The run up to Christmas is decidedly un-Christmassy for me. I did my share of Christmas cooking but was very happy to have the chance to borrow my artist friend’s studio-cum-flat (www.marilynhallam.com) in St Leonards on Sea, escaping on Boxing Day. I love M’s work and urge you to check out her website; there are glorious sketches and watercolours of St L’s but also of her London garden and sadly missed husband who died last year. He was another exceptional but very different artist (www.clydehopkins.com) and I love living with their work as I can staying here and have come to love the area thanks to them. Co-incidentally, one of my son Henry’s Ruskin contemporaries has opened a fantastic fish and ice cream hut, Goatledge (www.goatledge.com on the prom just below Warrior Square and we love dwelling for a beer or wine and sometimes lunch of their Hastings fish roll and skinny chips with super-good salad. On our visit it was hard to resist their winter menu of creamy chowder with potatoes and sweetcorn and Mexican mixed bean tortilla soup. The trouble is, the tiny kitchen and the long queues often mean a 45-minute wait which is a bit chilly at this time of year.
A cooking day for me, making two lots of pastry for the mince tarts, pimping the mince with grated apple washed in lemon juice with a goodly splash of Jameson’s to liven the flavours. I make the little tarts in batches of 12 because I only have one such tray. It’s slow work as each batch takes 12-15 minutes (at 180C), then rested for a moment before gently easing out of their indentations onto a cake tray to cool. The biggest job, though, is making the stuffing. As we will be a big table, it’s helpful to make the meaty stuffing as a terrine, then slice some of it thickly, laid out on a platter as part of the buffet Christmas lunch. There’s nothing difficult about the job but it takes time to prepare; gently cooking the onion, folding in chopped bacon, breaking up the chestnuts, chopping the herbs, blanching and chopping the spinach, unzipping and crumbling the sausages, zesting the lemons, then mixing everything into an even muddle, to pat and shape into a lidded terrine ready to be covered with buttered parchment and foil to cook gently for 90 minutes then left to cool in its bain-marie. Cooked a rich ragu and veal stew to pack in plastic boxes and freeze, ready to take with us to St Leonards On Sea, where we plan to escape on Boxing Day. Supper is a lazy roast chicken with a couple of sausages I kept back from the stuffing mix, bread sauce and sprouts.
I love roast chicken and I love the leftovers. Apart from stock, which is a must – I am incapable of throwing out the carcass and salvaged bones – there are so many good second meals to make with chicken. The very versatility of its gentle flavour and soft succulence makes it the perfect candidate for gratins and the ideal boost for any tomato sauce – particularly good with chilli and coriander. It is ideal too for salads of any type or style and great in sandwich pile-ups with, say, avocado and lime or bacon. Tonight I’m adding the pickings to some of our lovely ham held in a thick Dijon mustard and lemon béchamel sauce. I happened to have some steamed leeks leftover from preparing leeks vinaigrette for tomorrow night, so cut them into chunky pieces with chopped flat leaf parsley. With a thick gratinee topping made with fresh breadcrumbs and finely grated grana padano – a favourite combination – this was a wonderful mix of crunch with salty, creamy flavours, each ingredients combining into a wonderful whole. With sprouts this was perfection.
It’s Christmas Eve and son Henry is coming for supper and dropping off his dog Arrow, staying with us while he heads off to Kenya for a couple of weeks (lucky bugger). We are having one of our favourite Christmas suppers, usually one that happens post the Big Day. We kick off with champagne and blinis loaded with crème fraiche, smoked salmon and chives in front of the fire while we open our presents to each other. Our main course is leeks vinaigrette topped with finely grated hard-boiled egg (Leeks Vinaigrette with Egg), beautifully carved ham (The Barrister is a master carver, taught, he always says when I compliment him, by his dad), Cumberland sauce and diamond jackets, Stilton, pickled onions and walnuts to follow. Oh yes, and some lovely red wine. We drink too much and stay up too late. No change there then.
It’s Christmas Day and The B, Red the dog and I decide to walk through Holland Park then nip into the Mitre on Holland Park Avenue, which was buzzing, for a sly Bloody Mary before lunch around the corner at his Mum’s house. We walk in, arriving a bit glazed from the Night Before, and an unexpected whoop goes up. There, happily ensconced at a table in the far corner of the big open-plan room is Nicola, one of The B’s sisters, her husband John, daughter Charlotte and her hubby Hal. Ha! N, it turns out, has the freshly roasted turkey wrapped in foil resting in her car boot ready for The B to carve. So we don’t linger. The house is full to bursting, the tree sparkling, the children seasonally decked, so champagne is poured, smoked salmon on square slices of moist, dense black bread is passed and the festivities begin. Eventually we sit at the long table – we are 13 – our plates loaded with turkey, two types of stuffing, roast potatoes etc etc, all the usual, plus my cranberry and orange relish and stewed red cabbage. Another sister made Jamie Oliver’s turkey gravy, the one that doesn’t require a turkey but sounded as if it involved an awful lot of work making fresh chicken stock with wings. I was shy of taking more than a small splash as there didn’t seem to be very much, so can’t comment on its excellence. I was very pleased that my family’s traditional Christmas pud, steamed again for a couple of hours, was very well received. The meal ended with Stilton and Cheddar. There was fun and games, tea with Liz’s dark, fruity Christmas cake (I could eat a slice now) and then Another Meal. I couldn’t believe it but we all managed to put away a baked potato and various lunchtime leftovers. We staggered into the night.
It’s Boxing Day and we are packed and ready to blast off to St Leonards for a few days. Our first meal will be an Italian veal stew with fennel and lemon with Parmesan and buttery soft polenta. It’s know simply as Veal Spezzatino.
The weather is bright but cold, perfect walking weather (if you haven’t torn your meniscus; I fear there is more to come on that subject). We are too late for fresh fish but stock up on a few vegetables and other necessities, coming home to baked potatoes and ham with salad and cheese for lunch. We luxuriate in front of a roaring log fire, thanking our good luck to see a log supplier on our way down, gazing out across Warrior Square at Christmas lights twinkling in the distance, watching the evening sky dim and fill with stars. Supper is the beef ragu I’d brought with us from London. It’s thick and rich with red wine, delicious over the buttery, parsley-lashed fusilli pasta but without the usual Parmesan shower. (‘There is no-where in St Leonards that sells Parmesan’, I heard The B mutter when back from a dart into the nearby Co-Op. Why is he surprised? It’s not a Parmesan kind of place).
Up in relatively good time, although it seems to take us an age to get past breakfast and out for our constitutional (or Health Giver, as my mother variously called going for a walk). It’s a lovely stroll along the breezy promenade from St Leonards to Hastings, taking about 40 minutes with enforced dawdle caused by two lurchers on full sniff. We find one fisherman’s hut open and buy what we are told is cod and half a dozen dabs. As I washed and trimmed the big fish for supper, I became increasingly certain that it wasn’t cod. When we tucked in, I was absolutely certain. The flesh was a tad woolly, didn’t flake into firm curls like cod or haddock and the bones were thin and multiple. On reflection I think it was ling. Anyway, I stuffed and surrounded it with spring onion, slivers of ginger and garlic, doused it with soy and a splash of groundnut oil and baked it wrapped in foil with bok choy. The bones spoilt it for me but The B thought it wonderful (must make this again with cod or sea bass, then he’ll understand why I was disappointed). Tomorrow it’s dabs for lunch. There is no doubt about them.