December, 2008

Dec 08

The ghost of Christmas past


Whether you swear by a roast turkey or
prefer to ring the changes with alternative fare, some elements of
Christmas remain constant – a sense of togetherness, the sharing of
a wonderful meal, and the joy of rediscovering special recipes from
granny or an aunt that are dusted off just once a year.

We come together on Christmas Day to
enjoy a very traditional feast, yet one that is unique to each of us.
Every family has its own customs and traditions which contribute to
the pleasure of the day. Some are inherited from recent generations,
some hark back centuries – and our food and drink reflect this.
Christmas pudding, mince pies, turkey or goose, stuffing, cloves and
nutmeg, a glass of post-feast port are all historic pleasures which
link us inextricably to our past.

Whatever you end up serving this
Christmas Day, I hope you enjoy preparing it as much as eating it.

Merry Christmas and a happy new year to
you all!

Dec 08

A bird’s best buddy


Braised red cabbage is a firm favourite
in our family. It’s an excellent accompaniment to a roast lunch as it
can happily sit for a while on a low heat – or in the bottom oven of
the Aga – leaving you free to concentrate on the roast potatoes or
steaming your greens to perfection. It suits toad in the hole or
chicken, but is truly wonderful with a slightly fattier roast like
pork belly or a slow-roasted shoulder of lamb. It’s perfect for an
Easter lunch and even better at Christmas day when oven-space is at a

You can make this the day before and
re-heat it at the last minute, even in a – dare I say it? – the

Here, I’ve jazzed up the usual version
with clementines and cranberries to make it more Christmassy. The
result has a perfect sweet/sour balance and makes a glorious
accompaniment to what can otherwise be a very rich meal.

Braised red cabbage (serves 4-6 as a


  • 550g red cabbage
  • 2 shallots or 1 red onion
  • Zest and juice of 2 clementines
  • A handful of dried cranberries or dried
  • 3 juniper berries, crushed
  • a cinnamon stick
  • a few cloves
  • 3 tbs muscavado sugar
  • 3 tbs cider vinegar
  • 25g butter


Pre-heat the oven to 140ºC.

Finely slice red cabbage, removing
woody core. This is best done on a mandolin. Pop into a large, heavy
casserole dish with a lid. Finely slice shallots and add to cabbage
along with clementine zest and juice, cranberries or cherries plus
all ingredients except cloves. I crush the heads of these against the
side of the pan and throw the rest away – it saves someone cracking
their tooth on one, and you only really want a hint of clove anyway.

Pop in oven for three hours, stirring
occasionally, and serve hot alongside your roast. Remove the cinnamon
stick, or place jauntily on top. You could easily make this the day
before and re-heat when needed – some say the taste is better for a
bit of maturing.

Dec 08

Pickled pink


If you haven’t pickled anything before
these red onions are a great starting point. They are a doddle. You
could almost cook them with your eyes closed. They have an incredible
sweet, sour and lightly spiced flavour, look amazing, and make ideal
gifts at this time of year.

Pop them in jars with a few pickling
spices and give them to friends. Decorated with a piece of beautiful
Vivi Rouleau ribbon wrapped round each jar they make a wonderful
Christmas present.

They are also a good way to pick up
pickling basics, like how to balance the sweet and sour spices. Chop
and change as you please, just remember some are stronger than

As soon as you pop them on the table
you’ll see they seem to go with virtually every meal from grilled
steak and hamburgers to home-cooked ham, with cheese and crackers or
with strong-flavoured fish such as mackerel or sardines.

Smoked salmon, crème fraiche and
a few of these on toast would make a perfect Christmas breakfast.
Pink, crisp and slightly tart, they look a picture – and everyone
will be begging you for the recipe.

Quick pink pickled onions

Ingredients (Makes 3-4 jars)

  • 500g red onions (about 2 medium
    onions, although you can easily scale this recipe up)

For the pickling liquid:

  • 3/4l distilled white vinegar

  • 300g caster sugar

  • a cinnamon stick

  • a few whole cloves

  • 1 tbs allspice berries

  • a star anise

  • a few bay leaves

  • 1 tbs black peppercorns, whole

Hot tip: Buy extra spices to put
in the jars, they’ll look really pretty bobbing around. Don’t put
them in your pickle at the start of the recipe, though, or they will
be overpowering.


