Niall McKenna’s Christmas cook & dine dinner for two
Collect from Hadskis, Commercial Court, Belfast. www.jamesstandco.com
If you thought last Christmas was weird, brace yourself for another Covid-shaped celebration this year. For food lovers, cook-at-home restaurant meals provided some relief but they didn’t satisfy that hunger for dressing up a bit, being out with friends and ordering cocktails before sitting down for dinner brought to us by smiling restaurant staff.
Those boxed meals revealed many insights into chefs’ secrets. The risotto from Noble for instance, was a festival of butter and parmesan, the volumes of which were superhuman and a window into the thoughts of a chef who only wanted to win your heart (and possibly stop it functioning as a result of their generosity of spirit). The meals may have played a critical role in the survival of many restaurants but who knew they were here to stay?
And sure enough, this winter the boxes are back. They never went away, but because restaurants were able to open again in recent months, many of us dropped the habit of ordering them, choosing instead to register for a domestic vaccination certificate and booking a taxi to head out.
One such box is Niall McKenna’s festive Christmas Cook and Dine Dinner for two (prepared by Hadskis’ head chef and former apprentice Aaron McNiece). Uncertain as we are of what prohibitions may be imposed by Omicron on the hospitality trade in the coming days you would do well to have a couple of these boxes in the pantry on standby just in case.
I love tradition even when this means tolerating bland turkey. The prospect of a turkey dinner may be as enticing as six-hour boiled mutton shoulder but somehow, McKenna and McNiece have transformed the turkey into something which tastes almost gamey, rich and profound. God knows what he’s done to it to make it this interesting. The size of Elton John’s 1970s platform soles, the vacuum-packed fillet of pale meat is joined by a mass of herb-flavoured butter. There’s a layer of fat on the meat too and a decent chunk of stuffing in the middle which must help and an instruction to bathe it for eight minutes in simmering water. In case this doesn’t give it the intended punch, there is a generous pot of sage herb crumb to sprinkle over it when it’s ready to eat.
The result, further aided by a beautifully savoury gravy, a mound of ham hock and buttery brussels sprouts and roast carrot and fondant potato, is the best turkey dinner I’ve had since leaving Armagh in 1977 when I didn’t know any better. The turkey is meltingly tender and with all the tricks and reinforcements the chefs have mustered to make it interesting, it is one of the great meals of the year. If you can imagine an essence of turkey, this is your man.
But it’s not just about the turkey. There’s a retro starter of langoustine and cold smoked salmon cocktail chopped lettuce and marie-rose. It’s cool and generous, lush and comforting, full of old memory triggers of Christmases past but also, as you’d expect of a good starter, promises of great things to follow. There’s a gorgeously crumbly, short crust chocolate tart which is covered in a mildly bitter fig-seed like jam and dollop of whipped cream to round off the voluminous and ultimately successful Christmas dinner.
It’s super easy to prepare, requiring only a pot of water and a short spell in the oven for the vegetables. More importantly, it has that McKenna quality stamp, the one he teaches in his cookery school and which makes us masters of certain dishes. If you’re doing the Covid dance this winter, not knowing which way to go, book a table, cook your own, stay at home or get your mum to do it, do this.
Joris’s Christmas tip: get to the butcher’s for cocktail sausages, roast them and add to Hadskis’ creation because no Christmas dinner should be without a banger or two.