Friday, December 21, 2007

Probably the best mushroom soup in the world

I hope that everyone has had a wonderful Christmas and that you are continuing to do so. Sick of cold turkey yet? I hope not. I'll let you into a little secret - I think I actually enjoy the leftovers more that I do the 'main event'. Is that odd? I even love cold parsnips, cold stuffing... and... cold bread sauce. I'm a little upset this year though as I'm missing out on many of the leftover delights. I've left the family home down on the Isle of Wight and am stopping over in London for the night before heading north to spend Hogmanay in Scotland. It will be wonderful, but it was a little tough leaving the family at home with the remaining turkey and ham and the promise of turkey soup and Brussels Sprouts bubble and squeak. I can't complain though as my wonderful mother packed me off with an individual portion of the aforementioned soup and a slice of Christmas pudding!

As some will know, this year was my first attempt at cooking the Christmas lunch in its entirety. I think it went fairly well. Everything was ready together, on time and most components tasted pretty good. The turkey was ever-so-slightly over cooked which was disappointing considering the number of methods I studied prior to tackling the bird. First I looked at Delia whose total cooking time would have been around 5 hours for a bird of the size I had. Thank goodness I didn't follow her method as my poor turkey would have been frazzled. I followed a very similar method (a blast of heat at the start, then cover with a foil tent and lower the temperature for the remaining cooking time) but still my turkey was ready an hour before it should have been. I think my mother's oven is far hotter than it should be! It didn't matter though. The bird had an extended resting period, which no doubt did it good. What was delicious was the juice that resulted from sitting the turkey on a bed of onion, leek, carrot and celery and adding around half a bottle of white wine to the roasting tray. Yum.

My first ever attempt at Christmas lunch!

The Christmas pudding that I made back in November was (even if I say so myself) a triumph. Served with a generous dollop of brandy butter it was delicious. So much better than even the best shop-bought versions, it had a wonderful flavour without being too terribly heavy. Divine.

Before I head off to Scotland, I would like to share a quick recipe with you. This is, I think, the best mushroom soup I know. I am unable to describe how scrumptious it is but I do urge you to try it. The mustard and Worcestershire sauce are, I would suggest, vital components. Miss them out at your peril!

The Best Mushroom Soup (serves 4)

1/2 lb mushrooms, wiped, trimmed and chopped (any kind - a mixture is nice, but regular mushies are fine too)

1/2 pint white roux sauce made with 1oz butter, 1oz flour and 1/2 pint milk

1/2 pint chicken stock

1 medium onion or 3 shallots - peeled and finely chopped

clove of garlic, finely chopped

20z butter

1 tsp Dijon mustard (or other French mustard - not grainy)

Dash of Worcester sauce

Pinch of mace

1. Melt butter and saute onion and garlic till transparent, without browning

2. Add mushrooms and saute for a further 5-10 mins over a gentle heat.

3. Remove from pan and prepare the roux sauce. Mix the hot stock into the sauce before returning the mushrooms and onions to the pan.

4. Season with salt and pepper, mustard, mace and Worcester sauce. Bring to boil and simmer gently for around 15 minutes stirring occasionally to ensure mushrooms do not stick to pan.

5. Cool slightly and then blitz in liquidiser or using a stab mixer. Return to pan and taste - adjust seasoning if needed. I often add more mustard and Worcester sauce - the flavour it great with the mushrooms.

6. If wished, stir in 1\4 pint double cream, a handful of chopped parsley and a few sauteed mushrooms.

Starry Christmas Cake

Well, here we are. Christmas Eve. The stuffings are made - one chestnut with apricots and ginger that will go in the bird and one 'green' stuffing made with leeks, spring greens and lots of herbs. The turkey is sitting in the fridge awaiting its fate tomorrow. The timeplan is written - this is my first year cooking the lunch so it could be interesting (!). My niece and nephew are just getting out the mince pie for Father Christmas and a carrot for Rudolph and we are all feeling very festive.

I finally iced my Christmas cake. A very simple design seeing as this is also my first ever attempt. The pressure was on as my sister is a professional wedding cake maker and my mother is also very skilled - one wonders why I volunteered. But I'm quite pleased with the result. I was less pleased with the cake itself - I followed Delia's recipe and it was totally overcooked miles before she suggested. I've been feeding it over the past few weeks though with 'soaking mixture' - equal parts of sweet Oloroso sherry, dark rum and glycerine and it feels fairly sticky and moist now.

