Having consumed during the Christmas period one massive turkey, a Norwegian spiced pork belly, a baked ham and a venison casserole, we are craving vegetables in this house. Sprouts, red cabbage, salads and lots of fruit also featured heavily on the menu but meat predominated. I’m not saying we’re going in for Veganuaray or any other New Year trend; it’s about needing to reset our dietary priorities. This month I’m going to cook without meat during the week but we’ll continue to have a roast or other meat dish on Sundays.
With this in mind I was delighted to pore over one of my Christmas presents from my sons: Joe Trivelli’s book, The Modern Italian Cook. I confess I was not familiar with Trivelli, who is head chef of the River Café, but I am glad to have been introduced. And Diana Henry, whose recipes you know I love, gave it a mention in her Telegraph column. If that’s not a recommendation, I don’t know what is.
It’s a beautiful book and I want to make everything in it but so far I’ve only got as far as making one of the dishes twice, first as a starter on New Year’s Eve and then last night we had it as our main meal with some fresh bread to mop up the juices. The recipe works well in the Aga.
Jerusalem artichokes with fennel and peas
Serves 4 (or 6 as a starter)
500g Jerusalem artichokes
2 fennel bulbs, trimmed
½ large or 1 small red onion, sliced
2 garlic cloves, crushed
500g frozen peas
10 mint leaves
2 parsley sprigs or a handful of chopped parsley
Sea salt, black pepper and extra virgin olive oil
Peel the artichokes and cut into wedges. Keep under water to stop them discolouring.
Remove any stringy-looking outer parts of the fennel and cut into thin wedges. Toss in some lemon juice to prevent them discolouring
Heat a tablespoon of oil in a heavy-based, wide pan with a lid and sweat the onion with a pinch of salt. You could place the pan in the simmering oven at this point
Once the onion is soft add the garlic and a minute or two later the fennel. Stew with the lid on for five minutes (or longer if you put it in the simmering oven)
Add the Jerusalem artichokes, peas and some black pepper and continue to stew. Trivelli says to do this for 10 minutes over a low heat but my artichokes needed a lot longer than this (in the simmering oven) before they were soft. In fact, to try to speed things up I put the pan in the baking oven for a while. And Trivelli is right to say that Jerusalem artichokes cook unevenly: I found that when some wedges were soft and tender, others were still hard. But your patience will be rewarded, I promise you
Once your artichokes are cooked, check the seasoning, add your herbs and stir them through with some extra virgin olive oil
For me Christmas is not the time for trying out new recipes so our Christmas Eve and Christmas Day meals don’t change much from year to year. When I was growing up (in England) with my Norwegian mother and English father we celebrated Christmas the Norwegian way on Christmas Eve and the English way on Christmas Day. This meant my brother and I could open our presents on Christmas Eve and our friends were rather jealous. The evening would begin with dinner and then we’d sit round the Christmas tree for the present opening. I’ve never opened presents on Christmas Day so I don’t know what it’s like but I can tell you there is something magical about doing it by candlelight when it’s dark outside.
When I married my husband I was fully expecting to leave the Norwegian Christmas Eve behind but he loved this way of doing it with all the cosiness and candles and insisted we kept the tradition going. I’m so glad we did because our children have always loved it, partly because it makes their Christmas a little bit different from their friends’.
Christmas Eve: Herrings
Our Christmas Eve meal always starts with Norwegian pickled herrings. We buy them from the Christmas Bazaar held every November in the The Norwegian Seamen’s Church in Rotherhithe, London. When she was younger, my mother used to spend a couple of days with friends in London helping to prepare these for sale at the bazaar. She doesn’t do that anymore so my sons have accepted the mission of going along on the Saturday of the bazaar and purchasing a few jars of this most delicious food. I haven’t managed to join them yet but intend to go along one year, if only for the waffles, cake and coffee on offer inside the church! We eat the herrings on rye bread accompanied by ice cold Linie Aquavit straight from the freezer and cold lager. So delicious.
Our Norwegian Christmas Eve
Christmas Eve: Spiced Pork Belly
There is more than one traditional Christmas Eve meal in Norway. On the West coast they have cod cooked in a special way. It is bought very fresh, cut into steaks, put in salted water overnight to tighten the flesh and then poached. It is served with melted butter and lots of chopped parsley and plain boiled carrots and potatoes. Perhaps surprisingly, Norwegians always drink red wine and not white with this dish. My mother’s family always had reindeer for their Christmas Eve meal but spiced pork belly, popular as a Christmas dish on the south coast of Norway where my grandfather was from, would also form part of their festive fare. We have made pork belly our traditional Hardy family Christmas Eve dish. I make it according to my grandmother’s recipe, passed to me by my mother, who has given me permission to share it with you here.
