Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Christmas Day: my struggle and subsequent victory over the Lochness monster

Chestnuts roasting on the fire
Chestnuts roasting on the fire

I studded tangerines with cloves and tied ribbon around them, you can do this with any citrus fruit, smells lovely.
I studded tangerines with cloves and tied ribbon around them, you can do this with any citrus fruit, smells lovely.

Fresh blinis on the Aga
Fresh blinis on the Aga
I positioned the fish in the 'swimming position', that is, on it's stomach...cover head and tail in foilI positioned the fish in the 'swimming position', that is, on it's stomach...cover head and tail in foil

Stripping the skin off is easy when it's roasted in a hot oven
Stripping the skin off is easy when it's roasted in a hot oven (bit Silence of the Lambs though isn't it?)

Nessie about to go in the oven...

The night before Christmas, the whole salmon arrived. I'd asked for one big enough to feed ten people. Did they add a zero to that number? The salmon was enormous, about four feet long. There was no way I was going to get this beautiful creature into the oven.
I planned to make saumon en croute but I haven't cooked it for a while and in my mind's eye, conflated it with another dish: baked whole salmon. Usually skinned and boned salmon fillets are used for saumon en croute, not entire fish. How was I going to get rid of the skin and the bones and keep the whole fish together in one piece?
I propped the salmon in 'the swimming position' with scrunched up silver foil shoved into it's seasoned(salt pepper and lemon) stomach to keep the shape. Why the 'swimming position'? Because this way you can skin both sides of the fish. If you lay it flat on the tray, the skin on the underside will not be roasted.
However the only way to fit the fish into the oven was to bend the head and tail around so that it was in the shape of a ring. This would be a swimming position if it was biting it's own arse.
I loaded the heavy tray into the Aga roasting oven. After ten minutes, I checked, surprised at how quickly it cooked, the skin was bubbling up. I hauled the thing out and placed the tray on the draining board. The skin was easy to remove, lifting away in whole sections. I snip off the fins. The bones were another problem however, it really needed to be cooked for longer. Studying the problem, my entire family now gathered around, offering solutions, I decided to go for a 'halfectomy' and cut the entire fish in half.

"It'll end up covered in pastry anyway" said my mum "you can put it together again".

Mums are people who have done several Christmas dinners and Sunday roasts. They've been there, got their battle scars, earned their bravery stripes when faced with a large piece of flesh and a zillion vegetables and can offer valuable support. Christmas dinner is a nightmarish meal to create, even for myself who is used to cooking for large numbers of people.
"Just imagine" my mum comforted me" there are thousands of people all over the country who have got back from the pub having had a few drinks and forget to take the turkey out of the freezer. Christmas morning, they remember, and spend hours trying to defrost it in the bath, with hair driers, anything they can think of..."

I put the now skinned fish back in the oven. Another ten minutes. My god that Aga is hot I think to myself. Took the salmon out and left it to cool. In the meantime I'd left my giant pavlova in the simmering oven. The bell rung.(1) I looked at the pavlova....Noooo! the top was burnt! It had only been cooking for two hours. I generally cook a pavlova for about five hours in the simmering oven. I've never had one burn before. Something was up....

