Most traditional Christmas food isn't appropriate for the Middle East climate. Lighter menus are more appropriate.
While most of us have a soft spot for traditional Christmas food, much of it is as appropriate for hot weather as a fur-lined parka is for the midday desert. Even in climates where the December air is crisp and the skies grey, the annual Christmas blowout can leave you feeling like you've been pinned to the sofa by a tonne of meat and suet. The recent deluge of rain admittedly might have left Abu Dhabi temporarily greyer and more wintry than usual, but the warm air and blue skies we're still likely to enjoy on the 25th (fingers crossed) can make the standard options of turkey, trimmings and hot pudding seem like strange, heavy visitors from another world.
So how can you make the Christmas meal delicious and indulgent without automatically aping the traditions of the frozen north? Copying the Australians isn't a bad place to start. For a long time, they steadfastly ignored the fact that Christmas fell early in their summer, disregarding the sweltering heat and sticking to a celebration menu very similar to that in Britain. In recent decades, however, lighter, more summery options such as picnics and barbecues have increasingly taken their place.
Cold meat and charcoal-grilled fish have replaced roast fowl and potatoes, while ice cream and fruit pavlovas have supplanted hot puddings. While adapting Christmas food to a hot climate is a recent phenomenon down under, they've been doing it for centuries in Latin America. Countries like Mexico have a host of Christmas dishes whose tanginess and lack of stodge make them ideal for warmer weather. Eating dishes without huge chunks of meat at Christmas might feel like high treason to Anglo-Saxons, but as these simple recipes prove, a lighter approach doesn't mean missing out on self-indulgence.
This simple, aromatic Australian-Thai fusion dish couldn't be simpler but still looks gorgeous and festive when freshly unwrapped after the barbecue. Ingredients 4 small barramundi, or two large grey mullet, gutted and scaled
2 tablespoons coriander leaves, plus an extra handful to garnish 1 tablespoon chopped ginger 1 red chilli 2 sticks lemon grass 4 spring onions 2 cloves garlic 2 tablespoons sesame oil 2 tablespoons soy sauce 1 lime, cut into wedges Method Whizz all the flavourings except the lemon grass to a paste in a blender. Make three lengthways cuts halfway into the fish, then spread the insides with the spice mixture. Split the lemon grass sticks in two and place one half in each fish.
Wrap in foil leave for 20 minutes, then place on a grill or barbecue and cook for ten minutes, turning once (grey mullet will need 15 minutes). Remove from foil, take out the lemon grass, garnish with more coriander and serve with lime wedges.
Apart from the long soaking, this intense, delicious Christmas dish from the Mexican state of Veracruz is very simple and hard to mess up. Using salted fish is gives the dish's flavour a welcome extra boost (and if you soak it properly, it isn't even very salty) - but if you are wary of it, this recipe also works well with fillets of any reasonably thick fresh white fish, put into the oven without any pre-cooking. Ingredients 1kg best quality salt cod (or 800g white fish fillets) 2 tablespoons pitted green olives ½ tablespoon capers small pinch of dried thyme 2 bay leaves 300g baby potatoes 4 cloves garlic, finely minced 2 small onions, peeled and chopped 8 fresh tomatoes, scalded peeled and chopped, or two tins of chopped tomatoes 2 red peppers 3 tablespoons olive oil Method
To de-salt and soften the cod, soak it in cold water four 24 hours. It's very important that you change the water 3 or 4 times during this period, otherwise not enough salt will be drawn out. When it's ready, it should be soft and pliable enough to bend without tearing the flesh - taste a shred of the fish to make sure it's not still too salty (raw salt cod is a popular salad ingredient in Spain, so it should taste pretty good).
Once it's ready, cut into large squares and place in a pan of cold water. Bring the pan very slowly to the boil, removing from the heat once it reaches full bubble. Drain the fish strip off the skin with a knife, and remove the fish from the bones in large flakes. Boil the potatoes in their skins for 15 minutes, drain and cool. Once they are cool enough to handle, peel off the skins and cut them into rounds as thick as your middle finger.
Heat the oil in a saucepan, add the onions, garlic and thyme and cook until they start to turn slightly translucent. Add the tomatoes and bay leaves and bring to a low boil, adding a little water if they look like they might stick (tinned tomatoes will not need this). Meanwhile, cut the peppers into quarters lengthways and place under a hot grill. Cook until the skins blacken, then place the pepper slices in a bowl covered with a cloth until cool enough to handle (the cloth helps them steam their own skins off).
