A menu for a holiday meal inspired by a New Orleans Réveillon:

Sazerac cocktails
Appetizer of lobster salad with a lemon balm and tomato dressing
Adair Burlingham’s chicken and ham gumbo, or a vegetarian gumbo z’erb
Roast turkey or a Turducken
Biscuits
King cake or bread pudding with whiskey sauce
Café Brulot or coffee with chicory

I’ll post the first few recipes this week and the others next week.

A few months ago I started thinking about what would make for an environmentally sound holiday dinner. I wanted to create a menu that was festive and satisfying but not excessive or wasteful.

In Italy it’s traditional to serve a wide variety of fish dishes on Christmas Eve (sometimes up to 13!), and I toyed with the idea of asking local chefs for recipes featuring fish on the “okay to eat” list. After some contemplation I decided it might be better to feature only one or two fish dishes, given the current state of the oceans. But which fish to feature?

Around the same time I started investigating the Christmas Eve dinner traditionally served after arriving home from midnight mass in France, called Réveillon. Unsurprisingly, it is also celebrated in parts of Canada and in New Orleans. (The word “Cajun” is a corruption of the word “Arcadian.” Arcadia was the name of the part of Canada that French-speaking people left when they got booted out by the British during The Great Expulsion of 1755. They went to the closest French-held area: New Orleans.)

I decided to prepare a menu inspired by classic New Orleans dishes. I also spoke with Jacky Robert, chef at Boston’s Petit Robert Bistro, who told me that in France the Réveillon menu is similar to what we eat here on Thanksgiving; it often includes a roast turkey. So I decided to include a roast turkey or — a Cajun specialty — a turducken, which is a turkey stuffed with a duck which is in turn stuffed with chicken. The fowl are all boned (which, in an odd twist of language, is to say that bones have been removed) and there is usually some stuffing that includes andouille sausage or Tasso ham. You can now order turducken for the holiday at many supermarkets, as well as online. I had some for the first time this past Thanksgiving and it was delicious.

New Orleans is known for its many dishes featuring shellfish, and many shellfish are on the “okay to eat” list. I wanted the latest update, so I called the New England Aquarium just to be sure my information was current.

(Here I would like to take a moment to thank whoever added “to hear a penguin, press 6” to the aquarium’s phone menu. Even though I didn’t actually have time to hear a penguin — remember that old saying, “When you’re too busy to hear a penguin, you’re too busy”? — it still made my day to know I could.)

Here’s what they said about lobster:

American lobster: American (aka Maine) lobsters (as distinguished from spiny lobsters) from the Gulf of Maine & Georges Bank are not overfished. (Lobsters from those fishing areas are usually landed in ME, NH, MA.) American lobsters from Southern New England (basically south of Cape Cod & Long Island Sound) are overfished and should be avoided. It is important to ask where the lobster you want to purchase is from!

Farmed oysters and clams are widely available and are generally considered environmentally responsible options. For more info on clams, go to our Fish of the Month page.

Since I live in New England, this was good news! Also, December is a good month for eating American lobsters, in terms of their molting cycle. (The best season for eating American lobsters is March through December or January.) I decided I would start my dinner with small appetizer-sized portions of lobster salad. You need half of a lobster weighing about 1.5 pounds for an appetizer-sized portion — i.e., enough to allow one claw and half the tail meat per person. So that’s one lobster per two people.

Here’s what you need to prepare lobster at home:

  • a decent amount of counter space on which to work
  • plastic garbage bags
  • paper towels
  • old newspaper
  • a stockpot with a lid
  • a big bowl for waste
  • a big bowl for the lobster meat
  • a strong knife
  • a strong pair of kitchen scissors, like poultry scissors
  • a pliers or lobster shell cracking device (good holiday gift!)
  • a chopstick
  • a potholder
  • a heatproof glove or potholder for taking the lobsters out of the hot water
  • a rolling pin
  • plastic wrap

Start this process about two hours before you want to serve the salad.

I’ve always boiled lobsters. I never bake or grill them — it ruins the texture and delicate flavor of the meat. If I had more lobster than I knew what to do with, I would probably bake it into a stuffing now and then, but that’s a problem I can honestly say I’ve never had, however much I’d like to.

