ArchiveDecember 2022

Christmas Eve

Nearly there…so hope that you are all feeling in a celebratory mood rather than completely exhausted and that you have had the love and support you need to create a festive spirit and fill the pantry with goodies.

My grandchildren adore the build up to Christmas, the more they are involved the more excited they become. They love to decorate the Christmas tree and squabble over where each and every bauble should hang. We play lots of cheesy Christmas music and they compete with each other with renditions of their favourite Christmas carols. We unpack the figures for the crib and solemnly reassemble it, chatting about the real story of Christmas as Jesus, Mary and Joseph are positioned in the midst of the straw, fresh moss and lichen in the little thatched crib made by a kindly neighbour in his carpentry workshop over three decades ago.  

On Christmas Eve we continue the family traditions. We light the Christmas candle in the window to guide Joseph and Mary as they search for shelter.

How lovely is it to pop into a church and sit quietly for a few minutes in the midst of all the craziness.  Then gather round the fire to count one’s blessings and remember loved ones and others less fortunate in these tumultuous times.   

Christmas Eve is a big celebration in many countries but here it’s still Christmas Day. Santa will come here tonight, so how about a  simple, comforting supper for all the family.

Let’s have a big bowl of risotto with grated Parmesan or a steamy mushroom mac and cheese… a bubbly potato gratin with little bacon lardons or chorizo might also appeal to all the family, followed by a lightly dressed salad of winter leaves to make you feel less full so you can tuck into a bowl of proper trifle with a generous glug of sweet sherry or a few mince pies. Or graze on one of those charcuterie and cheese boards that are all the rage now.

Have a lovely, peaceful Christmas and many blessings for 2023.

Mac and Cheese with Mushrooms

Mac and cheese is a bit like apple crumble, simple fare but everyone loves it, plus you can add lots of tasty bits to change it up. Macaroni cheese was and still is one of my children’s favourite supper dishes. I often add some cubes of cooked bacon or ham to the sauce.

Serves 6

500g (18oz) flat mushrooms

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 – 3 tablespoons marjoram, chopped

225g (8oz) macaroni or ditalini

50g (2oz) butter

150g (5oz) onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, crushed

50g (2oz plain flour

850ml (scant 1 1/2 pints) boiling whole milk

1/4 teaspoon Dijon or English mustard

1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley (optional)

225g (8oz) freshly grated mature Cheddar cheese or a mix of Cheddar, Gruyère and Parmesan

25g (1oz) freshly grated Cheddar or Parmesan cheese, for sprinkling on top (optional)

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Slice the flat mushrooms thinly.  Sauté in batches in olive oil on a hot pan.  Season well with salt and freshly ground black pepper, add marjoram – taste and correct seasoning. 

Bring 3.4 litres (6 pints) water to the boil in a large saucepan and add 2 teaspoons of salt. Sprinkle in the macaroni and stir to make sure it doesn’t stick together. Cook according to the packet instructions until just soft. Drain well.

Meanwhile, melt the butter over a gentle heat, add the chopped onion and garlic, stir to coat, cover and sweat over a gentle heat for 6 – 8 minutes. Add the flour and cook over a medium heat, stirring occasionally, for 1 – 2 minutes. Remove from the heat. Whisk the milk in gradually, season well with salt and pepper, then return to the boil, stirring constantly. Add the mustard, parsley, if using, and cheese. Add the sautéed mushrooms and well-drained macaroni and return to the boil. Season to taste and serve immediately.

Alternatively, turn into a 1.2 litre (2 pint) pie dish and sprinkle the extra grated cheese over the top (add some dried breadcrumbs if available for a crunchy top). Bake at 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4 for 15 – 20 minutes.

Gratin of Potato and Mushroom with Thyme Leaves

This gratin is terrifically good with a few roast chicken thighs, lamb chops or on its own as a supper dish.  It can be made ahead and reheated later. 

Serves 4

1kg (2 1/4lbs) ‘old’ potatoes, e.g. Golden Wonders or Kerrs Pinks

350g (12oz) flat or wild mushrooms

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

salt and freshly ground pepper

2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves

350ml (12fl oz) light cream

6 tablespoons grated Parmesan (Parmigiano Reggiano)

Ovenproof gratin dish 25.5cm x 21.5cm (10 x 8 1/2 inch)

Slice the mushrooms and stalks thinly. Peel the potatoes and cut into scant 5mm thick slices.   Bring a large saucepan of water to the boil.  Tip in the potato slices.  As soon as the water returns to the boil, drain the potatoes.  Refresh under cold water.  Drain again and spread out on kitchen paper or a clean tea towel. 

Sprinkle the chopped garlic over the base of a shallow gratin dish.  Arrange half the potatoes in the bottom of the dish, season with salt and freshly ground pepper.  Cover with the sliced mushrooms. Sprinkle with fresh thyme leaves.  Season again and finish off with a final layer of overlapping potatoes.

Bring the cream almost to boiling point, pour over the potatoes. Sprinkle the freshly grated cheese on top and bake for 1 hour approximately at 180°C/350˚F/Gas Mark 4, until the gratin becomes crisp and golden brown with the cream bubbling up around the edges.


Mushrooms are one of the rare vegetables that taste better when they are a few days old.  The stalks taste every bit as good as the caps so don’t discard.  If the root end is still attached, trim it off and add it to the compost bin.

Radicchio, Parmesan and Parsley Salad

I’m crazy about this simple salad made with bitter Winter greens at the moment.  Serve as a side or a starter.

