A cook's Christmas: Matt Wilkinson

By
Jane Willson
Added
04 December, 2015

Pope Joan’s Matt Wilkinson thinks Australians are doing Christmas wrong. He shares his own festive plans as well as his menu for summer entertaining.

Yorkshireman Matt Wilkinson has embraced plenty of things about Australia since moving here 14 years ago. But our attachment to northern hemisphere food traditions ain’t one of them.

“I really don’t understand the whole hot food stuff at Christmas time here. I mean Christmas pudding, it’s disgusting. It’s something I write about in my [upcoming] book [Mr Wilkinson’s Simply Dressed Salads]: we should be coming up with Australian food at Christmas.”

“I really don’t understand the whole hot food stuff at Christmas time here. I mean Christmas pudding, it’s disgusting.”

“And we do have that: it’s prawns.” For the past several years, prawns have been a part of Matt’s day, often the start of the main meal, generally served between four and five in the afternoon at his mother-in-law Leah’s home in Euroa.

“For me, Christmas Day is a whole lot more relaxed by having a long, casual, lazy warm day … rather than fill yourself up – and fall asleep.

“We start with the prawns first. White bread, mayonnaise, Marie Rose sauce. And [we] peel away. [Matt’s wife] Sharlee’s brother is a prawn fisherman. His prawns are there, but he’s not.”

Matt in his Melbourne store, Hams and Bacons

“There’s traditional ham, sliced up [and sourced pre-cooked from Lauren Mathers’ Bundarra Berkshire farm on the Murray “so you don’t have to do a glaze, you just have it”, as well as about five salads. “I make three, Sharlee does one, her mum does one, and Sharlee does dessert.”

Matt says his standout last year was roasted peaches with salad leaves and a spiced yoghurt dressing. “Spice it with ras el hanout, a bit of chilli, a touch of five spice and cumin. Or cheat, and get a jar of kasoundi and mix it with yoghurt and use as a dressing. Then whatever I have picked from the garden. Sharlee’s mum has a nice garden; onion tops, beans, I make a dressing.”

Sharlee’s speciality is a grain salad (usually cous cous) with feta. “She toasts the grains off in oil first (before the boiling water). It’s one thing I actually learned from her.” Matt says last year it was farro instead of cous cous, mixed with nuts and herbs. A variation on what he calls “The Mrs’ toasted Christmas salad” is also in the book – out in March – and previewed below.

“It’s beautiful. I used to hate cous cous. And then she did that, and yum.”

Matt says his standout last year was roasted peaches with salad leaves and a spiced yoghurt dressing.

Instead of pudding, which they save for Boxing Day in a nod to a tradition established by Matt’s publican father who liked to serve a late lunch to the Barnsley pub regulars on the 26th, he says Sharlee makes a summer berry dessert, or maybe a Tuscan plum tart.

The former involves a crumbly sour cream pastry dough (Margaret Fulton has a sour cream pastry recipe here). Sharlee, who spent time at Ballymaloe cooking school in Cork, Ireland and knows her stuff, rolls it out into a pizza on baking paper and fills it with berries sprinkled with sugar. Then lemon juice. Then folds it over. Accompanied by ice cream and cream, “it’s delicious”.

The Tuscan plum tart (Gabriel Gaté has something similar) makes a hero of roasted plums in balsamic and sugar and verjuice. “Then she pours over a clafoutis batter.”

Skip to Boxing Day and Matt fires up the barbecue and pizza oven to cook for a gathering of Sharlee’s mum’s friends. Each brings a dish that means something to them about their culture. Last year the theme was, “pick something from your grandma and where she comes from”.

“I cooked duck and a whole flounder in the pizza oven. On the barbecue I did butterflied marinated lamb. Then, always, a couple of salads – last year there was a charred onion and corn salad with minted coriander yoghurt.”