To decorate, I filled in any holes with marzipan before covering with marzipan (using warmed apricot jam as the 'glue'.

After the marzipan and I covered with fondant icing and topped simply with different shaped stars. First I tried all white stars...

I loved the all white look, but also wanted to experiment with some edible silver lustre I had in the cupboard. In the end I went half silver/half white. By the time I finished it was rather last, hence the rather poor quality photos...

I wish everyone very Happy Christmas! May you have a wonderful and fun-filled day and, of course, a wonderful lunch!

Mummy's very special mince pies

What you see above may look like a perfectly innocent mince pie. I'd go further. It actually looks like rather a dull mince pie - no pretty star shaped tops or fluted edges. But wait! Remember - beauty lies within. The pastry top conceals a rather scrumptious filling of mincemeat topped with a cream cheese mixture that is far more delicious than it may sound. But things get better. You see this is no ordinary pastry. This is orange pastry. It is a little tricky to work with but it really is worth it - wonderfully crumbly, very Christmassy and perfect with the filling.

My mother made these mince pies some years ago. Strictly speaking they are not 'her' mince pies, but Josceline Dimbleby's. But I always think of them as hers. In my mind they are far superior to the normal kind though I do make 'normal' ones too so that I can make pretty star-shaped tops and use them as a vehicle for brandy butter.

WARNING - the orange pastry is SO delicious that it is difficult to resist eating the lot raw, before it is cooked. Perhaps you should make a little extra to account for this!

Mince Pies de luxe
(recipe taken from Josceline Dimbleby's 'Christmas Book')
Makes 24

For orange pastry -
500g plain flour
175g icing or caster sugar
375g butter
finely grated rind and juice of one large orange

For filling -
250g full fat cream cheese (it is Christmas, after all)
50g caster sugar
500-625g mincemeat
milk, to glaze
Caster or icing sugar to decorate

1. Sift flour and sugar into a mixing bowl. Cut the butter into small cubes and rub these into the flour until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.

2. Stir in the grated orange rind and finally the juice, a little at a time, until the mixture sticks together and you can form a ball.

3. Pat into a ball, wrap in cling film and chill for at least 30 minutes.

4. Mix together cream cheese and sugar. Set to one side.

5. On a floured surface, knead pastry lightly and then roll out rather more thickly than you would usually. The pastry is very crumbly and rather sticky and quite tricky to work with so go carefully and BE PATIENT (something I am not, but it is worth it).

6. Cut out rounds with a 3 inch pastry cutter and line greased mince pie tins with these disks.

7. Fill to half depth with mincemeat and then top with a teaspoonful of cream cheese mixture -

8. Roll out the remaining pastry and cut out tops with a 2-inch cutter. Moisten the edges with water and place on top of filled bases, pressing lightly to seal.

9. Brush tops with milk and bake for 15-20 minutes until lightly golden.

10. As the pastry is so crumbly, allow these to cool in the tin before very gently easing from the tin with a rounded knife.

11. Serve warmed in the oven and sprinkled with icing sugar.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Chocolate Chestnut Roulade

Before I share with you the deliciousness of this thoroughly festive pud, I plead with you to click here. I think that Jeanne says it all really. Today is the last day of the Menu for Hope campaign - you have a terrific chance of winning a great prize and the children of Lesotho really will benefit from your contribution. Go on. It is only £5 and will only take a moment. There is still a great chance to win a private wine tasting for 8 hosted by none other than yours truly. But there are lots of other fantastic prizes too - please take a look. Thank you.

Now then. Do you like chocolate?

I thought as much. Do you like sweetened chestnuts?

If so, this is the pudding for you. A typical French Christmas pudding the 'bûche de Noel' (or Christmas Log') is often the preferred choice for children who aren't so keen on rich fruit cake. This version is perhaps more suited to the grown ups though - it is dark, moist and really rather wicked.

The recipe is essentially one pertaining to good old Delia, but I've changed this slightly. I found the chestnut filling too runny so added a little more mascarpone. I didn't have any whole chestnuts and I used a little less cream in the middle. Click here for the original version, or take a look below for mine...

