What can I make for dinner on Christmas Eve that’s easy but still feels special?
Paul, London E9
“My habit for serving some sort of fish dish on December 24 is unshakable,” writes Nigel Slater in The Christmas Chronicles, and who am I to quibble? This used to mean fish pie – “usually of haddock, prawns and mussels in a creamy sauce topped with deep furrows of mashed potato” – but now often takes the form of flaky puff pastry smuggling the likes of hot smoked salmon, smoked mackerel, leeks, new potatoes, parsley and tarragon.
Also on #TeamFish is Kate Young, author of The Little Library Christmas, who favours spaghetti alle vongole (using vermouth instead of wine) or crab on toast. “I’m a big fan of things on toast for dinner, especially the night before making a big meal.” You don’t need to do a whole lot to crab meat, either: “Put some lemon juice through it, maybe tarragon or dill, and plenty of black pepper.” Good butter on your toast, however, is non-negotiable.
Fish stew ticks the simple yet luxurious box, too, says chef Danielle Alvarez, author of Always Add Lemon. Specifically, a saffron and tomato number: saute onions, garlic, fennel and chilli flakes until soft, add some white wine, saffron, tinned tomatoes and a splash of good fish stock. Alvarez brings this all up to a simmer, adds clams, mussels and, if you fancy, lobster, then covers the pot and steams until the clams start to open. Finally, she pops in pieces of white fish (sea bass, maybe) and cooks for a further five minutes. “Serve with garlicky mayonnaise and crusty bread for dipping.”
The Christmas Eve dinner has always been a big deal round Alex Jackson’s house: “Mum used always to cook fish with lentils, but I changed this to pheasant biryani.” Granted this is not particularly simple, but good nonetheless. An easier idea, says the head chef of Soho’s Noble Rot, is pierogi filled with mushrooms and sauerkraut: “Fry onions in oil, add chopped mushrooms, soaked, dried ceps, caraway and garlic. Then, when the mushrooms have cooked down, chuck in roughly chopped cabbage, clap on a lid and cook until it tastes nice.” Once cool, add to circles of pastry, fold, boil in batches and serve with fried onions, sour cream and lardons.
As Nigella Lawson so sensibly puts it in Cook, Eat, Repeat: “I now realise that parties were just an excuse for having the cocktail sausages.” So, while we may not have big gatherings, we can still have canapes for dinner. Lawson mixes cold-pressed rapeseed oil, black treacle, marmalade and salt, then spoons half over the sausages. She drizzles them with more oil, cooks for 30 minutes, adds the remaining sticky mix and returns to the oven for a final 10 minutes.
If time is of the essence, though, Jackson has your back with a quick sauce for gnocchi or cavatelli. He boils cavolo nero with sliced garlic, drains it, saving a bit of the water, then “blitz with olive oil and a little cooking water, and that’s it”. Alternatively, warm up from any outdoor festivities with a bowl of rice porridge. Trine Hahnemann, author of Scandinavian Green, boils arborio rice with milk, seasons with salt, then serves warm with butter and a sprinkling of cinnamon sugar. Oh, and a generous glass of gløgg.
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