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Aside from the presents and the party food, my abiding memory of Christmas has always been the golden orange, bright and round like a jewel, at the bottom of my Christmas stocking. Peel one now and that delightful zesty zing never fails to take me back to the log fires, pine needles and all the spice and sensations of the festivities.
Nowadays, we're spoilt for choice when it comes to which variety of mandarin orange we choose to stuff in our stockings, but whether it's a tangerine, Clementine or satsuma they are just as lovely out of the stocking as in. I love them piled high in gleaming towers in the fruit bowl, but I also use them in desserts, peeled and bubbled in a caramel sauce with star anise and cinnamon, with a dash of Grand Marnier, or as a glaze for roast meats. Orange can work well with turkey, mixed with the juices from the roasting tin and a little cornstarch, and poured over the roasted bird before serving.
It's nice to ring the changes with turkey, or even choose other meats such as white cockerel, venison, saddle of lamb or Rib of Beef for your centrepiece. After all, the Christmas meal is the traditional time to try something special or extravagant. While white turkeys are larger - thus offering slightly more meat - blacks and bronzes tend to have a fuller, gamier taste and there are some great organic and free-range options out there. You can also get creative with your stuffings: pork and apple, cranberry and chestnut, dried fig and apricot, alongside a nice herby butter slathered under the skin.
ROAST RIB OF BEEF
Servings: 6 | Preparation Time: 20 mins |
Cooking Time: 1.5 - 2 hours| Difficulty: Moderate
2.5kg of French trimmed Rib of Beef
2 tbsp grain mustard
2tbsp creamed horseradish
Few sprigs fresh thyme
6 large red onions, peeled and quartered
4 whole bulbs of garlic - trim the tops
2 tbsp duck fat or a drizzle of vegetable oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
In my mind, trimmings wouldn't be trimmings without the Brussels either. As polarizing as a jar of marmite, it's said the British Sprout Growers Association spent a six-figure sum a few years back trying to improve the image of the humble sprout (elevating it beyond the Christmas dinner staple with sprout tops appearing on the menus of fashionable London restaurants), but if, like me, you love them just as they are, there's really no comparison in the veg world at this time of year.
Overcooking is the most heinous culinary sin - their vibrant green crunch becomes a greyish pulp, they smell like the bottom of a rabbit hutch and they taste much the same - so, instead, blanch for 5-6 minutes and serve with crisped-up chorizo or glaze them in honey and white wine. Sprouts still attached to the stalk offer optimum freshness but use the small ones first as these are sweeter and crunchier.
With more than 400 varieties of brassica to choose from at this time of year, you're spoilt for choice, but my other chart topper is spicy red cabbage. Adding a blush of colour to winter salads (and a high vitamin content), it's tangy, peppery flavour cuts wonderfully through the fattiness of duck or goose, and I like to simmer mine with sautéed onions, chopped apple, cider vinegar, a dash of balsamic and sugar for 30-40 minutes, and then mix with chopped roasted chestnuts and bacon lardons.
But on the first day of Christmas, it has to be a partridge of course - pear tree optional - and although the season kicked off in September, they remain a tasty addition to the festive table. You can buy oven-ready partridges these days but if buying fresh, they benefit from being hung for a week in a cool, airy room so the flavours can develop. Roasting or casseroling is the best way to enjoy them, perhaps with some crispy bacon, chipolatas and a nice gravy, and a brace should sate a Yuletide dinner et deux - whether it's your true love or not!
It is easy to overcook game birds, if you are planning to roast them and well timed fast roasting is by far the best way to cook these delicious birds - so don't be daunted. Each bird will serve one person and they are a real autumnal treat. Serve them simply with a classic combination of bread sauce and a watercress garnish. Also, the lovely wild fruit jellies make a delicious accompaniment, try redcurrant, rowan, or quince. Figs are also in season, cut down a short way from the stork, to open them up slightly them roast them alongside the birds or try wrapping them in streaky bacon.
Servings: 1| Preparation Time: 10 mins | Cooking Time: 20 mins | Difficulty: Easy
Partridge - 1 per person
Few sprigs of fresh thyme
2 large onions, cut into quarters