I’ve written already about the grouse we had for Christmas dinner and the red cabbage we didn’t. What else is there to say about Christmas dinner?
For a start Christmas dinner this year was indeed dinner, not lunch which has always been the tradition in my family, even though it was my family that was coming, not Becca’s for whom dinner is the tradition. Nevertheless, as the family were travelling down on the morning of Christmas day itself, and the weather leading up to Christmas suggested their journeys might be hellish, I thought it better to have lunch, in the form of warming soup, ready for them whenever they arrived, and save the formal meal till later on. As it turned out, the weather relented, but even so, given that both Becca and I were working up to and including Christmas Eve, doing it this way round also made the day itself less stressful, not least because lunch could easily be prepared in advance and served whenever people were ready for it.
Soup and Ham:
Lunch would be a roast butternut squash and chestnut soup, followed by a home glazed ham. We probably didn’t really need the ham, seeing as the family were only with us for Christmas day and Boxing day morning, then we were off for lunch at Becca’s family home. But it really wouldn’t feel like Christmas without one, and it really is so easy, and so satisfying to do, it’s one of those things that every time I do it, I wonder why we don’t more often. So when I picked up my grouse from Theobalds on the Wednesday, I picked up a small gammon joint as well.
I put the gammon in to soak in a pan with plenty of cold water, which I changed a couple of times over the course of the next twenty four hours or so. Then I changed the water one last time and chucked a roughly chopped carrot, stick of celery and half an onion, along with a few pepper corns, four or five cloves and a bit of cinnamon stick into the pan with it. Then I put it on the stove over a low heat and brought the water to the boil, and let it gently simmer away for a couple of hours before turning off the heat and leaving the ham to cool in the water. Now I had a ham ready for glazing and a ham stock with a delicious hit of winter spice from the cloves and cinnamon, ready to make distinctly seasonal soup.
To make the soup for lunch, I roasted a single big butternut squash, peeled and cut into a mix of big chunks and more delicate wedges (which would be saved for making a salad), liberally sprinkled with cumin and fennel seeds, thyme, salt and pepper; and blanched and peeled (that’s the tedious bit) a good handful of chestnuts (you could roast them as well, but that makes the peeling harder and therefore even more tedious). Then I softened a finely chopped onion and leek in plenty of olive oil with salt and pepper and just a little garlic and fresh chilli, threw in the chunks of roast squash and the chestnuts and cooked it all together for a few minutes before pouring in about a litre of hot chicken stock (I was doing this before I’d boiled my ham). I simmered it gently for twenty minutes then blitzed it with my hand blender till smooth and thick, and then set aside in a cool place. Come Christmas day lunchtime I just thinned it to the perfect, silky consistency with my clove and cinnamon spiced ham stock and served it up.
To follow the soup came the ham, which I’d glazed with marmalade on Christmas morning. I’d saved the last bit in a jar of Tiptrees Tawny that had been due to run out just a week or so before, by perfectly fortuitous timing, which meant all I had to do was gently heat the jar in a pan of water and pour it’s liquid contents out over my gammon, from which I’d removed the rind but left a good layer of fat which I’d then studded with cloves. Then I baked it at around 180 for just 15-20 minutes.
Tea Smoked Trout:
The same day I’d put my gammon in to soak, I also smoked the trout I had planned as the starter for Christmas dinner itself. I lit the barbecue out on the balcony in the snow, but if you’ve got a well ventilated kitchen with an efficient extraction system then you could almost certainly do this indoors as I’m always surprised at how little stray smoke seems to get emitted. Don’t blame me though, if you try it and end up having to pull your smoke alarm off the ceiling and throwing it to the end of the garden (which is pretty much what I now do before I even start cooking steaks, for instance…). I use my fish kettle as a smoker, but a lidded wok with a steamer rack will do the job, or you can construct a bespoke smoker out of a bread bin, or a giant size Quality Street or biscuit tin if you have one lying around post Christmas. Whatever container you use the technique is the same: line the base with foil, cover the foil loosely with a sprinkling of rice, sugar and tea leaves (I used lapsang for extra smoky flavour) and place the fish (or chicken or duck breasts, or whatever else you fancy smoking) to be smoked on a rack over that.
I’ve done this with and without salting the fish beforehand and I find it works fine either way. Salting the fish does seem to allow the flesh to absorb more of the flavour of the smoke, while unsalted the smokiness is very subtle, so I’d say it’s a matter of taste, but if you want smokiness to feature prominently, then definitely salt first. I salted mine, allowing 50g of salt per quite small trout and making sure it was liberally sprinkled inside and out, while the barbecue was getting up to temperature, then rinsed the fish thoroughly and patted them dry while the fish kettle with the rice, sugar and tea leaves heated up to smoking point. Then I arranged the fish nose to tail on the rack and lowered it into the kettle and put the lid over it. After just about 20 minutes, lift the lid and once the smoke has cleared (there’s actually not that much), you should see the skin of the trout has turned a beautiful burnished gold and the flesh of the fish is cooked (check in the usual way by sliding a knife into alongside the spine and seeing if the flesh is just opaque). If it is, lift out the rack and let it cool. Then wrap in foil or greaseproof paper and keep in the fridge till you need it.
Once your trout are smoked and cooled it’s very easy to peel off the skin – although a shame, because it is SO pretty – and to remove the fillets from the bones – just cut diagonally behind the head, run a sharp knife along the spine and slide the flesh off the top half, then lift the skeleton off the bottom fillet. A skinned fillet per person is perfect for a starter, with a simple salad of sliced celery, celery leaves and capers, with a bright lemony dressing, and a big blob of intense horseradish sauce (you could make your own with freshly grated horseradish, lemon juice, salt and – give or take dairy allergies – crème fraiche, but I have to admit, mine came out of a jar – a Polish jar, in this case).