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How you can make your festive dinner a real cracker

 

With some organisation, a bit of list-making and by making as many dishes in advance as possible, Rachel Allen shows how the Big Meal cook can still have time for lots of fun on Christmas Day.

I adore everything about Christmas, not least the food, but I can understand how the thought of cooking the Big Meal can overwhelm people, particularly when it's their first time cooking for a crowd. It does take some work, but aside from the hard labour, it requires careful thought and consideration.

Serving a roast turkey or goose is just like preparing a large chicken, but the fact that it's 'Christmas', with people thinking there's so much more pressure than at other times of the year, can send cooks running for the hills. Of course, the more people to help, the better, but that's not necessarily always the key - too many cooks and all that.

Now is the time to get writing a list and checking it twice. A bit of organisation will go a long way. Try doing what we teach the students at the cookery school: write an order of work, with times attached.

So, working backwards from the time you'd like to eat (not forgetting to rest the bird, if you're cooking one, for at least half an hour) write down the whole menu, and the order in which the items should be prepared.

This will stand to you like you wouldn't believe. It'll prevent the distracted cook from forgetting to serve a whole dish, and goodness knows there are enough distractions on Christmas Day, what with all the excitement - and perhaps you are partial to a glass of festive fizz too, which doesn't really help the concentration levels.

For me, the centrepiece of the table is the meat. I adore turkey at this time of year; a local free-range bird, cooked carefully and kept well moist with plenty of butter, is sublime. I love a glazed ham too, and not just for the essential leftovers.

Goose is a tradition for many - rich and delicious, I particularly love it with this old-fashioned stuffing - it's worth going the extra mile to make a delicious stuffing or glaze.

Speaking of stuffing, the reason it's called stuffing is because it's stuffed into the cavity of the bird, so don't think it'll taste anywhere near as nice if it's cooked in a loaf tin. The juices of the bird will soak into the stuffing as the bird roasts, adding both divine flavour and moisture - although you will need to bake it away from the bird for any guests who don't eat meat. If you are stuffing the bird any more than five minutes in advance, make sure the stuffing has cooled completely.

Spiced beef was traditionally eaten at Christmas and New Year, and it makes for a gorgeous Christmas roast, but it's also superb in sandwiches as leftovers.

Before the main meal, though, I think you need a starter. I rarely serve a starter at home, but this feast really demands it.

I think you need to cut down on any extra work on Christmas Day, so I love to serve a luxurious silky pate, which can be made two or even three days before. It goes especially well with sweet apple relish that has more of those Christmas spices. If you'd rather not make pate, I think a lovely option is a plate of smoked fish. It's so little hassle and tastes fantastic. I like to do some smoked salmon with maybe some smoked mackerel and smoked mussels. Very simple, but a lovely Christmas starter. A soup, of course, is the ultimate in make-ahead convenience.

For the various vegetables, I like to have a balance between not having too much work to do in the kitchen on the day and having enough variety to make for a true Christmas feast.

Roast potatoes are, to my mind, essential, as are Brussels sprouts. Prepare them on Christmas Eve and keep them in the fridge, covered with wet kitchen paper.

All in all, try to enjoy it, and remember - next year, it's someone else's turn.

Wishing you all a very happy Christmas.

Roast Turkey with Herb Stuffing

WHAT YOU'LL NEED

150g butter

300g chopped onion

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

350g soft white breadcrumbs

6 large tablespoons finely chopped fresh herbs (such as parsley, thyme, chives, tarragon and marjoram)

1 turkey, approx 4kg-5kg in weight

25g soft butter

½ tablespoon flour

250ml turkey or chicken stock

METHOD

Preheat the oven to 180°C, 350°F, Gas 4. First, make the stuffing.

Put the butter in a saucepan on a medium heat, then add the chopped onion, and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Cover the onions with a butter wrapper if you have one (see my Top Tips), and a lid, and cook them gently in the butter until they are soft, about eight to 10 minutes.

Remove the saucepan from the heat, then stir in the soft white breadcrumbs, and the finely chopped fresh herbs, and season again to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Allow the stuffing to cool completely.

