The Pheasant Philosopher’s Christmas Diaries: a change from turkey…my partridge (or pheasant) in a pear tree

Many people are becoming much more experimental in the kitchen and, where once, turkey or goose took centre stage, now there are many different options for the Christmas table. Aside from a good joint of beef, leg of lamb or meltingly soft slow-cooked pork shoulder many people look to game – especially in smaller households,  where cooking a large bird is impractical and would encourage waste. A haunch of venison, of course, is certainly more suited to a large party but, for a simple and delicious alternative, for that more intimate celebration, why not consider game birds?

Pheasant can be braised whole, with pancetta and cider and apples,  then finished with a slug of cream

Partridge breasts make an excellent first course

Venison Carpaccio is seen on the menus of the country’s best restaurants

Wild boar is a great choice – we slow cook ours with lots of red wine and garlic; it’s richness allows it to take on some really bold flavours – you never have to be worried about what you throw in with wild boar, most things work!

One of my personal favourite recipes for pheasant, or partridge, is pan-fried with IMG_6782pancetta and pears on a celeriac puree, with Savoy cabbage and a blackberry port reduction. It’s an impressive looking dish which is really quite easy (and surprisingly) quick to put together.

Peel and boil your celeriac as you would potato, if you are preparing ahead make sure to keep the celeriac under water (ideally with a little squirt of lemon juice) to prevent browning.

Add a couple of teaspoons of oil to a frying pan and fry two rashers of thinly sliced pancetta per person until crisp and gently browned. Set aside and add a small knob of butter to the pan. Season one pheasant breast or two partridge breasts per person with salt and pepper, then quickly fry on a medium/high  heat until golden brown, place in an oven preheated to 180 degrees c for 5 mins (partridge) or 8 (pheasant). It’s very important not to let the meat dry out as game can be rather tough if overcooked. I check the oven every three minutes or so, the flesh should be firm when pressed but not rubbery – sadly, timing is something which rather depends on the size of the bird.

Finely slice the Savoy cabbage and fry with a little water and lots of butter until cooked, then allow the water to evaporate allowing the butter to turn into a an unctuous glaze. Season with black pepper

Meanwhile, quickly fry some fresh pear (It looks rather pretty if sliced top to bottom, although if you find this a little tricky, tinned pear quarters, sliced, also work rather well too), when caramelised, place them in the oven with the meat to keep warm.

Deglaze the pan with a small glass of port, add a tablespoon or two of blackberry jam and allow it to bubble a little, then set aside. This rich ‘jus’ will have taken on all the delicious flavours of the pan.

Mash the Celeriac with butter, salt and pepper. I use a 1/4 to 3/4, butter to veg, as it gives an incredibly smooth and rich puree which foils the rather more ‘plain’ game rather well.

Place a couple of spoonfuls of celeriac on each plate, top with a little cabbage, slice the breasts on an angle and place on top with the pears. Spoon the reduction around the plate (a little goes a long way) and finally finish with the crisp pancetta.

This will certainly impress guests and could be served as a starter or main.


The Pheasant Philosopher’s Christmas Diaries: top tipples

    Stocking the drinks cabinet is a chore we must all undertake at this time of the year, whatever your personal preference, relatives and friends’ preferences must also be taken into account and that bottle of Creme de Menthe hidden at the back of the under-sink cupboard surely cannot last another year.

Interestingly, some of the drinks, traditionally more associated with Grand – ma thanIMG_4234 grand night out are making a bit of a come back – sherry anyone? Sherry and Mince Pies were once the height of sophistication and today we have such a wonderful choice that all palettes can be catered for. From the dry Manzanillas to the syrupy deliciousness of Pedro Jimenez, the world of Sherry is as diverse as any fortified wine. A dry, crisp Fino served with salted Marcona almonds is the stuff of dreams and even Bristol Cream has its place.  Port is also ‘on trend’ this year, there are ruby, tawny, white and rosé varieties and even some of the budget supermarkets are peddling out some pretty decent offerings in this department including vintage examples.

Gin is still ‘in’ and flavoured Gins are everywhere – I am a little suspicious of some of these brands – a ‘flavoured’ gin where the flavour is added after distillation is a IMG_4368completely different entity to those gins infused with unusual ingredients within the distillation process. Rose and Violet gins, distilled with real petal infusions are heavenly, Parma violet ‘flavoured’, not quite so delightful. The Negroni, last summer’s ‘it’ cocktail will still be on many menus, as will the more conventional choices.