Serves 6

1 head of radicchio

75 – 110g (3 – 4oz) Parmesan, coarsely grated

flat parsley, sliced into a chiffonade


1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

sea salt

freshly ground black pepper

a pinch of sugar or 1/4 teaspoon runny honey

First whisk all the ingredients for the dressing together.

Quarter and slice the radicchio into roughly 4cm (1 1/2 inch) pieces.  Allow 75 – 100g (3 – 3 1/2oz per person.

Just before serving.

Put the radicchio into a bowl.  Sprinkle with the dressing, toss well so each piece of radicchio is glistening with dressing.

Add the shredded flat parsley.  Toss once more, divide between 4 flat plates.  Grate a piece of Parmesan evenly over the top with a coarse silvery grater.

Serve – fresh and delicious.


Radicchio Salad with Parmesan, Parsley and Pomegranate

Add 4 tablespoons of fresh pomegranate seeds to the salad.  Toss in the dressing and continue and serve as above.

Mum’s Traditional Irish Sherry Trifle

Trifle was a Christmas tradition at our house and was served in a special cut glass bowl kept especially for the purpose.  My mother Lily O’Connell’s trifle was legendary.  She made huge bowls of trifle at Christmas, with trifle sponges, (later she used sponge cakes when they were unavailable), homemade raspberry jam and custard, and lots and lots of good, sweet sherry.   She had to become more and more inventive about hiding places, because the boys would search high and low to find it when they arrived home on Christmas Eve from a night out on the town.  Eventually she hid it in her wardrobe to keep it intact for Christmas Day. 

Serves 8-10

450g (1lb) approx. homemade sponge cake or trifle sponges (trifle sponges are lighter so you will need less)

225g (8oz) homemade raspberry jam

150 – 175ml (5 – 6fl oz) best-quality sweet or medium sherry – don’t spare the sherry and don’t waste your time with cooking sherry (we use Bristol Cream).


5 eggs, preferably free-range and organic

1 1/4 tablespoons caster sugar

1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

700ml (1 1/4 pint) rich milk


600ml (1 pint) whipped cream

8 cherries or crystallised violets

8 diamonds of angelica

a few toasted flaked almonds

1 x 1.7 litre (3 pint) capacity glass bowl

Sandwich the rounds of sponge cake together with homemade raspberry jam. If you use trifle sponges, sandwich them in pairs. 

Next, make the custard.  Whisk the eggs with the sugar and vanilla extract.  Heat the milk to the ‘shivery’ stage and add it to the egg mixture, whisking all the time.   Put into a heavy saucepan and stir over a gentle heat until the custard coats the back of the wooden spoon lightly. Don’t let it boil or it will curdle.

Cut the sponge into 2cm (3/4 inch) slices and use these to line the bottom of a 1.7 litre (3 pint) glass bowl, sprinkling generously with half the sherry as you go along.   Pour in half of the custard and then add another layer of sponge.  Sprinkle with the rest of the sherry and spread the rest of the custard over the top.  Cover and leave for 5 or 6 hours, or preferably overnight in a cold larder or fridge, to mature.

Before serving, spread softly whipped cream over the top or pipe rosettes if you like and decorate with cherries or crystallised violets and large diamonds of angelica.  Scatter with a few toasted flaked almonds.


For a posher version, line the glass bowl with slices of Swiss roll.

An Irish Charcuterie and Farmland Cheese Platter

Serves … depends on how much you choose…

A beautiful timber board laden with a selection of artisan charcuterie and perfectly ripe farmhouse cheese is a delicious and relatively effortless way to entertain family and friends – perfect for a Christmas Eve supper.

Add some good crackers, a crusty sourdough baguette with some homemade butter and perhaps a chunk of membrillo (quince cheese). Maybe a few Medjool dates and fresh walnuts.

Charcuterie and cheese boards can be beyond ‘naff’ so keep it simple. Don’t get carried away and choose each item carefully. Resist the temptation to add lots of random chutneys and out of season fruit and rancid nuts….

The variety also depends on the number of guests. Choose 3 – 5 cheeses – there are so many to choose from,  perhaps a ripe Durrus, a piece of Coolea or a mature Templegall, a soft Ardsallagh goats milk cheese, a beautiful piece of an Irish blue, perhaps a ripe Crozier or a Young Buck all the way from Belfast.

Fingal Ferguson of the Gubeen cheese family also led the way with a range of charcuterie in the 1980’s. He continues to add to his range and  now many other artisans are following in his footsteps ( Broughgammon Farm cured meats, from a small family farm near Ballycastle Co. Antrim are superb quality ( as are Ispini, a range of cured meats from Moira Co. Down ( They make delicious bresaola, fennel salamis and garlic and pepper salad.  

Look out for the Wooded Pig cured meats made from ethically reared free-range pigs who roam freely in mature forests of ash, beech and oak on the family farm near Tara in Co. Meath  –

Arrange the cured meats, salami, bresaola, prosciutto, coppa, lomo chorizo and farmhouse cheese randomly across the board.  Cut the cheese into wedges, slices, cubes depending on the style.  A few gherkins could be added to nibble with charcuterie. A piece of honeycomb can be very delicious with a slightly under ripe blue cheese. You may want to ruffle some of the cured meats into little fan shapes for ease of serving. It’s so easy to make the platter look irresistible.

Just provide a plate and knife and some good red wine and encourage everyone to tuck in and celebrate our artisan producers.  

Edible Christmas Gifts

I’m dedicating my entire column to edible gifts for the many food lovers in your life this week.  Lots of savoury treats, delicious accompaniments, pickles, chutneys, spicy salts and a few jars of toasted nuts, sweet and fiery chilli sauce and a super delicious peanut rayu to liven up absolutely everything from fried eggs to cold turkey over the festive season. 

