There’s been an alternate Christmas routine going on in my family since our marital split when sons Zach and Henry were six and eight. Since Zach married, the tradition has moved effortlessly onto alternate Christmases with his wife’s family. Hen and I are invariably together but this year he’s off to Kenya on Christmas Day so we decided on our early Christmas celebration today. I wanted to host it but Zach stepped in, his family the proud owners of a new kitchen. He wanted to show off all his lovely cupboards with drawers that open properly with space for everything, even a cleverly designed larder, huge new fridge and beautiful oak shelves and detail and stunning Farrow&Ball paintwork. It really is beautiful. He ordered a rib of beef from his local butcher on Askew Road (thegingerpig.co.uk), made two versions of fresh horseradish with whipped cream, one with chilli and the other relatively mild; both I thought needed a good squeeze of lemon and a smear of English mustard too. There were two potato gratins; one with mushrooms, the other, which I actually preferred, far crisper, the slices thinner and less creamy. With it he made silky gravy and cooked cavolo nero. It truly was a feast. Henry contributed cheese – a big wedge of Keen’s superb Cheddar and a goodly dollop of very creamy, very soft and luscious gorgonzola. I took some of my pickled onions to go with the cheese, a treacle tart to serve warm with vanilla ice cream from Foubert’s (www.fouberts.co.uk)
(. Zach followed our tradition of slicing off the ribs in one fell swoop, then carved the joint thickly after it’s 15 minute rest. The meat was perfect. In fact it was a terrific meal and there were no arguments, tantrums or bad moments (that I know of) and The B and I left with Red, stumbling into the rain with a doggy back of slices of beef, a carton of horseradish and cheese. Very much later, I discovered we had just enough beef for two humungous sandwiches. As I scoffed, a photo of grandson Caspar and his first toasted sandwich made in my Christmas gift to him of a shiny, chrome very luxe toasted sandwich maker was sent by his mum.
While I cooked the little boys favourite sausage and orzo supper, I cooked up chicken carcases (4) dug out of the deep freeze for me by Noel at Macken’s (the Lidgates of Chiswick) so I could cook them up for poorly Red, a star of Chiswick who is tied up outside when I visit Macken’s and gazes in imploringly. I added rice in the water and managed to pick off enough meat for 4 lean meals, the rice moistened with stock. In a fit of multi-tasking, I also made one of my favourite aubergine stews, this time inspired by two slightly wrinkly aubs in need of eating up. Later for my supper, I topped Aubergine and Tomato Stew with a poached egg and swirl of my prized Calonna virgin olive oil with lemon. The bottle is instantly recognisable on the Waitrose shelf by its distinctive wooden stopper and double pouring spouts but I get mine from Charles Carey (www.oilmerchant.co.uk). This soft and luscious food-of-the-Gods fork supper slipped down very pleasantly, a hint of chilli to the buttery aubergine and slippery onion and tomatoes, as I watched Mary Berry wandering around with the young Royals, an impossibly slim Catherine and super-interested William, talking food and cooking.
Today I get the go-ahead for my cooking contribution to Christmas lunch with The B’s family. The Traditional Christmas Pudding is done and dusted but I buy top-drawer mincemeat to enhance with grated apple and a generous splash of Irish whisky and a new pack of plain flour, more butter and lard for pastry to make bite-size mince tarts. These always go down well; thinly rolled short, crisp pastry, a goodly dollop of mincemeat and a star or bobble made from trimmings to decorate the top. I always glaze them with beaten egg for a smart finish and pack them in parchment-divided layers in stacking boxes. They freeze perfectly. I shop for my terrine-style stuffing but freeze the kilo of Cumberland sausages and pound of streaky, smoked bacon, planning to make it the day before Christmas Eve. I’ve also bought a double pack of cooked and peeled whole chestnuts for the stuffing, spinach, onions, lemons, cous cous (instead of breadcrumbs) and humungous bunches of flat leaf parsley and thyme. I buy fresh cranberries while they are abundant in the shops, remembering the year they ran out. I want them for my cranberry and orange relish, a very simple but stunningly good recipe I think I first encountered many years ago when my friend Roger de Freitas cooked from an old American cookbook, creating the most exhaustive multi-dish Thanksgiving dinner ever. Neighbour and friend Michael Bateman (then the Sunday Independent food writer) was in on it and the meal because a tradition that endured for years with me making the soup (usually for 18 or more) and ended with Roger’s stories about his family’s sugar plantation and (Nabisco) Grahams crackers history. The relish looks so pretty, a vibrant purple red colour flecked with orange zest, the flavour as bright and lively as it looks. It’s a huge improvement on dreary, sickly cranberry sauce, bringing a freshness to the meal. My kitchen is steamy and smelling gorgeous as I balance slices of Warburton’s thick slice white bread around and about, aiming to dry it out in preparation for making breadcrumbs for the freezer; they always come in handy and I’d forgotten that I was using cous cous instead of crumbs in the stuffing. At the back of the booze cupboard I found my stash of Port and used some of it to make Cumberland sauce, another very good Christmas condiment, delicious with ham but good too, as we discovered, with roast duck. Lazy supper of skirt steak and Aunt Bessie oven chips. The steak is oiled, one side seasoned and that side laid out on a pre-heated (un-oiled) griddle, left for 3 minutes, the exposed side seasoned then turned, the cooking repeated if it’s a very thick piece of steak. The important point about cooking skirt, is letting it rest for almost as long as the cooking time before it is sliced across the middle.