Prepare the kitchen for this simple but messy multi-step process. It’s important to do this before you put the lobsters in the pot, because you want everything to be ready when they come out — and they don’t cook for very long, so don’t be caught unprepared!

First, put on some clothes you don’t mind getting messy. Place a plastic garbage bag on the table or counter, add about an inch-thick layer of old newspaper to absorb all the water, and then cover the newspaper with several layers of paper towel so the food doesn’t touch the newspaper. Put a big cutting board down on top of all of this and get out a strong kitchen knife and a pair of pliers or a lobster cracking device. (There are several kinds available and they would make a nice holiday present!) Have a big bowl for lobster meat ready and another big bowl for waste. You might want to put a few paper towels on the floor in anticipation of having to soak up any liquid that spills. In short, your kitchen will look like it belongs to someone completely insane, or possibly the artist Christo, for an hour or so.

Fill a stockpot with water, add a teaspoon or two of salt, cover it with a lid, and bring it to a rolling boil. Put two lobsters in the pot — no more — and cook them for about 15 minutes. You do not need to cover the pot while they’re cooking.

Once the lobsters are done, take them out of the pot, and snip off the tips of the shells on their claws while you hold them upside down. Water will come rushing out, so hold them over the sink or a waste bowl. (Don’t get a steam burn by doing this over the stockpot.) Place a lobster on the cutting board and break off the two claws and knuckles. Crack the claws open using the pliers or lobster crackers and take out the meat. Strong kitchen scissors can sometimes cut through the shell. Take the meat out and place it in the bowl of lobster meat for the salad. Push the meat out of the knuckles with your fingers or a chopstick, or cut the knuckles open with the scissors.

Next you can squeeze all the meat out of the little legs by snipping off one end of the leg and rolling the meat out with a rolling pin. Wrap your rolling pin in plastic wrap to avoid a vague lobster flavor in your sugar cookies later on. You don’t ever want to hear, “I don’t know why, but your sugar cookies always make me think of the sea.”

Now break off the tail by grabbing it with one hand and the rest of the lobster with the other and twisting. Crack open the shell surrounding the tail using the knife or your hands. Tear out the the tail meat. Place the tail on the cutting board and slice crosswise into four or six slices. Repeat this process for all the lobsters that you are cooking. Put the meat into a bowl.

Some people eat the parts of the lobster called the coral (this is the lobster roe — it turns pink when cooked) and the tamale (the liver, which is green), but I have read the tamale can contain high levels of PCBs if the lobster has been living in contaminated water, and women of childbearing age are urged to avoid it. (Which, as far as I am concerned, means everyone should avoid it.) Still, there are people who consider it a delicacy and who will happily ingest it.

Sometimes the lobster eggs are black. This is a stage of egg development called “berrying” (because the eggs look like blackberries), and my understanding is that if a lobsterman can tell a lobster is berrying he is supposed to put her back so she can lay her eggs. Only once in my life have I come across a lobster that was berrying.

Let the lobster meat cool off enough to put it in the fridge, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and then let it chill for about an hour.


Tomato-Lemon Balm Dressing
(Makes enough to dress two lobsters)

If I lived in a place where I could get fresh lemon balm and ripe tomatoes at this time of year, I would make this dressing. If I couldn’t get these ingredients, I would just make a regular lobster salad with mayo, a squeeze of lemon juice, and diced celery. Lobster is so good that a simple, uncluttered presentation really emphasizes its sweet, subtle flavor.

1 cup mayonnaise
enough fresh lemon balm to yield one tablespoon of leaves cut into thin strips
1/2 of a ripe tomato

  1. In a bowl, mix a cup of mayonnaise with one tablespoon of lemon balm that’s been sliced into thin strips (this is called a chiffonade).
  2. Press 1/2 of a ripe tomato through a sieve into a small bowl. Take two tablespoons of the tomato essence and add them to the mayo and lemon balm. Play with the dressing a bit, decide if it needs more tomato or lemon balm, and add it if you think it does.
  3. Let it sit for about ten minutes before using it.

This makes a little over one cup of dressing, enough to dress two lobsters. Start by adding a little bit at a time, so if you decide you don’t need to use all of it you don’t have to.

