Food before the feast

I HAVE chosen some suggestions for a Christmas Eve supper menu from several new cookbooks which have been released for the festive season.

The first is from Sarah Raven, a gardener/cook who makes regular appearances on BBC’s Gardeners World where she shares her expertise on how to grow the beautiful vegetables, fruit and herbs that abound in her garden at Perch Hill in East Sussex. Somehow, in the midst of all the sowing and planting she managed to write another cookbook, Sarah Raven’s Complete Christmas Food and Flowers.

She guides us through the Christmas build-up, suggesting puddings, sauces and edible presents to prepare before everything becomes too hectic. She then offers ideas for maximum-impact, minimum-fuss flowers and decorations, stylish party nibbles and a host of Yuletide meals for every palate, including a last-minute recipe for the all-important Christmas pudding. Finally, she sees us safely through Christmas, St Stephen’s Day and beyond with fantastic ideas on how to use the inevitable mountain of leftovers.

Simon Hopkinson has always been one of my favourite chefs — his first book Roast Chicken and Other Stories has become a modern classic. I only recently came across Second Helpings of Roast Chicken even though it was published in 2006. It’s a ‘must-give’ pressie for your foodie friends this Christmas.

The delicious soup I have chosen from his book would be perfect before Sarah Raven’s bagna cauda. This recipe, which Sarah got from Antonio Carluccio, has to be the most perfect and easy Christmas Eve supper, a selection of raw crunchy vegetables to dip into a delicious anchovy and garlic sauce. It won’t be too filling and will mean you and your guests will have room for pudding.

If you’d like something more substantial with an extra feelgood factor, choose a gorgeous piece of juicy free-range pork. If you know a local organic farmer who rears heritage breeds, it’ll be even more succulent and delicious. The pig industry has been through a traumatic period so let’s all take every opportunity to support them.

If life is not too hectic why not gather a few kids around, and have fun making Festive Jam Cookie Sandwiches from Rachel Allen’s new book Bake.

If you’d like to leave space for the Christmas feast, instead of pudding, why not pick up a gorgeous gooey Vacherin Mont d’Or cheese and some Gubbeen crackers? There’s also a wealth of Irish farmhouse cheese to choose from. Or why not cut the Christmas cake or tuck into a wedge of panettone with an espresso? A very happy and delicious Christmas to all our readers and many blessings for 2009.

* Sarah Raven’s Complete Christmas Food and Flowers (Bloomsbury).

* Bake with Rachel Allen (HarperCollins).

* Second Helpings of Roast Chicken by Simon Hopkinson (Hyperion).

Simon Hopkinson’s Almost Instant Creamed Bean Soup with Rosemary and Anchovy Butter

This soup can also be made with haricot, cannellini or pale green flageolet beans — or even chickpeas, I guess.

Serves 4

75g (3oz) butter

2 large onions, peeled and sliced

3 sticks celery, chopped

2 sprigs of rosemary

2 x 400g tins of butter beans (Spanish ones are particularly good)

750ml (25 ½ fl oz) chicken stock

Salt and pepper

150ml whipping cream

For the rosemary and anchovy butter:

120g unsalted butter, softened

2 sprigs of rosemary, leaves only

1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed

50g (2oz) tin anchovies

Juice of ½ a small lemon

Serve with croutons

In a roomy pan, melt the butter and fry the onions and celery until lightly coloured. Add the rosemary, stir around and allow their aroma to lift. Tip in the beans, juice and all, add the stock and bring to the boil.

Remove any scum that forms and then allow to gently simmer for 20-30 minutes or until the beans are all but falling apart. Add plenty of pepper and check for salt — but don’t add too much, as the butter will be fairly salty from the anchovies.

Meanwhile, make the rosemary and anchovy butter by combining all the ingredients together in a food processor until very smooth. Pass through a small sieve to remove any spiky rosemary bits. Tip into a small bowl and leave at room temperature until the soup is to be served. Lift out the rosemary sprigs and then put the beans, vegetables and liquor into a liquidiser and process until very smooth.

