Pig out

Never mind turkey and all the trimmings, how about suckling pig or beef Wellington? Mark Hix offers some alternative winter feasts.
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Indy Lifestyle Online

With one notable annual exception – I'll try not to mention it by name, but we all know what I'm talking about and don't tell me you haven't started to think about the cooking – we are one of the few countries not to make a big deal of long dinners and celebratory banquets.

With one notable annual exception – I'll try not to mention it by name, but we all know what I'm talking about and don't tell me you haven't started to think about the cooking – we are one of the few countries not to make a big deal of long dinners and celebratory banquets.

In China a banquet can go on for hours on end with as many as 20 or 30 small courses being served in one sitting. So can weddings and celebrations in other European countries. Now and then everyone expects to have to prepare a big meal, and they rightly consider it a privilege. Here in Britain, though, we're more likely to dread the experience.

But Christmas – there, I've said it now, and it's a relief to have it out in the open – does focus the mind on the way we get our family and friends together for a lavish and lengthy meal. And perhaps it's also a time to think about how we could pull out the stops and put together more adventurous and luxurious celebration feasts for other occasions too.

So stuff the turkey and think of something else to cook if you're entertaining in style. And resist the temptation to book dinner in a restaurant or buy ready-made food and dress it up. It's a fabulous feeling knowing you've made delicious food yourself. Doing it properly yourself takes time, and a bit of forward planning (though you have to book certain restaurants months ahead too) and you have to be prepared to clear up afterwards. But that's cooking, and with a good game-plan the meal should go smoothly and not involve too much last-minute work. Who knows? You could even end up wondering why you don't prepare your own lavish food more often.

Try to plan your feast so you spend as little time in the kitchen on the day as possible. A cold course, such as carpaccio or potted shrimps, that can be put straight on the table is always useful. Don't have too many elements to the main course; three main ingredients are enough. Vegetables can be pre-cooked and cooled down, then buttered, seasoned and finished in the microwave at the last minute. Make sauces in advance and choose a dessert, such as the ones I've suggested, that can be served quickly and easily.

When I cook for a dinner party at home, most of the evening is spent round the dinner table and sometimes dessert isn't served until after midnight. I like to let everyone relax and chat between enjoying each course as it turns up in its own sweet time.

In fact, round at mine, the atmosphere is sometimes so relaxed, that everyone seems content just to sit around the table, whether there's food in front of them or not. Perhaps one day I'll invite people over for dinner and not bother to serve any food. Beware if you are on my guest list that night.

Basic gravy

It's always a good idea to get ahead with a good supply of gravy to keep in the freezer for roasts and quick sauces. Every so often ask your butcher for some bones cut into small pieces. If you can't get hold of lamb or beef bones, even chicken necks will make a great-tasting gravy. Once you've made the gravy, freeze it in small plastic pots and you can defrost it for instant proper gravy to go with a roast. Keep some frozen in ice-cube trays and you can use it in smaller quantities for enhancing sauces.

2kg beef, veal, lamb or chicken bones or a mixture, chopped into small pieces
3 medium onions, peeled and roughly chopped
5 medium carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
A few sticks of celery, roughly chopped
2 leeks, trimmed, roughly chopped and washed
Half head of garlic, peeled and chopped
1tbsp tomato purée
2tbsp flour
3-4 litres beef stock (a good cube will do)
10 black peppercorns
A few sprigs of thyme
1 bay leaf

Pre-heat the oven to 200°C/gas mark 6. Roast the bones 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 bones 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 stock and some cold water if the stock doesn't cover the bones and add the peppercorns, thyme and bay leaf. Bring to the boil, skim off any scum that forms and simmer for 2 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 strength and reduce it if necessary. If the gravy is not thick enough, dilute some cornflour in a little cold water and stir in.

