The alternative Christmas dinner - with a fraction of the heartache

Joe McNamee ditches the big bird and the pig and considers some other dishes you can consider putting on the plate for your nearest and dearest this Yuletide.   
The alternative Christmas dinner - with a fraction of the heartache

If I’m honest, tradition and nostalgia are probably the best dressing for turkey; strip them away and it seems a lot of effort for less than magnificent results.

After all, how many other times in the year are you driven to cook a meal that involves equal parts stamina, endurance and downright mulish determination: scouring the four corners of the globe for the perfect bird; brining the thing for an eternity; experimenting with this year’s latest basting technique; and ‘complementing’ with so many side dishes, guests will consume their ‘five-a-day’ for the next month.

And all to earn a few morsels of praise for dishing up something often not far removed from hot suede overcoat. Just about.

If food is to play such a central role on your Christmas Day, why not consider other meat alternatives and treat yourself to something truly enjoyable, with a fraction of the heartache involved in the preparation and yet still retaining a deeply festive flavour.

If you do take the plunge and you’ve never roasted a duck or slow-braised beef, it wouldn’t hurt to take a practice run a few weeks beforehand.

You can ignore all the festive bells and whistles and cook a pared down version to see how your oven will cope on the day if scheduling is important. Your only problem will be disposing of a delicious Sunday dinner.

(Thanks to Bresnan’s Family Butchers, Douglas, and O’Sullivan’s Poultry, English Market, for supplying beef and duck, respectively.)

Slow-braised Blade of Beef

Beef is certainly the stuff of celebratory dinners and those of us of a certain vintage will recall when a roast- beef dinner was a rare treat indeed.

However, when satisfying a wide range of guests, you’ll find an equally wide range of preferences for the ‘doneness’ of the meat.

I favour a near-bloody, Barbie-pink interior while some at the other end of the scale prefer it cooked to the texture of a handcrafted brogue.

Hence, the slow-braised blade (or featherblade or chuck or shoulder, all depending on your butcher and location); no one can deny the melting meat is ‘done’ and the depth of flavour and texture is unmatchable.

If not already rolled, ask your butcher to trim it for neat rolling. If rolled, have string to hand to re-roll after marinading. (If a novice, take a practice run at re-tying BEFORE you put the beef in the marinade.)

Blade is excellent value so you can afford to look for the very best.

The lovely piece of aged meat I picked up from Liam Bresnan in Douglas (sold as ‘Roast Blade of Beef’) had been aged for 28 days, was large enough to feed 8-10 yet still came in under €20.

2kg Blade of Beef


Bottle of red wine (a cheap Rhone would be perfect, with a better one for drinking)

2 carrots, 2 celery, 2 onions, all sliced

4 cloves of garlic, peeled and bashed

2 sprigs of thyme

2 bay leaves

10 white peppercorns

1 star anise

1 stick cinnamon, bashed

4 cloves, bashed

750ml stock (beef or ‘brown’ chicken stock)

Beef dripping/cooking oil

salt & white pepper (much better for beef) to season

Unroll meat and lay flat in suitably large dish. Add all marinade ingredients with wine covering over meat. Clingfilm and refrigerate for 24 hours.

Remove one hour before cooking to return to room temperature. After one hour, pour off marinade through sieve, reserving veg and spices. Season meat side with salt and white pepper, roll and tie.

Heat dripping/oil in large casserole dish on stovetop over medium heat and brown beef on all sides (4-5 minutes per side).

Remove meat, add a little more dripping/oil and sautee veg/spice mix, adding a little salt. Cook for five or ten minutes until softened, stirring regularly.

Add red wine and reduce over high heat until almost gone. Add stock, bring to boil and then return meat to dish. Cover with lid or tightly wrap with tin foil and put in oven at 160-170°C for at least 3-4 hours or until meltingly tender where a sharp knife encounters no resistance.

Remove from oven, put meat on warm plate, cover with tin foil and tea towel and leave in warm place to rest. (It will still be a perfect serving temperature up to 45 minutes later.)

To make gravy, strain pan of all juices, discarding veg. Skim off fat. The remaining juices are oozing flavour so simply reduce in a clean saucepan until syrupy.

Check seasoning; if necessary, add salt and white pepper.

Serve with the gravy, garlicky mash (add garlic butter to mashed potato) and roast carrots, red onions (halved) and parsnips and with a little bit of horseradish or mustard on the side.

Roast Duck

When I say duck, I really mean a delicious free ranging Ailesbury, which has a lovely flavour and texture and yields exquisite golden oil that turns into live-giving duck fat.

1 Ailesbury duck


Fresh herbs (any or all of thyme, sage, rosemary, savory)

Pour boiling water over duck and allow to dry for 1 hour (or, as I recently read, use a hairdryer for 15 mins) for extra crispy skin.

Prick skin all over with sharp point but try not puncture flesh.

This allows the fat to bubble forth, basting the bird and necessarily removing some of the large layer of subcutaneous fat. Season inside and out with salt and then stuff the cavity with fresh herbs (eg thyme, sage, rosemary, savory).

Heat oven to 200°C and roast on a rack allowing 20 mins per 500gm and a further 20 mins for luck.

Halfway through, pour off some of the fat but make sure not to lose too much heat from the oven.

When done, remove and put on a warm plate, cover with tinfoil and a tea towel and leave in a warm place to rest before carving.

Roast Potatoes

The real reward in roasting a duck is the duck fat roast potatoes. Make as to your usual recipe, using melted duck fat instead of oil.

Serve with: Cranberry, Baby Beetroot and Orange Sauce.

Scrub 10-12 baby beetroot and bring to boil in cold, salted water and leave at a vigorous simmer for 40-50 mins until a skewer slides through without resistance.

Drain and peel as soon as you can handle them.

Slice over in a spoon or two of good olive oil.

This can all be done the day before.

Empty a jar of good cranberry sauce (or make your own) into a mixing bowl.

Add 3-4 tablespoons of best quality Seville marmalade and stir in.

Add beetroot and gently stir to coat. Serve warm.

Roast Butternut squash puree

Cut into wedges, put in a wide pan, cover with water and a pinch of salt, cook until soft, drain off the water and cook off remainder, add a decent splash of cream (50-75ml) bring to boil and reduce slightly.

Puree with a knob of butter for a very silky finish, pass through a sieve.

Can be made the day before and rewarmed.

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