Next week we’ll focus on comforting food for Christmas Eve but I’m keeping the blurb to the minimum to fit in as many delicious treats as possible.

During the year, I look out for little pots, jars or special glasses in charity or bric-a-brac shops, I have a stack ready to fill with Christmas goodies.  Do ramp up the labelling and packaging, ribbons and glitter to add extra excitement and festive cheer. 

A hamper of four homemade soups got an ecstatic and grateful response from a couple of busy working mums last Christmas – easy, delicious, fun and quick to defrost even if frozen. 

Chilli Salt

A perfect pressie for a foodie friend who likes to add a little extra oomph to everything – carry it in your handbag to perk up bland dishes…

110g (4oz) flaky sea salt

2 tablespoons crushed dried chilli pepper (Jalapeno or Habanero)

1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper

Mix the salt and chilli together and whizz for a couple of seconds in a food processor or a molcajete with a pestle and mortar. 

Fill into little airtight glass containers. 

Roasted Almonds with Rosemary

Delicious to nibble with drinks.  The quality of almonds varies a lot.  Look out for Marcona almonds – they are grown in Spain and have a sweet, delicate flavour.   They are more rounded and plumper than the Californian almonds that are more widely available.

whole unpeeled almonds

extra virgin olive oil

freshly chopped rosemary to taste

sea salt

Preheat the oven to 180˚C/350˚F/Gas Mark 4.

Put the almonds onto a dry baking sheet and roast for 10-15 minutes, until golden and crisp.  Toss in olive oil, freshly chopped rosemary and sea salt.   Serve warm but perfect filled into little glass jars as a Christmas present. Irresistible – try not to eat the lot!

Sweet and Fiery Chilli Sauce

We grow about six or eight varieties of chilli in the greenhouse.  They vary enormously in heat, even on the same plant.  For consistency, you’re probably best to use Dutch red finger chillies that are widely available in the shops.  Serve over everything…even fried eggs…

Makes 1 bottle

3 large red chillies finely chopped (seeds and all)

125ml (4 1/2fl oz) rice vinegar

1 teaspoon salt

185g (6 1/2oz) sugar

1 clove garlic crushed

Put all the ingredients into a little saucepan over a low heat and stir to dissolve the sugar.  Bring to the boil and cook for 5-6 minutes, until the mixture thickens to a syrupy texture.  Cool and fill into a sterilised jam jar or bottle.  Store in a cool, dry place.

It will keep for a year or more, though you are unlikely to have it for that long. 

Spicy Asian Cucumber Pickle

This fresh tasting pickle is an irresistible accompaniment to and perk up cold meats, smoked fish and Cheddar cheese.  Use within a couple of weeks.   

Serves 4-6

1 cucumber, quartered, excess seeds removed and sliced thinly at an angle

2 shallots, peeled and sliced thinly, lengthwise

1 red chilli, seeded and sliced thinly in rings

1 green chilli, seeded and sliced thinly in rings


4 tablespoons sugar

6 tablespoons water

6 tablespoons white malt vinegar

1/2 teaspoon salt

Mix the ingredients for the marinade together in a saucepan.  Bring to the boil. Simmer for 3-5 minutes. When cool, pour the marinade over the cucumber, shallots and chilli.

Fill into cold sterilised glass jars.  Cover and label. 

Beetroot and Ginger Relish

Another delicious combination, this relish compliments goat’s cheese, pâte de campagne and lots of other meats – keeps for months.

Makes 4 jars (yields 500ml (18fl oz) approximately)

Serves 8 – 20 depending on how it’s served….

225g (8oz) onion, chopped

45g (1 1/2oz) butter

3 tablespoons sugar

450g (1lb) raw beetroot, peeled and grated

2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger

25ml (1fl oz) sherry vinegar

120ml (scant 4 1/2fl oz) red wine

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Sweat the onions slowly in the butter for 5-6 minutes until very soft.  Add the remaining ingredients and cook gently for 30 minutes.  Serve cold.

This relish is best eaten within 6 months.

Kumquat Compôte

A gem of a recipe, this compôte can be served as a dessert or as an accompaniment to roast duck, goose or glazed ham.  Also delicious with goat’s cheese or yoghurt.

Serves 6-20 depending on how it is served

235g (8 1/2 oz) kumquats

200ml (7fl oz) water

110g (4oz) sugar

Slice the kumquats thinly into four or five round slices depending on size.  Remove the seeds.  Put the kumquats into a saucepan with the water and sugar and let them cook very gently, covered, for half an hour or until tender.  If they accidently overcook or become too dry, add a little water and bring back to the boil for one minute – they should be crystallised but slightly juicy

Serve warm or cold.

Note: This compote keeps for weeks in the fridge.

Kumquat and Clove Compote

Add 6 cloves to the kumquats in the saucepan and proceed as above.

Gary’s Peanut Rayu

This stuff is addictive, the problem is that the recipient of this will plead for more…what can I say!

500g (18oz) red skinned peanuts

12 cloves garlic thinly sliced, on a mandolin if possible

1 litre (1 3/4 pints) sunflower oil

150g (5oz) Korean chilli flakes

125g (4 1/2oz) Tamari

150g (5oz) sesame seeds (75g each of black and white seeds – use all white if you don’t have black sesame seeds)

150g (5oz) honey

Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4.

Roast the peanuts with a good pinch of Maldon sea salt for 10-12 minutes, remove from the oven, cool, blow off the skins and chop coarsely.