Next, stuff the turkey by spooning the stuffing into the cavity at the leg end, though you might also want to put a little bit in the cavity at the neck end too. Make sure not to overstuff the bird - once it has been stuffed, you should be able to push the handle of a wooden spoon in under the breast.

Spread the 25g of soft butter over the breast and the legs of the turkey, and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Weigh the bird and calculate the cooking time (20 minutes for every 500g, plus 20 minutes extra).

To cook the turkey, put it in the preheated oven. When the skin is good and golden, cover it with some foil or a few butter wrappers to prevent it from drying out.

To check whether the turkey is fully cooked, pull one of the legs slightly - if it feels slightly loose from the carcass, then the bird is cooked.

Once the turkey is cooked, remove it from the oven, transfer it to a carving board, cover it with foil, and allow it to rest somewhere warm for at least 30 minutes.

If you don't need your oven for cooking other things, leave the turkey in it, turn the oven off and allow the turkey to rest inside.

To make the gravy, pour the fat away from the juices in the roasting tray, keeping the juices in the tray, then put the roasting tray on the hob, on a medium heat.

Whisk in the flour and cook it for a minute over the heat.

Pour the turkey stock or the chicken stock, whichever you're using, into the tray and use a whisk to dissolve all the caramelised juices left in the tray.

Allow the gravy to boil. Season it to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Transfer the gravy to a saucepan, and, if you want it to be a bit stronger in flavour, boil it for another minute or so, uncovered, until it has reduced a bit. Reheat when needed.

Serves 8-16 depending on the size of your turkey

Glazed ham

WHAT YOU'LL NEED

1 x 7kg-9kg ham on the bone, rind still on

About 40 cloves

500g demerara sugar or light muscovado sugar

Juice of half to 1 orange

METHOD

Put the ham in a large pot of cold water and put it on a high heat. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to low and leave to simmer for five to six hours, topping up with water if necessary, until the ham is cooked.

Alternatively, put the pot in the oven (preheated to 110°C, 225°F, or the lowest setting) and cook it for the same length of time.

You can tell the ham is cooked when a piece of the rind comes away easily from the fat. Also, a skewer inserted into the meat will come out quite easily.

Drain the ham and put it in a roasting tin. Preheat the oven to 220°C, 425°F, Gas 7 - or raise the oven temperature if it's already switched on.

Once the ham has cooled just enough to handle it, peel the rind off the meat - don't cut away any fat - and discard it.

Score the fat with a knife in a grid pattern to make squares or diamonds; the score lines should be roughly 2cm apart. Stick a clove into the centre of each square or diamond, pushing it right into the fat with your thumb.

Next, put the demerara sugar or the light muscovado sugar, whichever you're using, into a bowl.

Add in just enough of the orange juice to make a fairly dry paste - if it is too wet, it will fall off the meat during cooking. Pack the sugar and juice mix on to the fat, pressing it in with your hands.

Put the ham in the preheated oven and cook it for 30-50 minutes, or until the sugar coating is a deep golden colour and caramelised.

A few times during the cooking time, take the ham out to baste it (spoon the sugary juices over the meat).

When the ham is cooked, remove it from the oven and allow it to rest for at least 20 minutes before carving it. You can also cook the ham in advance to eat cold.

Once cooked, it will keep in the fridge, well wrapped, for up to seven days.

Serves 12

Roast Brussels Sprouts with bacon and thyme

WHAT YOU'LL NEED

450g Brussels sprouts

A splash of olive oil

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

110g bacon lardons, cooked in a pan until crisp and golden

1-2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves, chopped

METHOD

Preheat the oven to 220°C, 425°F, Gas 7. Trim the Brussels sprouts of any tough outside leaves, then trim the stalk. Cut the sprouts into thin slices, about 0.5cm thick.

Put the sliced sprouts into a bowl, and drizzle them with the olive oil. Season with some sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, tossing them to coat them with the oil and seasoning. Transfer the sliced sprouts to a roasting tin, and cook them for 10-25 minutes, depending on size, shaking the pan occasionally.