Pour through a sieve into a clean pan, stir in the cream and gently reheat without boiling. The consistency should not be too thick; if it is, add a little water or maybe some milk.

To serve, pour into large soups plates or bowls, drop a spoonful of the rosemary and anchovy butter into each and serve with croutons.

Christmas Bagna Cauda

Sarah Raven tells us that bagna cauda is one her very favourite party dishes. To make this more of a meal serve it with plenty of good robust bread, or better still make a bowlful of bruschetta or croutons to soak up the sauce. In case you want to make it in advance, the bagna cauda freezes perfectly. Use any or all of the following ingredients listed below, adjusting the quantities accordingly.

Serves 8–10

1 Treviso chicory, stripped into leaves

1 Belgian chicory, stripped into leaves

½ celeriac, peeled and cut into matchsticks (and then doused in lemon juice to stop them discolouring)

3 Jerusalem artichokes, sliced

½ cauliflower, broken into small florets

2 carrots cut into batons

2 Florence fennel bulbs cut into chunks

1 celery head, broken into sticks and sliced

Selection of crunchy stemmed salad leaves, such as ‘Red Giant’ mustard,

rocket or mizuna

1 large bowl of baked or fresh bread bruschetta or croutons

For the bagna cauda:

200g (7oz) anchovies milk, to soak the anchovies and cover the garlic

16 garlic cloves

100ml (3½ fl oz) extra virgin olive oil

100g (3½ oz) butter, cubed

60ml (2fl oz) double cream

First make the bagna cauda. Rinse the anchovies if they are in salt. Leave them soaking in a little milk for half an hour. (This recipe makes a relatively mild sauce. If you like punchy strong food, you may want to up the anchovy count a bit.) Pre-heat the oven to 150C/gas mark 2.

Put a little milk in a saucepan and bring it to the boil. Peel the garlic cloves, slice them in half and put into the preheated oven for about 25 minutes or until the garlic is soft. Mash the garlic cloves into the milk.

Retrieve the anchovies from the milk, put them into a bain-marie over a very low heat and using the back of a wooden spoon, mash them into a paste. Add the garlic milk to the bowl. Gradually add the oil, the cubed butter and lastly the cream. Keep stirring until it’s all smooth. Pour this onto a small dish over a nightlight, if possible, and put in the centre of the table. Serve with the vegetables and the croutons or bruschetta.

Roast Loin of Pork with Plums and Rosemary

LET’S celebrate Irish pork and tuck into a gorgeous roast with lots of crackling. I’ve stuffed this loin with plums and rosemary and serve it with a blood plum and bramley apple sauce.

Serves 6 — 8

3½ — 4lbs (6kgs) loin of pork with skin attached

2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1 medium onion, finely chopped

½ lb (225g) bramley apples peeled and chopped

¼lb (110g) sugar

2 tsp chopped rosemary

Salt Freshly ground pepper

First score the rind at ¼cm intervals; a Stanley knife is good for this. Heat the oil in a sauté pan add the onion, toss and continue to cook on a gentle heat for 3 or 4 minutes, add the chopped apple, plums, sugar and chopped rosemary, stir. Cover and cook over a gentle heat until the apple and plums soften, taste and add more sugar if necessary. Turn out on to a plate to cool.

If the belly is still attached, lay the joint of pork skin side down on a chopping board. Season the flesh side well with salt and freshly ground pepper. Spread a little layer of plum and apple paste on top, roll and tie with cotton string. If, however, the belly is not still attached, make a pocket in the pork loin with a sharp knife. Spoon some stuffing inside, don’t be too generous or it will squish out.