Heat the sunflower oil in a small pot and fry the garlic slices until light golden brown and crisp, drain through a sieve and dry on kitchen paper. Allow the oil to cool to tepid and reserve.

Mix the chilli flakes and sesame seeds in a bowl and add the tamari then pour in the cooled reserved oil, allow to cool completely and stir in honey, crisp garlic, stir well and enjoy.

Fill into jars, label and decorate.  Keeps for months.

Christmas Granola

Perfect for breakfasts over the holiday season. Enjoy with yoghurt and lots of grated Irish apple…

Serves 20 people approximately

125g (4 1/2oz) butter or coconut oil

175ml (6fl oz) honey

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

500g (1lb 2oz) oatmeal

110g (4oz) sunflower seeds

150g (5oz) slivered almonds

110g (4oz) pumpkin seeds

50g (2oz) barley flakes

50g (2oz) rye flakes

50g (2oz) coconut flakes

50g (2oz) dried apricots or a mixture of dates and apricots, chopped

50g (2oz) dried cranberries or dried cherries 

50g (2oz) juicy sultanas 

Preheat the oven to 170°/325°/Gas Mark 3.

Melt the butter or oil in a saucepan over a low heat, stir in the honey and vanilla extract.  Mix all the remaining ingredients, except the dried fruit and coconut flakes, in a large mixing bowl, add the liquid and stir well until everything is evenly coated.   Spread over 3 large baking trays and toast in the preheated oven for 20 minutes or until the grains are crisp and very lightly browned. Stir occasionally to prevent the mixture from sticking to the trays. Add the coconut flakes and continue to cook for a further 5-8 minutes.  Remove from the oven, and when cool transfer to a large bowl.  Add the dried fruit and mix.   

Fill into Kilner jars and zhuzh up with ribbons and labels and a sprig of holly or rosemary – keeps for up to 1 month.  

Little Pots of Christmas Pâté

This pâté can be served in many different ways: its success depends on being generous with good Irish butter.  You could fill this pâté into little glass jars but how about buying a few little pottery ramekins to embellish the gift.  For extra lux, spoon some brandy-soaked raisins and a few chopped pistachio nuts on top. 

Serves 10-12 depending on how it is served.

225g (8oz) fresh organic chicken livers

2 tablespoons brandy

225 – 350g (8 – 12oz) butter (depending on how strong the chicken livers are)

1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

1 large clove garlic, crushed

freshly ground pepper

few sprigs of thyme

clarified butter, to seal the top

Wash the livers in cold water and remove any membrane or green tinged bits. Dry on kitchen paper.

Melt a little butter in a frying pan; when the butter foams add in the livers and cook over a gentle heat.  Be careful not to overcook them or the outsides will get crusty; all trace of pink should be gone.   Add the crushed garlic and thyme leaves to the pan, stir and then deglaze the pan with brandy, allow to flame or reduce for 2-3 minutes.  Scrape everything with a spatula into a food processor.  Purée for a few seconds.  Allow to cool.

Add 225g (8oz) butter.  Purée until smooth.  Season carefully, taste and add more butter, cut into cubes if necessary.

This pâté should taste fairly mild and be quite smooth in texture. Put into pots.  Tap on the worktop to knock out any air bubbles.  Add a little sprig of thyme. 

Clarify some butter and spoon a LITTLE over the top of the pâté to seal.

Serve with crusty hot white bread or toast.  This pâté will keep for 4 or 5 days in a refrigerator.

Watchpoint: It is essential to cover chicken liver pâté with a layer of clarified or even just melted butter, otherwise the pâté will oxidize and become bitter in taste and grey in colour.

Caramel Popcorn

Makes tons…

225g (8oz) sugar

150ml (5fl oz) water

50g (2oz) popcorn

First make the popcorn.

Combine the sugar and cold water in a small heavy bottomed saucepan.  Stir over a gentle heat until the sugar is completely dissolved, then remove the spoon and boil until the syrup caramelises to a chestnut brown.  Do not stir and do not shake the pan.  If sugar crystals form around the side of the pan, brush them down with cold water.  When the caramel is ready, it must be used immediately or it will become hard and cold.

Spread the popcorn onto a silicone mat or oiled tin and drizzle the hot caramel over.  Leave to cool

Fill into jars, label and fancy up with ribbons and a sprig of rosemary.

Rachel Allen’s Popcorn Paradise

It’s difficult to have a home cinema night without popcorn, so why not try this recipe and all its variations?  Serve the popcorn in a big bowl or in paper cornets for each person.

Serves 4

Plain Popcorn

3 tablespoons sunflower oil

75g (3oz) popcorn

25g (1oz) butter

pinch of salt

Heat the oil in a medium saucepan.  Add the popcorn and swirl the pan to coat the popcorn in oil.   Turn down the heat to low, cover, and the corn should start to pop in a couple of minutes.  As soon as it starts popping (after 5 – 7 minutes), take the saucepan off the heat and add the butter and salt.  Put the lid back on the pan and shake to mix.  Pour out into bowls and leave to cool a little.


Toffee Popcorn

Cook the popcorn as for the plain popcorn recipe, but while the corn is popping, make the toffee coating by melting 25g (1oz) butter in a small saucepan.   Then add 25g (1oz) brown sugar and 1 generous tablespoon golden syrup and stir over a high heat for 1/2 – 1 minute until thick.   Pour the toffee over the popcorn, put the lid on the pan and shake to mix.   Pour out into bowls and cool a little before serving.

