The Pheasant Philosopher’s Christmas Diaries: ‘Vegging’ out at Christmas

I personally find the Christmas standard veg offering rather boring, ‘boiled’ or ‘roasted’ (aside from potatoes) seems so unimaginative and it doesn’t take much more time to ‘pimp’ those everyday vegetables up to new heights. I enjoy all veg, I try and stick to seasonal choices, however, aside from the somewhat more exciting spiced red cabbage, which had been rather popular in recent years, how else can  carrots, sprouts, cauliflower, peas etc become an integral part of the meal, as opposed to a ‘side’?

Here are a few suggestions:

Carrots

Honey roasted carrots are delicious, roast baby carrots with olive oil and a good drizzle of hones, lots of black pepper and sea salt

Sprouts

Lightly boiled spouts, tossed with small dice of pancetta then placed in an oven proof dish and scattered with breadcrumbs, a little chopped sage and some crumbled blue cheese, baked until bubbling and brown, makes a lovely change. Casting aside the yellowing boiled offerings so many of us face, this is almost a dish in itself!

Peas

French style peas cooked with butter and shallots are terribly moorish. Gently sweat some finely sliced shallots in butter until translucent, add the frozen peas and heat through –  finally stir some finely sliced baby gem lettuce through and serve.

Cauliflower

One of 2018’s ‘superfoods’ cauliflower is an extremely versatile vegetable. I boil mine until soft and then mash with butter, double cream and seasoning – returning to the oven with a sprinkle of grated Swiss cheese for a super smooth cauliflower cheese (and a drizzle of truffle oil doesn’t go amiss either)

Red Cabbage

Every family has their own recipe for spiced red cabbage – we usually serve it on New Year’s Day with a gilded roast goose. I like to add apple, port, dried figs, mixed spice, shallots, garlic, red wine and honey. It makes such a medieval tasting dish, and also works very well cold alongside meats and cheeses after the big day.

Broccoli

Steamed and tossed with chestnuts and butter, adds a nuttiness which compliments this brassica admirably.


The Pheasant Philosopher’s Christmas Diaries: just a little trifle, please!

Christmas is now the only time of the year I make trifle. Growing up it was a mainstay of my grandmother’s birthday and Christmas tables, but the tradition now firmly sits within the festive period.

There’s something wonderfully decadent about the layers of creamy comfort, the hit of booze and the digging down to the bottom for the jelly. Purists, of course don’t use jelly, just sponge, jam (or fruit), cream and custard. This historical favourite is familiar to many as the Birds Trifle…that little packet of magic which seemed such a treat.

Today, trifles have become rather fashionable again. There are so many flavour combinations which satisfy the sweetest tooth.

Every year I make a Southern Comfort and Mandarin Trifle, it’s  so simple and tastes amazing. I use trifle sponges and soak them in Southern comfort and the juice from tinned mandarins, then spoon over the fruit, a layer or orange jelly, custard and finally whipped  cream. I usually buy an edible gold spray for the cream as it catches the light beautifully and looks extremely christmassy.

For a taste of Eastern Promise why not try rose water or rose liqueur soaked sponge, fresh figs, lemon jelly and rosewater cream – a little cardamon in the custard lifts the flavour admirably too.

A delicious, more traditional trifle, is Madeira cake spread with raspberry jam, a few tablespoons of sherry or Amaretto, fresh raspberries, custard, whipped cream and a good scattering of toasted almonds.

Chocolate and Salt Caramel Trifles are very popular flavours these days too. Chocolate cake, Dulce de Leche, a gentle scattering of sea salt flakes, chocolate custard and cream topped with grated dark chocolate makes an extremely rich pudding (and a little dash of Tia Maria is always worth a thought)

One of the most decadent trifles is my Black Forest Trifle, again, no jelly here just good sponge, a good quality dark chocolate spread (or homemade ganache) lots of Kirsch, a jar of black cherries, chocolate custard and whipped cream finished with grated dark chocolate.


The Pheasant Philosopher’s Christmas Diaries: Getting ahead with Christmas, a Duo of Sublime Stuffings

Things which are time consuming relating to the Christmas Lunch are far better done early and the advantage of a good sized freezer makes preparing for Lunch extremely simple indeed.

I like to serve two stuffings. One meat, and cooked separately from the bird, and one to stuff in the neck cavity, to take on the flavours of all those delicious juices. Over the years I have experimented with lots of different recipes but now use just two. Pork, Cranberry and Orange, and Pear with Chestnut and Honey. Both can be frozen and the second, also made with gluten-free bread if there are any allergies to be catered for. A few minutes spent prepping now, will make for an effortless Christmas Lunch. After all – no one really wants to be in the kitchen, too much, over the festive period.

