Two things happened this week: I finally stopped baring my ankles and I started putting Christmas parties in my diary (I even made a wreath).
I’d like to pretend that I’m feeling organised about the festive season – I know some people who have already written their Christmas food shopping lists and wrapped all of their presents. I am not (and actually have never been) one of those people. All actual Christmas proceedings seem to happen in a flurry in the couple of days before the 25th, but we do always have some friends over for cheesy carols and a few drinks before that and I’ll be making these three easy and simple things this year. These recipes can be made in small batches if it’s a couple of friends on the sofa, in front of the fire, with a good film, or scaled up easily to feed a party crew until the small hours.
This Blood Orange Margarita could be my favourite drink of all time – bright pink, zippy with lime and finishing off with a sweet agave kick. It’s so great for parties, as it can all be mixed in advance and then poured over ice as needed, so you can spend less time in the kitchen and more with your guests. Fresh blood oranges sometimes show up before Christmas; if not, then regular oranges will do will do just as well or, for that festive pink, you could always use blood-orange juice.
Another easy favourite are these pumpkin-patch orange toasts, bursting with spices, sweet and sour cranberries and a hint of chilli. They are little mouthfuls of holiday cheer with their bright hues and punchy flavours, and an added bonus is that the squash and cranberries can be made the day before. To make them more of a meal, I’ll serve them with a herby salad, but I think they are best passed around with a glass of something that sparkles.
Finally, there’s my winter spiced salt popcorn – cinnamon, nutmeg and orange zest-coated kernels that are perfect for serving in retro cinema containers. Just the right balance between nostalgic and delicious. Although, make plenty – it disappears very quickly.
Winter squash toasts
- 1 butternut or other winter squash, cut into even chunks, peeled or unpeeled
- 1 tsp fennel seeds
- 1⁄2 dried chilli
- 1 cinnamon stick
- Olive oil
- 200g vacuum-packed chestnuts
- 75g dried cranberries
- Grated zest and juice of 1 clementine
- 2 tbsp red wine vinegar
- Small bunch of sage, leaves picked
- Small bunch of rosemary, leaves picked
- 1 seeded baguette, sliced
- Preheat the oven to 200ºC/fan 180ºC/gas mark 6. Place the squash on a baking tray. Bash the fennel seeds in a pestle and mortar and sprinkle them over the squash with some salt and pepper. Crumble over the dried chilli, snap the cinnamon stick and add that too, then drizzle with a tiny bit of olive oil. Use your hands to mix the lot together.
- Roast the squash in the oven for 40 minutes, until soft right through. Add two-thirds of the chestnuts for the last five minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly, then remove the cinnamon.
- Meanwhile, put the cranberries in a pan with the clementine zest and juice and the vinegar, and simmer over a medium heat for eight to 10 minutes until jammy. Keep an eye on it and add a little water if it gets too dry. Set aside.
- Blitz the roasted squash mixture in a food processor, taste and season if needed. Put into a bowl until you are ready to serve.
- Heat a little oil in a pan and fry your sage and rosemary leaves until just crisp. Drain on kitchen paper. Crumble the remaining chestnuts into the pan and warm through, then set aside.
- Toast the bread, then arrange on a platter. Spoon a bit of the bright squash on to each toast, top with sticky cranberries, sprinkle over the herbs and crumbled chestnuts and serve at room temperature with something sparkly.
Winter spiced popcorn
- Splash of vegetable oil
- 400g popping corn
- 200g unrefined light brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
- Pinch of sea salt
- 1⁄2 a nutmeg
- Freshly grated grated zest of 1 unwaxed orange
- First, get your popcorn popping. Heat a very large pan (make sure it’s one with a lid) on a medium heat and add a splash of oil. If you don’t have a very large pan, two smaller ones will do. Once it’s hot, add the popcorn kernels, put on the lid and turn the heat down to low. Give it a good shake every 30 seconds or so to move the kernels around and stop them burning. It will be a while before the popping starts. But when it does, it will come thick and fast, so don’t be tempted to lift the lid.
- While your corn is popping, you can get on with your caramel. Put the sugar into a pan with 100ml of water, place on a medium heat and bring to a simmer, being careful not to touch it. Keep it bubbling until the water has reduced and you have a deep caramel. Don’t be tempted to stir or you will end up with a crystallised caramel.
- Once your popcorn has finished popping, remove it from the heat and pour it into a deep baking tray. Very carefully pour over your caramel, using a metal spoon to mix it through the popcorn – do not touch the popcorn with your hands, as the caramel will be very hot. Sprinkle over the cinnamon and salt, grate over the nutmeg and orange zest, and mix again with a spoon. Allow the caramel to cool completely before eating.
Blood orange and agave Margaritas
- 1 litre of orange juice (about 10 oranges) – I use blood oranges
- Juice of 4 limes
- 4 tbsp agave syrup
- 200ml triple sec or cointreau
- 300ml good tequila
- 2 unwaxed limes, sliced
- Put the blood orange and lime juices into a jug, then add the agave syrup and the booze, and mix.
- Fill four glasses with loads of ice and pour the margaritas over the ice. Finish with a slice of lime.