The savvy shopper: a Christmas feast

Categories: Expert guidance

Ed Smith on preparing a Christmas feast while saving some money for January

Ed Smith Most people tend to tighten the purse strings in January. But if there was ever a time to be a savvy shopper, it’s December: outgoings are never-ending; ‘treats’ somehow become ‘essentials’; and the whole festive period feels like one long, expensive, multi-course meal.

Surely, rather than taking the ‘just spend it now and think about it later’ approach, we should embrace any opportunity to exercise thrift at this stage of the proceedings. Leaves more money to spend in the sales, no?

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t splash out on some centrepiece items: a free range English bronze turkey; a three bone rib of aged beef; wheels upon wheels upon wheels of cheese (and what a place the Market is for those things). But do be smart and cook things from scratch when feeding friends and family on the days either side of the main event.

Sure, a tray of supermarket vol-au-vents and spring rolls will take mere seconds to unwrap and re-heat. Yet for the same price and just a bit more effort, you could pick up a ham hock or two, or some smoked mackerel to mix up with creme fraiche, or some quality butcher’s chipolatas to be glazed with proper honey and mustard.

Treasure chests
As I wander round Borough for inspiration in November, it’s hard to miss the various treasure chests of fresh fish. I’m reminded, as I look on gorgeous pinks and shimmering greys, that the best way to bring luxury to the table is to prepare and cure your own side of salmon. The method below includes beetroot to add another dimension—though plain old salt and sugar works perfectly well.

For a main course to satisfy the masses, I’m a fan of pies and casseroles: both things that can be prepared in advance and bulked out by tasty root vegetables rather than expensive pieces of meat. Celeriac is prominent at the vegetable stalls over winter, and a pie filling majoring on this, along with mushrooms and good lardons, will be more than enough to keep the crowds sated and chirpy.

In an attempt to make things seasonal in the festive sense, I suggest adding some leftover cranberry sauce and perhaps some pickled walnuts too—this Christmassy pairing brings a lovely sharpness that cuts through the otherwise savoury filling.

Magazines and TV shows will be nudging you towards decadent chocolate and / or booze infused puddings. None of which will be as satisfying as a British pear from Chegworth Valley, simply poached in a bay leaf infused sugar syrup.

Thrifty meal
You could round off your thrifty meal by using just six pears and a little cream on the side—a perfect example of how inexpensive produce can achieve the perfect result. Good luck with your shopping and feasting this Christmas. Spend wisely!

To cure a side of salmon (800g-1kg), mix 80g demerara sugar, 180g coarse sea salt and a few turns of the pepper mill, then grate 500g cooked beetroot (juice and all) into the mix. Line a shallow tray or dish with a length of clingfilm (still attached to the roll so you can continue to wrap the fish up afterwards).

Lay the salmon skin-side down and cover with the salt, sugar and beetroot, ensuring every part of the fish is well covered (go on—get in and use your hands). Wrap tightly with clingfilm and then leave in the dish with a weight on top.

Refrigerate for a couple of days, turning the fish a few times (the salt mix will become a liquid brine). After 48 hours, wash the cure off and leave uncovered for another 24 hours to dry and ‘equalise’. Keep your cured salmon well wrapped, in between slicing beautiful buttery pieces off for canapés and starters.

Christmas pie
My thrifty Christmas pie for 6-8 involves a 1.5 litre ceramic dish filled with 350g diced celeriac, browned gently in butter for about 10 minutes; 350g smoked, chunky lardons, fried until crisp; 350g chestnut mushrooms, quartered and also browned in a little butter, along with a diced onion, some garlic and rosemary; and studded by a few pickled walnuts—one of my favourite Christmas treats.

It’s all mixed together, lubricated by 300ml red wine reduced by a third, plus any drippings of cream not being used for dessert and a couple of tablespoons of cranberry sauce. Cover the dish with some pre-made all-butter puff pastry or, better still, suet pasty (which takes almost no time, effort, or money to put together), and cook until that lid is golden—aided by a milk or egg wash.

Poached pears
For pud, peel, core and quarter six conference pears. Toss in a little lemon juice. Bring a litre of water to the boil with 250g golden caster sugar. Stir to dissolve the sugar, then turn down to a gentle simmer before adding the pears, a couple of bay leaves and the zest from the lemon and top with a ‘cartouche’.

Simmer for 5 minutes, then take off the heat, leaving the pears to cook through as the water cools. Serve with double cream, which you’ve mixed with a g