Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Some Christmas prep and a French classic

And so we arrive at the middle of the week leading to Christmas itself; the shortest day: milder than of late, but gloomy under a leaden sky.

The biggest struggle now seems to be to stop fretting and realise that I really do have things under control.

The serious preparation began at the weekend. After three days of office jollification - including eating out twice and culminating in the annual Christmas disco (at which much hair was let down) - it was a case of back to Broadway Market and back to the kitchen.

I'd been gradually working out the festive food and, equally gradually, ordering what needs to be ordered.

Having found that, although they farm and sell veal, top-rated butcher The Ginger Pig could not supply me with veal bones, Matthew from Longwood had brought up a 2kg bag of chopped beef ones, including pieces of rib.

On Saturday afternoon, they went into the oven with some olive oil for an hour and a half - a glorious, warming smell filled the flat as they roasted – before spending close to four hours very gently simmering away with carrot, onion, celery, peppercorns and the usual herbs.

After the stock had cooled, around half was bottled and frozen. The rest - destined for consommé on Christmas Day - was then cooked down further, with the addition of some diced beef, before being strained.

Then it was time for the raft. Two beaten egg whites were added to some finely chopped carrot, celery, leek and parsley, and then slightly loosened with a ladle of the stock. This mix is added to the pot, whisked in, and left as everything is brought, very carefully, back to a simmer.

I find myself wondering who worked out this process - and how. The raft looks a mess, but it draws to it the fat in the consommé, leaving the liquid beautifully clear. Well, that's the idea.

After an hour, the raft was moved slightly to one side and the liquid strained carefully through a muslin-lined sieve. The result was remarkably clear - but two further clarifications await.

It's now in the freezer, so when I bring it out to thaw on Christmas Eve, any further fat will have risen to the top before freezing in a layer. That can be removed. And it's worth heating in a wide, shallow pan so that you can also just brush a sheet of kitchen paper over it at the end to pick up any remaining globules.

The aim is complete clarity, with very strong taste to really get the taste buds going, but nothing to fill up your diners. I did one last year for the first time - a mushroom one – and to be honest, it didn't seem to be anywhere near as difficult a task as some might make out. Although I didn't have much left to serve by the end, the intensity of the taste more than made up for it.

There are still questions: as George and Bill commented on Facebook, it can be served with a drop of booze, with finely chopped pancake or with very finely cut and cooked veg, floating like koi carp in the rich, clear liquid. I'll decide later.

In the meantime, there was everyday food to prepare.

Matthew had also jointed a chicken for me, which went into a large bowl with a bouquet garni, celery, carrot, peeled baby onions and peppercorns, plus a bottle and a half of hearty red wine that had been boiled to reduce by a third to intensify the flavour and get rid of the alcohol.

Because, with several possible recipes for coq au vin to work from, I'd chosen a Raymond Blanc one, and that last bit is typical of him.

Then it was all covered with cling film and popped into the fridge for 24 hours.

Saturday night was tuna. The fish is pan-fried simply and served with a light gravy made by reducing white wine with some chopped celery and dried chilli and dried mushrooms in it. At the end, you strain and then thicken with beurre manié.

It's a Rick Stein dish and works very well. He suggests serving with puréed garlicky potatoes, but I opted instead for the comforts of mashed carrot and swede.

Sunday's actual cook was easy: the chicken and veg were drained for an hour and then patted dry before being browned in a little olive oil. The veg followed, before a heaped tablespoon of plain flour, which had been toasted for around 15 minutes in the oven, was added too.

Then in went the marinade and it's stirred over a heat until thickened, when the meat was returned to the pot, before it went into the oven at 140˚C (fan) for about 50 minutes. The recipe had said half an hour, but the chicken pieces were large and I know my oven.

The result was very tasty, but there are things to learn. To start with, when I'd dropped the farm an email to ask for a jointed bird, I should have specified the number of pieces - five was nowhere enough. And second, I need to make the sauce a little thicker. But this is certainly a dish I'll be doing again.

Monday saw my Christmas visit to my parents, while The Other Half stayed in as work started on the kitchen.

The cold tap hasn't worked at all for years, while part of the casing of the hot tap has rotted away with limescale.

The hob was a mess too. We'd bought a new one around three years ago when we'd had to buy a new oven, but ended up in a total debacle with Curry's over fitting, and it had subsequently spent the intervening time in its box in the hall.

The hood should have been replaced then too - but the one we'd ordered had never even arrived, let alone been installed.

Moral of the story: just because John Lewis actually openly and truthfully says they can't arrange installation in your area, don't go elsewhere to buy a product on the basis that some other company claims that they can install it – and then does nothing but have you running around in circles.

And to add to the overall job, there was the small matter of lighting - just a single bulb.

So over Monday and Tuesday morning, the hob was replaced with a ceramic one, a new hood was fitted, the taps were replaced and a new light, with six adjustable spots of 50 watts each, took its place on the ceiling.

The room has been revolutionised! And now all I have to do is adjust to a hob that is around a third more subtle than the old one!


  1. I love reading your blog Amanda! Have a great Christmas and I will look forward to hearing about your cooking! Marie x

  2. Thank you, Marie. I'm really chuffed that you enjoy it – and I hope there'll be plenty more.