I have no idea why people stress about Christmas dinner. All you need to do is cook a moist and succulent turkey, a veggie wellington, perfectly crispy potatoes, well-infused bread sauce, steam some greens, a rich and delicious gravy, pigs in blankets, carrots and parsnips - not forgetting all the condiments, pre-dinner nibbles and of course a selection of desserts.
All this in a potentially small oven, to be ready bang on 2pm while drinking bubbly and being a sociable and chatty host to your friends and family!
Okay, maybe it’s not the most simple task. The aim of the game is to have a hot dinner prepared by a cool and calm chef, not a cold meal made by a hot and flustered one. But fear not, here are a few tips that'll turn the whirlwind of a morning’s cooking into a gentle breeze.
Firstly and foremostly, the bird. If you are going the whole avian-hog and doing a turkey then you need to make sure it's defrosted a few days before, sat in the fridge ready to go.
Make sure you know the weight and the cooking times. It will be written on the label so take a photo or write it down and keep it safe; we don’t want to be second guessing cooking times.
Stuff the bird with a high fat pork-based mince (do this the day before) and cover loosely with tin foil. This is the secret to ensuring it doesn't dry out; make sure there is a plenty of space between the tin foil and the bird to ensure a crisp roasted skin.
The beautiful thing about turkey is it benefits from resting a good 45-60 minutes before eating. So when you make your cooking plan, make sure it’s out of the oven up to an hour before dinner time, which will also free up the oven for the other bits and bobs.
If you are planning on a vegetarian alternative, then a wellington is an absolute winner. It has the special occasion vibe that makes it a worthy centrepiece. Best of all, make it a day in advance and it can sit in the fridge until required.
I'm very much an authoritarian when it comes to the veg. Carrots, parsnips and the sprouts need to be roasted and Savoy cabbage is to be steamed. If you're a fan of boiling the life out of your veg that’s fine – we're all entitled to our own wrong opinions.
Par-boil and fluff up your potatoes the day before, cool down under a cold tap and they will be fine in the fridge overnight. Scrub and cut your carrots and parsnips the day before and cover, sprouts can also be cut in half ready for roasting in advance. Try and leave as little prep as possible for the actual day.
Turning your vegetable sides into something really special is easy:
- Try adding lemon slices, thyme and whole garlic cloves to your roast potatoes.
- Add a honey mustard glaze to your parsnips and carrots.
- Try roasting your sprouts with lardons or chorizo.
- Grate some dried porcini mushrooms into the gravy.
- Add a few slices of buttered toast to your bread sauce.
Adding these little bits of love and attention will be noticed by your nearest and dearest and earn you the right to drink wine and fall asleep on the sofa for the rest of the day.
As well as these little extras, a real winner is to make a selection of condiments in advance. I love having a whole host of flavours on the table; it’s aesthetically pleasing and a treat for the tongue.
Some of my favourites are beetroot and horseradish dip and Romanesco, which compliment everything on the table amazingly. Best of all, make them in the week prior so it doesn't add to the stress of the main event. The more home-made goodies on the table the better in my opinion.
Try making a pear mostarda or a chilli jam, which will go down swimmingly when or if you bring out the cheese board.
For the nibbles, get some plain unroasted peanuts or cashews, make a spice mix with cumin, paprika, cinnamon and salt and roast them yourself. Get some pre-made puff pastry, press some anchovies and parmesan into it, roll it up, slice thinly and bake to make deliciously salty little crackers.
Obviously the main thing about Christmas is that you enjoy spending time with family and friends. If oven space, cooking skills or enthusiasm is lacking then make it as simple as possible; a few things done well beats a wide selection of over-cooked veg and under-cooked turkey.
Do as much in advance as possible so that you only have to put stuff in the oven on the day. Remember that you need a hot oven, so resist opening the door too often, and get it as hot as you can in advance.
Wash up your pots and pans as you go so they are ready in case you need them again, but most importantly make sure you have a little treat of something delicious, possibly alcoholic, to ensure morale is suitably festive!