How not to make a meal out of cooking Christmas dinner for the first time

Caomhan Keane found that preparing Christmas dinner was a recipe for disaster. Pictures: Moya Nolan

With the passing of the torch to a new generation, Caomhan Keane says it’s his turn in the kitchen

Hell is other people, said Jean-Paul Sartre. The French philosopher was better known for frequenting the cafes of Paris than for his domestic side, so his thoughts on festive cooking are unknown, but hell descended upon my kitchen last Saturday, when I offered to cook Christmas dinner for my parents and my in-laws.

Most families with ‘kids’ my age are in a period of transition, where the new generation are taking over from the original series of parents who’ve done the hard graft for two decades or more.

Losing the charm and familiarity of the past and bravely rebooting the meal for a new era takes guts. You just hope the evening doesn’t end with someone’s hand up your ass, removing said innards before shoving your carcass in an oven as a replacement for the bird you burnt.

To help ease virgin panic, I thought my dry run could act as a calming balm, where I chart everything I learnt and hope anyone getting their Donal Skehan on can learn from my mistakes.

The original pre-Christian feast held at this time of year served a practical purpose. With a profound shift in the seasons just around the corner, our ancestors were in the contradictory position of possessing an abundance of food from the recent harvest, with harder times — which could include hunger, malnutrition, and death — on their way.

This feast provided a psychological boost that sent them into the dark days of wintertide with a buoyant step, acting as cognitive Viagra to stiffen their resolve.

With Donald Trump and a hard Brexit stalking 2017 like a silverback gorilla, this Christmas feels like it’s perched on a similar precipices.

Christmas dinner being the most important meal of the year — unless you’re on death row or being fitted with a ball and chain — I’m determined to insure mine does the trick. Though, as my mother mutters as she is banished from her own kitchen, said trick had better not be the food’s reappearance all over her dining room floor.

How not to make a meal out of cooking Christmas dinner for the first time

There are too many cookbooks, blogs, and vlogs dedicated to Christmas nosh. Delia tells me to do it one way, Darina sounds aghast at the thought. Gordon says his approach is godly. Jamie quickly blasphemes. So Pinterest acts as my departure gate for my flight of fancy.

I’m quickly overwhelmed by choice.

What bird do I baste? Do I fry, roast, or grill it? Should I serve the veg I like, or the spuds and sprouts combo that will have me farted out of house and home?

And while we’re at it, WTF is a ‘stick’ of butter? A ‘Dutch’ oven? A ‘yellow’ onion? Is there a difference between a cup and a mug? Minced and diced garlic?

As people’s ‘special requests’ start to pile up, more and more dishes are being ruled out and I start wondering how the hell I’m supposed to cook a ‘traditional’ Christmas feast if one doesn’t eat meat, another doesn’t eat fish, and another won’t eat food not shaped like their deity of choice, usually Beyonce.

Regina Sexton, food and culinary historian at University College Cork, tells me that tradition is all a matter of perspective.

“Various ideologies attached themselves to this pre-Christian feast as civilisation developed — like the festival of Saturnalia, which introduced private gift giving and continual partying.”

If the Romans gave the holiday its piss-up sheen, the Christians put a ring on it, naming it and inscribing it with a fixed date.

But the ‘traditions’ we most assign to Christmas, were Don Draper-ed on by Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol.

“What was established in that was an idealised story, where food had significance,” says Regina.

“Goose, plum pudding, and mince pies, though inherited from olden times, are put together in this package, instilling the belief that Christmas foods need to be always the same, passed on, and repeated.

How not to make a meal out of cooking Christmas dinner for the first time

“There’s a security in tradition. It accounts for why people who don’t like turkey or sprouts still insist on having them.”

As I start to write my list — to Aldi, not Santy — I’m struck by the age-old question. Not Daddy or chips, but goose or turkey?

“There is a hierarchy when it comes to birds,” says Regina. “Turkey used to be considered more prestigious because it came from ‘the new world’. The poor ate geese, which were native and easy to acquire. Now that’s reversed.”

