Every year, I approach Christmas with conflicting thoughts.
I love cooking and I want to cook, but … I don’t want to be stuck in the kitchen all the time.
Because it’s the one time of the year when the business closes for 2 weeks, I have time on my hands which means an opportunity to experiment with new recipes and flavours.
So a chance to cook what I fancy, however … I also want our guests to enjoy their food including those with more conservative (or should that be traditional?) tastes.
I feel equally ambivalent about all the richness of seasonal Christmas foods: Christmas cake, mince pies, nuts, lots of meat and want to counter that with some lighter, fragrant meals.
If you’re entertaining this Christmas, I believe that it’s not so much a case of just making a shopping list …
this is the time for some serious plotting, planning and scheming to produce delicious food – effortlessly!
Remember that old training chestnut (no pun intended!):
“fail to prepare, prepare to fail”x
Boring, but very true.
Also, remember that its your choice whom you bestow your money on; I do like to buy well all the time, but especially at Christmas do look forward to luxury treat and indulgences.
Shopping right is part of good citizenship as far as I am concerned.
Golden crusted Brussels sprouts
- Start by writing down all the eating occasions, from breakfast, brunch to the big Christmas lunch, afternoon tea and everything in between and how many people (approximately) you’ll be feeding.
- The work out what you want to serve: I try to strike a balance between tradition and adventure by mixing old favourites with new dishes and adding a lighter, more contemporary twist.
- Try and shop local and support British farmers and producers. There’s a bound to be a (farmers) market taking place in your neighbourhood this week. The Real Food Festival’s Christmas Market took place on the South Bank: I realise this is not much help to you now, but make a mental note to visit next year. It was a great place for festive cheer and to buy some wonderful goodies for your Christmas table. www.realfoodfestival.co.uk
- Visit local retailers if you don’t already: unless you shop at the local butcher, fish monger, bakery, veg man etc. they could soon be boarded up.
- Soups, pates + terrines make great party food that’s easy to prepare and scale up if necessary; includes at least one vegetarian option to offer a break from meat/fish to those who want it.
- Stock up on fresh herbs: I like to have coriander, mint, chives and flatleaf parsley to hand to add freshness and zing to soups, vegetables and salads. If you buy “cut” rather than “potted” herbs, wrap them in moistened paper kitchen towel and store in a plastic bag in the vegetable drawer of your fridge. Rosemary, thyme and sage are great standbys for adding flavour to stews, casseroles and roast. But I find that their dried equivalents work almost as well.
- Stock up on a few varieties of decent bread: sourdough, multiseed, rye or try spelt for a change. Real bread stays fresh for longer and is useful in some many ways: at breakfast, “things” on toast, sandwiches and leftovers can be made into breadcrumbs or bread & butter pudding.
- Eggs are a versatile super food: try free-range duck‘s eggs for a change. Wonderfully rich in an omelette or in scrambled eggs. Quail‘s eggs are ever so pretty, fried/poached for a minute and used as a salad or canape topping, or boiled, half peeled and dipped in dukkah or celery salt as a snack with drinks.
- Make a double quantity of crumble topping (I like to add chopped toasted nuts to mine for extra texture + flavour) and keep in the fridge or freezer: very handy if you want to make a hot pudding with whatever fruit you’ve got to hand.
- Baked apples, stuffed with mincemeat and a small piece of marzipan leftover from decorating the Christmas cake, make a very simple but crowd-pleasing pudding. Serve with single cream or custard.
- I will also make a cinnamon flavoured fruit compote, probably with quinces, but you coul use a mixture of apples + quinces or dried fruit steeped in strong tea. Go easy on the sugar or honey, taste it first. Delicious topped with natural yoghurt + granola or mixed seeds for breakfast or a substantial cold pudding.
- Another great, easy to make, standby are jellies: jelly has had a bit of a renaissance this year, partly thanks to the efforts of Sam Bompass & Harry Parr from The Jellymongers. www.jellymongers.co.uk . My favourite is a grown-up red wine jelly with pears poached in red wine. Very Christmassy, especially with a thin layer of cream poured over the top.
- impromptu lunch or supper? Try a whole baked Vacherin Mont d’Or with boiled baby potatoes + good bread to dunk and a fresh, green salad on the side. Remove all plastic packaging from the cheese, carefully slice the top off, add a glug of white wine (and a few truffle shavings to make is taste even more amazing!) and black pepper, then replace the top, wrap the cheese in aluminium foil and replace in its wooden box. Bake for about 25 minutes at 180C until warm and runny. Smelly, you’ve been warned, but utterly delicious!