Spiced Popcorn

Cook the popcorn for the plain popcorn recipe as far as removing the pan from the heat.  In a bowl, mix 1 1/2 teaspoons each of ground cumin and coriander seeds with 1/2 teaspoon each of medium-strength curry powder and ground paprika and 3/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper.   Heat 2 teaspoons of sunflower oil in a frying pan, add the spices and stir for about 30 seconds until lightly toasted.  Throw in 25g (1oz) caster sugar and 3/4 teaspoon salt, stir, then add all of this into the prepared popcorn in the saucepan, toss and empty into a big bowl.

Homemade Cheese Crackers

Make lots of these, some can be gifted alongside a beautiful ripe cheese but fill a tin box to serve with a charcuterie and cheese board over Christmas (see next week’s column – 24th December).

Makes 20-25 biscuits

225g (8oz) plain white flour or a mixture of brown wholemeal and white flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

25g (1oz) butter

1 tablespoon cream

water as needed, 5 tablespoons approx.

Put the flour, salt and baking powder into a bowl.   Rub in the butter and moisten with the cream and enough water to make a firm dough.

Roll out very thinly to one sixteenth of an inch approx.  Prick with a fork.  Cut into 9cm (3 1/2  inch) squares with a pastry wheel.  Bake at 150˚C/300˚F/Gas Mark 2 for 30 minutes approx. or until lightly browned and quite crisp.  Cool on a wire rack.  Store in a tight-fitting tin box or fill into jars as a gift. 

Family Friendly One Pots

Now is the time to plan for a really chilled Christmas, so let’s stock the pantry with items and fill the freezer with casseroles, pots of stews, tagines, make sure to have a couple of chunky vegetarian dishes and some vegan treats – delicious for everyone. 

I’ve got lots of gorgeous bean and chickpea recipes that everyone loves.  Dried legumes and pulses are packed with flavour, nutrients and are a very inexpensive source of protein.  Serve them with a salad of late Autumn leaves and a bowl of natural yoghurt with lots of snipped fresh herbs particularly mint.

For meat dishes, go along to your local butcher, have a chat to discover the less expensive cuts that are so brilliant for slow cooked stews and braises. This is no sacrifice, these have twice the flavour of the prime cuts, but you can’t just slap them on the pan, they need to be cooked long and slowly to break down the tissue and tease them to melting tenderness.  Here’s where a slow cooker really comes into its own.  Put on a batch of short ribs, a shin of beef stew, some ham hocks or maybe a few lamb shanks. 

Tomato fondue and piperonata in two portion tubs are also brilliant bases to have in a freezer.  One can defrost them quickly and add a couple of cans of beans, chickpeas, even diced cooked potatoes, a few chunks of streaky bacon or chorizo.  A bag of mussels and or clams or a few cubes of fresh fish make an almost instant swanky Mediterranean fish stew – it’s brilliant to have a few of these secret standbys to take the stress out of unexpected situations so you can spontaneously invite a few pals home after an evening out on the town or after a funeral or a point-to-point.

Don’t forget venison, somehow it always feels festive.  Stewing venison from the shoulder is what you need for stews and casseroles and how about adding a pastry crust to make a delectable venison or game pie.  For chicken dishes, buy a bag of thighs or drumsticks by far the best flavour.  The bones add extra deliciousness not to speak of collagen, the new buzz word in nutrition which we all need for healthy bone structure.  Unless you are super careful, white breast meat dries up quickly in casseroles.  I’m always baffled as to why so many people prefer white rather than dark meat.

Brown meat has always been my favourite, I will eat white meat where offered if given a choice but would never choose it myself.  Plus being less popular has resulted in it being less expensive – a bonus when you discover how good it is. 

There are still lots of squash and pumpkins around.  Apart from being delicious, they are brilliant to add to stews and casseroles to bulk them up deliciously at little cost. 

So here are a few of our favourite standbys to cook up and pop into the freezer during the next few weeks – Happy Cooking.

Black-eyed Bean, Pumpkin and Chickpea Stew

One of the very best vegetarian one-pot dishes. What’s not to like about black-eyed beans, chickpeas and pumpkin with lots of spices? Delicious on its own, but equally good with a roast chicken or a few lamb chops. Eat with flatbreads or pilaff rice, if you prefer.

Serves 6

6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 x 2.5cm (1 inch) cinnamon stick

150g (5oz) onions, chopped

4 garlic cloves, very finely chopped

225g (8oz) fresh mushrooms, sliced approx. 3mm (1/8 inch) thick

450g (1lb) pumpkin or butternut squash, peeled and cut in 2cm (3/4 inch) cubes

400g (14oz) fresh tomatoes, peeled and chopped or 1 x 400g (14oz) tin of chopped tomatoes

2 teaspoons ground coriander

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric

a pinch of sugar

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

450g (1lb) cooked black-eyed beans, strained (reserving the cooking liquid)

225g (8oz) cooked chickpeas, strained (reserving the cooking liquid)

1 teaspoon salt

freshly ground black pepper

3 tablespoons chopped coriander

For the Mint Yoghurt

300ml (10fl oz) natural yogurt

1 tablespoon chopped mint leaves

Heat the oil in a sauté pan over a medium-high heat. When it is hot, put in the cumin seeds and the cinnamon stick. Let them sizzle for 5 – 6 seconds, then add the onions and garlic. Stir-fry for 3 – 4 minutes until the onion is just beginning to colour at the edges.  Add the mushrooms and cook until the mushrooms wilt, then add the pumpkin or squash, tomatoes, ground coriander, cumin and turmeric, a pinch of sugar and the cayenne. Cook for 1 minute, stirring, then cover with a lid and cook over a gentle heat for 10 minutes.

