I'm all for an alternative to turkey on Christmas Day and this year once again I will be cooking a selection of small game birds. A couple of my guests from last year – the artist Anya Gallaccio and her partner Kelly, who now live in San Diego – booked their places months ago for this year's feast!
In my view, making a traditional Christmas lunch can involve a lot of unnecessary hassle and work without much reward. The festive meal should be simple, and most of the preparation should be done the day before so that there's very little to do at the last minute. That's why game birds work for me – they take no time at all to cook, and they have a wonderful festive taste. With this menu, you probably won't need to spend more than one hour in the kitchen on the day as long as you get all your homework done in advance – just follow the instructions below.
Conference pears with Blue Monday cheese, walnuts and honey
Juliet Harbut (cheese aficionado) and Alex James (cheese and music aficionado) are beginning to get a bit of a reputation in the cheese world – and their Little Wallop and Fairleigh Wallop cheeses have already won awards after just a short period of production. Now they have launched my favourite cheese of the year, Blue Monday – named after the New Order track which was a big dancefloor hit the early Eighties. Blue Monday is produced in Scotland by Rory Stone and it has the character of a very well-made gorgonzola piccante (which would make an acceptable alternative). For a list of stockists, e-mail email@example.com.
This festive starter has a bit of an Italian feel to it, even though all of the ingredients are British. Even those without advanced cooking skills will find it easy to knock it up in no time – just keep a close eye on the walnuts to make sure that they don't burn under the grill.
There's not much that you can do in advance for this recipe, except for toasting the walnuts.
6-8 ripe Conference pears or similar, peeled
150-160g (about 60-70 pieces) good-quality walnut halves
2tbsp extra-virgin rapeseed oil or olive oil
2tsp sea salt
250g Blue Monday (or gorgonzola piccante), broken into rough 1cm chunks
6-8tbsp good-quality clear honey
A handful of tiny salad leaves (optional)
Place the walnuts on a small baking tray and toss them in the oil and salt. Cook them under a medium grill for 3-4 minutes, turning them every so often until crisp. Slice the pears in half lengthways and cut out the core with the point of a sharp knife. Slice the pears into roughly 1/3cm-thick slices and arrange on plates with the leaves, then scatter the walnuts and cheese over. Spoon over the honey and serve immediately.
Gravy in advance
Makes about 1 litre
I've often seen people scrabbling around at the last minute trying to make gravy while the rest of the Christmas lunch or dinner is getting cold. But you can very cleverly get ahead of the game by making up your gravy the day before – or even a few days before – and then use it at the last minute to quickly de-glaze your roasting pan: the cooking juices will enhance the flavour.
Rather like in a restaurant, base sauces are made in advance, as they take a long time to cook and to extract the maximum flavour from the bones. So, if you're making this at home, it makes sense to make a large batch in advance – then you can freeze it in small useable quantities so that it's there when you need it.
1kg chicken wings, chopped into small pieces
2 medium onions, peeled and roughly chopped
3 medium carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
A couple of sticks of celery, roughly chopped
1 large leek, trimmed, roughly chopped and washed
3-4 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
2tsp tomato purée
1tbsp plain flour
2 litres chicken or beef stock (a couple of good-quality cubes will do)
10 black peppercorns
A few sprigs of thyme
1 bay leaf
Pre-heat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Roast the chopped chicken wings and the vegetables for about 15-20 minutes until lightly coloured, giving them a good stir every so often. When they are a nice golden-brown colour, add the tomato purée, then the flour and stir well with the wings and vegetables in the roasting pan.
Return the pan to the oven for another 10 minutes. Remove the roasting tray from the oven and add a little of the stock and give it a good stir over a low flame. This will remove any residue from the tray and begin the thickening process. Transfer everything into a large saucepan, cover with the rest of the beef or chicken stock and some cold water if the stock doesn't cover the wings and add the peppercorns, thyme and bay leaf. Bring to the boil, skim off any scum that forms and simmer very gently for 1 hours. The gravy may need topping up with water to keep the ingredients covered. Skim occasionally as required.
Strain through a fine-meshed sieve and remove any fat with a ladle. Check its consistency and reduce it if necessary. If the gravy is not thick enough, dilute some cornflour in a little cold water and stir in.
Roast stuffed partridge
For me, a partridge is the ultimate Christmas treat. It's not too gamey, it comes in a perfect-sized individual portion – and it cooks easily in 15 minutes while you are eating your starters.
You can have these ready-stuffed in the fridge the day before and ready to go so there's none of that waiting for the big fat turkey to come out of the oven.
8 oven-ready partridge, preferably with their livers
Butter for basting
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the stuffing
About 100g of butter, softened
1 medium onion, peeled, halved and finely chopped
2tsp chopped fresh thyme leaves
6 sage leaves, chopped
8 dried apricots, soaked in water overnight then roughly chopped
2-3tbsp chopped parsley
100-120g fresh white breadcrumbs
For the sauce
A glass of good white wine
Pre-made gravy (see previous recipe)
Pre-heat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Remove the partridge from the fridge about an hour before cooking.
