The Darina Allen Column

Somehow it feels as though the festive season comes round earlier and earlier each year and with it, all too often, comes the worry of added expense coupled with extra work and sheer exhaustion. The mere thought makes some people long to go to curl up and snooze until early January - time to remind ourselves of the spirit of Christmas and to remember that it should be a time of caring and sharing, comfort and joy and dare I say ‘simplicity’. So after all that, let’s ‘Have ourselves a Merry, little Christmas’.

As ever, a bit of advance planning will mean that everyone’s more relaxed and able to enjoy the fun….so let’s make a plan. I’m a great list maker, for me, lists and lots of them are the answer. I think we all now realise that Christmas is not just a one-day event but closer to two weeks. If you’ve got a big family, don’t feel you have to do everything yourselves – it’s good to begin by allocating some fun roles to as many family and friends as you can cajole or shame into taking on some tasks.

Decide on the menu for the big day, whether it’s turkey and ham or maybe a goose, order the very best you can afford – but hurry, beautifully reared organic birds tend to get snapped up early… We buy many of our beautiful plump geese from Nora Aherne (021 4632354), the second generation of this East Cork family who also rear beautiful turkeys and ducks. We tend to be total traditionalists – the Christmas dinner menu is sacred, no one seems to want to change a single iota, we must have a gorgeous plump really well hung turkey. (I order it ‘New York dressed’ and hang it for 4 or 5 weeks for maximum succulence.)

Start ahead with a planner, fill in the basics and create a shopping list. It’s easy to overestimate the amount of food we need but a well-stocked larder means one can whip up simple meals in minutes. I know turkey sandwiches are delicious but if there are just 2 or 4 in your family, ask yourself do you really need a turkey or goose, how about a plump pheasant, a crispy duck or a really beautiful organic chicken? This year a new favourite is a Scrunchy Spiced Winter Vegetable Pie (see below) for those who enjoy a lighter meat free meal.

A plate of Irish smoked fish is simply delicious - just add a wedge of lemon, thinly sliced brown bread and some cucumber pickle and horseradish sauce. There are so many artisan products to choose from, including Smoked Eel from Lough Neagh fisheries (contact Pallas Foods); smoked salmon and smoked mackerel fillets from Frank Hederman’s Belvelly Smokehouse; cold smoked hake, tuna, Pollock and salmon from Woodcock Smokery

It’s time to get cracking, so plan a couple of batch cooking sessions. We love to make lots and lots of soup, such a brilliant standby to have in the freezer in small containers, perfect to quickly defrost when you need to produce a comforting meal in a hurry.
I also love to have some bags of pre-weighed soda bread mix ready to pop into a bowl. Just turn on the oven then add a level teaspoon of baking soda and some buttermilk, cut the dough into scones and hey presto, you’ll have a bowl of chunky soup and freshly baked scones in less than 15 minutes. Some cured meats, farmhouse cheese, membrillo, a few tangerines and you have a perfect little feast.

Most of the traditional accompaniments and sauces both sweet and savoury can be made well ahead, so make more than you need as gifts for your friends - cranberry sauce, brandy butter and lots of chutneys and relishes.

Christmas Salad Wreath
A delicious festive starter, light, refreshing and fun to serve. We serve this salad family style in the middle of the table.
Serves 6 – 8 or more depending on size

24 fresh walnut halves (taste first, to make sure they are not rancid)
175-200gr (6-7oz) mixed small salad leaves
2-3 ripe juicy pears
300-350g (10-12oz) ripe Crozier blue, crumbled (Use your favourite blue cheese)
Pomegranate seeds from ½ -1 fruit
Fresh sprigs of chervil and mint if available
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon honey
1 teaspoon of wholegrain mustard
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
flaky sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Pre-heat the oven to 180°C/350°/Gas Mark 4.

Toast the walnuts: spread out on a baking tray and roast in a preheated oven until nice and toasty (8-10 minutes), allow to cool.
Dressing: whisk all the ingredients together, season with flaky salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Before serving: arrange the salad leaves in a wreath shape on a large round plate.
To finish: peel and core the pears and cut into wedges. Arrange around the top of the salad wreath, sprinkle the crumbled blue cheese, toasted walnuts and pomegranate seeds over the top. Drizzle with a little dressing or put a little bowl of whisked dressing into the centre and serve immediately.