Chocolate Chestnut Roulade
(serves 8-10)

For the roulade -
2oz cocoa powder
6 eggs, separated
5oz golden caster sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Icing sugar to dust
For the filling -
3oz/250g tin of sweetened crème de marrons
1 tablespoon Cognac
3oz mascarpone
1oz icing sugar
5 fl oz double cream

1. Preheat oven to 190C. Line a shallow baking tin (9 by 13 inches) with greased baking paper, leaving the paper sticking around an inch above the sides of the tin. To do this, cut a sheet larger than the tray and then cut diagonal slits at each corner.

2. Beat together egg yolks, sugar and vanilla with an electric whisk until doubled in size and pale and creamy.

3. In a separate, clean bowl, whisk the egg whites until soft peaks are formed. Carefully fold the whites into the yolk mixture, taking care to keep as much air in as possible. Finally, fold in the cocoa.

4. Bake for 20 minutes and then leave to cool in the tin.

5. Meanwhile mix the filling ingredients together, with the exception of the cream.

6. Cut a large sheet of baking paper and dust with icing sugar. Turn the roulade out onto the sheet of paper. Spread with the chestnut mixture, leaving a border of around 3/4 inch around the edge.

7. Whip the cream until spreadable and place on top of the chestnut cream.

8. Very carefully roll the roulade up widthways using the paper rather than your hands. It will crack, so don't worry. This adds to the rustic look of this dessert! Keeping it in the paper, place in the fridge so that it holds its shape a little better.

9. Remove from fridge around twenty minutes before you want to eat it. Unwrap the paper and sprinkle with more icing sugar, if required. Slice and enjoy!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Scrumptious Nibbles

What a busy time of year, eh? I'm not quite sure what I've been doing but I seem to have no time to myself whatsoever. Christmas shopping, festive drinks with friends, work events, wrapping presents... I've had virtually no time to blog! But I have been cooking, at least. In fact, so busy things are, I am currently multi-tasking in a big way: typing at my desk, making mushroom soup for lunch tomorrow, icing my Christmas cake, cooking my supper (bangers and mash) and watching Heston Blumenthal's Ultimate Christmas Meal on the television. Phew!

On Sunday, I hosted a Christmassy lunch for seven friends. We started with some simple yet delicious canapés - blinis with smoked trout and horseradish crème fraîche, red pepper hummous topped with roasted artichokes and red onion marmalade and goats cheese nibbles. None of these took much time - mostly an assembly job as I bought both the hummous and the artichokes. Served with a Tasmanian Sparkling Pinot Noir/Chardonnay, these really looked and tasted the part. We then moved onto the pheasant and cider casserole I made a few weeks ago. This time around I cooked the casserole for longer at a lower heat and used less liquid. I also added smoky bacon and, for the final 20 minutes, some pan-roasted shallots and baby carrots. It was superb! We finished with a divine chocolate and chestnut roulade (more on that later) and my Mother's special mince pies with orange pastry (again, recipe to follow).

I plan to make these nibbles again at Christmas - perhaps to accompany the Champagne we drink as we open our presents before lunch....

Blinis with smoked trout and horseradish crème fraîche (makes 24)

Pack of 24 cocktail blinis (or make your own!)
2 tablespoons crème fraîche
1 teaspoon good quality horseradish sauce
1 teaspoon chopped dill, plus a little extra to garnish
2 slices smoked trout
1 lemon

1. Mix the crème fraîche with the horseradish and dill.

2. Bake the blinis according the pack instructions (usually around minutes).

3. Blob a teaspoon of creamy mixture on each blini, tip with a sliver of trout, garnish with a sprig of dill.
4. Place the blinis on a serving plate and grate over a little lemon zest. Squeeze a little lemon juice over the lot and grid a little black pepper over the plate to finish them off.

Crostini with hummous and roasted artichoke hearts

1 very narrow baguette or flûte, 1 day old
Flavoured hummous of choice - roasted red pepper works well
Roasted and marinated artichoke hearts in olive oil

1. Make the crostini. Slice the bread into very thin disks (this will be much easier if your bread is a day old!). Place on a baking tray and bake at 200C for around 10 minutes, until crisp.

2. Once the crostini are cool, spoon on a dollop of hummous and top with a slice of artichoke.

Crostini with red onion marmalade and goats cheese

Crostini (make as above)
2 red onions
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1oz butter
Olive oil
Spring of thyme
Goats cheese

1. Slice the onions. Melt butter and a little oil in a non-stick pan with a heavy base. Place onions in, sprinkle over sugar and add thyme. Cook on a very low heat for around 40 minutes until sticky and soft. Keep an eye on it to prevent burning.

