What we decide to serve on our Christmas tables in this year of all years could go one of two ways. On the one hand, tradition may be reached for even more firmly than ever: the food we associate with Christmas can provide the reassuring certainty that has been lacking for much of 2020. I get that, entirely, but there is surely also a case for serving up a meal that dispenses with “the way things should be done”, and instead whizzes around the world for inspiration. After months of not being able to go anywhere at all, why not go international with a light, south-east Asian-inspired starter, a celebratory Mexican main course and a Mauritian-inspired cake to see the whole thing out? We were all in this thing together, after all.
Prawn and lettuce ‘dumplings’ with tangerine dipping sauce
I wasn’t sure whether to call these dumplings, parcels, pot-stickers or wraps. What I am sure of, however, is that will be a very welcome starter or snack at any festive table.
Prep 18 min
Cook 22 min
Makes 12, to serve 4
300g raw, peeled king prawns
1 garlic clove, peeled and roughly chopped
2½ tsp (5g) peeled and roughly chopped fresh ginger
¼ tsp green (or black) peppercorns, roughly crushed
3⅓ tbsp (10g) roughly chopped chives
½ tsp toasted sesame oil
Salt and black pepper
2 cos lettuce heads
1 tbsp sunflower oil
1 tbsp sesame seeds, well toasted
For the dipping sauce
50ml fresh tangerine juice (ie, from 2-3 tangerines), or fresh orange juice
3 tbsp lime juice
¼ tsp fish sauce
1½ tsp maple syrup
½ small garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped
1 tsp finely chopped chives
2½ tsp (5g) peeled and finely chopped fresh ginger
½ red chilli, finely chopped
Put the first six ingredients and a third of a teaspoon of salt in the small bowl of a food processor and blitz to a paste.
Trim the bottom of the lettuce heads, then separate to get 12 of the largest leaves (reserve the rest for another recipe). With the rib facing upwards, use a sharp knife to shave down the thickest part of the lettuce rib, so the leaves can be rolled up easily without breaking.
Lay all the lettuce leaves shaved rib side down on a work surface, then put about 30g of the prawn mixture across the centre of each leaf. Roll them up tightly, enclosing the prawn mixture on all sides; the natural stickiness of the prawns should help you seal the parcels. Arrange the parcels seam side down on a medium-sized oven tray.
In a small bowl, mix all the ingredients for the dipping sauce and a quarter-teaspoon of salt, and set aside.
Put the oil in a large, nonstick frying pan for which you have a lid and set it over a medium-high heat. Once hot, lay in the lettuce parcels seam side down, cover and leave to fry for three and a half minutes, until the bottoms are nicely browned.
Arrange the dumplings on a plate, sprinkle the sesame seeds over the top and serve hot with the dipping sauce alongside.
Celebration chiles rellenos (pictured top)
Chiles rellenos, a classic Mexican dish from Puebla, consists of charred, stuffed, battered and deep-fried peppers (traditionally poblanos, though I’m using romanos) that are served with a salsa. The combination is a heady one, and a celebration dish that’s well worth the effort. If you want to get ahead, you can roast the peppers and make the salsa roja up to two days beforehand.
Prep 15 min
Cook 45 min
6 mixed red and yellow romano peppers
200g mozzarella, roughly torn into small pieces
200g feta, roughly broken into small pieces
800ml sunflower oil, for frying
2 limes, cut into wedges, to serve
For the salsa roja
3 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp unsalted butter
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
300g sweet red cherry tomatoes, such as datterini
½ dried habanero chilli (or ¼ tsp ordinary chilli flakes, if you prefer less heat)
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp tomato paste
For the batter
4 eggs, separated
80g plain flour
½ tsp salt
For the fresh salsa
2 ripe tomatoes, finely chopped
2 jalapeños, finely chopped (seeds and pith removed and discarded, if you prefer less heat)
1 tbsp coriander leaves, finely chopped
2 tbsp olive oil
1½ tbsp lime juice
1 pinch salt
Turn the oven grill to its highest setting. Cut a slit along one side of each of the peppers, making sure you leave them attached at the top and bottom. Lay the peppers slit side up on a wire rack set over a large tray, and grill near the top of the oven for seven minutes. Carefully turn over the peppers so they are now slit side down and grill for another seven minutes, until the skin is blackened and bubbling in places. Remove the tray from the oven and leave the peppers to cool slit side down on the rack, so any liquid drains away. I don’t bother peeling the peppers – you really don’t need to, and I love the charred skin, anyway – but if you prefer, peel them once cool enough to handle.
