Article

The seasonal cook: December

Categories: Expert guidance

In this series, Sybil Kapoor explores how a sense of seasonality in your cooking can be enhanced through colour, forms, textures and aromas, which together create an emotional resonance, evoking a time and place

As Christmas approaches, I find myself rebelling against the media’s depiction of the festive season.  Everything feels over the top: from the pages of recipes exhorting us to cook complex showy dishes, to the TV ads showing tables weighed down with enough food to feed the five thousand. I suspect that by the time we reach 24th December, most people would rather be in the pub with a drink and a bag of crisps than at home confronting the turkey. 

If you’re feeling festively challenged, my advice is to stop and have a quiet rethink. I probably love cooking more than most, but even I find many of the culinary demands at this time of year too much. My answer is simple: be kind to yourself and only cook dishes that you enjoy making. It’s perfectly possible to create an amazing holiday for everyone without slaving away in the kitchen for much of the month. 

First things first, be ruthless and ditch any stressful plans, then focus on how to evoke a festive feel without provoking undue stress. This requires some pleasurable thinking, the odd list, shopping and not too much cooking.  

Let your imagination run riot and write down all the foods that conjure up Christmas and the New Year for you. It might include clementines to stuff into children’s stockings, for example, or oysters and champagne to share with your true love. It doesn’t matter what the food is, so long as it makes you feel happy.

Clementines

Dusky black grapes
I find it easiest to list my festive foods by type, such as fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, bread, treats and such like. My fruit list, for example, would include nuts to crack open by candle light, small English apples such as pippins or russets to eat with stilton or take on a long walk; pomegranates because they look so beautiful and keep well; and dusky black grapes because my mother always used to place a beautiful bunch on the table at Christmas. In those days, they were an expensive luxury.

Now get your diary and make a second list of how and when your chosen foods might be eaten over the Christmas period. My pomegranates, for instance, will be added to a clementine, mango (or pineapple) fruit salad in the New Year, to be eaten for breakfast or as a pudding, depending on my mood. My grapes will be halved and seeded and added to a celery, wild rice, cucumber and tarragon dressed salad, which I will eat with the remains of the Christmas roast regardless of whether it’s turkey, pheasant, goose or chicken.

Some seasonal ingredients, such as chestnuts and jerusalem artichokes, can be problematic. I love both and associate them with this time of year, but the former require some time-consuming work and the latter are not to everyone’s taste, despite the fact that they have a delicious smoky flavour and velvety texture. As a result, I tend to spoil myself by eating roast chestnuts on the London streets rather than at home, and I’m cautious about who is serve my artichoke soup or artichoke and chestnut risotto. I cheat with the latter by using vacuum packed chestnuts.

The next step is harder. Fill in the meal gaps. This is the tricky part as it usually addresses all the occasions that create stress, such as what to eat on Christmas Eve or serve visiting friends. It also highlights which meals you find difficult, such as Christmas dinner. This is the point when you choose what to make, what to simplify and what to buy ready-made.

Rock oysters

Turkey razzmatazz
It’s important to be realistic about Christmas dinner—cook within your comfort zone, don’t serve lots of different alternatives and myriad courses. If you love goose, restrict yourself to roast potatoes (cooked in goose fat), spiced red cabbage and apple (which can be made ahead), and frozen petit pois as accompaniments. If you hate the whole turkey razzmatazz, opt for a rib of beef with freshly grated horseradish sauce, roast potatoes, brussels sprouts and such like. 

Some carefully-sourced, ready-made shopping can help create gorgeous wintery meals that require minimal cooking. Morecambe Bay potted shrimps (Furness Fish & Game) for example, make a lovely starter with hot toast, while dressed crab (Sussex Fish) or fresh ravioli (La Tua Pasta) make a delicious, simple lunch or supper, particularly if you make a bitter endive salad with beetroot and red onion for the former and an elegant salad of finely sliced Sardinian camone tomatoes dressed in a peppery olive oil for the latter.  

Fresh fruit, nuts and seasonal delicacies such as dates, panforte and Turkish delight (The Turkish Deli) are a perfect substitute for pudding, while mince pies (Konditor & Cook) may seem predictable, but remain irresistible to any unexpected guests, especially if served with some fragrant mulled wine.