Pork, Pancetta, Cranberry and Orange Stuffing

Serves 6-8

I like to cook this in a loaf tin,  it turns out very well but also looks good brought straight to the table. You can also replace the sausage meat with chicken, or duck sausage meat and leave the pancetta out, for those who don’t eat pork.

Ingredients

500g good sausage meat

100 gram slice of pancetta, finely diced

The juice and zest of 1 large orange

1 clementine, sliced into disks with the skin still on

100g cranberries, roughly chopped

20ml port

Method

Fry the diced pancetta until golden brown and set aside to cool thoroughly

Mix the sausage meat, orange, cooled pancetta, port and cranberries – smoosh (love that word) it all together and fry a little to test seasoning, season to taste. Press the mixture into a loaf tin, cover with foil and pop in the freezer.

Remove on Christmas Eve and allow to defrost overnight in the refrigerator. Decorate with a few slices of clementine and a few whole cranberries, recover with foil and bake for approximately 40 minutes at 175 degrees c, testing with a skewer to make sure it’s cooked thoroughly. Remove the foil for the last ten minutes of cooking and serve.

Pear, Chestnut, Sage and Honey Stuffing 

IMG_6709This should stuff a turkey large enough to feed at least 6-8 with leftovers

Ingredients 

700g slightly stale bread (sourdough also works very well), all the crusts removed, then diced into 1 cm cubes

1 large tin of pears in juice, drained and the pear cut into 1 cm dice ( I have also used fresh pears, but as these are already cooked there are no worries about the pears discolouring)

100g cooked chestnuts, peeled and roughly chopped

1 heaped tablespoon runny honey

1 heaped tablespoon finely shredded sage

Seasoning to taste

Method

Melt the honey until liquid and add the chopped sage, allow it to infuse for a minute.

Stir the chopped pear, bread and chestnuts together and pour over the sage honey, making sure all the ingredients are well coated, add a good sprinkle of salt and black pepper.

Place into a freezer bag, or Tupperware and freeze until Christmas Eve.

Remove and defrost thoroughly before stuffing into the neck cavity of the bird. This is quite a chunky, almost medieval style, stuffing and compliments the meat stuffing very well. Do make sure that you secure the neck skin well to stop the stuffing escaping during cooking – my great grandmother used to actually sew the neck up using a needle and string (although they more often had a chicken or capon for Christmas Lunch)


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: Variations on the Mince Pie

Every year, I do my utmost to avoid Mince Pies until, at least, the second week of December.  The description ‘warm mince pie’ always sounds far better than the factory produced supermarket offerings which frequent gatherings, events and parties at Christmas.

I believe that making your own is simple, far more satisfying and, it will certainly impress guests. Taking a pretty box tied up with ribbon to a friend’s house always proves successful. Which brings me onto the subject of making time for baking. Christmas is one of the socially busiest times of the year, and there are hundreds of recipes out there for homemade pasties, tried and tested – however I’m going to suggest using shop bought pastry – it’s time saving and perfectly good. The ideas below are based on shop-bought shortcrust, puff and filo – all include little upgrades to insure a perfect pie anytime. Mincemeat is something else which can be made at home, but it needs maturing, and unless you’ve made a batch in the summer (which I always forget to do) you come a little unstuck at Christmas. I often buy a really good quality ready made mincemeat and add to it, a couple of ‘twists’ here and there and you’re good to go. I have put together four very simple, but effective ideas – ensuring that the house will be filled with delicious Christmas scents, and you’ll still have time for that last minute shopping!

Fruity Mince Meat Crackers

Using Filo Pastry makes a crisp, lighter pie. I mix a jar of mincemeat with some chopped pear and chopped apple, this firms the mincemeat up nicely and provides more substance per bite. Take six slices of filo pastry, brush each piece with melted butted and layer three together, repeat with the next three slices, then cut in four rectangles (making 8). Place a spoon of mincemeat horizontally across each one (allowing a couple of centimetres clear either end), then roll into a sausage shape. Pinch in the ends to make little cracker shapes. Brush with melted butter.  Bake until golden brown (on a non-stick baking sheet) and serve with a good sprinkle of icing sugar mixed with a little cinnamon.