2. When cool, top crostini with a teaspoon of onion mixture and top with a little goats cheese. If you like, you could pop under a grill until the cheese has melted.

Looks like everyone enjoyed themselves....

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Ginger and soy salmon

I think that salmon works wonderfully well with Oriental flavours - even quite strong ones. This is a dish that I like to throw together quickly midweek when time is of the essence but I want something nourishing and reasonably healthy. If I have time, I would marinate the salmon in ingredients and then grill it, but more often that not I don't have time so I put everything in a foil parcel to keep all the flavours in whilst cooking. It seems to work well and tastes delicious when served with stir-fried vegetables and noodles cooked with a little sweet chilli sauce.

Ginger and Soy Salmon for One


1 salmon fillet

teaspoon freshly grated ginger

2 tablespoons soy sauce (I prefer dark as I love the strong flavour of soy but light might be better for some with fish)

1 teaspoon brown sugar

2 sliced spring onions

small handful bok choi

1 teaspoon finely chopped red chilli (to taste)

handful fresh coriander

To serve - selection of vegetables and noodles stir fried with sweet chilli sauce (or similar)

1. Place bok choi on a large piece of foil (large enough to create a parcel for the salmon). Place the salmon on top and cut a few slits in the flesh.

2. Sprinkle over the remaining ingredients and top with fresh coriander. Sprinkle over a couple of tablespoons of water to keep everything moist whilst cooking.

3. Bake the salmon at 180C for around 15-20 minutes , until just cooked through. Meanwhile stir-fry the vegetables and noodles.

4. Carefully open the parcel (steam will escape so take care not to burn yourself). Remove the coriander which will have wilted. Top with fresh coriander and serve with the noodles and vegetables.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Comforting apple crunch

I've been having a bit of a drama with my Christmas tree. On Sunday I set out to choose one - not too big this year as I was determined not to repeat my usual trick of selecting one that a) I am unable to lift and b) does not, in any way, fit into my small one-bedroom flat. Having selected the perfect specimen, I was feeling suitably smug as I hauled it from the car into my sitting room. I grappled with the stand and set it up and then delved into the cupboards to hunt out the decorations.

Now, you have to understand something here. I get very overexcited about Christmas. I'm like a small child really. Decorating the tree is a 'big thing' for me. It symbolises the start of the season of merriment and puts me immediately in festive mode each time I come home from work and turn on the lights. Ah. The lights. Therein lies my drama. I got them out. I plugged them in. They worked perfectly. I arranged them jauntily on the tree. I plugged them in again. Let there be light, I said (in my head, of course. Had I said it out loud, I might have felt a wee bit foolish). Unlike the good Lord, however, there was no light. Not even a faint glimmer. Unable to decorated the tree until the lights were on and working, I sank into a deep gloom...

Three days later, my tree is still naked. I have been to a huge number of shops (Woolworths, Sainsburys, Asda, Peter Jones... even Harrods) and have not found a single set of plain white lights. It seems there has been a run on said lights ('would Madam like multi-coloured icicle-shaped lights instead?' 'No she would not'!). Today, I plumped upon plan b. I'd identified the rogue bulb, I would simply replace it. In Woolworths I was thrilled to find replacement bulbs for my much loved plain white lights and raced to the checkout to pay for a set before other shoppers could get there greedy hands on them. Once I staggered up the hill home with my suitcase I raced over to the tree before even taking my coat off. I rummaged in my bags but alas, no sign of the bulbs. Not in my pockets either. It appears that I left them, all £1.29 of them, on the counter in the aforementioned shop.

I am currently drowning my sorrows with a glass of Kumeu River Chardonnay. Jolly good it is too. I'm in need of serious comfort after the disappointing light situation and have headed towards a hugely simple favourite comfort pud of mine.

For me, comfort equals stewed apples. I think my mother used to give me stewed apples a lot as a child as I associate them with her. This is the pudding I make when I fancy a bowl of apple crumble but can't muster the energy (not that much is required) to get busy with rubbing the flour together with the butter and sugar. Here, you simply top the apples with buttery, sugary cubes of bread and grill until crunchy. Divine.

Before I elaborate (not that much elaboration is required, you understand) I must ask an important question. Have you taken a look at all the marvellous Menu for Hope prizes offered by food bloggers the world over? If not, why no? Do consider buying a raffle ticket, it is for a great cause. Click here to read more and see my post below to read about the fabulous prize I am offering - a private wine tasting for 8 people in your home. If you live near or in London and are tempted, remember to quote prize number UK05 beside your donation!

