A quiet Christmas -- it's an idyllic thought. The chance to wake up at leisure, perhaps after a visit to midnight mass the night before. Hot coffee and presents around the fire, with the tree lights winking in the background and the weather outside, sunny or bleak, a matter of indifference. Later in the day comes dinner and it must not break the mood.
This is the moment to indulge in the freshest of fish and poultry and, if your tastes lie in that direction, in the finest of wines. My choice of a quiet Christmas dinner would begin with scallops, baked simply with herbs and butter in their own juices. Lacking fresh scallops (please do not be tempted by frozen), I'd substitute peeled uncooked shrimp, which will bake to a bright pink as a pretty surprise.
Brought up in the wilds of the English countryside, I cannot imagine Christmas without a festive bird. Duck is good for small numbers and, indeed, all the dishes in this menu can easily be halved to serve only four. When cooking the typical fatty supermarket duck, the secret is to start with a very high heat, then to turn the bird often from its back to its breast, pouring away excess fat from the pan as it melts. The longer the duck cooks, the crisper the skin will be. I like to almost overcook it so the meat is falling from the bone, but that's a matter of personal taste.
With the duck comes a stuffing of pork and prunes, sweet-sour and surprisingly light. The red cabbage cooked with apples, vinegar and red wine also provides a brisk contrast to the rich flavor of duck, not to mention cheerful color. Chestnuts are an optional extra, cooking in with the cabbage, or you may like to serve your own favorite seasonal vegetables such as turnip, squash, celery and some kind of potato dish. We tried the duck recipe with wild rice last week and loved it.
For dessert forget the pies and puddings for once. What better finale could there be than champagne, frozen as sherbet, then topped up with a freshly opened bottle and served with macaroons or madeleine cookies. Homemade sherbet is now laughably easy thanks to the many ice cream machines on the market. Some require a serious financial investment, but at least one costs well under $50. Timetable
The roast duck will require attention from time to time before dinner, but all the other dishes are prepared well ahead.
Up to 2 weeks ahead: Make sherbet and store in freezer.
Up to 1 day ahead: Prepare stuffing for ducks and refrigerate. Cook cabbage and keep in refrigerator.
Up to 6 hours before dinner: Prepare scallops for baking and refrigerate. Stuff ducks and keep in refrigerator. Set the table. Chill white wine and champagne.
2 hours before dinner: Heat oven to 500 degrees.
1 3/4 hours before dinner: Start roasting ducks.
1 1/4 hours before dinner: Lower oven heat to 350 degrees and continue roasting ducks.
30 minutes before dinner: Reheat cabbage on top of stove or in oven with ducks. Transfer sherbet to refrigerator to soften.
15 minutes before dinner: Remove duck from oven, increase heat to 425 degrees and bake scallops. Keep duck warm on a platter and make gravy.
After serving duck: Spoon sherbet into glasses and top with champagne. BAKED SCALLOPS IN HERB BUTTER (8 servings)
If other fresh herbs are not available, use only fresh parsley in this recipe. Serve the scallops with crusty bread to mop up the juices.
2 pounds bay or sea scallops
6 tablespoons butter
4 shallots, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 tablespoon chopped chives (optional)
1 tablespoon chopped tarragon or basil (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
Drain scallops, discarding small white membrane adhering to sides. Leave bay scallops whole; cut sea scallops in 2 or 3 horizontal slices. Divide scallops among 8 individual ramekins or custard cups (1-cup capacity).
In a small pan, melt butter, add shallots and cook 2 minutes until soft. Let cool, then add garlic, parsley, herbs (if using) and a little salt and pepper. Spoon butter over scallops and seal tightly with foil. Scallops can be prepared 4 to 6 hours ahead and refrigerated.
To finish: heat oven to 425 degrees. Bake scallops until no longer transparent, 12 to 14 minutes.
Note: Do not overcook or they will be tough. Serve at once in ramekins or custard cups and let guests remove lids at table. ROAST DUCK WITH PRUNE STUFFING (6 to 8 servings)
Prune stuffing is excellent with turkey, too.
