Create a Christmas dinner that's fit for Charles Dickens

December 23, 2011
“'There never was such a goose," Bob said. BY JACK CLEMONS

Goose has been served for centuries as part of a celebratory meal, so we thought it was time to try one. Europeans have been eating goose since the Middle Ages, and it remains a holiday tradition in many countries. Looking ahead to our holiday dinner, we decided to recreate the menu Charles Dickens described in "A Christmas Carol," with a roast goose at the center of the feast.

Finding a goose was easy - Hickman’s had already stocked its seasonal supply of fresh, free-range birds. Unlike the wonderful “size and cheapness” of the Cratchits' goose, this one was about eight pounds and not at all inexpensive. When buying a goose, smaller is better; choosing one between eight and 12 pounds will avoid the disappointing results from an older, tougher bird.

Although I had researched the best way to cook the goose and knew about the fat, I wasn’t at all prepared for the volume I encountered. The meat itself is quite lean, but it’s protected by an enormous amount of fat. Between the skin and the flesh is a white layer almost a quarter-inch thick, and the cavity is home to several fat pods. You’ll want to remove the blobs and then give the subcutaneous fat a chance to escape by pricking the entire surface of the skin with a skewer or fork, especially under the wings.

Another step in the preparation that will help release the fat is to scald the goose a day or two before you roast it. After the goose is plunged into boiling water, it’s drained and refrigerated on a rack to allow the skin to dry and shrink. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn this until after our goose had already been cooked.

Some people prefer to stuff the goose with flavoring ingredients rather than a traditional stuffing. One technique is to fill the cavity with sauerkraut, a sharp contrast to the rich goose flavor. We tucked apple and orange quarters in the cavity, along with a generous shake of salt and pepper. The Cratchits served stuffing made from sage and onion, while the combination of fruit and chestnuts is another common variation.

The cooking process is not as straightforward as throwing a turkey or chicken into the oven and ignoring it until the pop-up timer emerges. Because of all the fat the goose will release, it needs to be turned several times as it roasts; I felt a bit like a human rotisserie.

Begin by placing the goose breast-side down on a rack in the roasting pan for about half an hour. After siphoning off the first round of accumulated fat, turn the goose on its side in the pan and return it to the oven. The process is repeated for the other side and then breast-side up during the final minutes in the oven.

By the time the goose was browned to a beautiful hue, I had collected close to a quart of fat from the pan. What to do with it? To many this is considered culinary gold – ideal for sautéeing vegetables, especially potatoes. I’d rendered the fat from the pods and had about a cup in the refrigerator for some future project; only after I’d discarded the fat that dripped into the pan did I realize I should have saved it as well (my doctor is probably grateful for this turn of events).

Carving the goose was another adventure, as the very tight leg and wing joints are closer to the back, making them difficult to reach and separate. The final surprise was how little meat we carved from the breast. We were relieved a schedule conflict prevented our neighbors from sharing the meal; there would have been barely enough food.

All of the meat on a goose is dark, including the breast meat. We expected a certain gaminess and were surprised by the strong, meaty flavor, closer to roast beef than poultry. To round out the menu, we served baked white sweet potatoes and sausage-chestnut stuffing. After reading the calorie count, we elected not to follow the storied meal to the letter and skipped the boiled pudding. However, now that we’ve roasted a goose like the Cratchit family, I think we’ll follow Scrooge’s strategy from the final chapter and go find a prize turkey.

Roasted Goose
1 goose, about 8 lbs
1 quartered onion
thyme sprigs
parsley sprigs
salt & pepper
2 quartered apples
boiling water
1/2 C red wine

For gravy: Remove giblets and neck from cavity; place in a large saucepan. Trim off wing tips and add to saucepan. Cover with water and add quartered onion, thyme, parsley and peppercorns. Bring to a boil and simmer for about 2 hours. Strain and keep refrigerated until ready to use.

For goose: Preheat oven to 425 F. Remove loose fat pods and reserve for rendering (if desired). Rinse goose and pat dry. Sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper, inside and out. Fill with bread stuffing (if using) or apples. Secure the legs and close the vent with skewers. Prick the skin all over without piercing flesh and set the goose on a rack in a roasting pan, breast side down.

During the entire time the goose is roasting, baste every 15 minutes with 3 T boiling water and regularly remove accumulated fat from the pan with a bulb baster. Roast at 425 F for 15 minutes, then reduce temperature to 350 F and continue roasting for 30 minutes. Turn goose on its side and roast for 30 minutes; turn to other side to roast another 30 minutes. Arrange goose breast side up and roast until done, about 45 minutes. The meat is ready when the drumsticks move slightly and juices run pale yellow. Allow the goose to rest on a platter in the turned-off oven with the door ajar while you complete the gravy. Remove remaining fat in pan without losing browned bits and pan juices. Add 2 C of strained stock and 1/2 C wine to roasting pan. Bring to a boil while whisking vigorously to dissolve browned bits. Continue to simmer until reduced and slightly thickened.

Apple Chestnut Stuffing
12 C stale cornbread, crumbled
2 T chopped fresh thyme
2 T chopped fresh sage
1 t salt
1/2 t pepper
1 lb bulk sausage
4 T unsalted butter
2 chopped onions
2 apples, peeled, cored and chopped
3/4 C chopped celery
1 C chopped chestnuts
1 1/2 C chicken broth

Preheat oven to 350F. Coat the inside of a shallow 3-quart baking dish with nonstick cooking spray. Combine cornbread, thyme, sage, salt and pepper in a large mixing bowl. Brown sausage in a large nonstick skillet, breaking into chunks with a wooden spoon; cook until no longer pink. Remove sausage from pan with a slotted spoon and add to corn bread. Pour off any fat remaining in skillet and melt 2 T butter over medium heat. Add onions and sauté until softened. Add another 2 T butter, apples and celery. Cook until apples are golden, about 12 minutes. Add mixture to cornbread along with chestnuts. Pour in broth and stir gently until combined. Transfer dressing to prepared pan, cover with foil and bake for 40 minutes. Remove foil and continue baking until toasted, about 20 minutes.

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