The Goose of Christmas Past

The Goose of Christmas Past

Originally published December 24, 2003. 

I’ve been a haunted man for 13 years, and I place the blame squarely on Tiny Tim’s crooked little shoulders. It was December 1990, and I had just finished rereading A Christmas Carol. Inspired by Tiny’s exultant prayer, “God bless us every one,” I decided that I, too, would have a proper Christmas dinner. The next day I marched into my local butcher shop in Brooklyn and ordered a goose. Luigi, a short, rotund man who had to stand on a milk crate to talk to his customers, leaned over the meat case and cocked an eyebrow: “Have you ever made a goose before?”

“Puh-lease,” I replied, even though the only experience I had cooking fowl was microwaving Swanson turkey dinners. “Plenty of times.”

“What size do you want?” he asked, obviously trying to entrap me. But I outwitted him.

“Oh, the usual.”

When I returned several days later to collect my bird, Luigi instructed me in the ways of goose cookery. While he babbled on about something to do with pricking the skin and draining the fat, I imagined myself parading into the dining room with a bird so splendiferous, my guests couldn’t help but break into a chorus of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.”

On Christmas day, I awoke early to prepare the goose. To ensure a moist bird, I tucked pats of butter under its skin, then slid it into the oven. After several hours, I checked to see if the magic thermometer had popped up, signaling the goose was done. But I couldn’t find one—anywhere. I yanked the goose out of the oven, sloshing a tsunami of melted fat on the floor, and turned the bird over and over looking for that confounded popper. Just then the doorbell rang, so I returned the goose to the oven and hoped for the best.

Now, back then I wasn’t the intrepid cook that I am today (minus the kitchen fire, that is), so I proudly offered my five guests Diet Coke and an artfully arranged platter of Doritos and Lipton Onion Soup Dip. I then excused myself and took the phone into the bedroom closet.

“Ma,” I whispered, “how do you know when a goose is cooked?”

“Is this a joke?” she asked.

“No, I’m serious.”

“How do I know? I never made one.”

“What do you mean? You make capons all the time. Aren’t they emasculated geese?” With that, she put my father on the line.

I returned 10 minutes later, fully educated in the sex life of fowl, but alas, none the wiser about how to cook one. I steeled myself and asked my guests to be seated. I placed the goose on the table and began carving, but every time I sliced, I hit bone. No matter what angle I tried, the knife simply slid off.

“So much for ‘Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat,'” I tried to joke, as I strip-mined the bird for meat with a fork. With each slice, more and more of the mutilated carcass was exposed. In the end, the hatchet job on the platter could easily have passed as a stunt double for one of Jason’s victims in Friday the 13th. Embarrassed, I gave up and divided the two legs among six plates. My guests looked down at their pitifully small portions.

“We could always order pizza,” one guest offered. I glared at him until he withered back into his chair.

After they all left, I railed against God, Tiny Tim, and Luigi as I cleaned up. Furious, I grabbed the platter and flipped the goose into the trash. And there, staring up at me, were two perfectly plump breasts. In my frantic search for the magic thermometer, I had ended up turning the goose upside down and carving from its scrawny, meatless back.

Haunted by the memory of that bird’s mutilation and my humiliation, I chained myself to my stove, Thor, until I became a whiz at roasting fowl. Indeed, at my country home in Connecticut, I’ve cooked a barnyard full of chickens, turkeys, poussins, even guinea hens. But never, ever goose.

Then during a proper afternoon tea spent sipping Earl Grey and nibbling biscuits with Danny, a Connecticut neighbor, I told her about my debacle. “AND YOU HAVEN’T MADE A CHRISTMAS GOOSE SINCE?” she bellowed. An expat from England who’s blessed with an alto’s lungs and cursed with a hearing problem, Danny clocks in at a decibel level just below that of a Boeing 747.

“Nope.”

“WELL, NEXT WEEKEND WE’RE MARCHING INTO YOUR KITCHEN, AND I’M GOING TO SHOW YOU HOW IT’S DONE PROPERLY,” she announced.

She thrummed her fingers on the table as she dictated a shopping list. Then suddenly she thundered: “OH MY, WE’LL HAVE A THUMPINGLY GOOD TIME!” I had my doubts.

