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December: The twelve dinners of Christmas!

Blog • November 29th 2013

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

Ingredients

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

Method

  1. Preheat the oven to 190C/Gas 5. Take the beef out of the fridge and allow it to get to room temperature.
  2. Mix the grain mustard with the horseradish and sprinkle in the thyme leaves. Mix together then rub the mixture generously over the beef.
  3. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
  4. Place the prepared onions and garlic in a heavy based roasting tin and sit the beef on top. Dot the duck fat around the meat and vegetables. Alternatively, drizzle with the oil.
  5. Roast in the oven for approximately one and a half hours (this will give you rare meat). Cook for a further 30 minutes for medium or a further half an hour, if you prefer it well done.
  6. When the beef is cooked, remove from the oven, cover with foil and allow it to rest in a warm place for 30 minutes.
  7. Reserve the juices from the roasting tin to make your gravy - squeeze the softened garlic cloves into the gravy for a delicious rich flavour.
  8. Carve the meat and serve with crispy roasties, Yorkshire Puddings, red cabbage, parsnips and sprouts.

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!

ROAST PARTRIDGE

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

Ingredients

Partridge - 1 per person

Streaky bacon

Few sprigs of fresh thyme

2 large onions, cut into quarters

Olive oil

Seasoning

To serve:

Bread Sauce

Watercress

Redcurrant Jelly

Method

  1. Wrap each bird in a couple of rashers of bacon.
  2. Place the birds in a roomy roasting tin.
  3. Scatter the onions and thyme around the birds.
  4. Brush the birds with olive oil. Season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.
  5. Place in a hot oven 200 C / Gas mark 6 for 15 - 20 minutes.
  6. The length of cooking time will depend on how you like your meat cooked, but ideally these delicate game birds should be served on the pink side.
  7. Remove the birds from the roasting tin. Serve on a bed of watercress, accompanied by the bread sauce and a spoonful of redcurrant jelly.