Although the structure of our meals goes back to the neolithic era, when humans were just beginning to cultivate crops and domesticate animals, festival meals as we know them today date from the 18th Century, when new foods began filtering down from the rich to the masses.
Sugar and fat have always been symbols of the good life. And a roast, be it beef, turkey or ham, was always more difficult to come by because it had, literally, to be tracked down.
Sidney Mintz, a cultural anthropologist at John Hopkins University, believes that all meals are organized in three structures--core, legume and fringe. This structure is universal and predates history. Surprisingly, it has not altered all that much.
The "core" of a meal, the staple of any cuisine, is traditionally comprised of a cereal or grain--wheat products such as bread and noodles in European cultures, rice in Asia, and corn or tortillas in Mexico. Traditionally, these make up about 50% of our caloric intake.
The so-called "legume" provides a major protein source--beans, garbanzos and lentils in the Middle East, soy beans in Asia, lima beans in Central and South America. Animal protein falls into this category, but traditionally made up less of the human diet.
The "fringe" is what lends attractiveness to the core, so that more of it will be eaten, making it possible to consume more complex carbohydrates (which, in general, are not very appealing on their own). Except for dieters, how many of us prefer our baked potato without butter, chives or sour cream? Or plain pasta without even olive oil or Parmesan cheese?
Vegetables and fruits--relative latecomers that came under cultivation much later than grains--supply mainly vitamins and minerals and only a small amount of carbohydrates. Although important to our diet, they have always been more of a supplement than a staple. The herbs and spices that flavor meats and vegetables and entice the appetite are also "fringes."
Dietitians, who are always telling us what not to eat, tell us that this prehistoric structure--heavy on complex carbohydrates and vegetables, supplemented by meager amounts of animal proteins and fat--is a diet toward which we should strive. And, in fact--no matter how we might feel afterward--our modern feasts come pretty close to this ideal. After all, it's the multitude of side dishes that defines our feast.
For a feast day, the core might consist of bread stuffing and the rice and onion "soubise" that follows. A bird or other roast is the "legume" and becomes the centerpiece of the meal. The Christmas goose, Thanksgiving turkey or the lamb that we roast for both Easter and Passover may be the star of the holiday table, but the side dishes define feasting. These additions to the table, plus the gravy, cranberry sauce, even the chestnuts in the stuffing make everything taste wonderful. The fringe, traditionally a smaller portion, grows to gargantuan size, reflecting abundance and confirming a sense of well-being.
This recipe is an adaptation of a French dish called Soubise. Don't be fooled by the scant amount of liquid needed to cook the rice--it's moistened by the onions. Rice takes on a nutty flavor when cooked this way, and the onions become sweetly caramelized. This dish can be prepared up to three days in advance and refrigerated. Reheat it in a microwave oven or in a covered pan over low heat on top of the stove. Freeze the Soubise in a microwaveable freezer bag. Reheat the thawed mixture by placing the bag in gently simmering water on the stove for 10 minutes.
ONION AND RICE
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup long-grain rice
6 medium onions, thinly sliced, about 12 cups
1/2 cup all-purpose broth, canned low-sodium chicken broth or water
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 cup whipping cream
Melt butter in medium oven-proof pan or Dutch oven over low heat on top of stove. Add rice and cook 1 minute, mixing to coat all grains with butter. Remove from heat. Add onions, broth, nutmeg, salt and white pepper. Bake, tightly covered, at 350 degrees 1 hour.
Remove from oven and transfer contents to food processor. Add whipping cream. Coarsely puree mixture using on/off motion. Return soubise to pan. Cover and reheat in oven before serving. Makes 6 servings.
Prepare this whipped puree and reserve sweet potatoes for roasting in their skins. Prepared in advance, the puree can be stored in a microwaveable freezer bag in the refrigerator or freezer and reheated by dropping the bag into gently simmering water.
1 1/2 cups peeled and quartered turnips
2 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and coarsely chopped
1 large onion, coarsely chopped (about 1 cup)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
Peel and quarter fresh turnips (if using frozen, do not thaw). Combine turnips with apples, onion, butter, salt and white pepper in baking dish. Bake, covered, at 350 degrees 35 minutes.