Turn off the heat and tip in the drained beans and chickpeas. Add the salt and pepper, together with 2 tablespoons of coriander. Pour in 150ml (5fl oz) of bean cooking liquid and 150ml (5fl oz) of the chickpea liquid (or 300ml (10fl oz) vegetable stock if you’ve used tinned pulses). Return to the boil, and then reduce the heat and simmer for 10 – 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the beans and chickpeas are tender.

To make the mint yogurt, combine the yogurt with the chopped mint in a bowl.

Remove the cinnamon stick from the pan before serving and sprinkle with the remaining coriander. Spoon into serving bowls and top with a dollop of the mint yogurt. Accompany with a good green salad and rice, if you wish.

Mary Jo’s Braised Short Ribs

Serve 10-12

6 cross cut short ribs, trimmed

225g (8oz) streaky bacon (in a piece if possible. Remove rind, dice bacon, fry out fat in 1 tablespoon olive oil or duck fat

225g (8oz) diced carrot

175g (6oz) diced celery

6-8 cloves garlic, cut in half

1 chilli, sliced

1 red pepper, diced

1 yellow pepper, diced

2-3 large onions (1 sliced – the other 2 chopped)

1 tablespoon tomato purée

200 – 250ml (7- 9fl oz) red wine

1 sprig of rosemary

2 bay leaves

small fistful thyme branches

1 cinnamon stick

3 spirals of orange zest

beef or chicken stock

Preheat the oven to 150°C/300°F/Gas Mark 2.

If possible, trim and salt the beef the night before cooking.

Remove rind and dice the bacon.  Save the rind to cook with beef, it adds gelatine to the sauce.  Heat a little oil in a wide sauté and brown the bacon dice.  Remove to a plate.

Brown beef in batches; do not overcrowd the sauté pan.  Leave 2 tablespoons of fat in the pan and sweat onion, carrot and celery, stirring to dissolve all browned bits in the sauté pan.  Add the garlic, chilli and peppers and sweat for 5 – 6 minutes or until limp.

Place beef, bacon and vegetables in a casserole or heavy braising pot, preferably enamelled cast iron.

Add the tomato paste to the hot sauté pan and cook briefly.  Add wine and bring to the boil.  Pour this over the beef, add the herbs, cinnamon stick and orange zest and enough stock to come halfway up the pot. Bring back to the boil. Cover with a butter paper and tight-fitting lid.  Braise in a moderate until tender, 3 – 4 1/2 hours (depending on the size). Pour off the liquid, allow to settle.

Skim the fat off the top (keep for roast potatoes).  Remove the herbs and bones from the pot if you wish.  Bring back to the boil.  Thicken the juices with a little roux if desired.  Taste and correct seasoning.  Add back into the pot.   Scatter with coarsely chopped parsley.

Serve with mashed potato.

Chicken and Apricot Stew with Gentle Spices

We use chicken thighs for this recipe, but of course white meat could also be used.  Children also love this mildly spiced curry.  The apricots add a fruity sweetness that lifts the stew deliciously.  Serve with a big bowl of pilaf rice. 

Serves 6

175g (6oz) dried apricots

1/2 – 3/4 teaspoon crushed chilli flakes or Aleppo pepper

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground coriander

4 cloves

4 green cardamom pods, lightly crushed

1 tablespoon garlic, crushed

1 tablespoon fresh ginger, peeled and finely grated

50ml (2fl oz) sunflower oil

5cm (2 inch) of cinnamon bark

270g (scant 9oz) onions, finely chopped

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1.3kg (3lbs) boneless, skinless chicken thighs, diced in 2.5cm (1 inch) pieces

10 cherry tomatoes, peeled and quartered

2 tablespoons concentrated tomato purée mixed with 125ml (4 1/2fl oz) water


3 tablespoons coarsely chopped coriander

Soak the apricots overnight in 450ml (16fl oz) cold water, or if you are in a hurry soak them in hot water for 2 – 3 hours.

To make the masala, combine the chilli flakes or Aleppo pepper, cumin, coriander, cloves, cardamom, garlic and ginger in a small bowl.  Add 50ml (2fl oz) water and stir to make a spice paste.  

Heat the oil in a large sauté pan over a medium heat and add the cinnamon.  Add the chopped onions and salt. Cover and sweat for 4 – 5 minutes until the onion is a little soft.   Stir in the spice masala.  Add the chicken, toss to coat and cook for 4 – 5 minutes.  Add the apricots with their soaking liquid, quartered cherry tomatoes and tomato purée.

Cover and simmer for about 30 minutes until the chicken is cooked through.   You may need to reduce the liquid by removing the lid halfway through the cooking.

Season to taste.  Serve in a warm bowl, sprinkled with lots of freshly chopped coriander.  We serve it with pilaf rice and a green salad.

Rory O’Connell’s Ham Hocks with Mustard and Chive Cream

I love ham hocks and they are very easy to cook, tremendously good value and are delicious served hot, warm or at room temperature. I prefer them unsmoked but that is a personal choice. The leftover cooking water makes a delicious stock for soups so do not discard it.

The mustard and chive cream could not be easier to make but I feel the dry English Colemans mustard powder is essential for a fiery yet comforting accompaniment to the hocks.

Serves 4

4 fresh ham hocks

1 onion

4 cloves of garlic

1 carrot thickly sliced

2 sticks of celery, chopped

1 bay leaf

6 black peppercorns

Place all of the ingredients into a large saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil and then simmer covered for 2 – 2 1/2 hours until the meat is almost falling off the bone.

Serve with the mustard and chive cream on the side.