Old-Fashioned Roast Turkey with Fresh Herb Stuffing
This is my favourite roast stuffed turkey recipe. You may think the stuffing seems dull because it doesn’t include exotic-sounding ingredients like chestnuts and spiced sausage meat, but in fact it is moist and full of the flavour of fresh herbs and the turkey juices. Cook a chicken in exactly the same way but use one-quarter of the stuffing quantity given. [This recipe features in Darina’s popular book, ‘A Simply Delicious Christmas’.]
Serves 10-12

(4.5-5.4kg) 1 x 10-12lb, free-range and organic, turkey with neck and giblets
Fresh Herb Stuffing
175g (6oz) butter
350g (12oz) chopped onions
400-500g (14-16oz) approx. soft breadcrumbs (or approximately 1lb 4oz of gluten-free breadcrumbs)
50g (2oz) freshly chopped herbs eg. parsley, thyme, chives, marjoram, savoury, lemon balm
salt and freshly ground pepper
neck, gizzard, heart, wishbone and wingtips of turkey
2 sliced carrots
2 sliced onions
1 stick celery
Bouquet garni
3 or 4 peppercorns
For basting the turkey
225g (8oz) butter
large square of muslin (optional)
large sprigs of fresh parsley or watercress

Remove the wishbone from the neck end of the turkey, for ease of carving later. Make a turkey stock by covering with cold water the neck, gizzard, heart, wishbone, wingtips, vegetables and bouquet garni. (Keep the liver to make a smooth turkey liver paté). Bring to the boil and simmer while preparing and cooking the turkey, 3 hours approx.

To make the fresh herb stuffing: Sweat the onions gently in the butter until soft, for 10 minutes approx., then stir in the crumbs, herbs and a little salt and pepper to taste. Allow it to get quite cold. If necessary wash and dry the cavity of the bird, then season and half-fill with cold stuffing. Put the remainder of the stuffing into the crop at the neck end.

Weigh the turkey and calculate the cooking time. Allow 15 minutes approx. per lb/450g and 15 minutes over. Melt the butter and soak a large piece of good quality muslin in the melted butter; cover the turkey completely with the muslin and roast in a preheated moderate oven, 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4, for 2 ¾ - 3 ¼ hours depending on the weight. Cover with butter-soaked muslin, or smear the breast, legs and crop well with soft butter, and season with salt and freshly ground pepper. (If the turkey is not covered with butter-soaked muslin then it is a good idea to cover the whole dish with dampened parchment paper. However, your turkey will then be semi-steamed, not roasted in the traditional sense of the word.)

To Test: The turkey is done when the juices run clear. To test, prick the thickest part at the base of the thigh and examine the juices, they should be clear. Remove the turkey to a carving dish, keep it warm and allow it to rest while you make the gravy.

To make the gravy: Spoon off the surplus fat from the roasting pan. De-glaze the pan juices with fat free stock from the giblets and bones. Using a whisk, stir and scrape well to dissolve the caramelised meat juices from the roasting pan. Boil it up well, season and thicken with a little roux if you like. Taste and correct the seasoning. Serve in a hot gravy boat.

To serve: If possible, present the turkey on your largest and grandest serving dish, surrounded by crispy roast potatoes, and garnished with large sprigs of parsley or watercress and maybe a sprig of holly. (Make sure no one eats the berries.) Serve with Cranberry Sauce and Bread Sauce

A Simple Cranberry Sauce
Cranberry Sauce is delicious served with roast turkey, game and some rough pâtés and terrines. We enjoy this simple Cranberry Sauce best. It will keep in your fridge for several weeks. It is also great with white chocolate mousse or as a filling for a meringue roulade. I like it pure and simple but of course you can add some grated orange rind or a splash of brandy if you wish! (Note: Fresh cranberries keep for weeks on end but also freeze perfectly.) Serves 6 approximately.