Porchetta

Serves 8-10

Not enough restaurants serve suckling pig for my liking. And certainly not enough homes. It has such a delicate, sweet flavour and just melts in the mouth. This Italian way of preparing it is quite delicious and easy to serve, though easiest of all is to order it already boned and rolled from Pugh's Piglets f (01995 602571), a company near Preston specialising in suckling pig.

Traditionally in Italy porchetta would be partnered with fruta di moustarda which are candied fruits in a mustard syrup. You can buy this from Italian delis and some supermarkets. When I serve this porchetta for Christmas, I make a brawn with the left-over head and trotters. Just simmer for a few hours in water with some seasoning, then cool down, remove the meat and skin and leave to set in its own jelly. Delicious on hot toast with mustard. But I don't expect everyone to follow suit, even if they do have a spare pig's head and trotters.

A small suckling pig will serve about 10 plus some sandwiches for the following day. If you don't want to serve it in the Italian style then cooked Bramley apples mixed with mashed potato works well.

1 small suckling pig weighing around 7kg, completely boned
About 2tbsp chopped rosemary leaves
6-8 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
2tsp freshly ground black pepper
60g melted butter
Sea salt
Olive oil

If you are rolling and stuffing the pig yourself lay it on a table skin-side down and with a sharp knife cut it in half lengthways. Then slice some of the thicker leg meat horizontally and lay it over the thinner loin meat to make the thickness of the meat even all over.

Mix the rosemary with the garlic, black pepper and butter and season with a little sea salt. Spread the mixture all over the surface of the flesh, then roll the meat over lengthways to form 2 long rolls. Carefully tie the rolls every 4-5cm with string, then rub them all over with olive oil and then sea salt.

Pre-heat the oven to 190°C/gas mark 5. Roast the suckling pig for about 1Half hours, turning it every so often until the skin is crisp. Remove it from the oven and leave to rest for about 15 minutes before serving. Be careful not to cover it with foil or it will steam and then loose its crispness.

Beef Wellington

Serves 8

This dish varies slightly from restaurant to restaurant, recipe to recipe, as everyone has their own little twist on the classic. But whatever the variations, the crucial part is the quality of the beef, how carefully it's prepared, and the cooking. The best mushroom duxelles can go unnoticed if the beef is tough and overcooked, so don't skimp on the meat. It's a long old process, but can be a rewarding end result. Serve simply with buttered spinach. The pancakes and the mushroom mix can be made in advance.

1kg centre-cut, good quality beef fillet, trimmed (without the tail piece or chateaubriand)
250g good quality puff pastry
Flour for dusting
2 egg yolks
Pancakes as below
1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
A good knob of butter
250g wild or button mushrooms or a mixture, trimmed, washed if necessary and finely chopped
2tbsp chopped parsley
1tbsp fresh white breadcrumbs
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

for the sauce

1 standard 175ml glass of red wine
1 glass of Madeira
750ml gravy as above
A good knob of butter
for the pancakes (makes 6-8)

125ml milk
60g plain flour
1 small egg
Halftsp salt
Vegetable oil for frying

Make the pancakes. Whisk all the ingredients together with one-third of the milk until smooth. Gradually whisk in the remaining milk then strain if necessary to remove any lumps. Heat a 16-18cm non-stick frying pan or a good non-stick cast-iron pan, rub with a little vegetable oil then pour in one-sixth of the pancake mix. Tilt the pan immediately so that the mixture spreads evenly and turn the pancake with a spatula or palette knife after 30-40 seconds. Make at least six pancakes. Put aside between squares of greaseproof paper.

Heat a heavy-bottomed frying pan with a little vegetable oil until it's almost smoking. Season the beef fillet with salt and freshly ground black pepper and briefly brown it on all sides in the oil. Set aside to cool.

In a saucepan gently cook the onion and garlic in the butter until soft, without colouring. Add the mushrooms, season with salt and pepper and continue to cook for about 5 minutes or so until they are soft and all the water, if any, has evaporated. Add the parsley and breadcrumbs, stir well and put to one side to cool.

