IT’S the age-old Christmas conundrum: who will spend Christmas with whom, at whose home? In reality, this dilemma gets resolved far in advance; if you’re lucky, the answer is to alternate from one place to the next each year, in a pre-determined rotation. With young children, and all the gifts this involves, we stay put and let the relatives come to us. Which means, this year, we will be joined by my wife’s extended family. For my own family, that means a chance to meet up in advance of the big day.

This will not be for a ‘pretend’ Christmas. The idea is simply to enjoy a relaxed catch up before the hectic season fully descends, with some good food to get the festivities started.

This kind of family celebration, thankfully, comes without the pressures of Christmas. The Big Day can be fraught, especially for the cook. But a less formal get-together near, but not actually on Christmas Day, is free of such tensions. For a start, there is no picture-perfect bird to lay on the table, on time. So I let the menu take the strain.

Some good quality Scottish smoked salmon is a traditional but practical starter followed by a simple casserole. Pheasant is my preference, to appreciate game before its season ends. Its unctuous sauce and glossy chestnuts make for a fine centrepiece – all done in advance. Finish off with a large mince pie tart, offering a hint of the festivities ahead.


Recipes serve 8

8 pheasants breasts, trimmed and wing bone removed, each breast cut into 4-5 pieces

150g dried Puy lentils

1 rounded dessertspoon of thyme leaves picked from their stalks

30 button onions soaked in warm water for 30 minutes and peeled

3 cloves of garlic peeled and finely chopped

1 large savoy cabbage

300g small chestnut mushrooms or button mushrooms halved

2-3 dessertspoons of tomato puree

180-200g vacuum packed or frozen cooked chestnuts

200ml red wine

1ltr brown chicken stock

Olive oil for cooking

40g unsalted butter

Salt and fresh ground black pepper


1. Trim the bright green leaves of savoy cabbage off from the main body until you reach the pale yellow heart. Set this heart aside and keep for other uses such as soup. Cut out and discard the central spine out of each of the bright green cabbage leaves then cut the leaves into roughly square or diamond shapes about 1.5cm across. Set aside for now.

2. Heat a large cast iron oven-proof casserole pot over a moderate heat for one minute. Add a couple of spoons of olive oil and heat for one minute. Season the pheasant breast meat and add just enough to the pan so that it is not overcrowded; brown thoroughly but quickly, then remove to a clean plate for now and continue until all the pheasant meat has been browned. This will take several turns.

3. Now add the pearl onions and brown these in the oil for a few minutes. Once they are evenly browned (they will still be hard) add the mushrooms and garlic, season lightly and fry these stirring regularly for five minutes. Add the tomato puree, lentils and the thyme and stir to mix.

4. Now add the wine and reduce by three quarters. Add the stock and bring to the boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes.

5. Now return the pheasant meat to the pot. Add the chestnuts and ensure that everything is submerged in stock, if necessary top up the level a little. Cut out a parchment paper disc and cover the surface of the casserole then cover with a lid. Transfer to a pre-heated oven at 180c for 20 minutes then remove, stir gently, re-cover and stand for 10 minutes. This can be done to this stage and chilled, to be reheated carefully when needed.

6. Bring a pan of salted water to the boil and blanch the cabbage squares for 2 minutes then drain. Add to the casserole. It is ready to serve at once, with rice or a creamy mashed potato


For the blinis

6 egg yolks

6 egg whites

300g crème fraiche

550ml whole milk

450g strong bread flour

28g fresh yeast

10g sugar

10g salt

1 dessert spoon of chopped dill

To serve: sliced smoked salmon, several spoons of small capers and finely chopped shallot


1. briefly whisk the yolks, crème fraiche and milk in a bowl until smooth. Add the flour, yeast, sugar and salt and whisk in. Cover with cling film and leave in a warm place until the mix doubles in volume, about 1 hour.

2. After an hour, whisk the whites until fluffy then fold into the risen mix with the dill. It is ready to use now.

3. Pan fry the blinis until golden brown on each side, you can either make several small ones per person or just a couple of large ones each. These can be made an hour or so before and kept at room temperature or at the last moment and served warm. Arrange on serving plates and pile a mound of smoked salmon beside each. Sprinkle with capers and fine dice of shallot and serve at once.

Geoffrey Smeddle is the chef patron of The Peat Inn, by St Andrews, Fife KY15 5LH 01334 840206