Strip off the loosened skins and cut the pepper into strips. Place the cod and potatoes in a baking dish, cover with the peppers and olives and pour over the tomato sauce. Place in an oven pre-heated to 150 degrees and bake for 30 minutes. Garnish with parsley and serve straight from the dish.
Tropical weather never seems to put people in the Caribbean off hearty food. This version of a popular Christmas dish from the Dominican Republic is slightly adapted - the ginger and smoked paprika aren't commonly used, but they add an extra layer of interest. Properly, it should include Pigeon Peas, but black-eyed peas are easier to get hold of and also work very well. Filling but full of flavour, the dish is sometimes eaten on its own, but is also a great accompaniment to charcoal-grilled fish or seafood. Ingredients 400g rice 400g cooked pigeon or black-eyed peas 800 ml thin coconut milk, or 400 ml thick coconut milk diluted with an equal amount of water
1.75 litres water 3 medium red onions 2 green peppers 4 cloves garlic 2 teaspoons sweet smoked paprika ½ teaspoon grated ginger root 1 tablespoon capers 4 heaped tablespoons chopped coriander leaf 2 heaped tablespoon chopped flat leaved parsley 3 tomatoes, scalded, peeled and chopped 1 teaspoon oregano 1 teaspoon dried thyme 3 tablespoons olive oil Method Chop the onions, garlic, green pepper and herbs, and heat the oil in a large, heavy bottomed pot. Throw in the vegetables, spices, capers, oregano and thyme and then cook slowly over a low heat until the onion is translucent and the green pepper has wilted fully - don't rush this step, as you want the onion to taste slightly sweet, not frazzled by heat. Add the tomatoes and cook until they start to break up. Stir in the peas then add the coconut milk and stock.
Rinse the rice thoroughly in a sieve under the tap, shake dry and stir into the pot. Gently bring to the boil and cook until the liquid on top of the rice has all but disappeared, leaving only occasional soupy puddles. Turn down your hob to its lowest possible heat, cover and leave to cook very gently for 15 more minutes. When it is cooked, stir in the chopped coriander and parsley and serve in bowls. Serve with a few lime wedges to squeeze over, on its own or with grilled chicken or seafood.
Rich but still refreshing pavlova has long been a popular Christmas dish down under. While passion fruit and mango are popular seasonal choices for Australian Christmas pavlovas, pomegranates are both appropriately seasonal for the Middle Eastern winter and an excellently sharp foil to the meringue and cream. If you like to keep things simple, this dish tastes great just with the meringue, whipped cream and pomegranates alone, but the jelly makes it a little bit sweeter and more festive.
For the pavlova 6 large egg whites 210g caster sugar (use sugar that has been stored with a vanilla pod if you have any) Half a teaspoon cornflour 1 teaspoon vinegar 200 ml double cream 2 pomegranates 1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses (optional) For the jelly Either juice of 10 pomegranates, plus 30g caster sugar, or 200 ml sweetened pomegranate juice 2 leaves of gelatin
Method First make your jelly. Soak the gelatin in water until it is soft and pliable, then stir into the pomegranate juice. Warm gently over the stove, add the caster sugar and stir until dissolved. Leave to cool, then refrigerate until set. Now for the meringue. Heat the oven to 120 degrees, then whisk the egg whites until they form soft peaks in an immaculately clean bowl. Beat in the sugar a tablespoon at a time until the mixture is firm. Sprinkle over the cornflour and vinegar and fold in gently.
If you are using it, swirl the pomegranate molasses gently into the egg whites to create a red and white ripple effect. Spoon the mixture on to a baking tray lined with greaseproof paper to form a large, smooth dome. Bake at the bottom of the oven for 2 hours, until the outside is firm and crisp but the interior is slightly soft. While the meringue is cooling, break open the pomegranates and collect the seeds. Whip the cream until stiff. Now take the cool meringue and scoop out a thin layer from the centre to make room for the filling, leaving a ring all round. Break the jelly with a spoon and put in the cavity. Cover this completely with whipped cream and sprinkle the top with pomegranate seeds.