Discover half a butternut squash lurking under other things in the bottom of the fridge. It led to a golden soup for lunch. Didn’t bother to peel it, but chunked and oiled it and roasted it alongside unpeeled onion and garlic then liquidized everything (onion and garlic peeled) with chicken stock from the freezer. The subtly creamy bowlful was delicious seasoned with a dash of Tabasco and enriched by a serving criss-cross of truffle oil. Perfect with slivers of dense Keen’s Cheddar and buttered sourdough. I’ve just deciphered my scribbled notes for Roasted Butternut Soup with Truffle Oil, do check out the recipe.
Tonight The B is reading a Lesson as part of the Garrick Christmas Carol Service, so lucky me gets to sit right at the front of my favourite Church, the so-called Actor’s Church in Covent Garden. Simply but stunningly designed by Inigo Jones, the rich heritage of St Paul’s Covent Garden is palpable, most recently for me at the deeply moving and extremely entertaining celebration of the life of restaurateur Laurence Isaacson, whose memory lives on around the corner at L’Escargot. The service included all my favourite carols and we walked around the corner afterwards for a magnificent buffet supper at the Garrick. The highlight as far as I was concerned, was a huge range of English charcuterie, particularly the fennel seed salami – finocchiona – possibly from www.hampshiresalami.co.uk. Told chef Clive Howe who fussed in the background resplendent in his tall toque about the British Charcuterie Awards taking place in mid-July and suggested a tasting for Garrick members.
Today our Christmas ham arrived (half bone-in York ham from www.dukeshillham.co.uk), so supper is one of my seasonal favourites; thinly sliced ham, Cumberland sauce and chicory and walnut salad in a creamy shallot-chipped vinaigrette with jacket potatoes done in the diamond jacket way – halved lengthways, etched with a narrow lattice, smeared with olive oil and baked at a very high temperature until the lattice sags and turns golden, the potato soft. Yum.
For lunch, I treat myself to ham sandwiches with Dijon mustard on very fresh, very crusty sourdough, the favourite Hedone brown (from Bayley&Sage on Turnham Green Terrace), and rejoice in such deliciously good ingredients. It already feels as if my diet is exclusively ham but that is just the beginning of ham meals to come. I collect a big bag of clams The B has bought on a whim as he walked past the fish shop (www.coventgardenfishmongers.co.uk) on his way to the tube, planning to cook them up with finely chopped garlic and parsley with white wine and more crusty bread and butter to mop up the copious garlicky juices. Instead, it’s a bread and butter kind of evening, the bread loaded with wafer-thin slices of ham with a quickly made chicory and parsley salad on the side. The combination of salty, intensely savoury ham with crisp juicy, slightly bitter chicory is fantastic.
Highlight of the day is lunch at Sam’s. It’s my second visit, The B’s first and the great advantage for us is that they allow dogs. So, a lovely river walk, traffic-free beautiful Hammersmith Bridge, marvel at the changed view now that the new Riverside Studios building is up and the immediate area is surging with New Life, then Bloody Marys at Sam’s big, squared bar and lunch at a bar table to the right of the bar. I love this place, both for its design and ambience but most particularly for the food. Grilled sardines with lettuce dressed with golden vinaigrette and a big fillet of cod swimming atop a slick of terracotta bisque with black beluga lentils is perfection. Oh my, what a gorgeous dish, something to try next time I make bisque with crab debris. The kitchen is to the right of the bar tables, so we watched (and heard) the head chef working the pass; a real pleasure for me. Thank you Sam, I will be back very soon. Highly recommended.