It’s Christmas week, so the old traditional turkey-and-ham versus seafood debate is on again. They have to sell newspapers. Without doubt, roasted turkey and ham are unsuitable fare for the middle of an Australian summer day. This is why we drink so much alcohol. You have to stimulate the appetite. Only after three or four gin and tonics or sparkling reds is it possible to stomach the prospect of sitting down at midday in 28 degree heat to what is essentially a cold climate meal of roast turkey with cranberry sauce and stuffing, baked ham with a sweet, sticky glaze, hot roasted potatoes, carrots and minted peas followed by plum pudding with brandy butter sauce, Christmas cake with Scotch whisky, or trifle made from custard and red jelly on a bed of sponge cake soaked in port and topped with two inches of whipped cream, grated chocolate and nuts.
Yes, nuts. The official antidote to this Edwardian stodge is seafood, but given interest rates and utility prices, cold lobster salad with mirin, ginger and shards of cucumber and radish is not a possibility for most families this year. Plus, Aunty Ferg always chokes on the shell when she cracks it open to suck out the briny goodness. And prawns are boring. And you never know which fish are 'endangered'. Can't have endangered fish on the Christmas table. Just not in the spirit of Christmas. And sardines are not very festive.
The hell with all this. Let’s light the barbecue. I’ve bought a shipment of thick lamb cutlets.
First, the salad; Greek-style, and therefore edible in warm conditions. Why do you think they all moved to Melbourne in the 1950s? At one point, Melbourne had the world’s third largest urban Greek population. They lived in places like Brunswick and Moonee Ponds, and the husbands worked at Ford and the wives cleaned the hospitals, and they paid off their houses and bought another one high on the hill in Dromana, from where on a warm summer day and after a few retsinas Port Phillip Bay shimmers blue just like the Mediterranean. That's why.
The salad: I run around the garden, picking a sprig each of mint and four generous sprigs of parsley. Oregano is already picked and drying on the mantelpiece over the stove. A de-twigged sprig of that and the mint and parsley into the food processor with a cup or two (adjust everything else) of Greek yogurt, a dash of olive oil, three chopped cloves of garlic, a squeeze of lemon and salt and pepper. Don’t hold back. We want flavour and aroma. Switch on, gurgle, swizz, whirr, switch off, lift the lid. The aroma rich with herb- and citrus-infused garlic is like a breeze through olive trees on a goat-tracked hill overlooking the Aegean Sea. Already enough to stimulate a jaded summer appetite.
Now we boil some waxy potatoes chopped into irregular chunks. No need to get the slide rule out. Don’t overcook. Remove from heat when they are soft yet firm, like a young Greek wife.
Chop a white onion as finely as you can. Do the same with a pepperoncini capsicum. Sprinkle these over the hot potatoes, then drizzle the aromatic yogurt over the lot. Sprinkle with more chopped parsley and shards of olive. That’s the salad.
If there is any aromatic yogurt mixture left over, dredge the lamb through it and grill, covered until your preferred degree of doneness is reached, turning once or twice. Serve with quarters of lemon and the potato salad, and another salad of dressed green leaves, and strips of fresh Greek or nigella seed-studded Turkish bread. Marinate olives and feta in chili-infused olive oil for an entrée. Serve a crisp white wine. Find one with less than 13% alcohol or your party will fall asleep and miss the dessert of small honey-infused pastries. You can buy these in a hundred varieties in dozens of outlets in Sydney Road. My favourite is znood el sitt – Middle Eastern style clotted cream in pastry rolled in honey and baked to a kind of sweet crunchy glaze that tastes like eating honeycomb in heaven.
And if you still need a drink, try a small glass of ouzo. Add water, and have a Greek coffee on the side to cut the sweetness and alcohol. You’ll eventually fall asleep but you won’t have wine trifle nightmares.