Photo by Jakob Owens
Christmas is a World-Wide Holiday
Christmas is a holiday that is celebrated in most countries, even some that don’t have a significant Christian population. Although we may think of Christmas as being mainly associated with Europe and the Americas, customs associated with the holiday have spread to most other parts of the world through colonization, missionaries, and mass media. With a holiday this widespread, you can imagine that the foods people eat at Christmas cover an amazing variety! In investigating this, I found certain common threads, as well as lots of diversity.
One of the great things about expanding our culinary horizons is that we can find traditional foods from other parts of the world that work well for our low-carb ways of eating, or can easily be made so. And, of course, we can find new wonderful flavors to add more variety to our own kitchen repertoires. So let’s take a brief tour around the globe, looking for Christmas treasures for the low-carb cook.
Low-Carb Christmas Meats and Fish
In almost every country, meats – particularly poultry and pork – take center stage at Christmas dinner tables. Fish is also frequently seen, especially on Christmas Eve. Here are some examples of foods you can try adding to your Christmas feast:
Roast a Goose – Remember how Ebeneezer Scrooge bought the goose for the Crachett family? Goose is still a traditional main course for Christmas in many parts of Europe. Here is Martha Stewart’s method for roasting a goose, and here is a recipe for Christmas Goose from About.com’s German Food Site.
Or Roast a Duck – Even more common in some parts of the world are ducks on the Christmas table. Here is a recipe for Christmas Duck Curry from the Food India Cook blog. If you want a more standard duck, this video on the New York Times Web site will show you how to roast one.
How About a Chicken Stuffed with…Meat! – Pollo Disossato Farcito is a fancy Italian holiday dish made from chicken (boned — have your butcher do it) and stuffed with salami, cheese, and other yummy things.
Or, of course…
Turkey – I was surprised at how many people around the world have picked up on the North American tradition of eating turkey at holiday time (turkeys are originally from the New World). Most of them are pretty basic roast turkey — all pretty similar. But one species of turkey comes from southern Mexico and Central America, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that Turkey Mole is popular in some spots. Mole sauce is different in different areas of Mexico, and it tends to be complex, with lots of different seeds and spices (and, often, famously, chocolate). I was caught between finding a simplified recipe and one that is more authentic, and I decided to go with this authentic recipe from Rick Bayless. If you skip the bread, it’s quite low in carbs.
Looking for information on roasting a standard turkey? It’s all here, on the About.com Home Cooking site.
Pork – Pork roasts and other pork dishes are also common on Christmas dinner tables. I found a quite few braised pork dishes for Christmas, such as this Portuguese dish, Carne D’ Vinha D’Alhos, which has an adobo-like vinegar base, courtesy of the Family Cookbook Project.
Ham – Christmas hams come with many different preparations, but I’ve got to say, after searching the world, they all have some sort of sweet glaze. However, some of them have marinades or cooking liquids so flavorful that I think the glaze could be easily skipped. For example, this Jamaican Jerk Christmas Ham sounds fabulous. If you want to keep the sweet glaze, you can substitute sugar-free marmalade or sugar-free apricot jam for the regular marmalade.
Or…throw something on the Barbie! In countries south of the equator such as Australia, Argentina, and South Africa, barbequed meats are common Christmas fare. Advantage: it frees the oven up for other dishes, including pie!
From My Family Tradition – French-Canadian Low-Carb Tourtiere
In the 1740’s an ancestor of mine emigrated from France to what is now Quebec. I grew up in Vermont about 5 miles from Canada, in a community that which had many others of French-Canadian descent. This meant that making tourtiere each December was a tradition in our town. Tourtiere is a spiced meat pie eaten on Christmas Eve after Midnight Mass, or on Christmas morning for breakfast.
Although every family’s recipe is a little different, ours was made from ground pork and beef with potato and onions, baked in a pie crust. Once I went low-carb (and I already knew I’m gluten intolerant so a regular crust was out) I ended up making what I call “tourtiere hash”, which has the same meats and spices and substituting celery root (celeriac) for the potato. Here’s the easiest way to make the basic recipe:
Heat a very large skillet or dutch oven, and put in 1 large chopped onion and a chopped celery root (celeriac) with a little oil for five minutes. Add 1 pound each of ground beef and pork, breaking it up with your hands as you put it in. Stir and break up the meat until it is browned. If you want to remove some of the fat, now is the time (depending on the cut of meat there can be a fair amount, making the hash too greasy). Add 1 rounded tablespoon of poultry seasoning such as Bell’s, ¼ teaspoon black pepper, and ⅛ teaspoon cloves, and salt to taste. Cook for a few minutes and taste, adding more seasonings if you like.
