Have we got trimmings for yule

Last week we showed you how to cook the turkey, this week it's all the extras. Michael Bateman seeks tips and recipes from Simpson's- in-the-Strand chef Roger Boschetti on the perfect accompaniments to the big bird
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The Independent Culture
ALTERNATIVE Christmas, pah. What is Christmas if it's not traditional? Actually, that's the sort of statement we are coming to associate with the superior tones of the Two Fat Ladies. Overnight, through their television food series, Clarissa Dickson-Wright and Jennifer Paterson have become the two nannies of British traditional values, reminding us of our spiritual and material obligations.

Very well. But be glad that the yuletide path is so clearly signposted. It's got to be turkey (or goose, or capon, or game-bird) with all the trimmings. And what could be more traditional than the trimmings? My dictionary records that dinner-table usage of the word, as accompaniments to the roast, goes back to 1610.

What were the original trimmings, then? Are we talking of sage and onion or chestnut stuffing, bread sauce, redcurrant or apple sauce, chipolatas and bacon, roast potatoes and parsnips, carrots and sprouts?

Or did trimmings perhaps refer to the giblets, liver, kidney, heart and odds and ends stewed up and served in a gravy? Well, gravy is surely the backbone of our culinary heritage. The argument goes that our national produce is so good it has never needed a blanket of Johnny Foreigner's saucing, just the juices from the roast joint.

Certainly the tradition of Christmas dinner with all the trimmings goes back a long way. Bread sauce is England's oldest sauce, breadcrumbs being the thickener for sauces centuries before fancy French cooks brought over their clever roux to thicken sauces and soups.

Breadcrumbs. And what is stuffing but an extender fashioned out of bread, echoing the medieval trencher, the "plate" of bread provided to to soak up the meat dripping and juices? In its different forms stuffing represents stages of our gastronomic adolescence, with herbs, with fruit, with nuts.

Sage in particular was considered first and foremost a herbalist's medicine. Nuts such as hazels, filberts and walnuts provided valuable extra protein for winter, and was it not our own Plymouth Brethren who introduced the chestnut (and the stuffing) to the New World? (America later returned the compliment, giving us cranberry sauce for our turkey.)

The idea of using fruit with meat, such as apples, pears, quinces, is very Elizabethan, though it was apparently Richard the Lionheart's men, fighting the Crusades, who brought back from the Middle East the notion of mincemeat, meat with dried fruit.

Happily, the trimmings are all very easy to cook, but for some seasonal advice, we approached the chef of Simpson's-in-the-Strand, where the cooking has not changed very much in the 168 years that the restaurant has been in business.

Chef Roger Boschetti (Italian mother, Hungarian father, Cockney accent) only cooks the bronze turkey, being the one with the most flavour. He serves it with chestnut stuffing which he cooks separately from the bird in a "log", wrapped in foil.

Shelling and removing the bitter skin from boiled chestnuts is not a pleasant chore. The chefs' way is to lower them into the deep-frier, which crisps up the shells so they crack open easily, and then simmer them in stock till tender. An alternative is to buy them canned, though they tend to lack flavour. This year, there's a much more acceptable alternative - 200g vacuum-packed chestnuts, cooked and peeled. They come from La Correze in France, and have been first roasted to give them better flavour and a good dark colour. They lend themselves to both savoury and dessert use (see recipes). You can find them in most supermarkets and delicatessens. Look out for The Merchant Gourmet whole chestnuts (pounds 2.50) and puree (pounds 1.59).

Chef Boschetti roasts his potatoes "like grandma", simply peeled and quartered, in a baking tray in a shallow film of oil. Carrots are cut into batons - and he's careful not to buy flavourless Dutch specimens, but good old English country carrots, preferably organic. Once cooked, he uses the minimum of butter to glaze them. "Veg used to be served swimming in butter," he says.

He goes for small sprouts, tight and compact, cooked briefly in boiling water. But he doesn't go with the current fashion for al dente vegetables. "My customers really don't want to eat raw vegetables."

Brussels sprouts used to be the most seasonal of vegetables, country lore ordaining that "you don't eat sprout till first frost be out". The frost sweetened them. But now it's an all-the-year-round vegetable grown for nine months from Fyfe to Kent, and for three months of the year from Mexico and South Africa, California and Spain. They can now grow sweet, nutty strains of the vegetable which have lost that certain bitterness. Marks and Spencer boast they grow some 41 different varieties. M&S offer this advice; sprouts have a short shelf-life, so keep them in the chill compartment of your fridge, and use within three days.

Chef Boschetti's gravy is simplicity itself, the juices from the meat and stock (turkey or chicken bones, onion, carrot, celery, bouquet garni, simmered for two hours). No flour or thickening. Those less confident can take heart. New Covent Garden Soup Co, who pioneered home-style soups, have relaunched and extended their gravy range for Christmas. There's nothing yet to compete with them. Beef or lamb (pounds l.39 for 320ml carton) and chicken or vegetable (pounds 1.19 per carton).

