Christmas dinner has been vastly over-complicated by the era of the television chef. Should you cook the classic turkey, with bacon rashers laid across its breast, as enshrined by Delia? Should you brine the bird beforehand, like Heston? Or should you try to impress the in-laws by attempting Hugh's humungous 10-bird roast? Nigel Slater and Rick Stein, who last night presented their "Simple" and "Spanish" Christmasses respectively, forwent turkey altogether. On Tuesday, the Hairy Bikers turned in a Christmas menu composed entirely of finger food. Nigella's seasonal series, repeated yesterday on BBC2, featured as its star dish a lamb and date tagine.
Given the limited versatility of turkey, the sheer profusion of TV cooks, and their shared desperation to flog their annual books before the January sales, it is perhaps inevitable that they'd seek to differentiate themselves with some off-beat recipes. But nobody in their right mind is going to make Stein's Spanish broth with savoury profiteroles this Sunday. In most British households, progressive modification of the traditional Christmas menu is permitted only within strict boundaries. If you don't bring a roasted bird to the table, you won't be allowed into the kitchen next year.
Nigel Slater's Simple Christmas, then, was a bit less simple than advertised. His starter was a decidedly summery seabass ceviche, which he justified as a light respite from all that rich seasonal fare, even going so far as to claim the flecks of red chilli in the recipe were a calculated "festive" touch. He followed that with roast duck, which would probably be acceptable in the Walker household, though a turkey, goose or capon would be preferable. For dessert: trifle, topped with cape gooseberries. Are cape gooseberries "simple" to source? I remain unconvinced.
There was something strangely melancholy about dear Nigel cooking those family Christmas dishes, with no family to eat them. He persistently invoked the memory of his father – Slater père's nut-eating habits; his "Christmas fruitbowl"; his wintry vegetable hotpot – but as anyone who has read Slater fils's memoir will be aware, the two had a troubled relationship. Pouring fortified wine into the roasting dish to make a sauce, he mused: "It's a smell that says good times. It's about special occasions, friends and family. All the reasons I cook are in this pan..." Yet once he'd drizzled the sauce over the duck, it was left to cool, uneaten, on a lonely sideboard.
In Rick Stein's Spanish Christmas, meanwhile, the chef was cooking for "friends" (including the Spanish ambassador) at a fancy London restaurant. There wasn't a bird in sight. Instead, we were invited to consider clams, baked aubergines and offal stew as suitable additions to Christmas dinner. This condensed re-cap of the chef's recent series, decorated with a few loosely Christmas-themed baubles, was presumably aimed at those vulnerable consumers still in search of a gift for their mum (ie Rick Stein's Spain, £25). Every dish looked delicious – especially the orange crème caramels – but passing them off as Christmas dinner is surely disingenuous.
The most convincing of the Christmas TV cooks this year was Jamie Oliver, whose Christmas with Bells On (broadcast on Tuesday) began dubiously, with "Festive Fiesta Tacos", but went on to outline a basic turkey recipe, straightforwardly pimped roast potatoes, and a variation on sprouts – shredded and fried with bacon and Worcestershire Sauce – that fell comfortably inside acceptable bounds. Still, it's important to remember that a cookery book is for life, not just for Christmas, and even if Slater's seasonal menu leaves something to be desired (specifically, a turkey), his two-volumed Tender is the tome I gave to my mum last Christmas. Nigel, if you're home alone this weekend, you'd be jolly welcome at the Walkers'. Just don't expect duck.