I want to be ushered gently into the Christmas feast. A couple of small courses, crisp and light, to tease and delight before we start carving the roast bird and passing around the trimmings.
First, something frivolous in a glass with some appropriate “bits” (I really can’t bring myself to write the word “canapés” or “nibbles”), then proceed slowly with a light, jewel-bright first course or maybe even two.
I really do mean light. It is my belief that a starter should tempt rather than satiate, ideally something fresh and crunchy with flavours that are bright and clean with dressings on the sharp side. A plate of piquant flavours to whet our appetite for what is to come.
A pretty salad of seasonal fruit and vegetables – the fennel, beetroot, apples and purple cabbages that are so good right now – would almost certainly be welcome and is what I will be passing round the table. As would anything with ruby-red pickles or a citrus dressing. This year, my guests will be getting a plate of smoked salmon with homemade pink pickles of onion, juniper and coriander seeds; or, should they prefer, a plate of crunchy red cabbage and apple with shards of snow-white goat’s milk cheese and a dressing of honey and walnut oil.
I might follow up with a twirl or two of pasta ribbons, tossed with cream, parmesan and black pepper (umami always brings me to the table), but they will be offered as tiny plates that will leave everyone wanting more. A small mound – barely three forkfuls – of pici or trofie cacio e pepe is what I have in mind.
Smoked salmon, beetroot and fennel
The onions here are an incredibly useful thing to have around. You can start pickling them the day before if you wish. I like to have some in the fridge for tossing into salads and tucking into a sandwich. They will keep in a screw-top jar in the fridge for several days. Serves 4
For the onions:
red onions 150g
malt vinegar 50ml
cider vinegar 125ml
sugar 1 tbsp
juniper berries 6
coriander seeds 1 tsp
black peppercorns a few
For the salad:
smoked salmon 250g
parsley a handful
For the dressing:
Dijon mustard ½ tsp
white wine vinegar 2½ tbsp
olive oil 6 tbsp
Peel the onions, then slice them thinly into rounds. Pour the vinegars and 125ml of water into a small saucepan and bring to the boil. Add the sugar. Lightly crush the juniper berries with a mortar or by pressing with the back of a spoon, then add to the vinegars with the coriander seeds and peppercorns. As soon as the sugar has dissolved, add the sliced onions, pushing them down into the liquid, then remove from the heat, cover with a lid and leave to infuse for an hour. Longer will not hurt.
Trim, peel and finely slice the beetroot. Remove the onions from their pickling juice and put the beetroot slices into it and leave for 30 minutes.
Make the dressing: put the mustard in a small bowl or jar with a generous pinch of sea salt. Add the vinegar and then beat in the olive oil with a small whisk or fork.
Trim the fennel, then slice thinly, each piece no thicker than a £1 coin, then put into a mixing bowl. Add the onions. Cut or tear the smoked salmon into pieces you can get on to your fork, then add to the fennel. Lift the beetroot from its marinade and add to the fennel, together with the parsley leaves. Mix 2 tbsp of the pickling liquor to the dressing then pour into the salad and toss gently.
Red cabbage, apple and goat’s cheese
I rather enjoy peeling clementines with a knife, treating the removal of every trace of pith as something of a challenge. You need a razor-sharp knife. Any left on is bitter and unsightly, but also gives the impression you don’t care. The easiest way is to slice the top and bottom from the fruit, sit it up straight on a chopping board then remove the peel by slicing downwards, turning the clementine as you go. You can then slice the fruit horizontally or into segments. Serves 4
brussels sprouts 12
apples 2, small
hazelnuts 3 tbsp toasted
red cabbage 4 large leaves
goat’s milk cheese such as Ticklemore, 150g
For the dressing:
liquid honey or maple syrup 1 tbsp
lemon juice 1 tbsp
groundnut or walnut oil 1 tbsp
Bring a deep, medium-sized saucepan of water to the boil. Trim and halve the sprouts, drop into the boiling water and let them cook for 3 or 4 minutes, until bright green. Drain and tip the sprouts immediately into a bowl of iced water.
Peel the clementines, then slice each one thinly. Put them in a mixing bowl. Halve, core and thinly slice the apples and add to the bowl. Halve the hazelnuts.
Wash the cabbage leaves, place them on top of each other, roll them up tightly, then slice into fine, fettucine-like pieces. Toss the cabbage, drained sprouts, apples and clementines together.
Make the dressing: put the honey or maple syrup into a small bowl with the lemon juice, a pinch of salt and few grinds of the pepper mill. Beat in the oil and pour over the salad. Thinly slice the cheese, add to the salad, then toss everything together tenderly.