December 2022

Christmas is on the horizon and that means a ‘festive cooking list’. Recently my son, Felix, having returned home from university has moved into a nearby flat, so this Christmas he has suggested that he could invite us over for dinner during the Christmas holidays – I’m sure the novelty will soon wear off! Naturally, he has asked me for some recipe ideas, so I’ve been thinking of dishes which are ideal for casual entertaining and which won’t cause a lot of stress for the cook. I am well aware that for many of us the season of ‘treats’ means spending a lot of time in our kitchens but let’s face it, it shouldn’t be ‘all work, no play’. Remember, entertaining can be casual, the main thing is that we’re enjoying time together! The key is balance – finding a couple of recipes that can be prepared in advance and that will happily sit in a warm oven whilst you enjoy one or two aperitifs with your close ones. You’ll be pleased to hear that this month I’m sharing some recipes that fit that criteria – nothing too fancy, just good, honest dishes which everyone will enjoy!… (Of course, all of these recipes work just as well for a family supper at any time of the year!).

Menu One is ‘Beef, Tomato and Fennel Pie with Mustard and Gruyere Mash’. This delicious dish was made for sharing, it can be prepared in advance and just heated up when your guests arrive. It’s also a great dish to bring to a party – I’m bearing this recipe in mind in case my invite to Felix’s ends up as a ‘Mum can you bring over the diner’!… Menu Two is ‘Orecchiette, Pork, Milk & Fennel’, this is perfect for feeding friends, a real crowd-pleaser. Yes, it’s just a pasta dish, but wow what flavours it has, it’s definitely a dish which will impress your guests. It’s easy to prepare the sauce well ahead of any guests’ arrival, leaving you to simply make the pasta and perhaps a big green salad when they arrive. Menu Three is ‘Pot Roast Pollack, Chickpeas and Chorizo’, a wonderful, slightly smoky flavoured dish from Tom Kerridge’s cookbook ‘Proper Pub Food’. It’s excellent for entertaining as you can prepare the chickpea and chorizo stew beforehand and then when your guests are ready to eat just reheat it with the fish on top for about 15 minutes – easy peasy!… Finally, a vegetarian stew, ‘Black-eyed Beans and Chickpea Stew’ – yes, chickpeas again but this time they are delicately spiced and served with a good sprinkling of fresh coriander and rice on the side. If needed, you can make this well in advance and reheat it before serving.

There, sorted!… Merry Christmas!!… For my Christmas Dinner menu click here!

Menu One

Beef, Tomato and Fennel Pie with Mustard and Gruyere Mash (Serves 4 – 6)

This dish is reminiscent of ‘Shepherds Pie’ but only better. It does require quite a lot of chopping and slow cooking, but once it’s on the stove you can leave it to itself. Believe me, it really is a special dish, perfect on a chilly night – pure comfort!…

1kg beef (chuck), cubed

10g dried porcini mushrooms

Olive oil

2 onions, chopped

3 garlic cloves, chopped

2 teaspoons fennel seeds

1 fennel bulb, chopped

4 bay leaves

Bunch of thyme, leaves picked and chopped

Bunch of sage, leaves picked and chopped

300g chestnut mushrooms, quartered

2 tablespoons tomato purée

400g cherry tomatoes, halved

2 tablespoons redcurrant jelly

175ml marsala wine

175ml red wine

750ml beef stock

1kg potatoes

100g butter

25ml full fat milk

2 tablespoons mustard

200g gruyere cheese, grated

Sea salt and black pepper

  1. First of all put the porcini in a small boil, cover with boiling water and soak for 30 minutes. Drain and chop. Put to one side.
  2. Meanwhile heat some oil in large pan, add the beef in batches, sear and brown. Once browned remove from the pan and put to one side.
  3. Add the onion, garlic, fennel seeds, chopped fennel, bay leaves, sage and thyme to the pan and sauté for about 5 minutes until they are starting to caramelise. Add the mushrooms and cook for another few minutes before returning the beef to the pan. Add the tomato purée and the cherry tomatoes, mix and then add the porcini, red currant jelly, marsala wine, red wine and stock, and season with salt and pepper. Bring to the boil then cover and simmer for 2.5 hours until the meat has broken down. Now remove the lid and boil rapidly for 10-15 minutes to reduce and thicken the sauce.
  4. Meanwhile make the mash – peel the potatoes and chop into quarters, place in a pan and cover with water. Bring to the boil then simmer for about 20 minutes until cooked through. Mash until smooth, adding the butter, milk, mustard and cheese and season generously.
  5. Spoon the beef mixture into a large pie dish, probably you will not need all of the gravy, but keep it to one side (it’s delicious!). Top the pie with the mash, spreading it out to cover the meat filling – it can look a bit messy, but no worries it cooks up beautifully!
  6.  Cook in a preheated oven, 200’c fan, for about 25 minutes until golden and bubbling. Allow to cool a little before serving, reheating any reserved gravy to pass around.

Menu Two

Orecchiette, Pork, Milk & Fennel (Serves 6)

This is a wonderful slow cooked recipe in which the pork becomes beautifully tender and flavoured with the stock and milk. You could, of course, serve it with any pasta shape but the orecchiette work particularly well as the ‘little ears’ of pasta pick up the braised pork and capers perfectly. Serve with plenty of parmesan and, if you wish, an extra sprinkle of chilli flakes. This recipe is courtesy of Florence Knight, the wonderful chef from London’s ‘Sessions Arts Club’ (review here!).