Mustard and Chive Cream

This sauce is also delicious served with roast beef.

1 teaspoon of dry English mustard powder

1 teaspoon hot water

120ml (scant 4 1/2fl oz) softly whipped cream

1 tablespoon finely chopped chives

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Blend the dry mustard and warm water to form a wet paste. Fold it along with the chives and a pinch of salt and pepper through the softly whipped cream. Keep chilled until serving.

Masala Lamb Shanks 

This rich spicy dish is even better reheated the next day, or the day after and also freezes brilliantly.  If you have any of the sauce left over, toss it with some pasta or noodles for a simple supper.

Serves 8

8 lamb shanks, weighing approx. 1.2kg (2 3/4lbs) in total

1 tablespoon ground turmeric

3cm (1 1/4 inch) piece of fresh ginger, grated

3 garlic cloves, crushed

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 bay leaf

1 cinnamon stick

5 cloves

6 cardamom pods, bashed

450g (1lb) onions, sliced

1 x 400g (14oz) tin of chopped tomatoes

1–2 teaspoons honey

2 teaspoons ground cumin

3 teaspoons ground coriander

2 – 3 green chillies, halved

1 x 400ml (14fl oz) tin of coconut milk

8 large potatoes, peeled and halved

sea salt

lots of fresh coriander sprigs, to serve

Masala Paste

25g (1oz) desiccated coconut

1 1/2 tablespoons coriander seeds

1 tablespoon poppy seeds

1 tablespoon fennel seeds

1 tablespoon mustard seeds

1/2 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper

2 – 3 red chillies, finely chopped

Mint Yoghurt

4 tablespoons chopped mint

300ml (10fl oz) natural yogurt

sea salt and a little honey, to taste

Put the lamb shanks into a 27 – 29cm (11 – 11.5 inch)/4.1 – 4.7 litre (7 – 8 pint approx.) casserole and add the turmeric, ginger, garlic and some salt. Pour in enough water to cover (approx. 2.4 litres/4 pints) and bring slowly to the boil. Reduce the heat, cover with a lid, and simmer gently for 2 hours or until the meat is tender.

Meanwhile, grind the ingredients for the masala paste in a spice grinder or pestle and mortar, and set aside until needed.

Once the lamb shanks are cooked, remove them carefully from the pan and keep warm. Pour all of the cooking liquid into a separate pan and set aside.  Return the casserole to a low heat with the extra virgin olive oil. Add the bay leaf, cinnamon, cloves and cardamom and stir-fry for 1 – 2 minutes. Add the onions and fry for 5 – 6 minutes until they start to soften. Add the chopped tomatoes and honey and cook for 5 minutes. Sprinkle in the ground cumin and coriander, add the green chillies and cook for 3 minutes. Finally stir in the masala paste and coconut milk and bring slowly to the boil. Taste and add salt, if necessary.

Return the cooked lamb shanks to the pan and pour in enough of the cooking liquid to come halfway up the shanks. Bring to the boil, cover with a lid and simmer gently for 10 minutes, turning the shanks several times during the cooking time.

Add the potatoes to the pan, replace the lid and cook for
20 minutes or until the potatoes are fully cooked and the lamb is almost falling off the bone. Season to taste.

To make the mint yogurt, stir the chopped mint into the yogurt and season to taste with salt and honey.

Sprinkle the casserole with lots of fresh coriander and serve with the mint yogurt.

Rice Pudding

Guess what, rice pudding is really having a moment, almost every restaurant I’ve eaten in recently has had rice pudding in some shape or form on the menu – can you imagine that the humble pud of our childhood would be gracing the table of swanky establishments.  No problem for me, I adore rice pudding even the simplest version with a blob of softly whipped cream and a sprinkling of soft brown sugar or a spoonful of jam.

Challenging times call for familiar comforting foods, apparently sales of rice pudding and tinned rice are up in all major food chains and recipe searches are up by 233% – who would have thought that the dreaded milk pudding of our school days is all the rage again.  Perfect for these frugal times.  If ever there was a pudding that can soothe, this is it.  A 500g packet of rice costs approx. €2.45 and even though the price has recently increased, it’s still brilliant value, 100g of rice will yield enough rice pudding for 6 or 8. One can make rice pudding from any kind of rice but my favourite by far is short grain rice or Carolina rice – often referred to as pudding rice or pearl rice.  I love the way it soaks and plumps up in the milk to an unctuous creamy texture.  Rice pudding can be dressed up or down and is a vehicle for so many different flavours and accompaniments.  I enjoyed different versions at Café Cecilia, Portland and St. John Restaurant in London.  Each serves their own riff on the classic pudding.  During the Summer, Jeremy Lee of Quo Vadis served a refreshing cold rice pud with tea-soaked prunes and custard but now that the weather has turned chiller it’s back to the classic version now – what Jeremy refers to as ‘comfort and joy’…He adds a good measure of cream, half a vanilla pod and a generous grating of nutmeg.  This coconut milk version is also delicious as are these rice pudding pancakes.

Simon Hopkinson, late of Bibendum, is also a rice pudding fan and here too is his recipe.

We all agree about the deliciousness of the golden skin on top of the baked version but if you are happy to forgo that tradition, one can also make rice pudding in a pot – here is Mrs. Black’s version to enjoy.  If perchance you have some leftover rice pudding, how about rice pudding arancini?  Roll the cold rice into balls, then into flour, egg and toasted crumbs, before deep-frying in hot oil until crisp and golden.  Dust generously with icing sugar and serve hot with butterscotch sauce or ice-cold apple purée and cream.  A slab of crumbed cold rice pudding, fried until crisp on the outside in bubbling butter is irresistible too.  So there are lots of options to try and not a morsel wasted…

My Mum’s Delicious Rice Pudding

A feast for just a couple of cents, which brings childhood memories romping back.  We show every group of students how to make this simple pudding and it’s a revelation how simply delicious it is.