I decide to pick the fatter bird. But what was once an easy acquisition, now needs to be ordered up to a week in advance.

I left it until three days before the meal.

“In Ireland we usually only go for birds like this at Christmas, or Thanksgiving,” says Brett, the head butcher in Fallon & Byrne, after literally saving my goose.

Goose is not an economical choice. People are shocked by how much fat comes out of it, how little meat is on it compared to rib and bone. And it doesn’t taste as nice when slipped between some Brennans.

“Some people just don’t like the flavour,” says Brett. “It’s much more pronounced and meatier. But it’s also rich, gamey, with a mutton fatness and lovely skin.”

He suggests my bird shows a bit of skin when I shove her in the oven.

“Never, ever cover it with foil,” he says. “You want direct radiant hear on it to start cooking it. Foil insulates, and you can start to steam it instead. You want your bird pink, moist, and flavoursome. The Irish are sinners for over-cooking, but there is much less of a risk for salmonella when it comes to birds like goose and duck than there is with chicken and turkey.”

Before I can lay her down for her tanning, however, I have my second bird-related disaster. My family home contains what amounts to an easy-bake oven and my girthy goose would need more than a few sessions in the gym to get through its doors. As I get my Dexter on, laying the saw, the pliers, and the file from my vanity case on the table, I thank God I’m not preparing a bird from the Middle Ages for the feast.

“A lot of what we do around Christmas is about display and big birds looked spectacular,” says Regina. “Swans, peacocks, herons, cranes.

“They would take the feathers and beaks off for the cooking then put them back on before bringing them back to the table, reanimating them through their plumage… an ostentatious display.”

I have enough problems getting the goose’s insides on its outside as my kitchen starts to swim in recipes, ingredients, and contradictory timetables.

Chef Diana Henry, author of A Bird in the Hand, says it’s the sides, not the fowl, that has us Christmas cooks speaking in ‘foul’ tongues.

How not to make a meal out of cooking Christmas dinner for the first time

“Try and do as many of them as you can in advance, which cuts down on your cooking time on the day,” she says. “Stuff the bird. Parboil the potatoes. Set the table and polish the crystal. But most importantly, do a time plan. Back-time from when you want the bird served, including resting time, and fit your vegetables in around this.”

So it’s the vegetables that feck you. Or, more precisely, the veggie eater. Upon recently deciding that eating meat was akin to eating Christ off the cross, he won’t touch bird nor beef, yet will loaf the fishes out of it.

So the spuds and root veg, which would previously have been cooked in the goose’s sweat, now have to be prepared separately.

Nicola Graimes is the author of The Part-Time Vegetarian, a book at the forefront of the flexitarian movement, which encourages a more plant-based diet, with allowances for meat.

She advises not rocking up to the homestead expecting the clan to have your new frequencies tuned in.

“It can cause division,” she says of our veggie brethren, “another thing you have to worry about. What I would do is take the initiative. Help with the cooking. Come up with suggestions yourself.

Much as I loathe to indulge the strain my partner has put on our relationship, ‘tis the season of goodwill. How can I make the meal seem more ceremonious for him, when every recipe and condiment calls for something he won’t have?

“A pie always looks spectacular,” says Nicola. “You can decorate it with shapes or berries, fresh or dried fruit with alternate layers for a variety of colours and flavors.

“But I often just like having the sides, but getting inventive with them. Shred and stir-fry the Brussels sprouts. Or stir-fry carrots with rosemary, garlic, and honey. Puree the veg with stock and cream instead of drowning them in gravy. Flavoured butters and mayos are a must. And spices!”

Later, as I try to paper plan my meal, my mother slithers in like the Grim Reaper and, with her scythe-like tongue deals my fantasy feast a lash of unforeseen fact. Her oven is not fit for the purpose of cooking multiple dishes.

