Happy Protochronia, 2020!

Not too many years ago, you might have gotten a blank stare if you asked a Greek child what he or she hoped to get from Santa for Christmas. After all, in that unique and (by me) beloved culture, gifts didn’t come from St. Nick at Christmas but from St. Basil on New Year’s.

Not surprisingly, for those who know Zorba or other iconic Greek characters, there was no distinction between naughty and nice. In fact, in the traditional Greek understanding of each new year, good luck beats good behavior every single time.

So yes, Greeks do exchange gifts on Protochronia. But they also play cards and roll dice in homes, cafes and clubhouses. They also buy lottery tickets like they are a Blue Light Special, and engage in a host of other activities built around being, feeling or wanting to get lucky. On New Year’s Eve, many Greeks still invite the luckiest person they know to be the first to visit them at home on the first day of the year. The luck of that person can be reasonably expected to spread to all in that household.

As generous St. Basil is the Santa Claus of Greece, his name in Greek (Agios Vasilios) is drafted for the most famous New Year’s pastry. The story of Vasiliopita (Basil Cake) borrows from or simply shares the French-speaking kingcake tradition surrounding Epiphany a few days later. With kingcake, there is always a toy king or bean or feve, or in New Orleans, plastic baby hidden inside that brings good fortune to the person who gets that piece. In Vasiliopita, there’s a real coin, no doubt reflecting the poverty in which so many Greek families at least began their journey.

One of the most endearing New Year’s traditions is yet another that connects with the Western Christmas – kalanda. These are hymns (yes, just like carols) sung by children bearing bells and triangles as they go house-to-house through Greek towns and villages.

There are many favorite foods in Greece associated with bringing good luck in the new year, but none as popular as stuffed and roasted game hen. The pleasures of this dish are the same, in many ways, as American turkey on Thanksgiving or English goose on Christmas Day. It’s just a lot smaller, that’s all. Still, no one tasting individual Greek-style game hens on New Year’s Day will ever wish that a year’s worth of good luck would produce a bird any bigger.

GREEK NEW YEAR’S GAME HENS

The special Greek flavors of this dish are a function of the stuffing, first and foremost, as well as the garlic-lemon-rosemary butter brushed onto the bird before you pop it into the oven. As with other Greek dishes, we find that our Whole Lemon & Fig Marmalade makes a terrific enhancer of this distinctive flavor profile.  

Stuffing:

1-pound ground beef

½ cup basmati rice

1 medium onion, finely chopped

3 garlic cloves, minced

1 cup pureed canned tomatoes

½ jar Fischer & Wieser’s Whole Lemon & Fig Marmalade

¼ cup olive oil

1 cup water

Pinch of crushed red pepper

I teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1/2 cup cranberries

1/3 cup pine nuts, toasted

4 game hens, washed

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 teaspoon cumin powder

1 cup chicken broth

Herbed Butter:

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

2 cloves garlic, minced

Zest of 2 lemons

¼ cup lemon juice

½ jar Fischer & Wieser’s Whole Lemon & Fig Marmalade

1 teaspoon finely chopped rosemary

Preheat oven 400 degrees. To prepare the stuffing, caramelize the onions and garlic cloves with the olive oil. Mash the garlic once it has softened. Add ground beef and break it up while browning. Add canned tomato puree, marmalade, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil then reduce heat and cook approximately 20 minutes. Add oregano and mix well.

Add rice, 1 cup of water, raisins, and a teaspoon of salt and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to very low and cover the pot. Allow the rice to simmer covered for 15 minutes. Toast the pine nuts in a small pan over medium heat about 5-6 minutes. Add chopped parsley and toasted pine nuts to the stuffing and mix well. Set aside and allow to cool completely.

Make sure they are completely dry so that the seasoning sticks to them. Season the cavity well with salt. Fill the hens with about 1 cup of the rice filling. Transfer the remaining filling to a small baking tray and pour chicken broth over it. Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes covered. Remove foil and bake 15 minutes uncovered or until the top is golden and crisp. Remove from the oven and set aside.

Prepare the herb butter by combining the melted butter, minced garlic, lemon zest and juice, marmalade, salt and chopped rosemary. Mix well. Brush the hens all over with the herb butter. Season with more salt and pepper. Place the tray in the center rack of the oven and roast 55-65 minutes or until the internal temperature of the thickest part of the thigh reaches 165 degrees and their juices run clear. Remove from the oven and let them rest at least 15 minutes before serving. Serves 4.

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