“Christmas is a time when it pays to get it exactly right.” This was the caption that accompanied a dish of perfectly styled festive food in a magazine I read this morning. Oh, how I used to want to always be perfect, and being so at Christmas would be the icing on the cake. The result was that I was exhausted before I got into the kitchen, never mind being too tired to eat when I sat down at the table. Most exhausting of all, I played a great role as the victim.
Years ago we spent Christmas in a remote Spanish village with a friend’s extended family. At any gathering there were never less than a dozen of us, and everything was effortless. Jobs were divided out in advance, and people arrived with pots of food, wine and even tea towels, to do the dishes. My favourite part was being at the local bakery on Christmas morning when at least 10 women arrived with their dish of the day, to be baked in the remaining heat of the baker’s oven, and then they all headed to the bar to have a drink and meet friends.
Since then I’ve changed my tune, so here are my non-victim Christmas rules:
– Make a list of jobs, including washing up, and put names after each one. People just need a little guidance and love to help.
– Buy your meat from a butcher, as they give great service and are always willing to do little preparation jobs on your meat for you.
– Don’t buy too much food. It’s too sad seeing it go off.
– Don’t throw any food out. I am always surprised how good reheats are.
– Keep all bones to make stock, as it will give you another quick, nourishing meal later in the week. Ham-bone stock with a couple of cups of lentils will be a real treat by the fire.
– Use your freezer well: cheese and cream freeze well and are perfect for cooking in the new year.
– Plan a simple menu with few dishes.
– If you have a vegetarian or vegan to think about don’t create a completely new dish. Work it into what everyone else is eating. For example, the stuffing for the turkey below is gluten free and vegan friendly, so wrap some of this in filo pastry, bake it and serve on a bed of the sweet-potato puree.
– Plan and go for a long walk, as it’s a good mood enhancer for all age groups before sitting down at the table, and prepares you for the feast ahead.
– Eat slowly, enjoy and give thanks.
Pear and blue cheese filo parcels
These are the best little parcels ever. Quick to prepare, use few ingredients, can be made in advance and never fail to surprise. You need to get a good-quality filo that is thin and has as few ingredients as possible. I use a brand called St James, which gives nice wide sheets and eight decent squares in each.
1 just-ripe medium pear
300g Cashel Blue cheese
4 sheets filo pastry
100g melted butter
Prepare the cheese and pear before you unwrap the filo; otherwise the pastry will dry out and crack as you fold it. So cut the pear and cheese into bite-size pieces, and melt the butter.
Remove two sheets of filo and butter them together before cutting into eight equal squares. Put a piece of cheese in the middle of each square and top with a piece of pear. Butter the edges of each square and bring into the centre to meet, to make a parcel. Repeat with the next two sheets, then store in the fridge, uncovered, until needed.
Heat the oven to 200 Celsius and bake until golden – about five to seven minutes. Allow to rest for a couple of minutes before serving, as the cheese gets very hot.
Salad of celery, apples, sprouts, kohlrabi and walnuts with an apple and balsamic dressing
This recipe, like most salad recipes, is just an idea that you can play around with to suit what you have, and to suit your taste. Often I have used daikon (aka mooli) radish here instead of kohlrabi, depending what is available. If you are lucky enough to live near an Asian store it is likely to stock daikon. They can be very large, so you are aiming for four to six slices per person. A good organic apple with deep red skin would be lovely here.
4 large sticks of celery or 4 smaller sticks from the centre with leaves
2 large red apples
8 Brussels sprouts
1 medium kohlrabi
½ tsp mixed spice
For the dressing
Run a vegetable peeler down the length of the celery sticks and remove any strings. The further into the centre you go the less stringy it will be.
Quarter and core the apple and slice each quarter into three. If preparing in advance toss the apple in lemon juice to stop it from discolouring.
Remove the outer damaged leaves of the sprouts and slice as thinly as you can.
Peel the kohlrabi and slice very thinly.
