When it comes to strict Christmas food traditions, I have very few. There are, however, some principles I return to every year. One is making sure that the side dishes are always snazzy enough that the central bird does not overly rule the roost. Also, I’m not keen on an abundance of traditional thick, brown gravy to hold the meal together. Without it, to my mind, there’s space for a host of other more delicious and exciting ingredients to attend the party. And that’s how it should be, right? Everyone made welcome.
Yaji-spiced spatchcocked chicken with parsnips (pictured top)
The inspiration for this comes from West African yaji spice mix, which is traditionally used to make suya skewers, a popular street food. I’ve swapped the usual peanut cake accompaniment for roast peanuts and the selim pepper for dried green peppercorns, which are more easily available. If you’ve not done it before, don’t be daunted by spatchcocking the chicken (there are numerous instructional videos online: watch one and go for it, or ask a butcher to do it for you). If you want to get ahead, marinate the chicken and make the peanut crumble the day before. And by all means swap the chicken for a festive turkey; it will take much longer to cook, though, so cover it with plenty of foil so the marinade doesn’t burn.
Prep 15-20 minCook 1 hr 15 minServes 4-6
1 large chicken (2kg), spatchcocked – keep the backbone2 onions, peeled, cut in half, then each half cut into 3 wedges1 garlic bulb, cloves separated and peeled650g parsnips, cut in half lengthways, then cut in half again on the diagonal500ml chicken stock2 tsp plain flour2⅔ tbsp (10g) parsley leaves, finely chopped
For the marinade40g salted roast peanuts1 tsp ground ginger2¼ tsp smoked paprika2½ tsp garlic granules½ tsp cracked black pepper1 tsp dried green peppercorns, coarsely ground in a mortar¾ tsp ground cayenne pepper80g unsalted butter, at room temperature1 lemon, zest finely grated, to get 1 tsp, then juiced, to get 1½ tbsp Fine sea saltFor the peanut crumble100g salted roast peanuts¼ tsp smoked paprika½ tsp garlic granules¾ tsp ground cayenne¾ tsp caster sugar
Heat the oven to 220C (200C fan)/425F/gas 7.
First make the marinade. Put the first seven ingredients in a food processor and pulse until the nuts have broken down to the size of couscous grains. Add the butter, lemon zest and juice, and a teaspoon of salt, and pulse until well mixed.
Put the spatchcocked chicken breast side up on a board, rub the spiced butter mix under the skin (be gentle, so it doesn’t rip), then spread the rest all over the outside of the bird.
Put the reserved backbone, onions, garlic, parsnips, stock and a teaspoon of salt in a large, high-sided oven tray and set a rack on top of them. Lay the chicken skin side up on the rack, then roast for 55 minutes, until golden and dark in places. Remove from the oven and set aside to rest for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, put all the peanut crumble ingredients in the large bowl of a food processor with a quarter-teaspoon of salt, pulse until the nuts are the size of couscous grains, then tip into a bowl.
Lift the chicken off its rack and on to a platter, discard the backbone, then transfer the roast parsnips and half the onions to a plate. Carefully pour the tray juices, the remaining onions and the garlic into a large jug, then return the parsnip-and-onion mix to the tray. Turn on the grill to its highest setting, then grill the parsnip mix, turning it occasionally, for seven to 10 minutes, until golden and slightly charred in places; keep a beady eye on it, so it doesn’t catch and burn.
Meanwhile, put a small saucepan on a medium-high heat and spoon in three tablespoons of the fat that will by now have risen to the top of the jug of cooking juices. Stir in the flour, and cook for two or three minutes, until it starts smelling slightly nutty. Stirring all the while, pour in the cooking juices from the jug and any that have pooled under the resting chicken. Cook for 10 minutes, until the gravy thickens slightly and the fat rises to the top, then pour into a serving jug.
Arrange the onions and parsnips around the chicken, sprinkle over a tablespoon and a half of the peanut crumble mixture and the parsley, and serve with the gravy and the remaining crumble mix on the side.
