, interiors left creamy. Trimmed lamb brushed shoulders (because that is indeed the body part which supplied the meat) with a Korean entourage of sesame oil, red pepper flakes, puréed pear and onion, and was then sweetened with sugar, salinated with soy. Juicy navel oranges were sliced with nearly-surgeon-like precision into horizontal rounds by my brother (“nearly” because he still had many more months as a medical student at that point), and poached in a syrup spiced with warming cinnamon, intense nutmeg and fragrant star anise: a thematic concession to both dessert and (non-alcoholic) mulled wine.

Everything else would have to be made fresh on the day, so our trio naturally convened at 4AM to plan culinary logistics. This was when my brother realised we were about to commit the most egregious sin of them all: not enough food at an Asian dawaat, measured as the probability of leftovers tending towards nought (workings may be found in the margin). Much chagrined, credentials were placed on the metaphorical table: my annual, ever-changing menu of starters and desserts (a couple of others deal with mains) for around 15 University friends, which was a smidge fewer than the number for this event. My brother’s exasperated rebuttal: Asian dawaat, our Asian. My wife and I looked askance at each other as he was correct. Pressed for a solution, he charted an emergency path to the Southern USA: sweet and smokey nachos to fill our void. Concurrently, my wife left her mum a sheepish message to request the cauliflower gratin we had politely declined the day before. 

With two additional items planned for our menu, we were allowed brief mental respite -- much needed as we had to transition from holiday mode into wedding mode in a few more days. My sister was getting married in Bangladesh, and she and my parents had flown off earlier in the month to start preparing for perhaps just a few more people than our dawaat (or so we were told). Weddings are emotionally-charged times, heightened by immeasurable stress levels and teetering on the edge of one of the most significant changes in one’s life. As innumerable challenges mounted in the old country, some tensions naturally sought asylum here. With a few hours to go before our guests were due and a multilayered fish pie delicately in progress, we ended up exchanging prolonged and heated words over the phone with Bangladesh: debating logistics, changes, and naturally earth-shattering decisions on sartorial colour schemes. Later, these incensed emotions would ebb away, and remind us that we all only get flustered because we care. The wedding would go on to be a gorgeous affair with our entire family coming together for a grand old time, with many a tear shed. And most importantly, the celebratory biriyani was stunning.

Give a person a fish pie, and who needs to teach them how to fish?

Returning for now, a little ruffled, to the fish pie, we ended up in our own micro-squabble (minnow-squabble, more appropriately): how do we indeed layer this dish for maximum deliciousness? A cream sauce was bubbling beautifully in a large pan, helping release the gentle aroma of leeks, bay leaves, peppercorns. Soon to enter the fray were verdant peas and fresh asparagus; our seafood of choice was an indulgent combination of smoked salmon and haddock, sweet cod loin, and plump prawns. As the head and sous chefs of the dish, respectively, my wife and brother demanded the inclusion of mashed potatoes as a topping whereas I preferred a flaky pastry. After a short debate, I conceded my previously mashed spuds (alas, one less side); whipped with melted butter and folded with fresh chives, they would form the foundations of the pie (which was at least allowed its pastry top). If you were wondering why we also had a salad niçoise in the works (typically made with tuna or anchovies) in addition to a fish pie, be pleased to know we changed up the recipe by using poached, grilled chicken instead: ooh-la-la, indeed.

The dawaat itself went beautifully, and it was a genuine pleasure to see people do multiple rounds of the table (no, we did not give them small plates). Afterwards, there was a happy excess of food left over although my wife has not let me forget that the lamb was completely demolished due to my own underestimation, and that our guests were clearly clamouring for it even if they didn’t say so: yes, I probably do find ingredients easier to understand than people.

Ultimately, the very rare moments that us three were able to spend together cooking, squabbling, and worrying are utterly precious to me; and when I thought this wouldn’t happen soon again, a happy consequence of pandemic-induced lockdown was that we could briefly join forces again for a few strange yet halcyon weeks. With everyone segueing into their own paths and challenges again, I want to say to both my siblings and wife: you are my most trusted sous chefs, and damn fine head chefs of your own lives. I look forward to cooking with you, again and again.

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