If I think about the things that make Christmas feel like Christmas, it's not just the opportunity to get together and spend some special time with extended family and friends, or even the sharing of presents – in our family, at least, it's actually very much about the food.
Like no other time of the year, Christmas is the time we come to the table prepared to be gluttonous. Woe betide anyone who turns up and tells you they only eat raw, or starts going on about clean eating. Christmas is not about self-denial or preaching elitist ideas about wellness. On December 25 we don't need or want coconut water or cacao nibs, beetroot smoothies or umeboshi paste dressings. Just remember healthy eating is about long-term habits, not what you eat on this one special day. At Christmas we want tradition, and lashings of it, please.
The origins of Christmas are religious, but you don't need to be religious in any way to enjoy it. At its essence, Christmas is a celebration of family and friendship. At my family table, as part of the tradition of sharing the Christmas spirit, there are always waifs and strays. We never like the idea of someone being home alone on this day of celebratory feasting. In coming together at the Christmas table, we create a bigger family idea, a shared reference point, which, in this fast-changing world, serves to anchor our collective response around an idea of inclusiveness and belonging. For a brief moment the world can stop, as we sit together the way we always have, wearing funny paper party hats, pulling crackers and gorging ourselves silly. In such a way, year after year, we create a potent store of memories that in themselves help to shape our identity.
Getting Christmas dinner on the table is invariably a mammoth effort, but in a way that's what makes it Christmas – even if you share the load among other family members, the fact that you pull out all the stops to create an amazing feast is part of what makes it so memorable.
We want everyone to come to the table with an appetite, and eat to excess, to have one too many meringues, or an extra helping of ham or turkey or those waxy, sweet just-harvested new potatoes. Year after year we leave the Christmas table swearing we will never eat so much ever again — then it rolls around again and, of course, we all do. Christmas just would not be Christmas without that feeling that you have overdone it. And then once it's over you get to have a lie-down.
Just in case you're still in a quandary over what to serve, this week I'm sharing a delicious duck dish that can be made ahead and crisped up in the oven at thelast minute. It's great with a tangy cranberry relish and a summery, tropical mango and avocado salad. Happy Christmas!
Asian Duck Confit
Ready in 4 hours + marinating
10 duck leg quarters
Zest of 2 oranges, cut with a vegetable peeler
2 cinnamon quills, broken up
6 whole star anise
4cm piece of ginger, sliced into 3-4 pieces and pounded
6 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly crushed
¼ cup flaky salt
1 tsp ground szechuan or black pepper
1.5 litres duck fat, or more to cover, melted
A day before cooking: trim excess fat from the inside flap of the duck leg quarters. Place trimmed legs in a bowl or clean plastic bag with all remaining ingredients except duck fat and combine evenly. Cover and refrigerate for up to 24 hours.
Next day: preheat oven to 120C fanbake. Rinse duck legs and aromatics to remove salt. Pat duck dry. Place duck pieces in a baking or roasting dish large enough to hold the duck in a single layer and deep enough to contain all the fat needed to cover the duck. Fold the flap edge under on each duck leg so they form a neat cylindrical shape, and arrange so they slightly overlap in the dish. Add the rinsed aromatics (or leave them out if you prefer a more neutral flavour). Pour in the melted duck fat, adding enough to fully cover the duck. Cut a piece of baking paper to sit inside the dish and place this on top of the duck.
Bake for 2½-3 hours until tender (the duck should not have any colour). Remove from oven, leave to cool and if not using within the next 4-6 hours, cover and chill until needed. When ready to serve, heat oven to 200C fanbake. Remove duck legs from the fat, scraping off excess. Place in a shallow roasting dish lined with baking paper and bake until crispy and golden (about 20 minutes).
Annabel says: My French friend and mentor Daniele Delpeuch introduced me to the pleasures of duck confit, which she makes in bulk for use throughout the winter. Once prepared, confit will keep in the fridge for weeks as long as it is completely covered with fat. For a more economical version, use chicken leg quarters instead of duck. Make the confit up to a week ahead. Then, when you are nearly ready to serve them, take them out of the fat and pop them in a hot oven to crisp. This recipe can be scaled up or down to suit, and the aromatics changed according to preference. Leftover duck fat is great for roasting potatoes.
Mango and Avocado Salad
Ready in 20 mins
3 firm mangoes
3 large avocados
200-250g baby spinach leaves
2 spring onions, thinly sliced
5 radishes, thinly sliced
½ cup torn mint leaves
2 Tbsp black sesame seeds, to garnish
3 Tbsp lemon juice
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
Make the dressing by shaking all ingredients together in a jar. Cut mangoes on either side of their pits, slicing off the cheeks. Score flesh in each cheek into small cubes and then turn out of their skins. Halve avocados, remove pits, peel and slice thinly. Pile spinach leaves, spring onions, radishes and mint leaves on to a platter with diced mango and avocado. Add dressing and toss gently to combine. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and serve.
Annabel says: This is a fabulous festive salad that works well with any kind of meat, ham, salmon or poultry. Buy the avocados a few days in advance while they are still firm and leave them to ripen on the bench. If they start to soften before you need them, store them in the fridge to halt the ripening process.
Ready in 30 mins
Makes 2½ cups
1 cup sugar
½ cup orange juice
2 red chillies, seeded and finely diced
1 Tbsp grated ginger
½ tsp salt
500g cranberries, fresh or frozen
Zest of 1 lime, finely grated
2 Tbsp lime juice
Place sugar in a pot with orange juice, chillies, ginger and salt. Bring to a simmer, stirring to dissolve sugar. Add cranberries and lime zest. Simmer until cranberries are tender and liquid has almost evaporated (about 15 minutes). Remove from heat and mix in lime juice. Adjust seasonings to taste. This will keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks.
Annabel says: The tangy flavour of cranberries is the perfect accompaniment to duck or turkey. I love the fact that they are now grown on the west coast, but if you can't find them fresh or frozen you can use dried cranberries. Just simmer 3 cups dried cranberries with 2 cups water for 30 minutes, drain well then proceed with the recipe as above, using only half the amount of sugar. For a simple present, make this relish in bulk, divide between jars and decorate with a ribbon and a pretty label.