Arlene Harris talks to four of Ireland’s finest about menu plans and past disasters.
CHRISTMAS is a time of giving, but it is also a time of cooking and for many people the prospect of throwing together a top-notch meal for a big group of people is not only daunting but can also throw their confidence into a tailspin.
But hassled Christmas cooks can take some comfort in the knowledge that kitchen catastrophes can happen to anyone — even the most proficient of us.
We speak to four of Ireland’s top chefs to find out what calamities they’ve had in the kitchen, what Christmas means to them, who will be doing the cooking on the big day and, most importantly, what advice can they offer the rest of us.
Neven Maguire , who recently launched his own cookery school in Blacklion, Co Cavan, says he loves everything about the Christmas period and can’t wait to get stuck into preparing food for his friends and family — including wife Amelda and twins, 22-month-old Connor and Lucia.
“I really enjoy Christmas — it’s a great time to get together and of course, it also involves lots of lovely food,” he says.
“There is nothing on the seasonal menu that I don’t like and I just love turkey and ham — you can’t really replace them with anything else. Mind you, I do have goose sometimes for a change and it is the only time of year that I eat it.”
Neven will be cooking for his family this year and, although it is something he is well used to, there was an occasion when things almost didn’t go to plan.
“It is always a lovely occasion but once, about five years ago, the electricity went out and I had 30 hungry people waiting for their dinner — so thank God I had a gas alternative.”
This year the TV chef will do the cooking on Christmas Day.
“We will have 30 to 35 people for dinner,” he says. “I am still awaiting final numbers but as far as I’m concerned, the more the merrier.”
The key to success in the kitchen, he says, is preparation.
“My advice to those cooking the Christmas dinner would be to be well prepared and do as much as possible on Christmas Eve and the days leading up to it,” he says.
Once it is all over, he plans to take a well-earned break. “I am really looking forward to the beginning of my summer holidays. Like a lot of chefs, I take January off — and I just can’t wait.”
* Neven Maguire’s latest book, The Nation’s Favourite Food, €25.
Donal Skehan, food writer and TV presenter, says he developed a love of cooking and a sweet tooth when he was a young child and has some fond Christmas memories involving food.
“My mom does the most amazing Parmesan roast parsnips which I could eat all year round,” he says. “They are crispy crunchy and sweet and as I have a serious sweet tooth, I also love making gingerbread cookies for the tree. When we were kids we would make them with my aunt and cut out holes and place boiled sweets in the centre so they would melt down in the oven and create a stained glass window effect.”
The most famous story in his family revolves around the Christmas ham. “Every year my mom divides up the jobs, someone does the Brussels sprouts, the sauces, etc, and on this particular year my aunt was doing the Christmas ham.
“The turkey had come out of the oven and all was going swimmingly. When all 12 of us had finished eating it was only then that the big beautiful ham had been completely forgotten about and was still sitting in the kitchen. There were quite a few leftovers that year.”
Although he is usually on hand to prepare the Christmas dinner, this year, the Dublin man will be celebrating the season in Scandinavia.
“My girlfriend Sofie is Swedish so we spend every second Christmas in Sweden and will be going there this year,” he says.
“So I’m off cooking duty on the day but have volunteered to make the classic starter for the Swedish Christmas dinner of pickled herring and some nice thin crisp-breads flavoured with fennel seeds.
“It will be nice having a different Christmas menu and there is a dish called janssons frestelse of creamy potatoes with anchovies which I love — so much that I’ve started making it for our Irish Christmas too.
“Also, we love making our own decorations and last year we had big branches right down the table with gingerbread stars hung on twine — so it looked great,” says Donal.
Michelle Darmody owns the Cake Cafe in Dublin, is food writer with the Irish Examiner and author of The Cake Cafe Bake Book and a regular judge on Masterchef Ireland. She loves the festive fun of Christmas and will be sharing the workload with her mother in Carrigaline, Co Cork.
“Enjoying and sharing good food is the most important part of my Christmas,” she says.
“Particularly taking the time to relax and enjoy cooking — if that means designating jobs — and more importantly enjoying the meal together.”
Michelle’s husband Declan will be spending Christmas with his mum in Dublin while she will be spending it with her family in Cork — he will join her on St Stephen’s Day.
“In the past my mother and father cooked and I took over when he passed away. Although over the last few years we have organised a roster system because getting all the food ready was taking up the whole morning. Mom and I were not able to enjoy a glass of bubbly along with the rest of the family so we now designate a job per person — but my Mom still does the most. There are up to 12 for dinner so it is a scramble to find enough chairs.”
Although turkey is the main event, Michelle has a fondness for vegetables and the obligatory Christmas bakes.
“I always love the sides that come with the dinner, sprouts with chestnuts and lardons, slow-cooked red cabbage and of course golden roast potatoes,” she says.
“I like to do tasty carrot batons in orange juice with ginger and star anise. It is not traditional but works really well with the Christmas dinner.”
Mince pies are a firm favourite. “We did a Christmas photo shoot for Cake Café in September and I got to eat all the mince pies afterwards. It felt odd eating them so far in advance but they still tasted oh so good.
While she is now a dab hand at the Christmas dinner, there was a time when her culinary skills weren’t quite up to scratch.
“One year, when I was a teenager, I decided to make a red and white striped Christmas cake,” she recalls.
“My mother, who taken the time to bake the beautiful cake, very generously handed it over to me to decorate. It was in the days before I knew you needed egg whites to harden icing. I mixed together icing sugar, water and food colouring and proceeded to draw big red and then white lines down the side and across the top of the cake.
“The red leaked completely and we ended up with an odd looking bright pink monstrosity. But I put a ribbon on it anyway and served it up.”
Oliver Dunne is the chef and owner of Bon Appetit and Cleaver East restaurants in Dublin. The youngest chef to be awarded a Michelin star in Ireland, he is married to Sabine and has two children, Evan, eight, and Kimi, four. He is looking forward to cooking and eating a traditional Christmas dinner.
“I’m not fussy about food and will pretty much eat anything, but I’m definitely a traditionalist and wouldn’t want anything other than turkey, ham and all the trimming on Christmas Day,” he says.
“Also, my mother Sheila has the most amazing sausage meat stuffing recipe and it is always the highlight of our Christmas feast.”
The Dublin chef will have a full house but with everything prepared in advance, the day should run smoothly.
“I’ll be cooking for 27 people this year. My wife is French so I have her family coming over and I’ll be proud to show the French clan how Christmas is done in Ireland. Thankfully, I’ve had no disasters as yet and I think the key to a pressure-free Christmas dinner is preparing everything in advance and planning your day correctly.
“It’s not easy cooking and keeping everything hot with only one oven, so taking 10 minutes to plan the day will make life so much easier and will reduce the stress.”
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