Meanwhile, make the salsa roja. Put all the ingredients except the tomato paste and water in a large saute pan, add a teaspoon of salt and stir-fry on a high heat for six minutes. Turn down the heat to medium and stir-fry for 10 minutes more, until the tomatoes and onions are soft and golden. Tip the contents of the pan into a blender, add tomato paste and water, blitz smooth and set aside.
For the batter, put the egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer with the whisk in place, and whip on high speed for a minute and a half, until you have medium-stiff peaks. Whisk the egg yolks, then gently fold them, the flour and salt through the whites, until combined. Transfer to a wide container.
Mix the mozzarella and feta in a bowl with a good pinch of salt. Turn the peppers so they are slit side up, stuff them with the cheese mixture, taking care not to puncture the skin, then press the seal together tightly with your fingers.
In a small bowl, mix all the ingredients for the fresh salsa with a good pinch of salt.
Heat the oil in a large, high-sided saute pan. Once very hot (180C, if you have a temperature probe), dip the peppers into the batter three at a time, making sure they are well coated in batter. Carefully lower the three peppers into the hot oil and fry for two minutes on each side. Transfer to a metal rack to drain, sprinkle with flaked salt, then repeat with the remaining three peppers and batter.
To serve, warm the salsa roja, then pour it on to a platter. Top first with the fried peppers and then with the fresh salsa, and serve with the lime wedges squeezed on top.
Pineapple ring of fire
This spiced cake is based on a traditional Mauritian dessert, and it’s a wonderful sight when the rum catches fire and blazes a ring all around it. You need to use tamarind from a block here, rather than shop-bought paste (which can be very salty). Serve with vanilla or coconut ice-cream.
Prep 20 min
Cook 1 hr 20 min
For the tamarind caramel
50g piece tamarind block, soaked in 100ml hot water for 15 minutes
200g caster sugar
60ml cold water
1 tsp vanilla bean paste
1 tsp peeled and finely grated fresh ginger
1 pinch salt
1 medium-large pineapple, peeled, cored, and flesh cut into 5mm-thick half-moons (you’ll need about 600g pineapple moons, so treat any excess as a cook’s treat)
For the cake batter
225g unsalted butter, at room temperature
225g soft light brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla bean paste
225g plain flour
50g desiccated coconut
1½ tsp ground cinnamon
2 star anise, finely ground in a spice grinder (or ½ tsp shop-bought ground star anise)
1 tsp aleppo chilli flakes (or ½ tsp ordinary chilli flakes)
2 tsp baking powder
1 pinch salt
4 large eggs, gently whisked
50ml dark rum
Heat the oven to 200C (180C fan/390F/gas 6), and line a 23cm round springform tin with baking paper.
Pass the soaked tamarind through a sieve, to catch any seeds and collect all the paste in a small bowl (discard the seeds).
To make the caramel, put the sugar, water, vanilla, ginger and a pinch of salt in a large saute pan on medium-high heat, and leave to cook for 15 minutes – resist the temptation to stir, but do swirl the pan around occasionally, so the mix goes a uniform dark golden colour. Stir in the tamarind – careful, because it might splatter – then, once incorporated, add the pineapple and swirl gently so as not to break the slices. Cook for a minute, then take off the heat and use a spoon to flip over the pieces of pineapple so they are coated with caramel on both sides. Set aside to cool.
Using a stand or handheld mixer, cream the butter, sugar and vanilla paste on medium-high speed for 15 minutes, until pale and fluffy. You’ll probably have to scrape down the sides of the bowl once or twice, to ensure even mixing.
In a medium bowl, mix the flour, coconut, cinnamon, star anise, chilli flakes, baking powder and a pinch of salt.
Add half the eggs and half the flour mixture to the creamed butter, and whisk on medium speed until incorporated. Scrape down the sides again, then repeat with the remaining eggs and flour mixture.
Use a spoon to gently transfer the pineapple into the lined tin, forming the pieces into concentric circles with overlapping edges. Pour in half of the caramel and swirl the tin carefully so it spreads evenly. Spoon the cake batter evenly over the top of the pineapple and use a spatula to gently flatten the surface. Put the cake tin on an oven tray, to catch any caramel that might escape, then bake for 50 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean.
Put a plate on top of the tin and quickly flip the whole thing over. Release the outer ring, remove the baking paper, then drizzle the remaining caramel over the exposed pineapple.
To serve, take the cake to the table, pour the rum evenly over it then use a gas lighter or long match to set the rum on fire. Serve warm with ice-cream.