I really enjoy writing this round-up post – traditionally my last one before Christmas. I probably say more or less the same thing every year (don’t panic! It’s just a big roast dinner), but as usual, remember that it’s your Christmas too. Grab a few willing helpers to make some Christmas cookies, or whip up some of my perfect frozen whipped cream hot chocolate and have a little prep-party on Christmas Eve (it’s amazing how much you can get done the night before). Need a little inspiration? Read on for my top tips and recipes for Christmas dinner and beyond: fresh ideas, old favourites and more!
I’ve been writing about cooking Christmas dinner on this blog for ten years, can you believe that? When you’re thinking about cooking Christmas dinner (or indeed lunch) for everyone, it can seem a bit daunting, but I always say that it’s basically just a big roast dinner, and if you think about it like that, and make sure you’re really well prepared, it’s a piece of cake. The lovely team at Crisp ‘n Dry (remember I worked with them when they sponsored RNLI Fish Suppers?) have asked me to share my top tips and cook a little practice Christmas dinner – a ‘Crisp ‘n Dry run’ if you will – geddit?!), to show you that with a little love (and Crisp ‘n Dry), your ordinary Christmas dinner can really become the ultimate festive feast. Here are my top five tips for planning the perfect Christmas dinner.
Finally there’s a chill in the air and even a touch of frost on the ground! Autumn weekends for me mean roast dinners and especially roast lamb. Of course, mint goes perfectly with lamb, as does anything a little sweet, and this slow roasted lamb shoulder with a sticky mint glaze – a little twist on my slow roasted lamb in sloe gin – uses mint jelly to create a delicious, sticky coating to make sweet, meltingly soft, falling-apart, no carving required, slow roasted lamb. Look out for jars labelled apple and mint jelly or just mint jelly (not mint sauce) in the supermarket. You can make your own (my Mum would be the expert here – I’ll have to ask her) but it involves straining, and frankly I feel life’s a bit short to tackle anything that involves muslin on a weekend. For the potatoes, use a whole bulb of garlic and just press on it gently with the heel of your hand to separate the cloves. Discard the very papery bits but don’t bother peeling them. I like to use large baking potatoes for my roasties. Allow one per person plus a couple of extra if you’re big eaters like my fellas.
I love a roast chicken for Sunday lunch. The whole (rare) ceremony of gathering the whole family (and possibly a stray Grandma) around the table for a feast, plus the delicious possibilities of what to do with the leftovers, is my idea of heaven. Roast chicken with lemon and pepper is so easy – a brilliant not-much-faff showstopper if you have people for dinner, and very easy to stretch out if unexpected guests arrive. Add some stuffing (try my pork and apple), roast potatoes and a ton of veg, and you can easily feed 6-8 with a free range 2kg bird (about a tenner), or four with leftovers for another meal, plus stock or soup.
Soooo here comes the big day! There’s just the four of us this year, but whether you’re catering for 15 or it’s just you and your other half, the golden rule is the same as ever: Christmas day is a happy, family day. Please don’t get stressed and fall apart. Just think of it as a big roast dinner – a turkey is very forgiving and will happily rest for a good hour (and probably more), covered in foil and a tea towel or two, so there’s no need to rush anything. My one recommendation is to take ten minutes to write a rough timetable somewhere, so that when you’re a bit sozzled, you can easily work out your timings. Remember if you’re steaming a Christmas pudding as well you’ll need to time that.
And look, I love Nigella, but will I be brining my turkey in about fifteen quid’s worth of citrus fruits, various herbs, spices and maple syrupy water? Nope. It’s waaaay too much effort, and cost. I’ll be preparing as much as I can in advance so that I can have a couple of glasses of champers and enjoy a gentle potter in the kitchen on the big day.
As for prep, here’s my top tips:
Prepare in advance
Get as much as possible done 1 or 2 days in advance. Peel the potatoes, cut them into even sizes and boil for as long as you dare (the softer they are the fluffier the centre will be when you roast them). Then just drain, leave to sit until cool and then open freeze on a tray before popping in a sealable freezer bag and freezing (if you freeze them straight into the bag they all fuse together in one big lump). On the day they can go straight into the hot oil/goose fat from frozen.
With the veg, just peel and prepare all your carrots/sprouts/whatever and bung them in plastic bags. Don’t freeze them as this will make them a bit soggy, but store them sealed in the fridge until you’re ready, then just pop straight into the boiling water (or steam) on the day.
For the turkey
Again, do this the day before. Don’t wally about washing the bloody thing in the sink – the hot oven will kill any germs and you’ll just succeed in covering yourself and your sink in all manner of bacteria. Just unwrap it, take the giblets out (use to make stock), pluck out any stray feathers and get on with it.
I use one of those massive disposable foil turkey tray things – I know it’s not the most environmentally friendly choice but hey, it’s Christmas.
