I have always kept an eye on other people's Christmas dinners, wondering who will have turkey or goose or beef, and why. I have watched even the most extended of families choose a smaller turkey with each passing year - a deliberate decision perhaps to cut back on the inevitable endlessness that goes along with a big bird. A few years ago those families became aware that all turkeys are not equal, and started to pay up for a dark-feathered bird with a respectable pedigree.
There are those who chop and change according to their whim, or the number they are likely to have round the table. The ease of carving a boneless joint, the charm of giving each their own little game bird, the lure of bucking the system with a turbot or a salmon or a loin of pork: all these have played a part in others' Christmas meals.
Then, of course, there are those poor souls who have to cook two or three different meals to satisfy a picky bunch that refuses some part of the feast that everyone else is happily tucking into. Or perhaps they feel the need to offer a choice purely out of generosity. Or maybe they have a masochistic streak.
Whatever you choose to eat, there is only one thing that truly matters about this feast. That it must simply be delicious. This is not the time to get extravagant or fancy or impressive. Not dazzling, gargantuan or imaginative. The only thing that is crucial is that everyone feels this is the most enjoyable meal of the year. The details count. The skin or fat of your chosen feast must be crisp and golden, the flesh tender, the juices and gravies should shine in the candlelight. All the tiny details that make something memorable should be in place. This is why, especially with new cooks making their first Christmas meal in mind, I find myself pleading with people to keep things simple. An assembled starter - smoked salmon, oysters, a terrine, a fabulous salad - then a straightforward roast and some nice veggies followed by a pudding made at least the day before should be all the fuss we need to make.
This year I am going for a small rib roast of beef. A last-minute decision that has as much to do with the possibility of scrumptious leftovers as it does the thought of rose-pink flesh and the richest, glossiest gravy. The beef will be pink where it should be and tantalisingly brown on the outside, and there will be a vegetable dish whose creaminess will melt into the piping-hot gravy.
The bone, nuisance aside, will add everything in the way of succulence that is always missing in a rolled and tied joint. For once I will remember to put aromatics - onions, bay and garlic - round the meat as it cooks, and then use their savour to add depth to the gravy. This year I am breaking the rules of a lifetime and serving a slightly thickened gravy, with grain mustard and Madeira. In all, a deeply flavoured, sumptuous feast of rare flesh and rich juices, but simple enough for the cook (well, this cook) to enjoy themselves, too.
You may want some roast potatoes with this. I usually boil them first for 10 minutes, then drain and add to the roasting tin. Serves 6.
For the beef:
2kg beef rib on the bone
4 medium-sized onions
a little oil or dripping
6 cloves of garlic
3 bay leaves
Set the oven at 210C/gas mark 7. Peel the onions and boil in unsalted water for 15 minutes, then drain. Smear the beef with oil or beef dripping, sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Lay it in the roasting tin with the boiled onions, whole garlic cloves, unpeeled, tomatoes and bay leaves. Roast for 20 minutes. Turn the heat down to 180C/gas mark 4 and continue roasting for a further 10 minutes per 500g. When the beef is done, remove from its tin and set aside somewhere warm, lightly covered with foil while you make the gravy. (If you are roasting potatoes, take them out, put them in another dish and continue roasting till crisp.)
For the gravy:
the onions and aromatics from the roasting tin
2 level tbsp flour
a wine glass of Madeira
1 tbsp smooth Dijon mustard
2 tbsp grain mustard
Squash the onions, tomatoes and garlic with the back of wooden spoon. Dust the flour over and place the tin and contents over a moderate heat, stirring almost constantly till the flour browns. Pour in the Madeira and let it bubble, then add the stock and mustards, stirring and scraping at the stuck-on roasting juices. Season, then leave to simmer, with the occasional stir, for 10-15 minutes. Check the seasoning and push through a coarse sieve into a warm jug and serve with the beef.
2 plump heads of celery
a small onion
2 bay leaves
300ml of the celery cooking liquid
2 large handfuls freshly grated Parmesan
a small bunch of flat leaf parsley
a large handful of fine, fresh breadcrumbs
Snap the heads of celery into individual ribs then wash, trim and neaten where necessary. Lay the ribs in a large baking dish or casserole and pour in enough water to cover them. Peel and thinly slice the onion, then add to the dish with the bay leaves, a little salt and black pepper. Poach over a low heat, with the water at a gentle bubble, till the celery is tender to the point of a knife.
Set the oven at 180C/gas mark 4. Remove the celery, onion and bay with a draining spoon and lay in a large, shallow baking dish or roasting tin, leaving the hot cooking liquor behind. Warm the milk in a small pan. In a separate pan, melt the butter over a moderate heat and stir in the flour. Continue cooking, stirring continuously, till you have a pale biscuit-coloured paste, then add 350ml of the cooking liquor from the celery followed by the warmed milk, a ladleful at a time, till you have a smooth sauce. Stir in one-and-a-half handfuls of the Parmesan and turn the heat down so the sauce quietly simmers for 15-20 minutes. Chop the parsley, stir into the sauce, then taste and correct the seasoning.
Pour the sauce over the celery. Mix the remaining grated Parmesan and the breadcrumbs, then strew on top. Bake for 40 minutes, till the sauce is bubbling enticingly.