Spare a thought for the chefs and cooks of the nation, who spend the month of December working their socks off so that the rest of us can enjoy ourselves.
By the time Christmas Day comes, many of them will be so sick of the sight of turkey and ham, or of the dishes that feature in the special menus that they have been cooking night after night for the whole month, that they’d probably eat just about anything other than the traditional feast.
That’s the reason why so many chefs are partial to a nice seafood platter, rib of beef or Beef Wellington come the big day. Hotel chefs, of course, will be working on Christmas Day, and will have to postpone their own celebrations until later.
We spoke to three hard-working food workers about what they’ll be cooking for their families this Christmas – or what they would be cooking if they weren’t working.
Executive Head Chef at Sheen Falls Lodge in Co Kerry
When he worked at the Ritz in London, Cormac McCreary lost count of the number of Christmas dinners he cooked between the middle of November and the big day. By the time Christmas came, he couldn’t face the sight of another turkey with sausage stuffing, or any more pigs in blankets. “This year it’s not so bad because we don’t do the same number of functions at Sheen Falls. But I will be working on Christmas Day and we’ll be serving a traditional dinner to our guests.”
When Cormac isn’t on duty at Christmas, he’s happy to let his mum do most of the cooking, “other than the ham, which I do for her and my aunties. I make a glaze with aromatics like star anise, pepper, Dijon mustard, ground cloves, honey and wheat bran, to give a bit of crunch. It has a lovely sweetness to it.”
Even though he’s not the biggest fan of turkey (“I actually prefer a Beef Wellington,” he says), Cormac is full of praise for his mum’s potato croquettes coated in almonds, her potato gratin and her Christmas pudding, made to a family recipe that’s been handed down through the generations.
“The food comes second on Christmas Day,” he says diplomatically. “It’s really all about everyone getting together, and there’s a nice feeling to that, even if the food isn’t great.”
CORMAC’s GOATS’ CURD & BEETROOT SALAD
We always go for a light starter to spare our appetites for the main course. This dish looks impressive but it’s actually really easy to make. You can prepare the pickled beetroot and purée in advance for added convenience.
For the goats’ curd filling:
200g goats’ curd
5g chopped chives
For the pickled beetroot:
3 golden beetroot
75ml white wine vinegar
1g five spice
For the beetroot purée:
3kg grated beetroot
300ml orange juice
200g Demerara sugar
For serving: Candied walnut (optional)
Mixed leaves (optional)
1. Let the goats’ curd reach room temperature and mix all ingredients for the filling together with a wooden spoon.
2. For the pickled beetroot, fill a roasting tray with table salt and place the beetroot on top, cover with tin foil and cook at 1800C for 60-75 minutes, depending on the size. The beetroot should be just soft in the middle. When cold, peel them and slice the golden beetroot into wedges and the purple beetroot into slices and put into two separate containers. In a separate pan, bring all the other ingredients to the boil, remove from the heat and pour over the beetroots and refrigerate.
3. For the beetroot purée, place all ingredients in a pan and cover with tinfoil and cook on a low heat until soft. Once soft remove foil and cook until dry, then blend the mixture until smooth.
4. Spread the goats’ curd filling in between two slices of purple beetroot at a time. Place goats’ curd towers on plate (approx two per person) and garnish with small dollops of beetroot purée, wedges of golden beetroot and candied walnut and leaves (if using).
Cormac’s pudding with brandy Anglaise
Ideally a Christmas pudding should be made several months before Christmas (we usually make ours in early August), but don’t worry if you’ve left it until the last minute. This recipe will still work a treat.
Makes two puddings
40g glace cherries, chopped
40g mixed peel
42g prunes, chopped
70g grated cooking apples
42g grated carrot
1 orange (zest and juice)
1 lemon (zest and juice)
33g ground almonds
80g brown sugar
2g mixed spice
2g ground nutmeg
2g ground cinnamon
10g crystallised ginger (chopped)
14g golden syrup
7ml cooking brandy
23ml bitter or a strong IPA
1 whole egg
For the brandy anglaise: 75ml milk
Half vanilla pod
2 egg yolks
Half orange zest
1. Mix suet and flour together and add everything else – make sure to mix well.
2. Place in two grease-proof tins and place the tins in deep trays of water. Cover in tinfoil and bake at 150oC for six hours.
