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I’ve had a packet of dried cranberries sitting on the chest of drawers in my bedroom for the last week. I have a nibble at them when I go by, not really because they’re a superfood but because they taste so good, sharp and just chewy enough. You know, they taste red to me, like red sweets did as a child, even when it was only a matter of food colouring, not flavour at all.

But the cranberries weren’t bought simply as a snack; I had plans for them, great plans. First they were going to top a puff pastry tartlet thingy with chestnuts and mushrooms and maybe cream. Then they were going to be baked in a gingerbread, one with lots of crazily fattening and delicious extras, like ginger pieces in syrup and slivers of rich dark chocolate.

I may still make all those things. I fully intend to. But I’ll need to buy more cranberries. Mine have all gone now, gone into this salad.

A Christmas salad, I think you could call it, because of the cranberries. But that’s not the main point about it. What we have here tastes fresh, vitamin packed and rearin’ to go, in the face of all the heaviness of normal Christmas fodder.

Before I tell you how to make it, I just want to point out the options I encountered and why I did what I did. We have three strong flavours here just to start with. There are the cranberries themselves, the tangy bite of the feta cheese, and the deep earthy growl of the olives – nothing tastes more ancient Mediterranean than olives, does it? It’s enough to make you learn to read the Iliad in Greek!

So that was already quite a tremendous trio and I could have stopped there, maybe cooled them down with oil or metered them out with something bland which sucks up flavours, like couscous.

But unless you’re new at the Eat Think and be Merry household, you’ll know I didn’t. I added to them. I went the full (vegetarian) hog.

First I got out the vinegar and poured on a good dollop and then went completely over the top with crunchy wholegrain mustard. Luckily – for this was all guesswork – it was the right thing to do. It really worked.

The final feta melange tastes amazing – but strong, you know?  I had mine with roasted vegetables, garlic, cherry tomatoes and red onion, and then, to ease it out, a little green salad, undressed.

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Feta, Black Olive and Cranberry Salad, for 4
for the roasted vegetables
1 leek, cleaned and chopped
1 red onion, peeled and sliced into wedges
5 cloves garlic, unpeeled
10 cherry tomatoes
3 tbs olive oil

for the feta medley
100g feta
3 tbs cranberries
3 tbs pitted black olives
1 tbs olive oil
1-2 tbs balsamic vinegar
1 tsp wholegrain mustard

salad leaves

Set the oven to 220C. Put the vegetables in to a large roasting pan, season well and drizzle over the oil. I left most of the tomatoes whole, but cut them up if they are very big. Roast for about 20 minutes, until well done, then cool.

Crumble the feta into a bowl and add the cranberries. I chopped up the olives before adding those in too. Stir in the mustard, oil and vinegar.

That’s it. Serve with salad leaves. A healthy and fast lunch for Christmas.

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Chinese Spiced Red Cabbage

December 16, 2008

Red cabbage it may be called but it’s not red at all. It’s more purple than anything. And goes midnight blue when blanched.

Actually, the bluer bits are just the colour I wanted to paint my room when I was 13. That marvellous fantasy room was going to have purple walls and a yellow ceiling. Or sometimes the other way round, mustard walls and a purpley-blue ceiling. I lay in bed, hands behind my head looking up, and dreamed and dreamed about that room. Sometimes there were also painted stars up there twinkling down on me. Or even better, luminous stars, a whole galaxy of them.

All we would ever play would be Led Zeppelin or the Best of Cream.

But no, it didn’t happen. No surprises there. And now I live in the usual off-white interior of any London flat. Though one day, maybe, one day when I’m very old indeed…

To get back to the cabbage. I made this dish with Sam in mind. Have I mentioned Sam? She’s the girlfriend of my flatmate D.  (And why are some of these names on my blog given in full and some remain initials? It makes no sense does it?  So OK then, D’s full name is David. There. Now you know. Happy?)

I’m sure Sam would like purple walls. Hey, now I come to think of it – happy coincidence! – that’s what she’s painted their bedroom! And it looks great! They have a beaded curtain too, instead of wardrobe doors. No don’t worry, it’s a modern beaded curtain, not hippy-chic, or only insofar as it’s an ironic retro glance at 1973.

Sam is a yoga teacher, and maybe that’s why she’s obsessed with chillies. It’s all that time spent doing sun salutations in Andhra Pradesh. Chillies go in all her food, even more so than in mine. I know, hard to believe, isn’t it? I mean in everything, from mashed potato to full-blown Biryani. Our fridge is full of them, they tumble in little packets from the plastic shelves in the door, green, red, Thai – you name it, we’ve got it. And that’s not to mention the assorted sauces – green jalapeno sauce, jerk barbecue sauce…It’s Chilli Central here.

So the chillies were for Sam, and once I’d gone down that route the whole thing began to come together.

I’d always known it had to be a new version of red cabbage. The traditional cloyingly sweet variety with lots of cloves and apple may go fine with pork, but with anything else it’s all at odds, one of those gawky types, arms akimbo, who never really fit in with the crowd.

For me, red cabbage has to zing. That may not be a technical cooking term but you get my drift. It has to have bite.

And so, with that in mind, some red onion, parsley, capers and some serious chopping later, I came up with this. Yes, it may look like just another vegetable medley. But have a forkful. Good, eh? Just what you need  to jazz up your Christmas dinner? Not that unlike the Brussels sprouts you know and love, but with with its own gentle nudge towards the Chinese.

