Get off to a good start this Christmas with these festive starters

Neven Maguire shares his recipes for Christmas starters with Vickie Maye.

You hear it all in TV studios – in the green room, off set. The roll of an eye at the mention of a high profile name, a knowing look. But there’s one name who always makes the entire team at RTÉ Cork – where he regularly visits for cookery slots on the Today show – break into a smile: Neven Maguire. He is the exact same off camera and on – just a really nice guy.

We meet at MacNean House, the local family restaurant he took over from his parents – and turned into a national phenomenon (waiting lists for a weekend table are two years – but there are cancellations).

I tell him about his reputation as the nicest celebrity in Ireland. He breaks into laughter. “I get that from my mother,” he says, “respect and be kind to people. There’s no roaring and shouting in my kitchen. We have 12 to 14 chefs, you don’t hang on to staff if you’re not looking after them.” Currently Neven is juggling many roles: there’s his baby and priority, MacNean House in Blacklion, Cavan with its award winning restaurant and 19 rooms. There’s his cookery school next door, his dream, open only when he is there to teach classes. There’s his new role as ambassador for Dunnes Simply Better range. There’s his TV work, an annual series (his Christmas special was on air last week and is still on the RTÉ Player) and regular appearances on the Today show. There are demos up and down the country that could see 500 people in attendance. There’s his writing – Neven’s books are award winning bestsellers (his latest Complete Family Cookbook is the bible as far as I’m concerned). And then, most importantly of all, there’s his family, his wife Amelda and kids, 5 year old twins Connor and Lucia. How on earth does it juggle it all? “It’s Andrea,” he says, nodding in the direction of his PA. “I know what I am doing in six months time. It’s about managing the diary, being clever about it. I started at 6 this morning and won’t get home until 1am but I take Mondays and Tuesdays off with the kids. They have made me more structured. Before they were born I remember nearly falling asleep driving back from Cork, ringing saying this is not the life I want. I was emotional, I was nearly in tears. I said we need to manage it better. The kids give you a base, I’m home a lot more. I cook a lot more. It’s all the kids want.” I ask him how he finds the time to be creative, to come up with new ideas. And again, just as he credits his PA for his ability to juggle his varied career, he pays tribute to his team. (Like I said, Neven Maguire is a nice guy.) “My team are so creative. It’s about letting them flourish.” When I ask him how he turned the small restaurant his parents Joe and Vera opened in 1969 into the success story it is today, he doesn’t mention the fact that he trained in some of the world’s finest restaurants, Michelin starred, or that he cooked for Lady Diana. No, he’s far too modest for that. He thanks RTÉ, and his TV career that began as resident chef on the afternoon show Open House. “TV was a great help to me. They’ve been very good to me. I’m privileged, I never take it for granted.” Neven should have an ego but the only time is uses the word proud is when he reflects on the impact MacNean has had on Blacklion. “We fill another 15 to 20 rooms in the area, this wee village that has struggled with the Troubles, with the recession. We are proud of that.”

After experiencing MacNean, truly Neven has much more to be proud of. You arrive to the aroma of scented candles, stepping into the intimate bar with its open fires and Christmas trees (Neven’s wife Amelda decorates MacNean herself). After our welcome at reception, I’m not surprised to see awards on the wall for customer service. There’s a warmth here I haven’t experienced anywhere else.

There are the rooms, mine painted a stunning duck egg blue, a chandelier overhead, a marble bathroom stocked with Voya products. And then there is the menu. It is, quite simply, the best meal I have ever eaten. From the tasting menu I choose the Warm Hock Terrine, the Seared Sea Scallops, and for my main, the Halibut with Pearl Barley Risotto, followed by my dream sweet – the Chocolate Sensation, a chocolate shell cracked open by hot chocolate sauce. Sensation is right. The staff are professional but fun, one even cajoles my 11 year old into eating a scallop. She loves them. Neven would be happy. He is very passionate about what we feed our children – he’s written a book about it. His own kids are very much part of the kitchen and they eat what mum and dad eat. Neven is adamant about that. And yet there are still treats, something small on a Friday, ice cream on holidays. Just no fizzy drinks or sugary cereals – porridge only. The conversation moves naturally from children to Christmas. As you might expect, MacNean will be closed – “the staff need their time off” – but it will still be full. Neven is cooking for 40 family members (a family friend will also come and collect his dinner to take home – “it’s a time you think about people, it’s the way I was brought up” – so really, it’s 45). Naturally Neven takes this in his stride. “We do it all Christmas Eve. There will be roast goose, red cabbage, buttermilk brined turkey... I’ll spoil them” The trick, says Neven, is to be organised. “Do a list, do as much on Christmas Eve as you can – you can have your ham glaze made, your stuffing in the fridge, the soup can be frozen and warmed up.” Canapés and starters , and Neven shares two of his favourites here, are a great way to give you time to work on the main course. “Keep it simple, let people graze on the bruschetta, so you can focus on main course. But it’s important you’re part of it, it has to be fun.”