3. To make brandy anglaise, boil the milk and cream with vanilla and, in a separate bowl, mix eggs and sugar. Combine by pouring milk and cream over eggs and sugar, return to heat and cook until the mixture starts to thicken. Be careful not to scramble the eggs. Add brandy and zest and then pass through a strainer.
Jutarat Suwankeeree (known as ‘R’)
Chef and co-owner with her husband, Conor Sexton, of Nightmarket in Ranelagh, Dublin
When the last customers have vacated their tables at Nightmarket in Ranelagh on Christmas Eve – the staff will be hoping that it’s not too late – chef R, her husband Conor and their daughter Emily (8) will be loading up the car with plenty of food and heading down to Conor’s family in Kildimo, Co Limerick.
The Sextons have a traditional Christmas dinner: prawn cocktail or smoked salmon, soup, turkey, ham, five different kinds of potatoes, and Christmas pudding. “It’s not food that appeals to me,” says R, “so I bring ingredients with me to make a few Thai dishes. I’ll make two versions of each dish – one spicy and one not – so that everyone is happy. I really don’t understand cold turkey and ham. In Thailand, even the salads have warm ingredients.”
While Christmas is not a major celebration in Thailand, the new year is a time when families gather for a feast, as they do at Chinese New Year in the spring also. “Younger people like the Western idea of New Year,” says R. “Children bring gifts and money to their parents at New Year; it’s part of Thai culture to support them as they grow older. They don’t reciprocate with gifts. We eat family-style, with the food in the middle, and sit around the table for a long time. It’s very sociable and we believe that sharing makes the food taste better. Everyone has a job, whether it’s serving rice or drinks, or clearing away. I’m old enough now not to have to get up and clear the table.”
A typical Thai menu is an exercise in balance, featuring at least three of the five elements of taste – spicy, sweet, sour, bitter and salty. “We’d have something deep-fried and something steamed, something spicy and something not too spicy, soup, curry and a stir-fry, with some fresh fruit to finish,” says R. “It’s all about taste and texture.”
It’ll be a quick visit to Limerick for R and her family, as Nightmarket will be back open on December 27. “People are craving a different kind of food by then and our phone will be ringing off the hook,” says Conor. “They’ll have had enough of turkey sandwiches.”
R’S GREEN CURRY WITH SEA BASS
Green curry is the most classic of Thai curries. The curry is named for the colour of the fresh green chilli used in the curry paste. This curry should taste rich and creamy from coconut milk and at the same time spicy, salty and slightly sweet.
2 cups coconut cream
6 tbsp green curry paste (Mae Ploy or Nittaya brand)
2 tbsp palm sugar, coarsely chopped
475ml coconut milk
2 tbsp fish sauce
8 Thai apple eggplants, cut into 4
100g small aubergine
6 kaffir lime leaves, torn
2 long red chillies, diagonally sliced
Handful of Thai sweet basil leaves
6 fillets sea bass no skin, oven baked
1. Pour ½ cup of coconut cream into a pan or a wok and set it over high heat. Bring the cream to a boil, stirring often, then decrease the heat to medium. Cook, stirring until the cream has reduced and breaks. Add the curry paste. Fry over a medium heat, stirring regularly to prevent the paste burning, until the paste is fragrant and turned a shade or two darker. The longer you’re cooking it at low sizzle, the greater the curry will taste.
2. Add the palm sugar, until the sugar has melted (if you want to cook with chicken, you have to add chicken now before adding in coconut cream and coconut milk). Add the remaining coconut cream, then coconut milk, season with fish sauce. Have a taste and consider gradually adding more of the curry paste.
