So we’ve come to the big day! For some, it’s the most anticipated day of the year, whether it be for religious reasons when they really celebrate the birth of the Lord, or just that climax you feel after the long build-up.
And let’s face it, the build-up is really the joy of Christmas – the shopping, the cleaning, the preparing and the Christmas carols that no matter how old they are, they always seem new when they are heard at Christmas. After that day, it is all over, the feeling is gone, and we prepare for the next big event which is New Year’s Eve.
Christmas Day remains very important for most of us; for some, after midnight mass and maybe the traditional early morning visit to Queen’s Park, it is time to head home for the highlight of the day, the feast, which can start from breakfast and continue late into the evening. Breakfast is usually a departure from the normal bacon and eggs or fish cakes and bakes. Never on Christmas morning!
It is time for our first heaping helping of that perfectly baked ham, which tantalized our sense of smell all night with its hypnotizing aroma, and which usually goes with some freshly-baked salt-bread. Also comprising the Christmas breakfast are more than a few slices of cake, either plain, rainbow or fruit, a piece of coconut bread and we definitely can’t forget a slice of Christmas rum cake, which too, had its own aroma permeating the air.
This was all accompanied by that specially made cup of tea, coffee or cocoa, which sometimes would be imbibed with quite a few drops of that special liqueur bought for that special occasion.
This bring us to late afternoon or early evening, when we would gather for the feast. It is this elaborate feast on which I want to focus my attention. In these days of highly questionable food products and preparation, great care and attention must be paid to our food safety.
A greater knowledge of bacteria, contamination and cross-contamination must be had because it appears as though modern day foods tend to perish much faster than the foods of days gone by. Take, for instance, that ham which years ago could have been cooked and held in the larder for days, as it dwindled down to the bone. It was then combined with liquid, some root vegetables of choice, lots of fresh herbs and simmered into the most delicious soup, and all was well with mind and body.
These days, ham tends to be much less durable and requires refrigeration only a few hours after it has been cooked. It is now a health risk to leave ham standing unrefrigerated overnight for fear of rapid bacteria growth. This is only one of the food items that can present a health risk if left unattended.
Let’s also look at another Christmas favourite, Jug Jug. For all its tasty, uniquely flavorful character, it can be equally as deadly if left unattended and at the incorrect temperature for too long a period. The components that make for an excellent Jug Jug are the same components that are highly perishable and can cause food poisoning in a very short time – items such as pork, ham, turkey and all the drippings remaining after baking these items.
Another trend that I have seen creeping into our Christmas tradition is the ordering and delivering of the Christmas meal on Christmas Eve, to be reheated and served on Christmas Day. This is unfortunately a part of our culinary evolution due to our modern day lifestyles and will likely only increase in popularity. So, if we are going to be forced to live with it, we need to make sure that we have our safety measures in place which must accompany such a trend.
These will include knowing the conditions under which our meal has been prepared, as well as knowledge of temperatures for transporting, holding and re-heating, for these will be very important in keeping away bacteria which can cause harm to your family and guests. This is reason enough to include a new piece of equipment in your kitchen collection – a thermometer. Learn and understand it well, for using this piece of equipment is the only sure way to tell if your food is in the safe temperature zone or if it should be thrown out immediately.
This is by no means meant to put a damper on your family-service type dining on Christmas Day, but is merely to make you aware of the sometimes unnoticed dangers that lurk and are only waiting to join the party at Christmas time. This food is being delivered for holding and therefore should NOT arrive hot. It should also remain out of the danger zone, which means it should arrive at 41° F or lower; the danger zone being between 135° F and 141° F.
It should immediately be refrigerated and held at that temperature until it is time to prepare for service, at which time it should be reheated to a temperature of over 135°F. Once reheated, the four (4)-hour rule should apply, meaning it should not be held at this temperature for more than four (4) hours before it is consumed.
Another way to ensure that your food remains safe is to use approved warming equipment such as chafing pans, which are heated by fuel. This would ensure that your hot meal remains at the correct temperature and therefore free from harmful bacteria.
It is also important to remember that cold, perishable items should remain cold; this means serving your salads and serving some desserts on a bed of ice or keeping them refrigerated until it is time for service. Return any left-overs to the refrigerator as soon as possible. This also goes for one of those favourite home-made Christmas beverages – the most popular, Eggnog.
We’ll look further at the safe way of serving food next week, when we will talk about the proper preparation and use of left-overs. So, until then, here’s wishing you a Merry Christmas and do safely enjoy all that you consume over
this Christmas season.
(Peter Edey is a Certified Executive Chef with the American Culinary Federation, a graduate of l’École Ritz Escoffier, Paris and a Certified Caribbean Hospitality Trainer [email protected])