Stir in the crispy bacon lardons and the chopped fresh thyme leaves, and return the roasting tin to the oven for five minutes.

When cooked, the sprouts should be pale golden and crisp on the outside, and tender within. Remove them from the oven, taste for seasoning, adding some sea salt and freshly ground black pepper if necessary, then serve them while they are still warm.

Serves 4-6

Herbed roast potatoes with garlic

WHAT YOU'LL NEED

1 teaspoon salt

10-12 large floury potatoes, peeled and halved, or quartered if large

3-5 tablespoons olive oil, duck fat or goose fat or beef dripping

Sea salt

1 head of garlic, broken into cloves but left unpeeled

1 tablespoon chopped thyme leaves or 2 teaspoons chopped rosemary leaves

METHOD

Add the teaspoon of salt to a large saucepan of water and bring to the boil. Drop in the potato pieces and cook them for 10 minutes. Drain off all the water and shake the potatoes around in the dry saucepan with the lid on. Put a roasting tin on a high heat and drizzle in three tablespoons of the olive oil, or the duck or goose fat, or the beef dripping. Once hot, add the potatoes and toss them in the oil or fat. Sprinkle with sea salt and roast them in the oven for 45-55 minutes.

Add the unpeeled cloves of garlic after 15-20 minutes, tossing them in the oil or fat. At this stage, if you think the potatoes are dark enough, turn the oven down to 200°C, 400°F, Gas 6. Baste the potatoes (spoon over the hot oil or fat) occasionally, and turn them over halfway through the cooking time.

Finally, sprinkle the chopped thyme leaves or the chopped rosemary leaves over the potatoes 10 minutes before the end of the cooking time. Serve the potatoes immediately, or keep them warm in a low oven. Push the garlic cloves out of their skins and eat with the crispy potatoes.

Serves 6-8

Ballymaloe spiced beef

WHAT YOU'LL NEED

110g demerara or light brown sugar

125g salt

5g saltpetre (potassium nitrate)

25g whole black peppercorns

25g whole allspice (also known as pimento or Jamaican pepper)

25g whole juniper berries

Roughly 2kg flank of beef with the bones and excess fat removed - ask your butcher to do this (weigh the meat after it has been prepared)

Bread, pickles and chutney, to serve

METHOD

First, make the Ballymaloe beef spice mixture.

Grind - preferably in a spice grinder, in a few batches - the demerara sugar or the light brown sugar, whichever you're using, the salt, the saltpetre, the whole black peppercorns, the allspice and the whole juniper berries until the mixture is fairly fine.

Put the beef in a large gratin dish or a roasting tray and rub some of the Ballymaloe beef spice mix well into every crevice of the beef. Cover the meat and put it in the fridge for three to four days, turning the meat occasionally. (This is a dry spice, but after one or two days, some liquid will come out of the meat.) The longer the meat is left marinating in the spice, the longer it will last after cooking and the stronger the spiced flavour will be.

Just before cooking the meat, use cotton string to roll and tie the joint neatly into a compact roll. Put it in a pot, cover it with cold water and simmer it for two to three hours (approximately 20 minutes per 450g) or until it is soft and cooked - when it's cooked, you should be able to insert a skewer in to the centre of the beef and the skewer will come out easily.

If you're serving the beef warm, remove it from the liquid, and put it on a carving board. Cut away the string and carve it in slices to serve.

If the beef is to be eaten cold, remove it from the liquid. Put it in a high-sided dish such as a roasting tray or gratin dish, cover it with a chopping board, and weigh it down with about four or five tins of tomatoes or beans (or something of a similar weight) and leave it for 12 hours.

After 12 hours, remove the board and the weights. It will now keep in the fridge for up to six weeks.

Serve it by cutting it into very thin slices and serving it with some bread, pickles and chutney.

Serves 8-10

Rachel’s top tips

If you're cooking these recipes, make the turkey or goose stuffing a day or two in advance, and store it in the fridge. And you can trim the Brussels sprouts on Christmas Eve and keep them in the fridge, covered with wet kitchen paper.

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