Christmas shouldn’t be spent worrying about the effects of over-indulging.
Fiona Beckett talks Atkins, prunes and armagnac with Henry Harris, chef and owner of London’s Racine, and challenges him to devise a low-effort, low-carb festive supper.
Christmas, you might think, is the one time of year you should forget about the eternal fight against flab. But too often it’s the start of a slippery slope of comfort eating which lasts till the end of the winter.
That wasn’t the case last year for chef Henry Harris who has lost an impressive three stone over the last 18 months on an Atkins-inspired, low-carbohydrate eating regime. ‘Last Christmas I was in the middle of the diet and I didn’t compromise. There were no roast potatoes or bread sauce. I actually weighed less on New Year’s Eve than I did at the beginning of December.’
As chef-proprietor of the hugely popular London restaurant, Racine, Harris was – how can one put this? – not so much fat, as distinctly on the cuddly side. But early in 2003 he underwent a Damascene conversion. ‘My wife Denise had lost a huge amount of weight on Atkins and was looking absolutely fantastic while I was just getting bigger and bigger. I picked up the book and read it from cover to cover and had to admit a lot of it made sense. But the recipes were totally uninspiring.’ Harris was asked to do a four-week series of recipes by the Sunday Telegraph which turned into an inspiring book, A Passion for Flavour (£14.99 Quadrille), a bible for the gourmet carb-avoider.
We decided to put him to the test and challenge him to create a truly mouthwatering four-course festive menu for Decanter readers who were serious about their food and drink. He went one better. His menu is not only low-carb but low-effort. ‘The most important thing is that whoever is doing the cooking is not a slave to the stove,’ he says firmly. ‘The whole point about entertaining is to be as relaxed and comfortable as possible.’
The starting point was a generous plate of smoked salmon – not a big change from previous Harris family Christmasses. ‘We’ve always started our Christmas meal with wild smoked salmon – I couldn’t contemplate anything else.’ With it he serves a dollop of Iranian imperial caviar (‘If you’re going to serve caviar you have to serve it in decent quantities,’) and, as a special Christmas treat, a thin slice of toasted Poilâne bread and a slice of French Echiré butter rolled in chives and crushed chillies. ‘I’d normally serve a mixture of crème fraîche and sour cream” says Harris. ‘But as we’re having crème fraîche later in the meal I thought I’d go for butter instead. Echiré is absolutely the best, but I think the spicy coating just gives it an edge.’
The centrepiece of the meal is a rib of Scottish beef – again from Harvey Nichols, where Harris used to work in the Fifth Floor restaurant. Harris prefers his beef very rare so he browns it first, gives it a short blast in a moderate oven then rests it while he makes the béarnaise.
What about a wine reduction? ‘Good God, no. Just the roasting juices and a little butter.’ With a razor-sharp knife he cuts away the bone and divides the meat into elegant slices. ‘All the juices from the carving go straight back in the pan to be mixed with the roasting juices. You could deglaze the pan with a glass of red wine if you like,’ he concedes, ‘but I don’t think it needs it.’ (He’s right. The fabulous flavour of the beef mingles with the buttery, herby sauce in the most seductive way imaginable. If this is Atkins, I’m buying it.)
‘The whole point of this dish is to keep you at the table rather than in the kitchen,’ he continues. ‘You can make the béarnaise half-an-hour before people turn up, brown the meat ahead and put it in the oven when they arrive.’
Being a card-carrying Francophile, Harris prefers to move straight to the cheese course rather than have it at the end of the meal. Following tradition, he opts for a Colston Bassett Stilton but serves it unconventionally with some spiced nuts and finely sliced shallots. ‘My father has always eaten hard cheeses with onion and it works incredibly well.
‘The spiced nuts are really easy to make yourself. You just dip them in lightly beaten egg white, toss them in a spice mixture made from ground up Maldon sea salt, cayenne pepper, black pepper and ground cumin, then bake them in a slow oven for about 20-25 minutes to dry them out.’
If you can’t get a decent stilton, buy a good piece of cheddar like Montgomery’s or Quicke’s, Harris advises. ‘You have to be flexible about your shopping and respond to what’s available. Seasonality is absolutely everything when it comes to eating. I think that’s why Racine is so successful because we really do go for the best ingredients.’
To round off the meal there’s a jar of prunes marinated in Vieille Prune imported by Henry’s father Lewis. ‘You could easily make this yourself with armagnac,’ says Harris. ‘Just make a sugar syrup out of equal quantities of sugar and water, flavoured with half a vanilla pod. Dissolve the sugar in the water slowly, then bring the syrup to the boil, simmer for two minutes and cool. Pack demi-sec Agen prunes in half-litre kilner jars and fill them two-thirds with armagnac and a third with sugar syrup. Seal them tightly and leave them for a month.’
He recommends serving them from the jar with a bowl of crème fraîche alongside so everyone can help themselves. Surely this is a bit sinful? ‘You can eat sweet things as an exceptional treat,’ he says. ‘They’re more of an after-dinner nibble than a pudding. And because they’re so boozy you can’t eat many, so that automatically controls your intake.’
Having sampled Henry’s menu I have to say that I’d be more than happy to forego my normal Christmas dinner for it if the family would let me. But it would also make a fantastic dinner party, at any time. ‘The great thing about it is that you’ll feel completely satisfied at the end of the meal. If you had it for lunch you’d hardly need any supper.’
And with that, the new, slimline Harris speeds off to prepare for the next service.
Racine is at 239 Brompton Road, London SW3 2EP.
Tel: +44 (0)20 7584 4477
Henry’s suppliers include:
Harvey Nichols for beef and Echiré butter
Tel: +44 (0)20 7235 5000
Forman and Field for smoked salmon
Tel: +44 (0)20 8221 3939 www.formanandfield.com
Imperial for caviar Tel: +44 (0)1932 830252,
La Fromagerie for cheese
Tel: +44 (0)20 7935 0341, www.lafromagerie.co.uk) and
Harris Vintners for cognac and armagnac
Tel: +44 (0)1273 749758, www.brandydirect.co.uk
Written by Fiona Beckett