That moment has come – lights and decorations are shining in our faces, crackers exploding, everywhere we turn we are reminded of holidays, fun excitement – it’s the best moment of the year.
Everyone’s gathered to celebrate around the table, to celebrate being together and eating together and cooking together. Even teenagers seem to enjoy Christmas. But there is a dark side, too. Christmas has a dark side. It starts weeks earlier. It’s started now. Fears grow about lists and shopping: will it be good enough, will I make a mess of it, will everyone be happy with their presents, with their food? Will I forget something?
I would say just let it flow, keep calm and enjoy. Don’t worry too much about perfection. Go for fun and deliciousness. Write your lists early. Figure out who is coming, how many others may turn up, what you will cook. You need lists for food, booze, decorations and presents, of course. Tweak and retweak and make those lists work. And work out who will help you do what. Helpers are essential: you will fail without your team.
Less is not more over Christmas.
First thing to remember for a family Christmas is that there are several meals not just one. And when planning the other meals, keep them simple and not too much fuss, and always remember the joys of the left over. There’s nothing quite like a toasted turkey sandwich. On Boxing Day, after one Christmas of giving everyone a Brevel, there was a constant toasty experimental experience. It culminated – climaxed, I should say - in a Foie Gras toasted sandwich. I nearly died at that point.
The meals before Christmas Day should be equally low on effort. Smoked salmon, Smoked Mackerel Pate, Pickles, Salads, Cured Meats or little birds like Quails and Lentils – there’s no going wrong there. One-pot dishes, such as a mushroom risotto or a big bowl of sausages and mash, work a treat, everyone is happy, and then cheese to follow. A fine hard cheese like Berkswell is good in the run-up to Stilton or Stichelton or whatever grabs your fancy in the blue-cheese wars.
On the shopping front, the List is all-important. Try not to forget things, tick your boxes, and make sure you have enough. Less is not more over Christmas. If you have too much, you can always use everything up during the break. Storage is always tricky at Christmas: containers can be a problem. Maybe invest in plastic boxes down at the pound shop, with lids. Also I love a zip bag, great for squeezing thing into the fridge. It’s best to clear the fridge out before you start. And you can always use an outside area as cool-storage for vegetables and maybe even your turkey. But make sure they are secure and no roaming animals can eat your food. I remember the cat had an early sample of the turkey leg one Xmas Eve long ago.
Now for the main meal. Will it be turkey, goose, duck, partridge, capon? They are all wonderful treats. I love a partridge, succulent little birds and easy to cook. But really in the end it has to be turkey for Christmas - probably the only day of the year you will cook turkey. A festive bird in look, shape and size, and, as I said, great cold the next day, with cold bread sauce.
There are the turkey fears. Its size can be scary and there’s a big problem that the meat can dry out. A few tips: buy a happy organic, black feathered turkey that has spent some time walking around, stretching its legs. Chat to your local butcher and find out what organic turkey they are selling. But do it now. Or last week. Order your turkey as soon as possible. Also watch the size. Smaller is easier to cook: I would go for a 10- 12 pounder.
Recently, as well, we have started to brine our turkeys. It really makes a difference and means your meat will be moist and juicy. You can do a wet or dry brine. For the wet brine, make a brine solution, cool it down and then pop the bird in a bucket and cover with the liquid solution for an hour per pound of bird. When it comes out of the brine give it a good rinse and pat dry. Leave for a few hours to dry out.
We often buy a whole massive mistletoe branch - it looks beautiful and gets some snogging going.
Then soften 2 packets of butter, soft enough so they are quite pliable. Mix the butter with sea salt and pepper. Then very gently pull the skin away from the bird and stuff with butter between the flesh and skin. A truffle or 2 would be an added treat. The bird can then sit until you are ready to stuff and roast. A layer of bacon is also another way to protect the turkey breasts.
Jobs to be done the day before: prepare the stuffing, prepare your vegetables, buy your Christmas pudding. St John have a fantastic Christmas Pudding. We always have one aging from the year before, for improved flavour. So buy two this year, one for now, one for 2014. Make your Brandy butter a few days before, and buy the best cream for the cream people.
The stuffing is definitely a job for a few helpers and a few glasses of wine. Team spirit! Bread crumbs from an older loaf of good bread roughly ripped up. Chop apples with the skins on, squeeze in the sausage meat, mixing with sage, thyme, chestnuts and a few eggs. It should be wet. Stuff it into the cavity. I always buy my chestnuts shelled and vacuum packed unless you want to sit round the fire and explode them.
On Christmas morning, much of your prep should have been done. Your bird needs to warm up to room temp - probably about an hour - then stuff it and get it ready for the oven. A few ladles of water or stock around the bottom can help with gathering juices for your gravy. Potatoes are a must: if roasting them, peel and blanche, then cook in duck fat and seasoned with Malden sea salt and black pepper. If you are running out of oven space, mash is always a treat and celeriac mash can adds a little twist. Duck fat can also be used to baste your turkey.
On a time-scale I would:
1.) Open stockings
2.) Have breakfast
3.) Get bird in the oven
4.) Open presents/ drink champers
5.) Check bird, baste bird
6.) Roast roots that are hopefully all ready to go from the day before
7.) Infuse the milk, onion and bay leaf for bread sauce
8.) Steam pudding
9.) Rest bird
10.) Eat Christmas lunch, Drink and be Merry, then lie back and watch telly or play Canasta (I am a card fiend).
Decorations: Pomegranates and marrows can be beautiful centerpieces to Christmas lunch tables, with lights scattered in odd numbers - never even - and big bundles of holly or mistletoe. In Rochelle Canteen we often buy a whole massive mistletoe branch - it looks beautiful and gets some snogging going. The tree is always a treat, start with the tinsel following the line of the tree: never cross from branch to branch. Then the lights again, following the line of the branches.
Christmas is all about fun and hard work, they go together really. Make your lists, make a plan and enjoy. Remember there are no rules, move forward, make your own history and enjoy! Don’t get too drunk. Well, it’s quite hard not to when you are working so hard, but it’s even harder later, if you do.....
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