Apple Crunch - serves 4

1lb cooking apples
3oz butter
2 tblsp caster sugar
grated zest 1 small lemon
2 slices white bread from a firm loaf
5 level tbsp demerara sugar

1. Peel, core and slices apples. Melt butter in a saucepan and add apples sugar and a little water.
2. Cover and cook on a lowish heat until soft and squishy.
3.Remove from heat and stir in lemon zest.
4. Remove crusts from bread and cut into small cubes.
5. Melt butter, stir in cubes and sugar until bread is fully coated.
6. Spoon apple into a shallow dish and pile the bread on top...

7. Grill until golden brown and enjoy with cream, or preferably custard!

Wine notes - I would choose either a sweet Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley. Perhaps a Coteaux de Layon or Vouvray. Otherwise, I'd go for a late harvest riesling from Germany or South Africa. Plenty of sweetness but enough acidity to match with the cooking apples.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Menu for Hope 2007 - Private Wine Tasting for 8

Tomorrow sees the start of this year's Menu for Hope campaign involving food bloggers from around the globe. Organised by Pim of superb blog ChezPim, this year we are raising money for a specific project coordinated by the UN World Food Programme. It is a school feeding project in the mountain kingdom of Lesotho. Currently, the WFP's school feeding programme provides a daily nutritious meal to nearly 150,000 school kids in Lesotho , many of them orphans.

Last year, the Menu for Hope campaign raised over $60,000. This year we want to do even better. The great news about this campaign though is that whilst putting money to a really good cause, you also stand to win some really superb prizes including meals in 'hard to get into' restaurants, foodie tours and experiences, culinary gadgets and delicious treats. Simply buy a raffle ticket (or several!) for the prizes that take your fancy.

Anyway, my job here is to tell you about the prize I am donating. A great choice for those who enjoy wine and want to learn a little more about it in a relaxed and informal setting, I am offering to host a private wine tasting in your own home for you and up to seven guests (eight people in total). Please note: this prize in unfortunately limited to those living in, or close to London - see terms for further details.

As regular readers will know, I work in the wine business organising and hosting wine tastings wine-related events around the UK and northern France. I'm passionate about wine but by no means a 'wine bore' so the emphasis of the evening will be firmly on fun (though you'll learn a few things along the way too).

The theme of the tasting will be entirely up to you - a introduction to wine tasting and grape varieties or a tasting comparing European wines with those from the 'New World'. An in-depth study of a particular region, country or grape variety, unusual 'hidden treasure' wines or perhaps a food and wine matching session. The tasting will be tailored to meet your areas of interest and level of wine-tasting experience.
Included in the prize will be the wine to be tasted (up to the value of £80). A typical tasting would feature 8 wines at various different prices from £5 to £25 per bottle. If the winner would like to organise a 'fine wine' tasting or Champagne tasting then they are welcome to add to the budget. Remember, this will be YOUR tasting! It could make a great birthday celebration or just an opportunity to get friends around for a fun evening with a difference.

I hope this prize will appeal to all wine lovers whether you are total novice wanting to learn more or a seasoned enthusiast wishing to expand your repertoire. If you have any questions about this prize, please do email me at abitofafoodie [at]

Please note the following terms:

1. Unfortunately, this prize is limited to those living in or nearby London (I am prepared to travel for an hour by car).

2. Prize includes wines to the value of £80. All food and further wine to be at winner's expense.

Do please take a look at the other fabulous prizes on offer - details are below along with notes on how to buy raffle tickets and help support this great cause.

After five years of drought, it is estimated that disease and malnutrition in Lesotho claim the lives of one in 12 children before they reach the age of five. Chronic and persistent vulnerability prevails in Lesotho . The kingdom is confronting the triple threat of increasing chronic poverty, rising HIV/AIDS rates and weakened government capacity. This threat takes a heavy toll on the households of the rural poor in Lesotho , who are faced with a limited number of coping strategies to respond to the intensifying hazard. 56% of the population live on less then $2 per day. Think about that. That's less than a pound.

Donation instructions:

1. Choose a prize or prizes of your choice from our Menu for Hope at . (This is the global list of all prizes donated this year.

