THE thing I love most about Christmas is, of course, the food. But what makes meals over the festive period so special is the people around me. Christmas is the perfect time to gather family and friends together and share in great food, wonderful seasonal drinks and good conversation.
The key to relaxed entertaining is good preparation, and there are some really simple tricks and recipes that will make the whole process easy. You don’t need to shy away from being the host for fear of getting things wrong or spending the whole evening in the kitchen. Even confident cooks can worry when they are cooking for more people than usual. But the more you plan and avoid leaving everything until the last minute, the more confident you will feel. At home, even with two young boys running around the house, we have mastered the art of not having to spend hours in the kitchen before we have guests.
It can be all too tempting to buy ready-made Christmas canapés from the shops, but I recommend you try making your own. It can be such a lot of fun, especially if you get some helpers involved, and so much more rewarding. And imagine the satisfaction you will get when you tell guests that all the foods they are enjoying are home-made. It will taste all the more fresh and flavoursome, and you can make them just how you like them.
One thing that always works really well when it comes to party food is thinking about some of your favourite, failsafe recipes and making them in bite-sized versions. Instead of worrying about whether a new recipe will work, you can make old favourites fun and festive for your guests. Sometimes the simplest, classic recipes are the best. The trick is to streamline. Keep your party food to a few simple snacks, but make lots of them, or make small variations or twists on your recipe if you want a bit more variety.
I love to serve soup as a Christmas snack if we have family or friends round to visit. It’s maybe not something people would instinctively think of as easy party food, but actually it’s perfect. It’s hearty and warming for the cold winter days and nights, and there are so many different varieties you can make with the wonderful vegetables that are at their best at this time of year. You can even make a selection of different soups if you really want to impress. The trick is in how you serve it. A fun way is in shot glasses – your guests can drink from the glass or you can give them small teaspoons, making it elegant, yet filling. If you don’t have shot glasses, espresso cups work really well and you can even create little breadsticks to lean on the side.
A big mixed cheese platter with different breads can also be impressive if you seek out wonderful, fresh, quality ingredients. My best advice is to keep things simple. The ingredients will speak for themselves and will need little messing with, leaving you more time to enjoy with your family and friends.
You can also have a lot of fun not just with the food, but with decorating your home or table, giving it a real Christmas feel. Just using different colours, plates or serving dishes can make beautiful, simple, seasonal foods feel celebratory – just as they should be. Goat’s cheese wrapped in parma ham with marinated red peppers and basil
3 red peppers
freshly ground black pepper
4 pickled garlic cloves, sliced
1 tbsp chopped black olives
1 tbsp sherry vinegar
2 small goat’s cheeses
4 large slices Parma ham
large handful basil leaves, shredded
handful rocket leaves
Heat the oven to 180°C/gas mark 4. Heat a non-stick ovenproof frying pan and add a drizzle of olive oil. Add the whole peppers, season with salt and pepper and sauté for a minute or two. Transfer the pan to the oven and roast the peppers for 12 to 15 minutes until soft.
On removing from the oven, place the peppers in a bowl and cover tightly with clingfilm. Set aside for ten minutes.
Remove the peppers from the bowl, peel off the skins, then cut in half and remove the seeds and membranes. Slice into strips and place in a bowl. Add a drizzle of olive oil, the pickled garlic slices, chopped olives, sherry vinegar and some seasoning. Toss to combine and then set aside.
Cut each goat’s cheese in half and loosely wrap a slice of Parma ham around each. Place the parcels on a baking tray in the oven for four or five minutes, until the cheese starts to melt.
Meanwhile, add the shredded basil to the pepper mix and toss to combine. Spoon on to a platter or individual plates. Top with the goat’s cheese parcels and scatter over a few rocket leaves. Serve with warm, crusty bread. Broccoli soup with blue cheese dressing
3 heads broccoli
1 clove garlic, chopped
100ml chicken or vegetable stock
Boil a pan of salted water. Cut the heads of the broccoli into same-sized florets to make sure they cook evenly.
Place the broccoli in the boiling water and boil until just cooked – check the florets with a knife. Once cooked, strain the broccoli through a colander to remove excess water.
Heat some olive oil in a non-stick frying pan. Add the chopped garlic and sweat for two to three minutes – do not allow to burn. Add the broccoli and the chicken stock, then season with salt and pass through a blender, adding more stock if required.
Once you have the consistency you want, chill the soup as quickly as possible to retain its bright green colour.
To serve, pour into a jug and then transfer into shot glasses. Add the blue cheese dressing to the top of each glass and garnish with chopped walnuts.
Blue cheese dressing
50g blue cheese
50g crème fraîche
In a bowl, break up the blue cheese with a fork. Add the mayonnaise and the crème fraîche and then mix thoroughly until smoothly combined.
Tempura prawns and thai sweet chilli dipping sauce
100g plain flour
100g baking powder
small bottle sparkling water
16 tiger king prawns
Mix all the flour ingredients together in a bowl and add sparkling water gradually, whisking as you go to remove lumps. Leave the mixture to rest for 15 minutes.
Peel the prawns, leaving the last part of the tail on each. Hold the tail and dip each prawn into the batter until almost covered.
Meanwhile pre-heat a fryer or large pan with vegetable oil. Place the prawns into the pan or fryer and cook until golden. Remove the prawns and spoon on to kitchen paper to remove any grease. Season and serve with sweet chilli dipping sauce
Sweet Chilli Dipping Sauce
15g garlic, chopped
15g red chili, chopped
60ml white wine vinegar
15g peanuts, crushed
10g coriander, chopped
Heat a frying pan, add oil and sauté the garlic and chili for two or three minutes, until the oil of the chili starts to come out. Add the vinegar, sugar and a pinch of salt and reduce until the sauce thickens.
Finally, add the crushed peanuts and coriander and serve with the crispy prawns.