Gently cook the onion, thyme and sage in the butter for 2-3 minutes, stirring every so often, until soft. Mix with the breadcrumbs, apricots and parsley. Remove the livers and hearts from the partridge if they have them, chop roughly and add to the stuffing mixture.
Season and stuff into the cavity of the partridge. Season the birds, then heat an oven-proof pan on the stove with a little butter and lightly brown the birds on the breasts and legs and roast for 15 minutes, basting every so often.
Remove the birds from the roasting pan and keep warm. Place the pan on the stove top on a medium flame, add the wine and stir with a wooden spoon to remove any cooking juices and residue from the base. Boil for a minute or so then add your pre-made gravy. Simmer for a few minutes, season to taste and serve in a warmed sauce boat or serve poured over the bird.
Sprout tops with bacon and onions
Sprout tops are one of the most flavoursome greens and they have the hint of a Brussels sprout with the texture of healthy greens. They're probably a bit more versatile than the sprout itself and can be served with anything from chestnuts to bacon. You can cook these in advance and drain them under a cold tap to stop them cooking further and discolouring. They can then be simply mixed with the cooked bacon and onions, buttered and seasoned and either reheated in the oven with foil while the partridge is cooking or in the microwave.
1.5kg sprout tops, stalks trimmed, washed and large leaves halved
3 medium onions, peeled, halved and thinly sliced
250g piece of smoked or unsmoked streaky bacon, rind removed and cut into small rough cm cubes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Gently cook the onion and bacon in the butter in a covered saucepan for 4-5 minutes, stirring every so often, until soft, then remove from the heat. Meanwhile cook the sprout tops in boiling salted water for 4-5 minutes until tender, then drain in a colander, gently squeezing out any excess water. Toss the sprout tops with the onions and bacon and season to taste. Reheat as above.
Goose fat potatoes with garlic
I ate a version of these potatoes in Paris in one of my favourite restaurants, L'Ami Louis. I cooked it for Christmas last year and it went down an absolute treat.
This is the kind of potato dish that you can make a few hours before and then just pop back in the oven while you are eating your starters. In fact, last year I made mine the night before and just left it out at room temperature so that it absorbed all that lovely goose fat.
In Paris I bought a special copper pan with a lid for potato dishes like this – it keeps a perfect even heat during cooking – but a straight-sided cake tin will do the trick too.
2kg large floury potatoes, such as King Edward, peeled and cut into 2cm chunks
200g goose fat
10 cloves of garlic, peeled
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Pre-heat the oven to 180C/gas mark 5.
Put the potatoes in a pan of salted water, bring to the boil and simmer for 2-3 minutes, then drain in a colander. Meanwhile, heat the goose fat in a saucepan with the garlic cloves, season and leave to infuse on a very low heat for about 10 minutes.
Transfer a few spoonfuls of the goose fat to a frying pan and fry the blanched potatoes on a high heat, a few at a time, until they begin to colour.
Pack them into a cake tin or a heavy, straight-sided, ovenproof saucepan with the garlic cloves from the goose fat, pressing them down a little with the back of a spoon.
Spoon about a third of the remaining goose fat over and place in the oven. Cook for about 1¼ hours, spooning over more goose fat every so often until it's used up.
Serve the potatoes turned out on to a warmed serving dish.
Although cranberries are not British, along with turkey they have become a symbol of our Christmas Day celebrations. Cranberries have a lot more going for them than just serving as a turkey accompaniment, though, and along with chestnuts you can create interesting desserts and savouries.
I've based this on something I once ate in Italy, which was rather like a monte bianco but made with strawberries.
You don't need to go to the trouble of making fresh meringue unless you really want to: there are plenty of good ready-made examples on the market that will do perfectly well in this dish.
500ml double cream
80g caster sugar
2tbsp icing sugar
150-200g ready-made meringue
For the cranberry sauce
200g fresh cranberries
1 small stick of cinnamon
Juice of 1 orange
Preheat the oven to 200C/gas 6.
Make an incision in the top of the chestnuts with a small, sharp knife and bake in the oven for about 20 minutes, then remove and leave to cool. Meanwhile put the cranberries, sugar and cinnamon into a heavy-based saucepan with the orange juice and cook on a low heat, stirring until the sugar has dissolved and then simmering gently for about 20-25 minutes until the cranberries have softened.
Check the sauce and add a little more sugar if you think it's necessary. Leave to cool.
Peel the chestnuts, removing as much of the brown skin as possible and then place them on a baking tray lined with foil; dust them with the icing sugar. Cook in the oven for about 20 minutes, turning every so often. Whip the cream and sugar together until stiff; you can do this in a mixing machine if you wish.
To assemble, stir about two-thirds of the cold cranberry sauce and two-thirds of the chestnuts into the cream, spoon on to the meringues and then arrange on individual plates or on one large serving plate. Spoon the rest of the cranberry sauce over and scatter the chestnuts on top.