That creative tension

I love everything about Christmas Day. I love opening the presents, I love reading any new books that have been unwrapped, I love trying to do the Christmas quizzes and crosswords, I love the drinking, I love the afternoon walk, I love the evening television. With a licence to enjoy myself, I find that the most banal activities become treats - even the tense business of cooking the lunch.

My brother-in-law and I share the cooking. With experience in a professional kitchen, he is far more skilled than I, and more fastidious, too: he will have ordered the turkey, and the sausages, for delivery from the West Country to my parents-in-law in Leeds, and he will have provided the wine from some of the better bottles in his impressive cellar. I am happy to be sous-chef. He sorts out the turkey and the gravy and, exploiting his advanced chopping skills, concocts the stuffing. My daughters, who do not like sprouts, nevertheless have to peel them.

The only recipe for which I am responsible, because it is my favourite thing, is bread sauce. I bring about 400ml - yes, this is a lot - of milk to a gentle simmer, with a bay leaf, a few peppercorns, a scraping or two of nutmeg, a clove and a chopped onion. I turn off the heat, cover the pan, and leave it for 30 minutes or longer. Meanwhile, I make the breadcrumbs. How many? I am never sure. I strain the milk into another pan, bring it to a simmer and throw in the breadcrumbs, erring on the side of too few, because the sauce thickens considerably. I cook it for a minute or two, and leave it again. Before I serve it, I warm it once more, beating in a couple of knobs of butter, and adding salt and a little more milk if necessary.

Once you learn that the turkey should rest a while before being carved, and does not have to be piping hot, you relieve yourself of quite a bit of pressure. But there is still an intricate schedule to be managed, to get gravy, sauce, stuffings, sausages and vegetables all in peak condition at the right moment. Somehow, on this day, it's good fun. However, cooking on the other days of Christmas is an awful chore. The meals seem to be merely a prelude to, or a let-down from, the main event. You do not want to work hard before you have to tackle Christmas lunch; and you do not want to have to work only with leftover ingredients, by definition inferior, on the following days. You come to detest the washing-up.

One way of livening up your kitchen duties is to experiment with new recipes - straightforward ones being most appealing - that have some tradition behind them. In various Catholic countries, particularly in Portugal, salt cod is associated with fasting suppers such as the one on Christmas Eve. And not all Christmas puddings need to be made weeks or months in advance; here is one from Armenia. Brandade de morue (from Mediterranean Cookbook by Arabella Boxer)

900g salt cod

900ml milk

1 clove garlic, crushed

150ml olive oil

150ml single cream

Black pepper

Soak the cod. Depending on the variety, you may need to do this for 12 to 48 hours, in several changes of water. Drain it, cut it into pieces, cover it with milk, bring to a simmer, and allow it to bubble very gently for five minutes. Turn off the heat, cover the pan, and leave it for a further five minutes. When cool enough to handle, flake it, removing the skin and bones. Whizz it thoroughly in a food processor. Tip it into a bowl.

Get the oil and cream warm, but not hot, in separate saucepans. Beat the garlic into the fish, and then the oil and cream, separately and gradually, until you have a fluffy mass. Season with pepper.

Warm the brandade in a pan over steaming water, and serve as a light supper, with toast, perhaps some olives, and a salad.

Anoush gorgodabour (from Vegetarian Dishes from the Middle East by Arto der Haroutunian)

75g pearl barley

1.8 litres water

110g raisins, soaked overnight

110g dried apricots, soaked overnight and quartered

175g sugar (or less - this pudding is, typically for the region, very sweet)

Cinnamon stick

1tbsp rosewater

(For garnish) blanched almonds and walnuts, ground cinnamon

Check the instructions on the barley packet. Haroutunian tells you to blanch it for ten minutes, then leave it for up to five hours before cooking it - why, I do not know. You may not need as much water as he recommends: start with less, and add as necessary.

Anyway, whatever the cooking time, you stir in the raisins, apricots, sugar and cinnamon stick 30 minutes before the end. Once cooked, discard the cinnamon stick and stir in the rosewater. Chill the pudding in a bowl or in individual dishes. Serve with the garnish.

Nicholas Clee, the NS food columnist, is the author of Don’t Sweat the Aubergine: What Works in the Kitchen and Why (Short Books). He is a former editor of The Bookseller, and writes about books for papers including the Times, Guardian, and Times Literary Supplement.

This article first appeared in the 22 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special