Christmas secrets of the master chefs


Martin Wishart, Mary Contini and Nick Nairn

The annual festive feeding frenzy doesn't have to be a stressful event. Three of Scotland's best chefs took Kirstin Innes through their traditions and top tips for a panic-free Christmas dinner


Our family traditions are tied up with the religious traditions that my grandparents brought across with them from Italy, and are to do with fasting and abstinence in the days leading up to a feast. So on Christmas Eve, we always have the Baccalà con Prugne (see recipe, left), which is salt cod with dried prunes; it’s traditional for the men to abstain from meat until the day of the feast itself, and my family comes from the mountains of Italy, so they would need to use preserved foods. That’s the recipe that my mother-in-law makes for her son, because after all these years of marriage I’m still not fit to make it! After the Christmas Eve meal we all go to Midnight Mass, then back to a member of the family’s house for champagne, smoked salmon and mince pies.

On Christmas Day itself we always start with an antipasto: grilled vegetables, mozzarella, prosciutto, melon – anything that’s nice. Of course, having the shop, we’ve got a good source of products. Then there’s the hand-made pasta dish, which is always from the same recipe. My mother in law makes that by tradition, too. We serve the pasta in a sweet, rich tomato sugo, with tiny pork meatballs and some pork chop. Because everyone would have traditionally given up meat in the week leading up to Christmas, we all have to cheer when it’s brought out. There are around 25-30 people round the table at this point – it’s a big table – so it really feels like something out of The Godfather, the big Italian family applauding the pasta dish. There’s always a real celebration about the food that’s coming to the table.

Because we’re Scottish Italian, we normally have roast beef and Yorkshire pudding after the pasta, which is ridiculous, and you can print that I said that. I think we’re scared of missing out on anything. After that, we have Christmas pudding, and then creustella (pictured) – very fine pasta dough, which is rolled out very fine, flavoured with sweet liquors, shaped into bows and deep-fried. That’s a really ancient recipe – we’ve been able to prove that it goes back to Roman times, actually – and after you’ve deep fried them the night before they last for a couple of days, so everyone just nibbles away at them over the holiday.

Top tips ‘Get the men to wash up! And get your mother-in-law to do as much as possible! No, really, just take your time, and try and prepare as much as possible in the morning or on the day before.’

Mary Contini ’s Baccalà con Prugne (Salt Cod with Prunes)
- traditional Contini family Christmas Eve recipe

300 g baccalà (salt cod)
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 piece peperoncino (dried chilli)
4 to 5 tinned plum tomatoes
8 pitted prunes (semi-dried ones are juicier
and don’t have to be soaked)
Some chopped flat-leaf parsley

Soak the baccalà over two days in several changes of cold water. Heat the extra virgin olive oil in a saucepan and gently sauté the onion and chilli until the onion is soft
and transparent. Add the tomatoes, squash them down, and gently cook them for about 20 minutes.

Rinse the cod and check it with your fingers, removing any of the bones that you can feel. Leave the skin intact, as this will stop the cod disintegrating as it cooks, but
cut the fish into five or six pieces. Lay them on top of the tomato sauce, add the prunes and, with the lid on the saucepan, steam the fish through. It takes
barely 15 minutes.

Taste at the end of cooking. It shouldn’t need any salt, but add some
chopped flat-leaf parsley.

Mary Contini’s second family cookbook, Dear Olivia, published by Canongate, is out now in paperback, priced £8.99.


‘Sometimes I’ve had to cook for up to 25–30 people, because I’ve invited staff and friends to the restaurant as well as the family, but this year it’s a smaller number: maybe just about 12 of us.

‘We always have soup – I’m doing Jerusalam artichoke this year – and we usually have a smoked salmon starter, too, but this year I’ve decided to do something different. We’re going to have scallops, in the shell, encased in puff pastry. You can prepare that the day before, but I’m going to put the pastry lid on in the morning, about three hours before you cook them. If I’m at my brother’s or my mum’s house, generally the menu’s a little less intricate: a soup, a starter, a main course and a dessert. I usually like to do a little bit more.

‘This year, we’re going to have two roasts. The first is duck encased in gingerbread, which is a French recipe. The duck really soaks up all the spices and has this great, richly layered taste. My family’s actually from Shetland, and every year we do a leg of Shetland lamb as well. We always get it from Ronnie Eunson, who is a Shetland farmer, but you can buy his lamb in Crombies Butcher on Broughton Street. The lamb’s very simply done, just roasted, and I do some nice mashed potatoes and roast potatoes, creamed Brussels sprouts as an alternative to plain sprouts, roasted parsnips, carrots boiled and mashed with a little bit of orange juice. I always serve a simple Cos lettuce salad too, after the main course. It helps with the digestion.

‘The other thing we always have, traditionally, is my grandmother’s Christmas pudding. It’s a light pudding – more of a steamed sponge than a traditional, really rich Christmas pudding. It’s a big tradition that one member of the family will always bring it to the house they’ve been invited to. Sometimes two people turn up with it. My brother is always the judge of the pudding, deciding who’s done it best each year.’

Top tips ‘You should really look at all the equipment you’re going to use a couple of weeks in advance. Christmas Day is the one time of year that some people cook such a big meal, and they might not think about the utensils until the time comes to start cooking. So if you’ve got a non-stick pan that’s maybe not so non-stick these days, or it might be time to invest in a sharper knife, or maybe a new gadget you haven’t thought about – it’s always worth a wander round the kitchen department of a big store to see what they’ve got.’

