Of all the fuss and jollity of Christmas, it is the cooking that causes the most stress. Spending several days in a pinny swigging sherry from the bottle is a more appealing idea than it is a reality. And so it is the same for us; professional cooks, yes, but still prone to longings for a post-prandial snooze. And you can be caught out spending too much time figuring out the day itself to remember that in fact it’s the two or three days around Christmas, with a full house to feed that most often causes the trouble. By the time the in-laws’ cousins come for Boxing Day lunch, you’re hiding in the broom cupboard. Luckily, the one thing that makes Christmas cooking somewhat boring – traditional recipes repeating themselves year-in, year out - also makes it very easy to plan and cook ahead.
The trick is all in creating meals that have few elements of last-minute cooking needed. A fragrant, garlicky fish stew which can be cooked for the freezer, that just needs some fish lowering into it at the last minute; a mellow, umami-rich sardine and miso pate that will keep in the fridge for days; some sweet pickled pear or squash that can enliven any plate of cheese and cold cuts and can be made ahead weeks in advance.
Here are our golden rules:
1. Only have one fresh element in the meal (eg salad)
2. Make a variety of salad dressings so you can add a different salad to every meal without having to change ingredients, just adding something a little different – walnuts and pomegranate seeds, or toasted flaked almonds.
3. Go for nibbles – smoked nuts, good olives and crudités, instead of starters.
4. Invest in some good charcuterie – a whole jamon looks extravagantly generous and goes far (they are a bargain at Lidl) – and put a teenager in charge of slicing and producing it regularly.
5. Make/ buy plenty of pickles in whatever form you prefer – they can come out again and again. With your charcuterie as a starter, for instance.
6. You don’t need pudding at every meal, good chocolate will often do the job. But when you do, stick to puddings you can make and freeze in advance – puff pastry tarts and sharp granitas go down well.
7. Make a kitchen rota for Christmas day, break it down into simple tasks that anyone can complete. Delegate.
Here our some of our favourite make-ahead recipes to solve Christmas cooking crises. Now go ahead and take off the pinny.
Sardine Miso pate
1 tin sardines in oil, drained
3 tbs butter
1 tablespoon white miso paste
1 lemon, juice and zest.
Mash or whizz together. Will keep in a sealed container for a week.
Easy Fish Stew, adapted from Jamie Oliver
For the garlic bread:
1 ciabatta loaf
3–4 cloves of garlic
a few sprigs of fresh lemon thyme
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
For the stew:
1 bulb of fennel
4 anchovy fillets 4 spring onions
2 fresh chorizo sausages, chopped into small bits
½-1 fresh red chilli
2 cloves of garlic
125ml white wine
1 small bunch of fresh basil 400g mixture of fish fillets, scaled and pin-boned; I like monkfish, red mullet, John Dory, sea bass and whiting
400g mussels and clams, scrubbed clean and debearded
4 large raw shell-on king prawns
For the sauce:
1 clove of garlic
1 pinch of saffron 3 heaped tbsp fat-free natural yoghurt
½ a lemon
Cut deep crisscrosses into the ciabatta. Squash the unpeeled garlic through a garlic crusher over the bread, add the thyme sprigs and a pinch of salt and pepper, then drizzle over the extra virgin olive oil. Rub into the cracks of the bread, then freeze if using later.
Halve the fennel (reserving any leafy tops) and put into the processor with the anchovies, the trimmed spring onions and chilli, then blitz until finely chopped. Put into the casserole pan with the chorizo and 2 tablespoons of olive oil and turn the heat up to high, stirring regularly. Squash in the unpeeled garlic through a garlic crusher, then pour the wine into the pan and let it cook away. Pour in the passata and half a jar of boiling water (350ml), tear in most of the basil leaves and season with salt and pepper. You can do all this in advance and freeze the sauce.
When you are ready to eat, preheat the oven and roast the garlic bread till golden. Cut the fish up so you’ve got four even-sized chunks of each type, then add all the seafood to the pan (throw away any open mussels and clams that don’t close when tapped), cover with the lid and boil. Peel the garlic and bash with a pinch of salt and the saffron in a pestle and mortar, then muddle in the yoghurt and a squeeze of lemon juice. When the mussels and clams have opened (throw away any that remain closed), the fish will be cooked through (roughly 4 minutes). Season to taste, then serve scattered with the remaining basil leaves and fennel tops, the saffron sauce and garlic bread.
From Sarah Raven. Great under grilled cheese on toast.
For 7-8 jars
900g apples, peeled and cored
450g onions, quatered
450g stoned dates
450g Demerara sugar
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp salt
Cayenne pepper to taste
450ml white wine vinegar
Pulse apples, onions and dates briefly in in a food processor, careful not to over-do it as you don’t want a puree. Put mixture into large china bowl and add rest of ingredients. Leave for 36 hours, stirring occasionally, then put into warm sterilised jars. Keeps for months.
Olive Oil & Lemon Dijon Dressing
4 tbs Olive oil
1 tbs Dijon mustard
2 tbs lemon juice
Shake together until emulsified and toss well.
Great with crunchy leaves. Eg, endive, little gem
Plus: toasted pine nuts/walnuts/blue cheese/avocado/peeled cucumber
Pomegranate Molasses Dressing
1 garlic clove ground to a paste with salt in a pestle and mortar
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tbslp pomegranate molasses
1 tblsp water
4 tbslp extra virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp caster sugar
sea salt and black pepper
Mix the garlic with the (cinnamon if desired) pomegranate molasses, then add the water and whisk in the olive oil. The sauce should emulsify. Check the seasoning and if very tart, add bit of sugar.
Great with softer, peppery leaves, eg: watercress, rocket, baby spinach
Additions: walnuts, pomegranate seeds/blue cheese/roast squash
Apple Puff Pastry Tarts
You can use a similar method to make simple savoury tarts such as onion and thyme. You will need to soften sliced onions slowly in olive oil before scattering over the pastry.
1 sheet all butter puff pastry
3-4 eating apples
2 tbs apple puree
Glaze, made from sieved apricot jam, thinned with a little water
Preheat your oven to 200. Peel, halve lengthways and core your apples, removing as little as possible. Very thinly slice into half moon shapes. Lay out your puff pastry. Score halfway through the pastry, about 2 cm from around the edge to form a lip all the way round. Smear the puree across the central section to form a glue. Snugly pack your apple thins into the centre section, overlapping tightly with each other. Bake for 30-40 minutes until the pastry is golden and the edge of the apples slightly blackened. Allow to cool. Freeze at this point. When ready to eat, warm through in a low oven. Warm a few spoons of sieved or smooth apricot jam with a little water to loosen. Brush over the tarts generously and serve.
Mandarin or Blood Orange and Campari Granita
100g caster sugar
The juice of 1 lemon
600ml mandarin or orange juice
Put the Campari, sugar and lemon juice into a bowl, stir until the sugar is dissolved, then add the mandarin juice. Pour into a suitable container and freeze. After half an hour, stir with a fork, dragging crystals from the outside edges to the centre, and repeat every half-hour or so until the granita is formed into loose crystals.