Food: Fowl play

If turkey for two seems over the top, why not have fun with some smaller, more interesting birds this Christmas? Simon Hopkinson suggests a trio of yuletide alternatives
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Indy Lifestyle Online
For those of you who read this column last Easter and embraced my thoughts about what to do if there were just the two of you (some kind folk wrote to say how thoughtful this was, a jolly good idea and that the given recipes worked a treat - well, thank you for that and, you know ... phew), you may be further assured that Christmas can now be every bit as enjoyable. Naturally, spring lamb was the star turn over that first holiday season, so it seems only right to concentrate on various fowls for cooking couples during the Christmas festival.

Turkey, quite clearly, is out of the question - and never, ever, be tempted to try to do the (supposedly) next best thing and invest in a boned turkey breast. Turkey breast is as interesting as undercooked toast. Turkey breast makes Spam sparkle. Turkey breast is the Alan Partridge road-house Christmas lunch. It suggests that you don't really give a damn. Now that isn't you, is it? An Indie reader? Surely you crave roast quails, braised duck's legs, or a small, free-range poached chicken, its leftovers made into a savoury broth for Boxing Day? Well, I hope you do, because that's what you're getting from me this Christmas.

These neat and tidy birds - and bits of bird - may seem to go against the grain at this time of year, but once you welcome the fact that the kitchen is not turned upside down by an oven taken up entirely with the roasting of even the very smallest turkey (making roasting those bloody parsnips and potatoes nearly impossible), it will not take too long for you to reconsider the situation. It may even put you off roasting a turkey or goose ever again.

You can still do the sprouts, roast the parsnips and the potatoes and braise the celery for the quails, but bread sauce and stuffing might not work quite so well with their butter, sage and white wine juices.

You could even make a boiled brioche dumpling and a stuffed cabbage as an accompaniment to the poached chicken, in the French manner, if you so wish, neatly combining a sort of bread sauce and a stuffing, which could be fun to do sometime. I first came across this idea in the recipe for poule au pot - chicken in the pot - within the pages of Pierre Koffmann's La Tante Claire cookery book (Headline, 1992), but I'm afraid it's just a simple, creamed, fresh horseradish to accompany this particular poached chicken - and a very fine thing it is too.

A well-bred, free-range duck when properly and carefully roasted can be a fine thing too. In fact, people often forlornly say to me: "Where can you find good duck in a restaurant these days?" Go to the original Leith's restaurant, I say, in Kensington Park Road, London, where a whole duck for two is done with precision, not some bloody - in both senses of the word - boneless breast. But we already have some roast quails, and then there is the poached chicken idea too, so does this not neatly make way for a gentle little braised leg of duck?

Yes, duck leg. No, not the ubiquitous confit (splendid, but not now); not de-boned and stuffed with chopped pig's trotter and morels; not even shredded into bits over a salad with balsamic vinegar dressing. No, simply a quartet of them braised with chopped vegetables, red wine, port, a little Cognac, redcurrant jelly, orange peel and crushed peppercorns ... a la sauce poivrade in a word. Well, four words actually. It all sounds quite festive without even trying to, now I come to think about it.

Roast quails with butter, sage and white wine

Serves 2

To my surprise I recently purchased some very good quails from Tesco, under its rather crazy "Finest" label. My, these silvery-wrapped items are a proud lot! For instance, I find it quite potty that you can now find two varieties of "Romaine lettuce hearts" (friendly old cos to us older folk) in the salad selection, one of them sneeringly silver-labelled, looking down upon the plainer-wrapped alternative. Naturally, the newer invader was nearly a third more expensive, but seemed neither fresher nor magically different. If these were written about by JK Rowling they would no doubt be leaping and jumping along the entire shelf, wiggling and thrusting their imaginary hips and sticking their tongues out at the lowlier, standard display. Thank heavens there is only the one choice of quality quail at my local Tesco.

4 plump quails

a little olive oil

salt and pepper

50g softened butter and a little more if necessary

10-12 sage leaves

1 small glass white wine

squeeze of lemon juice

Preheat the oven to 400F/ 200C/gas mark 6. Put some olive oil in the palm of one hand and fondle each quail all over with greasy paws. Season liberally. Divide the butter on to the breasts of the four quails and put them into a solid flameproof dish. Place in the oven to roast for about 25-30 minutes, basting occasionally; they should emerge golden and crisp-skinned. Lift from the roasting dish, switch off the oven and keep the birds warm in the waning oven heat, the door left ajar.

Set the buttery juices over a moderate heat and once they begin to froth, add the sage leaves (add more butter here if you think you need to) and fry until lightly crisp and curling. Sprinkle them with a little salt. Lift them out with a slotted spoon and put with the quails. Drain off about two-thirds of the fat, heat once more and reintroduce the quails to the pan, including all exuded juices and tipping out any that have collected in the quails' cavities (temporarily keep the sage leaves in the oven). Pour in the glass of wine, allowing it to bubble and seethe, quickly spooning it over the quails as it does so. Continuing in this fashion, turn the heat down and reduce the winey juices until they begin to coat the quails. Add a little lemon juice, reintroduce the sage to the dish and serve immediately.

