I DON’T know about you, but the last thing I want to be doing on Christmas Day is to be stuck in the kitchen cooking a blow-out dinner.
I spend too many hours in the kitchen here at Food Social to want to go through it all again on Christmas Day when I could be devoting time to my family and friends.
Even if like me you don’t earn a crust or two cooking professionally in a big city-centre restaurant, do you really want to spend the majority of the biggest and most important day of the year slaving over a hot stove, worrying about whether the turkey is properly cooked, if the roast potatoes are going to be burnt to a crisp or the gravy turn into a lumpy gloop.
The ‘traditional’ Christmas dinner of roast turkey with all the trimmings followed by plum pudding is no easy feat to prepare and cook.
It requires some poor person to get up in the wee small hours to put the turkey in the oven. Then all the vegetables have to be washed, peeled, chopped and put on to cook. But because it’s Christmas the vegetables have to be extra special, prepared and served in a superior way that for the uninitiated creates a whole host of new problems.
The Christmas pudding needs hours of steaming (yes, you can use the microwave, but it just isn’t the same), resulting in a kitchen that resembles a Turkish bath. And then there’s the alcohol-infused sauce to be made.
It’s even worse if you decide to go for a complicated starter that seemed like a fantastic idea at the beginning of December but is now only adding to your rising stress levels.
On top of that, everything has to be served with impeccable timing. Christmas dinner is really no different to cooking the average Sunday roast but somehow this particular meal takes on a scary persona of its own.
Even capable cooks panic when faced with a gargantuan turkey and loads of hungry diners.
I’ve found myself at the centre of many a calamitous Christmas dinner (not of my own making I have to say), and I long ago learnt that the secret to successful dining on a grand scale is to keep it simple.
I’m not a fan of turkey myself, even though I grew up eating it for Christmas. When it comes to festive traditions I like to look further back than the Victorians who were responsible for popularising turkey at Christmas (although it had been growing in status since at least the 1600s with the opening up of the Americas as it was cheap and the birds were quick to fatten).
In Medieval times the popular main course was goose and wild fowl (including swan and peacocks if you were wealthy enough).
My personal favourite Christmas turkey alternative is partridge (as in ‘a partridge in a pear tree’ as immortalised in the carol The Twelve Days of Christmas).
It’s an underrated and sadly largely ignored game bird, but as far as Christmas lunch is concerned it is simplicity itself to prepare, cook and serve and has a wonderfully festive taste.
We’ve put it on the specials menu here at Food Social for December, pan-fried with choucroute, smoked sausage and roasting juices.
Turkey in various guises from potted to pancetta wrapped and slow-cooked is there for those who can’t quite bring themselves to forego it, but we expect the partridge dish to fly out the door (hopefully not literally, although we pride ourselves on offering the freshest and highest quality local produce we can get our hands on).
Partridge is a member of the pheasant family and benefits from not being too gamey, helped by the fact it is usually only hung for between three and five days.
It also comes ready packaged as an individual portion – which is very obliging of them.
Between a pheasant and a quail in size, partridge are also remarkably quick and easy to cook taking between just 15 and 30 minutes depending on how well done you want the meat (although unlike other poultry it is best served pink).
So you can be sat eating your Christmas Day starter while the partridge are cooking.
They are also easy to prepare ahead of time (ask your butcher to do all the necessary plucking and dressing and then all you have to do is leave them pre-stuffed in the fridge overnight) and pound for pound much better value than turkey.
If you play your cards right you might be able to get away with spending as little as an hour in the kitchen on Christmas Day ... unless you want to use it as a useful bolt-hole of course.
So if the closest you have ever got to a partridge is singing about it, why not give it a try this year? It’s simple yet sophisticated, easy and quick to cook, tasty and because it’s game, lean and healthy too.
Roasted with festive spices, come the big day this small bird will be a veritable feast in itself.
David Kennedy is executive chef of David Kennedy’s Food Social @ The Biscuit Factory, 16 Stoddart Street, Shieldfield, Newcastle, NE2 1AN, 0191 260 5411, www.foodsocial.co.uk
The Food Social Christmas a la carte, set (for parties of eight plus at £32.50 per person) and special lunch menus are available throughout December.
Pan-fried partridge with choucroute, smoked sausage and roasting juices
INGREDIENTS (Serves Four)
8 rashers smoked bacon
2 cloves garlic, halved
4 sprigs thyme
4 juniper berries
For the mashed potato:
5 potatoes, peeled and sliced (eg Maris Piper or Yukon Gold)
For the choucroute:
1 white cabbage, finely sliced
½ white onion
1 bay leaf
6 juniper berries
Salt for seasoning
Splash white wine vinegar
300ml dry white wine
100g smoked garlic sausage, sliced
¼ swede, peeled and chopped
1 carrot, sliced
¼ celeriac, peeled and chopped.
For the jus:
100ml beef stock
Knob of butter
First make the choucroute. Quickly toast the juniper berries in a frying pan and crush them to release the flavour. Marinade the cabbage with the salt, white wine vinegar, bay leaf and crushed juniper berries.
Sweat the onion in the butter. Add the cabbage to the pan (having first removed the bay leaf) and sweat for a further two minutes. Add the wine, cover the pan and cook on a low temperature for 40 minutes.
Meanwhile, cook the swede, carrot and celeriac until tender and add to the choucroute. Only add the sausage at the last minute before serving.
Boil potatoes until cooked, drain, pat dry and mash with cream and butter. Keep warm.
Wrap each partridge in two rashers of bacon and tie up.
Place a sprig of thyme, juniper berry and half a clove of garlic into each cavity. In a hot frying pan colour each partridge and transfer to a preheated oven 200C/400F/gas mark 6 for eight minutes.
Take out of the oven, baste with the melted butter and rest for 10 minutes at room temperature. In the pan you used to colour the partridge reduce the beef stock until it thickens and add a knob of butter to glaze.
Serve the partridge with the mash, choucroute and jus.