And so the season of goodwill has come to a close once more. I got rid of the tree a couple of mornings ago and felt a little nostalgic and melancholic – probably a bit overtired as I went to bed at 2:30 and woke up at 7 – but the smell of the Norwegian Spruce amplified by the agitation of removing the decorations brought back memories of being small and the almost unbearable excitement of Christmas; wriggling under the tree on my stomach to look for freshly wrapped presents, calling out to my brother Henry when I found another one that wasn’t there yesterday. The arrival of visitors who only came around that time of year and with them a parcel with my name on it. Cards that contained vouchers (often a bit disappointing), or much more welcome – actual cash, and disappointment when they contained nothing but Christmas greetings. The arrival of the two-week edition of the Radio Times and the ceremonious circling of planned viewing. The background music around the house changing, from the ubiquitous classical that played for the rest of the year, to carols. And of course the food.
Real home-made mince pies appeared, tins (not plastic tubs) of Quality Street (another smell which instantly kick-starts memories), and lots of mulled wine. As a child I was rather a fussy eater and so the only thing I really got excited about on the Christmas table was sausages wrapped in bacon, (although thinking back they were more a feature of Bonfire night, along with kidneys wrapped in bacon for my parents, and I wouldn’t go near them – the kidneys, not my parents). I was more excited by the crackers. Of course the pinnacle of seasonal culinary excitement was the annual deliverance from our elderly neighbours of a chocolate bar selection pack in a stocking-shaped card-backed net.
This year we had Christmas lunch at my parents’ house and my dad, (who took this photo on his phone, not the best quality and not up to Matt’s standards, but it was a busy day and my dad was cooking too, but it’s better than nothing), made a fantastic and classic meal with a few nice twists (one of which was a rich carrot puree with cumin and cream that complimented the more conventional components admirably). I made a fish course which was a bit of a messy medley of three different fish dishes that I don’t think worked brilliantly together, but which individually are, I’m sorry, bloody brilliant. I couldn’t decide between them and ended up doing all three and plonking them on the plates in as ‘cheffy’-a-way as I could.
The first element was the most nostalgic: When we were kids my parents often had dinner parties and one of my dad’s standards was a starter of raw mushrooms with prawns which originally came from one of those little hard-backed Sainsbury’s cookbooks (Italian Cooking by Mary Reynolds, 1981). It doesn’t sound like much, but the combination is just superb and I’ve re-made it countless times since. The second element was a re-working of a recipe that I did loads when my wife and I first got together and something I’d not made for well over a decade, so nostalgic again only not from quite as far back – mussels with home-made pesto, (and I don’t remember which book that came from originally). The final element was some Gravadlax which I’ve only got into making in the last few years. It’s a Jamie Oliver recipe from his ‘Jamie Does…’ book, unaltered in any way, so I’ll let you find that one somewhere else on the internet (actually look I’ve found it for you here), but it’s such fun to do and the results are so good.
Insalata di Funghi e Gamberi
350g raw mushrooms (small tight button or chestnut ones) thinly sliced
6 tablespoons really good E.V. Olive Oil
juice of one lemon
1 clove garlic
1/2 teaspoon salt
lots of black pepper
loads of finely chopped parsley (I prefer curly for this as it has a more irony taste)
175g peeled prawns
It couldn’t be much simpler. Beat the oil and lemon juice together in a bowl with the garlic (really finely chopped or crushed to a paste) and then fold in the sliced mushrooms, cover and chill for an hour or two. When you’re ready to serve gently stir the salt, pepper and parsley into the mushroom mixture and arrange on a plate topped with the prawns. Don’t add the parsley to the prawns as the unadulterated pink looks lovely against the green-brown of the rest. You could even add unshelled prawns too, or do it with lobster. And the mushroom thing is fantastic by itself too if you wanted something vegan.
Mussels with Pesto
1 kilo fresh mussels (cleaned and ready to steam)
1 small onion or a couple of shallots (finely sliced)
1 clove garlic (sliced)
half a bulb of fennel (sliced)
1 glass cider or white wine
(for the pesto topping)
1 handful of raw cashews
1 big bunch of parsley
1 small bunch of dill
1 big clove of garlic
1 squeeze of lemon
lots of good olive oil
unsalted butter (melted)
First steam the mussels open – sweat the onion, garlic and fennel in a heavy pan with some butter for a couple of minutes before adding you prepared mussels and the cider or wine before putting on the lid and giving them a minute or two to open. Then strain off the liquid (KEEP IT) and remove the mussels from the shells, keeping half the shells.
Make the pesto by putting the cashews, parsley, dill, garlic and lemon in a food processor and whizzing it together with olive oil until you’ve a spooning consistency. Season it with salt and pepper but don’t overdo it as you’ll be adding parmesan later.
Then in each half shell put a mussel and a small spoonful of pesto, sprinkle with parmesan and breadcrumbs and trickle over melted butter. Lay them out on a tray and put under a really hot grill until golden.
I also reduced the liquor down by about two thirds, whisked in some cold butter and spooned this over. Rich and naughty, but it was Christmas.