A lot of people turn to beef as the heart and soul of at least one of their Christmas feasts. A huge and ungainly rib joint, perhaps, its bones nicely browned, the meat soft and pink, the gravy rich and dark, or maybe a fillet for those not happy to wrangle with the bones. The long and slender cut may lack the majesty of a piece off the bone, but the ease and speed with which it is carved in moist, thin slices means that it is at least hot when the family gets it. It is also the cut for those wary of cooking a larger joint to perfection, or for those tackling their first Christmas lunch for six or more. Its glistening, pepper-studded exterior can look splendid presented on a wooden board and surrounded by a branch or two of bay leaves.
I like to get at least one of the courses sorted the day before. It keeps the pre-lunch panic at bay. This year the contender will be a shallow walnut tart, its nubbly, honey-flavoured filling creaking with walnuts and chips of darkest chocolate and passed round with a bowl of sour crème fraîche dusted with seasonal nutmeg. Clotted cream in all its yellow gorgeousness would be very good here, too. The pastry crust will be made the evening before at the same time as the mince pies, the filling poured in around 11 the next morning, baked before the oven gets busy, then served just warm at lunch. In our house at least, it just isn't Christmas without a walnut or two.
The more Christmas meals I cook, the more I am convinced that the feast should kick off with a salad of some sort. (Failing that, a few slices of smoked fish.) No one surely wants to face their main course with a belly full of soup or pâté (or full of anything, for that matter). For a party of six or so, it is probably easiest to pass a large bowl or platter around for everyone to help themselves, leaving you to do the last-minute offstage tinkering. Something crisp and refreshing to tease rather than satisfy is generally on the cards at my house. Coarsely shredded celeriac, that underused, ivory-skinned root, will be tossed with a light mayonnaise and crème fraîche dressing and flecked with either peeled and sliced orange segments or pomegranate seeds. Either way, it will come round with a board of air-dried ham for those who want it. As there are walnuts around later in the meal, I might bookend the beef course with them, and scatter a few in among the shredded roots as a celebration of the Christmas nut.
Rather than run the gauntlet with pans of boiling vegetables, I am making a sort of ragout of pumpkin to have with the beef. The point being not just to make life easier but to offer something particularly festive other than the more usual sprouts.
Golden, lightly spiced and given body with soft, sweet onions, the idea is something I came across at Dressler, a favourite evening haunt in Berlin, where they pair it with pheasant and, more contentiously, sea bass. At a push, you could make it the previous day. It will come to no harm.
There will be a proud moment this year, too. My own little red cabbage fresh from the garden. I have just a few of them, small, taut-skinned and rather beautiful with their blue and purple veins. They will share a pot with pear rather than apple and a few crushed juniper berries. It will look good with the pumpkin. Purple and gold, looking very seasonal on the plate, like the wrappings in a box of Quality Street. (Which reminds me…)
ROAST FILLET OF BEEF
Serves 6, with some left for tomorrow.
1kg piece of beef fillet
1 tbsp of black peppercorns
the leaves from 2 or 3 bushy sprigs of thyme
a little olive oil
1 large wine glass of red wine
Crush the peppercorns coarsely. Chop the thyme, then add to the pepper. Pour in 2 tbsp olive oil, mix, then massage into the beef fillet. Set aside for 30 minutes to an hour at room temperature in a roasting tin.
Set the oven at 230C/gas mark 9. Put a piece of foil loosely over the top of the meat, barely touching. Place the meat in the oven and roast for 10 minutes. Lower the heat to 210C, remove the foil, turn the meat over, pour the glass of wine over the meat then replace the piece of foil.
Roast for a further 15 minutes. Remove the meat from the oven and leave to rest, foil intact, for 10-15 minutes before carving. Serve with the pumpkin ragout, below.
2 large onions
2 tbsp groundnut or vegetable oil
2 sprigs of rosemary
6 juniper berries
1 large butternut squash or small pumpkin
2 tbsp flour
500ml hot vegetable or chicken stock
1 glass of white wine
a few sprigs of parsley, finely chopped
Peel and slice the onions, then let them soften in the oil over a low heat. I use a deep, heavy-based pan for this. Finely chop the rosemary needles, crush the juniper berries and add to the onions. Expect the onions to take 15-20 minutes to soften.
Meanwhile peel, seed and thinly slice the pumpkin. Small pieces, a centimetre thick and about the size of a large thumbnail, are very elegant with a main course of this sort. (I would probably make them larger for a less formal meal.) Leave to simmer for 5 minutes then sprinkle over the flour. Stir and continue cooking for 5 minutes. Pour in the stock and wine and bring to the boil. Season with salt and pepper and turn the heat down to a simmer. Leave, with the occasional stir, for 20 minutes until all is tender. Check the seasoning, stir in the chopped parsley and serve. This will reheat well if you wanted to prepare it earlier.
A TART OF WALNUTS, CHOCOLATE AND VANILLA
for the crust:
200g plain flour
1 large egg, beaten
2 or 3 tbsp water
for the filling:
180g set honey
180g light muscovado sugar
80ml double cream
a drop or two of vanilla extract
140g dark chocolate, roughly chopped
220g walnuts, roughly chopped
crème fraîche to serve
To make the tart case: rub the butter into the flour with your fingertips. Mix in the egg to give a firm dough. Roll out and line a 22-24cm shallow tart tin. Leave to rest in the fridge for a good 20 minutes. Fill the case with baking paper and dried or ceramic baking beans and cook in a preheated oven at 200C/gas mark 6 till the pastry is lightly biscuit coloured. Carefully remove the paper and return the pastry case to the oven for 5 minutes until dry to the touch.
For the filling, melt the butter in a small pan, add the honey and sugar and then pour in the cream and a couple of drops of vanilla extract. Boil hard for 2 minutes, remove from the heat, then lightly fold in the roughly chopped chocolate and the walnuts. Pour the filling into the tart case.
Turn the oven down to 190C/gas mark 5 and bake for 20 minutes till golden. Remove and leave to cool for a good half-hour before serving with crème fraîche.★