- I’m not one for “canapes” preferring to serve a few good quality olives or some nuts with drinks instead of anything too fiddly. I make an exception for smoked fish (trout, salmon or mackerel) torn into bitesize pieces and served, with a slick of horseradish cream, on pumpernickel or bitesize oat cakes or blinis.
Easy sweet treat: semi-dried figs stuffed with an almond + dunked in dark chocolate with a drop of rose water
Some of the suppliers whose food I trust & love
Impeccable credentials, amazing buffalo mozzarella and buffalo cuts & joints; their box offers are particularly good value. Try Laverstoke’s buffalo milk ice cream: a creamy revelation!
Born & Bread Bakery
020 8693 1222
Hand shaped breads, craft baked in a wood-fired oven: sourdough, spelt, rye and much much more. They only use imported, unbleached French flour. It is stone milled which enables the grain to maintain the beneficial vitamins and minerals that would otherwise be lost in commercial factory milling processes.
A Kentish Starter (originally made with apples from Kent, hence the name) is used as the raising agent for all of their breads.
The wonderful breads are sold via independent retailers, delis and bakeries. Call to find out your nearest stockist.
Venison, small game from the Scottish Highlands. Their venison sausages make a wonderfully easy meal, braised with Puy lentils or simply served with a root veg-potato mash: meaty and lean with a great gamey flavour.
Deep filled, hand raised pies, including chicken & salmon, with delicious pastry. A really useful standby: makes a tasty, easy supper or light lunch with a fresh salad + condiments.
This Christmas, Sainsbury’s is exclusively selling the first British, free range turkey, reared in woodland, in the Taste the Difference range.
The Norfolk Black is a slow-growing turkey, bred especially for its succulence and flavour.
The Woodland Trust receives 10p from every Norfolk Black sale at Sainsbury’s, and the turkeys are also reared to RSPCA Freedom Food approved standards.
Norfolk Black turkeys
The birds will arrive in store between 21st and 23rd December.
My mother-in-law is bringing pheasants shot in the Yorkshire Howardian Hills around Castle Howard. So the “yes/no turkey debate” has been settled – for 2010 at least!
I’ll be making a stuffing from minced veal, fresh sage, cooked chestnuts + lemon zest. Leftovers (or make extra on purpose!) are delicious stirred into pappardelle, with strips of cavolo nero, coarsely shopped flatleaf parsley and grated Parmesan.
www.rainhasanta.co.uk their Elvas Plums are not cheap but they are a very special, seasonal treat!
St-Germain artisanal elderflower liqueur: “discovered” at the Real Food Festival earlier this year. A beautiful product and delicious as an aperitif added to champagne or white wine in a “St-Germain kir blanc”.
I love all their three flavours of gravadlax, or cured salmon – a classic cure with dill and a touch of star anise, and dill, but particularly the colourful beetroot cure.
Snow-topped spice cake
So what’s cooking chez nous?
We’ll kick off with afternoon tea:
my “black” Christmas cake, frangipane quincemeat pies, cheese & pumpkin seeds scones, smoked salmon on pumpernickel
Mexican spicy sweet pepper soup with diced avocado + tortilla chips, warmed flat breads, fruit
Whole baked Vacherin Mont d’Or, boiled baby potatoes & bread to dunk, a green salad, red wine & pear jellies
Chestnut & champagne soup, chicken terrine, green salad, bread, baked apples
Baked chermoula salmon, roast sweet pepper & mint couscous, green beans, toasted hazelnut fruit crumble
full English or smoked salmon with eggs any style, spiced tomato juice or orange juice, fruit compote, yoghurt, jams, toast, Christmas muffins
dressed crab, roast pheasant with veal, chestnut & lemon stuffing, Port sauce, golden crusted Brussels, braised red cabbage, celeriac puree, Christmas pudding or persimmon, orange, pomegranate & mint salad
Frangipane quince pies
Recipes for some of the dishes mentioned above have featured this year as a blog post, but do get in touch if you want guidance/suggestions on any of the dishes.
And naturally, I look forward to receiving your comments!
All that remains is to wish you & yours a very happy Christmas and a healthy, rewarding and above all delicious 2011.
I’ll be reading Ian Marber’s soon to be published book “How not to get Fat” over the festive break … and will review it here for its publishers, Quadrille.
With my very best wishes,