Add a few extras:
It’s nice to use a few flavours to enhance the turkey so cut up a couple of lemons or oranges, squeeze them over the bird and then stick them into the body cavity along with a halved onion and a nice bunch of bay, thyme or rosemary or whatever you have and some salt and pepper, then tie the legs together.
For extra moistness and flavour, you can take about half a pack of butter, and mush it up with some of the stuff you’ve used in the cavity – maybe some lemon zest, pepper and a little chopped rosemary or parsley? Then separate the skin from the breast with your fingertips (you don’t have to be too careful, turkey skin is like leather), then squish the butter all over the breast under the skin. Now smooth the skin back down, drizzle with a little oil and some salt and pepper.
To stuff or not to stuff?:
I don’t stuff the turkey, partly because eating something out of a turkey’s innards puts me off a bit and partly because I think it’s better for the hot air to circulate inside it. I make the stuffing separately and cook it in a terrine in the oven once the turkey’s resting. If you want to, though, by all means stuff the neck end just before cooking.
Weighing and preparing:
Weigh your turkey and work out the cooking time. Write it on your timetable then just cover with foil (don’t bother buying that ridiculously expensive turkey foil – just overlap the normal stuff), then leave it somewhere cool until you need it. Mine’s going in a plastic box in the garage as it’s nice and cold in there, but if we have a sudden warm snap (heh, yeah right), I’ll pack some ice round it (it needs to be less than 4 degrees).
On the day:
I take my turkey out and let it come to room temp on Christmas morning. No point in putting a very cold turkey into a hot oven – it’ll take ten minutes to even start cooking. Just slosh a bit of water in the bottom of the roasting pan, then stick the turkey on at 190/gas 5 (180 for fan ovens), set your timer and go and have a glass of champers. If you want to, you can baste it every so often, but if you forget, don’t worry at all.
Turkey under 4kg: 20 minutes per kilo, plus a further 70 minutes
Turkey over 4kg: 20 minutes per kilo, plus a further 90 minutes
Remove the foil for the last 40 or so minutes to brown the top
Once your turkey is done (you can wobble a leg easily, and a quick stab with a knife into the thickest part will allow you to collect nice clear juices on a spoon), drain the juices into a pan for the gravy, then cover with foil and forget it while you cook everything else.
And because I ordered a turkey crown from James Whelan Butchers, I asked Pat Whelan to tell us how he cooks his gorgeous free-range turkey crowns:
Cream some butter in a bowl until very soft, then add the crushed garlic, orange rind, parsley and thyme. Beat well, until thoroughly blended. Gently loosen the neck flap away from the breast and pack the flavoured butter right under the skin — this is best done wearing disposable gloves. Rub well into the flesh of the turkey, then re-cover the skin and secure with a small skewer or sew with fine twine. Finally, cover the top of the crown with the rashers.
Place the turkey crown in the oven and calculate your time — 20 minutes per 450g (1lb) plus 20 minutes, so a joint this size should take three hours and 40 minutes. Cover loosely with foil, which should be removed about 40 minutes before the end of the cooking time. The turkey crown will cook much more quickly than a whole turkey, so make sure to keep basting.
To check if the turkey is cooked, pierce a fine skewer into the chest part of the crown, the juice should run clear. When cooked, cover with foil to rest and keep warm.
For great roasties
You really don’t need a lake of fat to make them lovely and crispy. Just cover the bottom of the roasting tin completely and make sure the fat is very hot before you add your frozen potatoes. Spoon the fat over all the potatoes then whack in a nice hot oven. The turkey will wait until your potatoes are golden and crispy (40 mins to an hour).
Easy apple and red onion stuffing
(serves 4-6, double up as necessary):
1 tbsp butter
1 red onion, finely chopped
1 dessert apple, grated (don’t bother to peel)
225g pork sausage meat
100g fresh white breadcrumbs
1 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
1 tbsp fresh sage, chopped
Squeeze of lemon juice
Heat the butter in a frying pan, add the onion and fry gently until soft. Add the apple and cook until softened. Remove from the heat, transfer to a bowl and allow to cool.
Stir the sausage meat and breadcrumbs into the onion mixture along with the herbs and lemon juice. Once well combined, squish it into a buttered oven-proof dish, cool and bung in the fridge. On the day, it’ll take about 25 minutes (obviously more if you double up).
Bringing it all together:
And that’s it. You’ve got the last half hour to fiddle with all your little extras. Add a tablespoon or two (depending on the amount) of plain flour to the pan juices in a saucepan and cook out before adding plenty of stock (you can never have enough gravy). For sprouts, I just blanch them for a few minutes while I’m frying some streaky bacon in a couple of tablespoons of oil, then toss them in with the bacon before serving. I also serve roast parsnips with honey and a ton of cranberry sauce, oh and peas for the fussy bugger who only likes peas *sigh*.
If it goes a bit wrong and something gets burned or forgotten, it’s not the end of the world. Enjoy the day, pour yourself a drink and remember it’s just dinner.
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