There’s more to Christmas than feasting. Simple meals can be just as special, says Nigel Slater
Lighter dinners to eat between feasts
The tree is up. The holly is hanging from its hook on the front door. The house smells deliciously of the season. There has been much anticipation – and more than a little planning – for the major feasts of Christmas Eve and the following day, but Christmas cooking is always about more than the main feasts. The whole season is punctuated with smaller, simpler, but equally significant dinners for friends and family which still demand to be just that little bit special.
If I’m honest I look forward to cooking these “other dinners”. They allow you do something slightly out of the ordinary – no one wants the full turkey dinner the week before Christmas – but have, at their heart, all the flavours and ingredients that we associate with this time of year. In many ways, these little meals are the best of both worlds. Straightforward to cook – they are family suppers – but drenched in everything we love about yuletide.
The recipes that follow – a platter of meatballs with pistachios and lipstick-red pomegranates; a tangle of roasted parsnips with a porcini gravy and soft, fresh cheese; brussels sprouts with Japanese pickles; a smoky fish and rice dish – feel special to me. They are not something I would cook every day, but all have enough seasonal spirit about them to fit the occasion. Any one of them would do nicely in the run-up to Christmas Day and right through to New Year.
As with so much of what I cook, a dish can be served as a side dish or given the principal role. I find such flexible recipes invaluable. Informal, simple food that fits neatly in wherever you need it to.
I don’t eat pudding on a daily basis, but at this time of year it seems appropriate to bring something out for everyone to coo over. I have been known to send out a jug of warm chocolate sauce to the table, spiced with ground cardamom or cinnamon, for pouring over vanilla ice-cream or slices of soft-crumbed almond sponge cake. You can use it as a sweet fondue too, with a plate of sliced pear or clementines for dipping. This is also the only time of year when you can bring out the sticky dates, balsawood caskets of Turkish delight and boxes of crystalised fruit in lieu of a pudding without it looking like you don’t care.
After Christmas Day, of course, there are leftovers to plunder. I probably enjoy these more than I do on their first outing. Potatoes mashed into bubble and squeak with chopped brussels; a frittata of kale and bacon; and, if there could ever be such a thing, leftover pigs in blankets. The latter make a fine pasta sauce once chopped up, fried lightly and tossed with a little mustard and cream. The roast bird is a treasure chest all of its own. Every piece of burnished skin, juicy little nugget of flesh and the bones themselves offer endless possibilities for informal eating. My favourite of all being the “big soup” I make with the leftover roast, its bones, meat and that gorgeous jelly that hides under the carcass, simmered with the usual aromatics then finished with tiny pasta such orzo, shredded greens and some fat slices of slightly tired bread I have toasted and rubbed with garlic.
I find the informality of such meals a welcome breath of fresh air. No one minds having a collection of sweet leftovers scattered around the table. Boxes of Carlsbad plums and marrons glacés that have already been started, boxes of chocolates with as many empty paper cases as full ones, or a collection of edible Christmas-tree decorations will all find takers. I do tend to use the last bits of cheeses in the kitchen, though. I’m not sure anyone really wants to be presented with the hollowed-out crust of a ripe but drying stilton.
Merguez balls with shallots and pistachios, see page 18
Smoked haddock, rice and lentils