As the principal cook in our household, I take the view that the Christmas Day cook should not be left isolated in the kitchen slaving over the hot stove whilst everyone else is making merry in the sitting room. The true purpose of Christmas can be served at Midnight Mass the night before, and the old pagan midwinter feast can be celebrated on Christmas Day, cooks and diners all together.
So to hell with the messy business of basting turkeys or draining fat off geese. Go for a casserole which can be prepared and part-cooked earlier in the day and returned to finish cooking for the last 30 minutes.
You could go for venison, but with pheasants at their best (and usually cheapest) towards the turn of the year, I would opt for my favourite Normandy pheasant casserole, rich with apples and cream. After canapés served with the drinks, and with Christmas pudding, mince pies, dates and nuts to follow, a good pheasant is enough for four, so you can double, treble or even quadruple the quantities below to match your numbers.
As always, planning pays off. First of all, make sure you have a big deep stainless steel lidded pan and an appropriately sized Le Creuset casserole with a well fitting lid. If not, give the kitchen a Christmas present and get new ones. You will never regret it.
If possible, get your pheasant from a good butcher, and make sure it has been hung for about a week. Frozen supermarket birds are best avoided, and plucking and cleaning a feathered bird is something of a labour of love, although I must admit that there are few nicer sights than pheasants hanging in feather in the garage or utility room.
On the day you will need your pheasant, plus:
1 oz butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 chopped onion
4 oz pork belly cut into four pieces
6 Bramley apples
5 oz double cream
2 tablespoons Calvados (or Cointreau if you have a sweet tooth)
2 tablespoons of white wine
I put all the ingredients out on my worktop before I start so I’m less likely to forget something. Preheat the oven to 170°C. Melt the butter with the oil on the hob and brown the bird lightly to seal the skin. Then reserve it and keep it warm in the Le Creuset casserole while frying the pork and onion, before putting them in with the pheasant.
In the meantime, thickly slice the apples. I like to leave the skin on, or if it is tough, do peel some of them. Then fry them in the remaining fat in the steel pan and set aside.
Bring back the pheasant, pork and onion and fry briefly again in the pan, then return them to the casserole. Season with pepper and a little salt, add the fried apples, cream and the Calvados. If you like, sprinkle in just a little cinnamon.
Next, I always put the wine in the steel pan and bring it to the boil. I then use a fish slice to scrape up all those flavoursome sticky burnt bits and add them all to the casserole.
Make sure the lid does fit tightly. If not, seal it with a sheet of aluminium foil. The bird should take about two hours to cook, by which time the legs will have fallen away from the carcass. You can therefore cook it for about one and a half hours beforehand, take it out, and then put it back in for half an hour before you would like to serve it. When everyone has sat down and is ready, put the bird and all that onto a warm serving dish and pour some of the apple and cream over it, putting the rest into a warm jug to pass around the table. I like the sauce quite lumpy, but if you prefer it smooth, whizz it with a handheld blender (but be careful if you have been at the champagne!).
The vegetables are very much a matter of choice, but don’t try to do jacket potatoes and roast potatoes in the same oven. You would spoil one or the other — or both. I would have creamed potatoes with creamed celeriac, parsnips — mashed or roasted — and perhaps broccoli or even Brussels sprouts. Personally I don’t like the latter, but I know that many people do.
I don’t think one can finish up with anything other than a traditional Christmas pudding. That can be made weeks ahead and kept well laced with brandy, rum or scotch. If I make the pudding I use Delia’s recipe, but you can always cheat and go to Waitrose.
The canapés will depend on how you wish to arrange things. The Waitrose option is always a good one, or you can just serve the things you know would please your guests — olives, prawns, little sausages, crab and lobster paté on small biscuits or those delicious Nairn oatcakes. I shall have to go in search of herrings of some kind this year, as my Danish son-in-law will be with us.
A happy and well-fed Christmas to you — and especially to the cooks, who deserve a good night out for the New Year!
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Norman Tebbit’s The Game Cook is published by J.R. Books (£14.99).
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