Recipes

Salmon Terrine

This salmon terrine will not only look impressive but will taste far superior to anything you can buy. It can be made well in advance, up to two days is fine, and can be kept in the fridge until you’re ready to slice it.

The filling itself is so delicious that it could also be eaten as a dip. If you really want to push the boat out and showcase Irish shellfish, use Dublin Bay prawns.

Serves: 10–12

  • 2 tbsp white wine or rice vinegar
  • 2 tbsp caster sugar
  • 4 celery sticks, trimmed and very finely diced
  • 675g (1½lb) smoked salmon, sliced
  • 2 x 275g (10oz) cartons of soft cream cheese
  • 1 x 200g (7oz) tub of crème fraîche
  • finely grated rind and juice of 1 lemon, plus wedges to garnish
  • 2 tbsp creamed horseradish
  • 225g (8oz) hot smoked salmon fillets
  • 100g (4oz) cooked peeled prawns
  • 4 tbsp snipped fresh chives
  • 2 tbsp chopped fresh dill, plus extra sprigs to garnish
  • 2 tbsp cracked pink peppercorns sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • light brown soda bread

Get off to a good start this Christmas with these festive starters

Method

To prepare the pickled celery, put the vinegar and sugar in a bowl and add two good pinches of salt. Mix in the celery and set aside for an hour, then drain and chill until needed.

Oil a 1.2 litre (pint) loaf tin, then line with a double layer of clingfilm, leaving plenty hanging over the sides. Neatly cover the base and sides of the tin with most of the smoked salmon in a slightly overlapping layer with some overhanging the sides, reserving the rest for the bottom of the finished terrine.

Put the cream cheese and crème fraîche in a food processor with the lemon rind and juice, horseradish and half of the hot smoked salmon fillets. Whizz until well blended, then turn out into a bowl. Fold in the prawns, herbs and pink peppercorns.

Flake in the rest of the hot smoked salmon and season with salt and pepper.

Spoon a third of the cream cheese mixture into the terrine and gently smooth it out into an even layer. Sprinkle over half of the pickled celery, then cover with another third of the cream cheese mixture.

Add the rest of the pickled celery and spread the remaining cream cheese on top. Lay the reserved smoked salmon on top, then neatly fold over the overhanging salmon.

Cover with the clingfilm to enclose completely. Chill overnight or for up to two days. To serve, place it in the freezer for 30 minutes before you want to cut it into slices, as this will make sure that you get nice smooth slices. Carefully invert onto a platter, then cut into slices using a sharp knife that has had its blade dipped into a jug of hot water. Put a slice on each plate with a lemon wedge and dill sprigs to garnish. Have a separate basket of the soda bread to hand around.

Bruschetta

Bruschetta makes delicious, simple nibbles and can look very impressive laid out on platters. Alternatively, use slices of French batons to make little bruschetta (i.e. crostini). Even if time is on your side, don’t be tempted to make these too far in advance, as the bread goes soggy.

Serves: 4–6

  • 6 thick slices of country bread, preferably sourdough
  • 1 garlic clove, halved
  • 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Get off to a good start this Christmas with these festive starters

Method

Preheat the grill or a griddle pan and use it to toast the bread on both sides. Remove from the heat and immediately rub one side with the cut garlic clove. To serve, drizzle over the olive oil and either have on its own or with one of the following delicious toppings, arranged on large serving platters or trays.

Bruschetta toppings

Parma ham with basil dressing

Whizz 1 small garlic clove with 4 tablespoons of toasted pine nuts and a good handful of fresh basil leaves in a mini blender. Pour in enough extra virgin olive oil to make a smooth, thick-ish dressing and fold in a handful of freshly grated Parmesan or Pecorino. Season to taste and spread thickly over the bruschetta, then arrange slices of Parma ham on top.

Cherry tomato and mozzarella

Mix 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil with 1 teaspoon of balsamic vinegar in a bowl and season to taste. Stir in 300g (11oz) mozzarella cubes with 175g (6oz) halved cherry or baby plum tomatoes with a handful of torn fresh basil leaves. Arrange wild rocket leaves on the bruschetta and spoon over the mozzarella and tomato mixture to serve.

Ricotta and roasted figs

Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F/gas mark 4). Spread the bruschetta thickly with 200g (7oz) ricotta cheese and arrange 4 sliced figs on top. Season with salt and pepper, then drizzle each one with a little honey, arrange on a baking sheet and bake for 6–8 minutes, until the figs have lightly charred and begun to caramelise. Serve at once scattered with some fresh thyme leaves if liked.

Guacamole

Halve 2 avocados. Scoop the flesh into a bowl. Mash until smooth, then season with 1 teaspoon of onion, salt and plenty of black pepper. Stir in a handful of diced semi sun-dried tomatoes and a couple finely chopped spring onions, then spread thickly on the bruschetta.

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