Christmas is a time that forces even the least gastronomically inclined to think about food, and the most antisocial to consider throwing a party. My advice to both sets of people is to keep things simple – let your gut instinct decide the guestlist and the garden the menu. With so many naturally complex flavours in the field at this time of year, canapés needn’t be complicated. Get the group right and your assembled guests will be having too much fun notice the food offering, anyway. Stick to robust, savoury flavours that will offer a welcome reprieve from the inevitable sweetness of festive drinks.
The good thing about December is that if a vegetable is able to withstand the short, cold days, it’s robust enough as a plant to pack a fairly powerful flavour punch – ideal for party bites. Consider brassicas, cured pumpkins, frost-loving radicchios and root vegetables like carrots and radishes all good candidates for a bit of festive flavour noise. What these vegetables have in common (bar the pumpkin, of course) is that they are just a good raw as cooked, music to the ears of an overstretched Christmas host. Combining homegrown or carefully chosen crudités with a really good dip, like this anchovy one, will be just as impressive as a fiddly, moussey vol au vent and require less than half the effort.
Time and time again, and especially at times of raised heat in the kitchen, like Christmas, I am reminded that cooking seasonally is life-saving shortcut to flavour. Starting with simple staples, picked at their peak and pairing them with the indulgent treats we are surrounded by at this time of year – cured meat, cheese and dried nuts – will always be a winning combination. Aim to replicate the satisfying, salty hit of a packet of pub crisps, and you can’t go far wrong.
- pumpkin with lardo
- chicory and roquefort
- purple sprouting broccoli with anchovy dip
There are so many variations on these recipes that I hope you see them as inspiration, rather than hard and fast rules. The chicory could be radicchio or little gem; the anchovy sauce works well with lightly blanched wedges of fennel or raw radishes as well as a dressing for winter salads; the pumpkin could easily be replaced by roasted parsnips. I do like the crescent shape of the pumpkin though!
For the pumpkin & lardo
350g pumpkin, cut into 10 finger length and width shapes
20g olive oil
10 strips of thinly-sliced lardo. You could also use pancetta, see step 7.
- Heat the oven to 200 degrees C, fan and line a baking tray with paper.
- Toss the sliced pumpkin together with the olive oil and a little sprinkling of salt. The lardo will be salty, so bear that in mind when salting the pumpkin.
- Lay flat on the baking tray and cook for 10 minutes, until soft when pierced with a knife and slightly charred around the edges.
- Leave to cool while you make the other canapes. Meanwhile, toast the nuts for your roquefort (see recipe).
- Once cool, take care to wrap each piece of pumpkin in a strip of lardo. Lardo melts incredibly quickly, so you’ll need to leave the pumpkin to reach room temperature.
- Note: If using pancetta, wrap a strip around each piece of pumpkin and then place in the oven on the baking tray for 6 minutes, until golden and crisp.
For the broccoli with anchovy sauce
200g purple sprouting broccoli
6 anchovy fillets, the best you can find
1 garlic clove
1 tsp red wine vinegar
Juice of 1 lemon
100ml extra virgin olive oil
- Bring a medium-sized pan of water to the boil, seasoned well with salt.
- Trim the broccoli into individual stalks – make sure you could actually pick one up with one hand, bearing in mind your guests will have a drink in the other!
- Cook the broccoli for 2 minutes until the stalks are tender but still has a slight bite. Drain and pop the stalks into a bowl of cold water.
- To make the dressing, whizz together all the ingredients apart from the olive oil using a hand-held blender. Once smooth, set aside the blender and whisk in the olive oil, as if you’re making mayonnaise. You’re looking for a smooth, creamy emulsion. If it seems a bit thick, whisk in a teaspoon of water until you reach the right consistency.
- Season with the black pepper.
- Pour into a ramekin and arrange the broccoli around it.
For the chicory and roquefort boats
2 small heads of chicory
100g blue or goats cheese
50g nuts (pistachio, walnut or hazelnut)
1 clementine or small orange, unwaxed
- Toast the nuts for four minutes in the oven, which should already be preheated for the pumpkin. Once out, chop roughly.
- Peel the chicory into ‘boat’s and lay out onto your serving dish or board
- Crumble a little cheese onto each boat and top with a sprinkling of nuts and a scratch of orange zest.