Mum explained."They put the gas pressure up on Christmas day. Imagine they normally have, say, a million dinners being cooked on an average day. On Christmas Day, everyone is going to be using their ovens, they will have several million dinners cooking...so they increase the pressure"
I scraped the burnt bits off the pavlova. Cooking on an Aga requires experience and knowledge of your oven temperatures which cannot, after all, be adjusted as in a conventional oven.
"Never mind" said mum " you can cover it with cream, no one will know".
I start to feel deflated, a bit tearful even. I can feel the rise of hysterical sap coming on... We prep the potatoes, sweet potatoes, parsnips, butternut squash, whole onions, salsify, all of which will be roasted. We also prep the brussel sprouts (amazingly fresh) and carrots (crisp and sweet). I will cook the brussel sprouts with boiled chestnuts and butter, the carrots with Kilburn honey and poppy seeds. All of the vegetables, except for the salsify which I bought at Borough market, are from Riverford Organics and are such good quality.
I slice the field mushrooms and soak some dried porcini and trompettes de mort in some water. These I will fry in butter and oil with garlic, including the water from the dried wild mushrooms. I add fresh spinach chopped finely. I spread the mixture on my rolled out sheets of puff pastry.
The salmon has cooled enough for me to attempt to bone it. I removed the large spine and as many of the pin bones as possible without destroying the shape of the fish. Even though the beast was now in two halves, it was still very heavy. To lift it onto the pastry required three of us plus numerous fish slices slid underneath at various intervals. Deep breath, count to three and woah...steady! Onto the pastry with it's covering layer of mushroom and spinach. We repeated this for the other half of the fish, placing the two halves together again to make a whole. I placed the other stretch of pastry on top and attempted to seal the top and bottom layers of pastry together with egg white. Liquid started to escape from the fish, running off the kitchen surface onto the floor. Panicking, kitchen towel was placed all around the fish in an attempt to soak up all the liquid. I was trembling. I'd been up since 5 am. Mum said calmly
"I think we need to leave it to dry out for a while"
But first we had to get the leaky fish off the kitchen surface onto a baking tray. This is impossible to do on a normal tray without the fish breaking up. I had an idea. The Aga comes with a cool shelf, a flat tin shelf that can be used to regulate the temperature, to prevent things burning on top.
"Lets use the cool shelf" I said "maybe we can slide it underneath the fish."
Various solutions were offered...cover the shelf with tin foil...no let's grease it...um shall five of us put a spatula underneath and lift it on...no... Finally my dad took over...lets just flip it over onto the shelf which is wedged underneath the edge of the salmon.
It's more or less there. A bit of repacking needed. Quite a bit more kitchen towel to soak up the juices. The puff pastry is soggy and not enough to seal the enormous fish. Dad and the Teen go off in the car, cruising down the Kilburn High Rd, looking for more puff pastry in the ethnic shops which remain open on Christmas Day. The Teen returned with three packets of filo pastry.
"That's not puff" I said
She looked crest fallen. Dad and the Teen set off again. Finally they bring three packs of frozen puff pastry. I put the packs on the Aga to defrost.
I prepped the spaghetti vongole, frying shallots in olive oil, a whole bulb of garlic, flat leaf parsley and a whole bottle of white wine. The clams had been kept in sea salt water and I rinsed them, tapping each one to make sure that they shut.
Back to Nessie, as the salmon had now been christened...I rolled out the puff pastry into a flat sheet about half a centimetre thick. I cut out circles of around three cm's in diameter with a small glass, cut them in half and laid them onto Nessie in layers, overlapping like fish scales. Finally a 'head' was made...a pastry 'hoodie' for Nessie and a cranberry for the eye. The pastry was brushed with butter although in retrospect I should have brushed it with egg yolk to give a golden shine.
The dinner started with Champagne, cremant, and generous plates of smoked salmon from Forman & Field from their London smokery. The smoked salmon was closely knit, not fatty, a deep colour with a silky and fine texture. I made a blini mix earlier, leaving it to rise into a bubbly dough. Now I greased metal rings and with a tablespoon and teaspoon, carefully spooning the mixture into the rings, set about cooking the blinis on the simmering plate of the Aga. Here is the recipe I used, an adaptation from Delia:

40 g buckwheat flour ( I didn't have buckwheat so I used Rye flour instead)

