Guest blog by Sam Hadadi
From chestnuts roasting on open fires to delicately wrapped chocolates, slabs of fruitcake and, of course, a turkey bigger than the dinner table, the Christmas season is crammed with delicious foods.
As proper foodies, we love nothing more than indulging in a festive feast – and what better way to enjoy it than by piling the Christmas table high with fresh, seasonal foods?
From plump and juicy clementines to stuffed turkeys, spicy horseradish and, yes, Brussel sprouts, there’s a whole array of nature’s treasures this December. Here’s all that you need to know about these Christmas classics, including how to enjoy them at their finest.
The saying goes that all the best things come in small packages – and that’s particularly true of the clementine, the smallest and sweetest tangerine in town. With their glossy orange skin and juicy segments, the clementine lends itself perfectly to Christmas recipes – think small fruits stuffed into the toes of bursting stockings, candied zest, or simply plump chunks of clementine dunked in melted chocolate.
And, really, on a cold and gloomy night, what can brighten a table more than a bowl piled high with these sunshine orange fruits?
No one’s quite sure how this delicious fruit first came to be, with some saying that it was an accident (a cross between the bitter orange and the tangerine) and was first discovered in the garden of Brother Clement Rodier. Others trace its history back to old-school China (even today, two clementines are given to a couple when they marry in China, where they symbolise prosperity), with many pointing out its similarities to the Canton mandarin.
Yet how did they come to be so linked to Christmas? Well, good old Saint Nic could be one reason why. Way back in the 4th century, Saint Nicholas was born into a wealthy Greek family and stood to inherit a fortune. Yet when he heard of three desperate sisters about to be sold into slavery, he tossed three bags of gold coins down their chimney, where they landed in stockings. Many medieval paintings of Santa went on to use oranges to represent the gold.
Yet, however they came to bedeck our Christmas tables, we’re grateful. These zesty fruits are wonderful at sprucing up salads, adding moisture to couscous-based dishes, adding to cakes and puddings, or for adding aroma and flavour to biscuits and mincemeat.
These sweet and juicy delights also come loaded with health benefits, meaning they deserve their own chance in the spotlight this Christmas. As nutritional powerhouses, clementines are:
How to Pick and Store:
Although we think they’re made for Christmas, clementines are actually in season for a lot longer (from November until February.) Unfortunately, a clementine’s glossy skin isn’t always an indicator of the perfect fruit – instead, we’d recommend plumping for the heaviest, as it suggests a juicier inside.
Once you get your vibrant fruits home, they’re best stored in the fridge and will keep well for up to a week.
How to Prepare:
As a juicy addition to the fruit bowl, clementines need no added sugar when prepared, which makes them a deliciously healthy pudding. To enjoy, simply cut away their pith (the white stuff) and peel, before segmenting to eat whole.
You could also try tossing into salads with a squeeze of lime juice, turning into a festive jelly, or using the freshly-squeezed juice in place of a sugar syrup. To add a citrusy twist to your favourite desserts and puds, finely grate the zest of a clementine and sprinkle over mousses and cakes.
Want to get into the festive spirit with this little fruit? Try rocking around the Christmas tree with our delicious Clementine and Cranberry Muffins.
What would Christmas Day be without crackers laden with cheesy jokes, a bowlful of Brussels and, of course, a beautifully-roasted turkey to fight over?
Once upon a time, popular festive centrepieces would include beef, goose, cockerel, or even peacock and swan. However, the turkey soon began to pop up on Christmas tables in the 16th century.
Legend has it that King Henry VIII was the first English monarch to enjoy this bird for Christmas, and the tradition soon spread – turkey became especially popular because its vast size made it ideal for family gatherings.
By the time the Victorians rolled up, turkey was a hugely popular dish over the festive season. In fact, in Charles Dickens’ 'A Christmas Carol', Scrooge even sent Bob Cratchit a large turkey.
A firm favourite among weight loss circles, turkey is low in fat and calories. However, this beautiful bird also comes with other health benefits, including:
How to Pick and Store
When it comes to picking your bird, the two most favoured breeds of turkey are the Norfolk Black and the Bronze. Although the Blacks are often not as plump as the Bronzes, they’ll often be stronger in flavour and have a higher fat content.
However, as with buying any poultry, it’s also important to remember what the birds have been fed (a cereal-based, natural diet is best), as well as whether or not they’ve been given access to roam the outdoors. We always prefer to buy fresh, organic turkey.
Make sure you get your order in well in advance of Christmas to ensure you get the best bird. Farmers' markets are a great place to buy local, quality produce, or you could try reputed butchers by doing a bit of research online.
How to Prepare:
As with chickens, you need to take extra special care when cooking a turkey to avoid the risk of food poisoning. If you need to defrost a frozen turkey, allow plenty of time (in fact, you’ll probably need a few days) and only defrost it in the fridge, rather than at room temperature.
Once defrosted, take your turkey from the fridge around half an hour before cooking and, if you’re stuffing your bird (we love to stuff ours with a mixture of chestnuts, gluten-free breadcrumbs, herbs and spices and citrus zest), make sure you pop the stuffing in just before cooking, and always check that the stuffing is thoroughly cooked before serving.
