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Enter the entree
If you are planning a festive dinner or lunch during the Christmas season, you've probably worked out well ahead of time, exactly what you need to do for the perfect stuffed turkey or glazed leg of ham. The dessert - whether it's Christmas pudding, Yule Log et al - would have been already been decided. However, just like the lead actor needs an excellent supporting caste for a play or film to be a success, the Christmas table's centerpiece - be it poultry or meat - depends on the choice and quality of the accompanying side dishes to truly shine and so make the entire meal really special.
Yet, because of the preoccupation with the star of the show, these dishes in the supporting roles inevitably get neglected and overlooked, leading to panic and culinary disaster (sometimes on a Bridgette Jones' scale) as one tries to do too much too late. The result: a superbly cooked and presented centerpiece, but a meal that somehow doesn't quite come together and leaves you feeling a little disappointed.
Having learnt this lesson the hard way over the years, I now make sure that I'm giving enough thought to the ensemble - not just the diva. And in the process, I've developed a few strategies that take away the stress of preparation yet make the special meal more satisfyingly complete.
The one cardinal rule I apply when deciding the side dishes is that they must be preparations that can be made ahead and need only a final tossing or heating for the table. I also believe that the accompaniments must set off (but never overpower) your dining table diva through taste, texture and, very importantly, color. At the same time, you'll want a combination of both hot and cold dishes.
You can elect to serve a rich mushroom and asparagus pasta, seasoned with thyme and parsley and cooked in the oven in a creamy bêchamel redolent of garlic, white wine and generous quantities of excellent cheese (splurge on some Gruyere or Emmental, you won't regret it!) This can be made a couple of days ahead and all it needs before serving is a dusting of grated cheese (a robust Cheddar is fine for this purpose) and then a stint in a warm oven for it to emerge golden and bubbling. What I do, is divide the quantity I need into two or three baking dishes. This means that even as one goes on to the table, another is warming up to replace it as soon as it starts cooling off and emptying. This wonderfully creamy pasta perfectly balances the rich meatiness of a stuffed roast bird or ham.
Another reliable stand-by that never goes out of favor is spinach lasagna - again something that can be prepared ahead and kept in the fridge.
I don't usually bother with fish or meat side dishes. But a good non-vegetarian alternative to pasta is a piping hot chowder casserole. This is essentially a regular chowder - using bacon, prawns, cubed potatoes, sweet corn kernels, and seasoned with chives and parsley - but reduced over a slow heat from soup-like consistency to a casserole. Once again this can be made before the big day, and heated on the stove top with a nub of butter just before serving.
Several winter vegetables make for easy, flavorful warm side dishes and can be prepared beforehand: caramelized honey-glazed carrots, baby onions golden roasted in butter and glazed with sugar, emerald green broccoli peeking out from under a blanket of golden cheese sauce, tender green peas scented with mint. And, of course, the comfort of a warm buttery cinnamon-fragrant mash of sweet potatoes and apples is a must-have for the Christmas table. All these can be heated in the microwave or a warmed in a gentle oven before being plated up. You could also steam green beans ahead of time and dress them in warm garlic scented olive oil just before they are needed.
An easy short cut to ensuring your veggies are high on flavor is to add bacon bits. So if you don't need to keep the vegetables strictly vegetarian, when roasting or sautêing them, begin with frying some chopped streak bacon and then add your vegetables - like Brussels sprouts or shredded cabbage to the smoky fat juices to cook. A friend of mine makes a delicious winter casserole by allowing kale, sausage, onion and flageolet beans to simmer gently in a broth seasoned with rosemary and garlic. I've tweaked her recipe replacing sausage with bacon and the flageolet with local barbati beans and found it to be a deeply satisfying Christmas side dish. And so to salads. With the variety of lettuce available in these cold months, I always have a big green salad with a basic French dressing, and add touches of color with other seasonal specials: cherry tomatoes and red and yellow bell peppers sliced thin. Prepare each of your salad ingredients ahead of time (wash and tear to size the lettuce, slice the peppers, halve the tomatoes if they are on the bigger size) and keep them in separate plastic bags. Have your dressing ready in a bottle and then all you need to do is toss everything together at the very last minute. Nothing speaks more expressively of the season than a ruby red beet salad dressed in sour cream that's specked with delicate fronds of pale green dill. Have the beet ready, the sour cream set, and you have a no-hassle, picture-perfect salad.
Firm, sweet Kumquats and Darjeeling oranges pair wonderfully with peppery rocket leaves in a salad which uses orange juice in place of vinegar.
Good old potato mayonnaise never loses its appeal. But zip it up by adding wasabi punch to the mayo and the parrot green sharpness of onion stalks - another seasonal vegetable. And of course, think of using the small fresh new potatoes of the winter harvest.
A finishing touch for the table is glasses with fat bulbs of spring onion (green stems attached) and bowls of baby red radish. And last, but not the least, remember to surround your diva where it sits on its platter with trimmings that are worthy of it. If it's turkey, chicken or other poultry, go for tiny spiced sausages and delicious little rolls of honey-brushed prunes wrapped in bacon. Both sausages and the angels on horseback can be made the day before and reheated in the oven. Intersperse the charcuterie with golden roast potatoes but add a creative twist by scouring deep lines along the tops of the potatoes with a knife to give them a hasselback look. Scatter sprigs of parsley for an attractive signing off.
A tip for getting ahead - begin with those things that you'll need in quantity and which can be made even days before and stashed away in the fridge. This would include your bêchamel (white) sauce - that wonderful multi-purpose base that needs only thinning down with milk or stock before use;and also a big jar of home-made mayonnaise that you can season as you wish and use as dressing. If I'm planning a big pasta that's finished in the oven, I've discovered that the penne, rigatoni (or other short pasta) can be cooked ahead and stored without suffering any ill-effects.
So this festive season, even as you focus on getting the perfect centerpiece, pay attention to the supporting cast, and watch your special feast become a runaway culinary hit.
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