There’s one thing worse than a non-meat eater at your door, says Shane Watson — one who offers to help. Hannah Betts begs to differ.
Some of my best friends and several of my close relations are vegetarians. There are a couple of pescatarians in there and one vegan among the WAGs. It’s not an issue most of the time thanks to those Higgidy pies and pasta. Christmas lunch would be the notable exception to that rule. Christmas lunch — when all the simmering tensions of the year come to a head and you’re cooking for 15 and knackered and ferrying food from the neighbour’s oven, next door, because yours isn’t big enough and someone forgot to pick up the cranberries (which was literally the only thing they had to do). Christmas lunch is not the moment when you feel most warmly disposed towards guests with special dietary requirements.
I know that not eating meat is a moral position with health add-ons. I get that farting cows are destroying the ozone layer and decimating the rainforest, but in my opinion there is a greater principle at stake on Christmas day and that is maintaining the sanity of the person in charge of lunch. If that person is a carnivore and custodian of the traditions of Christmas then here’s a radical suggestion: get on with it. Don’t eat the turkey and have more Turkish delight. Ladle up on bread sauce and potatoes. Fill your boots with posh crisps before you get to the table. Just don’t ask the cook to start fannying around with individual portions of whatever vegans eat at Christmas.
That, in my book, is no different to seeking out a bride on the morning of her wedding and expecting her to sew up your hem and fix your hair. It’s like arriving at someone’s house to find water cascading through their kitchen ceiling and shouting: “ME! ME! Why aren’t you attending to MY needs?” It may not seem unreasonable to expect to order off-menu on the grounds of principle, but if you’re the cook on Christmas day it feels like nothing short of sabotage. If I could get the mini-oven working it might be different, but no. Honestly, the practical inconvenience is not the problem. It’s about the simple fact that assertion of individual needs, on this day of all days, is not conducive to feelings of love and harmony.
I should stress that vegetarians are the least of the problem. The right of self-determination when it comes to eating and drinking has become the norm for everyone. People come to your house to be fed (not often, admittedly) and think nothing of insisting on making the salad dressing. Or they check the wine label — ooh, 13.5 per cent — and ask if they can have a dry Italian white nearer the 11 per cent mark.
It used to be that all you had to deal with were the gluten-intolerants, the carb-resisters, the dairy-avoiders, but that lot were a picnic compared with this. Now what you’re up against are activist cooks. They turn up ready to get stuck in whether you like it or not, nosing around in your cupboards, adjusting your gas rings. They’ll suggest a twist here, an interesting addition there — and you can’t say no, can you? Even if you want to shout, “Take your bloody walnuts and shove ’em! We always have our brussels sprouts plain and soggy and we eat them up!”
Which brings me to the real horror of the modern Christmas lunch. Not only is it catering à la carte — no trouble, Susie: one bread-free stuffing coming up! — but suddenly half the family have a militant right-to-cook mentality. There are breakaway factions: couples who want to take charge of the roast potatoes (Nigella and her goose fat has got a lot to answer for); nephews who have got it into their heads that parsnips are part of the deal (that’s her too); brothers-in-law who have designs on the sprouts involving six times the effort and cubes of pancetta that I would argue are surplus to requirements.
I can feel the panic rising already and that’s before we’ve even discussed who won’t be eating the turkey.
Vegetarian Christmases I have known and loathed
Christmas as a vegetarian: cue amusing references to “the awkward squad”, gags about nut cutlets and 4,004 inquiries as to what manner of fat is appropriate for roast potatoes. Yes, there are such things as vegetarian mince pies (the lardless variety my grandmother used to make me that everyone greatly preferred). No, my yuletide fare does not consist only of “fartballs”, aka sprouts (although I do bloody love them). And, please God, you do not have to concoct some all-singing, all-dancing meatless extravaganza should I happen to swing by.
To be sure, it is a constant mortification turning up to people’s houses at any time of year and demanding special measures — hence my continuing dinner-party offer to manifest with a cheese sandwich. But of course, it’s Xmukkahkwanzaa — a Pickwickianly bordering on Rabelaisianly indulgent period — and people want to “make the effort” (translation: attain martyrdom status). And there is a great kindness in this, of course. Besides, if the vegetarian volunteers to cook something themselves they will be “in the way”, that phrase second only to “happy Christmas” as a festive staple.