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Chinese Spiced Red Cabbage, for 4

1 red cabbage, about 500g, finely sliced
1 red onion, sliced
2 green chillies, de-seeded and finely sliced
2 tbs olive oil
1 tsp Chinese five spice
1-2 tbs Balsamic vinegar
1 level tbs sugar
2 tbs capers
1-2 tsp vegetarian green curry paste (you can get this from health food stores)
chopped fresh parsley
cayenne, to taste (I used a teaspoonful)
salt, pepper

Heat the oil in a large frying pan and give the chillies and onion a couple of minutes. Now throw in the red cabbage. Once it’s all cooking nicely, turn the heat down, cover, and cook for up to 10 minutes, all depending how crisp you like your vegetables.

Add the five spice, the vinegar, sugar, capers, curry paste, salt and pepper, and cook for another few minutes.

Stir in the parsley and a modicum of cayenne and serve.

asked my friend Shaun, for about the fourth time.

He adores Christmas. Yesterday late afternoon, when it was dark, he took me to see the crib in Trafalgar Square.

It was all lit up, a stylised kind of tableau. The characters stood at a distance from each other, gazing sombrely at the infant Jesus, who was far too huge for anyone to pick up and hug. In the size sense the whole thing was out of whack.  Joseph, who was lying down on his side gazing at Jesus, was not much bigger than his son.

But it worked somehow. It looked a bit homemade and rough around the edges, but with something grave and beautiful about it.

There was a choir singing in the square, dressed in white. A vicar gave a reading after that, though I didn’t really follow it because I was so cold.

A crowd had gathered to listen and watch, standing under the huge Christmas tree with its silver lights. The tree’s donated to London every year, so it said on the placard, by the people of Oslo, in gratitude for our help during the Second World War.

‘Aren’t you feeling just a bit festive now?’ said Shaun. ‘Doesn’t it make you feel like a child again?

‘It’s bloody freezing.”

But damn it, I did feel rather Christmassy, I had to admit, at least to myself. And there was I hoping to grouch my way through the season.

And it’s been downhill all the way, as far as successful grouching goes, since then.

I woke up this morning thinking about roasted chestnuts. Then I looked up recipes for marrons glaces. Luckily they were too long-winded and complicated for me to try, at least today.

And then I made this, a chestnut soup. Suitable for any day from now until New Year. But particularly good I would have thought, for Boxing Day.

So pretty damn festive, as far as soups go.

Oh, and it’s also extremely good. And easy.

Let me say that again. This is actually one of the tastiest, and simplest, winter soups, that I have ever eaten.

chestnuts

Chestnut and Sweet Potato Soup, for 4
60g butter
200g peeled and cooked chestnuts
1 onion, chopped
2 garlic, chopped
1 inch ginger, grated
2 sweet potatoes – about 600g – peeled and chopped into chunks
1 litre stock
2-3 tbs double cream
dash lemon juice
cayenne pepper

Melt the butter in a large saucepan and fry the onion, garlic, ginger, chestnuts and potato chunks for about 10 minutes.

Pour in the stock and bring to the boil. Turn the heat down to a simmer, cover the saucepan, and cook for about 10 more minutes until the potatoes are tender. Now add the lemon juice.

Take off the heat and blend the soup.

Stir in the cream and serve sprinkled with cayenne.

Now don’t groan. I know, I know, sprouts don’t seem like much to ring home about. But that’s where you’re wrong, you see, and this is the start of my one-man mission to prove it.

Christmas and the day after and the day after that don’t have to be deadly, with only another plateful of soggy vegetables to look forward to. It can all be so very, very different.

Take a look at this.

brussels-sprouts

These aren’t just Brussels sprouts. These are sprouts mingled with red onion, lightly charred (the burn’s the best bit, right?), spiced with cumin and chilli and lifted with just a tangy hint of balsamic vinegar. To be eaten with any of the usual Christmas Day stuff or on their own, as I did, out of the pan, with rye bread fresh from the Spence Bakery on Stoke Newington Church Street.

The recipe is (very loosely) adapted from one I found in an old issue of BBC Vegetarian Good Food Magazine – long defunct, sad to say. There they used shallots, which sound good too. I’ve made the recipe hotter, as is my wont. Well I have to. After all I’ve still got a bag of Thai chillies in my larder which I bought to make the Red Lentil and Carrot Soup.

Pan-Fried Brussels Sprouts with Red Onion, Chilli and Cumin Seeds
for 4 as a side dish
500g Brussels sprouts, trimmed and sliced in half lengthwise
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 red onion, sliced
1 red Thai (or any) chilli, sliced – with the seeds included
2 tbs olive oil
fresh ginger – about a cubic inch, grated
1 level tbs cumin seeds
1 tbs balsamic vinegar

In a large frying-pan, lightly fry the red onion, garlic and chilli just long enough for the onion to become translucent. Add in the ginger, the cumin seeds and the sprouts, and cook over a medium heat for a few more minutes.

Turn the heat down to the absolute minimum, cover the pan and cook for 10 minutes. Stir the sprouts occasionally so that as many as possible get that wonderful charred effect.

The sprouts should now be tender, with just a little bit of crunch left in them. Pour over the vinegar, sprinkle on some salt, stir well. Let the vinegar begin to bubble. You can sprinkle with some chopped chives or other herb if you have any to hand. But basically (and how long can this realistically take, 20 minutes?) you’re done.