Baileys is only bought at Christmas in this household, and the first bottle is usually gone within the first week – the uncool classification is lifted unanimously at this time of year, there is no disgrace in indulging – I suppose it’s the British equivalent of Egg Nog, and yes, I do know that it hails from Ireland. My local version of Baileys, Penderyn’s (Welsh Whiskey) Merlyn cream liqueur  is equally as delicious, and ultimately, probably offers a good deal more street cred.

A bottle of Madeira for gravy, a bottle of Southern Comfort for my Christmas Day trifle IMG_4170(recipe to follow), a bottle each of gin and vodka, two bottles of whisky; a decent single malt and one for ‘medicinal’ purposes, and a bottle of two of spontaneous purchases, these are often by Chase, in our household, and are usually added to Champagne to serve with canapés before lunch – the elderflower is particularly exquisite. Finally, a little bottle of vibrant Chambord  black raspberry liqueur makes the list, which is particularly excellent stirred into a fresh raspberry sauce for duck.


The Pheasant Philosopher’s Christmas Diaries: The eternal quest for the best Hot Chocolate!

One of the annual traditions in our household is putting up the Christmas decorations on the first weekend in December – this is accompanied by lots of steaming hot chocolate and, of course, homemade gingerbread biscuits.

I fully admit that I am a bit of a Hot Chocolate perfectionist. So often, when I order the ‘Special Hot Chocolate’ on a menu I find myself disappointed – it’s always either not hot enough, not thick enough, not creamy enough or the worst crime, just not chocolaty enough!

This has led to a multitude of experiments at home, trying everything from Spanish recipes, to cocoa powder based recipes with cream and even butter, custard based recipes and, of course, all the brands available at both the supermarkets and delis.

I finally concluded that Jersey milk and real chocolate makes the best and simplest Hot Chocolate – perhaps with the addition of a glug of Baileys or rum for the grown-ups, and there are no end of small additions to make my basic Hot Chocolate extremely festive and child friendly. Winter without Hot Chocolate is like Christmas without Santa, and when the colder weather comes, there’s nothing more satisfying than making a real ritual out of its preparation.

Recipe:

Per Person:

50g of good chocolate (dark or milk or even white)

150ml jersey milk

I make mine in a Pyrex bowl over a pan of simmering water, combing the ingredients with a small whisk, never allowing the bowl to come into contact with the water. This creates the most indulgent drink, patience is the key here, slow and steady wins the chocolate race.

This is a very rich drink so serve in small cups with your choice from the following toppings and additions:

Family Friendly

Whipped cream and grated chocolate

A couple of drops of peppermint extract, whipped cream and a little crushed stripy candy cane

1/4 tsp cinnamon per serving

1/4 tsp ginger per serving

A couple of drops almond extract, cream and toasted almonds

Whipped cream and crushed smarties

marshmallows, drizzled with warm chocolate sauce

Whipped cream and drizzle of warmed salted caramel sauce

Vanilla extract and a grating of nutmeg

Adults Only

A tablespoon of your choice of liqueur per serving, some of my favourites include:

Tia Maria, whipped cream and crushed coffee beans is delicious

Cointreau, cream and grated Terry’s Chocolate Orange

Baileys, whipped cream and chocolate flake

Whisky and a sprinkle of ginger

Amaretto, cream and crushed Amaretti biscuits


The Pheasant Philosopher’s Christmas Diaries: Easy Entertaining.

I am extremely proud of my Welsh heritage and although there aren’t many exclusively ‘Welsh’ traditions, we do have some excellent recipes to satisfy the hungriest of guests over the Christmas period.

Feeding a party is quite a challenge, but sometimes, especially in the colder weather it’s nice to offer guests something a little more substantial that the usual mince pie and canapés. In fact, cooking a large pot of something delicious is far easier, creating less stress and allowing more integrated time with your guests.

Entertaining at Christmas shouldn’t be stressful. Make sure you have a really good cheeseboard, lots of decent bread and a generously filled pot of casserole, soup or stew. Obviously, mulled wine is essential, as is mulled cider, but a great casserole filled with slow cooked beef, game or a really good Cawl, the hearty Welsh lamb and barley stew which is served traditionally with Caws (cheese) and Bara (bread), is sure to satisfy the pickiest of guests. The beauty of many of these dishes is the simple fact that they look after themselves, require the cheapest cuts and are full of the most delicious flavours.

