BY now I’m sure all our halls have been suitably decked with holly, orders placed for birds, and gifts for loved ones sitting under the tree.
We can all remember the excitement of waking up on Christmas morning and checking whether Santa had been. And food has always taken centre stage: I still remember the smell of a roasting turkey wafting up my wee nose, after a spot of Winter Olympics outside.
Christmas is always a madly busy time in hotels and restaurants. The stress levels of everyone from kitchen porters through to managers is at a high as we juggle table settings, tipsy office parties and Leaning-Tower-of-Pisa-style dishes out the back in the pot wash.
We all work hard and a break at Christmas time is essential. So we close our restaurant doors for a couple of days to allow us all to be part of our own families. We spend so much time together at work that our colleagues start to feel like family too, I love that!
Christmas is the one day of the year we can really spoil ourselves with fine food. And what better way can there be than creating an elegant, yet simple Christmas dinner? I love smoked salmon as a starter; we do it so well in Scotland. And how about a twist on the usual turkey for the main course? A pheasant, either a whole bird or the breast, makes a truly delicious alternative. And to finish, my (almost world-famous) Christmas pud.
SMOKED SALMON, CRISPY OYSTERS AND CHIVE CREAM
Smoked salmon is always a winner. A long, slow smoke is best and many smokehouses offer this, including Loch Duart and Inverawe with its excellent, distinctive taste. Try some salmon from different smokehouses to see which you like best. It’s a perfect starter, great with a glass of fizz, and can be sliced in advance. And it goes with so many things: a few capers, shallots, brown bread and butter, lemon, of course, but here I’ve made a crispy oyster in an easy batter which can be shallow-fried. Don’t overdo the garnish or it’ll detract from that lovely taste. Keep it simple.
1 Make your batter by mixing the flour with the beer and add about a third of the chopped chives, then season. Remove the oysters very carefully from their shells. Add the oysters to the batter.
2 Place a pot on a moderate heat on the stove and add about an inch of oil. Heat until very hot and fry the oysters for a minute or two – until they are crispy. Remove them carefully with a fork. Season and set to one side.
3 Mix the crowdie with the crème fraîche and the remaining chives.
4 Divide your salmon between four plates and sprinkle the chopped shallot on top, then drizzle with lemon juice. Add two oysters to each plate then spoon four or five small blobs of the crowdie mix around the plate. Garnish with a wedge of lemon and a few fronds of dill or fennel. Give a final twist of black pepper and serve.
BREAST OF PHEASANT WITH BACON, CHESTNUTS, FENNEL AND WALNUTS
A lot of our game birds are sent overseas, as nobody can be bothered plucking or butchering them. I think that’s madness. We should be eating more of these birds in season, for the sake of our health and our tradition. Pheasant is delicious, and a brilliant alternative to turkey or chicken, just be careful not to overcook it. It has a reputation for being dry, but wrapped in bacon it will remain moist. I’ve created a dish with chestnuts, fennel and walnuts. Remember, the legs will take a little longer than the breast, so cook separately if roasting a whole bird.
1 Lay a piece of streaky bacon (north to south) on a clean surface and place a pheasant breast in the middle (east to west), then roll the ends of the rasher around until the pheasant is covered. Repeat for the other three breasts.
2 Heat a frying pan on the hob and add half the oil. Fry the wrapped breasts in the hot oil until golden all over. This will take a few minutes. Then place the whole pan in a moderately-hot oven for 12-15 minutes, until just firm. Allow to rest.
3 Meanwhile, cook your garnish. Heat another frying pan and add the rest of the oil, get it hot then sauté the bacon lardons with the baby onions and fennel.
4 After a couple of minutes, add the thyme, chestnuts and walnuts, tossing all the time. Add the butter and season with salt and pepper. Finish in the oven for a further 10 minutes or until the fennel is soft and the onions and bacon are cooked.
5 Remove from the oven and sprinkle on the fennel fronds.
6 To serve, divide the lardon mixture between four plates. Flash the pheasant breasts under the grill to warm them back up before slicing and arranging on top of the garnish. Simple.
We start making our puddings at the end of September. It’s a recipe adapted from chef John Webber, my old boss and a legend. It’s not the horrid black specimen you get from the supermarket, but a light easy-to-eat version with the distinct taste of spices, dried fruit, grated apple and carrot, and made using proper beef suet. The addition of Californian raisins is crucial due to their even, plump shape, and their full flavour. This is the one recipe I urge you to make this year. Go on, don’t be a Scrooge!
Serves four (one pudding)
1 Place the sultanas, currants and raisins in a large bowl. Add the alcohol and leave to soak overnight.
2 Line a 2 pint pudding basin with muslin, leaving enough spare to tie at the top. Add the rest of the ingredients to the bowl of soaked fruit and mix well.
3 Fill the lined pudding basin with the mix and tie up the muslin with a piece of string.
4 Gently steam the pudding for 2 hours in a lidded pot (water covering half the pudding basin). Don’t allow to boil dry.
5 Before serving, check that the centre of the pudding is piping hot. Serve with brandy sauce or pouring cream.