Mix all the pickle ingredients together
in a stainless steel or similar non-reactive saucepan and bring to
boil. Pop a lid on and simmer for a few minutes. Turn off heat and
allow mixture to stand for a few hours to infuse spices. You could
leave overnight.

Peel onions and slice into rings about
half a centimetre thick. Separate rings with your fingers so they
become individual. Bring liquid to the boil again, add about half the
onions (or as many will fit under liquid). As soon as pickling liquid
starts to bubble again, take it off heat and, using a slotted spoon,
remove onions and spread them onto a flat dish or tray. Allow to cool

You have to do this twice more, each
time allowing them to cool. This may seem a bit long-winded but it
means the onions stay crunchy and retain their wonderful colour. To
speed up the cooling process you could either pop the onions into the
fridge or do as I did and leave them, covered, in the garden.

Once you’ve completed the cooking and
cooling process the third time, pop the onions into sterilised jars,
adding a few extra spices if you like and seal. They are ready to eat
straight away but will benefit from being left overnight.

An alternative:

Try this recipe with chillies instead
of onions for a spicy pickle. The result is absolutely brilliant with
barbecues and grilled meats.

Dec 08

A veggie Christmas


Being a vegetarian at this time of year
can be a weensy bit problematic. You can become acutely aware of what
you are missing out on when everyone else is tucking into the bits
you can’t – the sausages, bacon rolls and the bird itself. Whether
you are veggie from the anti-cruelty angle or you subscribe to the
‘just don’t like it’ school of thought, this is not a day when you
should be missing out and indeed, with a little careful planning, you
don’t have to. There are plenty of good vegetarian alternatives to
main dishes – and I think nut roast is one of the best of them. It
gets such a bad press as it’s usually over-cooked to hell, not wet
enough and has that same omni-presence on vegetarian menus as goat’s
cheese seems to. When done well a nut roast is more like a vegetarian
stuffing, flavoursome and nutty and a joy to eat.

In our house at Christmas, as my sister
is a veggie, we always have one of these – and it’s just as popular
with the meat-eaters as the veggies. As opposed to a completely
veggie inspired meal, this parsnipy bake is perfect with roast
potatoes, greens and lots of gravy (vegetarian, of course!).

Chestnut mushroom and parsnip roast


  • 1 onion

  • a fat clove of garlic

  • 225g cashew nuts

  • 125g breadcrumbs

  • 1 egg

  • 3 medium parsnips

  • a small handful of parsley

  • a small handful of thyme

  • 150ml hot vegetable stock

  • 30g butter

  • 250g chesnut mushrooms


Peel and dice the
parsnips into batons and then par-boil for 8-10 minutes until soft
but not falling apart. Mash with the back of a fork with the butter.

Finely chop the
onion and the garlic and sweat them til soft but not coloured in a
frying pan with a splash of olive oil.

Whizz the nuts in
a blender and mix with the breadcrumbs. Add the parsley, thyme and
the egg to this, along with the sliced mushrooms, the mashed parnsips
and the stock. Add the onion and garlic and season, mixing well to
combine but not breaking up the mushrooms.

the mixture into a loaf tin and seal with foil. Place in a pre-heated
oven at 180
for 45 minutes, then remove the foil and continue to cool for 15
minutes to go golden and crunchy on top.

You can turn this
out if you like, or just spoon it out like a stuffing.

Dec 08

Sharing my mum’s mince pies


I’m sure everyone thinks their mum makes the best mince pies. I’m one hundred and ten per cent sure mine does. The pastry is so flaky it crumbles and melts in the mouth; the mincemeat is not too sweet and rich, and plumped-up with dried fruits.

The pies are perfectly sized at just about two bites and decorated with stars as lids and a sprinkling of icing sugar. They’re glorious and in my book about as good as mince pies get.

Mum does have cold-ish hands, which is always an advantage. But if you have a marble slab, a marble rolling pin or a cold bottle of wine from the fridge, you’ll be fine.

The original mincemeat recipe is a Delia, but it has my mum’s touch. The heavy suet is gone, replaced by lighter organic sunflower oil, giving a superior, more moist final product. It doesn’t keep as long as the suet-based version, though, and if you prefer suet you can still include it.