The day of our lesson, Danny burst into my kitchen with her arms filled with herbs, bottles, scraps of paper, and two roasting pans. “LOOK, ” she said, waving a carving fork that would do the Marquis de Sade proud. “FOR INFLICTING THE JABS. YOU HAVE TO PRICK THE GOOSE ALL OVER TO DRAIN THE FAT.” Drain the fat? Where had I heard that before? Suddenly, I remembered Luigi’s lecture. Maybe he wasn’t such a bad butcher after all.

I took the bird from the refrigerator, and Danny cooed, “MY, THAT IS A PROPER CHRISTMAS GOOSE, DAVID!” She took it from me, rinsed it, and lightly seasoned it with salt and pepper. Then she stood as if in a trance.

“Danny? Is something wrong?” I asked.

She put her finger to her lips, lowered her head, then said softly (well, softly for Danny), “NOW’S THE TIME TO THINK OF ALL THE PEOPLE WHO HAVE EVER BORNE A GRUDGE AGAINST YOU, AND YOU—GO FOR IT!” With that, she descended upon the bird with her carving fork. To judge from the ferocity of her stabs and the contentment on her face, my guess was she was fantasizing about Tony Blair. When the bird was sufficiently pincushioned, she leaned against the counter and trumpeted, “BOY, WAS THAT CATHARTIC!” She looked like a boxer who had just won a prize fight.

“So what’s next?” I asked, enjoying being a private to her Patton.

She slipped the bird in the oven. “WELL, YOU SIT HERE AND MIND GOOSEY, AND I’LL BE BACK IN A COUPLE OF HOURS.”

“What? Why?”

She looked at me as if I were daft. “I’M KNACKERED,” she said. And with that, she tramped out the back door. “THE DIRECTIONS ARE ON THE TABLE,” she barked from her car.

Without Danny there to guide me, I was immediately haunted by the goose of Christmas Past. I riffled through her scraps of paper, which in Danny’s world constitutes a recipe. One read that the bird needed to be turned three times. “Turned?” I said aloud. Another: “Drain the fat.” But when? Visions of snickering guests danced in my head.

Still, I knew that if I didn’t face this bête noire head on, I’d develop a severe tic every time I saw a goose or break out in hives when served foie gras. So I made some calculations and estimated when to turn the goose, poured off the fat several times lest there be another flood, and brushed on Danny’s secret mustard-and-garlic coating.

When I removed the goose, it was nothing like the catastrophe I had wrought in my youth. It was a beautiful mahogany color, and the mustard coating had formed a crackly, crisp crust. One last hurdle, though, before I could be free of my demons. I poked the top of the bird. Yes! Just as I thought: It was a lovely, juicy breast.

Twenty minutes later Danny muscled through the door. When she saw the goose, her face clouded over. She leaned in close, inspecting. She tilted the bird one way, then the other. Oh, no, I thought. I did it again. Finally, she said, “BRILLIANT, DAVID.” I beamed.

She transferred the bird to a platter and held it aloft. “BEHOLD THE GOOSE,” she crowed. Then she thrust her chin toward the dining room. “NOW, GOOD GOD LET’S EAT!”

Tiny Tim himself couldn’t have said it better.

David Leite's signature

Swirl

A whole roasted goose on a platter, garnished with parsley

Mustard and Garlic Roast Goose

This dish from my Connecticut neighbor is the best goose I’ve ever eaten. But in Danny’s inimitable way, she simply insists it be served with red currant jelly. Nothing else will do.–David Leite

LC Best Goose Ever Note

We can’t really improve on what David just said about this being the best goose ever. Nope. Not even going to try.

Mustard and Garlic Roast Goose

  • Quick Glance
  • (7)
  • 50 M
  • 4 H, 30 M
  • Serves 6
5/5 - 7 reviews
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Ingredients

  • For the mustard and garlic goose
  • For the stock
  • For the gravy

Directions

Make the mustard and garlic roast goose

Position the oven rack in the bottom third of the oven and preheat to 425°F (220°C). Remove any excess fat and skin from the main body cavity and neck cavity. Pierce the goose with a sharp fork, especially where the fat is thickest on the legs and lower breast. Sprinkle the cavities and skin with salt and pepper. Tie the legs together to hold their shape. Place the goose, breast-side down, on a V-shaped rack set in a roasting pan. Add enough water to the pan to reach a depth of 1/2 inch. Roast for 40 minutes. Spoon off the fat from the surface of the liquid in pan; reserve 1/4 cup of the fat.