You will need:
Pork belly (you decide how much, depending on how many people you are feeding, but remember, it tastes just as good cold so any leftovers will not go to waste) with the skin removed (I get my butcher to do this) but the fat – very important this – left on
Ground ginger, salt, mustard powder and white pepper. I’m not giving you quantities except to say: be generous
The day before you want to serve the belly score the layer of fat with a sharp knife and rub lots of white pepper, ground ginger, mustard powder and salt into it on both sides and wrap it in clingfilm
Place it in the fridge fat side down for at least 24 hours
On Christmas Eve in the morning take the belly out of the fridge and let it come up to room temperature
Sprinkle on some more salt
Choose a roasting tin (I always use the large Aga roasting tin because I tend to cook a whole belly), remove the clingfilm and place the meat in the tin, fat side down
Add about a cupful of water and cover with foil
Hang the tin on the second or third set of runners of the roasting oven, taking care that the foil doesn’t tear as you slide it in
After twenty minutes take it out, remove the foil, turn the pork over and add a little more water if it looks dry
Slide the tin onto the floor of the simmering oven and leave it there for the rest of the day, checking the water level every now and then. It will be cooked and delicious after five hours but even better and falling off the bone after eight or nine
I serve it with spiced red cabbage and roast potatoes, having made a divinely spicy and gingery gravy by adding some wine and sour cream to the meat juices.
Before you all shout “it’s much too early to think about Christmas”, I agree with you. Except when it comes to cooking. There are things you can prepare to get ahead and things you simply must make weeks, or even months, beforehand.
For me the Christmas/New Year period is not really a time for trying out new recipes. It gets so busy with the house full and lots of comings and goings that I prefer to stick to tried and tested recipes. We all have our traditions and my family is no exception; our Christmas Eve and Christmas Day meals do not vary much from year to year. Then for a few days after that most meals comprise leftovers in some form or other. During the whole Christmas period last year there were never fewer than 5 of us in the house and most days we were 7 or 8 with a maximum of 12 of us sitting round the table for the Christmas turkey. In recent years we’ve also stayed at home on New Year’s Eve instead of going to a party and I’ve cooked a special dinner. One year I splashed out on a whole beef fillet which was so popular it has now become our traditional New Year’s Eve meal.
Last year I told you about my Christmas cake and Christmas pudding and I wrote a post about the Norwegian apple cake we always have on Christmas Eve. In the coming weeks I plan to write up a few more of my Christmas recipes and tell you how I’ve adapted them for Aga cooking. I’m starting with braised red cabbage because it’s a delicious accompaniment to many winter dishes and there’s no reason you shouldn’t cook and enjoy it right now. It also freezes brilliantly: I nearly always do this and then defrost it and zap it in the microwave on the day I plan to serve it. This recipe is based on one by Delia Smith.
Braised Red Cabbage
(Pre-heat conventional oven to 150ºC)
1 red cabbage
1 cooking apple, peeled, cored and chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped
About ¼ of a whole nutmeg, grated
About ¼ tsp ground cinnammon (optional)
About ¼ tsp ground cloves (optional)
3 tbsp brown sugar
3 tbsp red wine vinegar
10 g butter
Salt and pepper
Remove the outer leaves from the cabbage, quarter it and remove the hard stalk
Shred each quarter but not too finely
Place the cabbage in a casserole and mix in the apple, onion, garlic, sugar, salt, pepper, nutmeg and other spices if using.
Pour over the wine vinegar and dot with the butter
Cover with a lid and place it in the simmering oven for at least four hours; as ever though, it will come to no harm in your Aga if left for longer than that. (Conventional oven: 1½ to 2 hours.)
Take it out and give it a stir every now and then. It is done when it is tender
Take one red cabbage
And a cooking apple, garlic, onion, nutmeg…
Cut in half then quarter
Add spices, seasoning, apple, onion, garlic, sugar, red wine vinegar
So that’s it for another year and we can get back to normal, whatever “normal” is. The tree has been taken down and is currently awaiting collection in our front garden; all the decorations have been stored away in the spare room cupboard; and Sons 1 and 2 have returned to work, in Cambridge and London respectively. It was so lovely to have them at home, sometimes with and sometimes without the girlfriend of one and the fiancée of the other, and although I should be used to it, I always feel a little sad when they’ve gone; not too sad, mind, because, as my mother says, if your children are happy to leave home, then you have probably done a good job as a parent. Son 3 stayed on for an extra couple of days which softened the blow, as much for his younger brother as for their parents. We all love films but Son 3 is the proper film buff of the family and at his suggestion we sat down on Monday evening to watch Singin’ in the Rain. I hadn’t seen it for years and had forgotten just how marvellous it is and what a wonderful actress the late Debbie Reynolds was: RIP. He returned to London with his dad yesterday, leaving youngest son and me, and Granny in her flat downstairs, in a very quiet house until the weekend.