Man alive, have I been through some corkers. My other grandmother, not quite getting the veggie thing, was wont to serve all fleshless food with sausages aloft (the previously oinking rather than the Quorn variety). One year my mother slaved over not only turkey, but goose, duck and beef (my family being at once epic and mutually belligerent carnivores), plus some elaborate meat-free confection. Alas, come the day I was so hungover all I could do was lie in a litter by the table like some ailing medieval king, sipping my grandfather’s chemotherapy nutrient replacement drinks. Happy days.
So please, if you must cherish us, then keep things simple, such as when my friend Rosemary served sumptuous but straightforward truffle pasta or when Lux created a counterintuitively beguiling lentil tart. My comrade Bert pulled a revolutionary blinder when he asked what I’d actually like. My reply: the food porn that is macaroni cheese. I advocate a Heston, grill-type gruyère version; Bert favours a Trinidadian “macaroni pie”. Either way, both I and the meat eaters snaffled it up like nobody’s business, carb-on-carb being the only way forward.
Wolves turned sheep are, of course, always a danger. I once took Josceline Dimbleby’s glorious hot chestnut and spinach terrine with red chilli round to carouse with meaty politicos, only to have them admire it so greedily I was left with merely a slice (what was I saying about turkey?).
This yule, I may — depending on collective mental health issues — be venturing to my parental home for the first time in 15 years. In my twenties, my mother traditionally proffered a celebration roll, which on maternal investigation turns out to have been a recipe from the Christmas 1990 issue of Home & Freezer Digest, priced 55p (a festive one-off since she had to give up said publication after it went up from 35p).
This delight — featuring layers of curd cheese, spinach, mushrooms, pistachios, apricots, celery, onion and breadcrumbs seasoned with garlic and nutmeg on a rolled puff pastry base — has become a staple among all Betts allies. Flesh fiends also relish it and cold it slices up a treat when everyone else is in the leftover turkey with cheese and pickle phase.
This year, should I attend, I have requested a still more simple, time-honoured Betts pash: former Times cook Francis Bissell’s splendid glamorgan sausages, ripped out of the paper in days of yore. I have also ordered an Ocado delivery featuring all the “mad London food” that I consume. What could possibly go wrong, food-wise at least?
Fussy eaters: the one-minute guide
Gluten-free Your roast will probably require some adjustment. First there’s the bird itself, which can’t be pre-basted as this probably includes a solution containing glutens. Then there’s the stuffing — which might also be a stumbling block unless you replace ingredients such as bread with gluten-free substitutes — and the glue that binds the meal together: the gravy. Online you can find a Nigel Slater recipe that does doesn’t require a roux but uses a stock and Marsala. Finally, if you’re serving sausages with the dish, check that they are gluten-free.
Vegetarian There are two Christmas inevitabilities: a) a retro nut roast will be mocked until one meat-eater discovers “it’s much better than the stuffing”; b) vegetarians will feel compelled to ask: “Are you sure these weren’t cooked in animal fat?” (they probably were). To avoid the first problem serve vegetarians individual portions: Anya Kassoff’s mushroom and rutabaga (that’s swede to you and me) tartlets in The Vibrant Table can be prepared in advance. For the latter, check the Hemsley sisters’ The Art of Eating Well*, which includes an excellent recipe for roasted vegetables with white wine miso gravy.
Vegan For some, tofu or Quorn processed to imitate a turkey is anathema. Better to adjust Kassoff’s recipe (above), by ditching the feta and replacing ghee with olive oil in the pastry (or using butter-free ready-made pastry such as Jus-Rol).
Pescatarians They can always eat veggie food but the hipster fish-eater in your company would probably prefer something endorsed by a Scandinavian. So how about Copenhagen chef Steve Momsen’s recipe for Grilled salmon with Romesco sauce and fennel crudités from The Kinfolk Table? The sauce can be made in advance and will make a perfect dip alongside leftover crudités for meat-eaters when they set about the cold turkey.
Gwyneth Paltrow I can hear what you’re thinking, but no, not just a bowl of raw brussels. As her Goop.com subscribers know, for Gwynnie Christmas is The Thanksgiving: Part II. So, the whole fandango of roasted turkey, gravy, stuffing (bread), sprouts (albeit caramelised) and spuds. And by spuds, we’re talking roasted sweet potatoes with maple syrup, orange and spices (the website has all the recipes). And yes, of course, she’d love to pull a cracker with you and partake of your delicious mulled wine. It is made with agave syrup and not sugar, though, right?
*As a veggie bonus, the book’s colourful beetroot and goats’ cheese terrine recipe would be a great centrepiece for when the cold cuts come out.