3. Bring to the boil, reduce heat, add Thai eggplant and small aubergine and simmer for about 3-4 minutes. Add kaffir lime leaves, red chillies, Thai sweet basil and oven-baked sea bass then turn off the heat.
R’S TOM KHA WITH CHICKEN
This is one of the best known Thai soups, mild with the richness of coconut cream.
475ml chicken stock
1 cup coconut milk
1 cup coconut cream
2 stalks lemongrass, cut into 2-inch long pieces
3 red shallots, peeled
10 slices galangal
3 kaffir lime leaves, torn
200g skinless chicken breasts or thigh fillet, sliced
200g oyster mushrooms, torn
Pinch of salt
2-3 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp palm sugar, coarsely chopped
2-3 bird’s eye chillies (scud)
1 tbsp lime juice
3 tbsp coriander leaves for garnish
2 tbsp chilli oil for garnish
1. Combine stock with coconut milk and coconut cream in a pot. Bring it to boil. Add lemongrass, shallots, sliced galangal and kaffir lime leaves to the boiling stock, let it simmer for a few minutes, then add chicken and mushroom. Turn down the heat and continue to simmer until the chicken is cooked. Season with a pinch of salt, fish sauce and palm sugar. Turn off the heat.
2. Add scud chillies and lime juice into the soup, top with coriander and chilli oil.
3. The soup should taste rich of coconut milk, salty, sour and a little bit spicy.
R’S CHICKEN LAAB
This salad is originally from north-east Thailand. The word laab means the meat is mince or chopped finely, then cooked with spicy dressing.
150g skinless chicken breast or thigh fillets, minced
3 tbsp chicken stock
Pinch of salt
Pinch of white sugar
3 tbsp lime juice
1 tbsp roasted chilli powder
2 tbsp fish sauce
3 red shallots, finely sliced
Handful of mint, coriander, culantro or eryngium (long-leaf coriander)
2 tbsp kaffir lime leaves, finely chopped
2 tbsp ground roasted rice
3-4 dried whole red chillies for garnish
1. Heat the wok or pan over high heat with oil, swirl to coat the wok or pan then add minced chicken. Stir-fry and break up the meat to avoid clumps, add stock. Stir-fry until chicken is cooked (about 3-4 minutes), do not overcook or the meat will be tough.
2. Remove the wok from the heat, season with salt, white sugar, lime juice, chilli powder and fish sauce. Mix in shallots and herbs. Sprinkle with roasted rice and dried whole red chillies as garnish.
3. This salad should taste spicy, sour and salty. Eat with raw vegetables such as cucumber, fine beans and cabbage.
Shop-keeper and cookery teacher at Picado Mexican in Dublin 2
Growing up in Mexico, Lily Ramirez-Foran remembers the nine days leading up to Christmas as a very special time. “The neighbours all get together, in a series of ‘posadas’. People travel from house to house carrying Joseph, Mary and the donkey from the oldest person’s Nativity set, going from house to house looking for shelter. There are candles, songs and rituals, and you’re not a proper Mexican if your hair wasn’t set alight in one of these processions at least once when you were a child.
“By Christmas Eve the figures are back in the house from which they came originally. There’s a special star-shaped piñata and ‘ponche’ to drink, a warm tropical fruit punch with spices and a little alcohol, either tequila, mescal or rum. You can make it without alcohol – my Irish niece and nephew love it. And Christmas Eve is when we have the big feast.”
When Lily spent her first Christmas in Ireland at the age of 25, she missed the traditions from home. “The first year that I was in Ireland was tough,” she says. “I remember bursting out crying because I was used to the big celebration being on Christmas Eve, and nothing really happened. Alan’s [my husband’s] family like to go into town on Christmas Eve for breakfast and then be home before it gets too busy. They sit by the fire with hot chocolate in the afternoon and hot whiskeys later, but there’s no big meal, no big table. At home my mother would make a stuffed leg of pork – pierna mechada – that would take all day. You make a stuffing out of cloves, garlic, pancetta, olives and prunes – the chopping takes forever! – and pierce the meat with a long skewer to insert the stuffing. Then you rub it with guajillo paste, which is mild and fruity.