Before he left I borrowed one of his Christmas presents to make supper: the book Fresh India by Meera Sodha, which is on the bestseller lists. Having eaten so much meat over Christmas we were all craving meat-free dishes and the aubergine and pea curry fitted the bill. The last thing I need is another cookbook but if this recipe is anything to go by, I might be adding this book to my birthday wish list.
Aubergine and Pea Curry
5 tbps rapeseed oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 large onions finely chopped
6 cloves of garlic, crushed
4 large ripe tomatoes, chopped
1 1/2 tbsps tomato purée
1 1/2 level tsps salt
1 1/4 tsps chilli powder (unless like mine, yours is very hot, in which case use less)
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon sugar
4 medium aubergines 1.2kg, chopped into 3cm cubes
100g (I used 200g) peas (fresh or defrosted)
Put the oil in a wide-bottomed lidded pan on the simmering plate (conventional hob: medium heat). Once hot, add the cumin seeds and stir for 30 seconds. Add the onions and stir to coat in the oil. Cook (in the simmering oven) for 15-30 minutes until translucent but not brown. Add the garlic and stir-fry for a couple of minutes
Add the tomatoes and purée and cover with a lid. Leave to cook for 5 minutes (or longer in the simmering oven), then add the salt, chilli powder, turmeric and sugar and cook for a further couple of minutes
Now add the aubergines, coating the pieces with the masala, pop the lid back on the pan and cook for around 10 minutes (or longer in the simmering oven). You want the aubergines to be tender and soft with little or no water running from them. If they’re watery or not yet tender, they may need another few minutes’ cooking
When they’re cooked, add the peas and cook for a couple of minutes
Serve with hot chapattis or plain boiled Basmati rice
I used one of those large round aubergines from Natoora. It weighed 620g and I was worried it would not be enough but it was plenty. Am therefore a little baffled by the aubergine quantity recommended in the book. Would it not have led to a very dry curry?
Also: I only used 5 cloves of garlic and 1 large onion.
Apologies that I don’t have a photo of this dish (but then nor does the book!). Instead here are a few photos of our Christmas.
This post is not about telling you how to make mince pies. To be perfectly honest, as I may have mentioned before, I don’t rate my pastry-making skills and would not presume to pass on any tips, because you are probably all much better at it than me.
That is not to say that I don’t enjoy having a go. What is more, there’s nothing like making mince pies for getting into the festive spirit and family and friends do appreciate homemade ones. One of the reasons I’ve made a few in the last week is that I found a big jar of Waitrose mincemeat in my cupboard with a “best before” date of December 2016. You see? I don’t even make my own mincemeat!
For the pastry I use this excellent Xanthe Clay recipe. Sometimes I make “closed” pies (see above) and sometimes I cut out pastry stars to place on top (see below). I always brush with egg and sprinkle with caster sugar. I fancy making some with an almond crumble topping one day. I bought some like that at Bristol’s wonderful Hart’s Bakery yesterday and would love to try to emulate them. But that’s for another day.
In the Aga
Mince pies bake very quickly in the Aga roasting oven. Place your tray of pies on the grid shelf on the fourth rung of the oven. They will be done in 15 minutes at the most. The oven is hotter at the back and on the side nearest the centre, so I turn the tray round halfway through the cooking time.
Cut out stars to place on top
Brush with beaten egg and sprinkle with caster sugar
As I confessed in my recent Christmas Cake post here I don’t always do a homemade Christmas pudding. After writing that, it struck me that this was really very lazy of me. “Call yourself a cook?” I asked myself, and resolved there and then to make one this year and every year. Honestly, it’s so incredibly easy and quick to make and doesn’t involve sophisticated baking skills.
The first thing you need to do is find a recipe. I’m not going to give you one here because you probably all have at least one. And if you don’t, there’s the Internet, which is where I found mine: it’s this one by Bertinet’s in Bath. I hadn’t made it before this year but had bought Bertinet’s puddings in the past which had gone down very well, so I’m confident this one will be delicious. I’ve also made Delia’s pudding (pretty sure you’ll find it online if you haven’t got her wonderful, and in my case much used, Christmas book) and one by the great Nigel Slater. My preference will always be not to mess about with the recipe and to stick to traditional ingredients, but if you fancy trying something a bit different, there are plenty of suggestions out there. For me, part of the beauty of preparing the Christmas meal is that it is the same (more or less) every year. With all that’s going on at that time of year, and the many tasks that need to be done, it takes the pressure off if you are not having to think up a new, imaginative menu on top of everything else.