Toss the walnuts in a bowl with a splash of oil, to coat them evenly, then add the salt and mixed spice and toss well. Heat a pan and toast the nuts until they smell lovely.
Make the dressing by blending the oil and vinegar well with the seasoning. Taste and adjust the seasoning if needed, remembering that you need an edge to cut through the vegetables.
To serve, you can mix everything in a big bowl or divide the ingredients between four starter plates – in which case scatter sprouts on each plate, put some apple in the middle, pile the kohlrabi on top, and balance the celery on the side, before scattering the walnuts around the edge and drizzling the dressing as you like.
Carpaccio of smoked haddock with chilli, nori and lemon
This is my replacement for our traditional Christmas Day treat of wild smoked salmon, which is becoming hard to find. Look for fish that is smoked naturally without added colouring. I am lucky enough to be near Woodcock Smokery, which is one of the best.
400g smoked haddock or pollock fillets
juice of 1 lemon
4 tbsp olive oil
1 red chilli, very finely sliced
fine nori flakes
Cut the smoked haddock into wafer-thin slices with a very sharp fish knife. Lay the slices on a large plate, overlapping them a little. Sprinkle with the lemon juice and drizzle with the oil, then scatter with the chilli. Season with salt to taste. Scatter the nori flakes on top and allow to stand for 30 minutes before serving.
Turkey legs stuffed with nuts, fruit, spice and pomegranate
I’ve been serving legless turkey for years – and can’t imagine doing it any other way, especially as it’s such good value and provides a whole other meal. I was always at a loss for what to do with the tough leg meat that gets left behind. I always felt the legs needed better treatment, and what’s better than to be stuffed with lots of nuts and fruit? If you find the idea of boning and butcher’s knots too much, your butcher will be more than happy to do it for you. My stuffing is just a guide, so go ahead and see what you have in your kitchen. I very often add coconut, as I like the taste and texture with the fruit and nuts. But if you’re using coconut soak it in warm water for an hour beforehand. You should be able to find pomegranate molasses in health-food shops and Middle Eastern and Mediterranean stores, among other places.
2 medium legs of turkey, bones and sinews removed.
For the stuffing
1 medium onion, finely chopped and softened in oil or butter
100g cooked rice
50g soft dried apricots, chopped
50g dried cranberries or sour cherries, chopped
75g pistachios or your favourite nuts, chopped
bunch of parsley, chopped
zest and juice of a lemon and orange
pinch of cinnamon
pinch of chilli (optional)
pomegranate molasses, to bind
1 large onion, sliced
2 sticks of celery, sliced thinly
1 or 2 oranges, sliced thinly
For the sauce
glass of wine or vermouth
Heat the oven to 160 Celsius/gas mark 3
Mix all the stuffing ingredients together, add salt and pepper, and taste. You are aiming for it to have a sharp, sweet and seasoned taste.
Take the turkey legs and, with the skin side on your board, bat them out with a rolling pin until the meat is nice and thin all over. Don’t worry about the odd tear. Cover each leg with the stuffing, pressing it in well. Roll each leg into a sausage shape and tie up with string.
Put the stuffed legs into a flameproof dish that fits them snugly, sitting them on top of the onions, celery and oranges. Cover with parchment or butter paper and bake for two hours. Remove the paper after the first hour, to allow the skin to brown. When the turkey is cooked take it out of the oven and rest it on a warm plate.
To make the sauce, put the dish on a medium heat and allow to bubble for a minute while you scrape all the juices and sticky bits together. Add the wine and allow to bubble for a few minutes. Slice the turkey and serve it in a bowl alongside the sauce.
Spicy sweet potatoes with sultanas
1kg sweet potatoes or squash
75g butter or olive oil
½ tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tbsp raisins or sultanas, soaked in water for 15 minutes
Peel the sweet potatoes or squash and cut into pieces. Boil in salted water for 15-20 minutes, until soft. Drain and mash with a fork. Add the butter, ginger and cinnamon, season with salt and pepper, and and beat well. Add the drained raisins or sultanas, and serve.