When it comes to preparing and cooking your turkey, try searching online for the perfect timings, although it will need roughly 20 minutes of oven time per 500g/1lb 2oz. Your turkey will be cooked through once the juices run clear from the thigh if you pierce it with a knife or a skewer.
If you’re anything like us, you’ll be left with plenty of turkey meat after your Christmas dinner. If you’re in need of some inspiration to use up that leftover turkey, then try some of our favourite recipes:
Mini Turkey Burgers with Raspberry Chipotle Sauce
Turkey Chilli With Cacao and Cinnamon
Love them or loathe them, Brussel sprouts remain a firm favourite on Christmas tables up and down the country. Like miniature cabbages, they can have a sweet and nutty flavour, although this can prove too overpowering or bitter for many.
However, with a little bit of love (and some Lucy Bee-style fairy dust), we’re convinced that you can come to love Brussels just as much as we do!
So, who do we have to thank for these tasty green gems? Well, Brussels have long been popular in Belgium (hence their name) and may even have originated there, way back in the 13th century. However, Britons now eat more Brussels sprouts than anyone else in Europe, while the area covered by sprout fields in the UK is the equivalent of 3,240 football pitches1.
It seems that our love for this fit and healthy veg just seems to grow and grow, despite the controversial taste…
Known by us as the fitness instructor of veggies, the little Brussel come loaded with goodness – why else would we be encouraging you to devour them by the bagful? Here’s why you should be gobbling them up this Christmas, whether you love them or hate them…
How to Pick and Store:
Although these humble little cabbages are at their best during the winter months, they’re available form October right through until March.
When it comes to picking your sprouts, it’s best to go for plump and bright green heads, each with tightly packed leaves. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the smaller sprouts also tend to be sweeter. Once your sprouts are safely back home, keep them stored in a cool, dark place (or the fridge) for up to four days.
How to Prepare:
When you’re ready to get your Brussels into shape for eating, remove any stems and yellow or discoloured leaves, then wash well. Despite what your mum may have told you, cutting a cross into the bottom of your sprouts doesn’t help them to cook better (it can actually make them go soggy – and no one likes a soggy sprout). Instead, try cutting your Brussels in half, or simply tossing them into the pan just as they are.
We love to mix it up with our sprouts and find them delicious when fried up with pancetta and chestnuts, blanched quickly in boiling water, or even shredded. We also love mixing sprouts with potato to make tasty patties and even topped with a poached egg. Just don’t ever be tempted to overcook your sprout – that’s the reason half of England fears this tasty little gem!
Still unconvinced about the power or the Brussels? Try our Roasted Brussels with Chestnuts and Pomegranates and see your opinion quickly change…
With its spicy, peppery flavour, a bowlful of horseradish sauce can make the most delicious of trimmings on the Christmas table. Perfect served with roast beef (or even fish), this knobbly little root is a member of the mustard family never fails to pep up and add flavour to dishes.
However, native to Eastern Europe, horseradish has actually long been steeped in myth and legend. In fact, according to Greek mythology, the Delphic Oracle told Apollo that this knarled-looking root was worth its weight in gold, while the famous Roman historian Cato even discusses the plant in his work on agriculture.
Horseradish also gained popularity during the Middle Ages, where it was used medicinally as well as in food preparation – it first became popular as a condiment for meats in Germany, Scandinavia and Britain.
Want to know more about this spicy wonder? Read on…
As well as adding that extra kick to dishes, horseradish also contains plenty of body-loving beauties. It’s often used medicinally to treat problems such as colic, UTIs, bronchitis, coughs, aches and pains and gout. Here are some of the other benefits of eating horseradish:
How to Pick and Store:
Wherever possible, don’t buy your horseradish sauce from a jar and make it fresh instead! Not only will it taste a million times better but it will also be free from any nasties or added ingredients.
However, it can be tricky to track down fresh horseradish (unless you fancy a forage), so try heading to a farmers’ market, or search for a specialist supplier online.
Once you’ve secured your fresh horseradish, place it in a paper bag in the fridge for up to one week, or try chopping into small chunks and freezing until needed.
How to Prepare:
If we ever have any leftover horseradish, we love chopping it up into smaller chunks and freezing until it’s needed. To prepare fresh horseradish root, you simply peel and grate, much like you’d use ginger. Just bear in mind that once the horseradish has been peeled, it loses its strong taste and flavour quite quickly. In the same way, always use raw horseradish in sauces since cooking can also destroy its flavour!
To make your horseradish, try mixing with oil to give an ultra spicy kick, or grate into cream for a lighter version. When prepared, we love to dish up a good horseradish sauce with roast beef or certain fish including tuna and mackerel – we even love to stir it into good old mash! Just be careful when you grate your horseradish as the vapour can be known to burn your eyes.
If you want to try something other than horseradish sauce, then our Beetroot and Red Pepper Soup with Horseradish is deliciously warming on a cold winter’s day. Enjoy!
And if this wasn't reason enough to enjoy your Christmas fare, see our previous article 'Ten Reasons to Enjoy Your Christmas Foods'.
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Sam Hadadi is an ex-BBC journalist and now a freelance writer specialising in fitness and food.