The secret to the pastry is the addition of ground almonds, resulting in a nutty, crumbly crust. You could, of course, use shop-bought mincemeat, but I would urge you to give the pastry a go at home.

My mum’s mince pies


For the pastry

  • 115g plain flour
  • 55g ground almonds
  • 85g very cold butter

For the mincemeat (makes 1.35

  • 225g bramley apples, cored and chopped small (no need to peel them)
  • 4-5 tablespoons sunflower oil or 110g shredded suet
  • 175g raisins
  • 110g sultanas
  • 110g currants
  • 110g whole mixed candied peel, finely chopped
  • 175g soft dark brown sugar
  • grated zest and juice of 1 orange
  • grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
  • 25g whole almonds, cut into slivers
  • 2 tsp mixed ground spice
  • ¼ tsp ground cinnamon
  • good pinch freshly grated nutmeg
  • 3 tbs brandy


First make the mincemeat by mixing all
the ingredients except the brandy in an oven-proof bowl. Cover and
leave in a cool place overnight.

The next day, cover the bowl with foil
and bake in a pre-heated oven at 120ºC for three hours. Remove
from the oven and allow to cool. Don’t worry about its appearance,
but stir from time to time during the cooling process. Once the mix
is cold, add brandy and put mincemeat in sterilised jars, sealing the
top with a wax disc. The mincemeat will keep for up to three years in
a cool, dark place.

To make the pastry put flour and
almonds in a bowl. Dice butter and add this. You want it to stay as
cool as possible so try to be light with your hands. Rub butter into
flour and almond mixture lightly until you have a mixture that
resembles breadcrumbs. Add a little cold water at a time until the
pastry leaves the bowl clean and come away in a ball. Wrap it in
cling film or a plastic bag and place in fridge for 20 minutes.

Grease a tart/pie tin with butter. Roll
out pastry on a floured surface to thinner than half a centimetre.
Cut rounds slightly larger than the size of the
moulds in the tin
with a pastry cutter or a knife and line
moulds. Place a tablespoon or so of mincemeat in the centre of the
pastry. Roll out the excess pastry and cut into whatever shapes you
would like for the pie lids – we use a star-shaped cutter.

Brush the pies with a little milk and
if you are completely sealing the pies with a lid, make a small cross
incision in the top to allow the steam out. Bake in a pre-heated oven
at 180ºC for 20 minutes until golden brown. Allow to cool a
little before sieving over icing sugar and serving warm.

Dec 08

Tiradito Tuesday


Who’d have thought raw fish could be so
versatile and interesting? A grey Tuesday morning spent with my
friend Ryan, operations manager at London eatery Gaucho, revealed a
number of delicious and different ways the Argentinians serve it. I
learnt about tiradito, a South-American favourite similar to
ceviche, but while the latter consists of raw fish ‘cooked’ by
some form of acid, normally a citrus juice, the former isn’t cooked
at all, just dressed.

It sounds scarily simple – and it is.
We prepped three different dishes in a matter of minutes; about three
to be exact. Admittedly, some prep had been done for us beforehand –
the julienning, chopping and slicing – as we were in a working
kitchen. Brilliant, light and incredibly healthy, this is well worth
considering as a starter on Christmas day. It takes minutes to
prepare and serve up while looking simple, stylish and colourful.

Fundamental to the success of a
tiradito is the freshness of the fish – it must virtually be
still flipping about when you use it. So it’s worth a trip to your
fishmonger and explaining what you’re using it for. And, if you
decide to prepare it on Christmas day make sure you pick the fish up
as late as possible the day before.

If this is your first foray into raw
fish and you’ve heard how complex sushi is to master, you’ll be
surprised at how easy it is. Fresh, subtle fish, tart lime juice, a
crunchy salad of my favourite green papaya, some red onion, red
chilli and mango on the side and you’ll be ready in no time. And
there’s the added bonus that it’s impressive to serve and also,
oddly, a mean hangover cure…

A word of warning – you must do this with fish from a fishmonger you trust. Don’t try it with supermarket fish, and always tell your butcher you will be serving it completely raw, with no cooking or curing. It is perfectly safe to eat fish in this manner and people have been doing so for centuries, but it must be absolutely rigidly fresh.

