Growing up in a Muslim family in Turkey, celebrating Christmas was not a regular thing for our December routine. There was no Santa to sit on his lap and tell our wishes, no cookie baking craziness all month long, no nonstop Christmas music on the radio. I don't think Santa tradition and trying to make kids behave with the Santa threat would be a long-lived one in Turkey anyway. Parents lost that chance long time ago when we all were taught at our young ages about St. Nicholas's burial site and church, a popular tourist destination in the small Mediterranean town on the south side of Turkey.
So I can not tell you any warm, fuzzy Christmas stories of my childhood. But I have great memories of New Year celebrations. New Year's Eve was one of the big celebrations we all looked forward to in my family.
The last two weeks of December is normally dedicated to the logistics of New Year's Eve. Which house we will gather at, who will cook which dish, gift shopping, secret gift wrapping, sending holiday cards to all the people we know and start thinking about that long resolution list.
There are two things that distinctly belong to the New Year's Eve and not repeated at any other time of the year in my family: Bingo and Red Underwear Gift Exchange.
Yes you heard it right, we play bingo that night and winner takes all the money!
Oh yes, also the red underwear gift tradition! You can bet that when the clock hits 12:00 am that night, all my family's women, from a 7 year old to 70 year old, will be wearing red underwear! Not sure how we bought into this craziness but all the women in my family give each other a red underwear as New Year gift. We rush to find a private corner right before midnight to change into this new underwear. It is a way of starting the year with something new, hoping that there will be lots of new and good things in our lives in the coming year.
Don't ask why not a red scarf, a red shirt or a red something else? Have no idea! I assume because this is much more fun in a very unexpected way.Another thing you can be sure on the New Year's Eve, is the dinner menu. We usually make a dish with lamb on special evenings like this and the menu would not be complete without this pilaf. It is a rice dish with black currants and pine nuts which we call "iç pilav". This type of pilaf is a staple Turkish side dish to be served with meat dishes. If you use olive oil in lieu of butter and add more herbs such as fresh and/or dry mint, then you can use it for wrapped grape leaves, or as we call them, dolma — which is another dish made for special get-togethers. The table used to be adorned by so many dishes other than these three and my grandfather, with his grand gesture, used to call us to the table and say: "Let's eat, everyone! Afiyet Olsun." ("Afiyet Olsun" is "Bon Appetit" in Turkish) And we would all dig in!
Since I moved to the US, I have been celebrating the New Year's Eve away from my family for the past ten years in a quieter house. It is not as fun as it used to be since there is that deep longing for home, always wondering what they are doing, or eating, or, well, wearing. But I make sure that I wear something new and red on New Year's Eve to connect me to them through the different time zones.
So, Let's eat everyone! Afiyet Olsun!
Pine Nut-Currant Pilaf (İç Pilav)
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups uncooked rice (I use Egyptian rice from the local Middle Eastern grocery store. The water amount below is per this rice - 1 1/2 cup per cup of rice. Check the package for the water amount for the rice you use.)
1 medium onion (very finely chopped in food processor)
1/2 cup black currants (clean of stems)
3/4 cup pine nuts
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon allspice
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 1/4 cup water
1 bunch fresh dill, chopped (about 3/4 cup), optional
Wash the rice several times and discard the water, set the rice aside.
Heat the pan and add the butter to melt. Add onions and stir frequently for about 3 minutes at medium-high heat. Add pine nuts and continue stirring for another 2 to 3 minutes until pine nuts start to get golden color.
Add rice to the pan, stir for 30 seconds. Add currants, cinnamon, allspice, salt and pepper. Stir to combine.
Add water, bring it to a boil. Turn the heat to low, cover the pan and let it cook undisturbed.
After 20 minutes, open the lid, add the dill, do not stir the rice. Cover the lid again.
Once the rice is done (stick a wooden spoon vertically to touch the bottom of the pan and remove. There should not be any water collected in the opening left by the spoon), take it off the stove. Put a clean dish towel under the lid, stretched over the whole pan. Cover it again, set it aside for another 15 minutes for it to rest. Stir before serving.
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(Images: Ilke McAliley)