December is such an amazing month, but people either love it or hate it. I love it: the way that everybody goes into party mode on about the 10th, then carries that feeling of joie de vivre up tp the beginning of January. I love the way it centres around food and entertaining (great for my industry) but especially the way that even non-foodies will push the boat out and cook.

I believe that there are two key factors to entertaining like this. One: make it
simple, large and delicious; and two: make it cheap (then you can spend
more on the claret and burgundy), which means using clever ingredients.
Anyone can spend £60 on a fillet of beef, but it takes cunning to spend
£20 on a lesser cut and then turn it into something that really knocks
people over.

I am going to do this in the form of a
three-course meal that will feed a boatload of guests and should appeal
to the most committed “gastronaut”. I have done the costings and reckon
that this will feed 15 people for less than £75, but will appear to
your guests to be seriously expensive fodder. (Bear in mind that I buy
my ingredients wholesale, so if you go to a very smart butcher then
this figure may go up.)

So what shall we do? Fish is always good
in December, so we are going to make a really simple, potted salmon
that takes minutes to prepare. The key to it is to buy good salmon,
preferably organic, that will taste amazing.

After the fish, we
will go on to a magnificent, warming and old-fashioned mutton hotpot.
This dish is always on our menu in the winter. It is ridiculously easy
to make and uses the neck of lamb or mutton, which shouldn’t cost you
more than £4 per kilo on the bone. If it does, then tell your butcher
to pull his socks up.

To finish we are going to do a most
outrageously rich chocolate dish. This is an invention of my head chef,
Mark Callaby, and is essentially a mixture between a chocolate brownie
and a chocolate fondant.

Potted Salmon
Serves 12
1 side good-quality organic salmon
500g (1lb) table salt
500g (1lb) sugar
2 lemon carcasses
A few peppercorns
Juice and zest of 2 lemons
1 tbsp baby capers
2 tbsp fennel tops or chopped dill
Fresh black pepper
2 blocks of good butter, clarified

by dusting the salmon with the salt and sugar. Leave in a roasting dish
or similar for 24 hours to draw the moisture out of the fish and cure
it. The next day, wash off the brine and put a big, shallow pan of
water on the stove. Throw in the lemon carcasses and a few peppercorns
and poach the fish for 15 minutes at below simmering point. You want to
heat the fish just enough to set the flesh, then whip it out of the

Allow the fish to cool, then break it into flakes with
your hands and pop it in a mixing bowl. Add the lemon juice and zest,
the capers and the fennel or dill. Season with black pepper and pour
about half the clarified butter over it. Mix it in gently and dollop
into ramekins or one big dish.

Pour the rest of the butter over
the potted salmon and put it in the fridge to set. Give it a while to
infuse with flavour, then consume with toast and home-made mayonnaise.

Old-fashioned Hotpot
Feeds an army
1kg (21/4lb) carrots
4 large onions
2 large swedes
2 large parsnips
1 bunch celery
12 cloves garlic
Vegetable oil for browning meat
500g (1lb) plain flour
10kg (22lb) sawed neck of lamb or
mutton (cut in 1in slices)
Vegetable oil for deglazing
1 bottle red wine mixed with enough
water to cover vegetables
8 large baking potatoes
4 stalks rosemary
4 bay leaves
Salt and pepper

Start by doing what all of us poor chefs do every morning and getting your mise-en-place
together. Chop the vegetables all to the same size (about ½in square)
and slice all the garlic. Now locate an enormous casserole pot, one
that will hold this mass of stew in one go. You may have to borrow one
from a restaurant for this.

Heat oil in the pot, then flour and brown the lamb in batches – this will take half an hour but is vital to the dish’s success.

the meat is all golden brown, remove it and pour in some more oil and
add all the vegetables bar the spuds. Cook for 20 minutes to deglaze
the pan and remove. Put the meat back in and pour in the red wine and
water to cover. Add the rosemary and bay leaves, then simmer for two
hours or until the meat is just coming off the bone. Scoop out the meat
and let it cool, but leave the juice on the stove to reduce. Once the
lamb is cool enough to handle, pick all the meat off the bones, leaving
the gristle behind.

Once the stock has reduced by half, add
the cooked veg to it and simmer for 20 minutes. Season to taste.
Finally add the meat back in carefully and pour into big roasting
dishes. Thinly slice the potatoes, place them over the top in seasoned
layers and pop in the oven at 400°F/200°C/Gas Mark 6 for 30 minutes.
Serve with red cabbage and good beer.

Chocolate Fondownie
Serves about 20
700g (11/2lb) dark chocolate
500g (1lb) caster sugar
250g (9oz) butter
12 eggs, beaten
1 dessertspoon plain flour

In December you need a seriously heavy-duty chocolate pudding. This one I cannot claim credit for – it is my head chef’s bastardisation of the classic chocolate fondant with its melting centre and a luscious chocolate brownie. I don’t think it will ever leave the menu, and it is pretty much foolproof to make.

In a large pan gently melt the chocolate, sugar and butter. Now slowly mix the beaten eggs and flour into the mix and incorporate really well. You can add a bit of booze or nuts if you like but I would suggest you start with this glorious plain recipe.

Take a big, deep oven tray and lay a couple of sheets of newspaper in the bottom. Pour in half an inch of water. Grease and line a 12in cake tin or tray with baking paper and add the mix.

Pop the tin into the bain-marie and bake for 52 minutes at 300°F/150°C/Gas Mark 2 (though check regularly as domestic ovens vary a lot). Serve with whipped cream and sauternes.