Who needs turkey? There are plenty of other delicious ways to celebrate Christmas...
From spicy seafood to wintry vegetarian feasts.
Thursday 16 December 2010
The Nordic way
It has been a big year for Scandinavian food, what with Denmark's Noma being named the best restaurant in the world, and Nordic eateries springing up across Britain quicker than you can say "Rudolf". How better to mark it than by celebrating Christmas in the Nordic tradition?
Agnar Sverrisson is the chef patron of the Michelin-starred Icelandic restaurant Texture in west London. He recommends starting your meal with herring and rye bread, as well as some gravadlax, before moving on to one of his country's annual feasts: "Some families will be having oven-roast reindeer, which is very expensive. Most people, though, will have a dish of smoked salted lamb, which will have been left to hang for a few weeks, with a white sauce and boiled potatoes. On the side we have red cabbage and green peas, both of which must be from a tin. It's very important that they are from tins– it is the flavour we have grown up with and, once a year, it's good."
Drinking is kept to a minimum on the 24th and 25th, though come the 26th, everyone, Sverrisson says, "goes crazy": "A popular drink at Christmas time is Jolaol, a kind of light beer mixed with a lemonade." Dessert, meanwhile, is rice pudding with caramel sauce and a single almond buried inside. "Whoever gets the almond gets a prize," Sverrisson says.
Giving turkey the bird
"I love a roast duck – it stands up to turkey any day," says Allan Pickett, head chef of the modern European eatery Plateau in east London. "At the restaurant we use a Dombes duck, which is from France. It would be delicious with some foie gras and a small endive tarte tatin. For a lovely accompaniment, make a swede and potato gratin."
Venison, too, is a sufficiently special-feeling meat to be Christmas-appropriate. "For a shoulder of venison you would want to go in for a slow braise. But if you've got a haunch you can roast it and stuff it with chestnuts, thyme or sage," Pickett explains. "It would need to be a long, slow roast so you get the full tenderness. Whisk a small amount of chocolate into the red wine sauce and add a sprinkling of pomegranate seed to make it really special."
For those looking to get the bulk of their labours done early, Pickett suggests a braised short-rib. "I often serve people a 'Jacob's ladder' – it is the bones from a rib of beef and they just have lots of lovely meat attached. Serve it with some mashed celeriac. It's a one-pot wonder."
Pescetarianism – eating fish but no meat – is increasingly popular, but how do you cater for it come Christmas? In several countries – such as Spain and Portugal, and on the west coast of India – having a seafood supper come Christmas Day is commonplace. If you are planning a fishy feast, Lee Bennett, executive chef of Le Pont de la Tour in south-east London, suggests starting with smoked mackerel. "I make a crumpet with mackerel baked inside. Serve it with some sour cream for a simple, delicious canapé."
There are few sea specimens as celebratory as the lobster – and Bennett advises incorporating it into your starter. "A lobster bisque with fennel and dill is our signature dish at Le Pont – if I ever take it off the menu, people ask where it has gone. You might need to go somewhere specialist to find them, but if you are by the coast, have a word with a local fisherman. Ask for one of the 'cripples' and you'll get it cheaply."
Finally, the crowning glory of your meal. "Roasted sea bass would be perfect," Bennett says. "Or a bream if bass is too difficult to find. When you are buying the fish, ask your fishmonger to fillet it – but keep the head and the body and use it for stock."
Meals without meat
"When it comes to Christmas dinner, vegetarians are very well catered-for," says Amanda Powley, owner of Brighton's Terre à Terre and author of Terre à Terre: The Vegetarian Cookbook. "There is such a fabulous array of vegetable dishes. This year, I'll be having all the trimmings – the swede, the cabbage, the potatoes – as well as my chestnut soup."
The key to making sure that non-meat-eaters get their share of festive fun is to serve them food that, while not meat, offers the same traditional flavours as the roast turkey. "Chestnuts are good for that," Powley explains. "Also, little steamed suet puddings are great. Savoury, filling, they go with almost anything and can be done well in advance. Just check that the suet is vegetarian before you use it!"
