Food Glorious Christmas Food
By Robert Hanson
This month, for Christmas, we give you two rather different meals.
The first is Seriously Over the Top and the second Really Rather More Realistic. You can, of course take from either.
Seriously Over the Top
Before eating anything, except perhaps a macadamia nut or two, we need a drink. Pink champagne makes a perfect aperitif with its delicate flavour and fantastic salmon colour.
My chosen starter, Soft-shelled Crab, used to be a lot rarer before the invention of freezing. Male and female crabs moult in the Spring, while males moult only in the Autumn. Also the moulting season is very short, and there’s only a 5-6 hour window of opportunity between when the crabs shed their hard shell, and the new, soft shell hardens again. The two best places for fresh soft-shelled crabs are New England and Venice. However these superb crustaceans are now fairly widely available frozen and are excellent.
- Let the crabs thaw gradually.
- To clean, hold the crab in one hand, and using a pair of kitchen scissors, cut off the front of the crab, about 1/2 inch behind the eyes and mouth. Squeeze out the contents of the sack you’ll find directly behind the cut you’ve just made.
- Lift one pointed end of the crab’s outer shell. Remove and discard the gills.
- Repeat on the other side.
- Finally, turn the crab over and snip off the small flap known as the apron. Rinse the entire crab well and pat it dry.
- Now you choose; either grill or fry it in sunflower or grapeseed oil. Serve with brown bread, butter and, almost as a garnish, a simple green salad.
We follow the crab with a little (it’s very rich) foie gras, out of a tin. After living in France for seven years, my wife and I decided that duck foie gras was rather more than marginally better than goose. Our daughter became a vegetarian. Here we change the champagne’s colour to a classic straw. And lots of it!
For the main course I briefly toyed with the idea of finding a swan or a peacock, but even with long and careful cooking I’m not sure that the result would have tasted very good. But I did want a bird; birds actually, one inside the other. As it’s Christmas, you certainly won’t want to be doing the boning and stuffing yourself; it takes time, skill, practice and patience and is, believe me, well worth paying someone else to do. So now it’s just a question of how many. I’ve found recipes for from three to twelve bird roasts. How many depends on your appetite, number of guests and for how long you want to eat cold leftovers.
At this point I’d recommend a Trou Normand; this is a slug of calvados designed as they say in polite society ‘to aid digestion’ or to put it in a more crudely ‘to burn a hole through your stomach in order to make room for more food.’
Next, cheese; a perfectly ripe Stilton please, accompanied by a moderately earthy Rioja.
The cheese will be followed by a dark chocolate mousse, with a pot of double cream to hand.
Finally (not, I hope terminally finally) a bottle of Green Chartreuse. This, in liquid terms is as heavenly as the white truffles. The recipe using 130 herbs, plants and flowers dates from 1605. Four hundred and ten years of monks can’t be wrong.
After that lot, take heart and a deep breath, for…
Rather More Realistic
To start we have Gravad Lax. A couple of years ago I made a resolution to eat Gravad Lax rather than smoked salmon. It’s a resolution I have kept and not regretted for a moment. Here I would recommend a crisp Sauvignon Blanc, the wine which, apart from at the very end, I propose drinking throughout this feast.
Our reasonable but rather good main course is a roast guinea fowl stuffed with chestnuts. Roast potatoes and perhaps a purée of Brussels sprouts both look and taste good here.
Guinea Fowl with Roast Chestnuts
1 guinea fowl, about 1.3kg/3lb
2 bay leaves
several thyme sprigs
3 tablespoon of olive oil
500g of potatoes, unpeeled, cut into chunks
3 garlic cloves, unpeeled and bruised
200g of chestnut mushrooms, halved if large
200g of cooked chestnuts (use the tinned, already peeled variety)
For the sauce
150ml of white wine
150ml of chicken stock
1 tablespoon of redcurrant jelly
Heat your oven to 190°C/gas mark 5. Season the guinea fowl inside and out. Halve the lemon, put it inside the bird with the bay leaves and a couple of thyme sprigs. Roast in a tin for quarter of an hour, drizzled with a little olive oil.
Meanwhile, strip the remaining thyme leaves from their stalks. Mix the potatoes, thyme, garlic and remaining oil together, season. Put the potatoes around the bird, then return it to the oven for 45 mins. Stir the mushrooms into the potatoes along with the chestnuts. Roast until the mushrooms are cooked, another quarter of an hour. Spoon the vegetables onto a warm platter and put the cooked bird back among them. Keep it all warm while you make the sauce.
Boil the pan juices on the hob, add the wine, stock and jelly. Bring back to the boil, stirring to dissolve the jelly, until the sauce is slightly thickened. Taste for seasoning. Serve on the table in a jug.
After some perfectly ripe Camambert or Brie, it’s time for pudding. The Over the Top and the Reasonable come together for chocolate mousse, accompanied by the sublime Italian liqueur, amaretto, very possibly a lot of it.
Although I might be a good cake consumer, I am not a cake maker at all. So, ever expedient and resourceful, I turned to my friend Kate who, as they say, came up with the goods: “There are a few tips to remember when making Christmas cake; soak your fruit in your favourite intoxicant – I use a mix of Brandy, Madeira and Ginger Wine. Whip as much air into the cake as possible – and try to add the eggs slowly so it doesn’t curdle, which will make the cake heavy.
Line your cake tin with baking paper and wrap it in layers of newspaper to protect it while in the oven, fruit burns easily and a bouquet of charred sultana is not what you are after. Feed it, love it, nurture it. Keep it in a cool spot in your home. It will get better and better with time, so make it early and drench it weekly with a tablespoon of your chosen tipple. You don’t have to ice it until nearer the time but when you feel ready, brush it with apricot jam, and cloak with a comforting layer of marzipan followed by stark white icing. By 3pm on Boxing Day, a generous slice with a fresh cuppa is hard to beat.”