Just as Americans celebrate with the traditional Thanksgiving turkey, people in different countries serve their own national dishes at holiday time. Here are a few of the more distinctive ones.
Finnish Rutabaga Casserole (Länttulaatikko)
Due to Finland's far northern location, its growing season is short. But sturdy root vegetables have been cultivated for centuries, and the rutabaga, in particular, is Finland's most ubiquitous and important vegetable. Sari Pylkkänen, head chef at the Permanent Mission of Finland to the United Nations, says that rutabaga casserole is a mainstay of the Christmas table: "All Finns have it for Christmas. It has a sweet taste, and its aroma is essential for a Finnish Christmas. Homemade casseroles are Finnish cuisine at its best — nutritious, easy to prepare, and economical."
2 large rutabagas, about 3 1/2 pounds, scrubbed and peeled
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
3/4 cup dry bread crumbs, plus more for topping
1/3 cup dark corn syrup or molasses
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
Salt, to taste
1. Boil the rutabagas in lightly salted water until soft, 30 to 40 minutes. Drain, keeping the cooking liquid. Mash the rutabagas until smooth.
2. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Generously butter a 2 1/2- to 3-quart casserole or baking dish.
3. Combine the cream, bread crumbs, corn syrup, egg, ginger, pepper, nutmeg, and salt to taste and stir into the rutabagas. Add cooking liquid as needed for a loose, soft consistency.
4. Turn the mixture into the casserole dish. Press a pattern on top with a fork, and sprinkle lightly with bread crumbs. Dot with butter.
5. Bake uncovered until heated through and the top is golden, about 1 hour. Serve hot.
Chef King's Filipino-Style Spit-Roasted Pig (Lechon)
Lechon (Spanish for "spit-roasted pig") is a fiesta item, celebratory but not limited to the holidays, according to Amy Besa, owner of the Purple Yam restaurant in Brooklyn and author of Memories of Philippine Kitchens. During the holidays, though, you're likely to find it on most every table. "It's the centerpiece at family gatherings, equivalent to turkey on Thanksgiving in the United States," says King Phojanakong, chef of Kuma Inn in Manhattan, whose earliest culinary influences came from his Filipino mother. Besa notes that each region in the Philippines has its own way of stuffing and roasting the pig: "People brush it with all kinds of seasonings; a friend brushes his with anise-flavored vodka." Besa's favorite parts to eat? "The crunchy skin, ears, and tail."
Makes 1 whole pig
One 35-pound whole pig, eviscerated and thoroughly cleaned
3 bunches lemongrass, bruised
1 quart tamarind leaves
1 quart garlic cloves, peeled and lightly crushed
3 bunches scallions, trimmed
Salt and ground black pepper
1 quart rice vinegar
6 cups soy sauce
2 cups canola oil
Atchara (pickled jicama, radishes, carrots, papaya, and bell pepper), for serving.
1. Build a fire in a fire pit or large caja china roasting box. Let the coals or wood burn down until covered with white ash.
2. Dry the pig inside and out. Stuff the cavity with the lemongrass, tamarind leaves, garlic, scallions, salt, and pepper. Combine 2 cups of the vinegar and 2 cups of the soy sauce and sprinkle over the stuffing. Sew the cavity shut with cooking twine.
3. Combine 2 cups of the remaining soy sauce and the 2 cups of oil for basting. Combine the remaining vinegar and soy sauce for a dipping sauce.
4. Attach the pig to the roasting spit and truss the feet. Fix the pig firmly so it stays in place.
5. Suspend the spit approximately 2 feet above the coals. Roast the pig for 5 to 6 hours, rotating frequently and basting with the soy sauce – oil mixture. Add hot coals as necessary. Cook until the skin is very crisp and golden and the internal temperature reaches 160°F. (If any parts start to burn before the pig is fully cooked, wrap them firmly in several layers of aluminum foil.)
6. Carefully transfer the pig to a large platter. Guests may help themselves, or you can carve pieces for them. Serve the pig with the dipping sauce and pickled vegetables.
Portuguese Christmas Eve Cod (Bacalhau de Consoada)
Cod — a moist, white, flaky fish — is so adored by the Portuguese that they've invented at least 365 ways to cook it. But dried salt cod, not fresh, is the cod of choice, says David Leite, author of The New Portuguese Table. Originally commercialized by the Basques, this method of preserving cod was adopted by the Portuguese as the answer to the large number of meatless days imposed by the Catholic Church, Leite says. "The tradition is to eat salt cod — Bacalhau de Consoada — after Christmas Eve mass," he adds. "The Portuguese don't like to waste anything. So after the spirits have 'eaten' their share overnight, the leftovers are chopped and sautéed with butter and cream and served as Roupa Velha — literally translated as "old clothes" — for Christmas lunch."
Adapted from Edite Vieira's The Taste of Portugal.
2 pounds salt cod, cut into 6 fillets
For the sauce
1 1/8 cups olive oil
6 garlic cloves, minced
6 teaspoons wine vinegar
12 hard-boiled eggs, sliced in half
1 1/2 pounds potatoes, boiled in their skins and peeled while still hot
1 large head cabbage, cut into 6 pieces and blanched until just tender
1. Rinse the cod under cold running water to remove any surface salt. Place the fish pieces in a large nonreactive pot, cover with water, and refrigerate (covered) for 24 hours, changing the water several times.
2. Pour off the water and refill with enough boiling water to cover the fish by several inches. Cover the pan with a heavy dish towel, and let the cod soak in the hot water for 30 minutes. Test to see if the fish flakes easily; if not, simmer gently until it does. Drain the cod and remove any bits of skin or bone.
3. To make the sauce, bring the oil and garlic to a boil in a small saucepan. Remove from the heat, add the vinegar, and beat well.
4. To serve, place 1 cod fillet, 2 eggs (4 halves), and equal portions of the potato and cabbage on each plate. Drizzle with the sauce.
Note: Look for salt cod in specialty stores or at the online site La Tienda (tienda.com). All these ingredients should be cooked at the last minute, just before serving, so they can be brought to the table at their best.