Roll the puff pastry to Halfcm thick on a lightly floured table. This should be long and wide enough to cover the entire beef fillet once rolled.

Lay the pancakes on the table in two rows of three and overlapping each other. Spread the mushroom mixture on the pancakes in a layer about Halfcm thick, then place the beef fillet along the centre and roll up the pancakes, overlapping where the edges meet so that the beef is entirely covered. Fold in the ends flat against the beef to seal.

Roll the pancake-covered beef fillet in the puff pastry, brushing a little egg on the edges and the ends to secure it. Place the beef fillet on a baking tray with the join facing down on the tray and push the ends down with your fingers to encase the beef completely. Brush the pastry with the remaining egg yolk and leave to rest for Half an hour in a cool place or in the fridge.

Meanwhile pre-heat the oven to 200°C/ gas mark 6. Cook the beef Wellington for 35 minutes for medium rare or a little less for rare. Cooking times may vary depending on whether you have a fan oven. If you do it's better as the fan distributes the heat more evenly. The beef will continue cooking in the pastry once it's removed from the oven so don't be tempted to leave it in the oven to keep warm.

Meanwhile make the sauce. Reduce the red wine and Madeira until you are left with a tablespoon or so. Add the beef gravy and simmer until the sauce has reduced by about half the volume and thickened. This may need a little more or less time depending on the strength of the original gravy.

To serve, trim off the ends of the beef Wellington and cut the rest carefully with a serrated carving knife into one thick slice per person and lay them flat on to warmed serving plates. Show the guests the whole thing first if you wish. Warm the sauce up and whisk in the butter. Serve the sauce separately or pour around the slices of beef.

Iced Scandinavian berries with hot white chocolate sauce

Serves 8

One of those perfect marriages of ingredients, and one of the easiest desserts to prepare and serve. The idea came from a customer just back from a skiing trip. I can't think why more chefs haven't copied it. Maybe it's because it's not stretching enough for most pastry chefs. But when it comes to producing a beautiful dessert at home, that's a virtue. And what could be simpler: berries biding their time in the freezer and white chocolate sauce gently heating over a pan of simmering water until you're ready to produce dessert.

Either buy mixed frozen berries, or raspberries. Alternatively, freeze your own selection of berries on a flat tray then put them into a bag in the freezer and use them on a rainy or wintery day. But don't use larger berries, such as strawberries and bigger blackberries as they struggle to defrost however hot the sauce is.

1kg frozen mixed berries (100-120g per person)

for the sauce

600g best quality white chocolate, buttons or bars, chopped into pieces
600ml double cream

Put the chocolate and cream into a bowl over a pan of simmering water for about 20-30 minutes, stirring every so often. This can be done while you are eating your starters or mains. When the sauce is hot just cover it with clingfilm and turn the heat off.

Five minutes before serving, put the berries on to dessert plates and leave at room temperature to lose a little of their chill. Transfer the chocolate sauce into a serving jug. Place the berries in front of your guests and pour the hot chocolate sauce generously over the berries at the table.

Vodka and cranberry jelly

Serves 8

A popular long drink these days, so why not make it into a proper grown-up jelly.

300ml water
400ml cranberry juice
400g caster sugar
Approx 30g (9 sheets) leaf gelatine
200ml vodka

Bring the water and cranberry juice to the boil, add the sugar, stir until it has dissolved and remove from the heat. Soak the gelatine in cold water in a bowl for a minute or so until it has softened. Squeeze out the water, add the gelatine to the syrup and stir until it has dissolved. Pour in the vodka, then leave the jelly somewhere cool but do not let it set.

Pour the jelly into moulds or into glasses to set. To turn out the moulds, fill a bowl with almost-boiling water, dip the moulds in briefly, loosen the top of the jelly a little with your finger, turn the moulds over gently and carefully turn out on to plates. Serve with some thick double cream. E

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