Today, beef is as easy to come by as chicken, but years ago it was generally an annual treat that was slow cooked to perfection at Christmas time. With fish and seafood the predominant protein in the everyday Caymanian diet, it would have been something of an event to go to your local farmer and acquire a great cut of beef that would feed not only your close family, but also the many friends and extended family relatives who would come knocking at this festive time of the year. As a general rule, Christmas beef would be a healthy sized portion, and once cooked, would continue to serve the family many days after Christmas had passed by.
Tanya Foster, senior manager at Fosters Food Fair’s Deli & Bakery, is well known to many on island for her delicious recipes. Assisted by Sonia Peck, Fosters Airport Deli manager, and Fosters cook Barrington Campbell, they cooked up a dish of sumptuous Christmas beef in a rich and flavorful gravy that will entice your friends, family and neighbors to your home like no other dish can.
Christmas for Caymanians has always been a very important holiday for the whole family. Preparations for the main Christmas day feast would begin well in advance, as much ground work needed to be done to ensure that all the dishes were ready for the big day. Heavy cakes made from cassava, yam and pumpkin would have to be prepared well in advance to serve as desserts on the big day, and the Christmas beef would need to be under way early Christmas morning or perhaps even the night before. Seafood, another big fixture on the Caymanian Christmas dining table, would also have to be cleaned and prepared.
Christmas Day would always begin with a church service, and afterward the feasting would begin. The table would be heavy with proteins, such as the Christmas beef and pork, as well as lobster, conch and whelks. “Ground foods,” such as starches including green plantain, cassava and breadfruit, would also feature on a traditional Caymanian Christmas table, along with potato salad, which would contain a few chopped vegetables as well. Vegetables would not be a main feature of the table, however. The main meal of the day would be served anywhere from 1 to 4 p.m., and friends and family would generally spend the day visiting others, enjoying their company and sampling their food, which would always be plentiful. Presents were not necessarily exchanged and were not the focus of the day in years gone by, but children might have received one from their parents. The main essence of Christmas was the togetherness, Tanya and Sonia both say. It was a magical time, the ladies confirm.
The key to success for the perfect Christmas beef is marinating the meat well ahead of time, so be prepared to start this dish a day or two before you want to serve it.
Ingredients: (serves 4 to 6 people)
Please note: seasoning amounts are approximations. Caymanian Christmas beef cooks tend to go by taste, sight and time, so it’s best to season to taste.
5lb bottom round roast beef
1 yellow onion, chopped
4 stalks green onion, chopped
3 tbsp thyme
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tbsp ginger (fresh), chopped
1 hot pepper or season pepper (depending on how spicy you like your food, season pepper being the milder choice)
½ tsp. Nature Seasoning
½ tsp Season All
2 tbsp Kitchen Bouquet
½ cup olive oil
Cornstarch for thickening the gravy
The marinade ingredients are typical seasonings that you would expect in a Cayman dish, staple ingredients of Caymanian cuisine – think of the thyme, scotch bonnet and seasoning peppers in rice and beans or the spices that go into jerk chicken, such as scotch bonnet pepper and thyme – and should be readily available. Begin by preparing the marinade: in a blender, blend the onion, green onions, thyme, garlic, ginger, seasoning and olive oil.
Barrington starts the meat by trimming the bottom round roast and poking holes in the meat all over with a small paring knife to allow the wonderful aromatic herbs and spices to permeate deep into the meat. Then pour your thick marinade mix over your meat, remembering that it’s important to work the marinade deep into the meat and all the little cuts in the meat that you made with a knife. Marinating not only adds flavor, but it also tenderizes the meat, Tanya advises. Place the meat in the refrigerator for around 24 hours.
When you are ready to begin cooking, place the meat in a Dutch oven (a large pot) on top of the stove and add the marinade ingredients. The meat should be halfway submerged in liquid, so if the marinade is too low, add some water. Bring to a simmer and continue to simmer for two to three hours until the meat is meltingly tender. It is important to check the meat frequently to ensure that it doesn’t dry out. If it looks a little dry, add some water to the pan. Place a lid on your Dutch oven to retain moisture, or use tin foil to cover.
Once cooked, take the meat out of the pan and remove the meat from liquid; allow to rest. The meat will be cooked through with no sign of pink – just the way Caymanians like to eat their beef, Sonia says. Strain the liquid, re-season and thicken with cornstarch to serve over beef. When you are ready to serve, slice or shred the beef, depending on your preference. Place on a serving platter and pour the gravy from the pan over the meat. Extra gravy can be served in a bowl for guests to help themselves. Traditional accompaniments, as well as those mentioned above, include rice and beans.