Savoy cabbage with crisp pancetta and cider-and-mint dressing
The crunchy apple, fresh dressing and quick-cooked cabbage make this a very welcome addition to the Christmas table, not least because it cuts right through all the usual richness. Make it while the roast bird is resting, or cook it an hour or two ahead and scatter on the apple and pancetta mix just before serving. For vegetarians, ditch the pancetta and crisp up some crumbled chestnuts instead.
Prep 20 minCook 25 minServes 4 as a side
100g diced pancetta10 sprigs fresh thyme, plus 1½ tsp picked leaves2½ tbsp olive oilFine sea salt and black pepper6 spring onions (100g), whites cut into 1cm lengths, greens thinly sliced½ tsp dried mint10g fresh mint leaves, roughly chopped1 tsp cider vinegar1 green apple, halved, cored and very thinly sliced into semi-circles (use a mandoline, if you have one)1 savoy cabbage (800g), cored, then separated into leaves – tear any larger leaves in half and cut off and discard any thick stems (630g)150ml cider1 tbsp dijon mustard
Put the pancetta, thyme sprigs, a teaspoon of oil and a heavy grind of pepper in a large saute pan on a medium heat, and cook, stirring often, for 10 minutes, until the pancetta is lightly coloured. Stir in the spring onion whites, dried mint and an eighth of a teaspoon of salt, and cook, stirring frequently, for five minutes more, until the spring onions are golden and the pancetta crisp. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the pancetta mix to a medium bowl, leaving the fat behind in the pan.
Mix the sliced spring onion greens in a bowl with the fresh mint, vinegar and apple, then set aside.
Return the pan to a medium-high heat and, once it’s hot, add a third of the cabbage, a teaspoon and a half of oil and a quarter-teaspoon of salt, and cook, stirring occasionally, for five minutes, until the cabbage is a little wilted, charred and just cooked through. Transfer to a platter with a lip, repeat twice more with the remaining cabbage, then tip it all back into the pan, and cook, stirring, for two minutes more.
Tip the cabbage mix on to the lipped platter, return the pan to a medium heat, then add the cider and thyme leaves, and leave to bubble away for five minutes, until reduced, thickened and almost syrupy. Take off the heat, stir in the mustard, then pour all over the cabbage. Scatter the apple and pancetta mixture on top and serve warm.
Turmeric ghee-braised carrots with crisp curry leaves
Another stove-top vegetable side dish here, so great for freeing up oven space on the big day. If you want to get ahead, make the carrots the day before, chill and reheat just before serving; keep the chillies and crisp curry leaves at room temperature, though.
Prep 10 minCook 15 minServes 6
85g ghee1 green chilli, thinly sliced on an angle30 fresh curry leaves1kg carrots, peeled and cut on an angle into 4cm pieces30g piece fresh ginger, peeled and finely grated½ tsp ground turmeric1 tbsp soft light brown sugarFine sea salt¼ tsp cracked black pepper½ tsp urfa chilli flakes1 lime, cut in half
Put the ghee in a large saucepan for which you have a lid, turn on the heat to medium-high and, once the fat is hot, add the chilli and cook for a minute, until lightly coloured. Stir in the curry leaves, cook for 30 seconds, until deeply green and translucent, then strain through a small heatproof sieve set over a small bowl and return the ghee to the pan.
Return the pan to the heat, add the carrots, ginger, turmeric, sugar and a teaspoon and three-quarters of salt, and stir to combine. Pop the lid on the pan and leave to cook for seven to 10 minutes, stirring once halfway, until the carrots are cooked through, but still have a slight bite (if you like them softer, give them a few minutes longer).
Take off the heat, pour in 60ml warm water, then swirl the pan around so that the water and ghee emulsify. Spoon the carrots on to a serving plate, pour the liquid from the pan over the top, scatter over the chilli and curry leaf mixture, and sprinkle over the black pepper and urfa chilli. Serve with the lime for squeezing on top.
Fiona Beckett’s drinks match
Under £10Specially Selected French Roussanne 2022 £7.99 Aldi, 13%. Newly released, lush, pineappley, Rhône white that would work really well with the chicken.
Over £10Châteauneuf-du-Pape Les Paroisses 2021 £14.99 Lidl, 14%. If you want a showy bottle to put on the table, it’s hard to beat a châteauneuf-du-pape. It can handle a bit of spice, too.