Beef Stew with suet dumplings, the Gascon favourite Poule au Pot or even a hearty vegan lentil and brassica stew – these are perfect for the cooler weather – they freeze well and hold well, allowing guests to dip in, at will over the course of the evening.

Entertaining shouldn’t be complicated, the company, candles and generously poured wine is the true focus of the evening. Sometimes the simplest foods prove the best, after all, we are heading for the most indulgent period in the culinary calendar so why not tuck into some family favourites – these comfort foods can be eaten without excuses – the diet doesn’t start until January, remember!


The Pheasant Philosopher’s Christmas Diaries: Day 2, The Butcher’s Order

Today I’m turning my attention to planning my Christmas butchery order. Last year I chose one of Holt-Wilson’s Monmouthshire Turkeys and I was extremely impressed with the bird – it served far more mouths (with leftovers) than recommended, and was firm and img_1976flavoursome – not gamey, but rich and a real treat! I do feel that we so often over estimate the amount of turkey needed – after canapés, starters, fish courses etc you should really be looking at no more than 80g or so per person for the main course, and of course there’s only so many ways one can prepare leftovers.

img_1984Every year I also order a large gammon for Boxing Day, ideally rare breed and most certainly British, as is my bacon and my sausages. I prepare my stuffing separately, the sausage meat cooked with cranberries and orange, whilst the sage and onion goes into the Turkey neck. My sister, who always joins us for Christmas, doesn’t eat pork so a vegetarian stuffing is preferred, I usually add pears to the sage and onion, and roast a few to serve as a cranberry sauce alternative.

My Boxing Day gammon is studded with cloves and sliced clementines and glazed with a little maple syrup and eats well with hot with creamy mashed potato or cold in doorstop sandwiches with plenty of peppery mustard.

img_1983Another tradition in our household is the preparing of Duck Rillettes, this recipe comes from Gascony, where we spend the summer at our holiday home, and is great for those who find liver pâtés a little squeamish. I serve it with a good chutney on crisp toasts and it always goes down a treat – and there’s lots left over for cold plates. I will be sharing my recipe for Rillettes a little later December, and I also have a bit of cheaty method, for those who are really short of time.

One of the simple pleasures of Christmas Eve is queueing at the butchers, knowing that your order is taken care of, and enjoying the friendly banter and festive atmosphere and here in Monmouthshire we are spoilt for choice!

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The Pheasant Philosopher’s Christmas Diaries: Stir Up Sunday

Originating in the early 18th century, Stir Up Sunday is the day traditionally designated to undertake the making of the Christmas Pudding.

Always kept on the last Sunday before Advent, it is said that Stir Up Sunday originated from a passage in a sermon in ‘The Book of Common Prayer’ translated from the Roman Catholic ‘Excita Quarsumus’ and read on the last Sunday in November.

“Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people”

However, whilst I consider myself spiritual, but not tied to one particular religion, I see it as a day to have fun with the family, make wishes whilst stirring, and generally set the scene for the beginning of the Christmas festivities. It also allows at least 4 weeks for the Pudding to mature in a dark cupboard before being brought flaming to the table on Christmas Day.

Traditionally made with 13 ingredients to represent the 12 apostles and Jesus, my Christmas Pudding recipe is adapted from the doyenne of English cookery Eliza Acton, whose recipe was first published in the 1840s. Under the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901), with Prince Albert’s Germanic influences, Christmas became the spectacle it it today, with so many of our Christmas traditions filtering down from this, most famous of couples.

Although the roots of Christmas Pudding’s are deep set in The Middle Ages – where meat and fruit was combined with spices in many recipes – the sweet, sticky, boozy concoction we know and love today is very much a product of post-reformation Britain.

Packed full of moist vine fruits, suet, mixed peel, spices and, of course, booze – it is synonymous with Christmas Lunch and, love it or hate it, no Christmas meal is complete without it. Traditionally, every member of the household takes a turn to stir the pudding and make a wish. My Great Grandmother would take her industrial sized Christmas Pudding to the local brewery to be steamed in the great vessels used for brewing and my grandmother, who is now almost 108 still enjoys taking a turn stirring the pudding and making her wish.

