Christmas cooking tips from Tom Kerridge, Chantelle Nicholson and Lee Tierney

Christmas cooking tips from Tom Kerridge, Chantelle Nicholson and Lee Tiernan

by Felicity Spector 09 November 2016

Felicity Spector attends a very special Michelin-starred festive masterclass to find out how to get the most flavour out of her Christmas cooking.

Felicity Spector has worked in national television journalism for nearly thirty years, but has now combined her day job with an increasing interest in food writing in her spare time.

Felicity Spector has worked in national television journalism for nearly thirty years, but has now combined her day job with an increasing interest in food writing in her spare time.

It's not often you get to cook with one of the best chefs in the country, let alone three of them. Yet here I am, in the kitchens at the School of Wok, about to cook a three-course meal with Lee Tiernan from Black Axe Mangal, two-Michelin-starred Tom Kerridge and Marcus Wareing's chef-patron at Tredwell's, Chantelle Nicholson. They're here to showcase some of the demos and classes on offer at Taste of London: Festive Edition, and to reveal some top tips for getting restaurant quality flavour into the food you make at home.

Lee starts with a starter of spicy Malay sardine salad. Cooking fish, he says, isn't at all scary. ‘All sardines need is a few minutes each side in a really hot pan. You can see the eyes go a bit milky; that means it's done. To avoid breaking the fish up when you turn it over, always pick it up with your tongs by the head as it's more robust, and have the grill on high to get some nice bar marks on it.’

Look in Asian supermarkets, says Lee, for store cupboard ingredients like fish sauce and Szechuan pepper: flavours that can spice up the everyday into something special. And always taste as you go along, to make sure your seasoning is right: you can always add salt or more chilli but you can't take it out. ‘If you make something like a sambal for one dish, make a bit more – it'll keep in the fridge for at least a week.’

Toasting whole spices brings out their flavour, and should be done before crushing them in a pestle and mortar
Chantelle showed the class how to whip up an incredible chocolate dessert in just fifteen minutes

‘Great food doesn't have to be a Michelin star type dish. A simple burger done properly can be amazing,’ says Tom Kerridge who, as you'd imagine, is refreshingly down to earth. He's demonstrating a venison chilli con carne, a version of which is on the menu at his pub The Coach, in Marlow. The secret, it seems, is all down to browning the meat. Really browning it. ‘You know when you make a spag bol and the meat goes a bit grey and then you chuck in a tin of tomatoes? Nothing like that,’ he says, pouring a liberal amount of oil into the pan (‘don't worry, we'll drain it off later’) and frying the venison mince to within an inch of its life. ‘You want it to look like coffee granules,’ he explains. ‘When you eat a steak or a burger, where's all the flavour? In the really charred bits around the edge. That's what you're trying to produce.’

And this, it seems, is the real secret to elevating the every day to the truly special: knowing how to get the maximum flavour out of whatever you're cooking. We fry the mince daringly dark. It seems burnt: it isn't. Next, toasting spices: cumin, coriander and black pepper. ‘Always toast them first to get the flavour, then crush them in a pestle and mortar,’ he says: the smell is intoxicating. The excess fat is drained off, and we add some meltingly soft pieces of venison that have been slowly braised for four hours with onion, carrot, celery and some herbs, which all get discarded – this isn't about the veg. We add cubes of British salami and a can of kidney beans. ‘There isn't a tin of tomatoes anywhere near it,’ says Tom. Instead, some stock and, at the very end, a glass of red wine, some grated dark chocolate and lime zest. ‘I like to add my wine at the end, because then you get a really nice acidity which cuts through the richness of the meat,’ he says. The resulting chilli is incredibly rich, dark and packed with flavour, with just a note of bitterness from the chocolate and a lift from the lime. ‘You don't want to serve this with anything complicated – just a bowl of plain, fluffy rice. All the flavour is in the stew.’

Mince should be fried until it's very dark and almost burnt to get as much caramelisation as possible
Lee Tierney
Lee Tiernan's Malay sardines offered an alternative set of flavours for Christmas

Finally, Chantelle Nicholson takes the mystique out of dessert. ‘People are often frightened of making desserts because they think it's complicated,’ she says. ‘Just follow the recipe, read it carefully and try not to miss anything out. With pastry there's only so much you can do to fix it if it goes wrong.’ Chocolate, cream and eggs are turned into ganache-style custard, poured into a straight-sided mould with a square of chocolate sable pastry at the bottom. ‘To make sure it all sticks together and doesn't fall apart when you take it out of the mould, pour some melted chocolate around the edges at the base, so that when it sets, it will seal the base properly." We fill the tin and level it off, then it's into the fridge to set. ‘Whisk some cream into soft peaks and add something extra like a mulled wine syrup that's just been reduced down in a pan. You can pipe it onto the set tart, or just serve it as a quenelle by the side.’ The tart unmoulds quite easily with the aid of a hot knife: an impressive dessert that's taken fifteen minutes to make and then a few hours in the fridge.

All three chefs will be giving cooking demonstrations or hands-on masterclasses at Taste of London Winter along with a host of others – just go to the website for details. ‘I want people to come away from watching a demo and say yes, I'll have a go at that back at home,’ says Tom. ‘So many people have an interest in food and cooking – all the more reason to empower them with the confidence to do it themselves.’ So these are the top tips from top chefs: shop carefully, read the recipe, focus on flavour. And if you go wrong, it's how you recover that counts.