“The pork cooks for 10 hours at a low heat in orange juice and cider. It’s a very labour-intensive dish but completely delicious. The next day we’d have the leftovers in rolls that are soft like a Waterford blaa that you fry in butter.”
Because Picado Mexican is open on Christmas Eve for last-minute gifts, Lily says that these days she usually cooks the pierna mechada for New Year’s Eve, when she has more time. “For Christmas this year I will cook pozole soup and tamales, which are both celebratory dishes too. You can give the tamales an Irish twist with St Tola goats cheese.”
LILY’S BEAN & GOATS’ CHEESE TAMALES
Tamales are one of the most traditional and celebratory dishes you’ll find in Mexico, hence most Mexicans enjoy them during Christmas and New Year’s celebrations. They date from pre-colonial times and are delicious to eat. I particularly love them with an Irish twist: a generous amount of creamy and mild goats’ cheese, like Irish organic St Tola cheese, but if you’re not into goats’ cheese, you can always use a good quality cheddar cheese.
For the tamales
25-30 dried corn husks
Boiling water from the kettle
For the filling
450g tinned refried beans with chipotle
120g St Tola goats’ cheese (original)
For the tamal dough
500g tamales masa harina
1 tsp table salt
⅛ tsp ground cumin
⅛ tsp garlic powder
250g pork lard
500ml warm water
1. Start by prepping your corn husks. Put the stopper in your kitchen sink (you can also use a big container for this). Place the dry corn husks at the bottom of the sink making sure to separate them beforehand. Cover the husks with boiling hot water from the kettle, you might have to boil the kettle a few times for this, but soaking the husks in hot water is essential for the success of your tamales. If you find they are floating on top of the water, use a heavy bowl to weight them down. Leave them soaking while you get on with the rest of the steps.
2. Follow by getting the filling ingredients for the tamales ready. Put the spiced beans in a bowl with a spoon. The beans don’t need to be heated, cold is fine. Cut the cheese in long strips of about ª-inch thick. You want enough cheese to flavour but not to dominate the taste of the tamal. Lay the filling ingredients on the worktop or table where you are working and proceed with making your tamal dough.
3. In a large bowl, put together the tamales masa harina, salt, cumin and garlic powder. Mix well until all the dry ingredients are well incorporated.
4. Add lard and the warm water and using a spoon (water is hot) incorporate everything to the point where you can stick your hands in and knead the ingredients. Knead for about 4 minutes until you have a dough that is soft and a little sticky.
5. When the dough is ready, drain the husks and shake them a little before putting them on a colander sitting on a plate to catch any dribbles of water left. Place the husks on the table with the dough, beans and cheese and get ready to assemble the tamales.
6. Please note that husks have a smooth and a ridged side, so you will always use the smooth side of the husk (naturally curves into it) to put the dough on and for the purpose of this recipe, you also need to be aware of the narrow and the wide ends of the husk. Keep this in mind for the next step.
7. Grab a husk on your hand, narrow end pointing away from you. Take a generous amount of dough, enough to cover ⅔ of the husk, and using your thumbs, spread the dough thinning it out to about ª-inch in thickness. Don’t spread the dough as far as any of the sides. Leave a quarter of an inch dough-free at the wide end of the husk and the sides of the husk (this will allow for the dough to expand without leaking out of the husk. Go as far as the husk starts narrowing down (this will allow you to fold the tamal properly).
8. Take a generous spoonful of spiced refried beans and spread them vertically on the dough; I go a little off-centre to the right to be able to comfortably fold the tamal. Follow by adding a couple of slices of goats’ cheese on top of the beans.
