Today is epiphany. Time to take down the Christmas decorations, sweep up pine needles and surrender to the inevitable gloom that comes with the realization; the holidays are well and truly over now.
Quite why the arrival of the three wise men shuts the party down, Iâ€™m not sure.
In the nativity show that my cousinsâ€™ children (11 under 10) put on after lunch, the wise men actually brought a lot of energy to proceedings. Each one sang a rousing rendition of a verse of Orient Are while marching through the living room and handed over gifts of gold wrapping paper, a small wooden box, and a coffee tin.
Baby Jesus, portrayed with panache by (confusingly) real live Baby Joseph, sat up, and made a grab for a crown, prompting the wise men to descend on him, happy to play, crinkling up the gold paper and cooing, much to his delight. Jealous, Mary grabbed him back â€œMY BABY!â€ and his real live mother Katie rescued him from the ensuing melee.
For me, and, understand this is not based on any kind of Biblical scholarship whatsoever, the whole three Kings business is wrapped up in a whole Arabian Nights version of romance. Iâ€™m imagining them riding their camels, silhouetted against a midnight blue sky, holding their gold, frankincense and myrrh, trekking over the sand dunes, following the star, and whoosh, there goes Aladdin on his flying carpet. I just canâ€™t help it.
So my annual epiphany party is an any east will do smorgasbord that ranges from Marrakesh to Istanbul, borrowing, as Keats would have it, from silken Samarkand to cedar’d Lebanon as I see fit. This year, much excitement, a chance to use the mezze bowls I brought back from Istanbul for just such an occasion. Hummus, olives, zucchini pancakes, feta cheese wrapped in philo, flatbreads, eggplant dip. And to finish, sliced oranges sprinkled with a few drops of orange blossom water and covered with torn mint. Fig Martinis, Pomegranate margaritas, mint tea. Turkish Delight on the cake stand.
If the holidays have to end, I intend to see them out in style.
Chicken Tagine with Preserved Lemons (serves 6 if you’re having mezze first – though you can add extra chicken portions as needed)
This is my favorite kind of food, as regular readers of this blog, (Mum?) might remember. This tagine comes from Claudia Rodenâ€™s beautiful book Arabesque. I have two copies; one in my kitchen for cooking, and one by my bed for reading. Cannot recommend it highly enough.
This tagine has no business being called a tagine really, since I cook it in a cast iron Dutch oven. Though Iâ€™m led to believe that this is how itâ€™s cooked in Morocco too â€“ braised in large quantities then transferred in portions to decorative pots to be taken to the table. The problem here is that the heart is willing, but the oven way too small to take the tagine that would be needed for 6 – 8 portions.
Preserved lemons can be found in specialist shops, or made by putting 4 clean unwaxed lemons into a jar with 4 tablespoons of sea salt and the juice of 4 more lemons. Seal the jar and leave the lemons for a month in a cool dark place. Before using, rinse the lemons under a tap to de-salt.
In a push, plain old non-preserved lemon rind tastes pretty good to me â€“ but donâ€™t tell Ms Roden than I said so.1 chicken, jointed into 6 pieces (or buy chicken portions, bone in ideally) 3 tbsp olive oil 1 Spanish onion 2 garlic cloves Â½ tsp saffron threads Â½ tsp ground ginger Juice of Â½ lemon 1 preserved lemon 2 tbsp each chopped coriander and parsley (or mint and parsley) 16 purple olives, pitted 300 ml water or chicken stock Salt and pepper Â
- Chop the onion and fry in the oil until golden and soft. Season well
- Add the chicken pieces and brown on each side. Grate in the garlic and add the ginger and saffron
- Cover with about 300ml of water and simmer for 25 minutes on a low heat
- Take out the chicken breasts and continue to simmer for another 20 minutes, then return the breasts to the pan
- Add the lemon juice, the peel from the preserved lemon cut into 1 cm strips, the olives, the parsley and the coriander. Simmer for 5 mins until the sauce is thick â€“ if thereâ€™s too much liquid, take out the chicken and boil to reduce further
Cous Cous with Pomegranates
2 cups cous cous 1 tbsp olive oil 2 cups chicken stock 1 pomegranate 1 tbsp mint leaves 1/2 cup flaked almonds or pine nuts Â
- Pour the cous cous into a dish, bring the stock to a boil and pour over the cous cous. Cover with plastic wrap and leave for ten minutes
- Bash the pomegranate seeds into a bowl by halving it and smacking it with a spoon. Chop the mint. Toast the almonds or pine nuts in a dry pan until just golden
- Once the cous cous is ready, use a fork to fluff it up, then mix in the olive oil. Top with the pomegranate, mint and nuts, and a good grinding of pepper
If You Can Make That You Can Make This