Spruce up your festive veg

Tried-and-tested recipes may be the usual dish of the day at Christmas, but if your veggies are usually more bland than grand, why not jazz them up a bit? Andy Welch picks three ways to add flavour to your festive favourites.

Christmas dinner is no time for experimenting.

The pressure to deliver a tasty meal for all the family can be a bit overwhelming. It's enough to concentrate on not overdoing the carrots and making sure the gravy's not lumpy, without throwing new flavour combinations into the equation.

There's also the question of tradition. We all have memories of bland, tasteless boiled sprouts, only vaguely spherical because they've been cooked for almost as long as the turkey, but for some, that's just as much a part of Christmas as wearing a stupid paper hat, or watching an Only Fools And Horses repeat.

Some traditions, however, just aren't worth persevering with. A recent survey by BBC Good Food Magazine found 56% of people would quite happily ditch Christmas pudding, with it being the least-favourite part of the festive feast, but you can bet your last hidden sixpence that plenty will still be dishing it up come December 25.

The magazine's editor, Gillian Carter, says: "Christmas is all about tradition, and many of us love the classic Christmas Day dishes we grew up with. But there's nothing wrong with creating your own family traditions - and if no one in your family wants Christmas pud, don't make it just for old time's sake. Try something new."

The rich, stodgy dessert is even less popular than Brussels sprouts, with around 40% admitting they don't like or enjoy eating them. Of course, not liking a particular vegetable is perfectly reasonable, but the odds are stacked against sprouts. They've never really been given a fair crack, unlike, say, pigs in blankets, which everyone seems to love.

Cooked properly, there's no reason sprouts can't start competing with roast potatoes, which a whopping 95% in the study said were their favourite part of Christmas dinner.

Heston Blumenthal understands that, and says roasties should form the centrepiece of your Christmas Day cooking.

"Work out all your timings to suit," he says. "Whatever meat you're having can be cooked in advance and kept warm, your veg can be reheated, but your roast potatoes can't."

Yotam Ottolenghi suggests roasting Brussels sprouts, too. This way, he says, they stay whole, lose none of their flavour through boiling, and are completely delicious.

"Just a little olive oil, salt and pepper, in the oven on 180C for around 25 minutes," he instructs.

Steaming Brussels is another great way of cooking them. After around eight minutes, so they've still got a bit of bite, toss them in a frying pan with butter, some parsley, a little water and some seasoning, and perhaps even a lick of single cream.

On to the carrots. Now you could just boil these in salted water, but why not try vichy carrots, which aren't much more effort but taste infinitely better?

Into the water - or good chicken stock for extra luxury - add a teaspoon or two of muscovado or molasses sugar, a large knob of butter and a few sprigs of thyme. Cook on a high simmer for about 45 minutes until the liquid has gone and you're left with soft, slightly sticky, flavoursome carrots.

Aside from those suggestions, why not try the three recipes below for even more inspiration? Happy Christmas.

:: Perfect roast potatoes

(Serves 8)

70g goose or duck fat, or 5tbsp olive oil

1kg even-sized potatoes, peeled

Coarse sea salt

8 fresh rosemary sprigs, to garnish

Preheat the oven to 230C. Put the fat in a large roasting tin, sprinkle generously with sea salt and place in the oven.

Meanwhile, cut any larger potatoes in half. They should be roughly the same size. Then, place them in a large saucepan of boiling water for eight to 10 minutes until parboiled. Drain well. Return the potatoes to the empty saucepan, put a lid on the pan and shake vigorously to roughen their outsides.

Arrange the potatoes in a single layer in the hot fat and roast for 45 minutes. If they look as if they are beginning to char around the edges, reduce the oven temperature to 200C. Turn the potatoes over and roast for a further 30 minutes until crisp. Serve garnished with rosemary sprigs.

:: Recipe courtesy of Simple & Delicious Christmas (Love Food), published by Parragon books, £10

:: Chestnut and sausage stuffing

(Serves 6-8)

225g pork sausage meat (use your favourite sausages, slice the skins and remove the meat)

225g unsweetened chestnut puree

85g walnuts, chopped

115g ready-to-eat dried apricots, chopped

2tbsp chopped fresh parsley

2tbsp snipped fresh chives

2tsp chopped fresh sage

4-5tbsp double cream

Salt and pepper

Heat a frying pan on the hob.

Combine the sausage meat and chestnut puree in a bowl, then stir in the walnuts, apricots, parsley, chives and sage. Stir in enough cream to make a firm, but not dry, mixture.

Test the stuffing by cooking a small ball of it in the pan. Adjust the seasoning to taste. Remember to only add a little salt at a time. When satisfied, move on to the next step.

If you're planning to stuff a turkey or goose, fill the neck cavity only, to ensure the bird cooks all the way through. It is safer and more reliable to cook the stuffing separately, either rolled into small balls and placed on a baking sheet or spooned into an ovenproof dish.

Cook the separate stuffing in a preheated oven for 30-40 minutes at 190C. It should be allowed a longer time to cook if you're roasting a bird at a lower temperature in the same oven.

:: Recipe courtesy of Simple & Delicious Christmas (Love Food), published by Parragon books, £10

:: Smashed sprouts mash with chestnuts

(Serves 6)

600g Brussels sprouts, halved

50g butter

100ml double cream

Half a nutmeg, grated

Salt and pepper

200g pack vacuum-packed chestnuts, roughly chopped

Put the sprouts in a large pan, cover with boiling water and cook for eight to 10 minutes or until very tender.

Drain and leave to steam-dry for a few minutes. Tip back into a saucepan and mash to a chunky texture with a potato masher. Don't overdo it, they should be smashed, not mashed.

Add the butter, cream and nutmeg, and season well.

Cook for a further two minutes. Mix in half the chestnuts, then sprinkle over the remaining chestnuts to serve. As an optional extra, you could also dice some streaky bacon and fry until crisp, before removing from the pan and draining. Return the bacon to the pan with the cream and nutmeg.

:: Recipe courtesy of BBC Good Food Magazine. January issue on sale now, £3.90

Three of the best

Flavoured ice cream

:: Taste The Difference Salted Caramel Ice Cream, £4 for 500ml, Sainsbury's

Rich and creamy, and with the sweet and salty providing a bit of a tingle, this ice cream has a grown-up flavour and a little goes a long way.

:: Heston From Waitrose Christmas Pud Ice Cream, £2.99 for 500ml (currently on offer at £1.99), Ocado.com/Waitrose

Luxurious, ultra-smooth and with a festive twist, featuring all the ingredients of a Christmas pudding; candied peel, currants, sultanas, the lot. A perfect alternative for those who want a dessert on Christmas Day but don't want something as heavy as a pudding.

:: Ben & Jerry's Peanut Butter Cup Ice Cream, £2.50 for 500ml, Asda

A popular flavour in the States, it's making it's mark in the UK, and with 20% peanut butter, there's no shortage of nuttiness in this one. Although you won't be able to eat a whole tub in one go - it's very sweet - you'll definitely want to try.

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