Christmas Food & Drink: Turkey is not the only food

Why sideline the vegetables to sidedishes? Colin Spencer demonstrates how they can be the star of your Christmas feast

If you want to turn your back on the traditional Christmas dinner and celebrate a vegetable passion instead, you'll discover that such a meal is a lot less hassle and far more tasty, refreshing and stimulating. And once you have thrown out tradition, you'll find you have a huge range of ingredients to choose from, freeing the imagination when creating your dishes, while softening the blow to the pocket. In this meal, with a few exceptions (because I can't be a purist about everything) I've chosen British vegetables in season and urge you to buy locally if possible.

A word about this menu: the red cabbage dish can be cooked the day before and overnight the flavours will meld and intensify. But remember, this needs long, slow cooking; if at the end it has charred a little, don't worry - the caramelisation only adds to the yummy flavour. At the end of cooking, it should be sticky and the colour of a cardinal's skirt. The potato gratin dish can go into the oven an hour and a half before you want to start the meal. The porcini perfumes the potato with dark, luxurious depths of flavour that hum with savoury delight.

The starter will take half an hour to cook and assemble. The mixture of flavour, texture and temperature stimulates the palate, and in the mouth the avocado melts into the spinach in a mysterious but highly satisfactory manner. The grated Brussels sprouts can be cooked in the interval between the first and main courses. They should have reduced by half, yet still have crunch.

I would follow this menu with a mixed leaf salad, maybe dressed with walnut oil, and then a selection of unpasteurised English cheeses. To finish, an English apple tart with the overlapping slices caramelised and glazed. Or if you think you might have the room to spare, a good old steamed pud, perhaps Sussex pond, spotted dick, or marmalade or toffee pudding.

I know there's a downside: no raiding the fridge for a turkey sandwich, but these dishes are all great cold - if there's any left.


Red Pepper & Spinach Starter Potato & Fungi Dauphinoise with Sesame Brussels Sprouts and Red Cabbage with Ginger


1 ripe avocado, skinned and diced

1 red onion, sliced thinly

1 tablespoon green peppercorns

juice and zest of 12 lemon

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 clove garlic, crushed

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

3 large red peppers, trimmed, seeded and halved

165g/512oz olive paste

500g/1lb 2oz spinach

Preheat the oven to 400F/200C/Gas Mark 6. Marinate the avocado in the lemon juice, zest, oil (keeping back one tablespoon for the spinach), garlic, peppercorns and seasoning. Put the pepper halves skin-side down on a greased baking tray and place in the oven for 15 minutes, then remove and fill each half-pepper with a spoonful of olive paste and return to the oven for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, in a large pan with a lid, cook the spinach over a low heat with the rest of the oil, stirring every few minutes. It should take 10 to 12 minutes to steam in its own juice. Squeeze dry and divide into six portions.

Fill each pepper half with a spinach portion. Spoon over some of the diced avocado. Garnish with a few more peppercorns and lemon zest.


55g/2oz ginger root, peeled and sliced into matchsticks

1 chopped red chilli, seeds and pith included

3 cloves garlic, crushed

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 largish red cabbage, trimmed and sliced fairly thin

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

zest and juice of 1 orange

1 tablespoon orange flower water

3 tablespoons muscovado sugar

1 teaspoon sea salt

Preheat the oven to 325F/160C/Gas Mark 4. In a large casserole, heat the ginger, chilli and garlic with the oil for about a minute, then throw in the other ingredients. Stir till it is heated through, then place on the oven's middle shelf. Leave for three hours. It should be dark purple, tender and aromatic.


2 tablespoons sesame seeds, roasted until golden

450g/1lb Brussels sprouts, trimmed and grated

1 tablespoon sesame oil

sea salt

Place all the ingredients in a saucepan and cook for two minutes, stirring. Serve at once.


50g/112oz dried porcini, soaked in freshly boiled water for 30 minutes

225g/8oz oyster mushrooms

30g/1oz butter

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 glass dry white wine

3kg/6lb 12oz floury potatoes, peeled

1 tablespoon dried oregano

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

500ml/1pt single cream


Preheat the oven to 400F/200C/Gas Mark 6. Melt the butter and half the oil in a pan and add the oyster mushrooms and strained porcini. Cook for a minute. Add the porcini water and wine, place a lid on the pan and cook for two minutes. Pour into a baking dish around 30cm by 22cm, by 8cm deep (14x10x3in).

Cut the potatoes into 2cm (1in) slices. Place the slices in a bowl, add the remaining oil, oregano and seasoning, a generous grating of nutmeg, and the cream. Mix thoroughly. Pour two-thirds of this into the baking dish and mix with the fungi. Top with the remaining potato. Cover with foil and place in the oven for an hour, then remove the foil and allow to brown for 15 minutes. Take it from the oven and leave it to rest for five minutes before serving.

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