Where I come from, Tradition comes with a capital “T”, and maybe with a refrain from Fiddler on the Roof.
I’ve tried tweaking the traditions, especially at Christmas. But Ukrainian Christmas is what it is. Twelve dishes, each of them labour-intensive. The solemnity of a sacred meal that draws unabashedly from Saturnalia, agrarian ritual, and Christianity.
This year, I was too tired for the whole shtick. I’d been working nonstop; there was more work waiting for me after Boxing Day. I momentarily longed for the earthy aromas of buckwheat, cabbage, fish, beets, and the warm unsettling chaos of my blood family, and then just tried to repress.
And this was the year my mother got sick just days before Christmas; this was the year I couldn’t be there. So I sent one of those emails I thought I’d later regret. Instead, the family rallied. My lovely, smart niece Krystyna phoned me on December 21st. She sounded nervous: We didn’t want you to worry. We’re all pitching in. I’m helping Baba make the perogies right now.
Kryssy explained how cabbage rolls had been outsourced to a nephew and niece, Stephan, and Zorya, and their mom Olya. Two other nieces, Sonya and Natalie, were scheduled in for further prep the next day. My brother Taras was in charge of the borscht, and the master “work roster”, created on an Excel spreadsheet, to be posted on my ma’s fridge. It was your threat that did it said my brother Michael. By then I had forgotten what I’d said in the email. You said you’d expose them all on Facebook if they didn’t pitch in this year, he reminded me, chuckling.
I cried after that phonecall. I was relieved of guilt. I was freed up from tradition.
So I made Moroccan Lamb Tagine for the Christmas Eve meal at my lover’s house, with her daughter, son and son’s girlfriend. While the young folk decorated the house as they do each Christmas Eve with a wild assortment of ornaments, I happily sauteed onions, cubed lamb, and chopped the myriad of garnishes: figs, dates, cilantro, mandarin oranges.
Eaten with raisin and almond studded couscous, it was delicious.
To be able to do something different on that memory, ritual laden eve, and enjoy it; for me, it was a first.
Later, I phoned my family as they digested their twelve dishes and opened gifts. I got passed from sibling to niece to nephew. I received a blow-by-blow account of my grand niece opening her gift from me. I told Sonya about the Moroccan food, knowing she’d understand in her funky bohemian way. We. Should. Do. Moroccan. Food. Next. Christmas. Eve. she said. It. Would. Be. A. Lot. Less. Work.
I burst out laughing at the very thought of it.
Moroccan Ukrainian Christmas. Indeed.
Moroccan Lamb Tajine
(serves 6 to 8)
I lifted this recipe whole from the Spring Mill Café website (164 Barren Hill Road, Conshohocken, PA). It was perfect, required no tweaking, though I did throw some of the garnish into the stew before serving.
1/3 cup of olive oil
4 onions, finely chopped
5 lbs. of lamb shoulder, cut into 2 inch pieces
2 lbs. of fresh tomatoes – peeled, seeded and chopped
3 tablespoons of ground cumin
2 tablespoons of turmeric
1 tablespoon of freshly grated ginger
1 pinch of salt
1 bunch of fresh cilantro, finely chopped
1 generous teaspoon of red pepper flakes
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup of chopped, dried apricots
1/2 cup of chopped, dried figs
1/2 cup of chopped, dried dates
1/2 cup of toasted, slivered almonds
1/2 cup of Moroccan black olives
1/2 cup of sliced Mandarin oranges
5 cups of couscous pasta
5 cups of chicken stock
Harrisa (spicy Moroccan red-pepper condiment)
Heat the olive oil in a large earthenware pot at medium temperature; add the onions and the lamb and cook for five (5) minutes. Add the tomatoes, cumin, turmeric, ginger, salt, red pepper flakes and 3/4 of the cilantro. Stir, cover and cook very slowly until the lamb is tender (approximately 45 minutes).
Make couscous according to the instructions on the package, replacing the water with the chicken stock. When the couscous is done, toss with the raisins and almonds.
Serve the tajine on a bed of the couscous; garnish with the apricots, dates, figs, black olives, Mandarin oranges, the remainder of the cilantro and just a dab of the Harrissa on the side.