As mot and mater go through my ambitious menu, they nay say in such unison that I start to feel like the holly in ‘Rocking Around The Christmas Tree’, green (with nerves) and surrounded by pricks.

The potatoes will just be boiled, not seasoned with lemon and thyme. The mushroom will just have to be tossed in a pan, not baked in brown butter and garlic. I can have my onion soup, but it can’t be topped with a Gruyere cheese crostini.

As my seasonal spread crumbles to a regular roast before my Pinterest-squared eyes, more advice from Diana thunders through my ears.

“I’m a professional cook who hates help in the kitchen, but if you are going to get it done and enjoy getting it done, you have to ask for help.”

I decide to harness their negative energy and direct its overwhelming force to finding solution.

“You’re an actor… improvise,” I snap as I hand him command of the schedule and conscript my mother into the warzone that was once her domain.

Tensions are high as she immediately goes rogue.

“Feck Mary Berry,” she says, gaily cutting through the conflicting advice booming out of the Tower of Babel that are my recipes.

Extra everything is added against my will and, as I frantically tear up the broccoli and cauliflower for the gratin, I consider adding her head to the pot when she tells me to Google the cure for watering onion eyes. The damn things have left me screeching about the kitchen like Daryl Hannah at the end of Kill Bill.

But knotted back to my mother’s apron, I quickly cop what I’ve been missing. So focused on making the perfect chow, I was losing out on the actual joy of preparing it. The smell of onions caramelising with garlic, then being drenched in Cognac. Ham bathing in a Coke Jacuzzi. The seeming death wails of the goose as its own fat is sequestered from one part of its body to beautify the rest, like a Celtic Tiger trophy wife.

And where’s the craic in isolating yourself from the experience of others? Listening to — instead of antagonising — one another breathes fresh magic into the kitchen, as Christmas carols replace swear words, and casserole dishes fill with candied sweet potato and pecan pie and the yuletide pong of mulled wine overpowers the burning plastic of the spatula that hadn’t been removed before pre-heating the oven.

How not to make a meal out of cooking Christmas dinner for the first time

I’d images of smiling daintily when the rest of the clan arrived. Instead, I was topless and wide-eyed, waving them wordlessly into the living room to a starter of prosciutto-wrapped asparagus (a starter enjoyed standing up is a must).

Accept Christmas dinner isn’t going to look the way it’s sold to you on social media, in films or by the dulcet tones of Dervla Kirwan. But if you enjoy the imperfection of it all, the experience can be just as sweet.

And hot-buttered rum can drown out the taste.

FIVE TIPS FOR FIRST-TIME COOKS

1. As the Boy Scouts say: Be prepared.

I started the meal three days before it was due on the table and still ended up looking like a ’roid riddled rodent when my in-laws showed up. Write things down. All the fiddling with my iPhone did more damage to my blood pressure than the alcohol-infused cream.

2. Have a Plan B

If you’ve left it to late to order your bird of choice and want a replacement that is going to baste your egos with ‘ohhs’ and ‘ahhs’, Brett says: ‘Poulet de Bresse are the Mercedes of chicken, whilst capon are castrated birds that don’t have the overly male muskiness. Very tasty.”

3. Delegate

Doing it all yourself is an egocentric approach to the season that often ends with you bringing more churlish strife than good cheer. If someone has an idea how to make things right, be open to it. My boyfriend figured that by just adding the honey and thyme at the end, so they wouldn’t burn on the pan, the spuds and mushrooms could be fried as if they were roasted, only much quicker.

4. Clean as you go

Unless you live in Ballymaloe, you aren’t going to have the right utensils, or enough space, to leave it all to the end.

5. In the words of Elsa: Let it Go

If you haven’t got the right pot, pan or polyunsaturate, it’s too late to start fretting about it when the in-laws are roaring towards you in a cab. Risk your mother going all dowager countess by asking neighbours for supplies. Alternatively, improvise; I rolled my pastry with a flour-fluffed bottle of Cabernet.

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