Tiradito of salmon
with green papaya, mango and chilli

If you can’t find green papaya
substitute Asian pear, or just omit entirely

Ingredients (Serves 4)

  • juice of 2 limes

  • 80ml good olive oil

  • 1 ripe mango

  • ¼ of a green papaya (you
    could use Asian pear)

  • A small bunch of coriander, or
    baby coriander if your greengrocer stocks it

  • Half a cucumber, seeded and peeled

  • Half a small red onion

  • Half a red pepper

  • 320-350g very fresh salmon fillet,

  • 1 red chilli (optional).


Prepare vegetables – julienne (finely
slice) onion, cucumber, red pepper and green papaya. Peel mango and
cut into one-centimetre cubes. Mix these together and set aside.

Skin fish (your fishmonger can do this
for you). Finely slice it along grain to get slices about 5ml thick.
If any are too thick you can gently flatten with the side of your
knife. Divide fish between four plates. Spoon oil and lime over fish.
Place salad on side of each plate, trying to add height by piling it
gently on itself.

Deseed and finely dice the chilli if
using. Scatter this and the coriander over the fish and serve

Dec 08

The duck and the damson


Gravy can be tricky. Some days when I
make it, it works like a charm – a dark, meaty sauce that soaks into
the roast potatoes and turns greens into the food of the gods. Other
days, it’s a disaster, flavourless and dull.

What will really transform your gravy
into something truly wonderful are a few basics: a solid,
heavy-bottomed roasting tray, a splash of something sharp like booze
or vinegar, some good stock, and finally a decent piece of meat.

The stock secret is an easy one to
solve as you’re usually making the gravy while boiling veg, just pour
in the vegetable water. This tastes better than a stock cube. The
soft sweetness you get from carrots will permeate right through.

With a rather fatty bird like duck, the
meat juices need something tart to sharpen things up a bit. Some of
the best results happen from the lack of one ingredient or another,
and no booze at a friend’s house led to the addition of some balsamic
vinegar. This, coupled with the juices squeezed out of the lemons
stuffed in the duck cavity, gave the ‘bite’ required.

Then just add some delicious damson jam
– a good one will melt into it, cheap stuff will result in a sauce
full of little rubbery lumps – and you’ve got a beautiful gravy,
redolent of the sweet and sour hints so perfect with duck,

Roast duck with damson gravy

Ingredients (Serves 4)

  • 1 whole duck with giblets
  • 1 lemon
  • 1 carrot
  • 1 head garlic
  • 3 or 4 large potatoes
  • 3 tbs balsamic vinegar
  • 1 or 2 tbs plain flour
  • 2 tbs good damson jam
  • cooking water from vegetables


Pre-heat oven to 180ºC. Remove
giblets from duck. Chop carrot into small-ish pieces, about a
centimetre or so across, and pop them in roasting tray. Slice through
garlic bulb sideways, cutting off top and exposing cloves. Add this
to the tray along with duck’s neck which will be in the bag of
giblets. Halve lemon and stuff it inside duck.

Put duck upside-down on a roasting rack
in same dish – a cooling rack would suffice. Place it in the oven and
prepare potatoes. Peel, cut into large-ish pieces and par-boil for
ten to 15 minutes. Drain and set aside for a few minutes.

When the duck has been in the oven for
about half an hour, take it out and spoon potatoes around it. There
should be a fair bit of duck fat in pan. Turn potatoes in fat and
then return tray to oven. After about an hour and a half take it out
and pop duck on a plate to rest and put potatoes in an oven-proof
serving dish. Turn oven off and put them back in to keep warm. Boil
whatever veg you are using in some salted water.

Pour all bar a couple of tablespoons of
fat from duck into a bowl and put aside for another day. Put tray on
a low-ish heat on hob. When it starts to sizzle sprinkle in flour and
scrape bottom of pan with a wooden spoon, to mix in sticky, gooey
bits. Cook for a few mins until flour goes dark. Splash in vinegar
and stir. Squeeze juice from the lemons into the pan. Add vegetable
water a few spashes at a time. Turn up heat and let bubble
ferociously for a minute or two. Add jam, stirring until it is
dissolved. Finally, add a little more water until you achieve the
right consistency – everyone likes it differently! A delicious,
fruity, slightly different gravy for your roast.

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