Thursday 16 December 2010

My Christmas Dinner

I'm making a New Years resolution. I don't normally go for this sort of stuff, you know, superhuman promising, mainly because when it involves ridiculous nonsense like giving up chocolate, or even worse, beer or coffee or some other stimulation substance, I know I'll crumble around 6pm on the first of January. Even when I decided to give up smoking, which was a sort of resolution that was made around about the turn of some year or other, it didn't actually happen until about March, well not properly anyway.

Next year I am properly going to write about beer and food. I might turn out to be fairly rubbish at it, but if I am, then at least I've tried. I'm not going to start practising behind closed doors, that sort of thing should be reserved for other activities, so I'll just dive in at the deep end; I'll eat some food, pick some beer that I think might work with it and write about what I thought.

To start the whole thing off I've already tried to make my own match. What better meal to start with than Christmas dinner? Interestingly I seem to disagree with my friend Jeff Pickthall, in his appearance in The Hairy Bikers 12 Days of Christmas he suggests a beer with low hop bitterness as turkey is not the most assertive of meats. He is right about the turkey, but there are reasons why I think the meat is not the most important thing when it comes to matching a beer with this meal. Still, its great to see Jeff's words in the book and fantastic that such well known foodie stars are giving a nod to beer. Moreover, just because I disagree with Jeff doesn't mean he's wrong, I'm realising that there are great disagreements often occur over the subject of beer food food matching.

I would go slightly further than Jeff in his comments about turkey. Frankly, it is virtually tasteless. It is notoriously difficult to cook through thoroughly without it becoming completely dried out. Although turkey and stuffing sandwiches for three weeks might well be the best thing about Christmas for some, but for me it is probably the thing that put me off turkey during December many years ago. Seriously, they are just to big for most families. If I convince the reader of anything else then ditching the turkey has to be my main goal.

I cook a mean roast meal. I like to deal with it completely traditionally, no silly Auntie Bessie and no unnecessary "Aah Bisto". There are plenty of fabulous flavours in the food if it is done right. A bit of seasoning and a few herbs are all that are really needed.

I like goose for Christmas dinner and duck would be a second choice. With a larger family two or three birds could be used. I think one Christmas I cooked a goose, a duck and a guinea fowl, or something similar. The variation of meat is great for a festive feast.

The other day I was in a cosy little village shop and I spied a pheasant. It was perfect for three of us for dinner the next day. A bit of Cumberland Sausage meat stuffing and there we have a tasty, but by no means overpowering white meat. A small onion chopped up and mixed with the sausage meat helps add a natural flavour enhancer and the delicate nutmeg and mace in the sausage mix is perfect for poultry and game birds. No seasoning is needed for the bird as this is already in the stuffing.

As pheasant is a small bird I carefully peeled a cavity under the breast skin to enable more force meat into this area. I also stuffed the rear cavity with the same stuffing. I find breadcrumb based stuffing just goes to a horrible mushy mess inside the bird, so if I provide this with the meal I would cook this separately.

I always roast meat with some root vegetables in the same tray. Carrots washed and split lengthways, an onion or two skinned and quartered and a few peeled garlic cloves. Parsnips, swede or turnip might also be used. It is best not to overload the tray as this will prevent essential caramelisation, which is the key to a good roast meal.

I never cook a roast meal covered with foil. That is mainly because I would never roast such a large joint that requires more than about 2 hours of oven time. A short blast of heat to seal and colour the meat, perhaps 10 minutes at 220oC for a bird this size1, then down to 1800C for a further 40-50 minutes. A meat thermometer is very useful to check the core temperature. But careful not to over-cook; this is the biggest cause of dry and tacky breast meat. It is essential, to ensure that the roast bird remains moist, that it is removed from the oven just as the core temperature is getting to the correct level and left to rest for 10 - 20 minutes. I cover it with a cloth to help keep the heat in. It will finish cooking to perfection in this final stage, but also frees up the roasting tin for the most important part of the cooking process; the gravy.

The only way to finish a roast dinner is by making gravy from the juices and roasted vegetables in the roasting tin. Largely the remaining fluid will be fat but will also carry caramelised and carbonised sediment that adds colour and flavour to the finished gravy. With our pheasant there was just about the right amount of fat, but sometimes it is necessary to decant some of the fat to prevent greasy gravy.

I used a little plain flour to soak up the fat and make a roux base over a gentle heat on the hob. To this paste, water, beer, wine or stock2 is added a little at a time and incorporated into the roux. This is continued until a simmering sauce of the required consistency results. Crucially the roasted vegetables3 are left in the roasting tray while the gravy is made. These add flavours to the gravy that are really important to a good home-made version. They can be sieved out, or blitzed in as desired. In this instance I removed them to leave a smooth rich and delicious accompaniment to the meal. Season to taste and keep warm until required.

I served this with simple roast carrots, parsnip and potatoes. I used a separate tin with reclaimed sausage fat from breakfast, delicious. A few sprouts of course are essential, cooked just el dente - boiled vegetables shouldn't be cooked until the rest of the meal is ready and just about to be served.

