Nigel Slater

There’s more to Christ­mas than feast­ing. Sim­ple meals can be just as spe­cial, says Nigel Slater

The Observer Food Monthly - - CONTENTS -

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.

Pho­to­graphs Jonathan Lovekin

Mer­guez balls with shal­lots and pis­ta­chios, see page 18

Smoked had­dock, rice and lentils

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