I brought a dish of baked cauliflower to the table the other day – creamy-white clouds in a spiced, brick-red sauce. Humble, yet somehow splendid with its festive colours and deep notes of harissa paste, lemon zest and coriander. We ate our dinner – quick, vegan, relatively inexpensive – with a side dish of chewy brown basmati rice with black pepper and chopped parsley.
Harissa paste is pleasing enough to make. You toast cumin and coriander seeds, crush them with dried and fresh red chillies, copious cloves of garlic, then mash them into a deep red paste with lemon juice and olive oil. Tomatoes are a popular addition, too, as are smoked paprika and dried rose petals. But I tend to use harissa from a jar when I’m short of time. And that, with the cake to ice and mince pies to make, means now.
There are a few last-minute, handmade gifts to make, too. I melted dark – but far from bitter – chocolate in a bowl over a pot of simmering water, then stirred in fruit and nuts from the row of stoppered jars in the cupboard. Soft prunes roughly chopped, jewel-bright dried apricots, a handful of expensive green and mauve pistachios, golden sultanas and hazelnuts. The nuts were skinned and toasted first and, because I left them whole, gave the little clusters a rocky, rustic texture.
The point was the balance between the soft dried fruit and crisp, toasted nuts. Dried figs work if prunes feel a bit joyless and are so good with dark chocolate, but dried cranberries or cherries, fat raisins or candied peel are possibilities, too. Almonds, walnuts and macadamia nuts are fine substitutes if pistachios seem too extravagant.
Such treats are good for giving away as a Christmas gift. They would be welcome in a crackly cellophane bag with elegant crimson ribbon, but this time I tucked the clusters into shallow boxes lined with tissue paper that made them feel somehow more special. I had made generous golf-ball sized lumps, but they might be even more delightful set in smaller, teaspoon-sized clusters. Pile them in a shallow dish and pass them round after dinner.
Wishing you a very happy Christmas!
If you use a couple of small cauliflowers they will cook all the way through in good time. I find exceptionally large, thick-stalked cauliflowers trickier, the florets tending to overcook by the time the stalks are done. The sauce can be as mild or spicy as you wish. A tablespoon of harissa paste will introduce gentle warmth rather than spiky heat, though much will depend on the brand. Taste as you go. Should you get carried away, a spoonful of yoghurt, stirred in at the end, should settle things down. Coriander-phobes might like to try a few mint leaves with the lemon zest instead. Serves 4
cauliflower 2, small to medium ones onion 1, medium olive oil 3 tbsp garlic 3 cloves assorted tomatoes 800g harissa paste 1 tbsp lemon the zest of 1 coriander and parsley 25g
Preheat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Trim the cauliflowers to discard the thickest part of the stalk, taking care to leave the florets intact. Remove any tatty leaves. Put the cauliflowers in a roasting tin then pour in enough boiling water to come halfway up the cauliflowers. Cover tightly with foil and bake for 45 minutes. They are ready when soft enough to effortlessly take a metal skewer through the stalks of the florets.
Peel and thinly slice the onion. Warm the oil in a deep saucepan, then add the onions and cook for about 15 minutes until soft and turning golden. Peel and slice the garlic and add to the onions.
Roughly chop the tomatoes and add them to the onion, then continue cooking over a moderate heat for about 15 minutes, until soft and easily crushable. Season with salt and black pepper, then stir in the harissa paste and lemon zest. Remove the leaves from the herbs and chop finely, then stir into the sauce.
Remove the cauliflowers from the oven, drain thoroughly and serve with harissa and lemon sauce.
These little sweetmeats – for that is what they are – will keep for a few days in a biscuit tin or airtight container, but after a while the chocolate may discolour. If you are giving them as a gift, I think it best to make them only the day before. Makes 10-12
dark chocolate 100g soft dried prunes 60g dried apricots 80g shelled pistachios 50g golden sultanas or dried cherries 50g skinned hazelnuts 50g crystallised rose petals 6
Put a small pan of water on to boil. Rest a heatproof glass bowl over the top of the pan, so it sits just above the water level. Break the chocolate into small pieces and melt in the bowl over the hot water. Do not stir. As soon as the chocolate has melted, remove from the heat.
Roughly chop the prunes and apricots and put them in a mixing bowl and add the pistachios and sultanas or cherries.
In a shallow pan over a moderate heat, toast the hazelnuts until golden brown, then add to the fruit and nuts. Tip the fruit and nuts into the melted chocolate and stir gently to coat it all in chocolate.
Place heaped tablespoons of the mixture on to a baking sheet lined with baking parchment. You should have about 10-12. Crush the crystallised rose petals with a heavy weight and sprinkle them over the chocolate clusters, then leave in a cool place to set. Remove the clusters from the paper and serve.
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