Let’s Go to Sweden for Christmas!
Not only is Sweden the world’s forerunner in embracing low-carb high-fat eating, they also have a traditional Christmas Eve buffet spread, called a Julbord, which sounds wonderful (if a bit overwhelming). It is a total feast, but quite low-carb friendly. There are seven types of dishes served in courses, or “plates”, and I’ve found lists of 130 different foods that can be found at these spreads. Needless to say, the whole thing takes several hours to consume. Here are just a few of the dishes, to give you an idea.
- Herring (mostly) – there are tons of different preparations of this fish, including mustard herring, smoked herring, and various baked dishes.
- Salmon and other fish – Various pates, cured fish, soups, and salads made with fish.
- Cold meats – ham, lamb, duck, reindeer, elk, you name it.
- “Little Hot Foods” – meatballs, sausage, cabbage rolls, chicken with bitter orange. Also side dishes like Brussels sprouts and other vegetables.
- Salads – green salads, cabbage salads, and others
- Cheeses and Breads
- Desserts – but who cares at this point? Actually, one of the traditional desserts is a rice pudding. Rice, of course, is high carb (and rice pudding usually even more so, since the rice is often cooked longer, which makes the starch even more quickly turned into glucose in our bodies). But you can make a super-easy low-carb pudding with the same flavors with chia seeds. The texture is closer to tapioca (a bit gooier, as chia seeds have a lot of soluble fiber).
Here’s how you make it: 1 part chia seeds, 2 parts boiling water, 2 parts warmed heavy cream (hot but not boiling), with sweetener, vanilla, and cinnamon to taste. Mix it all together and then mix again every couple of minutes until it’s thick. Done. If you want to go Swedish, put an almond in it. Whoever gets the almond will be the next to marry, according to tradition. If it gets too gooey for you, mix in some whipped cream! Here’s the full recipe on my About.com Web site.
A Quaint Japanese Custom for Christmas Eve
Don’t feel like cooking? You could always do as the Japanese do, and head out for…KFC! I kid you not – at least in some parts of Japan, apparently they reserve their barrels of KFC chicken months in advance! The lines at KFC’s are around the block as people prepare for a “Kentucky Christmas”. What a marketing coup! (I actually am not a big fan of KFC–for one thing, not even their grilled chicken is gluten-free. But I do find this Japanese custom to be pretty hilarious.)
Christmas Leftovers? A Boxing Day Curry from Singapore
In Singapore, Christmas is actually a pretty big holiday for most everyone, with lots of celebrating leading up to the big day, including light displays, shows, caroling, concerts, and parades. One of the traditional foods for some folks is actually eaten on the day after Christmas (Boxing Day) when leftover pork, turkey, etc, are made into a special curry called Deban (sometimes called Devil’s Curry). It turns out that this came from a marriage of Portugese and Malaysian food (Singapore is a major cultural crossroads, partly due to geography, and partly due to the history being a British colony.) The recipes for Deban I found were quite varied, but they had a few things in common: quite a lot of ginger and a lot of chiles. Of course, you can make it as hot or mild as you like, and put whatever vegetables strike your fancy. Here is one recipe, from the Angie’s Kitchen Web site, which has fairly accessible ingredients.
Low-Carb Vegetable Dishes (and a little fruit)
Apparently, there aren’t as many non-starchy vegetable dishes that are strongly associated with Christmastime although I did find a few, and a few more than are common on Christmas tables as well as other times.
Mushroom Soup from Russia – I have found two different Russian mushroom soups associated with Christmas. One is a very simple dried mushroom soup. The other is called “Mushroom Soup with Zaprashka“, which seems to be made either fresh or dried mushrooms. Zapraska is a roux made with flour and oil. Both of these are dairy-free as Christmas Eve has special fasting rules there.