Lobster Salad with tomato-lemon balm dressing
(Serves four)

2 lobsters of about 1.5 pounds each
1 cup of tomato-lemon balm dressing (recipe above)
two stalks celery, strings pulled off and finely minced
1 seedless English cucumber, peeled and sliced into half-moons
Lettuce with soft leaves, like Boston lettuce or butter lettuce
A few not-quite-ripe strawberries (optional, if you live in a place where they grow in the winter)

  1. About fifteen minutes before serving, take the chilled lobster meat out of the fridge and combine it with the celery and dressing.
  2. Wash and dry the lettuce. Place a few leaves on each salad plate to create a bed for the salad. Lay a quarter of the cucumber slices on the lettuce on each plate, and mound half of the lobster salad on each plate.
  3. If you live where you can get just barely unripe strawberries, rinse, hull, and quarter them and spread a few pieces on the edges of each plate. This will only work with unripe berries (pink and firm but not quite soft and red), because the sweet flavor and soft texture of ripe berries will not go well. It’s the firmer texture and delicate, almost cucumber-like flavor of the not quite ripe berries that makes a good match for this salad.

Adair Burlingham’s Chicken and Ham Gumbo
(Serves four)

My friend Adair Burlingham died this summer and she will be sorely missed. She was at various times a chef, a cabdriver, and a teacher, and always a good friend to all as well as the beloved wife of Charlie Burlingham and mother and grandmother to a large family. Adair grew up in New Orleans and many of her dishes reflected that fact. I have had her grits and shrimp, her jambalaya, and many other wonderful concoctions. She was the chef at the Peasant Stock restaurant in Cambridge for many years and was infamous for never writing down her recipes.

After she died, I googled her name to find her obituary (probably the only obituary ever to mention Tabasco sauce …) and what should appear but her recipe for Chicken and Ham Gumbo! It was a last, loving gift to her friends. My friend Mary Lou and I included the recipe in a little booklet we printed up for Adair’s memorial service. Everyone exclaimed, “But Adair never wrote anything down!” Well, she did once! Here it is, reprinted with permission from her husband.

There is also a tradition in New Orleans of making meatless gumbos for lent, and these are called Gumbo Z’erb, a contraction of Gumbo des Herbes, a gumbo made of herbs. I want to try to make a new-fangled one featuring arugula, but I haven’t had time this week. However, any good vegetarian soup would be appropriate at this meal.

There are three key elements that mark a soup as a gumbo: roux, file powder, and okra.

A roux is made from oil and flour (or lard and flour) cooked until deep brown. This thickens the soup and adds depth to the flavor. Most people cook this slowly, but I recently heard that a few people cook it quickly on high heat and just stir it and watch it like a hawk.

Filé powder is made from ground sassafras leaves and is also used to thicken the soup. You can order it on the internet if it isn’t locally available. This is an ingredient used in classic gumbos, but few people use it any more.

Okra is a mucilaginous vegetable (i.e., it has a sort of sticky juice) that also thickens the soup. Once you cook it, the stickiness thickens the broth but the okra itself loses the sticky quality. Adair’s gumbo doesn’t call for okra, but it does have a roux.

2 cups long-grain white rice
4 tablespoons corn oil
4 tablespoons flour
1 green pepper, cored, seeded, and chopped
1 red onion, chopped
3 leeks, rinsed well and chopped
1 tablespoon thyme
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 shallot, finely chopped
1/4 pound thick ham slice, cut into matchsticks
1/4 pound skinless, boneless chicken breast, cut into matchsticks
1 quart chicken stock
2/3 cup white wine
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/2 cup scallions, finely chopped
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley

  1. Cook the rice in plenty of boiling salted water for 15 minutes. Drain, rinse with cold water, and set aside.
  2. In a heavy-bottom frying pan, slowly cook the oil and flour, stirring often, until they are browned but not burned. It will take about 30 minutes for the roux to turn dark.
  3. Add the green pepper, onion, leeks, garlic, thyme, and shallot. Stir just to combine them and cook for 7 minutes.
  4. Add ham and chicken. Stir another 4 minutes.
  5. Slowly add the stock, wine, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil, lower heat, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through.
  6. Remove from heat and stir in the scallions and parsley.
  7. Mold a teacup of rice in each soup bowl and spoon some of the gumbo over the rice. Serve at once.

(To be continued next week …)