It’s party season, there’s no other time quite like it, and we all want a slice of the action – whether we’re the host or partygoer.
For Wendy Deans, Managing Director at Popcorn Catering, Christmas is less about ‘switch-off time’ and more about hosting at home.
Catering for the stars and running a business on the road is the day job, but over the festive season it’s about gathering the gang and pulling off another cracker of a Christmas party.
Wendy lives with her family of four fleeting grown-up boys, husband Dixie, and a whole host of dogs, kittens, chickens and horses. It’s a busy home to say the least, and one that never stops when it comes to entertaining – particularly as the dark nights draw in and the fire is lit for winter.
As a regular when it comes to Wendy’s social soirees, I’m catching up with the star cook ahead of the festive season at their beautiful country home in Hutton Rudby, North Yorkshire.
The annual Christmas party here has, over the years, become quite the celebration – often the beginning of the festivities and that first mince pie-munching, mulled wine-sipping, ‘out of office’ moment.
It’s a glorious gathering of young, old – and everything in between. A place to sip, celebrate and be merry.
Wendy has cooked her way around the globe and knows a thing or two when it comes to quality produce – but Christmas at home is all about proper Yorkshire goodies – keeping it as lovely and as local as possible.
A fabulous feast table decorated with festive accessories and foliage from the garden sits centre stage in the reception room as the fizz flows and the fire crackles in the corner.
It’s a feast table worthy of a Hollywood movie. Local meats come from Five Houses Farm Shop down the road, cheese comes from Roots Farm Shop in East Rounton and famous pork pies come from Petch Butchers in Great Ayton. Surrounding them, you’ll find bread, antipasti, pickles, pastries – and everything that screams Christmas comfort food.
Eucalyptus and holly from the garden decorates the table, while homemade wreaths and locally-felled Christmas trees bring the festive furnishings to life.
It’s dreamy and totally delicious.
But just how do you juggle family life, running a home and steering the ship of a very busy business, with throwing the finest festive parties?
Wendy guides us on our way…
WENDY’S FESTIVE PARTY TIPS >>
One of the easiest ways to feed hungry partygoers is to serve bowl-food. You are then not limited to the number of chairs you can fit around your table.
It’s Christmas, you don’t want to upset anyone! Invite them all and follow these tips for easy party food…
Choose something your guests can eat – or pick at – with just a fork.
Shop bought food is fine too – pouches of rice and grains make life so very easy.
Choose something you are confident at making – ideally something that can be made the day before, so you are able to enjoy your stress-free party preparations.
Two or three different options are perfect as you can vary them to suit any guest’s special diets without them feeling that they are being difficult.
VEGAN & VEGGIE OPTIONS >>
– Veggie haggis hash – see recipe…
– Vegan buddha bowl – can be made as a cold salad, adding hot falafel or pitta.
– Grain bowls – with various toppings such as avocado, halloumi, brazil nut and watercress rissoles.
– Roast cauliflower and red pepper hummus– served with herb dressing and pomegranate seeds.
– Veggie chilli – an easy pleaser. There are tons of lovely recipes out there. Jamie Oliver does a great one using lentils.
FISH OPTIONS >>
– Traditional fish pie – make sure it’s quite firm with plenty of fish and less potato. I’d recommend making your own mash, as shop-bought can be quite sloppy after cooking. Stand the pie for 10-minutes before serving. It makes it much easier to portion neatly.
– Fish finger sandwich – using lovely fresh rolls and homemade tartare sauce. I don’t know many people – young and old – who don’t get over-excited when these come out. – Teriyaki salmon – serve with noodles for a light option. Small skewers of salmon help with the portion control.
WHITE MEAT >>
– Chicken and chorizo butterbean cassoulet– a super dish for the slow cooker, and oh-so tasty!
– Stir fry chicken with noodles – served with black sesame seed garnish.
– Pulled pork – slow roast pork shoulder (leave it on a low oven all afternoon), served on a brioche bun with apple or BBQ sauce.
– Kitson’s Butchers pork pies – pick these up from Five Houses Farm Shop & Kitchen in Crathorne. Serve with gourmet peas (frozen peas cooked gently in stock, with a generous knob of butter and mint sauce).
RED MEAT >>
Everyone loves the old favourites when it comes to red meat. The slow cooker will be your best friend here.