FOR PRUNE STUFFING:
1 pound pitted prunes
Liver from duck
1 onion, chopped
1 tablespoon butter
1 pound ground pork, half fat, half lean
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup chopped parsley
FOR THE ROAST DUCK:
2 ducks (5 pounds each)
1 cup white wine
1 cup chicken or veal stock
Bunch watercress for garnish
For stuffing: soak prunes in hot water until softened, about 1 hour. Drain and coarsely chop them. Chop duck liver. Fry onion in butter until soft but not brown. Add ground pork with salt and pepper and cook, stirring, until meat is no longer pink, about 5 minutes. Add chopped liver and continue cooking 1 minute. Take from heat, stir in chopped prunes and parsley, and taste for seasoning. Let stuffing cool thoroughly. Stuffing can be made up to 24 hours ahead and refrigerated.
Trim fat and excess skin from neck opening of ducks. Stuff them with prune mixture and truss with trussing needle and string. Provided stuffing is chilled, ducks can be filled and trussed up to 6 hours ahead and refrigerated.
To cook: heat oven to 500 degrees. Sprinkle ducks with salt and pepper and set, back down, in a roasting pan. Roast until starting to brown, about 30 minutes. Turn onto the breast, lower heat to 350 degrees and continue roasting 30 minutes longer. Discard all fat from pan, return ducks onto their backs and continue roasting until very tender and skin is crisp, about 30 minutes. When thigh is pierced with a skewer, juices should run clear, not pink.
Transfer ducks to a platter and keep warm. Add wine to roasting pan and boil, stirring to dissolve pan juices, until reduced by half. Add stock and reduce also by about half. Strain gravy into a small pan, bring to a boil and taste for seasoning.
Remove trussing strings from duck, transfer to a platter and garnish with watercress. Serve gravy separately. RED CABBAGE WITH CHESTNUTS (8 servings)
Canned chestnuts in water can be substituted for fresh ones; drain them and add to cabbage with the apples.
1 small red cabbage (about 3 1/2 pounds), coarsely shredded
4 tablespoons wine vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1 pound chestnuts, peeled
2 tablespoons oil
8 ounces bacon, diced
1 bay leaf
1 whole clove
1 cup dry red wine
2 tart apples
Put cabbage in a large bowl. Bring vinegar just to a boil, pour over cabbage and toss. Note: This turns cabbage bright red. Add sugar, salt and pepper, mix well, cover and leave 30 minutes to 1 hour to marinate.
To peel chestnuts: pierce each nut with a sharp knife. Bring them to a boil in a large pan of water and simmer 5 minutes. Take from heat, lift out a few nuts at a time and peel with a knife, removing both outer and inner skin. If nuts get too cool to peel, reheat them.
In a large casserole heat half oil and fry bacon until lightly browned. Remove with a slotted spoon and reserve. Discard all but 1 tablespoon fat. Add 1/3 cabbage. Cover with half of chestnuts and half of bacon. Add a second layer of cabbage, then remaining chestnuts and bacon. Cover with remaining cabbage. Pin bay leaf to onion with clove and bury in cabbage, pour over remaining oil and wine. Cover and bring to boil on top of stove.
Cook in a 350-degree oven 1 to 1 1/2 hours until cabbage is nearly tender. Core and cut apples in eighths without peeling. Stir into cabbage, cover and continue cooking 1/2 hour or until cabbage and chestnuts are tender. If cabbage is very moist, remove lid during last 15 minutes of cooking. Discard onion and taste for seasoning -- cabbage should be quite peppery.
Cabbage can be cooked up to 3 days ahead and refrigerated (do not leave in a metal container). Undercook it slightly to allow for reheating on top of stove or in a 350-degree oven for 25 to 30 minutes. CHAMPAGNE SHERBET (Makes 1 1/2 quarts sherbet to serve 8)
Any sparkling white wine can be substituted for champagne.
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup water
Juice of 2 lemons
Juice of 2 oranges
1 bottle champagne, chilled
1 egg white, beaten until frothy
1/2 bottle champagne
Madeleine cookies or macaroons
Chill container of freezer machine. In a saucepan heat sugar with water over low heat until dissolved. Boil 3 minutes and let cool. Stir in lemon and orange juice and chill mixture over ice or in freezer until very cold. Chill a bowl for storage.
Stir champagne into fruit juice mixture and pour into freezer container. Freeze, churning constantly, until mixture is slushy, add beaten egg white and continue churning until sherbet is firm. Pack sherbet into chilled bowl, cover and keep in freezer.
Sherbet can be made up to 2 weeks ahead and frozen. Let it stand 1 to 2 hours in refrigerator to soften before serving.
To serve: scoop sherbet into stemmed glasses and set glasses on plates. At table, pour a little champagne over each serving and pass madeleine cookies or macaroons separately.