Monday, 14 December 2009

On the eve of Christmas

Sunday 13th December: The day that the spirit of Christmas swept it's way through the door at For Those That Love To Eat HQ. We had designated it our day to celebrate, Norwegian style, as if it were the 24th...

The tree fills the room with the scent of pine, as if we lived in the middle of a Scandinavian forest, not an arterial East End bus route. We wrap it in fairy lights, place presents underneath, and balance gingerbread snowmen and clove-studded clementines between it's branches. Our friends have arrived, and a long, plentiful evening of food, wine and festive cheer lay ahead of us. As we raise a glass to one-another's health, Judy Garland serenades us from the stereo. Here's to the start of our Merry Little Christmas. All that's missing is an open fire...

A bright winter salad

This vibrant, lively-looking dish was inspired jointly by Nigel Slater's ever-reliable column in the Observer, and Philippa Davies' exceptional Christmas menu at Mudchute Kitchen. Whilst Nigel pairs his down to little more than celeriac, red cabbage and some citrus, Philippa opts for the inclusion of duck, plenty of herbs and a balsamic dressing.

Mine is something of a half way house. It's by no means as austere as Nigel's minimalist effort, yet it's a different beast entirely to the Mudchute creation. Principally, there is no meat – there will be plenty of that in the next course - so instead, I roast chunks of winter squash with cinnamon and nutmeg, almost to the point of caramelising. This gives the salad a nutty richness and smooth, buttery textures to contrast with the crisp shards of red cabbage. More bight comes from finely sliced fennel. The little aniseed flavour that comes through is balanced with sweet citrus from slices of orange, peppery rocket, toasted walnuts and scattered with ruby jewels of pomegranite.

With more colours than a tin-full of Quality Streets, it sums up everything a festive starter should be; light and crisp yet still indulgent, with enough flavour to perk up the taste buds in anticipation of what's next to come. And when you're lucky enough to get all the flavours on one fork full, it really does taste exactly like Christmas.

Serves six as a starter, two or three as a main

a small winter squash or pumpkin, peeled and cut into chunks

ground cinnamon


a fennel bulb, sliced as thinly a you possibly can

a quarter of a red cabbage, shredded

two oranges, plus the juice of half another

a bag of rocket leaves

a handful walnuts, toasted

the seeds of one pomegranite

a tbsp cider vinegar

2 tbsps olive oil

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees C. Scatter the squash on a baking tray, turn them in olive oil, season, and sprinkle liberally with cinnamon and freshly-grated nutmeg. Roast in the oven for 20 minutes, until the tips of the corners have crisped and taken on a dark brown colour.

Meanwhile, slice the cabbage and fennel, either by hand or with a mandolin, and toss together in a large bowl. Zest the oranges, and add the bowl. Slice the off the skin, and slice the flesh across the segments so you have a series of orange disks, and add to the bowl, along with the rocket, walnut, and pomegranite. Season, and toss together the olive, vinegar, and orange juice. Serve immediately.

Roast rib of beef with bernaise sauce, potatoes roast in duck fat, braised red cabbage

If there is ever a day when when I have to choose my last supper, my decision would likely look something like this. In my kitchen, beef is served rare - Bloody as hell, as Vincent's waiter put it in Pulp Fiction – and this is no exception. The meat is massaged with olive oil, and covered in coarse ground pepper, before being seared in a hot griddle pan for three minutes on each side. After that, it goes into a hot oven, say 180, for another 15 minutes. Only when it is removed is it seasoned with salt, as sits for it's five minutes of rest before carving. The bone will have browned, and the outlying seams of fat will have begun to render, but in the centre the meat will still be soft and red-pink.

The trick with the potatoes is to par-boil them, almost until they fall apart, then add to a tray full of hot duck fat, along with rosemary, salt, pepper, and heads of garlic, sliced through the centre, across the cloves.

The cabbage gives a fruity addition to the plate, braised for a good hour or more in red wine and balsamic, with a few dots of butter, slices of pear and a single cinnamon stick to keep it company.

It's a rich plateful, to which some fresh, bouncy watercress leaves are a welcome addition. With a pot of warm bernaise sauce in the centre of the table, this is about as indulgent as a main course gets, and in my opinion, it couldn't be better.

Chocolate and apricot tart with vanilla yogurt and rose petals

Quite how we managed this, I'm not entirely sure. But manage it we did, and second helpings too. It's a wonderfully decadent dish, which calls out for yogurt, as opposed to cream, to cut through the rich chocolate. The rose petals add a ceremonious touch, and also fill the air with perfume as you're about to take your first bight. Dark chocolate heaven on a plate.

Now, anyone for cheese?

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