Mix first four ingredients together.
Slightly warm creme fraiche and milk, not so hot that it will kill the yeast then mix in with the rest. Add the eggs. Mix well and leave for at least an hour to rise, covered with a damp tea towel.
Each guest had two blinis, they also had the freshest buffalo mozzarella ("best I've ever had" said my sister) from Waitrose with good vine tomatoes from Riverford Organics. I dressed this salad with aged balsamic and extra virgin olive oil, fresh basil leaves and Maldon's sea salt.
Then onto the spaghetti vongole: I boiled De Cecco linguine (11 minutes) for about 8 minutes and strained it, dousing the pasta with olive oil to make sure it didn't stick. Simultaneously I had dropped the clams into the shallot, parsley and white wine mix and the shells were steaming open nicely, the aroma filling the house. Now I mixed the linguine and clams together, plating up into a bowl, a small portion each, there were still several courses to go...
At this point I could sit down with my guests for a little while. I orginally set up this date, inviting strangers to eat on Christmas day because I felt it was part of the ethos of home restaurants, sharing your food and your home. I always invite people who had nowhere to go at Christmas anyway, as do many people. It's the true spirit of Christmas. This time they would be contributing to the cost of the meal but I also invited people who perhaps couldn't afford to come, due to the recession and unemployment, as my guests, for I knew they would be alone on that day. I wanted to do a 'secret santa' with everyone bringing a present which could be put into a bag and chosen in a lucky dip. I probably didn't explain it well enough as this didn't really happen...
My guests included:
  • Two Spaniards who booked last minute for they weren't sure about transport from Spain. Actually they weren't Spanish, but lived in Barcelona, one was Italian and the other Taiwanese.
  • A friend of a friend who is allergic to Wifi to the point that she's had her bedroom lined with tin foil (she was then named Tin Hat as shorthand) and her parents. I had to turn off the Wifi for the day.
  • A gorgeous blonde Estonian lesbian or 'Esto Lesbo' as my sister called her, who lives nearby. My dad got merry and started to flirt with her, futiley. My sister claimed that she had her hand on my sister's knee through out the meal and that she reckoned she'd pulled! In fact my whole family seemed to be competing with each other about who Esto Lesbo fancied more...even my Teen announced she was in with a chance...
  • A lovely lady who had booked off wegottickets who I never really got a chance to chat to.
  • My family which included The Teen, my parents and my sister.
  • Just as the main course was about to be served, Fat Les of Bellaphon fame turned up, having walked for an hour from Marble Arch. Generous as ever, he'd bought two bottles of very good wine.
The vegetables were dished up family style (Christ there were loads of them). The carrots were overcooked. I announced lightly to our foreign guests that this was "typical British cooking".
Nessie was brought out, looking more like a reptile or Dougal from Magic Roundabout than a salmon. I sat down. Les made a crack about my sister and I being

"the gruesome twosome". (Bastard. Just because my sister and I are funny, extrovert and not thin and bland)
My dad said "I've heard their brother call them worse..."
There was a slight silence at the table as it dawned on people that they were at a real family Christmas, family rifts and all.
I tried to joke: "Well as you are all away from your dysfunctional families for the day, it must be nice to join mine".
Nobody laughed. In fact Tin Hat's parents looked distinctly uncomfortable. Tin Hat muttered: "We won't go into that".
The 'Spanish' carried on eating. I could barely eat. I hardly eat when I cook, I get sick of my own food plus I was already full after the first two courses. However the salmon was even better the next day cold with a hollandaise sauce.
The wine was flowing, conversation started again. I'd committed the fatal error of sitting down. Being the cook is a bit like being pregnant; once you sit down at the end of the day, you never get up again. My sister went out to serve the cheese course...a fantastic selection: British cheeses Caerphilly, Wensleydale and Childwickbury from Neal's yard; Manchego and Cabrales from Spain and the French cheeses, Langres, Reblochon and another goat cheese from Mons. These were served with Kilburn honeycomb, Italian fig chutney and quince, with Swedish crispbread and oatcakes.
Another rest was required before I brought out the pavlova, by now topped with double cream, brandy cream, salted butter caramel and passion fruit.
My mum went to have a rest in the bedroom, my teen had a little sleep in her room and I, by now a little recovered, went to the kitchen to make some mince pies. I could hear in the living room silences then laughter; everybody was getting along famously, playing a game called Balderdash. My sister came in and said

"People want Christmas pudding. The foreigners want to try it".
Of course, although it's boring for me and I thought they would be too full, if you come to Britain for Christmas you are going to want to try typical food. I must admit I cheated here...my mum had brough a Christmas pudding from Marks & Spencers...I didn't make my own.
Later I went out with the mince pies and joined in the game. Bowls of nuts were shared plus physallis fruits (I always think of them as syphillis fruits). People went home about 10pm having arrived at 2pm. It was a typical Christmas, long, boozy, stuffy, fun: the only difference was that this time it was a supperclub!

christmas pavlova
mince pies

The living room at Christmas time...
The living room at Christmas time...