– Cottage pie – a safe option as long as it’s not too sloppy. Again, leave to stand before serving, and make your own mash if you can. Carrots or no carrots, you can decide.
– Posh shepherd’s pie – use lamb shoulder cooked for six hours the day before. Shred the meat with lamb gravy to make the base, then top with mash and cook for at least another hour.
– Haggis hash – see recipe…
– Beef chilli – try using stewing steak instead of mince and slow cook for hours so it’s falling apart. Anything you can leave to slow cook until party time is a winner, it will save you space in the fridge! Garnish with sour cream, guac and tortilla chips.
– Larger quantities in larger containers take longer to cook than you may be used to when cooking at home.
– Keep utensils separate for meat and veggie food to avoid cross-contamination.
– Do as much prep as you can the day before, ideally pre-make all hot food.
– Make sure you have enough space in your fridge to store safely.
– Have garnish handy. Chopped herbs, strawberries, grapes, pears, apples, basil leaves, rosemary, sage, parsley. All cover a multitude of sins!
– Ready-made food is perfectly acceptable to serve. Rice pouches make life so easy and have great flavours too. Life is too short sometimes!
– Veggie food is often eaten by most people, don’t just do enough for the three people you know about.
– Lay food out in similar containers on your central island and people can help themselves.
– Cook things you like yourself and you are used to making. It’s not a competition, people are coming to see you and have a good time, not to judge the food.
– Keep an emergency cheese selection in the fridge, quick and easy snacks for unexpected guests. Also impossible to mess up however many glasses of wine you’ve had!
– Strong paper or bamboo plates/bowls are great for bigger numbers.
– Most important of all is to ENJOY your party. Don’t be a slave all evening… you’re here for the festivities too!
(Serves 4 as a casual supper, or more for a starter)
– Ideal served as party bowl food as a smaller serving – Use veggie haggis and veggie stock cube as a vegan alternative (without the cheese), it will not keep its shape so well, but still super delicious
– Great for New Year celebrations
1 x pack McSween Haggis (400g size packet) or veggie haggis in 1 inch cubes
300g cubed and peeled waxy potatoes
300g cubed swede
1 x large white onion, sliced 2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper
1/2 pot beef stock
150g cheddar cheese Worcestershire sauce
Fresh cranberry sauce to garnish
Preheat the oven to 200°C.
Parboil the potatoes and swede until almost cooked but firm.
Meanwhile sauté the onions in a large pan with the oil. Add the potatoes and swede and cook on a low heat with the lid on for around 5 minutes.
Transfer to a low casserole dish or oven-proof china dish and layer with cubed haggis (not too deep).
Add the stock, cover with foil and return to oven and cook for around 20 minutes, or until the potatoes are cooked through.
Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Sprinkle with cheese and finish either in the oven or under a hot grill until cheese is melted and golden.
Serve garnished with a spoonful of homemade cranberry sauce, a splash of Worcestershire sauce and some chopped parsley.
Brazil nut & watercress rissoles
(serves 4 for a starter or mini burgers, or 2 for a generous main course)
– These can be pre-made and reheated in the oven or microwave as and when needed, or eaten cold with cheese and relish as a snack.
– To make vegan-friendly, replace the egg with a nut butter of choice, but take care during cooking as they are fragile and can fall apart.
100g Brazil nuts, roughly chopped 1 x egg
1 x large onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic
1 x packet or large bunch of fresh watercress (save some for garnish)
50-100g natural fresh breadcrumbs
Sea salt and ground black pepper
Vegetable stock cube or melt pot
Sauté the garlic and onions in the olive oil, taking care not to colour the garlic.
Season with sea salt and black pepper.
Add the stock cube with a small amount of water and stir through.
Take off the heat, add the chopped watercress and stir until it is wilted.
Mix should be quite dry, so put back on the heat to evaporate any juices.
Transfer into a plastic bowl and allow to cool a little.
Add the beaten egg, Brazil nuts and 50g breadcrumbs to make the mix dry enough to form into balls.
Divide into suitable shapes – 8 balls to make rissoles if you have access to a deep fryer, 4 larger shapes to pan fry to make a burger.
Handle with care at this stage and during the cooking.
Deep fry or pan fry until crisp and golden, then transfer to oven and cook through to the centre for 5-10 minutes.
Serve with a spicy tomato sauce or homemade relish of your choice. Garnish with spare watercress.