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A few traces of Viking influence linger in Irish winter holiday celebrations. In ancient times, the darkest days of the year were illuminated with the burning of a huge holly-decorated Yule Log to beseech Thor, the thunder god, to return the sun (Old Norse jol) to the heavens. Vikings also draped their homes and doorways with garlands of mistletoe to symbolize peace and hospitality. Feasting centered on seafood, especially the ubiquitous North Atlantic salmon, plus oysters (for fertility), pork (for wealth), and copious amounts of mulled wine flavored with spices acquired on their far-ranging longboat journeys.
GRAVLAX – Salt-cured Salmon
1 side of wild Atlantic salmon (skin on), approx 3 lbs.
2 large dill bunches
1 cup kosher salt
1⁄2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
Mix salt with sugar, and set aside. Line a glass or otherwise non-reactive baking dish with plastic wrap. Cut salmon side in half. Place one piece, skin down, on the wrap. Cover with one-half of salt-sugar mixture and sprinkle with peppercorns. Place a thick layer of dill sprigs over the salt-sugar, reserving some for garnish. Spread remaining salt-sugar on the other piece of salmon. Place second piece on top of the first, this time with skin up. Completely wrap salmon with plastic wrap. Place another baking dish on top of salmon. Put two heavy weights in the uppermost baking dish. Refrigerate salmon for four days, turning salmon over each day. On the fifth day, brush dill, peppercorns and salt-sugar off salmon, place salmon pieces end-to-end in a large platter and garnish with fresh dill sprigs. Slice thinly and accompany with slices of hearty bread. Serves 8 to 12 as an hors d’oeuvre. (Personal recipe)
ANGELS ON HORSEBACK
Note: While the Oxford English Dictionary claims this is originally a French recipe, I maintain that its origin is Norse and refers to the Valkyries, female demi-gods, who rode down from the sky on wild stallions to carry fallen Viking warriors to their reward in Valhalla where they would carouse and feast for all eternity.
3 dozen shucked oysters
18 bacon strips, cut in half
Wrap each oyster with half a bacon strip. Secure with wood toothpicks that have been soaked in water so they will not burn. Broil angels, turning as the bacon browns. Serve immediately. Makes 8-12 servings.
2 bottles red wine (Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz)
6 cinnamon sticks
2 oranges, halved and studded w/ whole cloves
1⁄2 cup sugar
1⁄2 cup brandy
Pour wine into a non-reactive soup pot. Add cinnamon sticks, clove-studded oranges, sugar and brandy. Warm over medium heat, stirring occasionally to make sure sugar dissolves, until the wine has taken on the flavor of the spices, approximately 15 minutes. Do not let boil. Serves 8-12. (Personal recipe)