In fact, the major Christmas hurdle, for veggies, is just that: being certain that what you are eating doesn't have any hidden meat products involved. "You need to be very careful with cheeses and pastry as they may have animal fats in them," Powley explains on this. "A lot of people use goose fat when cooking at Christmas, so ask your host about it. Alcohol, too, can cause problems. Some spirits have animal proteins in them, as does a lot of wine. Check the label of anything pre-made; trifles, for instance, could have non-vegetarian gelatin in."
Spice it up
Just because it's Christmas, it doesn't mean we have to revert to a wholly European style of cookery. On the west coast of India, Christians celebrate the 25th with a heady mix of seafood, spiced duck and coconut. "A whole fish is either baked or used for dumplings in a biryani," Atul Kochhar of west London's Benares Restaurant explains. "Another popular option is duck in a cinnamon and cardamom marinade, roasted with a xacuti blend.
"For pudding, people will have a bibingka. It's a layered cake of pancakes made from coconut milk, flour, cane sugar and eggs. You cook one layer, then cover it with sugar, coconut and another layer, before repeating it around 18 times."
To wash it all down, Kochhar recommends a glass of mulled wine. "We make one that is similar to yours, only the wine is sweeter. It has star anise in it and is sweetened with honey."
The last-minute feast
Rarely are our fridges and store cupboards as well-stocked as during the Christmas period, making a whipped-up meal a considerably more mouth-watering prospect that it might otherwise be. Anna Hansen, of the Modern Pantry in east London, recommends having certain key ingredients to hand throughout the festive period to ensure that a tasty salad or simple supper is never far off.
"Keep some nice bread, good cheese and cream – you should always have plenty of cream at Christmas. Fresh fruit is also worth having. Roast pears can be combined with Stilton, red endive and some rocket for a delicious salad."
Cooking a few staples in advance can help, too. Hansen recommends keeping some steamed quinoa and some cooked lentils: "You can use them in salads, make them into a stew with some chorizo, or fill a roasted butternut squash with them." This principle can be extended to Christmas lunch itself, making that final pulling-it-all-together moment that much easier. "Braised red cabbage can be done days in advance, or even frozen," Hansen agrees. "There's always stuff you can get out of the way early."
The ultra-traditional Christmas
Our habit of serving turkey on Christmas Day evolved during Victorian times; prior to that, goose was the order of the day. "Goose has a very high fat content," Tristan Welch of west London's Launceston Place explains. "So you should prick it with a sharp knife before you cook it. I like to pour a kettle of boiling water over it before cooking, too, which opens the pores. The fat comes out while it cooks and helps baste it. The more you can baste your bird, the better. It ensures the skin is nice and crispy."
Once it has been blanched, pop your goose on top of a tray of root vegetables and place in a cold oven. Welch recommends turning it on to a low heat, gradually upping the temperature every 20 minutes until you reach around 180C: "For a 4 or 5kg bird, I'll be roasting for four or five hours. Halfway through, pour some of the fat out of the pan. It is perfect for roasting potatoes."
Other traditional options include beef and ham, which Welch recommends curing yourself before boiling, glazing and baking. Of course, dessert doesn't get much more trad than Christmas pudding – although if you are going to be really historically accurate, you might want to fill your mince pies with meat, rather than dried fruit. "I've got a recipe for proper mincemeat," Welch says. "But I've never used it. Some things just aren't worth doing."
Christmas food around the world
In Latvia, the Christmas meal is cooked brown peas with a pork sauce, a selection of small pies, cabbage and sausage.
In Transylvania, stuffed cabbage is served on Christmas Eve, and then eaten again the next day for lunch.
One traditional Christmas meal in the Czech Republic is fried carp and potato salad.
In the Philippines, dinner is eaten at midnight on 24 December ("Noche Buena"). Ham, queso de bola (a ball of cheese), and tsokolate (hot cocoa) are popular.
Christmas dinner in Slovakia includes oplatky, a plate of thin waffles with honey and garlic, cabbage soup with prunes and sausage, carp and potato salad.
A traditional option in Norway is lutefisk, made from dried white fish, though pork ribs are also popular.
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