In thinking about this, I came up with a twist, making this into a creamy soup with both dried and fresh mushrooms, and using the dried mushrooms instead of flour to thicken the soup. To make it, grind dried mushrooms in a blender until you have a third of a cup of powder (I used about an ounce of dried porcini mushrooms). Finely chop a pound of fresh mushrooms and a medium onion and saute until soft. Add the dried mushroom powder, a cup of cream, a teaspoon of thyme, and salt and pepper to taste. Stir to combine and bring to a simmer. Then slowly stir water in until it’s the consistency you want. If you like it smoother, blend some or all of it (but don’t do it while it’s hot, as the blender can “explode”). If you leave this slightly thicker, it’s quite good as a sauce with a steak or an omelet. Here’s the full recipe on my Web site.
Brussels Sprouts – This is a vegetable that came up a lot for Christmas dinner, particularly in northern European countries. I think the trick to good Brussels sprouts is not to overcook them, which is all too easy to do. When that happens, you get that sulfur odor and taste that sends everyone within 50 yards running in the other direction. When you have large sprouts, this happens especially easily, because by the time the inside is cooked, the outside is overcooked. So either cut them in quarters, or shred them in the food processor (my favorite) and then you can saute them fairly quickly. Sprinkle in some cooked bacon or pancetta and/or some chopped toasted nuts (pecans, hazelnuts, and walnuts are great), and drizzle a little lemon juice over them — yum!!
Creamed Kale from Denmark – Creamed kale is a popular dish for Christmas and New Year in some of the Scandinavian countries. This Danish recipe for creamed kale is courtesy of the Her Global Kitchen blog.
Thai Jicama Salad – Check out this Christmas salad from Thailand – it’s so fresh and colorful! I love the combination of flavors and textures. You can leave off the pomegranate seeds if you can’t spare the 4 or 5 grams of carb they add to each serving.
Greek Red Pepper Salad – I like to have some red foods on the table at Christmas, as they look so festive. Try this Salata apo piperies from the Greek Tastes blog. (It looks as though there are capers in the photo. Although they aren’t listed in the recipe, I bet they’d be a good addition.)
Avocado Salad from Venezuela – In most South American countries, salads are on the Christmas table, although I couldn’t track down any that are strongly associated only with Christmas. This Avocado and Tomato Salad is typical, though, and has Christmas colors.
Here’s another festive South American Avocado Salad, this one with grapefruit, along with lettuce and pomegranate seeds. These salads are from About.com’s South American Food site.
Italian Orange Salad – If you have room in your carb allotment for an orange, there’s a traditional Italian salad you might want to try, which mixes salty with sweet — can you imagine oranges and olives together? It sounds intriguing to me! Check out this traditional Italian Orange Salad from the Shockingly Delicious Web site.
Sweets are something that in almost every country (except maybe Ethiopia) has strong associations with Christmas. Since most of these foods are made with sugar and flour, they are more difficult to easily translate into versions that are low in carbohydrate. Still, I think that there are some which could be made into low-carb treats. For example, some international Christmas desserts which are similar to some low-carb versions are:
Spice Cake – Several European and Eastern European counties have Christmas cakes which are essentially types of spice cake, such as this low-carb cake made with almond meal.
Rum Balls – Rum balls are popular in Australia around Christmastime as well as the U.S. Here’s my easy low-carb version.
There are other Christmas treats which I think should be able to be made low-carb, but I either haven’t tried yet, or can’t quite nail it. Two examples:
Pavlova – I’ll admit I have not been happy with my attempts to de-carb this lovely dessert from Australia and New Zealand. It’s basically a large meringue with fruit on it, but I’ve had trouble making a sugar-free meringue that holds up to the fruit. Without the sugar, it’s too fragile. Any tips for providing more structure without sugar?
UPDATE ON Low-Carb Pavlova
Sugar-Free Meringues – Martina also has an amazing recipe for Sugar-Free Meringues you will love!
German Hazelnut Cookies – These cookies have no flour, so they should take to de-carbing, I would guess.
On the other hand, there are lots of great North American Christmas (or Christmas-ish) treats that have low-carb versions, such as:
- Low-Carb Pumpkin Pie
- Low-Carb Pumpkin Cheesecake
- Low-Carb Pumpkin Roll with Cream Cheese Filling
- Cranberry Walnut Cookies
- Low-Carb Lemon Bars
- Almond Spice Cookies
With help from our friends around the globe, we can have a happy healthy Christmas season. We can include festive foods, without sending our blood sugar and our weight up. Won’t it be nice to reach the new year without that extra resolution?