Beauty and the feast
Christmas itself is a pantomime; its scenes and rituals, the meals so familiar it could almost be scripted. Our contributor’s is finely rehearsed with chicken liver paté, a bitter leaf salad, bean and bacon casserole and sherry trifle
At Christmas dinner there are set pieces, terrible jokes, and an elaborate kitchen scene that may involve throwing food ...
The first real pantomime I can remember seeing was in Chesham, when I was 10. No one in my family actually remembers what the pantomime was, only that a colleague of my Dad’s was on sound effects, which involved him banging together coconut shells in the wings, while his wife, Pam, was playing a character called Fairy’nuff. I also remember that I didn’t get chosen to go up on stage as select lucky kids traditionally do, but did catch two of the sweets that were hurled into the audience, much to the delight of 200 already electrified children. Some years later my family got our very own pantomime villain when my brother Ben was cast as the wicked wizard at the pantomime in Grays in Essex. He played the comic role for about 10 years until, after the sad passing of the inimitable Dave Lee, Ben pulled on a frock and pair of DM boots and took on the role of the Dame in Canterbury. He has never looked back – even when there is someone behind him.
This isn’t an advert for my brother or his pantomime, which sold out months ago. I mention it because we are filling our suitcases with panettone and parmesan and coming back to Britain for Christmas this year, which means going to see Ben as Mrs Smee in Peter Pan. It is a family outing, as much a part of Christmas as mince pies and a tangerine found at the bottom of a sock, as important as listening to carols from King’s in the kitchen with mum, to belting out Merry Christmas by Slade after too much advocaat.
Also, quite apart from the outing, there is something about Christmas that is pantomime – its scenes and rituals, the meals so familiar they could almost be scripted were it not for the improvisation. There are set pieces, terrible jokes, a huge and elaborate kitchen scene that may involve throwing food, dancing, singing, good versus evil, a scene of heartbreak and a fight, which has a happy ending.
For many of us, Christmas cooking has been long decided, a sequence of recipes, collected over the years because they are good and reliable, or simply part of the family – as soaked with memories as a boozy trifle. By the time you read this it will be just days before Christmas; you have most likely done the shopping, possibly much of the preparation. I have, though, a few suggestions that might fit into the greater scheme of things. They are all attributed, because at Christmas everything is, to family, friends, cookbooks, writers and TV chefs, all given equal status – Aunty Edith’s this, Nigella’s that, Jane’s bread sauce, a blob of Nigel’s brandy butter sliding from Josceline Dimbleby’s mince pies, which are best followed by three Quality Street chasers, the last one of which pulls out a filling.
What follows are all recipes I am making this Christmas, at some point. An appetite-stirring paté for toast, ideally with a glass of something fizzy. A salad dressed for Christmas that could start a meal but just as happily finish one, or make a meal in itself paired with crackers and more cheese. I am suggesting a great pan of beans and bacon that feeds many well, and some poached fruit, because Christmas isn’t Christmas without it, and if no one else does I will eat it all and welcome the fart jokes. And of course there is trifle, because everyone loves a trifle – no one more than my
Grandma Phyllis and Granny Alice; my grandpas too – all greatly missed. They would all have loved watching Ben showing his bloomers and seeing all their great-grandkids in the audience electrified as we were. Oh, yes they would! Merry Christmas.
Rachel’s radicchio, fennel, pear, walnut and gorgonzola salad
A salad dressed well. That bitter leaves, sliced fruit, nuts and blue cheese are good companions is hardly news. However, I have never seen quite this combination, so I am calling it my invention. Little things are important: the leaves should be ripped small, the fruit ripe but not mushy and sliced into manageable bits; the dressing should be sharp but not angry – sherry vinegar or balsamic with acidity and sweetness is good. Toss the salad well so that the first lot of cheese almost smudges into the dressing – hands are best.
A head of radicchio – if possible the elongated variety from Treviso
A bulb of fennel 2 ripe but firm pears (any variety just as long as they are tasty) 2 tbsp good red wine/sherry vinegar (the best possible) 7 tbsp olive oil Salt 75g shelled walnuts 150g gorgonzola cheese, broken into bite-size pieces 1 Pull the leaves apart, then wash and dry the radicchio before ripping it into bite-size pieces. Trim the base and fingers from the fennel and slice the bulb into slim arcs. Peel and slice the pears.
2 In a large bowl, make the dressing by whisking together first the vinegar with a good pinch of salt, then adding the olive oil. Add the pear, radicchio leaves and fennel. Toss, then add half the walnuts and cheese and toss again.
3 If you are serving in a large bowl, top with the rest of the cheese and nuts. Otherwise, divide the dressed salad between small plates and share the remaining nuts and cheese equally.
Fergus Henderson’s beans and bacon
Reminding me of both the Roman dish of fagioli e cotiche (beans and pork rind) and a French cassoulet, this is a Brian Blessed laugh of a dish, and one of my favourite things to make and eat. It is also one of my favourite recipes to read, as it starts with the words: “Landlord! Bring us beans, bacon and a bottle of your finest Burgundy.”
The recipe asks you to make a trotter stock, which I initially found offputting. But after realising it really is just a pan of stock, I never looked back. Our plan is to make this on either the 28 or 29 December. I will get it in the oven before we all go on a walk to the pub for beer and crisps, then send an advance party back to take off the lid, so it will be ready and crusty-topped when we get back. Serve, as Fergus suggests, with “much red wine”.
