Christmas 2014. One of the (few, it has to be said) advantages of having no parents around is that you can make your own Christmas plans without having to adhere to traditions of yore. Which, among other things means…you don’t have to have turkey: brilliant! So although in the past we have stuck to the rule book, this was the year that we shook things up a bit. In years gone by we (as in, collective members of my family) have slaved over a Christmas lunch for six to ten adults and five to eight children, the latter of whom have sat down for precisely three and a half minutes and then left almost everything we have lovingly cooked, sprouts and all, on account of extreme excitement and too much chocolate coursing round their systems. It’s just not relaxing, trying to enjoy your meal when there are a team of whirling dervishes trashing the house above you. So this year I had what I thought was a brainwave: everyone was invited to our house from 3pm for a kids tea, with all the food that kids like (sandwiches with no crusts, baby bels, sausages, Battenburg cake, jammy dodgers. So, so grateful that there was not a sprout in sight). We did presents, the kids went a bit berserk, then we put a Christmas movie on while the adults ate smoked salmon blinis (without the blini for some, obv), quails eggs, and sophisticated sausages with dijonaise dip, plus a glass of Prosecco or two. All very soothing and genuinely enjoyable, not least because the house was filled with the aroma of very untraditional pork belly, marinaded in herbs and slow cooking in time to eat when all the little creatures had been put to bed and not even a mouse was stirring in the house. At bed-time some of the adults and children left, and my sister and her husband plus kids stayed for a sleepover. And at 8pm-ish, we sat down to eat pork belly, spicy squash (of course), red cabbage done two ways (braised, with honey and vinegar, and, to offset everything with a bit of fresh, crispy red coleslaw). Everyone else had gratin dauphinoise too, which I had made the day before. It was civilised, and delicious, and honestly I think everyone – kids included – had a very happy time.
Crispy red coleslaw
2 or 3 carrots
2 or 3 spring onions
Home made mayonnaise
This is super easy, and best made as close to eating as possible. I find the best way to slice the cabbage, which you really do want as close to wafer thin as possible, is with a vegetable peeler (there is a ‘sharp peel’ range made in Japan, sold at lovely Lakeland that – sad as this definitely sounds – makes peeling and coleslaw making an immensely satisfying pleasure. The only thing to bear in mind is that they are so sharp that I actually took the top of my little finger off once, when making red cabbage for my parents-in-law, and didn’t want to make a fuss so had to try and hide the fact that I was practically passing out with the pain). I am very slapdash with quantities and just start off with the cabbage, thinly slicing it into a big bowl until it looks about right, depending on how many are eating (this is one of the few dishes I make that doesn’t do well as a leftover because it’s not nice when soggy). Once you’ve got a good cabbage base, grate your carrots in – it will still look predominantly red, but with a pretty smattering of orange. Then finely chop your spring onions, add a hefty dollop of mayo, lots of salt and pepper and then mix it all up, transferring to a clean bowl if you care about appearances, which on Christmas Day of course, one must.
Braised red cabbage (adapted from a Jamie Oliver recipe)
1 medium red cabbage, outer leaves removed, chopped into irregular chunks
2 rashers nice bacon, finely sliced
1 tablespoon of fennel seeds, bashed
1 medium onion
2 desert apples, peeled and cored
150ml Apple cider vinegar
Knob of butter
Handful of chopped parsley
Heat up some olive oil and add the bacon and fennel seeds. Cook until golden then add the onion and continue to cook, with the lid on, for a few more minutes until golden and sticky. Add the apple, followed by the cabbage chunks, salt and pepper and the vinegar, and stir. Put the lid back on and continue to cook on a low heat for an hour, checking and stirring every so often. Scoop it into a serving dish, add butter knobs, and sprinkle over the parsley.
Three hour pork belly (taken from BBC Good food)
2 tbsp fennel seeds
1 tsp black peppercorns
1 small bunch thyme, leaves only
3 garlic cloves
3 tbsp olive oil
1½ -2kg/3lb 5oz-4lb 8oz piece boneless pork belly, skin scored
When planning our subversive non-turkey Christmas supper we did actually contemplate having fillet of beef but decided on pork belly because it is honestly as delicious but about six times cheaper. We forgot to marinade it overnight so did it in the morning, and it was delicious.
To make the marinade, toast the fennel seeds and peppercorns in a dry frying pan for a couple of mins. Grind in a pestle and mortar with some flaked sea salt, the thyme and garlic to make a paste. Mix with 2 tbsp olive oil and rub all over the flesh (but NOT the skin, because it won’t crackle) of the pork. Cover and chill, leaving to marinate for a few hours or overnight.
When you are ready to cook it, rub the skin of the joint with plenty of salt and 1 tbsp more olive oil. Sit on a wire rack in a roasting tin and roast at 200C/180C fan/gas 6 for 30 mins. After that, squeeze the lemons over the skin and turn the heat down to 180C/ 160C fan/gas 4. Roast for another 2 hrs.
Then, turn the heat back up to 220C/ 200C fan/gas 7 and give it a final blast for another 30 mins or so, to finish the crackling. Allow to rest somewhere warm for 20 mins. Carve up into chunks or slices and serve, ideally with some delightful red wine.