On Tuesday of next week we are into December and that means Christmas is just around the corner — a time that affects us all and in different ways. Some of us think about the presents we’ll be giving and (hopefully) receiving.
Others will be thinking about festive meals we’ll be making and (hopefully) eating. The well-organised will be drawing up lists of ingredients they’ll be needing, although that isn’t much of a chore because Christmas is a time of tradition and the main festive meals follow a well-established pattern.
I know exactly what I’ll be eating on Christmas Eve at my daughter’s — roast leg of lamb, roast potatoes, cauliflower gratin, buttered peas, gravy and mint sauce.
It will be delicious because she does superb roast lamb, and everyone will enjoy it immensely. None of us would want anything else on the plate, not only because it would be too much, but because it would be a break with tradition.
My daughter has always done it that way because when she was about 12, roast lamb with those trimmings was the Sunday meal we had at a friend’s home over a two-year period. When she got married it became her Christmas Eve special.
My daughter adores Brussels sprouts but she wouldn’t want them as part of her main course on Christmas Eve even although she knows they are very much associated with the Christmas table.
In other families it’s a quite different story: sprouts are absolutely essential and Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas unless they had a prominent place on overloaded plates.
The popularity of sprouts at Christmas is proof of how tradition is all-important during the festive season. Most of us have unpleasant memories of meals that featured soggy overcooked sprouts, one of several vegetables that form a kind of childhood culinary nightmare.
During their childhood many British people have eaten veggies such as sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower or turnips at school dinners and at home and what they remember most about them is that they were overcooked and waterlogged.
Most of them should have been turned off soggy sprouts forever, but as adults they still have them on the Christmas table because family tradition demands it.
Good British cooking is among the best, but we have never been at all good at doing vegetables. When most British housewives and restaurant cooks do vegetables they commit two cardinal sins: they use far too much water and cook them for an eternity.
The majority of British cooks simply do not understand the term al dente and most British people I know actually prefer their veggies overdone than underdone.
But sprouts, more than any other vegetable, must be cooked in a small amount of water and for a very short time. When sprouts are overcooked in an abundance of water they become discoloured squishy balls that smell and taste of sulphur. Properly cooked, on the other hand, they are one of the great green veggies.
The sprout is a member of the Brassica family that also includes cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale and kohlrabi. Sprouts were developed from wild cabbage and grow on wooden stems about three feet long from which they sprout like micro cabbages. They were first heard of in markets in the Brussels area, thus their name.
Sprouts should always be as small as possible and ideally should be as tight as green rose-buds. They are in season from September to April and are traditionally at their best after the first frosts, which develop the sprouts’ sugars, thus improving flavour.
Sprouts are one of the Christmas season’s great veggies but preparing them for the pot is a chore everyone wants to avoid. The monotony of the job puts it on the same level as shelling peas or peeling chestnuts — everyone tries to be elsewhere when these boring task need to be done.
But as routine tasks go, doing the sprouts is the easiest. If they are small, tight and in perfect condition, they need no more than a quick wash. Bigger ones usually have some soft discoloured leaves that should be pulled off, and you have to trim the stalk end.
Every sprouts recipe I have ever read recommends a small cross in the stalks so they will be as tender as the leaves. But you should forget about that little cross because it simply allows water to penetrate — and that leads to soggy sprouts. The stalk end will be al dente without the aid of the cross. Try it once without the cross and see which you prefer.
Although most housewives and professionals overcook sprouts (partly due to the cross in the stalk) you don’t have to be an expert to do them properly. When they have been prepared as described above, cook them in a pot with a tight lid and in a small amount of water. Small means tiny: the water should come up to no more than half the height of a sprout.
The cooking time depends entirely on the size of the sprouts, so keep testing them until they are somewhat less than al dente. You can then finish them off by poaching them in a frying pan with lots of butter. Served like that, with a small dish of Maldon salt flakes on the table, they are a dish worthy of eating on its own.
But the cooking of sprouts shouldn’t stop there because there are interesting ways of finishing them off. Before adding them to the butter, sauté some fresh breadcrumbs until crisp and golden then add the sprouts to soak up some of the butter. At the same time some of the crunchy breadcrumbs will cling to them.
A contrast of textures can also be achieved by grilling some thin rashers of bacon until very crisp and then crumbling it over the buttered sprouts on a serving dish. Vegetarians can obtain contrasting textures by sprinkling buttered sprouts with toasted slivers of almonds, or roughly chopped toasted hazelnuts. Coarsely chopped roasted chestnuts are an alternative worth trying.
Another tasty variation is to sauté tissue-thin slices of garlic and finely chopped cooked ham, stirring constantly over a low heat until the garlic is golden and crisp.
An interesting taste sensation is created with a sprinkling of freshly grated nutmeg as the sprouts poach in the butter. You could also try fenugreek or finely chopped very fresh rosemary needles.
Another excellent way of serving sprouts is to steam them as described above and then blitz them in a blender. The resulting purée, of a St Patrick’s Day green, should be reheated with a little more butter and a spot of thick cream. Season it with salt, pepper and freshly grated nutmeg.
This is a good way of using late-season sprouts that may have become rather coarse in texture and pungent in flavour. This purée is especially good with game or other well-flavoured meats.