Preheat the oven to 180C/ 350F/gas mark 4. Place the pork in a roasting tin, rub sea salt into the rind and roast for 1¾ hours. Increase the heat to 230C/450F/gas mark 8 and continue to cook the pork for a further 15 minutes or until the crackling becomes crisp and bubbly. Transfer to a serving dish allow to rest for 15 minutes before carving.

Warm the remainder of the plum and apple mixture add a little water if necessary to loosen the mixture.

Rachel Allen’s Festive Jam Cookie Sandwiches

THESE gorgeous little vanilla and lemon-scented cookies sandwiched together with the jam of your choice make a great Christmas cookie — the icing looks like snow.

Makes about 35 sandwiches

425g (15oz) plain flour

75g (3oz) caster sugar

2 tsp vanilla extract

2tsp finely grated lemon zest (from one large unwaxed organic lemon)

4 egg yolks

325g (11½ oz) butter, softened

Raspberry or strawberry jam

Icing sugar for dusting

Equipment: 6cm (2½ in) plain cutter 3cm (1¼ in) plain or flower-shaped cutter

Preheat the oven to 180C (350F), gas mark 4. Sift the flour into a large bowl or electric food mixer and add the sugar, vanilla extract, finely grated lemon zest, egg yolks and butter. Mix until it all comes together to a dough.

Remove from the bowl and flatten to a round with the palm of your hand or with a rolling pin to about 2cm (¾in) thick and chill in fridge for about 30 minutes.

Roll the dough out on a lightly floured work surface until it is about 5mm (¼in) thick, then using the 6cm (2½ in) plain cutter, cut the dough into discs.

Take half the discs and, using either the plain or flower shaped 3cm (1¼ in) cutter, cut holes out of the centre of each, like little round windows. Bring the discarded scraps together and make more discs and cut holes in the centre of these.

You want to end up with about 35 whole discs with the centres cut out (equal amounts). Place the discs on several baking trays and bake in the oven for 8 – 10 minutes, then remove from the trays and transfer to wire racks to cool.

When the discs are cool, spread ½ — 1 teaspoon of jam on the whole discs and top with the discs with a hole in them so that you can see the jam through the little windows. Dust with icing sugar and serve.

Fool proof food

Sarah Raven’s Bloody Mary with Horseradish

There is nothing better than a Bloody Mary when you’re feeling a bit the worse for wear. In fact, I’m almost always on for a Bloody Mary however I’m feeling, and they can practically replace a meal. The best are spiced up with fresh horseradish and sharpened with plenty of lemon juice.

For four medium glasses:

175ml (6fl oz) vodka a dash of dry sherry

500ml (18fl oz) tomato juice,

Juice of 1 lemon

1 tsp fresh grated horseradish

Tabasco and Worcestershire sauce, to taste

Celery Salt, to taste

Freshly ground black pepper

Ice, to serve

Combine the ingredients in a shaker and pour into individual glasses. Serve with ice.

Hot tip

* Organic Bronze Turkeys: Dan Ahern of Bornfree Poultry near Midleton may still have a few Organic Bronze turkeys and geese, for those who have left it to the last minute.

For those who would prefer a smaller bird enquire about his delicious organic chickens and ducks. Available from Midleton and Mahon Point Farmers Markets or telephone 086-1659258.

* Baskets of Irish Oysters: Native Irish Oysters are my favourite treat for a starter for Christmas day. I had some delicious natives recently from Diarmuid Kelly in Galway, who sells baskets of 25, packed in seaweed. Telephone 091-796120.

* We have numerous requests for details of organic and artisan pork and cured meat producers. Here are a few to choose from:

Fingal Ferguson – Gubbeen Meats: 028-27824

Frank Krawczyk – West Cork Salamis:

Caroline Rigney – Curragh Chase Farmhouse: 087 2834754.

Noreen Conroy – Woodhouse Farm: 087-2767206.

Jack McCarthy – Butcher: 029-50178.

Caherbeg Bacon – 086-8224415.

Crowes Farm – Meats 062-71137.

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