Christmas dinner with a touch of spice


Some of the world’s top chefs have spice expert Arun Kapil on speed dial. He tells MARIE-CLAIRE DIGBYhow he plans to use subtle spicing in his Christmas cooking

Arun Kapil and his Irish wife Olive, who run the Green Saffron spice company in Midleton, Co Cork, bring their work home with them when it comes to cooking Christmas dinner.

“Any dish can benefit from a little, delicate touch of spice; just enough to help bring out an accent, to encourage the dish to dance. Spices can create smoky notes; menthol notes; delicate, fragrant subtle aromas; sweet tingling and vibrant flavours.”

For a smaller gathering, or a post-Christmas treat, Kapil suggests cooking the pheasant recipe on these pages, with his Indian-influenced side dishes. But when he cooks for his extended family, it’s a grand affair, and he usually roasts a goose.

“This is the first year I’ll be staying in Ireland, with Olive’s family. We normally pop back to Lincolnshire to celebrate with my family there, but this year we’re off to India on December 27th.”

Kapil cooks Christmas lunch with his brothers. “We tend to go totally over-board. Sunil makes some sort of seafood cocktail, normally a prawn cocktail, to start. When I lived in London, I’d pick up the goose on the way back home, from a farm in Grantham.

“I stuff it with potato, Bramley apple, orange zest, fresh thyme and white pepper. Spiced pears help cut the richness of the goose. I poach them in a sugar syrup infused with chilli, star anise, ginger and cubeb pepper.

“I cook Savoy cabbage with pancetta, white wine and whole toasted cumin seeds. Anil’s turnip gets cooked in chicken stock, then blitzed with loads of butter, a little cream and freshly chopped chilli. Parsnips, par-boiled, coated with Parmesan, black pepper and tapioca flour are then finished off in the oven. Roast potatoes are cooked in goose fat and finished with sprigs of fresh rosemary. We also do a ‘clean’ green veg, most often steamed and salted kale, and a buttery veg, such as Brussels sprouts.

“Mum always insists on bread sauce. I love it too and have taken to using the delicate influence of Indian bay leaves; they add a really excellent, subtle citrus-type note. And finally gravy, made from the juices of the bird, finished with port and Grand Marnier. Mum used to despair at the amount of food we’d cook, but I think she’s just given up worrying and lets us get on with it these days.”

To make good use of Christmas left-overs, Kapil developed an award-winning vadagam spice blend, a south Indian coconut and lime-scented curry that gets renamed Turkey Delight at Christmas (it also works with chicken). If you haven’t remembered to pick up a packet of this spice blend, here’s Kapil’s suggestion for a quick store-cupboard curry.

“Grab an onion, chop it into chunks, sweat it down in butter. Add two or three cloves of finely chopped or minced garlic and a ‘finger’ of grated fresh ginger. Cook gently for a minute of two.

“Add a generous teaspoon of turmeric, two teaspoons of ground coriander, one teaspoon of cumin, half a teaspoon of chilli flakes and three whole cloves. Add a tin of coconut milk and half a tin of chopped tomatoes. Turn up the heat and allow it to bubble for two minutes. Pop in your cooked turkey, heat it through, then take it off the heat, squeeze in the juice of half a lime, a grate of fresh nutmeg, some chopped red chilli, and serve with leftover roast potatoes or freshly cooked fluffy Basmati rice.”

Kapil sees spices as colours when he is working on a spice blend. “In a world of monochrome seasoning – black pepper, white salt – I see spices as flecks of bright, glorious colour. And the more we capture these beautiful colours in our cooking, then the better, more varied our food will be. I believe that everyone can cook and everyone can cook with spices.”

The majority, 80 per cent, of Kapil’s spices are sourced in India by his cousin Vivek. “The balance we source through markets in India and through our strategic partner in Europe. They have their own farms in Guatemala, Indonesia, Vietnam and Egypt. Our customer base continues to increase, but I will never allow our quality to diminish. That’s part of the reason Olive and I are going over to India this December, to meet a couple of new farmers and have a meeting with a trader based in Goa. I’m determined that all our spices are the freshest and best they can be.”

The roll-call of chefs who use Green Saffron spices is stellar. “A few of the wonderful chefs we supply include Richard Corrigan, Ross Lewis, Derry Clarke, Heston Blumenthal, Joël Robuchon, Raymond Blanc, Pierre Koffmann and Wolfgang Puck,” Kapil says.




Serves 4

2 young hen pheasants

12 slices streaky bacon, 2mm thick, rind on, or 16 slices Italian Pancetta

5ml rapeseed oil

For the spiced butter

250g unsalted softened butter

2tsp black cardamom seeds, ground

1tsp sea salt

2tbsp chopped fresh tarragon leaves

25ml Armagnac

half tsp black pepper

Pheasant garnish and sauce

200ml dry white wine

150ml chicken stock

2 pomegranates, seeds and juice

50g unsalted butter, cubed and kept chilled

Heat your oven to 180 degrees/gas 4.Mix the ingredients for the spiced butter together. Season the bird well, inside and out, then insert the butter under the skin of the breasts and legs. Lay the bacon or pancetta over the breast meat, then truss to secure the bacon in place.

