From the turkey to the potatoes, Darina Allen cooks up the perfect festive feast for Christmas.
The Christmas frenzy is well under way. Fairy lights twinkle, Christmas decorations festoon the shops and high streets. Just yesterday a lovely lady stopped me in the street and asked where could she find my Christmas book; apparently she’d lent it to a friend years ago who’d lent it to another friend and the net result was she never got it back. I hear this a lot.
The original Simply Delicious Christmas, published in 1989 has been out of print since 2011 but as a result of these kinds of requests my Christmas book, A Simply Delicious Christmas, has been reprinted in hardback by Gill and Macmillan with all the original recipes and 100 new ones, so no need to panic. It could make a handy Christmas present plus give you an excuse to ask for the original dog-eared paperback copy.
There have been many requests this year for the traditional recipes, I’ve included the roast turkey with all the trimmings but since I wrote the original Christmas book, I’ve realised the value of brining the turkey before cooking.
I can’t tell you how much it enhances the flavour of even mediocre poultry. Simply submerge the bird in a brine solution of six litres water to 600g salt overnight. Next day drain, dry, stuff, and cook.
Here’s another dilemma and another question that I’m regularly asked: To stuff or not to stuff the bird. Well it’s a resounding YES from me. It desn’t matter how good your stuffing is, it won’t be up to much if it’s just cooked in a pie dish or tin foil. The juices of the turkey enhance it immeasurably but don’t pack the cavity too tightly — the heat needs to be able to penetrate fully into the centre of the stuffing during cooking. Stuff the neck end also and tuck the flap underneath, secure it with the wing tips, and so you have lots extra for all the stuffing lovers in the family.
Hopefully, you’ve ordered your turkey by now. Personally I favour a bronze turkey and like to get it ‘New York’ dressed, so I can hang it for three or four weeks. No butcher will do that for you but for me it hugely enhances the flavour.
A ham is just a brilliant standby, particularly at Christmas. Order that well ahead also but if you can’t find a nice, fat, succulent ham, my top tip is to choose a fine piece of loin of bacon. If anything, streaky bacon, with its stripes of fat and lean, is even more juicy and delicious — and deliciously inexpensive.
Now, a few words for the cook on surviving Christmas. If you’ve got a big crowd for Christmas dinner, ask for help. I certainly do and you know what? It makes it all more fun for everyone, plus we can pass on the skills to the younger generation, boys and girls.
Making a plum pudding, mincemeat, cranberry sauce, brandy butter, bread sauce, stuffing, preparing Brussels sprouts and celery is not exactly rocket science but it all takes time and it makes all the difference to the enjoyment of the meal if as much as possible can be prepared ahead.
I don’t know about you but I have to make lists — make yourself a cup of tea or coffee, sit down, relax, and make a week’s planner. Christmas is not just one day, it now lasts five days to a full week. Insert the basic meals for each day, then start on the list of jobs and allocate a certain number of tasks to ensure everyone has a share in the fun and work. A sense of humour is vital and somehow lightens the load for everyone. Don’t forget a hug for the cook.
Stock up your pantry
A well-stocked cupboard of dry goods makes it so easy to rustle up meals in moments by adding a few fresh ingredients or even leftovers.
Apart from the obvious dry goods — flour, onion, potatoes, pasta, rice, spices — for Christmas add pannetone, Panforte di siena, clementines, mandarins, streaky bacon, chorizo, salami,pickled herrings, spiced beef, tortillas, pitta bread, good quality chocolate, nuts, sardines, tuna, anchovies, tinned tomatoes and beans, and extra virgin olive oil.
Grow or seek out good-quality dry, floury potatoes such as Golden Wonders or Kerr’s Pinks. New potatoes do not produce good roast potatoes.
For best results, peel potatoes just before roasting. Resist the temptation to soak them in water, or understandably they will be soggy, due to the water they absorb. This has become common practice when people want to prepare ahead, not just for roasting, but also before boiling.
If you wish to prepare potatoes ahead, there are two options. Peel and dry each potato carefully, toss in extra virgin olive oil or fat of your choice, put into a bowl, cover and refrigerate. Alternatively, put into a plastic bag, twist the end, and refrigerate until needed. They will keep for five to six hours or overnight without discolouring.
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