Serves 6–8

100g (3 1⁄2oz) pearl rice (short-grain rice)

50g (2oz) caster sugar

15g (1/2oz) butter

1. 2 litres (2 pints) whole milk

1 x 1. 2 litre (2 pint) pie dish, mine is Pyrex from a charity shop

Preheat the oven to 170˚C/325˚F/Gas Mark 3.

Put the rice, sugar and butter into a pie dish. Bring the milk to the boil and pour evenly over the rice. Bake for 1 – 1 1⁄2 hours. The skin will be golden, the rice underneath should be cooked through and have soaked up the milk, but still be soft and creamy. Time it, so that it’s ready just in time for pudding. If it has to wait in the oven for ages, it will be dry and dull and you’ll wonder why you bothered.  Serve with softly whipped cream and a good sprinkling of soft brown sugar. 

Mrs. Black’s Rice Pudding in a pot

Thank you, Mrs. Black, for sharing your recipe, no need for an oven – hot but still rich and delicious. 

600ml (1 pint) whole milk

75g (3oz) pearl or pudding rice

15g (1/2oz) sugar

grated rind of 1 tangerine or mandarin

To serve

soft brown sugar

softly whipped cream

fruit compote of your choice

Wash the rice in a strainer, allow cold water to flow through it.

Put the rice and milk into a saucepan, stir and bring to the boil, reduce the heat and cook gently until the rice grains soften and swell, absorbing the milk.  Stir regularly – this will take 45 minutes approximately. 

Add the sugar and the finely grated rind of the tangerine or mandarin. Mix gently.

Serve warm or cold with soft brown sugar and softly whipped cream and a fruit compote of your choice or perhaps slices of tangerine or mandarin.

Variation: Rice Brûlee for a posh party

Put the rice into ramekins, sprinkle a generous tablespoon of Demerara sugar on top, and caramelize with a blow torch.

Simon Hopkinson’s Rice Pudding

Simon Hopkinson cooks the kind of food I love to eat – this recipe is taken from the BBC Food Recipes but look out for his cookbook ‘Roast Chicken and Other Stories’

40g (1 1/2oz) butter

100g (3 1/2oz) rice pudding 

75g (3oz) caster sugar

1 litre (1 3/4 pints) whole milk

150ml (5fl oz) cream

1 teaspoon vanilla extract or 1/2 vanilla pod, split lengthways

pinch salt

plenty of freshly grated nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 140°C/285°F/Gas Mark 1.

Melt the butter in a heavy-based casserole dish over a medium heat. Add the rice and stir to coat the grains. Add the sugar, stirring until dissolved. Continue stirring until the rice swells and becomes sticky with sugar.

Pour in the milk and keep stirring until no lumps remain. Add the cream and vanilla and bring the mixture to a simmer. Once this is reached, give the mixture a final stir and grate at least a third of a nutmeg over the surface. Bake for 1 – 1 1/2 hours and cover if the surfaces browns too quickly.

Once there is a thin, tarpaulin-like skin on the surface, and the pudding only just wobbles in the centre, it is ready.

Serve at room temperature.

Kheer Marwadi – Indian Rice Pudding

This delicious rice pudding, a speciality of Rajasthan, is spiced with cardamom, it’s got lots of plump sultanas and chopped nuts and saffron has an almost soup like texture. 

Rosewater varies in strength so be careful to add gradually and taste.

This dessert can be cooked ahead and served warm or cold.

Serves 6-8

1 tablespoon coconut oil

50g (2oz) Basmati rice, soaked for an hour and drained

1 litre (1 3/4 pints) coconut milk

500ml (18fl oz) water

3 tablespoons ground almonds

100g (3 1/2oz) caster sugar

50g (2oz) fresh coconut, grated

25g (1oz) raisins or sultanas

50g (2oz) pistachio nuts cut into slivers

50g (2oz) blanched almonds, cut into slivers

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground green cardamom seeds

2 teaspoons kewra essence – keeps indefinitely or use rosewater instead but be careful – add 1/2 teaspoon first and then taste.

To Serve

chopped pistachios

rose petals

Heat the coconut oil in a pan.  Add the soaked rice, stir for 2 or 3 minutes then add the coconut milk and water and cook over a low heat for an hour until the rice absorbs the liquid and the pudding thickens.

Stir in the ground almonds, sugar, coconut, raisins or sultanas, pistachios and almond slivers.  Cook for a final couple of minutes until the sugar is dissolved.  Remove from the heat and stir in the ground cardamom and kewra or rosewater.  Cool and chill. Sprinkle with some chopped pistachios and rose petals if available

Serve in individual dishes.

Rice Pudding Pancakes

A fun way to use up leftover rice pudding.

Makes 8 pancakes

400g (14oz) leftover rice pudding

1 egg

70g (scant 3oz) plain white flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

ground cinnamon (optional)

butter for cooking

Mix together the cold rice pudding, beaten egg, flour, baking powder with a generous pinch of cinnamon (if using) until everything is well combined.

Melt a little clarified butter in a frying pan.  When it starts to bubble, add a large tablespoon of batter, reduce the heat and gently fry over a low heat for 3-4 minutes until golden, flip over and continue to cook until golden on the other side.  Serve on a hot plate with honey, butterscotch or chocolate sauce and softly whipped cream.


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