The summary of UK prizes on Cooksister will be located here: You must make sure to check the terms and conditions for the individual prizes BEFORE you bid, as some will come with restrictions regarding where they ship to or how long the prize is valid for.

2. Go to the donation site at and make a donation.

3. Please specify the prize code of the prize you'd like in the 'Personal Message' section in the donation form when confirming your donation. Each $10 you donate will give you one raffle ticket toward a prize of your choice. If you are buying more than one ticket, please indicate how you would like the tickets to be allocated. For example, a donation of $50 can be 2 tickets for EU01 and 3 tickets for EU02. Please write 2xEU01, 3xEU02

4. If your company matches your charity donation, please check the box and fill in the information so we could claim the corporate match.

5. Please check the box to allow us to see your email address so that we could contact you in case you win. Your email address will not be shared with anyone.

Check back on Chez Pim on Wednesday January 9 for the results of the raffle.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Christmas Food and Wine Matching

As I was preparing the details for the exciting prize I am offering for this year's Menu of Hope campaign, I was thinking of how often the best laid plans do indeed to to seed. Not that this is always a bad thing, you understand. When I started this blog in April, earlier this year, I thought I knew how it would turn out. It went something like this: I'd set it up on a rainy afternoon as a bit of an experiment, type a few posts out about food and wine, probably lose interest/run out of things to post about/find no time to keep it up and then leave it out there to drown quietly in the blogosphere. It never occurred to me anyone would actually read it. Things certainly turned out differently - how could I possibly lose interest in something that connects me with so many other like-minded food enthusiasts? Too few things to post about? Try too many - I always seem to have a backlog of things I want to share. No time? Hmmm. This is closer to the mark. But my blog is now such a passion that I manage to make time for it (to the detriment of the filing/housework/ironing).

Perhaps the main thing I didn't plan on though, was the theme. I knew I wanted to write about food. But I also planned to write a great deal more about wine. Wine, after all, is in many ways more my area of expertise. I work in the wine business. I host wine tastings for a living. Wine is a huge passion. But as the months have passed, I have posted remarkably little about the fermented grape. A few wine suggestions to match recipes, here and there, but little else. I'm still not sure why this is. I suppose that the obvious reason for this is that I am involved with wine in some way or another for every hour of my working day. Whilst post-writing is usually accompanied by a glass of something-or-other, I maybe need to focus on something else once I get home.

Having said this, food and wine are inextricably linked. For me, one is simply inferior without the other (there are the odd exceptions... a refreshing German riesling goes down a treat on a summer's day with nothing to accompany other than the gentle hum of someone else mowing the lawn whilst I relax in a deckchair and I'm not one to refuse a glass of decent Champagne just on the basis that there are no smoked salmon blinis to accompany it). I give much thought to what wines to serve with the foods I serve. At this time of year, I am often called up by panicked friends for advice on what to serve over the festive period. What goes best with the turkey? Tawny or Ruby Port with the Stilton? Will any wine stand up to the richness of the Christmas pudding? Will last year's Sherry be good to drink this year (NO!)?

With this in mind, here are my hints and tips on wines for Christmas drinking. I hope you enjoy reading them, bearing in mind the following food and wine matching guidelines which I always stick to:

1. There are NO rules when it comes to food and wine matching. Red wines can and DO go with white meats and fish just as white wines can and DO go with cheese (often better than reds).

2. Taste is entirely subjective. Just because Sauternes is generally accepted as the perfect match for Roquefort cheese does not mean that you have to like it!

3. The key consideration when matching food and wine is... BALANCE. Take into consideration the 'weight' and intensity of your food and wine and try to balance them. Weighty food with weighty wines. Light food with light wines.


It is hard to generalise about festive starters - there is no one traditional starter at Christmas. So a few general suggestions -

Smoked salmon (and other festive fishy things) - in our household, smoked salmon is eaten twice on Christmas Day. Firstly, piled onto brown bread with lemon and pepper to nibble on whilst we open our presents and then late in the evening, if we have space after lunch, sometimes accompanied by a little scrambled egg.

I think there are three schools of thought when choosing smoked-salmon friendly wines...

1) Crisp and refreshing (to cut through the oiliness and act like a squeeze of lemon). Brut (dry) Champagne works well, especially if the salmon is in canapé form and accompanied by a crusty bottom, blini or creamy base. Champagne is also great with caviar. Chablis (or crisp, unoaked chardonnay from the New World) is also a good choice, as is sauvignon blanc from the Loire Valley (Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé). I'd avoid the more tropical, overtly gooseberry-flavoured New Zealand sauvignons though. Dry, minerally riesling can also be a good choice. These wines all work very well with shellfish too.

