Book Reviews - Seasonal Sanity Savers

Tradition usually rules at Christmas if you’re cooking for a large number (see our main cookery feature for the traditional Christmas feast ) – and, if you’re lucky, there will be plenty of leftovers to ease demand on the cook for a day or two afterward.

But if you are just a couple or a small group, turkey and ham may not appeal – and then there are those with special dietary needs, notably vegetarians, who must have something different. And, following the seasonal over-indulgence on protein-heavy foods, even the most dedicated carnivore will feel better for an occasional meat-free meal or at least one with an emphasis on fresh vegetables. With all this was in my mind you may find the following suggestions from more of the season’s best cookery books appealing throughout the Christmas/New Year holiday.

Learn to Cook Wheat, Gluten and Dairy Free by Antoinette SavillFor anyone with a food allergy, navigating your way through festive fare (and restaurant menus) can be a nightmare, making Antoinette Savill’s practical and inspiring book Learn to Cook Wheat, Gluten and Dairy Free (Grub Street paperback, stg£14.99) something of a godsend; knowing the restrictions, many people will be surprised at the variety offered across the range of 100 recipes in the book – including dishes suitable for Christmas/entertaining such as Roast Pheasant with Gravy & Bread Sauce.

Home Baked by George and Cecilia ScurfieldCookbooks have become so highly illustrated that many younger cooks will find the idea of a ‘text only’ cookbook with perhaps a few line drawings quite strange. They have a special charm however, and it’s good to see some revivals – Home Baked (Grub Street hardback, stg£12.99) is a new edition of George and Cecilia Scurfields’ two little baking classics, Home Baked and Home-Made Cakes and Biscuits, first published in 1956 and 1963 respectively. With plenty of practical advice and foolproof recipes, this will be an interesting and useful little treat for new generation bakers, or a bit of nostalgia for an older cook.

Brother Anselm's Glenstal CookbookBrother Anselm’s Glenstal Cookbook (Columbia Press,; €12.99 with free delivery in Ireland; also available from booksellers, eg Amazon) is a collection of simple, wholesome dishes cooked by Brother Anselm, who is head chef at Glenstal Abbey, and with a Foreword by his real brother, the actor John Hurt. They are good family recipes and, as Brother Anselm normally cooks for 30-40mpeople, the quantities in some recipes are quite large –perfect for a party perhaps, and easy to scale down. No glossy photos, but this is a more personal; offering with quirky drawings to illustrate.

A Country Kitchen by Anne NearyFor family and friends who drop by over the Christmas period, try Anne Neary’s 10 minute recipe for Mulled Wine from A Country Kitchen (paperback, available online from , €26 incl P&P, and selected bookshops in the South-East). Written by a teacher with nearly 20 years experience of running her Ryeland House Cookery School in Co Kilkenny, and a love of the country, its produce and introducing young people to the origins of their food, it’s a book with an authentic voice - and one I will come back to. Meanwhile, from the Christmas chapter, here’s a tasty little number for a party helping down the mince pies.

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Crudites with White Bean Dip from Rachel Allen's Home CookingCrudités with White Bean Dip

Seasonal raw vegetables, served as an appetiser or hors d'oeuvre, are lovely at any time and a great antidote to heavy food over Christmas. “Especially,” says Rachel Allen in her book Home Cooking (HarperCollins, hardback €19.99), “When there is a tasty dip to indulge in.” She gives lots of ideas, including tapenade, savoury nut butter, guacamole and tzatziki; most – like this versatile white bean dip – are suitable for vegetarians. The dip can also be spread on bruschetta or a piece of crispbread, or warmed up and served with a steak or chops. Keeps in the fridge for up to two days.
Makes as many as you like.

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Zest! CookbookGravadlax with dill mustard sauce

Many of us have reason to be grateful for the tireless work and kindness of the Irish Hospice Foundation and Zest! (hardback, Irish Hospice Foundation, €20) is a beautiful new recipe collection from leading chefs all around Ireland, each of whom contributed recipes for a balanced three-course meal to raise funds for this exceptionally worthwhile cause.

But, charitable aims aside, this is a fine book in its own right and includes many gorgeously do-able recipes, such as this gravadlax donated by the stylish Dublin restaurant, Peploes, on St Stephen’s Green. Like vegetarian food, fish is especially appreciated at this time of year, and gravadlax makes a delicious alternative to traditional smoked salmon; you do have to remember to begin a couple of days ahead, but it is very simple to make.

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Crispy Duck breast - Derry Clarke Keeping it Simple Crispy duck breast with glazed butternut squash

From Derry Clarke’s (lEcrivain) latest book ‘Keeping It Simple’ (Gill & Macmillan €24.99), this could be a nice recipe for a smaller Christmas meal, for 2-4 people. Derry advises “Before cooking duck breast, rub the skin with sea salt for extra crispness.

Cooking the duck skin side down in a pan that you heat from cold also helps the skin to cook through. I would recommend serving duck pink. The butternut squash in this dish cuts the richness of the duck.”

Rare duck is quite a cheffy thing and you can of course cook it for longer, if preferred. You can also vary the accompaniment – here the butternut squash works with the duck in the same way as more traditional turnip, for example.

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Punjabi Cranachan - Anjum's New IndianIf you’re looking for a delicious, traditionally inspired dessert that’s a bit of a talking point, Punjabi Cranachan, from Anjum’s New Indian, could be the one. “Punjabis love whisky”, says Anjum, “And cranachan (a Scottish dessert made from porridge oats, honey, whisky and cream) could have almost been Punjabi in origin.

It is a hallmark of Indian cooks that they spice up and make their own any foreign ingredients and dishes that come their way, so it feels quite natural to do it here... with an almond cream, which adds a wonderful flavour and almost tastes like kheer. It can all be made in advance and, assembled when ready to serve, is delicious, cooling and beautiful.”

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Mincemeat and Almond Shortbread from Brenda Costigan's From Brenda's Kitchen Mincemeat and Almond Shortbread

There’s likely to be at least one spare jar of mincemeat in most kitchens at this time – plenty more if you make your own – and this versatile short-term preserve deserves better than to be thought of as a ‘single use’ ingredient for mince pies.

The popular Sunday Independent cookery columnist Brenda Costigan gives this unusual recipe in her new cookbook, From Brenda's Kitchen (Gill & Macmillan, paperback, €19.99), saying “A real treat, this recipe has become a seasonal must at Christmas in our house. It also makes a lovely gift.”

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