Never, ever, be tempted to try to invest in a boned turkey breast. Turkey breast is as interesting as undercooked toast

Poached chicken with fresh horseradish cream - and a nourishing Boxing Day broth too!

Serves 2

1kg (approximately) free-range dressed chicken, with giblets, naturally, if at all possible (no mean feat these days)

6 small carrots, peeled

1 celery heart, trimmed, outside ribs peeled, cut in half lengthways

1 leek, trimmed, thickly sliced on the diagonal and washed

1 medium onion, peeled and stuck with three cloves, one of these securing a bay leaf

a few sprigs of thyme or tarragon and maybe some parsley stalks

1 glass of white wine

1 chicken stock cube (optional, but don't be too much of a prude over this)

salt (only a bit if you use the cube)

chopped parsley

For the horseradish cream

150g piece of fresh horseradish root, peeled and freshly grated by hand (do not be tempted to pulverise it in the bowl of the food processor: for some strange reason, doing this turns the root impossibly bitter)

1 heaped tsp caster sugar

1/2tsp salt

juice of 1/2 small lemon

150ml double cream

Put the chicken in a deep pot that also possesses a lid. Arrange the vegetables and herbs around it, add the wine, stock cube (if using) or salt and top up with water. Bring to a gentle simmer, skimming off any scum that comes to the surface in the meantime. Once despumation (to clarify: clarification) is assured, adjust the heat under the chicken and vegetables to its very lowest: it should merely shudder and blip for about 45-50 minutes. (Note: this should be quite long enough to cook the breasts, as you are going to keep the legs for the following day's broth. If you don't wish to do this and prefer to eat the whole bird, cook it for a little longer.)

Meanwhile, make the horseradish sauce. Place the grated horseradish in the bowl of a food processor with a tablespoon of warm water, the sugar, salt and lemon juice. Work to a smooth-ish paste and tip into a bowl. Add the cream and beat together with a whisk until thick. Check for more salt, sugar, or lemon juice and spoon into a bowl or sauce boat.

To serve, carve the breasts from the chicken and put into two hot shallow soup plates, arrange the vegetables around them and spoon over a little of the stock. Sprinkle with parsley and hand the horseradish separately. (Note: strain the chicken stock into a bowl and place in the fridge overnight.)

For the broth

1 large leek, trimmed, sliced and washed

1 large potato, peeled, diced and rinsed

the chicken stock

the flesh from the chicken legs, diced (remove or leave the skin on, it matters not one jot)

2tbsp chopped parsley

a little grated lemon rind

Simmer the leek and potato in the stock until tender. Add the chicken, parsley and lemon rind and simmer for a further 10 minutes. No doubt best reheated and eaten after coming home from the pub.

Eventually the diced vegetables will also add texture to the finished dish, but have given their all to the sauce as it cooks with the duck

Braised duck legs `sauce poivrade'

Serves 2

Please don't be too put off by all the following finely chopped vegetables in this recipe - after all, it's not as if you don't actually have the time. And it really is important to the final product, this mirepoix, the time-honoured, classic French description for any mixture of finely diced aromatic vegetables that add flavour to a dish. Eventually these will also add texture to the finished dish, but have given their all to the sauce as it cooks with the duck. This is in complete contrast to the previous dish, where although the larger vegetables may enhance the flavour of the chicken and its broth, the intention is also to imbue each one with the taste of the chicken, as significant accompaniments.

4 duck legs

salt and pepper

a little oil

2 rashers of bacon, finely diced

1/2 small onion, peeled and finely chopped

1 large, flat, black mushroom, finely chopped

1 small carrot, peeled and finely chopped

1 large stick celery, peeled and finely chopped

1 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped

1tsp tomato puree

1tbsp red wine vinegar

2tbsp Cognac

3tbsp port

1tsp flour

1 large glass red wine

1dsp redcurrant jelly

1 bay leaf

the leaves from 2 sprigs of thyme

2 pieces of orange zest (no pith)

1 level tsp each of white and black peppercorns, coarsely crushed, any excess powder sieved away

Preheat the oven to 275F/140C/gas mark 1. Heat a little oil in a solid- bottomed, lidded pot (Le Creuset, perhaps?). Season the duck legs and gently fry them in the oil, skin-side down, for several minutes until golden and crisp. Turn them over and fry for a slightly shorter period. Remove the legs to a plate and tip away all but 2 tablespoons of rendered fat. Add the bacon to the pot and cook until crisp. Tip in all the five chopped vegetables and tomato puree, stir around with the bacon and allow everything to stew quietly for about 10 minutes.

Add the vinegar over a high heat so that it quickly evaporates and then introduce the Cognac and port. Evaporate these by reduction also and then stir in the flour. Cook for a couple of minutes. Pour in the wine little by little, whisking together to make a sauce. Stir in the redcurrant jelly, herbs, orange zest and peppercorns. Reintroduce the duck legs and spoon over the sauce, checking it for salt. Bring to a simmer, cover and braise in the oven for 11/2 hours, topping up occasionally with more red wine or water if necessary, although the finished sauce should be intensely minimal rather than simply copious, and the duck legs very tender indeed. Eat with creamed potatoes. n