TRISH DESEINE cooks up a hybrid pre-Christmas menu in her new home in Normandy, France …
With the current global mayhem around us, I have a feeling this Christmas we might all be just that little bit happier, more grateful with our lot. That the inevitable frenzy of consuming might be ever so slightly subdued, now the reality of needing to change our habits is hitting home. And for many of us with our children and grandchildren around us, Christmas could be a really good time to stop and think, as we collapse on the sofa in a roast potato coma, how we might do things differently next year to help our world – and us in it – stick around a little longer.
This year, for me, Christmas Day will be extremely simple as, even though I shall be in my new home, it is the year I do not have my children and instead of kitchen duty, there is a table for two booked at L’Arpège in Paris. It is only the third time in my life I will go to a restaurant for Christmas lunch and most definitely an improvement on the first two, which would not be difficult. Once was with my late father in the 1980s in a sad hotel somewhere on the North Antrim coast and once, quite alone, in a freezing Arles brasserie, to which I drove, so not even an innocent little kir royal got to pass my lips. In fact, L’Arpège will be, quite fittingly I think, the gastronomic highlight of my year as well as the most fascinating people-watching opportunity I’ve had since finding myself in the VIP pit at U2’s Stade de France Parisian concert in 2009. (My Glossy friends, think bopping with Stella McCartney, MGMT, Penelope Cruz and Xavier Bardem, but also, sadly, trying to wrangle an over-enthusiastic air-guitar-playing boyfriend
who hadn’t a clue who any of them were and didn’t care anyway).
As a nomadic divorcée, I can’t remember the last time I cooked a full, traditional Irish Christmas dinner in my own home. The closest I came recently was when I rented The Chestnut, in Ballydehob, before Rob and Elaine made it into the chic little gem of a restaurant it is today. There was plenty of room for turkey and all trimmings for twelve on Christmas Day, and two days of parties afterwards with our very own bar from which to serve gallons of Aperol Spritz and Negronis. Last year, in my teeny Schull harbour cottage, I managed to borrow chairs and stools and cram in ten friends and children, but cooking was another matter. There was nothing for it but to make good old potato salad, order a Durrus from Durrus, lobster from l’Escale at the harbour, stock up on Aldi’s very decent champagne and “slum it”, messily and luxuriously. It was one of the most jolly and delicious Christmases I have ever had.
My Christmas menu for you this year, then, has a rather hybrid, tactical feel about it. It’s what I’ll cook for the children when we do our pre-Christmas Christmas, when I feel a little let off the hook about their (and my) childhood must-haves, but want to keep it familiarly festive all the same. It all works together, and even if it has a slight French feel to it, all the ingredients are easy to find in Ireland. There might be elements of it you can use at dinner parties in the run-up to the big day, or perhaps as an extra or, even more daringly, a direct swap for a usual course or two. Scallops for smoked salmon, chestnut and apple trifle instead of sherry, that sort of thing.
As for my table, I always let my vintage Irish linen and china, and French silver and glassware shine and simply drape the table with fresh ivy and holly strands. This year I’ll also be ordering more of my friend Frédérique Ferniot’s lovely handmade Swedish candles and at last be opening those boxes of Kate Spade placement cards and menus and cracking open that magnum of vintage champagne I’ve been keeping for goodness knows what. Because if more than ever we are all realising that life is indeed too short, Christmas is the perfect time to celebrate just how good it can be.
Roast Poularde with Cranberry, Sourdough and Foie Gras Stuffing
By all means hold off on the foie gras here. Use a little white pudding or fried mushrooms to add an umami kick if you prefer. Or nothing at all. Of course the bird can be anything from a free-range chicken to a duck, goose or small turkey. Buy the best quality you can afford.
25 minutes preparation
2 hours cooking
20 minutes resting
1 excellent quality chicken of around 2.5kg • 50g butter softened • Salt and pepper
For the stuffing
1 small sourdough loaf made into breadcrumbs • 1 large or two medium onions, peeled and diced finely • 25 – 75g chilled butter diced • 4 tbsps chopped curly parsley • 4 tbsps dried cranberries • 50g foie gras (optional) cut into small chunks • Salt and pepper
1. Cook the onions in 25g of butter until very soft but not browned. Mix them in with the other stuffing ingredients.
2. Remove the chicken from the fridge a good 45 minutes before you start cooking.
3. Rub the softened butter over the surface of the chicken including the legs, sprinkle lightly with salt and place in a large baking pan.
4. Fill the cavity of the chicken, pressing the breadcrumbs firmly but not too much, so the stuffing stays a little loose. You can also cook the stuffing alongside the bird, of course.
5. Pre heat the oven to 200oC.
6. Put the roasting tin in the oven and immediately lower the heat to 180oC.
7. Cook for 2 to 2 ½ hours depending on your oven, checking and basting the chicken regularly.
8. Cover the top with foil if it is cooking too quickly. Pop the stuffing into the oven for an hour before serving if you are cooking it separately.