Take a large casserole, place on the hob, pour in the oil and heat on a medium flame.Lightly fry the birds until the bacon browns all over, then turn the pheasants so they’re sitting on their side in the pot and will cook on their legs. Pour in the wine and stock. Cover the pot with tin foil, put the lid on, place on a middle shelf in your oven and cook for about 10 minutes. Then take the pot out, turn the birds onto their other side, replace the foil and lid, and put them back in the oven for a further 10 minutes. Take the birds out of the oven again and turn them breast side up. Roast for another 10 to 25 minutes, lid and foil off (hold on to the foil). The exact time depends on the size of the birds and how you like them cooked (I like them pink and moist). Check to see if they’re cooked by gently tugging the legs. They should move easily when cooked. Remove the birds from the pot, set aside and cover with the used foil.

Strain the cooking juices from the pot into a jug and skim off any excess fat . Pour the Armagnac into the pot and gently heat it. When it is warm, carefully tip the pan slightly to form a pool and set the Armagnac alight with a match, ensuring that you burn off all the alcohol

Pour the juices back into the pot, bring up to a vigorous bubble. Add the cold cubed butter, whisk, and reduce to coat the back of a spoon. Check the seasoning, then set aside untilyou are ready to serve.

Remove the trussing string and the bacon. Pop the bacon onto a baking tray and place it in your oven to crisp up for five minutes at 190 degrees/gas 4.

Carve the birds, removing the legs first, then neatly cut the breasts from the carcasses and place them on a roasting tray and cover with butter or greaseproof paper. Pop the jointed birds in a hot oven, 220 degrees/gas 8, for one or two minutes. Then trim the breasts and slice them on the bias and diagonally.

Pour the cooking juices from the roasting tray through a sieve into the sauce pot and finish off your sauce by popping it back onto a gentle heat. Add the pomegranate seeds and juice and only just warm through, to make sure you retain the integrity and freshness of the fruit. Check the seasoning and it’s ready to serve.



Serves 4

450g shallots, peeled, chopped in half

230g pancetta or smoked bacon, chopped

150g ghee, butter or clarified butter

6 cloves of garlic, finely chopped or blitzed

2 red chillies, deseeded, finely chopped

1 packet of Green Saffron Madras spice mix

230g uncooked Puy lentils

750ml vegetable stock (or water)

4 tbsp single cream

Curly parsley, finely chopped

In a thick bottomed casserole dish or saucepan, gently fry the shallot halves, pancetta, garlic and chillies in the ghee or butter, along with your packet of Green Saffron Madras spice mix, for about 10 minutes or until the shallots are soft.

Add the Puy lentils to the pan and stir around for a couple of minutes. Add the stock (or water) and stir again to combine all the flavours and ingredients. Bring to the boil, then immediately turn the heat down and allow to bubble gently with the lid on the pan for about 40 minutes or until the lentils have the texture that you want.

Add the cream, stir, and simmer on a gentle heat for about five minutes. Sprinkle with fresh parsley and serve.



Serves 4

450g Brussels sprouts

50g butter

2 tsp rapeseed or sunflower oil

1 tbsp black mustard seeds

2 tsp cumin seeds, whole

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 tsp sea salt

2 tbsp dry white wine

Firstly, chop each sprout in half then lay the flat side down on your chopping board and slice each half lengthwise as finely as you can.

Once you’ve done all the sprouts, gently run your fingers through the ribbons to create a little pile of shavings.

Melt the butter and oil in a large frying pan or casserole on a medium heat. When it starts to foam, add the mustard and cumin seeds and gently fry for 30 seconds. Then add the garlic and give it a quick stir. Add the sprouts and salt, stir and cook for two minutes. Add the wine, turn the heat to high, cook for another minute then take the pan off the heat and serve in a heated dish.



Makes one 12oz jar

150ml cider vinegar

150ml fresh squeezed clementine juice and de-seeded pulp (3 to 4 clementines) and the zest of three clementines

110g dark Muscovado sugar

200g plump dates, stoned, roughly diced

15g fresh ginger, peeled and finely grated

1 red chilli, deseeded and chopped very finely

Seeds of 1 green cardamom pod, crushed to a fine powder

Zest the three clementines then chop them in half across the equator and squeeze their juice into a bowl (you may need the fourth clementine to get right amount of juice).

Put the vinegar, clementine juice and sugar in a pot over a medium heat. Stir and allow to gently bubble until the sugar has dissolved. Add the dates, ginger and chillies. Stir and lightly squash the dates and cook until the dates have melted down and the mixture feels like a soft -set jam: a bit oozy, not too stiff like cold honey. This should take three to four minutes.

Take it off the heat, allow to cool for two minutes, then add the zest, cardamom powder and stir well. Pour into a sterilised jar or serve straight away with the pheasant, lentils and sprouts.

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