Festive vegetables that are worth sprouting about

Use these hints to give your parsnips some zip and turn even die-hard Brussels haters into fans, says Alice-Azania Jarvis
  • @aliceazania

They're not, let's face it, the main event. For the harried Christmas cook, side dishes – the sprouts, the potatoes, the carrots and the parsnips – can come fairly low on the list of priorities. Somewhere between the condiments (Christmas is truly the season of elevated condiments: bread sauce, cranberry sauce, gravy... brandy butter) and the crackers. Possibly below the crackers, in fact, depending on how important a joke, hat and trinket is to your enjoyment of roast turkey.

But side dishes can be wonderful. I spent two years as a vegetarian, and happily ate only the sides instead of hunting the supermarket for a ready-made nut roast, which no one likes anyway. And they don't need to be complicated. Certainly no more complicated than boiling them is, anyway, given the time/saucepan/hotplate juggling that that necessitates. They can even, in large part, be made a day in advance – or almost-made, anyway.

"I keep things simple," says Allan Pickett, head chef at Plateau in east London. "It's all about preparation: doing the chopping and peeling in advance, popping the veg in a freezer bag to keep them nice and fresh. You can even cook some vegetables the night before and then refresh them in hot water on the day." And making what you serve memorable needn't be a fuss, either: "It can be as simple as adding a few cloves of garlic, rosemary and thyme to potatoes – or even half a teaspoon of smoked paprika."

Over at the Opera Tavern in central London, Ben Tish is also planning on jazzing up his spuds. Only he'll be serving them mashed – or, more accurately, whizzed. "I'll be cooking the potatoes as you would for a basic mash, adding butter and cream and putting them through a ricer – but then I'll put them in a blender with some really good olive oil. They make a kind of delicious emulsion." Johnnie Mountain, of the Atrium in central London, will be doing the same, but with the addition of truffle oil. "It is Christmas, after all!"

Parsnips are just as open to interpretation. Tish suggests roasting them with truffle honey, which can be bought ready-made or done at home: "We make it by warming honey and adding a bit of brandy, some truffle essence, truffle oil and a little shaved black truffle." Pickett suggests mixing some sweet potato in among your neeps, and drizzling them with a little honey. He also suggests adding coriander seeds to carrots. "It's nice to have a bit of warming spice at Christmas – not fiery, just fragrant." You'll need one tablespoon for a couple of kilos of carrots.

More problematic than potatoes, parsnips and carrots are the hotly contested sprouts. "The trick is to cook them until they're just al dente. Then you can slice them in half and sauté with some mustard seeds and jamon."

Finally, the cabbage. Red cabbage, rather like sprouts, has the ability to polarise festive diners. If you've ever eaten it boiled to oblivion, you will understand why. But it doesn't have to be that way. "For me, cranberries and red cabbage are synonymous with Christmas lunch," Mountain says. "Combining them both makes the ideal side dish. The sharpness of the cranberry works perfectly with the sweetness of the red cabbage." Or why not follow Tish's lead, and opt for cavolo nero instead? "We cream it with mascarpone and Gorgonzola. It's just a matter of blanching it, putting it in a fresh pan, adding a couple of dollops of mascarpone and cubed Gorgonzola with some black pepper."

For the really frazzled cook, there is always delegation to help to ease the load. Some years ago, my mother – after more than a decade of doing the whole thing single-handed – offloaded on to my father. Now, he can be found in the garden, cooking the turkey over the barbecue – while Mum focuses on the sides. And guess what? Christmas dinner has never tasted better.