Part of the deal of being a cookery writer is to come up with original ideas for Christmas. Each year, magazines and newspapers dazzle us with ever more wacky ideas for an alternative to Christmas lunch or a show-stopping festive dessert. But I am not sure I buy into all that. I remain convinced that what most omnivores really want on The Day is turkey or goose, or a rib of beef, and the annual attempt to encourage people to stray is somewhat futile. I mean, can there be anything more disappointing than arriving somewhere for Christmas lunch only to find your host has done something 'alternative' they found in a magazine?
In the alternative Christmas stakes, you can bet that red-meat haters may well plump for a lovely baked fish, turkey detesters might go for a pheasant or a duckling and nostalgics will no doubt delight in beef on the bone, but that is pretty much as far as alternative eating goes. Where substitutions for the great bird have a point is when there are vegetarians to feed. I think there is nothing ruder than expecting your non-meating guest to survive on sprouts and potatoes (unless they haven't warned you first, in which case they deserve nothing but a bowl of bread sauce). But Christmas lunch is a nightmare for the cook, as it is, without having to do battle with something extra for 'the veggie', so I suggest getting something ready the day before. Something that will actually improve from a night in the fridge.
Whatever you choose to make, it should smack of generosity and forethought. If I didn't eat meat, my dream meal for Christmas lunch would probably be an extraordinarily fragrant and colourful vegetable curry with layers of spices and aromatics. It must be more interesting than the usual brown gravy, and something for which I can get out all my spices and fill the kitchen with wondrous smells. Imagine a Christmas Eve kitchen where the air is heavy with baking mince pies and freshly ground spice.
Spices have long been associated with yuletide eating. Mincemeat itself was a much more aromatic mixture, until Victorian times, when it became the sweet jam it is today. Even trifle used to be decorated with sugar- coated fennel seeds. So it is quite appropriate to lift a few from the mulled wine and use them in the main dish. Those who want something meat-free but more gently flavoured might like to think about a creamy vegetable pie with puff pastry, or perhaps a strudel made with cheese and apples. The important thing is that, in its own way, it is as spectacular as the turkey.
Strangely, it is not the main dish that causes problems as much as the first course. Those happy to eat fish could not do better than a few thin, but not too thin, slices of smoked salmon, though I might be tempted by oysters, too. Why not have both? But those who prefer not to eat seafood deserve better than to put up with a bowl of watercress soup. What about a salad of artichokes and lemon, or perhaps a straightforward salad of Cos lettuce with blue cheese dressing? If it doesn't appear substantial enough, try serving it on hot, toasted slices of French bread. Remember, the point is only to whet your guests' appetite. If I wasn't going to down a few oysters this year, then I might make a plate of tiny gem lettuce leaves tossed with a dressing of thinned mayonnaise and lots of fresh herbs and lemon juice.
No one could possibly love Christmas pudding more than I do, but I do know that many find it simply too much. Not brave enough to suggest cutting down the servings of everything that precedes it, I might suggest something refreshing instead - a sorbet perhaps, or a bowl of golden fruit such as grapefruit, oranges and clementines, cut into thin slices and soaked in muscat, served chilled in a glistening glass.
Artichoke and parsley salad with toasted ciabatta
I am not sure you really need a starter with such a substantial main dish, so I suggest you nibble the following with drinks beforehand. Serves 6
1 x 260g jar of grilled artichokes in oil
juice of a lemon
3 tbsps extra-virgin olive oil
12 basil leaves, roughly torn
a small handful of flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped
4 slices of ciabatta, cut for toast
wedge of Parmesan, for shaving
Drain and discard the oil from the artichokes, then cut them in half and put them in a bowl. Squeeze the lemon juice over them and pour in the olive oil, then add the basil, parsley and a very little black pepper and salt.
Toss the artichokes gently with the lemon, oil and herbs, and set aside in a cool place for an hour. They will come to no harm if you do them earlier in the day.
Toast the pieces of ciabatta at the last minute, put them on plates and divide the salad between them. Take hold of the wedge of Parmesan and, using a vegetable peeler, take shavings off and sprinkle them over the toasts.
Chickpea and sweet potato curry
A mild and fragrant curry, which you can make hotter by simply adding more chillies. Enough for 6 with rice
200g dried chickpeas, soaked for several hours in mineral water
2 tbsps groundnut oil
2 medium-sized onions, peeled and roughly chopped
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
6 or 7 curry leaves
1 tsp black mustard seeds
2 tsps ground coriander
2 tsps ground turmeric
the ground seeds of 6 cardamoms
2 medium-sized fresh red chillies, finely chopped and
3 medium-sized carrots, peeled and cut into small-to-medium dice
500g tomatoes, roughly chopped
1 medium squash or small pumpkin (about 400g roughly chopped and peeled weight)
1 large sweet potato (about 400g) peeled and cut into large chunks
750ml vegetable stock (such as Marigold bouillon)
150g small mushrooms, halved, or a head of broccoli, broken into large florets
250ml Greek yoghurt
a good handful of coriander leaves
Pour the oil into a heavy-bottomed casserole dish set over a moderate to low heat, and leave the chopped onions and sliced garlic to cook slowly, until soft, translucent and honeyed. Stir in the curry leaves (which you can leave whole), mustard seeds and ground coriander, ground turmeric, cardamom and chopped chillies. Leave them to cook for 2 or 3 minutes, then add the chopped carrots and continue cooking over a low heat for 4 or 5 minutes.
Add the tomatoes, pumpkin and sweet potato, stir, then pour in the stock. Turn up the heat and bring to the boil. Scoop the orange froth that appears on the top of the pot and discard it, then turn the heat down so the contents simmer gently. Stir the curry from time to time as it cooks, pushing the vegetables down under the liquid and keeping an eye on the softer vegetables. You want them to be tender, but not broken up. Season with salt. At this point, you can stop the cooking and chill the curry overnight - it will deepen and mellow in flavour.
To serve the curry, drain and cook the chickpeas in boiling water (without salt) until they are reasonably tender. This will take about 45 minutes, depending on the age of your chickpeas. Drain them and stir into the curry. Blanch the broccoli in boiling, salted water (it should be almost tender), then drain and stir in to the curry. If you are using mushrooms, then add them to the curry with the chickpeas before the final heating up.
Warm the curry over a low to moderate heat, stirring from time to time. Stir in the yoghurt, making sure that the mixture does not boil (it will turn grainy if it does). Stir in the coriander at the last minute.
Passion fruit yoghurt sorbet
95g granulated or caster sugar
12 passion fruit
juice of 2 oranges
200ml Greek yoghurt
Put the sugar in a saucepan with 100ml of water, and heat gently until the sugar has dissolved. Leave to cool, then chill thoroughly.
Cut the passion fruit in half, then squeeze out the seeds and pulp into a sieve placed over a jug or bowl, scooping any stubborn bits out of the skins with a teaspoon. Rub the pulp through the sieve so that only the seeds are left. Discard the seeds, and add the pulp and juice to the cooled syrup, along with the orange juice.
Pour the mixture into an ice-cream machine and churn until almost frozen, then add the yoghurt. Churn again until it combines, then transfer to the freezer. If you are freezing without a machine, then stir the yoghurt into the syrup and tip into a freezer box with a lid. Freeze, removing every 2 hours to whisk the ice crystals from the edges into the middle of the mixture. You can expect it to take at least 4 or 5 hours to freeze.