Sunday, 28 December 2014

Christmas fodder – with last year's lessons learned

Pheasant two ways, with sauce, leeks and redcurrants
Last year, Christmas Day proved to be – in culinary terms at least – something of a catalogue of errors.

Over ambition led to The Other Half spending a ludicrously long time sitting on his own at the dining table as I stressed out in the kitchen between every course, trying to produce dishes that, if not beyond my skill level, were far too ambitious in terms of planning.

And of course, needless to say, my own enjoyment of the meal – and of the day as a whole, and of the days, given my frenetic running up to the main day itself – were all affected negatively.

So how did I avoid that, without compromising on quality and taste?

The big thing to learn is planning.

This year, I started from a point of Christmas Day’s main course as being a chicken, roasted for three and a half hours, as per the River Café and as I’ve done many time previously.

Okay, I changed the stuffing from a Mediterranean-style one to pre-cooked chestnuts, masses of sage and a chopped onion, but the method was one I knew well.

The Other Half had been angling for me to try a chocolate fondant as dessert: we’ll return to that later.

For a starter – well, I wasn’t even sure about doing one, until very late in the piece (the Saturday before Christmas) when I happened on some London gin-cured duck charcuterie on Broadway Market from the London Charcutier (find out more via@LDNCharcutier on Twitter).

No, it wasn’t cheap, but it screamed an easy, high-quality starter. I already had a load of pickles in the cupboard and I could instantly envisage serving it on my oblong slates. All it would need besides was bread.

Now for me, Christmas Eve screams game. The weekend before, since they had no breasts, I’d picked up a whole pheasant from the new Broadway Market game stall (glory hallelujah!).

Now it’s a nightmare trying to roast such a bird whole because of the different cooking needs of different parts of the bird – which is why chefs do different bits separately – so I quickly came to the conclusion that I could do the breasts in butter (as I’ve done many times now) and the legs as a confit.

Bt this still left me with the interesting challenge of butchering the bird.

I swotted via the internet: most was simple, but I discovered that one of the reasons the legs can be so difficult is that the muscles in them make them tough.

You can, though, remove the muscles – and I have the Wüsthof cooking tweezers for the job. It was fiddly – yet oddly fascinating: how many of us know what muscles look like?

The upper leg bones were snipped out and they rest was salted for half an hour.

That was then brushed off and the legs were simmered in duck fat for two hours. Easy. To serve, they were simply heated in a medium oven for 20 minutes.

On the side, were leeks, a sprig of redcurrants and a red wine and redcurrant sauce.

But what I also set out to do on Christmas Eve was try fondants.

Duck charcuterie and pickles
I have recipes by Michel Roux Snr and Raymond Blanc.

The former – which demands vast amounts of eggs – gives no help on how to time it in terms of a wider meal.

Blanc, however, does precisely that, providing a method of mixing that allows you to then chill the mixture for up to 24 hours or cook within a couple.

This won out. I made the mix according to Blanc – it requires far fewer eggs, but does need arrowroot – and then divided it between four rings: two for that night and two for Christmas Day itself.

After a required chilling of at least 30 minutes, the first pair were cooked at 190˚C (fan) for five minutes and then cooled and chilled, before being cooked again for eight minutes at 170˚C (fan) when we needed them.

They collapsed slowly when the rings were lifted away after the first cook, and were not actually liquid in the middle, but they were were thoroughly tasty.

Lesson learned though: the initial cooking needed to be at a higher temperature – since there were no notes on the recipe I used (an online version of a slightly more complex one in a book on the shelf) I had assumed that the temperatures for the cooking were for an ordinary oven.

Anyway, the pheasant was good and the fondant, although floppy, was very morish.

Christmas Day itself was the easiest it’s been in years.

Christmas roast – with neatly turned carrots!
We had a proper breakfast this time – I didn’t need to occupy the entire kitchen for the entire day – and having two ovens and a separate grill was also a help.

The bird was the expected doddle. On the side we had spuds roasted in a little duck fat with a few leaves of sage to continue flavour themes.

Sprouts had been done in the morning à la Joël Robuchon: soak for two minutes in water with a glug of malt vinegar; drain and rinse, then blanch for a minute in boiling salted water.

Refresh and stop the cooking by plunging them into iced water, then cook for 20 minutes in fresh boiling, salted water, just allowing the water to bubble.

Plunge once more into iced water and then drain and gently dry. Robuchon says that this method improves the ‘digestibility’ of the sprouts, Or the fart factor, as we might less politely refer to it.

It does – but it’s also a very good cheffy trick for being able to cut down work later on. Come the time, just heat some butter and sauté the little emerald gems – as I did, with some sliced pancetta and more chopped chestnuts.

The only other thing I added was a portion of carrots, which I prepped early, actually managing to turn them, and then cooked very gently, with water to cover, a knob of butter, a pinch of salt and a pinch of sugar, for 30 minutes while we ate our starter and I finished the rest of the main.

Collapsed – but still tasty. The fondant
That starter was easy: slice some bread, put some of the charcuterie on a slate with some pickled beetroot, cornichons, tiny onions and some very nice fig, apple and Balsamic chutney, and it was done.

Before doing the roast potatoes, I’d given the fondants their first cook, which then allowed them the minimum chill between sojourns in the oven.

They still collapsed when I was actually trying to serve them, but did have a liquid centre. More arrowroot may be required. We had cape gooseberries, redcurrants and a small amount of top-quality vanilla ice cream on the side.

And on Boxing Day, the usual boiled ham with a sour brown shallot sauce, which was hardly onerous, and which was served this year with plain boiled spuds and sauerkraut on the side.

So, that was the Christmas food: lessons learned, ambitions tempered – and results just as good (if not better) and certainly more enjoyable for all.

It can be done!

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