Historically, a selection of silver tokens are stirred into the mix – most often a sixpence (silver is by nature anti-bacterial so no poisoning worries there, although it does make for somewhat of a choking hazard) and the finder of this would “enjoy wealth and good luck in the year to come”.

Christmas Pudding

Serves 6-8

75g plain flour (or gluten free)

75g breadcrumbs (I like to use wholemeal)

175g suet (beef or vegetable)

175g chopped figs

175g sultanas

50g diced mixed peel

1 large apple, grated

1 large orange, zest grated and juiced

150g dark brown sugar

1.5 tsp mixed spice

1/2 tsp sea salt

100ml Armagnac (or any spirit you prefer)

3 eggs lightly beaten

Method

Mix all the ingredients together in a large bowl, making sure that every member of the household gets to stir and make their wish!

Pour into a greased pudding bowl – I use a 21 cm Pyrex bowl – cover with a dampened new tea towel or muslin then tie securely with string.

Place on a trivet in a large lidded pan and pour water 3/4 of the way up the side

Bring to the boil and then simmer gently for 4 hours, topping up the water when necessary

Cool and store in a cool, dark and dry place – I keep my pudding in the bowl, in a large tin – you can ‘feed’ it with spirits but if you are planning on bringing it, flaming, to the table too much additional alcohol can prove dangerous.

On Christmas Day, repeat the steaming procedure for 1 and 1/2 hours then serve with your choice of Brandy Butter, Custard, Cream or Vanilla Sauce – not forgetting the obligatory sprig of decorative Holly!


Moroccan Spiced Slow Roast Shoulder of Lamb

I adore the combination of flavours in North African cooking, the rich tagines, delicate sweet pastries, mounds of minted, olive oil rich couscous, bulgar wheat salads gleaming with jewel-like pomegranate seeds – and now, with autumn on the way i’d like to share one of my favourite, albeit possibly inauthentic, recipes combining local Welsh Lamb (which I firmly believe is some the best in the world) with those flavours synonymous with Morocco – garlic, lemon, honey, figs, ras-al-hanout – all melding together to create an extremely ‘moorish’ dish.

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This would make an excellent alternative Sunday lunch or supper party dish, served with a roasted vegetable couscous, or even simply jacket potatoes and salad. The lamb is also excellent tucked into warmed flatbreads with some hummus, spiced yoghurt and a dash of pomegranate molasses. The leftovers (including the bone) can be turned into a simple spiced lamb broth with a few chick peas, veggies and squeeze of Harissa – two meals for the price of one and no waste. I do recommend marinating the meat overnight as it allows the flavours to penetrate the meat.

Serves 4-6 with leftovers

IngredientsIMG_5404

2.5 kg shoulder of lamb (bone in)

2 preserved lemons, sliced

2 heaped tsp ras-al-hanout spice blend – I use Parva Spices

A good handful of fresh parsley

6 cloves of garlic, smashed with their skins

2 tbls of good olive oil

4 chopped, dried figs

salt and pepper

1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses – this can be found in specialty food shops, in some delis or online from The Belazu Ingredient Company, and gives a rich intensity without too much sweetness

1 heaped tablespoon runny honey

Method

(Day 1)

Place the lamb in a large casserole or in a roasting dish, slash the meat diagonally at 2 cm intervals to make little pockets in the meat.

Slice the lemons and figs, and roughly chop the parsley

In a small bowl mix the Ras-al-Hanout, olive oil, seasoning and pomegranate molasses

Rub this into the meat, making sure to cover the surface completely

Push the lemon, garlic, parsley and fig slices into the slashed pockets, then drizzle with the honey

Cover well and leave to marinate overnight in the fridge

(Day 2)

Remove the meat from the fridge and bring to room temperature

Heat the oven to 150 degrees C , gas mark 2, 300 degree f.

Place the meat in the oven, covered with foil or lidded (if using a casserole)

Cook for four hours, checking every hour or so

If you do find the meat looks as if it is a little dry, add some lamb stock (this can be from a stockpot or cube). Lamb shoulder is a relatively fatty cut, yielding delicious juices so this shouldn’t really be a problem.

Remove the lid, turn the oven up to 180 degrees C, Gas Mark 4, 350 degrees F and cook for a further 1 1/2 hours or until the meat is tender, browned and a little crisp on the outside

IMG_5457Rest the meat for at least 15 minutes before serving.