3 tablespoons olive oil

½ teaspoon fennel seeds

2 banana shallots, peeled and finely chopped

¼ teaspoon sea salt

1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed

½-1 teaspoon dried chilli flakes

2 rosemary sprigs, picked and roughly chopped

500g pork mince

125ml dry white wine

200ml chicken stock

120ml whole milk

40g baby capers, rinsed

Zest of ½ lemon

340g dried orecchiette (or gluten-free pasta if required)

80g Parmesan cheese (to serve)

  1. First of all in a dry, small frying pan toast the fennel seeds over a high heat for a minute or so until aromatic. Remove and grind in a mortar and pestle. Set to one side
  2. Place a large heavy-bottomed pan over a low heat and add the olive oil. Once warm, add the shallots and salt and cover with a lid for 10-15 minutes until soft but without colour.
  3. Stir through the garlic, chilli, rosemary and ground fennel seeds. Cook for a couple of minutes.
  4. Turn up the heat and crumble in the pork mince. Stir to separate the mince, cook for a few minutes then pour over the wine. Once bubbling add the stock and half of the milk. Reduce the heat to a gently simmer and cook over a low heat for 30-40 minutes or until the liquid has been absorbed and the meat is tender.
  5. Take the pan off the heat and stir through the remaining milk, capers and lemon zest.
  6. Meanwhile cook the orecchiette until al dente, according to their packet instructions. Stir through the warm sauce, adding a ladle or two of cooking water to encourage the starch to bind it all together. Grate one third of the parmesan into the pasta, stirring to combine.
  7. Serve hot with plenty of extra grated Parmesean cheese.

Menu Three

Pot-Roasted Pollack, Chickpeas & Chorizo (Serves 4-6)

This is a wonderful, slightly smoky flavoured dish from Tom Kerridge’s cookbook ‘Proper Pub Food’. It’s excellent for entertaining as you can prepare the chickpea and chorizo stew beforehand and then when your guests are ready to eat just reheat it with the fish on top for about 15 minutes! Instead of pollack you could make it with another firm white fish, such as haddock or cod. (The original recipe uses dried chickpeas, but for an easy alternative I use tinned).

4 tablespoons sea salt flakes

A pinch of saffron

1 fillet of pollock, about 500g skinned and pin-boned (or another white fish such as haddock)

6 tablespoons olive oil

2 garlic cloves, crushed

2 fresh red chillies, chopped

2 onions, finely chopped

4 cooking chorizos, cut into bite-sized pieces

2 dried bay leaves

1 cinnamon stick

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon smoked paprika

150g tinned chickpeas, drained

1 x 400g tin chopped tomatoes

200ml chicken stock

200g spinach leaves

Sea salt and black pepper to taste

  1. Mix together the sea salt flakes and saffron. Place a piece of clingfilm large enough to wrap around the pollack on the work surface, sprinkle with half the salt mix and place the pollack on top, then sprinkle the remaining salt mix over the fish and wrap in the clingfilm tightly. Leave in the fridge for 1½ hours.
  2. Heat the olive oil in a large flameproof casserole over a medium heat. Add the garlic, red chillies and onions and fry, stirring occasionally, for 6-8 minutes until the onion has softened.
  3. Add the chorizo to the pot and continue frying for a further 5 minutes. Stir in the bay leaves, cinnamon stick, cumin and paprika and fry, stirring, for a further 3-4 minutes.
  4. Add the chickpeas to the pot, then the tinned tomatoes and the stock. Bring to the boil and put in a preheated oven, 170’c fan, for 45 minutes.
  5. Remove the pan from the oven. The sauce should have reduced a little and thickened. Taste and add salt if necessary.
  6. Rinse the pollack thoroughly under cold running water. Pat dry and place on top of the chickpeas. Place the pot back in the oven for a further 10-15 minute, until the fish is cooked through and the flesh flakes easily.
  7. Remove the pot from the oven. Gently take the fish from the pot and place on a large serving plate. Stir the spinach into the hot chickpeas until it just wilts. Spoon this mix over and around the fish and serve immediately.

Menu Four

Black Eyed Beans and Chickpea Stew (Serves 4-6)

This is a delicately spiced vegetarian stew, serve it with a good sprinkling of fresh coriander and rice on the side. The recipe is from Darina Allen’s cookbook ‘A Year at Ballymaloe Cookery School’.

225g fresh chestnut mushrooms

6 tablespoons groundnut oil

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 inch piece of cinnamon stick

140g onions, chopped

4 cloves garlic, finely chopped

400g tinned chopped tomatoes

2 teaspoons ground coriander

1 teaspoon ground cumin

½ teaspoon ground turmeric

Pinch of sugar

¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper

225g tinned black eyed beans, drained

225g tinned chick peas, drained

3 tablespoons fresh coriander leaves, chopped

Sea salt and black pepper

1-2 tablespoons fresh mint leaves, chopped

  1. Cut the mushrooms into thick slices. Heat the oil in a large frying pan over a medium-high heat. When hot put in the whole cumin seeds and cinnamon stick. Let them sizzle for 5-6 seconds then add the onion and garlic. Stir fry until the onions are just beginning to brown. Add the mushrooms, stir fry until they begin to wilt. Now add the tomatoes, ground coriander, ground cumin, turmeric, sugar and cayenne. Stir and cook for a minute. Cover the pan and cook over a gentle heat for 10 minutes.
  2. Add the drained black-eyed beans and chickpeas, 150ml of water, 2 tablespoons of the chopped coriander and season generously with salt and pepper. Bring the stew to the boil again, then reduce the heat and simmer gently for about 20 minutes.
  3. Serve with a generous sprinkling of the remaining chopped coriander and the mint, with rice on the side and a good green salad.

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