And his favourite tipple, aside from champagne or Pimms (“I love a Pimms”) is the French aperitif Lillet blanc. “It’s a type of vermouth grape. Serve it with ice, lemonade and a slice of orange – the most refreshing thing ever. 

What else? What fires Matt up is out of season menus. “Everyone buys barramundi at Christmas; I say why? It’s not in season.” Better to go for snapper, whiting, garfish. Just not barramundi.

“Everyone buys barramundi at Christmas; I say why? It’s not in season.” Better to go for snapper, whiting, garfish.

On the prawn question, he recommends anyone buying frozen prawns should avoid those bigger than size U10. “It works in reverse, so U6 is the largest, then it goes up in twos. U10 is the biggest prawn I would buy that’s already cooked.”

Matt with his “hooligans”, Finn and Jay.

Other traditions? The boys, AKA the hooligans (Finn, 4, and Jay, 2), don’t open gifts until 9 am. “I grew up with that,” says Matt. “What it taught me was not to take things for granted.” After that it’s breakfast: muffins with lots of smoked salmon, eggs, and Aberdeen sausage with a relish called “train smash” (fry off some onions, add curry powder, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, vinegar and some tinned tomatoes) made by Sharlee’s mum.

Asked to select a Christmas-worthy spread from Cooked, Matt votes for a line-up that he wouldn’t necessarily serve on the 25th. “No, but if I was off on holidays or entertaining this time of year, these would be the recipes I’d choose.”

The Mrs’ toasted cous cous salad

A little note from the boss: “We usually eat this at home as an accompaniment to schnitzel, home-made fish fingers or a tagine. I vary the nuts and seeds based on whatever is in the cupboard. BMW (before Matt Wilkinson) I always used to add pine nuts, but he doesn’t really like them!” – SG.

This dish could also be a main meal – just add roast vegies. Serves 2

  • 20 ml olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
  • 185 g instant couscous
  • 40 g almonds, roughly chopped
  • 1 tablespoon sunflower seeds, lightly toasted
  • 1 tablespoon sesame seeds, lightly toasted
  • 30 g sultanas
  • 100 g soft marinated feta, crumbled
  • juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 10 chives, washed and finely chopped
  • 1 small handful flat-leaf parsley leaves, washed and chopped

Heat the oil in a frying pan over a medium heat. Add the couscous and toast for 5 minutes, or until the grains turn a light golden brown. Tip the couscous into a deep large bowl.

Pour over 250 ml (8. fl oz/1 cup) boiling water, then cover with plastic wrap and let sit for 10 minutes. Remove the plastic and fluff the grains using a fork, until all the grains are separated and there are no clumps.

Add all the remaining ingredients and season with salt flakes and freshly ground black pepper. Mix carefully but thoroughly, then taste – you may need to add an extra splash of olive oil to moisten the couscous a little. Serve.

Matt Wilkinson's menu for summer entertaining

Thai eggplant coconut curry

Peter Kuruvita's coconut curry is made with beautiful Thai eggplants. Chilli, coconut and lime are all classic summer flavours. 

Tomato salad with tarragon, aged feta & sumac dressing

It's all about the tomatoes here in Greg Malouf's salad, so don't even bother until they're at their best.

Grilled cuttlefish & pomelo salad

Martin Boetz (who Matt refers to as "the sexy man he is") chars the cuttlefish here for a nice caramelised sweetness to act as a foil for the citrus, fresh herbs and chilli.

Silken tofu with pickled ginger, cucumber & mint

From Marty again: a fantastic combination of hot flavours (chilli, ginger) and cool flavours (mint, cucumber) with the delicate silken tofu tying it all together. 

Quick carrot salad

And something super simple to finish – Anjum Anand's salad is a great palate cleanser and can be put together in just a few minutes.

Matt Wilkinson's second book Mr Wilkinson's Simply Dressed Salads is out March 2015. Cooked members will have access to all of Matt's recipes as soon as the book is published. 

 

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