If you're anything like me, Christmas is a day of sheer excess on the eating front, so you really don't want to be wolfing down something too filling the night before, otherwise there's no way you'll fit in all that turkey. But that doesn't mean you have to starve yourself, either.
Christmas Eve is a day of preparation - or at least it should be. The reality for me is a little different, usually involving a mad, last-minute dash to the shops to buy, and post, all the cards and presents I should have sorted out weeks earlier. After running around like an idiot trying to make up for lost time, the last thing I want to do is put my mind to something I'm not even going to eat until tomorrow. And anyway, by the time I eventually get home in the evening, it's too late to do so - there's dinner to be sorted.
And by dinner, I mean a proper meal - three courses and everything. My mum's a second-generation Italian, and the tradition there is to have a big family feast on Christmas Eve (yes, and then we have another one the next day). So that's just what we do, before Mum and I head off to midnight mass. But big doesn't have to mean heavy. We don't want to go over the top - well, not until tomorrow, at any rate. No, what we're looking for here is a light starter followed by a main course of fish or lamb and then, to round things off, a refreshing pudding. Something like this...
PARSNIP AND APPLE SOUP
Warming, tasty and a cinch to make, too - what more could you want of a starter? Serves four.
1 onion, peeled and sliced
1kg parsnips, peeled and sliced
1 sprig fresh thyme, leaves picked
1 bay leaf
2 pints chicken (or vegetable) stock
1 large cooking apple
In a pan, melt the butter over a medium heat, then add the sliced onion and sauté until it is soft but has not taken on any colour. Add the parsnips and sauté until they start to soften. Add the thyme and bay leaf.
Once the herbs are starting to soften in the hot fat, add the stock. Bring to a boil, simmer until the parsnips are soft, then remove them from the heat.
Peel, core and slice the apple, and add to the soup. Whizz the whole lot in a blender, season to taste and serve - I like to add a swirl of horseradish cream on top.
BAKED SALMON WITH PISTACHIO CRUST
The finished dish looks, and tastes, as if a hell of a lot more work has gone into it than actuallyhas. Serves four.
100g unsalted pistachios
25g Parmesan, finely grated
25g Gruyère, finely grated ...#8805;
50g softened butter
4 portions salmon, each weighing about 150g
Salt and ground black pepper
A little nutmeg
Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/gas mark 6. With a knife, roughly chop the pistachios (or put them between two pieces of parchment paper and bash them with a rolling pin), then transfer to a bowl. Add the breadcrumbs and cheese, and combine.
Use the butter to grease the insides of a suitable oven dish, then lay in the salmon portions. Add a touch of water, lightly season the fish, add the nutmeg and place a layer of the pistachio mixture evenly all over the top of the salmon to a depth of around 0.5cm thick. Cover with foil and bake for 10 minutes. For the final two minutes of cooking time, remove the foil and allow the crust to crisp. Serve hot, with a crisp green salad.
ROASTED LEG OF LAMB WITH ANCHOVY PASTE
A simple roast with a twist - the marinade creates a wonderfully punchy gravy. Serves four to six.
50g tinned anchovies, plus their oil
8 tbsp olive oil
2 garlic cloves
1 tsp finely chopped rosemary
1 tbsp white-wine vinegar
2 tbsp honey
Salt and ground black pepper
1 leg of lamb (1.35-2.25kg)
The day ahead, put the lamb in a marinade. Put the anchovies, half the oil, garlic and rosemary into a blender, and whizz together into a paste. Add the white-wine vinegar and honey, and blend again. Season with sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Use a small, sharp knife to make slits all around the joint, then pour the marinade over the meat. Leave overnight (or for at least 12 hours) to marinade.
The next day, preheat the oven to 220C/425F/gas mark 7. Pour the remaining oil into a large roasting tin and sit the lamb inside. Roast for 15 minutes, then turn down the heat to 180C/350F/gas mark 4 and cook for 45 minutes to one hour (depending on how pink you like your meat).
Remove the lamb from the oven, transfer to a draining tray, reserving the juices, and allow to rest for 10-15 minutes before carving and serving.
Serve with roast potatoes, or perhaps some roasted pumpkin.
MULLED RED WINE JELLY
Despite its school dinner reputation, jelly makes a very sophisticated pudding that's light, clean-tasting and refreshing. Serves six.
1 bottle red wine
1 strip orange rind
2 strips lemon rind
½ cinnamon stick
1 bay leaf
150g caster or granulated sugar
8 sheets leaf gelatine
6 oranges, cut into segments
6 mint leaves, cut into julienne strips
Put the wine, citrus zest, spices and sugar in a big pan. Bring to a boil, stir until the sugar dissolves, then turn down the heat to very low and simmer for 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, put the leaf gelatine into a bowl of iced water to soften. Segment the oranges and set aside. When the wine is ready, pour into a clean pan through a fine sieve. Squeeze out as much water from the gelatine as you can, then stir into the hot wine until dissolved. Now strain the mixture through a fine sieve (or muslin) a second time, to make sure the jelly will be clear.
Add the segmented oranges and mint to the jelly mix, then ladle into suitably pretty glasses and refrigerate until set. I like to serve this with some mascarpone into which has been stirred a little icing sugar and finely ground black pepper. ·
Angela Hartnett's Cucina: Three Generations Of Italian Family Cooking is published by Ebury Press at £25. To order a copy for £23, including UK p&p, go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0870 836 0875. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is away.