Thursday, 24 December 2009

Christmas Eve

The tree has been decorated (complete with wooden lobster), presents wrapped, and enough food bought to survive a six month siege. Christmas can begin. The kitchen still smells faintly of mulled wine, which was scented with ginger cordial, and the sitting room smells of pine needles and spicy from the Christmas tree decorations studded with cloves.

My sister is making a chocolate log, and because we don't have an electric whisk everyone has had to have a go with the hand whisk, trying to get the mixture to leave its elusive 'ribbon' that shows that it is thick enough. Once the sponge has been cooked it will be rolled up with whipped cream and jam and then smothered in chocolate fudge icing.

As well as a the chocolate log there's a pavlova baking in the Aga. This isn't excessive, you understand, the pavlova is for the non-Christmas pudding eaters and the chocolate log is for afternoon tea.

My family nearly always has fish pie on Christmas Eve, before the excesses of the next day. This one was made from cod and salmon poached in milk with a few bay leaves and pieces of leek and carrot, then the milk used in a white sauce, made more exciting with Worcestershire sauce, a tiny bit of mustard and seasoning. Instead of mashed potatoes it just had breadcrumbs on top, and we ate it with new potatoes and peas. A calming meal before the festive madness begins tomorrow.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Christmas feasting, part one

As the old saying goes (I think) 'If one Christmas meal is good, then more than one is even better'. Ever since university I've done a Christmas dinner with friends as well as the real event on 25th December. I can't remember if I did the year I lived in France when a) it is impossible to get hold of a turkey, and b) no-one I knew owned an oven, but I hope I did.

This year was destined to be a good one: not only did I have an oven but also three lovely housemates who are I'm very pleased are as greedy as me. I wanted to avoid turkey because I knew I'd be eating it on actual Christmas Day, and much as I love it I think part of its appeal lies in only having it once a year. Gammon seemed like a good option, it feels Christmassy and smothered in mustard and honey looks suitably Special Occasion. But gammons there were none (at least in Clapham Asda) so we had a leg of pork instead, and I'm so glad we did.

Normally I think pork can be a bit dull. Any bits of the a pig that haven't been cured or aren't covered in fat have a tendency to be dry and dessicated. Julian Barnes in A Pedant in the Kitchen once described it as 'tasting like the compressed cardboard from which they make hospital pee-bottles', and cooked badly enough I think this is pretty accurate.

We decided to try Nigel Slater's recipe for roast leg of pork with onion and Marsala gravy which was a triumph and in the process I think I have discovered the holy grail that is the Secret of Crackling. Two things that I think resulted in the spectacular, pale gold puffs of fat that crowned the pork (I forgot to take any photos so you'll have to take my word about its beauty) were rubbing the skin with salt that night before, and once it was cooked leaving it to rest then just before serving it putting it under a searing hot grill for a couple of minutes.

*The mince pies and mince pasties were made by my housemates Anna and Agnes, and are one of the reasons I'm very glad I live with them.

A leg of pork, around 1.5kg
Salt - lots

For the gravy
3 onions
Oil or dripping if you have it
2 tbs plain flour
2 small wine glasses of Marsala
1 tbs grain mustard

The day before you plan to eat score the skin of the pork at 1cm intervals so that the cuts go down into the fat but not the meat. Rub generously with salt and leave, uncovered, in the fridge overnight.

If you remember in time it is a good idea to let the meat come back to room temperature before you put in in the oven. I rinsed off the salt I'd applied the previous day (I'm not sure why, but I was concerned about it being too salty) and dry it well. A tea towel works well because you need to get all the moisture off it if you are to have any hope of getting crackling. Re-rub with salt, plonk on a rack in a roasting tray and put it in the oven preheated to 220 degrees. After 30 minutes lower the heat to 190 and cook for 25 minutes per 500g - for our leg this came to about two hours in total.

Meanwhile, slice the onions thinly and put in a pan with the oil/fat on a low heat. Leave them to cook very slowly for at least half an hour, stirring every few minutes and adding a drop of water it it looks like they might stick. I didn't do this and massacred the pan, but managed to rescue most of the onions.

Once the onions have become a single pale brown mass stir in the flour and cook for a minute or two. Throw in the Marsala and let it splutter for a moment then add the water and the mustard. Let it all bubble gently for at least ten minutes until it has thickened a bit and no longer tastes floury.

I don't normally make a separate gravy to go with a roast and just deglaze the pan with some wine or stock, maybe using a bit of flour, because that way the gravy 'matches' the taste of the meat. But this rarely produces quite enough, and on this occasion it was lovely to have far too much gravy, along with too much meat, potatoes, roast vegetables and wine....

But it seemed a shame to waste the gorgeous sticky juices and residue at the bottom of the tray the pork was cooked in, so I poured in a glass of water and let simmer over the hob, scrapping up the stuck-on bits from the bottom until it became a syrupy, amber liquid, and added this to the onion-Marsala concoction.

Once the pork has cooked (ie. the juices run clear or brownish rather than pink) cover it with two layers of foil, shiny side down, and leave to rest for at least 30 minutes. Resting is so important when roasting meat; it allows the fibres that tensed up in the heat of the oven to relax and the juices to flow back into them thus avoiding dry, cardboard pee-bottleness.

Jus before you you're going to eat put it under a grill set as hot as it will go for just a few minutes to puff up the crackling. As I type this I realise that some people might be concerned about letting meat cool slightly (although cocooned in foil it shouldn't lose much heat) and them putting it back in the oven might not constitute best food safety practice. But we were fine after eating it, and the meat was still hot all the way through when I carved it.

We ate the pork and onion gravy (which was fantastic - Marsala and pork are very good partners, and pork is always good with alium) with roast potatoes, parsnips and carrots, with lots of wine and then chocolate log. Perfection. Christmas Day has a lot to live up to.