Marzipan and Mincemeat Swirls

Take one ready rolled sheet of puff pastry (or shortcrust) and unroll onto a floured board. Spread 1 400g jar of good mincemeat over the pastry. Grate 80g of marzipan onto the mincemeat. Roll the pastry horizontally until you have a ‘Swiss roll’ then pop into the freezer until well chilled – it will keep very well in the freezer until needed – simply take out and slice into disks of 1cm, place on a greased, non-stick baking sheet, brush on some beaten egg yolk, then scatter with silvered almonds and a little shake of  icing sugar. Bake at 180 degrees c until golden brown and serve warm

Pimped Up Pies

I’ve taken a little Italian inspiration for my Pimped Up Pies. One of my bugbears, when it comes to Mince Pies is avoiding a ‘soggy bottom’ – I have tried several methods to help prevent this, this is one of the most successful. Line a patty tin with ready rolled shortcrust pastry. Scatter 1/2 tsp of polenta into each pie then follow with 1/2 tsp of ground almonds, this forms a ‘pillow’ for the mincemeat. Mix one 400g jar of mincemeat with 1 tablespoon of Limoncello, add three of four chopped dates, and finally, the zest of one medium lemon. Fill the pies and top with pastry lids brushed with beaten egg,  bake until golden brown and served scattered with icing sugar and grated lemon zest.

Little Bakers Pies

Making Mince Pies with children is one of the family friendly aspects of the festive season which makes memories – we all remember helping our parents or grandparents in the kitchen; very clean hands, far-too-big apron. So why not get out the pastry cutters and top your pies with festive cut-outs, they can be decorated afterwards with silver balls, coloured icing or other treats. All you need to do is line a patty tin with pastry, put in a little mincemeat and let the little ones create. These also make great presents for family members too!


The Pheasant Philosopher’s Christmas Diaries: Down Memory Lane

Growing up in the 1980s there were so many things which ‘made’ Christmas. One of the main questions being, were your family ‘Team Quality Street’ or ‘Team Roses’? My parents were firmly ‘Team Roses’, whilst my paternal Grandmother was ‘Team Quality Street’.Of course, this was in the day when a tin of chocolates was really made of tin and extremely generously filled with all the family favourites – however, the Strawberry creams were always left until well after the new year though, and often consigned to the bin as they were far too sweet.

I always enjoyed visiting my paternal Grandparents in the run up to Christmas; the left hand cupboard in the G-Plan sideboard would be slowly filling up – there would All Gold, Black Magic, Mint Matchmakers, Chocolate Orange, Chocolate Brazil Nuts, After Eights (with their own silver plated ‘trolley’), a tin of Quality Street and some York Fruits, always the gift of choice between my paternal Grandmother (Nan) and maternal Grandfather, who was rather challenged in the tooth department – I don’t think anybody ever actually liked York Fruits – finally there were those little lemon and orange slices, covered in sugar, in a little round box.

My Nan’s Christmas Cake was generously enrobed with almost rock hard ‘snow’ icing, topped with a 1950s plastic Christmas tree, a gold plastic ‘Season’s Greetings’ sign, and a pink crepe paper ruff adorning its middle. There would be a Bird’s Trifle with multi coloured sprinkles and homemade Chocolate Eclairs, the tins for which, I still have in my kitchen cupboard.

My maternal Grandparents, who lived in a tiny Victorian cottage near Newport, then in Gwent, celebrated Christmas in a far more relaxed way. Grandma would make cakes and plenty of mince pies, they would roast a chicken and enjoy the TV – there were no Christmas Trees or decorations save for one or two made at school by myself. Christmas was kept quietly, a few treats would be bought but Grandma was, as is still at 107, very thrifty.

Today, with so much choice all the year round, we have perhaps lost the magic of those days, the annual traditions which signified the opening of the season – although even now I wait in anticipation for the first satsumas to arrive, I still buy the bag of mixed nuts – although the carved wooden bowl which would sit with the nutcracker on the nested G-Plan tables in my Nan’s front room is long gone – I am still partial to a Bendicks or Elizabeth Shaw mint, although my tastes have naturally diversified, and a selection box (always one of my presents from my Gran) still appears in my son’s stocking.

I think, at Christmas, we do try to cling on to nostalgia and tradition a little more, especially as we get older – even though things probably weren’t better in the ‘olden days’, it’s still a comfort, to us, to believe they were!


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 Philsopher’s Christmas Diaries: Party Punch and Mulling

No Victorian Christmas party was complete without a gleaming punch bowl full of inhibition-removing deliciousness. In richer households, these bowls would be silver or silver gilt, with matching chased cups and ladle, in middle class houses cut glass or crystal was offered, whilst lower down the social pecking order china, wood or pewter was most often used.