A vegetable that has a special place on the Christmas table in many parts of Spain is one we seldom see in Britain or America and one we are even less likely to come across in Anglo-American cookbooks. But it’s very much available over the Christmas period in Majorca’s local shops and supermarkets.
It’s called cardoons, a name that sounds more like a West of Scotland coastal town famous for its golf links, than a Christmas speciality. But it’s a vegetable of the same genus as the artichoke and it’s called cardo in Spanish.
If you occasionally shop at the Mercat d’Olivar or the Santa Catalina market you will almost certainly have seen it over the Christmas season: it looks like giant celery, as if someone had let it overgrow until it was more than three feet high. It’s the market’s strangest looking veggie.
In parts of the mainland, especially northern places like Navarra, the Basque Country and Aragón, it is a favourite winter veg and is often eaten on Christmas Eve as a starter.
The French know their cardoons as well as their onions and have a nice choice of recipes — cooked in bechamel sauce, in cream, in mornay sauce, puréed, fried or served as a salad.
The cardoons from the area around Lyon are famous and in the south of France they were once a Christmas Eve dish. In his cookbook La Cuisine au Marché, Paul Bocuse gives detailed instructions on how to clean and prepare it for cooking.
The ancient Romans were fond of cardoons and introduced them to the Greeks, who gave them various names: cynara, carduos, scolymas and cactus — the leaves have thorns that must never be eaten.
Pliny and Apicius wrote about cardoons, which they called carduos. But the translators of my edition of Apicius surprisingly make the mistake of thinking carduos are artichokes, a variation of the globe artichoke. It’s an indication of how little is known about cardoons in Britain and America.
Unless one grew up eating cardoons (and therefore has a psychological attachment to them) they can be a bit of a nuisance in the kitchen because they need careful preparation.
However, those at the Mercat d’Olivar are shorn of leaves and thorns, so that’s two little jobs we don’t have to do. They now have to be well washed and scraped on both sides to remove the outer stringy threads, just like celery — only a macro version. When one stalk has been scraped, rub it well on both sides with lemon juice to avoid discoloration.
On a three-foot long bunch of cardoons the outer stocks are sometimes dried out and should be discarded. A fresh stalk will always exude drops of juice when a small piece is broken off. If it doesn’t it’s not worth using.
In a large bunch of cardoons the inner stalks and heart will be much whiter and more tender than the other ones. They need shorter cooking times. The heart and inner stalks can be eaten raw but the outer stalks need to be simmered in acidulated water or stock for 40-60 minutes.
But if you’re not the adventurous type of cook and not into doing it yourself, but still want to try a recipe or two, at the supermarkets of El Corte Inglés you can buy wrapped trays of short cardoon stalks ready for use.
When you have prepared the cardoons as described above can make a variety of starters in which they are combined with other ingredients such as their cousins the artichoke, cured ham, almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, pork spare ribs, salt cod, hard-boiled eggs, cream, as well as sauces such as bechamel and mornay. They can also be sautéed in olive oil, but butter gives them a more elegant finish.
Majorcans sauté them in butter with almond slivers. Put 80 grs of butter into a suitable frying pan over a moderate heat and when it has melted add 100 grs of slivered almonds. Stir constantly until the almonds are of a slight golden colour. Stir in the juice of two small lemons. Pour this sauce over very hot and tender cardoon stalks.
Basque cooks sauté 100 grs of chopped unsmoked bacon in a little olive oil in a saucepan big enough to hold the cardoons, cut into one-inch pieces. When the bacon is slightly crisp, add a tablespoon of flour and stir non-stop for a couple of minutes before adding enough hot stock to make a thickish sauce.
Add the well drained cooked cardoons, stirring them into the sauce and cooking them for another 10 minutes, or until the sauce has reduced to the desired thickness.
A favourite way of doing them in Madrid is to cut the stalks into one-inch pieces and sauté them with cured ham. About 150 grs of thinly sliced cured ham are cut into small pieces and gently sautéed in 50 grs of butter for three minutes. The drained and tender cardoons are added, sautéed or another 10-15 minutes and served immediately as a starter.
In Valencia they like their cardoons smothered in thick bechamel sauce, sprinkled with grated cheese, dotted with small pieces of butter and put into a hot oven until the dish bubbles at the edges and the surface is of a nice golden colour with brownish patches. A comforting starter on a cold winter’s day.
In Aragón they make a light bechamel-style sauce using olive oil and stock instead of butter and milk, to which they add short pieces of cooked cardoons and tender pork spareribs of the same size. The sauce is then thickened with ground almonds.
In some parts of Aragón, mainly in Huesca, the spare ribs are replaced with shredded salt cod, making it an ideal dish for those who prefer not to eat meat on Christmas Eve.
The Cataláns have a recipe that produces a dish with lots of texture and flavour. Sauté four plump cloves of garlic in three tablespoons of olive oil until they are of a deep golden colour. The garlic must not burn or it will have an unpleasant bitter taste.
Pound the sautéed garlic in a mortar with 12 skinless toasted hazelnuts and 40 grs of pinenuts. Add a little water, a splash of good wine vinegar and the oil in which the garlic was sautéed. Mix well with the pestle.
Put the hot tender cardoons into a frying pan and pour over the sauce, stirring over a low heat until very hot. You can serve this dish with fried bread croutons and it can also be eaten cold.