That's the food. You saw it in the picture above didn't you? Infra Red. Even with Turkey I'm going to argue that this beer works perfectly. Turkey is so bland and uninteresting that the main flavours in my Christmas dinner are the roast vegetables and the roast garlic in the gravy.

In the wine world it is often thought that white wine goes with fish and white meat and red wine with beef and venison. Although this is a good rule of thumb and can be transferred to beer and food matching; a darker beer with darker meats, lighter beer with white meats, you also have to look at the accompaniments and sauces too.

Sometime ago I recognised the bitter sweet flavours in Infra Red to be similar to those that came from roast vegetables and combine that with the rich strong flavours of my gravy I thought this worked very well indeed. I'd probably incorporate some chestnuts in my Christmas day force meat, this would match well with the sweet nutty features in the beer and the tangy bite in the beer helps cut through the richness in a way that a delicate beer could not.

After the main course we tried a palate cleanser of a glass of Cantillon Gueuze. I have Jeff to thank for this too, not only because he supplied the bottle, but also because he first opened my mind to this fantastic use of this beer. We felt it worked perfectly at helping us to start afresh with desert.

Turkey is one of many things that irritate me about christmas, it, and most of the other things, like the fact that it seems to start immediately after bonfire night, are overshadowed by excessive use of dried fruit. I don't mind the odd mince pie, and Christmas cake is OK in small doses, but by the time I get to the day itself I'm quite fed up of the damn stuff. I like suet pudding however, so for my little experiment I decided to do a pear pudding with mocha creme anglaise.

I hoped that the chocolate and coffee might work with Æther Blæc or Paradox. I'd used a bit of vanilla in the sauce and I have detected this flavour in my cask aged beer. Sadly the creaminess of the sauce and the dumpling like comfort of the pudding fought against the smoky burnt harsh edge of the whisky. I'd suggest it would be perfect with a traditional plum pudding and whisky sauce.

I had racked off a little Queboid which is waiting to be bottled. To our great surprise this worked very well. The strong fruity hop flavours and the Belgian character worked well with the sweet custard and the pears with the malt sweetness matching with the suet steamed sponge.

All in all a success as far as matching beer with food is concerned. One of a number of such experiences I've had, mostly I'll admit organised by other people so far. I am convinced that there is much more could be done to show that beer can work very well in the traditionally wine dominated areas of quality food. I intend to explore this much more.


1About 700g plus 500g of force meat.

2Making stock is a whole separate subject. If you want to know how this is done then you'll have to ask me nicely by adding a friendly comment. In this case I just used the water from the potatoes and a splash of Dark Energy. It was quite good enough, although stock helps to make an even better gravy.

3I do hope you have worked out by now that I had already removed our bird.


StringersBeer said...

Campaign for Real Gravy! Join up now!
(What's your position on cocoa in gravy?)

Unknown said...

I've never tried it, although of course Mexican food uses cocoa in savoury food, so I guess it's OK providing it's ethically sourced.

Jeff Pickthall said...

I have mixed feelings about the whole turkey/Christmas thing. I don't have a problem with eating turkey, as long as it's not cardboard - and my non-frozen free range gobbler never is. I rather like the flavour, unassertive as it is. It's just that I see turkey as an aspect of American cultural imperialism, rather like McDonalds and Budweiser, and Father Christmas in Coca Cola red rather than whatever it was he wore before*.

OK, there's no evil Annheuser-McTurkey International spending millions on marketing turkeys throughout the world (or is there?) but I do often think bollocks to the turkey - but end up buying one anyway because it is the easy option and no moany minnies can complain "I don't like duck/goose/emu/roc/Norwegian Blue" or whatever. It must be remembered that turkey became a strong feature of the British domestic menu in the post-war years when food was still rationed. Chicken was an expensive luxury then and turkey represented better value for money in the family's protein-spend.

*Here's Coca Cola boasting about their vile theft of proper Father Christmas:

Unknown said...

Jeff, totally understand both the cost implications and the fact that turkey rarely offends. Probably both good reasons if large numbers are to be fed.

The problem is, it is also served at all the pre-christmas dinners too.

It is also very true that turkey can be very good if both the bird is good to start with and the cooking is done carefully.

Unknown said...

Oh, and Jeff, as I have actually spent money on the book I expect Dave, Si and of course yourself to sign my copy.....

ChrisM said...

Dave, fantastic blog, possibly my favourite post of the year. I'm salivating now!

Mark Dredge said...

Good stuff Dave - with your background I've always wanted you to do more food and beer stuff! If nothing else it's fun to just eat and drink freely and see what works and what doesn't.

Brewers Union Local 180 said...

I think it was a Cornish Game Hen, along with the Duck and the Goose. They're all also great with Frank's Hot Sauce.

Unknown said...

Chris and Mark, thanks for the encouragement. I'm missing my commercial kitchen and get annoyed at the pitiful domestic thing I have now. Still, I hope to do lots more in the New Year and hopefully, If I can find a decent video camera, will do some VBlogs of it all.

BUL180, indeed, that sounds right. not game at all it would seem. Shopping in your Oregon supermarkets was fun, even if I did struggle to understand some of the stuff on offer. I'll have to return and do a VBlog from your kitchen.