Jenny Chandler on drawing inspiration from around the world when it comes to feeding a crowd thriftily this Christmas season
In Britain, the festive season comes at the very darkest point of the year and so, whatever your beliefs, even if you’re the Bah Humbug type, there can be no better moment to invite a crowd into a warm and welcoming home for a drink and a bite to eat.
My favourite time is the quiet patch between Christmas and New Year. The sparkly staff parties, the roast bird rituals, the crackers and stockings are all over, and there’s that brief hiatus before everything cranks up for New Year. By now everyone is well over the cocktail sausages, smoked salmon, the mince pies and the marzipan—it’s the perfect opportunity for an informal bash with some alternative Christmas food.
Entertaining doesn’t have to be about expensive drinks and faffy canapés, or even sitting around a table—we’ll all have done plenty of that already. It’s about giving people something great to eat and drink, along with the opportunity to relax (and that includes you).
In my experience, the bigger the crowd, the less dishes the better. Lots of small platters will require constant refilling, people take an age to serve their food, and there will always be a favourite that runs out. Preparing a couple of fabulously balanced, tasty dishes will often have more visual impact, it’s easier to estimate catering quantities and allows you to spend less time in the kitchen too.
The Swedes have surely created the ultimate relaxed dinner model: the smorgasbord or buffet. It’s just so much easier if guests help themselves and there’s no last-minute carving or plating. We all have such different appetites, too: some of my friends tuck in like there’s no tomorrow, while others eat like sparrows. Thankfully, it all seems to balance up.
The traditional Swedish Christmas table or ‘julbord’ is crammed with a vast array of dishes, but for my informal gathering I’ll strip it back to two or three. I’ll be preparing the lusciously indulgent, creamy potato and fish dish, Jansson’s temptation, along with a crisp and refreshing kale and apple salad for my Scandi menu, and would suggest some fabulous rye bread to go alongside (snap some up from Karaway Bakery—it freezes beautifully). If you do feel the need to push the boat out, gravadlax would work beautifully with this menu too.
The Holy Land
Middle Eastern tables are all about generosity and a glorious wealth of fragrant spices and textures; so many of my Christmas food memories are tied up with the scents and flavours of cinnamon, allspice, dates, pomegranate and citrus, which sing in The Holy Land. Continuing with my less-is-more strategy when it comes to feeding the hoards on a budget, I’d plump for one stunner of a central dish: a pilaf.
The rice and chickpea pilaf should be piled on a large platter, strewn with pistachios and pomegranate seeds, fragrant with orange and spices and flavoured with a surprisingly small amount of poultry, such as pheasant, duck, partridge (or even your turkey leftovers). Served with strained yoghurt labneh, harissa and toasted pitta, you have a feast on your hands.
We seldom tend to think of Indian food at Christmas and yet, what could be a more comforting crowd-pleaser than a curry? In Kerala, where you find the highest concentration of Christians on the Indian sub-continent, a Christmas feast would typically feature many dishes containing fish, meat and poultry, as many devout worshippers will have been fasting for a month. Since abstinence plays no role in our festive run up, I have no qualms about embracing the southern Indian flavours with the more economical choice of a classic coconut and egg curry, served with a tangy pickle of course.
Do come along to my festive crowd-feeding demo, where I’ll be offering lots of tips on adapting the recipes for vegetarian guests too.
Join Jenny for tips, tastings and recipes in the Market Hall Thursday 23rd November, 12:30-2pm