Winter solstice and ham hocks

Tomorrow is the start of the winter solstice.  The shortest day. The longest night. The official start of winter. It might really have been the shortest day given the Mayan calendar predicted the end of the world today. But the fact I am writing this is testimony to the fact that it didn’t.

I am way behind with my food planning for Christmas but it will all come together,a s it does every year.  Guests start arriving tomorrow and keep trickling in until Monday.  Sunday night there will be chicken and ham pie, Monday is a moveable feast as everyone has different plans – but will probably be fish. Christmas day will be goose stuffed with mashed potato and apple – far more scrummy than it sounds I can assure you; Boxing day is ham cooked with star anise and molasses (start cooking it on Monday, finish on Wednesday!), Thursday is a North African table. Vegetarians will be eating chestnut and cashew pie with red wine gravy, hazelnut and tomato roast, parsnip and stilton roulade and aubergines stuffed with tomato, quinoa and mushrooms. Puddings include lemon curd icecream, chocolate and prune parfait, roasted plums with soft almond crust, sloe gin jellies with pomegranate, raspberry sorbet with roasted raspberries and mint crisps, caramel pears with walnuts and gorgonzola.  Not a Christmas pudding in sight.

Remember those ham hocks I bought for a song a couple or months ago? One is currently defrosting – two remain in the freezer so watch this space.  Tomorrow I shall marinade it in stout with a cinnamon  stick and some cloves, then dry it thoroughly and roast it quickly in a small pan and leave it to cool completely in the pan when it’s done.  Then I’m going to shred the meat from the bone and mix some of it with poached chicken, and leeks which have been sautee’d in lots of butter and a bayleaf then helped on their way with black pepper, salt, a sprinkle of flour then more than a good splash of cream and a teaspoon of Dijon mustard. Mix it round in the pan and the juices will thicken. As soon as it starts to thicken take it off the pan before the cream splits.  When cool grate a little nutmeg onto.  Check the seasoning again and then pile onto a dinner-plate sized base of good puff pastry which you have already rolled out and placed on a heavy baking tray.  Level off the filling slightly and brush the edges of the pastry with egg, and top it off with a pastry hat, sealing and crimping the edges as you go.  Brush all over with beaten egg, snip two slits in the top and put into the pre-heated oven at 180C for 30 minutes.  When it is done it will be ‘singing’, the filling will be piping hot if you put a sharp knife into the centre and feel the heat of the blade.  My granny used to test the heat on her top lip.  She often looked as if she had a moustache for this reason!  The pastry will look golden brown. Just like your top lip if you’re not careful with that knife.

Don’t be tempted to try and remove it from the baking tray too soon.  Leave it to rest for five minutes and then ease a pallette knife underneath to loosen it and then slide off onto a serving plate.

Those hocks go a long way when they are bulked out with other meats and chicken and ham is a classic combination.  You could use some of the leftover hock to make little rillettes in ramekins and eat with hot toast.  Simply shred the hock and mix with chopped capers, season and pour some butter over it.  Instant supper with a glass of wine.  Or you could pile onto think slices of pumpernickel spread with hot hoseradish and garnish with radish – or if you don’t want the pumpernickel the sweet meat will taste gorgeous if you moisten it with a little fresh  tomato relish perked up with some chilli and put into chicory leaves – maybe alternating with cold salmon mixed with chopped tomato, chopped gherkin and some fresh coriander and serve as canapes. Oh there are 1001 things to do with a ham hock!!

Anyway, hope you enjoy the ham whatever way you choose to prepare it.  I shall be eating mine  as a pie, with a large green salad, watching Strictly Come Dancing and cheering on Danni Harmer and Vincent Simone.

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