1kg white cannellini beans, soaked overnight
1kg unsliced piece of unsmoked streaky bacon, skin on
3 onions, peeled and diced
2 leeks, cleaned and diced 400g tinned plum tomatoes Salt and black pepper
For the stock
A pig’s trotter
2 carrots, peeled and halved 3 onions, peeled and halved
2 sticks celery
2 heads of garlic, not peeled A bundle of fresh thyme, rosemary and parsley
1 Make the trotter stock, by putting the trotter, carrots, onions, celery, garlic and herbs into a large pan, cover with 2 litres of water, bring to the boil, skim and reduce to a simmer for 2.5 hours.
2 Put the beans in a large pan, cover with enough water for it to come 9-10cm above the beans, bring to the boil, skim and then reduce to a simmer for 1 hour or so, or until the beans are tender. Pull from the heat and allow them to cool in the cooking liquid.
3 With the help of a sharp knife, carefully pull the skin from the bacon, if possible in one piece. Cut the bacon into 8mm slices.
4 In a large, ovenproof pan with a lid, big enough for all your ingredients, add a good glug of olive oil and fry the bacon skin, fat down so it can release some fat into the pan. Then remove. Next, fry the slices of bacon until the fat is lightly golden, then remove.
5 Fry the chopped onion and leek in the fat until soft, then add the tomatoes, crushing them against the side of the pan. Cook for 20 minutes, season (remembering the bacon is salty), then add two ladles of trotter stock and the drained beans (but keep the liquor).
6 Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/gas 6. If you have another big pan, use that; otherwise, tip everything into a big bowl so you can do the final layered construction in the big pan. First, make a layer of the bacon skin, then make a layer of saucy beans, then strips of bacon, then another layer of beans. Nestle the trotter and a clove of garlic in there somewhere, before adding more bacon, and finishing with a layer of beans. Cover with stock, which should just cover everything – if not, use some bean liquid.
7 Put on the lid and bake for 2 hours, uncovering for the last 30 minutes. Serve hot from the pan on the table.
Anna’s chicken liver paté
A jarful that serves many. This is my suggestion for something savoury “on toast” from the inimitable Anna del Conte. A variation on the classic Tuscan recipe, it is simply chicken livers sauteed in oil with finely chopped celery and parsley, then seasoned with anchovies, capers and sage before being blended into a velvety and deeply flavoured
Fergus Henderson’s baked beans and bacon is a Brian Blessed laugh of a dish
paté that is every bit as delicious as butter- or cognac-rich versions. It can be spread on any sort of toast, but Anna’s suggestion of crostini, or slices of French bread, brushed with olive oil and baked until golden, is a good one, as you can slice ahead and bake a whole trayful at a time. Two sets of hands are a good idea for spreading as you want to get the paté on the crostini while they are still hot and then hand them round instantly.
Makes 1 jar
400g free-range chicken livers 4 tbsp olive oil A small stick of celery, finely chopped A shallot, finely chopped A garlic clove, finely chopped 1 tsp finely chopped sage 1 tbsp tomato puree 100ml dry white wine Salt and black pepper 1 tbsp fine capers, chopped 4 anchovy fillets, chopped 25g butter, plus extra for sealing French bread and butter, to serve
1 Trim the gristle and fat from the livers, wash and pat dry.
2 Warm the oil in a frying pan and gently saute the celery, shallot, garlic and sage until soft – about 8 minutes – then add the chicken livers and cook very gently – they must not fry – until they lose their pinkness.
3 Add 1 tbsp tomato puree, stir, raise the heat slightly, add the wine and cook until the wine has evaporated. Season to taste.
4 Remove from the heat and add the capers and anchovies. Now you can either turn the mixture on to a board and chop roughly or blast in a food processor – but brief pulses, you don’t want to obliterate all the texture. Return the mixture to the pan, add the butter and cook gently for 2 minutes. At this point you can put the paté in a large jar and seal with melted butter.
5 When you’re ready to eat, cut the bread into slices, brush with olive oil and bake until golden. When baked, spread with paté and serve.
Alice, Phyllis and Delia’s trifle (on the cover)
For a few years both of my grandmas added a jelly layer to this trifle, abandoned later for – better – a sherry puddle. My granny had a pub and always poured generously for people she liked – hence the puddle. Delia (Smith) suggests you use raspberries for the fruit layer, but you could use stewed cherries or damsons if you prefer. Delia also suggests a layer of sliced banana. Now, I think this is a lovely idea. But I am outvoted by the family. Toasting the almonds until just golden and crisp is important. Serves 8 5 trifle sponges or a simple sponge cake 100ml sherry 300g fresh raspberries 600ml double cream 3 egg yolks 30g caster sugar 1 tsp cornflour 2 bananas (optional) 50g flaked almonds, toasted
1 Break the sponge into small pieces and put them in the bottom of a glass trifle bowl. Sprinkle over the sherry and raspberries and toss.
2 Make the custard. Gently heat half the double cream in a pan until hot (but not boiling). Meanwhile, in a bowl, whisk the egg yolks, sugar and cornflour into a smooth paste. When the cream is hot, pour it over the egg mixture and whisk vigorously. Return to the pan and – whisking all the time – cook until thick.
3 If you are adding them, slice the bananas and put them on top of the raspberry sponge mix. Then pour the custard on top and leave it to cool. Whip up the remaining cream and spread it on top. Chill for 3–6 hours before sprinkling the toasted almonds over the top.