The tradition of Punches, although at their height during the 18th and 19th centuries, could well have emerged from an even earlier tradition, one of which dates back to Saxon times, and perhaps earlier; the Wassail cup. This was a communal vessel, passed around a party to the shouts of ‘wes þú hál’ old English for ‘good health’ or ‘be healthy’ and was often brought out during Yule or Christmastide, filled with warm spiced ale, mead or more usually cider, it was also drunk to bless the orchards and ensure a successful harvest.

Mulled Wine also has much older roots too, Roman and medieval Europe offered wine sweetened with honey and spices known by the name ‘Hippocras’ which was often served warmed in the colder months – the spices were placed in a conical strainer and steeped in the wine – the name derived from famed Greek physician Hippocrates who is said to have invented the strainer to filter water.

Mulled Wine

serves 6

1 bottle good red wine

50ml brandy

2 cinnamon sticks

40g root ginger, peeled and sliced

6 cloves

40g brown sugar

1 orange sliced

1 cardamom, crushed

Gently warm all the ingredients together in a heavy pan – careful not to boil!

Wassail (Cider Cup)

Serves 6

1 litre still cider (or scrumpy if you’re brave enough!)

50ml Apple brandy (calvados)

50g honey (depending on personal taste and type of cider used)

1/4 tsp grated nutmeg

1 cinnamon stick

15g root ginger peeled and grated

2 star anise

2 dessert apples, sliced

Mull the ingredients together over a low heat to allow the flavours to infuse and serve with a cinnamon stick

An 18th century Fruit Punch Recipe

Peel six lemons and, using a pestle and mortar or strong bowl and the end of a rolling pin muddle in 375g white sugar and leave to sit for a couple of hours.

Juice the peeled lemons and set the juice aside

Pour 500ml of dark rum into a jug or bowl, add 250ml of brandy and 1.5 litres of water. Add the lemon juice, sugar and lemon, then leave for a further two hours before straining and serving with lots of ice


The Pheasant Philosopher’s Christmas Diaries: Stories of Stilton

There are certain things that I order every Christmas, which admittedly, are rather indulgent; whole cheeses, specialist drinks, charcuterie and chocolate. These are the items which make the Christmas period extra special, impresses guests and, in their own way creates family traditions – without exception I always seek out a really good Stilton, but I opt for a whole ‘baby’ cheese, even I would be pushed to consume a whole standard Stilton!

Christmas and Stilton go hand in hand, served with Port after pudding, the salty voluptuousness of this very British cheese compliments the sweet port admirably. Stilton is one of the few cheeses in the UK awarded  PDO (protected designation of origin) status and has it’s own protected logo. It can only be made in Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire although its true origins are a little more sketchy . The village of Stilton, which is now in Cambridgeshire, and where the name originated in the 18th century, is not within the PDO boundaries, therefore no cheese made there can be sold as Stilton. Believed to have originated in the early 18th century, Stilton is synonymous with the famous Bell Inn, which, in the 1720s allegedly produced the best cheese in the town. This was most likely the work of early entrepreneur and hotelier Cooper Thornhill who ‘discovered’ the cheese in Melton Mowbray and negotiated exclusive re-sale rights. His hotel, situated on the Great North Road proved an excellent location from which to deal in Stilton and its fame spread.

IMG_6600Stilton should be left to breathe before serving, and, although today we scoop the gently rippled, blue cheese from within its rind, before spreading it on crackers, oatcakes or crusty bread, originally it was served in a rather more unusual fashion. Daniel Defoe, wrote in 1724, that he passed through Stilton, a town famous for a cheese which is known as English Parmesan. The cheese was brought to the table with mites or maggots surrounding it, so thick as to require a spoon to consume – these were eaten alongside the cheese -so next time you and your friends consider why Stilton is spooned, you may want to share that rather ‘interesting’ nugget of culinary history.

So what makes a true Stilton cheese? Stilton is made from local pasteurised milk and is an un-pressed cheese, the distinctive blue veining comes from the insertion of steel rods during the maturing process, which allows the air to get into the cheese and react with the cultures. It must have the flavour profile of Stilton and hold a fat content of approximately 35 %. It is ripened for 9-12 weeks and must conform to the traditional conical shape. Celebrated in poetry and song, the Stilton will long be a part of our Christmas table. Delicious with pears or melted into cream for a British take on Fondue, Stilton is a versatile cheese which, quite rightfully, has its place at the centre of the Great British Cheeseboard – although, a word of warning, Stilton is said to cause bad dreams if eaten too soon before sleep – and pouring port into the recess left after scooping the cheese out is considered very uncouth indeed!


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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