9. Remove the chicken from the oven and let it rest for a good 20 minutes before carving and serving. Pour the cooking juices into a saucepan for gravy. Remove the stuffing and put it into a bowl for serving.
Roast potato preparation has become properly cultish over the past few years and I’m sorry to say I now avoid them completely. The timing and temperature requirements are just too much for my small cooker and therefore risk of failure too high. So to maximise crisp and crunch, I peel, chop and cook spuds in advance, giving them a good dusting of spices (Green Saffron’s Bombay potato mix is great) and either crisp them up in the pan or on a baking sheet at the last minute. Served beside good old mash, they become a sort of chunky, spicy condiment and keep all competitive impulses at bay.
Another great way to get lots of easy crunch, is to smash your skins-on, pre-cooked potatoes (Roosters are best) almost flat. Do this ahead of the meal. Then just before serving, sprinkle with plenty of oil and/or butter and some salt and parmesan and then roast them on high until they crisp up alongside the bubbling Brussel sprouts.
Brussels Sprouts with Cream, Young Buck and Dart Mountain Cheddar
You can of course vary the cheeses here, but this combination of Northern Irelanders was fantastic. A perfect dish to make ahead and pop in the oven while the bird is resting.
30 minutes preparation
750g Brussels sprouts, topped and tailed, cooked but still a little firm • 150g Young Buck blue cheese • 150g Dart mountain cheddar • 200ml fresh pouring cream • Salt and pepper
1. Arrange the pre-cooked sprouts in a roasting pan, crumble over the two cheeses and pour the cream around the sprouts.
2. Season and reserve until you’re ready to cook them.
3. Roast for 15 – 20 minutes or so at 180oC, until golden and bubbling.
Pan Fried Scallops with Coral Butter and Squid Ink Risotto
I will completely let you off the hook here and, controversially perhaps, give you my full blessing to buy a squid ink risotto mix in a box. Every single one I have bought, when it’s plain flavour (no tomatoes, fancy mushrooms, clams etc) and from a good store has been not only passable, but delicious. Be generous with the parmesan and butter and all will be fine. After all, it’s the scallops who are the stars of the show here, and overcooking them would be the real disaster. You’ll need to feel confident about the risotto to keep an eye on the prize. This dish you need to prepare just as guests are seated and pulling crackers. It’s the only one of the entire meal which requires quite such timing and devotion!
20 – 30 minutes preparation for the risotto
5 minutes cooking for the scallops
1 packet squid ink risotto • 2-3 tbsps freshly grated parmesan • 25g butter and/or 1 tbsp mascarpone • 18 spanking fresh scallops, corals removed and reserved, all at room temperature • 100g salted, softened butter, divided • salt and pepper
1. Prepare the risotto just before your guests arrive, without adding all the parmesan, butter and/or mascarpone. Leave it covered in a warm place while you are having drinks.
2. Cut the corals into small pieces, then mash well into half the butter, season with salt and pepper and reserve.
3. When everyone is seated, heat the risotto, finish off the garnish and divide it into six bowls or plates.
4. Heat the butter in the pan and cook the scallops, barely a minute on each side, until they are golden and crisp outside but still pearly inside. Serve them immediately, piping hot, on top of the risotto, with the butter on the side.
Chestnut, Coffee, Rum and Apple Trifle
A sort of tiramisu meets Mont Blanc, this trifle is the essence of Christmas dining without the hassle (or course, depending on your culinary allegiances) of jelly or custard. Apart from the apples, there is no cooking involved at all, and it will sit obediently gathering flavour in your fridge for a good two days before serving.
5-10 minutes preparation
25 minutes preparation and assembly
10 minutes cooking
About 30 boudoir biscuits (200g or so) or the equivalent in sponge slices or fingers • 250-300ml very strong coffee, cooled, spiked with rum or not, according to your guests’ ages and tastes • 6 tart Bramley apples, peeled, cored, cut into quarters, poached, mashed (without sugar) and cooled • 1 large (500g tin of sweetened chestnut purée) • 750g whipping or double cream • 1 large tub mascarpone • 10-12 glacé chestnuts to decorate • 2 tbsps cocoa powder to decorate
1. Whip up half the cream and combine with the chestnut purée. Whip the other half with the mascarpone and reserve both.
2. Pour the coffee into a wide-ish dish and dip the biscuits into it quickly, turning once. Place them in the bottom of your trifle dish. Repeat until you have used all the biscuits and they are nicely sodden.
3. Spoon the cooled, mashed apples onto the layer of biscuits and smooth them over.
4. Then add the layer of chestnut cream and, finally, the mascarpone whipped cream and chill for at least four to five hours and up to two days. Just before serving, decorate with the cocoa powder sieved over the top and the glacé chestnuts dotted splendidly around the edge of the trifle.
5. You could also go to town with a little gold leaf set on the chestnuts or gold powder sprinkled with the cocoa.
Photographs by Louis Laurent Grandadam