In days of yore the Christmas festivities lasted for 12 days but most British people nowadays restrict culinary merry-making to only four: Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.
Anyone wanting to celebrate Christmas as they did in Jane Austen’s time would have another eight days of festive cooking to think about.
We all have traditional dishes we eat on the big four days and those who have to prepare and cook festive food know it’s a mammoth amount of work. Who wants another eight days of hard grind in the kitchen?
Well, those few who do celebrate the full 12 days of Christmas know there is no hard grind involved: the wise ones nave learned to keep it simple.
For instance, they never cook a full festive meal on the other eight days of Christmas: they prefer to do one special dish. And it needn’t be a labour-intensive main course.
It could be a simple little starter that happens to be a big treat and a family favourite. It could also be something rather grand that doesn’t even need to be cooked — such as three dozen French oysters that can be opened with the twist of a wrist.
Most nations make a huge culinary mistake at Christmas: they cram so much into the Christmas Day meal that it becomes an assault course to be endured rather than a feast to be enjoyed. Christmas food would be more of a pleasure if the seasonal goodies were spread out over the full 12 days of merry making.
Six weeks ago one of my local supermarkets started to display its annual array of turrón, mantecados, polvorones, nuts, dried fruit and other sweet goodies. In answer to a comment by one of the regulars, the manageress said in the weeks running up to Christmas her regulars buy and eat more turrón than on the days between Christmas and the Three Kings.
A Majorcan friend used to say the turrón made by his grandmother always tasted better on All Saints’ Day (November 1) than it did between Christmas and the Three Kings.It’s easy to see what is happening here. On the weeks before Christmas our palates are fresh, so turrón and other sweet goodies are especially welcome — and even seem better than usual.Although I have a good appetite, I always eat sweet festive treats outside of mealtimes. After a gigantic main course with all the traditional trimmings, I don’t even want to see a mincemeat pie or a selection of turrón, mantecados, nuts and dried fruits.
The sweet side of Christmas is best eaten when we are feeling hungry, so I have my mincemeat pies for breakfast, or with a cup of late afternoon tea. Turrón and all the other Spanish sweetmeats also go down better with an afternoon (or early evening) cup of tea.
Christmas is always a bit of a drain on the household budget, so it is essential that some of the dishes on the other 12 days of Christmas are economical — as well as easy to cook.
At a time when most people are buying shellfish and fish at highly inflated seasonal prices, we can make a superb and cheap starter: filleted plump Galician sardines with a thick oatmeal crust, pan-fried in butter to a rich golden hue.
Using your fingertips, rub together 100 grs of rolled oats and a tablespoon of Dijon wholegrain mustard (or one of your choice) until they are well combined. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Coat the fleshy side of eight filleted sardines with flour, then dip them in beaten egg. Press the oats into the flesh and use a knife to form them into a thick crust.
Sauté them in butter on a moderate heat on the oatmeal side for five minutes. Lift up one side of each sardine with a spatula to see if the oatmeal crust is golden and crisp. If so, turn them and sauté for another minute on the skin side.
If using the fillets as a starter for a light festive luncheon, serve with sautéed cubed potatoes and a salad of diced avocado, finely chopped red onion and tomatoes dressed with virgen extra olive oil and a little lemon juice.
Fillets of mackerel, another economical fish even during the festive season, are also delicious done like this.
Another successful dish at all times of the year is quail, yet I know no one who makes it on a regular basis. It’s an ideal bird for one of the other eight days of Christmas: it’s different, economical, easy to cook and quite succulent when handled properly.
All quail these days are farmed and are on sale at most supermarkets, either whole or spatchcocked. Butterflied quail are ready for use and the whole ones sometimes have to be cleaned. That is easily done by inserting a teaspoon into the cavity and extracting the innards.
The butterflied quail are ideal for sautéing over a highish heat for a short time after sprinkling them with finely chopped garlic and herbs of your choice.
When served with mixed salad greens, quails make a delightful starter. They become a main course when served with sautéed potatoes and vegetables of your choice.
An excellent main course, for any day during the Twelve Days of Christmas, is pan-fried fillets of pork with an orange and fresh ginger sauce and a selection of mashed veggies.
Pork fillets are always thick at one end and thin at the other. If cooking for six get two and cut them so you have two thick pieces and two thin ones, which you’ll keep for another dish.
Sauté the thick pieces in a mixture of butter and olive oil over a highish heat, for three minutes, browning them on all sides. Continue sautéing them for two minutes on the underside and the upper side, then cut off a thin slice.
If it has tinge of pinkness in the middle it is ready. If not, continue to sauté until almost cooked through. Take out of the pan and keep covered.
Add plenty of finely chopped ginger to the frying pan and stir it around for a couple of minutes before pouring in the juice of three oranges plus their pulp. Stir over a highish heat until the sauce thickens.
Cut the pork fillets into thickish slices and put them into the bubbling sauce for one minute on each side. Transfer to hot individual plates and nap them with more of the sauce. Serve them with a selection of of mashed vegetables such as potato and parsnips, yams, pumpkin, broccoli, peas, cauliflower, turnips or carrots. Season each one with salt and pepper to taste and herbs of your choice.
You needn’t make special desserts during the other eight days of Christmas. As these meals are much lighter than the big four of the festive season, this is the time to serve all those goodies such as the mincemeat pies and turrón that are stacked in the pantry at this time of year.