Christmas Food & Drink: Miracles can happen

Christmas is a time when there is good will and peace on earth - except in the kitchen. Jill Dupleix has the menu for a hassle-free day
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The Independent Culture
No wonder everyone falls asleep in the middle of Christmas dinner. It's boring. Same old food, same old people. Never in a million years would you hold the same dinner party for the same guests with the same menu, year after year. So why do it at Christmas? The shops should start selling rubber turkeys along with their Everlasting Christmas Trees. Each year the two of them could be brushed down, polished up and put out on display for their one day of glory. The only danger is that after three glasses of bubbly you could forget the turkey is rubber, and start to carve it.

Christmas Day is not, however, the time to try out revolutionary new gastronomic ideas. It is a time to get together and celebrate, not for everyone to split up and work like galley slaves. So I have put together a simple, modern menu inspired by my favourite flavours from Asia, certain to bring long life and happiness, peace and good fortune. It's low on fat, light on fuss, and heavy on glamour. It starts with prawns, high on the Chinese scale of good fortune, and follows with the richness of crisp-skinned duck, sitting on a festive bed of red rice, with a Christmassy green herb sauce. It finishes with pears poached with chillies. Christmas is not exactly an Asian tradition, but feasting for hours around groaning banquet tables is, so it's not such a mental leap.

Note that there is no turkey over which to hover, no gravy to make, and no plum pudding to steam up the kitchen. Thus, the real benefit of this menu is that you are calm and relaxed, and looking absolutely stunning. Not only that, but everyone will be so surprised at your kitchen creativity and gastronomic wit that they will forget to fall asleep mid-meal. The kids won't fight. Everyone will sparkle, stimulate, amuse and entertain, all day long. The Christmas lights will not blow a fuse. Sister will love sister, brother will love brother, and both will cease to blame their parents for the ills that befall them. It will be a magical, perfect day. Hey, it's Christmas. Miracles can happen.

A MODERN ASIAN CHRISTMAS DINNER FOR FOUR

Warm Prawn & Glass Noodle Salad Five-Spice Duck with Tomato Rice & Green Sauce Chilli Pears with Spiced Toffee Sauce

WARM PRAWN & GLASS NOODLE SALAD

A fresh, zingy, festive entree drenched with lime juice and Thai fish sauce

12 medium green (raw) prawns

200g/7oz bean starch noodles (bean thread, glass or cellophane)

3 tablespoons Thai fish sauce (nam pla)

3 tablespoons fresh lime or lemon juice

1 teaspoon sugar

1 garlic clove, crushed

1 red chilli, finely chopped

2 tablespoons dried shrimps, ground to a powder

2 tablespoons finely chopped spring onion greens

1 tablespoon peanut oil

3 heaped tablespoons loosely packed fresh mint leaves

3 tablespoons salted beer nuts, roughly chopped

1 lime or lemon, quartered

De-vein the prawns by hooking a thin bamboo skewer through the back and drawing out any black intestinal tract. Peel them, leaving the little tail.

Cook the noodles in a pot of boiling water for three minutes until they lose their crunch. Drain, rinse, drain again, cover with clingfilm and set aside.

Combine the fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, ground shrimp, garlic, chilli, onions and noodles, and toss well.

Heat the oil in a non-stick frying pan and fry the prawns quickly on both sides until they are no longer transparent. Add the mint leaves to the noodles and toss lightly. Arrange a pile of noodles on four flat Asian plates or bowls, and stack three prawns on top of each pile. Scatter with beer nuts and serve with a wedge of lime or lemon to one side.

FIVE-SPICE DUCK WITH TOMATO RICE & GREEN SAUCE

The marinade gives the duck a wonderfully deep, long flavour, while the steaming takes care of all the work beforehand

4 duck breasts, with skin (around 200g/7oz each)

3 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon five spice powder

1 teaspoon each salt and sugar

1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine or dry sherry

1 red chilli, finely sliced

2 teaspoons peanut oil

Wash and dry the duck breasts, and prick the skin well with a sharp fork. Mix soy sauce, five spice powder, salt, sugar, rice wine and chilli, and rub well into the duck breasts. Cover with clingfilm and refrigerate overnight or for a few hours. Drain and place on a heat-proof plate that will fit in your steamer. Steam for 30 minutes, remove and pat dry (you can do up to this stage a few hours beforehand).

Heat the oil in a non-stick frying pan. Sear the duck, skin-side down, until the skin is crisp and golden. Turn. Cook gently until the duck is hot through (remember, it is already cooked, you are just reheating).

To serve, carve each breast into six or eight thick, neat slices, and arrange over a mound of hot tomato rice. Spoon some green sauce on top and serve.

TOMATO RICE

Red rice is a favourite Vietnamese accompaniment to poultry

230g/8oz jasmine rice

3 tablespoons tomato paste

12 teaspoon sea salt

Rinse the rice well, shake dry, and place in a heavy-bottomed saucepan with a lid. Add the tomato paste and salt. Place your index finger on top of the rice and add cold water until it reaches the first joint of your finger. Bring the water to the boil, stirring occasionally, then reduce the heat to the lowest possible, cover tightly and cook gently for 15 minutes. Remove the rice from the heat and let it sit for 10 minutes, then fluff it up with a fork and serve.

GREEN SAUCE

A fast sauce of wilted Asian herbs that tastes like a wild, fresh relish

12 spring onions, finely chopped

3 heaped tablespoons fresh coriander, finely chopped

3 heaped tablespoons flat parsley, finely chopped

1 teaspoon sea salt

100ml/312fl oz peanut oil

2 teaspoons sesame oil

Heat the peanut oil gently in a small pan. When warm, add the spring onions and salt and cook gently for a minute or two until wilted. Remove from the heat, add the coriander, parsley and sesame oil, tossing well. Whizz in a food processor until thick. Reheat gently to serve.

CHILLI PEARS WITH SPICED TOFFEE SAUCE

Pears poached with chilli and ginger and served with an Asian-spiced sauce are lighter than plum pud and more fun to eat

4 brown-skinned pears

750ml/112 pints sparkling wine

250g/9oz caster sugar

2 small red chillies

1 slice of fresh ginger

For the sauce:

150g/5oz soft brown sugar

150ml/5fl oz thickened cream

2 cardamom pods

4 each whole star anise and cinnamon sticks

2 tablespoons butter

To make the sauce, put all the ingredients in a pan, bring to the boil, stirring, and simmer for five minutes. You can do this stage beforehand.

Wash the pears, but do not peel them. Use a small, sharp knife to cut out the cores from the bottom and discard. Combine the sparkling wine, caster sugar, chilli and ginger in a pan and bring to the boil, stirring. Place the pears in the syrup and simmer for 30 minutes or more, until tender to the touch. Remove from the heat and set aside.

To serve, reheat the pears in their syrup. When they are hot, gently heat the sauce. Drain the pears well, and place in the centre of four shallow soup plates. Strain the hot sauce over the top so that it coats each pear completely. Pick out the star anise and cinnamon and arrange at the foot of each pear.

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