Nigel Slater on hassle-free festive nibbles

There is too much going on. Too much to do. Too little time. What I need right now is something I can make, proudly, with my own fair hands that will last throughout The Feast. A cut-and-come-again pâté, a slice-as-you-need cake; a dip-and-dip-again relish. Food that will get me out of trouble when people turn up unexpectedly or when my plans for a starter, supper or tea go astray. Think of it as a get me out of jail card.

The most obvious safety net to have around at Christmas is a large ham - something that can be carved at any time for a late breakfast, lunchtime salad or maybe a sandwich with a bottle of cold beer. Expensive as they are, large joints of meat that can be hacked and nibbled at as necessary are worth their weight in gold over the festive season. Also on the shopping list could be a garlicky, fennel-speckled salami, too, for passing round in slices with glasses of something butch enough to handle it. It is also the best thing to find in your fridge when you have the urge to pick at something savoury.

I have made several pork pies over the years and apart from their somewhat eccentric shape (I'd never have been much of a potter) they proved extraordinarily delicious. It is difficult to think of anything more useful than a cut-and-come-again pie that you can slice at any time from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day. The only difficult thing is not breaking off a piece of crumbly, jelly-lined pastry every time you pass the fridge.

That said, there is nothing I have found more practical than having a terrine of coarse, garlic-seasoned pâté around. Apart from the obvious use as a trouble-free first course, a moist, brandy-soaked pâté, speckled with fat, herbs and piquant green peppercorns can be brought out on bits of toast with drinks or can be part of a bread-and-cheese snack. As something to dip into as the week goes, there are few more satisfying recipes.

Any pâté, whether coarse and chewy or silkily spreadable, benefits from a sour pickle of some sort. A preserved chilli will fit the bill, as will a pickled onion with its acid snap, but we can do even better than that. I make a sort of crisp relish with shards of carrot and red cabbage sharpened with vinegar and ginger. It has the effect of perking up the mild flavours of the terrine (or pork pie, or cold ham, or roast beef) and at the same time tackling head-on some of the pâtés' inherent richness. In that sense, a relish of this sort, maybe with chilli or quite an assertive white vinegar is pretty much essential.

Christmas is not the time to live without cake (I'm not sure any time is), but it need not be the traditional fruit cake incarcerated in snow-white icing. I sometimes make a lighter version that is more cake than fruit, serving it with a mildly spiced ice cream, such as nutmeg or cinnamon. Including ground almonds in the recipe will keep the cake moist enough to last three or four days, allowing it to do service at both dinner and tea.

And lastly in the safety-net stakes, but possibly the most useful of the lot, is a cauldron of bean-based soup. The sort, thick with tomato, bay leaves, haricot beans and onions, that will fit the bill whether you want something to plump up a meal of cold cuts, passify a vegetarian you have failed to make provision for or simply to offer some sort of respite from the excess of prime cuts and rich flavours. There is nothing like a bowl of soup to bring us back down to earth.

A coarse pâté

Serves 8 or more

a medium onion
2 large cloves garlic
a thick slice of butter, about 30g
500g fatty pork, minced
400g pig's liver, minced or very finely chopped
a large handful of fresh white breadcrumbs
12 juniper berries, lightly crushed
the leaves from a bushy sprig of thyme, finely chopped
a tbsp bottled green peppercorns, rinsed
a tsp of ground mace
a small glass of dry vermouth
2 tbsp brandy
15-20 bacon rashers
bay leaves

Preheat an oven to 180C/gas mark 4. Peel and finely chop the onion and garlic. Melt the butter then cook the onion and garlic until soft and translucent. Add the minced pork and the liver, breadcrumbs, juniper berries, thyme, green peppercorns, mace, vermouth and brandy. Season generously with salt and ground black pepper - a good teaspoon of each. Stir thoroughly.

Line a 1.5 litre terrine with the bacon rashers, then fill with the mixture. Push it down and wrap the bacon rashers over the top, filling any gaps where necessary. Add bay leaves or juniper berries if you wish. Cover with a lid of greaseproof paper and foil then place in a deep roasting tin and pour in enough water to come halfway up the side of the terrine.

Put terrine into the oven and leave for 1½ hours. Test with a skewer for doneness. It is cooked when the skewer comes out hot (rather than just warm). Remove carefully from the oven (the hot water is easy to tip over). Leave to cool overnight before eating.

A crisp, sweet-sharp relish for pâté

4 tbsp of boiling water
2 tbsp tamarind pulp
250g carrots
250g red cabbage
75g ginger
2 tsp sea salt
2 tsp palm sugar
2 shredded hot chillies
2 tsp of salt
a tbsp Thai fish sauce
150ml rice vinegar
150ml water

Pour the boiling water over the tamarind pulp. Leave for a few minutes then strain in a tea-strainer. Discard the pulp and keep the tamarind water.

Finely shred the carrots and red cabbage and 75g ginger. Put it in a bowl with the sea salt and leave overnight.

Drain off the liquid and add the palm sugar, shredded hot chillies, salt, the Thai fish sauce, rice vinegar and water. Mix thoroughly. Store in an airtight jar in the fridge for up to a week, turning the jar over from time to time.

A light fruit cake for Christmas

As much as I love a deep, fruit-packed Christmas cake, I often wish for something lighter, with a little more cake and less fruit. Here is the answer. A shallow fruit cake, moist with ground almonds and brandy. The texture and flavour will improve if the cake is kept wrapped in foil over night. Serves 12.

50g soft dried apricots
50g soft dried dates
75g soft dried figs
50g dried cranberries
50g sultanas
3 tbsp brandy
200g butter
200g caster sugar
75g ground almonds
90g plain flour
4 large eggs, beaten
the grated zest and the juice of an organic orange
golden icing sugar for decoration

You will also need a shallow 23cm cake tin, the base lined with baking parchment. Set the oven at 180C/gas mark 4.

Whizz the apricots, dates, figs, cranberries and sultanas in a food processor briefly, so that they are all roughly the size of candied peel. Tip into a stainless steel or glass bowl, pour over the brandy and set aside for an hour for the brandy to flavour the fruit.

Put the butter and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer and beat till fluffy and white, scraping down the sides of the bowl as you go. Mix the almonds and flour together.

Slowly beat in the eggs, one at a time. Add a third of the almonds and flour, turn the mixer off, add another third and beat slowly and briefly, then add the final third, again mixing briefly. Too fast a mixing will make the cake heavy.

Slowly beat in the dried fruit, the orange zest and juice, taking great care not to over-mix. Transfer the mixture to the lined cake tin, gently smoothing the top and bake for 45 minutes. Leave the cake to cool in the tin, running a palate knife around the edge to loosen it as it cools.

Wrap the cake in foil and store overnight - this will improve the flavour and texture. Dust with deep icing sugar before serving.

nigel.slater@observer.co.uk

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.