December 15, 2007

There’s nothing more delightful than going to the home of a friend or family member who has really pulled out all the stops to provide an old-fashioned Christmas feast. Roast turkey or (better) goose with fresh cranberry sauce, roasted potatoes, festive veggies and plum pudding—all presented on the very best china, with the scent of spiced candles, real pine boughs and a roaring fireplace. All these Victorian English trappings have come to define Christmas celebrations for us, and I wouldn’t have it any other way—so long as someone else is hosting.

Because, face it folks, providing all of the above is a heck of a lot of work. What’s more, if you do it right, chances are you’ll get stuck hosting Christmas every year—filling your home with long-lost family members, unmarried high school friends with hungry eyes, bawling children and sticky pets. Do you really want that kind of “perfect storm” to engulf your overcrowded apartment every December until you finally succumb to Alzheimer’s? (They might keep showing up even then, but at least you won’t mind.)

I’d like to suggest a better way. If family members have been broadly hinting that it’s “someone else’s turn” to host the holiday, I suggest you leap to your feet this year and volunteer. That’ll get you points for being proactive.

But when your guests arrive on Christmas Eve or Day, they’re in for a big surprise. You’ll be serving no turkey, no ham, no stuffing and no eggnog. There won’t be a trace of pine, poinsettia, holly or mistletoe. And no Christmas carols either.

Because, as you will inform them upon arrival, you’ll have decided to host an “authentic Middle Eastern Christmas,” just like they have over in Bethlehem. That means you’ll serve completely unfamiliar Arab and Israeli dishes, play Lebanese, Syrian, and Chaldean liturgical music (order some from; it’s exquisite but alien to Western ears), along with the funky Israeli singer Ofra Haza. Neglect all “holiday” programming in favor of documentaries on the sufferings of Christians in the Holy Land. Put up potted palms around the house, and somberly explain that “this is the real Christmas.” Bone up on the impoverished lives of Christians stuck between two sides on the West Bank, and take up a collection to benefit them. Send what you can to the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land.

Remind any children who get all stoked about their gifts that “Jesus never had Guitar Hero—all he got was some myrrh.” I threw such a celebration in 2005, and my family promised me that very night: “You’re never hosting Christmas again.”


Lebanese Ice Tea with Rose Water and Pine Nuts


Feta Cheese Cigarettes (see recipe)

Green Salad with Yoghurt Dressing

Leg of Lamb with Roast Eggplant and Potatoes

Chicken with Apricots and Raisins

White Beans with Saffron and Parsley

Basmati Rice with Dates and Almonds


Feta Cheese Cigarettes

The sour piquancy of the sumac combined with the spice of feta filling make for a perfect (appetite inducing – saliva, appertif)

Sumac and Za’atar, and Ajvar ( a Balkan pepper mixture) can be found at Middle Eastern markets.

15 Sheets phyllo dough

1/4 cup melted butter

3 Tablespoons sumac

2 Tablespoons Za’atar spice mix

1/2 Pound feta cheese

2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2-3 Tablespoons hot ajvar

Coarse sea salt to taste

Preheat oven to 375. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment.

In a small bowl combine feta, oil and Ajvar. Season to taste.

Working on a clean hard surface lightly brush work area with butter. Lay one sheet of phyllo down and brush lightly with butter. Sprinkle with sumac. Place another sheet of phyllo on top and brush lightly with butter. Sprinkle with sumac. Place a third sheet on top of that and brush with butter. Sprinkle with za’atar.

Using a small spatula spread a thin layer of cheese evenly on phyllo.

Using a sharp knife cut into thirds lengthwise and crosswise. You will have 9 pieces.

Roll each strip into tight cigarettes. Place on a parchment covered baking sheet. Sprinkle with coarse sea salt.

Repeat process until all Phyllo sheets are used.

Chill until firm. May be frozen and covered two days ahead.

Bake 9-11 minutes until golden brown.

Yield 45 pieces.

Adapted from The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Good Living, by John Zmirak, who attends a Melkite (Arab) Catholic Church in Manchester, New Hampshire.


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