Reduce the oven temperature to 350°F (175°C). Using tongs as an aid, turn the goose onto 1 side. Roast for 30 minutes. Turn the goose onto the other side. Roast for 30 minutes.

In a small bowl, whisk together the mustard, lemon juice, garlic, salt, pepper, and savory. Turn the goose breast-side up. Brush the goose with the mustard-garlic mixture. Roast until a meat thermometer inserted into thickest part of the thigh registers 175°F (80°C) and the juices from the thigh run clear when pierced with fork, about 50 minutes. Move the goose to a platter; tent loosely with foil to keep warm. Reserve the pan juices.

Meanwhile, make the stock

While the goose is roasting, bring all the stock ingredients to a boil in a large saucepan. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer, uncovered, until reduced to 3 cups, occasionally skimming the surface, about 1 hour. Strain the stock into a bowl; spoon off fat. Set aside.

Make the gravy

Spoon off the fat from the top of the reserved juices in the roasting pan. Add 1/2 cup of Port to the pan. Place the roasting pan atop 2 burners and boil until the mixture is reduced to 1 cup, whisking occasionally, about 5 minutes. In a medium saucepan, over medium low heat, whisk the flour and reserved 1/4 cup fat until the roux is light brown, about 5 minutes. Gradually whisk in the Port mixture and 2 1/2 cups degreased stock. Simmer until the gravy thickens enough to coat a spoon, whisking constantly, about 3 minutes. Stir in 2 tablespoons of Port. Season with salt and pepper. Carve the goose and serve with the gravy.

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Comments

  1. OK it looks like it’s gonna be Project Tiny Tim for us this Christmas… hubby’s put in a order for a 7lb French free-range honker (please don’t let it be a Canada goose shot over French territory) at our local butcher in our town in the Netherlands. I will be launching myself, apron-clad and kitchen knives flourishing, off a KLM flight straight into our kitchen to do battle with the bird – and the many, many pin feathers that will have escaped plucking, and have to be tweezed off as the bird cooks…

    My favourite part about cooking goose – watching the glorious fat render off straight into the oven tray below, and saving every precious drop for the best roast potatoes, potato gratins and fried eggs for breakfast ever…

    David, since I read this story of yours a few years ago, the association has been Christmas goose = David Leite = his funny friend Danny’s recipe. A story I will always treasure reading at this time of the year! So thank you again for sharing 🙂

    1. Ling, do you hear that? That’s Danny saying, “OH, LING DARLING, THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR READING MY LITTLE STORY. I DO HOPE YOU AND YOUR HUSBAND HAVE A THWACKINGLY JOLLY CHRISTMAS. BLESSINGS TO YOU BOTH.”

      (She really sounds like that.)

  2. hi David,

    I read your note about the goose. being a jewish descendent, I learn from an aunt how to make it. first cut it in pieces and then put lots of chop garlic, leave it in the fridge (very well wrap if you dont want the smell) for about 5 days, and then you put it in a roasting pan, add salt and start roasting it. add a little of hot water once in a while until it is tender and with a dark brown color. when we were little we enjoy a lot thid dish.

    sorry my spelling but my mother tongue is spanish.

    good luck

  3. What a wonderfully told story! I’m glad to see you got over your fear of goose, and do have to commend you for being brave enough to give another try, although I’m sure your cooking skills have improved by leaps and bounds since that first attempt!

    Cheers and best wishes for a healthy and happy new year!
    Dennis

    1. Thanks, Chef Dennis. Yes, it seems every year The One asks for a goose, and I comply. It’s not my favorite kind of bird, but, hey, it’s the holidays–a time of giving. Here’s wishing you a prosperous and delicious New Year.

  4. Brilliant tale, David, wonderfully told – a tale to tell every Christmas right after a bit of Dickens. A very Merry & Joyous Holiday Season to you and yours!

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