(1) Since getting the Aga, I soon learnt that you need several timers, I even wear one around my neck. The Aga is like a little tomb, silently cooking the food inside its chambers. As a result it is very easy to forget you have food in there...hence the timers. With a conventional oven there is whirring and clicking which subconsciously reminds you that something is cooking.


  1. I had to do something v similar with a vast salmon the week before Christmas (it arrived a day early and I had to keep it on the balcony, as there was no room in the fridge)- I bent it into an utterly bizarre shape to cook, but once it was skinned and dressed, you'd not have known (I don't think it was as pretty as yours though)...
    It weighed about 4kg and purported to feed 10 - I think I could have fed double that.
    Will know next time...

    And re aga - at my parents house, we still frequently (after 25 years of ownership) find unidentifiable black lumps in the bottom oven that were presumably bread rolls/croissants etc put there to warm up for breakfast some previous day.
    I love it though. I moved out quite a few years ago and I STILL can't bake properly without it.
    I wouldn't even know HOW to make a Christmas cake without the aga.

    Your Christmas Dinner sounds like it was great - maybe I'll ditch the family and come round next year ;)

  2. I was wondering whether to keep it outside but we have foxes...

  3. A Chrimbo supperclub is awesome!! Can I come next year?? The lack Of turkey is a massive bonus too!! Are you doing one on the 8th Jan?? Happy New Year!! X

  4. hope to see you both next year...yes I'm doing the 8th of January as Elvis night!

  5. Nessie looks wonderful and I'm glad it all turned out alright in the end. Your mum sounds marvellous and it sounds like she was a great help. Hope you managed to put your feet up at the end and feel Christmassy.

  6. What a fabulous Christmas Day - well certainly for your guests anyway! Sounds delicious and fun. You are quite a star providing a traditional Christmas experience - family rows and all - to those who would otherwise miss out.

    Do you ever do a specifically veggie supper club?

  7. Hi Natalie, most of my dinners are completely veggie but sometimes I include fish...

  8. wow, you have a lovely home and you sure can cook. i am SO having christmas dinner with you next year!

  9. The salmon looks absolutely fantastic and it appears that disaster was averted! Merry Christmas.

  10. That salmon - wow! You are a culinary superwoman!

    My Mum has an Aga. Once she lost a pan, was searching for it for days. She found it eventually at the back of the simmering oven, with what used to be rice pudding melded to the insides. She had to throw the pan away, and we were all dissappointed that we'd unknowingly missed a chance for her rice pudding!!

  11. Feel exhausted reading about it all but looks and sounds amazing. I too had to wrestle a 5.5kg salmon that was ordered as a 3kg. Big shock. Big fish xx

  12. Sounds like a lovely alternative Xmas. The salmon in particular looks great.

    Hope you had a good one and all the best for 2010.

  13. Happy New Year, Mrs. Marmite. This post is simply wonderful, the fish looks mega-delicious.

  14. Well, well done for all the effort - sounds like it was quite a challenge with that fish but the photos say it was most excellent! I like the sound of the clam linguine too! Your mum sounds like a wise cookie too - your descriptions of you both sound very reminiscent of me when I'm cooking and floundering at her house and she steps in with some wise advice! I hope you had fun and felt it was a success? A happy belated Christmas and New Year xxx

  15. Lyn and gourmet chick: thank you
    Jumbleberry Orchard: haha that's a classic Aga story
    Rockmother: do they deliberately deliver larger fish than you expect at Christmas? Never mind it was spectacular
    Niamh: thank you and happy New Year. Well done particularly with the Blaggers Banquet...a tour de force! What is it with the Irish and their talent for raising money for charity? You are a veritable 'Roberta Geldof'of the food world!!!
    Thora and Curious: thanks and happy new year to you both...

  16. Genial dispatch and this fill someone in on helped me alot in my college assignement. Gratefulness you as your information.

  17. hahaha that salmon!!!!!so funny~~~~ your food pictures are now very popular in China because we think it's very funny. lol..... this is your food album's link created by a Chinese blogger.http://www.douban.com/photos/album/68808647/?start=18 you can ask someone to translate the comments in the album for you. it's real fun!

  18. Dear Chinese commenter,
    I've noticed I've been getting alot of hits from China! Glad you guys are enjoying the blog and the funny food pix!


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