Martin Wishart’s Roast Gressingham duck coated in French gingerbread
Serves 6-8

French gingerbread
3 eggs 125ml milk
50g sugar
250g honey
18g five spice
240g plain flour
Zest of orange and lemon 1
5g baking powder
1 vanilla pod

1. Place the eggs and sugar in a electric mixer and whisk until eggs have doubled the volume.
2. Sieve all the dry ingredients together.
3. Put the honey into a pot and melt until warm. Do not boil. Take off stove and pass through a sieve. Discard the vanilla pod.
4. Pour the liquid onto the eggs and sugar, whisk for a further 30 seconds.
5. Fold in the dry ingredients and pour into bread tin.
6. Bake at 1600C for around 40 to 45 minutes. To check if it is cooked simply place a small sharp knife into the middle of the cake, leave for five seconds and take it out; it should be clean and warm. If not continue cooking for a further 5 to 10 minutes.
7. Remove from the tin, place onto a wire rack and allow to cool.

The duck
2 Gressingham ducks 1.5-1.7 kg each
3 tablespoons of olive oil
30g Chinese five spice
200g of mixed salad leaves
20g of sugar
1 lemon
300g of peeled white raddish
Salt and pepper

Note Prepare the duck 24 hours before cooking so the spices will flavour the duck
1. Remove the legs and wings and reserve aside for another recipe (ie duck confit) with a sharp knife score diagonally across the duck skin to expose the meat dust with the five spice and sugar rubbing into the skin. Cover with cling film and refrigerate for 24 hours.
2. The next day, pre-heat the oven to 2000C, season the duck with salt and pepper, colour each side until golden brown in a pan on top of the stove, then transfer into the oven and cook for 25 to 30 minutes.
3. Slice the gingerbread and transfer to a food processor to make breadcrumbs.
4. When the ducks are ready remove from the oven and allow to stand for ten minutes. Warm the honey and pour onto the duck breast, sprinkle with the gingerbread and press down to create a thick crust.
5. Place ducks back in the oven for another ten minutes so the gingerbread crust can crisp. 6. To serve: thinly slice the white radish and mix with the lemon juice, sugar and olive oil. Season with a little salt and allow to marinate for ten minutes.
7. Add the mixed salad leaves and mix together.
8. Serve with the whole duck and pommes Pont Neuf (French Fries) at the table before slicing.

Cook School by Martin Wishart, which opens in Leith, in December 2007, offers a range of day-long classes in various specialist cuisines. See for further info.


‘I don’t really do roast turkey on Christmas day – it’s just not my thing. We tend to go for game birds – partridge, pheasant, grouse, even mallard once. However, it’s a long running family tradition that we always have smoked salmon, which comes from our own salmon smoker at the Cook School. We might have it for a starter, or we might have it for breakfast with scrambled eggs and a glass of Buck’s Fizz.

You’ve got to have roast potatoes, and they’ve got to be golden and crispy. I use Golden Wonder potatoes, and I cook them in duck fat. We always have kale to accompany the roast, because I love it, and roast parsnips: any kind of roasted root vegetable will work very well with a game bird. And then there’s the gravy. I make gravy miles in advance and freeze it. Earlier in the year, I’ll have roasted off game bones and reduce them down with chicken stock; of course, there’s lots more that goes in there: a good bottle of port, cabernet sauvignon vinegar. Sometimes I make a bread sauce too. I like to have the two of them on the table together, because I like the contrast between the gravy, which is properly rich and meaty, and the creamy bread sauce.

‘Our third tradition is that we usually have a traditional Christmas pudding: I’d love to say that I made it back in August and let it sit, but I think usually we just buy it from Marks and Spencer. However, last year, I made Shirley Spears’ orange marmalade pudding. So easy to do, and the quality of the marmalade really affects the final product. We melted the marmalade and painted it over the outside. The kids loved it.

‘Since we’ve had the kids, we prefer to keep things smaller at Christmas, make it just the family. This year, we’re doing a bit of an experiment: we’ve bought a holiday cottage in Fife and we’re going through there for Christmas Day, just the four of us, and we’ll let them stay up late. A proper, traditional Christmas, this year – you know, log fires, snoring in front of the telly.’

Top tips ‘Preparation, preparation, preparation! Put things in your freezer in advance – you can make soups and casseroles in advance and keep them in there, which is always great if anyone unexpected turns up looking for their dinner on Boxing Day. If you’re going to roast a turkey, do make sure it fits the oven! Work out in advance that you’ve got a big enough roasting tin, and which shelf your potatoes are going onto.’

Nick Nairn makes Shirley Spears ’ Marmalade Pudding

Serves 6

150g fine brown breadcrumbs
120g soft light brown sugar
25g self raising wholemeal flour
120g fresh butter, plus extra for greasing the bowl
175g well-flavoured coarse cut marmalade
3 large eggs
1 rounded tsp bicarbonate of soda, plus 1 tsp water to mix

Butter a 3 pint pudding basin well.

Place the breadcrumbs, flour and sugar in a large mixing bowl.

Melt the butter together with the marmalade in a saucepan over a gentle heat. Pour the melted ingredients over the dry ingredients and mix together thoroughly.

Whisk the eggs until frothy and beat gently into the mixture until well blended. Last of all, dissolve the bicarbonate of soda in 1 tablespoon of cold water. Stir this into the pudding mixture, which will increase in volume as it absorbs the bicarbonate of soda.

Cover it with a close fitting lid. Place the pudding basin in a saucepan of boiling water. The water should reach halfway up the side of the basin. Simmer the pudding for 2 hours. The water will need topping up throughout the cooking period.

Turn out into a serving dish, slice and serve hot.

Nick Nairn presents Landward, 7pm Fridays, BBC2. For information about the Nick Nairn Cook School see

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