2) Fat, oily and aromatic. Sounds faintly unpleasant, doesn't it? But the idea here is to match the oiliness of the fish with something similarly textured and the smokiness with an aromatic flavour. Exotically-scented, dry gewurztraminer from Alsace makes an unusual but highly successful match.

3) Dry Fino and Manzanilla Sherries. Served nice and cold and, most importantly, fresh. Treat as you would any other dry white wine - keep in the fridge for no more than a few days - and enjoy as the ultimate aperitif. Brilliant with olives and salted almonds too. And tremendously good value.

Pâtés and foie gras

Rich pâtés work brilliantly with rich, sweet wines. Honestly. I promise. Foie gras is traditionally eaten at Christmas in France and is usually served with Sauternes, Bordeaux's famous sweet wines made from semillon and sauvignon grapes that have been affected by 'noble rot', a fungus that feeds on the grapes, sucking moisture from them and thereby concentrating the sugars, flavours and acids. Sounds vile. Tastes divine! Ring the changes though and try other sweet wines - late-harvest gewurztraminer or pinot gris is good. If you don't want to overwhelm the rest of the meal by starting on something so sweet, stick to a drier Alsace pinot gris. With meaty pâtés, you could go with pinot noir or perhaps a good Beaujolais.

The Main Event

This most festive of birds is a fairly forgiving creature and will go well with almost anything you care to throw at it. Some insist on white (in which case opt for a good chardonnay - I'd favour Burgundy but you could equally go for Australian, New Zealand or Californian example). I would, however, ask you to consider the pictures above and below for a moment...

Notice the difference? Yes. The top one shows a turkey. Plain. Unadulterated (save a little bacon). The bottom shows an obscenely large plate of food featuring turkey, chipolatas, kidneys wrapped in bacon, two types of stuffing, parsnips, roast potatoes, bread sauce, Brussels sprouts, giblet gravy, roasted carrots, cranberry sauce (and peas, but I'd prefer not to dwell on that dirty little habit of mine). What started out as a fairly lightly flavoured meal has now become anything but. Lots of rich flavours there. Your chosen wine needs to stand up to them all!

I favour red with the festive feast, I have to say. Bordeaux is the usual choice for my Christmas but pinot noir would be excellent with the turkey too, whether from Burgundy or New Zealand. I know some who insist on something heavier (an Australian shiraz, for example) but I'm not totally convinced. I like something with a bit of old-world elegance. Having said this, I recently tried a very good Californian Zinfandel with turkey, chestnut and cranberry pies at a food and wine matching session and was duly impressed. The flavours were superb with the cranberry element and held up well against the sprouts. Sprouts can be fiendish - their slight bitter flavour can make most reds taste slightly metallic. They work best with full-bodied, high alcohol reds. grenache and Zinfandel are both good candidates here.

Other festive birds and animals

Goose is great for some with gewurztraminer. I like it also with pinot noir. And I like pinot with most game birds- pheasant, partridge, grouse. Stick with cool climate pinot with a nice seam of acidity to cut through the goose-fat though.

Roast beef is another choice favoured by some - pick any favoured red and you'll probably be fine. Roast beef is my favourite way to show off any really good bottle of red that I have.


Boxing Day - a groaning table of cold turkey, ham, salads, cheeses and condiments requires a reasonably undemanding yet fruity wine to take on this smorgasbord of flavours. I'd opt for a good Beaujolais (probably one of the 'crus' such as Fleurie, Morgon or Brouilly). The lowish tannins will handle the cheeseboard up to a point (see earlier post on cheese and wine matching) and the lovely bright summer fruit and cherry flavours will act like a fruity chutney to the cold meats.

Turkey curry - spicing up the leftovers (I threw mine into a Thai green affair last year) screams out for the aromatic whites of Alsace. Again, gewurztraminer would be my choice of varietal here. An exuberant NZ sauvignon blanc could work too. As could a New World riesling, just a notch off-dry.

All things sweet and wonderful...