Below we give Chef Boschetti's recipes for "all the trimmings", together with two more stuffings, a sharp apricot stuffing which complements the richness of a duck, and a traditional sage-and-onion stuffing which goes well with a capon or chicken. These two recipes, and the one for chestnut soup are from Margaret Costa's The Four Season's Cookery Book which was republished this autumn (Grub Street, pounds 17.99).

Recipes are given for four, so you may choose to make two or three portions, depending on size of bird.

CHESTNUT STUFFING

500g/1lb sausagemeat

250g/8oz chestnuts

1 clove garlic

80g/3oz onion, chopped

1 egg

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

1 tablespoon sunflower oil for frying

salt and pepper

Use a packet of chestnuts or try the chefs' method: lower chestnuts in the shell into very hot, deep oil (as for frying chips). As the shells crisp remove with from oil with a slotted spoon. When cool, remove the shells. Soften the chestnuts, cooking in chicken stock till crumbly. Chop roughly.

Fry the onion in oil till soft, but not brown. Mix all ingredients together. Butter a piece of aluminium foil, and make a shape like a Swiss roll (for slicing later). Bake on a tray in a slow oven (300F/150C/Gas 2) for 45 minutes or until sausagemeat is cooked through, Slice into thick rounds.

APRICOT STUFFING

90g/3oz chopped, soaked, dried apricots

4 good tablespoons fresh white breadcrumbs

1-2 tablespooons milk

1 tablespoon chopped onion

30g/1oz butter

1 teaspoon chopped parsley

salt and pepper

Melt the butter and gently fry the onion in it, then stir in the crumbs, seasoning and parsley. Mix to a soft consistency with the milk and add the apricots.

SAGE AND ONION STUFFING

4 sage leaves

2 Spanish onions

100g/4oz coarse fresh breadcrumbs

grated rind of 12 lemon

2-3 tablespoons melted butter

stock, if necessary

salt and pepper

Blanch the sage leaves in boiling water for five minutes. Chop the onions finely, add the well-drained and finely-chopped sage leaves, and put them all in a bowl with the breadcrumbs and the grated lemon rind. Season to taste and stir in the melted butter. If necessary, add a little stock to bind.

CHEF BOSCHETTI'S GRAVY

juices of roast bird

300ml/12 pint turkey or chicken stock (made with usual vegetables)

salt and pepper

Remove as much fat from the roasting pan as possible, pour in the stock, heat through, scraping up the sticky bits. Season to taste. Strain into gravy boat.

BREAD SAUCE

300ml/12 pint milk

1 onion

12 cloves

1 bayleaf

2 slices fresh white bread, crusts removed

salt and pepper

15g/12 oz butter

1 tablespoon double cream

Stud the peeled onion with cloves, simmer in milk with the bay leaf for 15 minutes. Remove onion and bayleaf. Add the bread, cut into cubes, and cook till it disintegrates. Season to taste. Keep warm. Before serving, stir in the butter and cream.

CRANBERRY SAUCE

250g/8oz cranberries

50g/2oz sugar (and more later to taste)

1 teaspoon grated zest of orange

1 tablespoon port

Stew the cranberries and sugar for 10 to 15 minutes on a low heat till they dissolve to a mash. Add orange peel and port. Taste for sweetness. Add more sugar as you think fit.

CHIPOLATAS AND STREAKY, DRY-CURED BACON

Allow at last two each

Wrap a slice of streaky bacon around each sausage and grill till crisp.

CHESTNUT SOUP

500g/1lb chestnuts

1,150ml/2 pints chicken or pheasant stock or diluted, canned pheasant consomme

1 onion

1 leek, white part only

1 carrot

3 sticks celery

300ml/12 pint single cream

salt and pepper

pinch of sugar

pinch of cayenne

2 tablespoons medium sherry or dry Madeira

chopped parsley

Skin and shell the chestnuts, and cook them in the stock with the sliced vegetables till soft. Put the chestnuts through the blender, or sieve them, saving a few broken nuts for a garnish. Reheat with the strained stock, and when it reaches boiling point add the warmed cream. Re-season with salt and pepper if needed, and add a pinch of sugar and cayenne. Stir in the sherry and serve garnished with the chestnut pieces and a sprinkling of chopped parsley. Serve with small croutons of fried bread.

CHESTNUT TART

Serves 6

250g/9oz shortcrust pastry, thawed if frozen

200g/7oz peeled, boiled chestnuts

4 tablespoons maple or golden syrup

3 tablespoons double cream

125g/4oz soft light brown sugar

2 large eggs, beaten

75g/212oz unsalted butter, melted

Lightly knead the pastry then roll out and line a 22cm (10in) loose-bottomed tart tin. Trim the edges, then chill for 30 minutes. Heat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas 6. Lightly prick the base of the pastry case, line with foil and bake for 10 minutes. Then reduce the temperature to 180C/350F/Gas 4, remove the foil and cook for a further five minutes. Roughly chop the chestnuts and place in the pastry case. Beat the remaining ingredients together then pour over the chestnuts. Return to the oven to bake for 30 to 35 minutes until just set. Can be eaten warm or cold with cream.

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