9. Now we need to fold the tamal. Take the right hand side of the husk and fold it to the centre of the tamal. Follow by folding the left hand side of the husk into the centre of tamal, folding it over the right hand side one you just did. Then take the narrow end of the husk, the one pointing away from you, and fold it upwards towards you. This will cover the two other folds. Use some discarded bits of husk to make a belt to secure all folds in the husk. Set it aside on a plate. Repeat steps 6 to 9 until you have used all your dough and filling.
10. Put some water in your steamer and turn the heat to medium high. Place all the tamales in the steamer basket standing up (opened side facing the lid of the steamer) and put the steamer lid on. Placing the tamales standing is super important as it helps them keep their shape and not leak out into the steamer! Bring the water to a boil and steam your tamales at medium heat for about 1 hour or until they are cooked. After the hour, you can carefully take one out using kitchen togs and attempt to unwrap the husk. If the husk comes clean off the dough, your tamales are ready! If not, return the tamal to the steamer and steam for another 20 minutes before checking again. It shouldn’t be more than 1 hour and 20 minutes.
11. Serve them hot with a generous amount of your favourite salsa (I love my home made salsa roja). If you are not eating them straight away, take them out of the steamer into a cooling rack and let them cool down completely. They freeze really, really well; just make sure they’re completely cold before putting them in plastic bags and into the freezer.
LILY’S RED POZOLE
Pozole is perhaps the one dish I miss the most from home. A spoonful of it is enough to bring me right back to my mother’s kitchen table. I particularly crave it this time of year, as many Mexicans enjoy it as a celebratory meal to see the old year out and ring in the new one.
1 kilo pork shoulder, cut into 3-4inch chunks
1 head garlic, whole & unpeeled (about 45g)
1 tbsp table salt
20g dried guajillo chilli
10g dried cascabel chilli
1 garlic clove, peeled
2 tbsps dried Mexican oregano
830g tinned pozole kernels/hominy
For the garnishes
Iceberg lettuce or white cabbage, thinly sliced
Fresh radishes, thinly sliced
1 onion, finely chopped
4 limes, cut in quarters
1. Put the meat, the water, the whole head of garlic and the salt in a large, heavy-bottom pot with a lid and bring it to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer at medium heat for about two hours or until the meat is fully cooked and tender. The result should be very tender meat with plenty of stock left. Discard the garlic head and fish the meat out onto a board. Roughly shred the meat (including a bit of the fat) and set aside. Reserve all the stock as this will be the basis for the soup.
2. While the meat cooks, clean and deseed the dried chillies. Put them into a pot with about half a litre of water and turn the heat onto high. Boil them for 15 minutes before switching the heat off and allowing the chillies to cool in the water.
3. Drain the chillies and transfer them to a blender or food processor. Add the garlic clove, the oregano and at least two ladlefuls of the reserved pork stock. Liquidise the ingredients until you have a smooth sauce.
4. Pour the sauce into the reserved stock, add the drained pozole kernels and mix well. Turn the heat on to medium and let the soup simmer for 20 minutes before adding the chopped meat. Mix well and check for seasoning. The soup should taste a little bit bitter, so don’t worry at this point, just check for saltiness.
5. While the soup cooks, get all the soup’s garnishes ready. Lettuce or white cabbage, onion, radishes, limes and – very importantly – the tostadas. Pozole without tostadas is not the same at all!
6. Set all the garnishes and the tostadas in the middle of the table and call the troops for dinner. Serve the soup very hot in deep bowls making sure you include plenty of meat and kernels in every bowl. Leave space in the bowl for the garnishes: a handful of lettuce or white cabbage, plenty of radishes, two teaspoons of chopped onion and lashings of lime juice.
7. Eat the soup hot with plain tostadas rubbed with a bit of lime juice and a sprinkle of salt. If you are daring enough, add a bit of a very hot salsa to your pozole as another garnish or a thin layer of salsa to your tostada before eating it.
8. Traditionally, Mexicans use De Arbol Chilli-based salsas for this. However, my Irish family just skips the hot salsa and enjoys the tamer version of the soup. Pozole keeps well in the fridge for up to a week and it freezes very well.
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