I have one word for you here: Madeira. Actually, I have a couple more for you too: Sherry and Port. I urge you to race out and buy a bottle of Malmsey Madeira (Henriques and Henriques do lovely 50cl bottles if you don't trust me 100%). Light the fire. Draw the curtains. Sit comfortably and then pour yourself a glass of this deeply coloured liquid. Stick your nose into the glass and breathe in. Mmmmm. What does it smell of? Christmas.

Yes, this divine stuff taste of figs and walnuts and caramel and coffee all at once. Gorgeously sweet but with firm acidity and backbone, this is the ultimate Christmas wine. Am I right? Or am I right? Gorgeous on its own with your feet up by the fire, this is also perfect with a slice of Christmas cake at tea time, with a mince pie, with Cheddar and Stilton and even with the similarly-flavoured Christmas pudding. It will even cope with the box of handmade truffles that are sitting on the sideboard - really it will.

If you feel the need to venture beyond the confines of Madeira, then do try some of the sweeter styles of Sherry. Sweet and nutty Oloroso sherries are marvellous with cheeses. Pedro Ximénez (PX for short) is a treacley, unctuous dream poured over vanilla ice cream.

Other Christmas pudding-friendly wines include wines made from the Muscat grape variety. Thick and sticky Rutherglen Muscat from Australia is oft described as 'Liquid Christmas Pudding'. If you prefer something less rich, then some insist that sparkling Moscato d'Asti works a dream. I haven't tried it, but am prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt!

Whatever wines you choose this Christmas, I hope you have a very merry time with them.

P.S. Do remember to check back on the 10th for details of the wonderful wine-related prize I shall be offering for this year's Menu of Hope raffle, plus details of where to find out about the other fabulous prizes!

Monday, December 03, 2007

A hopeful menu of beef and horseradish casserole

It is not often that I get serious. But an email last week from Jeanne of Cooksister! fame got me thinking. She asked if I would participate in an annual event involving food bloggers from around the globe raising money for the UN World Food programme. Menu for Hope is organised by Pim at Chez Pim though Jeanne is one of the UK hosts. This seems entirely fitting at a time of year when we are busy gorging ourselves on all manner of festive indulgences. We should spare a thought or two for those far less fortunate. This year's campaign focuses on a school feeding programme in the mountain kingdom of Lesotho. The best news about this campaign though is that you get to win some fabulous foodie prizes (it is Christmas after all!). For more details take a look at Jeanne's post as she is organising the UK part of the event and has all the details. You can help by donating prizes and by buying raffle tickets for the wonderful array of experiences and goodies from December 10th. Last year the campaign raised over $60000. Let's do even better this year!

I have donated an exciting prize that I hope will excite all those wine lovers out there. More details on December 1oth so do check back.

In the meantime, I thought I'd share my all time favourite beef casserole recipe with you. The photos are appalling, I'm afraid. Winter is doing my food photography no favours whatsoever. I urge you to try this recipe despite its failure to perform for the camera - the sweet heat of horseradish lifts this dish a notch above the standard beef casserole. My sister adores this and requests it on regular occasions. I have been known to arrive at her house to find the ingredients laid out on the counter in hope that I'm in the mood for casserole-making!

Ingredients (serves 4)

1 1/4 beef steak suitable for stewing


2 medium onions, skinned and finely sliced, or 1 sliced onion and a handful of shallots, halved

2 cloves garlic, crushed

4 oz button mushrooms

1 tbsp plain flour

1/2 tsp ground ginger

1/2 tsp medium curry powder

1/2 tsp dark muscovado sugar

1/2 pint beef stock

1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce

bay leaf

bouquet garni

salt and pepper

2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley

2 heaped tbsp creamed horseradish sauce

1. Trim meat of any excess fat and cut into 1 inch cubes. Sprinkle with flour, ginger, curry powder and sugar - toss the meat in the seasoned flour. Brown in batches in a little oil on a fairly high heat - ensure nicely caremelised.

2. Heat 1 tbsp oil in an ovenproof casserole. Sweat the onions (and shallots, if using). Add meat to pan with garlic and mushrooms and heat until mushroms start to soften.

3. Add stock and Worcestershire sauce, bay leaf and bouquet garni. Stir. Cook in oven at 170C for around 1 hour,or until meat is tender.

4. Remove from oven and stir in horseradish (add more to taste as needed). Finish with parsley and season to taste.

Notes - I like to cook this for longer at a slightly lower heat, if I have time. The meat becomes meltingly tender. I served this with jacket potatoes and carrots which I roasted in a little honey and cumin.