I like to serve my lamb with wholegrain couscous which I stir into the juices whilst the meat is resting, adding lemon, mint, stock and seasoning, bringing to the boil and then leaving  for few minutes to ‘fluff’ – this is a great way of using up all those lovely juices and means the couscous really packs a flavour punch.


Late Summer Blackberry and Almond Cake

I adore autumn, I love the foods, the smells, the weather…everything! For me the appearance of blackberries, plums, hips and haws all signify the beginning of a season of abundance, a season which I feel completely at one with. This morning I took a basket and followed the little lane outside the farmhouse until I came across the most enormous crop of blackberries, an absolute abundance of them, my son and I picked (probably a ratio of 5:1 basket vs mouth) a couple of kilos.

Digging through the post-holiday larder I found a packet of whole almonds, the remains of a bottle of rum and a small quality of rich dark muscovado sugar – and this cake was born. It’s really moist, almost pudding-like and would work exceptionally well with a blob of clotted cream or a drizzle of fresh custard as an autumnal pudding.

I’m also really looking forward to the later blackberries, the smaller pectin rich, black gold nuggets which can be readily turned into jams and jellies so a post or two certainly, to follow.

Ingredients

125g self-raising flour

75g almonds, roughly ground

65g dark muscovado sugar

65g golden caster sugar

125g unsalted butter

3 small eggs

1/2 tsp baking powder

125g blackberries

1 tbsp spiced rum

Method

Pre heat the oven to 170 degrees c. (fan oven)

Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy

Add the eggs, one at a time

Add the flour and baking powder (sifted), then the almonds

Add the rum, then incorporate the blackberries, very gently, so they remain intact

Butter, and line a 20 cm x 10cm round cake tin

Pour the batter into the tin and place in the oven

Bake for 40-50 minutes until golden brown ( check that the cake is fully cooked using a skewer or knife point – it should come out clean)


Is it Autumn yet?….

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I am an Autumnophile (if there is such a word). I get terribly excited in about July and wait for that change in the air which denotes the beginning of the new season and having become extremely sensitive to this natural phenomenon I can state that Autumn does begin in August, usually when I’m in France on about the 7th. This year it was on the 5th and I admit to phoning Mr D (who was working in the UK) at 7 am in the morning to let him know, although I don’t think he entirely shares my enthusiasm for cold, damp days and soggy leaves!

I’m not sure where this date stands from an ‘equinox’ point of view but meteorologically the Autumn is supposed to begin in late September. However, the leaves are just starting to turn here, the air is muggy and warm, there are plums in abundance and our abandoned grape vine is bending with fruit. I sense a difference in the light, I can’t quite pinpoint the exact first feelings of Autumn (before the traditional ‘signs’) but it does seems to be in the light, which changes to a more golden hue from the bright, fluffy light of summer. Growing up, I  was always told that Mayday was the first day of summer, with its Green Men and general frolics (now apparently the first day of summer is sometime in late June which surely is close to Midsummer’s Day, the clue being the word Midsummer.) In December we don’t sing “In the Bleak Early Winter” as is meteorologically correct. And I’m sure Midwinter is around the equinox of the 21/22/23rd, therefore, Winter must actually start in November which is ‘meteorologically’ Autumn. See how confusing it all is? Answers on a postcard, please!

But for now, all I can really think about is the prospect of Autumn food, long boots, snuggly jumpers, candles and log fires (although I know it’s too early to indulge). So….to help my with my addiction  I’m going to share a few of my favourite Autumn things over the next few weeks, items which I think are essential to enjoy the nights drawing in and the temperature dropping. I know there are many of you who seek the last days of the summer, praying that it’ll eek out into September, but sorry to say an ‘Indian summer’ is just a ‘Warm Autumn’. Perhaps we are just conditioned to hibernation, the arrival of the orchard fruits in abundance call out to our early genetic makeup to ‘stock up and store’ for the hard winter (which we fail to have now).

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When I take the Collie out, along the lane beside the river and up into the woods the smell of autumn is just creeping in – it is of course the smell of decaying vegetation, and not the most desirable if analysed, but I so enjoy driving through the cider orchards and inhaling the fruitiness in the air before the fruity smell turns slightly alcoholic in early October. I do think a cider post will be essential around that time – after all, it’s only fair to guide my readers through the perils of scrumpy, Perry and the like. But for today, overcast and slightly warm, I think I’ll stay indoors, bake something and just ponder on the wonderful season ahead.

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