What’s a good celebratory meal to make for friends that isn’t a Christmas dinner?
While Christmas dinner doesn’t necessarily mean a bird, roasties and a vat of gravy, Ben is wise not to overdo things before the big day. “Christmas can be meat-heavy, so I’d suggest a whole baked fish in a salt crust,” says Dan Smith, chef-patron of the Fordwich Arms in Kent. “It’s so simple, but a real centrepiece.” Combine salt and egg whites – “about 500g salt to four egg whites” – add herbs, if you like, and mix to a paste: “Not too loose, or it will fall off the fish.” Lay some of the mix on a tray, pop a turbot or trout in the middle, then cover with the rest of the salt crust and bake at 180C for 45 minutes, until crisp: “Serve with jerusalem artichokes roasted with garlic and herbs.”
Alternatively, your fish could get stuffed. “Take a large fillet of meaty white fish, or salmon or trout, and spoon over a classic stuffing,” says Rick Toogood, co-owner of Prawn on the Lawn in Padstow, Cornwall, and London. “Sage and onion would be perfect.” Lay a second fillet on top, drizzle with olive oil and roast at 180C. Once it’s in the oven, roughly chop some soft herbs (parsley, oregano, tarragon), mix with white-wine vinegar, capers and olive oil, then “spoon this over the cooked fish to freshen it up and add a pop of festive colour”. You could also sprinkle over some chopped roasted chestnuts or walnuts for crunch.
If you want to get ahead, meanwhile, Ed Smith, author of Crave, suggests “a celebratory suet crust pie that you can stick in the oven and ignore for an hour while you chat”. What you put in said pie depends, of course, on what you fancy, but Smith recommends a game bird filling or berkswell cheese and ham. “You’ll have already made some root vegetable mash that can be warmed up, and sauteed some greens with garlic and butter to go alongside. It’s pretty much no-hassle, but it’s definitely not something people will expect you to pull out of your hat midweek.”
Max Rocha, chef-owner of Cafe Cecilia in east London, also looks to ham: “It’s the Irish in me.” He puts a ham hock in a pan with water and boils until the foam rises to the surface. “Drain, refresh in clean water, add cider and onions, and braise until the bone falls out.” Once cool, pick off chunks of meat and reserve the liquid. “Soak some butter beans overnight, then, on the day, cook them with half a garlic head, chilli, sage and a little water.” Season with salt and finish with good oil. “To turn this into a star dish, put the beans in a pot with a little of their cooking liquor and some ham stock, then fold through cabbage blanched in ham liquor.” Warm the ham in a little stock – “You don’t want it too wet” – then spoon over the beans and top with garlicky thyme breadcrumbs.
If you’ve got vegetarians over, Rocha’s beans have got your back, too: “Poach some cabbage in the bean liquor and roast some squash, then serve on the beans topped with breadcrumbs and maybe a pesto.” Either way, eat with bitter leaves and homemade brown bread. “Or buy a loaf, warm it in the oven and pretend you made it.” Mum’s the word.