So back to my pudding. You will see from the photos that I could not fit all my mixture in the recommended 2 pint size basin and ended up with an additional small pudding; I intend to give this as a gift to the hostess of a party we’ve been invited to. Before putting the puddings in the fridge for some hours (as recommended by Mr Bertinet) I placed a circle of greaseproof paper on top of each one.
As for the steaming, it really couldn’t be easier than in the Aga. Cover both puddings in clingfilm and then take a saucepan which holds the pudding basin and make sure you can fit the lid on. Place the pudding in it and pour in water about half way up the basin. Bring this to the boil on the boiling plate and then simmer on the simmering plate for 30 minutes. Check the water level, put the lid on or cover with foil and place in the simmering oven to “steam” for 12 hours or overnight. I left mine (both of them) while I slept on Sunday night and we came downstairs on Monday morning to a heavenly Christmas-y aroma.
Leave the pudding to cool in its clingfilm. I then wrapped mine in muslin and tied it with string as you can see in the photo above. Foil or extra clingfilm would be fine; I just think it looks pretty (and traditional) in the muslin.
It’s that time of year again. I always resist the commercial pressure to start Christmas shopping in September. It infuriates me that Christmas cards and decorations start appearing in the shops in August, throwing everyone into panic, and the more I’m urged to prepare, the less inclined I am to do so. Oh, and no mince pies are allowed in my house until December. But there are some things which it has always been necessary to do a few weeks or months ahead of the event and one of those is baking the Christmas cake. The same goes for the pudding but I must be honest and say I do not always make my own pudding. I’ve found there are excellent ones you can buy. For the last two years I’ve bought a pudding from Bertinet’s in Bath and they’ve gone down well with my family. I haven’t yet decided what I’m going to do about pudding this year; I might try Richard Bertinet’s recipe which is to be found online here. But the Christmas cake has to be homemade and I am always happy to set aside the time to make it.
Since owning my Aga I’ve used the Mary Berry Christmas cake recipe in The Aga Book. It’s delicious and I see no reason to change. She gives quantities for many different cake sizes, square and round. My usual size is the 10″/25cm round cake and that is what I have made this year. As with all fruit cakes, it is best when baked slowly in the simmering oven. I made mine in the afternoon and it was happy to wait in the tin and be placed in the oven at bedtime. This year it took nine hours and last year ten. Am not sure why the timings were different but it’s nothing to worry about.
Here’s the recipe for those of you who haven’t got The Aga Book.
Mary Berry’s Aga Christmas Cake (with a few modifications by me)
You will need a 10″/25cm loose bottomed or springform sturdy cake tin, greased and the base and sides lined (I used bake-o-glide)
450g glacé cherries
Grated zest of 2 oranges
300ml sherry (I used Harvey’s Bristol Cream)
350g butter, softened
350g dark brown sugar
100g self-raising flour
225 plain flour
100g blanched, chopped almonds
2 tbsp black treacle
2 tsp ground mixed spice
Rinse, dry and quarter the cherries
Put all the fruit and orange zest in a container, pour over the sherry and give it a stir
Cover with a lid or a couple of layers of tightly sealed clingfilm and leave to soak for 3 days, stirring daily
Measure the butter, sugar, eggs, treacle and chopped almonds into a mixing bowl (I used my KitchenAid) and beat well
Add the flours and spice and mix thoroughly until blended
Stir in the soaked fruit and sherry
Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin and level out evenly
Bake in the simmering oven for about 9 hours, but keep an eye on it at the 8 hour point. It is done when a warm skewer comes out clean
On a weekly basis from now on you are going to need to feed your cake: take a darning needle and pierce the cake all over, top and bottom; drizzle over a couple of teaspoons of sherry, let it sink in and then turn the cake over and do the same on the other side. Then wrap the cake and place it inside a (large!) airtight container.
About a week before Christmas I ice my cake with marzipan. I usually buy it but have been known to make my own: homemade is definitely better but sometimes I go for the quicker option. Once the almond icing has dried out, after a few days, I place the final layer of icing on my cake; invariably on Christmas Eve. For this I use ready-to-roll fondant icing. I do not make my own.
My husband took photos and I added captions to some to indicate the different stages.
First soak your fruit for three days
Grease and line your tin
In your bowl put butter…
Add flours, mixed spice and mix
and black treacle
until it looks like this
Fold in the fruit…
Turn mixture into your prepared tin
It’s done. Leave to cool
Turn it out and place on foil like this
Pierce all over
Feed then wrap
And finally the finished cake, which we first sliced into on 28 December: