My youngest son recently asked if we had any Christmas Eve food traditions.
I was taken aback for a moment as, in my mind, our night before the holiday is steeped in ritual. I think of it as reliable and steadfast, a familiar, whispered preface to the revelry of the next morning. Yet, in cataloging the eve dinners he's known – a stupendous lasagna, braised short ribs more than once, a marmalade-and-beer-bathed lamb leg another year, aromatic brown chicken stew with lardons, a husky pork chile verde – I realize the consistency was not in the food itself, but the type. Our Christmas Eve is built upon a routine of ease and essential fidelity to one-pot, or one-pan, wonders (oftentimes those which allow for, and benefit from, advance preparation).
They are generous meals that graciously take care of themselves for the most part by way of cooking; at meal time, it's simply a case of placing a single dish on the table, spoon alongside, and tucking in. We might ask others to bring salad and a crusty boule, if feeling for extra. It is a moment of simple, soul-soothing sustenance and comfort.
This year, there will be a burly tumble of bronzed chicken, crisp-skinned and lushly fleshed, sausages plumped up and sizzling, and mushrooms concentrated and earthy. There shall be enough herbs to murmur a reminder of the greenery bedecking our halls, and velvety, honeyed squash for softness. A sprinkling of already cooked grains, an equal mix of rice and barley, are there to soak up the sticky pan juices, while achieving a tanned crust and deeply pleasing interior chew.
While our Christmas Eve may continue to change in the years ahead, I hope my my son will understand that so much of this season is less about the particulars, and more about an overall sense of cheer. While our cheeks flush and twitch as we slip out into the sharp, cold air to take in the Christmas lights, I am certain the warmth of the meal and company will keep spirits bright this year, as always.
6 thyme sprigs, divided
3 rosemary sprigs, divided
8 garlic cloves, unpeeled
4 shallots, peeled and halved through their stems
8 ounces mixed mushrooms, in generous slices and chunks
2 acorn squash, seeded and cut into 2-inch wedges
8 skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs
1/3 cup olive oil, plus more as needed
1 tablespoon red-wine vinegar, plus more
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 pork sausages
1 cup cooked hulled or pearled barley
1 cup cooked brown or wild rice
1/2 cup chicken or vegetable stock, or water
Chili oil, for garnish, optional
Pick the leaves from three of the thyme sprigs and one of the rosemary. Mince the leaves finely and add to a large freezer bag. Reserve the whole stems for later. Pop the garlic and shallots into the bag, followed by the mushrooms, squash and chicken. Pour in the oil and 1 tablespoon of red-wine vinegar, and season with salt and pepper. Seal the bag and turn a few times between your hands, so the squash and chicken are well coated. Refrigerate for at least an hour and up to overnight.
Preheat an oven to 425 F (218 C).
Tip the contents of the freezer bag into an oven-safe baking dish that will hold everything snugly, but with a little room. Divide everything between two pans, if necessary. Arrange the chicken pieces skin-side up and the squash cut-side down. Give the squash some extra attention by way of some more salt and pepper. (Its sweetness will only further develop upon roasting and a confident amount of salt makes all the difference.) Tuck the sausages amongst the chicken and vegetables. Place the dish into the hot oven and bake for 20 minutes. Pull from the oven, flip the squash and the sausages, rustle the mushrooms and shallots around a bit, then bake for 20 minutes more. Stir the barley and rice together in a bowl. Take the tray from the oven one last time, shuffle the contents to make some room for the grains. Spoon the rice and barley mixture into those spaces. Festoon the pan with the reserved thyme and rosemary. Pour the stock around the pan and bake for a final 20 minutes. When hot and steaming from the oven, drip over a scant anointing of red-wine vinegar (think drops, not a downfall), and a gilding of chili or olive oil. Serve immediately.