175g (6oz) fresh or frozen cranberries
4 tablespoons (60ml/scant 2½ fl oz) water
75g (3oz) granulated sugar

Put the fresh cranberries in a small heavy-based stainless steel saucepan with the water – don’t add the sugar yet as it tends to toughen the skins. Bring them to the boil, cover and simmer until the cranberries pop and soften, about 7 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the sugar until dissolved. It should be soft and juicy, add a little warm water if it has accidently over cooked. Serve warm or cold.

Bread and Parsley Sauce
I love Bread Sauce but if I hadn't been reared on it I might never have tried it - the recipe sounds so dull! Serve with roast chicken, turkey and guinea fowl.
Note: Bread sauce will keep in the fridge for several days – the remainder can be reheated gently – you may need to use a little more milk.

600ml (1 pint) whole milk
110g (4oz) soft white breadcrumbs
2 medium onions, each stuck with 6 cloves
35 - 50g (1 1/2 - 2oz) butter
salt and freshly ground pepper
75ml (3oz) thick cream
2 tablespoons freshly chopped parsley
2 good pinches of ground cloves or quatre epices (French spice mix made of equal amounts of ground white pepper, cloves, nutmeg and ginger).

Preheat the oven to 160°C/325°F/Gas Mark 3.
Put all the ingredients except the cream into a small, deep saucepan and bring to the boil. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Transfer to the preheated oven and cook for 30 minutes. Remove the onion and add the cream just before serving. Correct the seasoning and add a little more milk if the sauce is too thick. Serve hot.

Scrunchy Spiced Vegetable Filo Pie
This vegetarian root vegetable pie is good for a feast as it serves 12–15 people. You can halve the recipe if you’re serving smaller numbers.
Serves 12-15

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
500g (18oz) chopped onions
450g (16oz) peeled and chopped potatoes
500g (18oz) chopped carrots
450g (16oz) peeled and chopped celeriac
220g (8oz) peeled and chopped parsnip
4 teaspoons cumin seeds
6 teaspoons coriander seeds
1 teaspoon cardamom seeds
2 teaspoon turmeric
flaky sea salt, freshly ground black pepper
220g (8oz) sliced and sautéed mushrooms
4 tablespoons flour
salt and freshly ground pepper
600ml (20fl oz) vegetable stock

9-10 sheets of filo pastry, 30 x 43cm (12 x 17 inch) (about one packet)
45g (2oz) melted butter, for brushing
egg wash, made by beating 1 organic, free-range egg with 1 tablespoon whole milk

Preheat the oven to 230°C/450°F/Gas Mark 4.
Cut the vegetables into uniform sized cubes about ¾ inch. Heat the olive oil in a 26cm (10 inch) ovenproof sauté pan, add the onions, potatoes, carrots, celeriac and parsnips.

Season generously with salt and freshly ground pepper, stir, cover the pot and sweat on a gentle heat for 4 or 5 minutes. Meanwhile heat the cumin, coriander and cardamom seeds on a pan until they smell aromatic - just a few seconds. Crush lightly, add to the vegetables stir in the sautéed mushrooms. Cook for 1-2 minutes. Take off the heat - sprinkle over the flour, turmeric and a pinch of sugar. Stir well.

Return to the pan to heat and add the vegetable stock gradually, stirring all the time. Bring to the boil, cover the pot and simmer for 20 - 30 minutes or until the vegetables are almost tender but not mushy. Remove from the pan, taste and correct the seasoning if necessary. Allow to cool.

Brush the sauté pan with melted butter. Brush each sheet of filo with melted butter, fold over width wise, layer up the pastry in the base of the sauté pan or roasting dish so that it comes up the sides, allow enough pastry to hang over the sides to fold over and encase the filling. Brush another sheet of filo with melted butter, divide into quarters, scrunch each piece lightly and arrange on top.

Spread the filling evenly over the pastry and bring up the sides of the filo to enclose the filling. Scrunch 3 sheets of filo and place on top of the pie.
Chill in the fridge. Just before baking, brush all over with the egg wash. Put the sauté pan onto a gas jet at medium, cook for 3-4 minutes or until the pan heats and the base begins to brown. Transfer to the oven and bake for about ½ an hour until puffed up and golden. Serve, cut into wedges, while still warm and flaky.

There are currently no comments

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to leave a comment
Not a member? Register for your free membership now!
Or leave a comment by logging in with: