Easy recipes for the newbie cook, the beginner in the kitchen, the nervous novice: we all had to start somewhere, and you can start right here.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Cooking Christmas Dinner, the stress-free way

Ok, I lied.  Cooking this once-a-year extravaganza for your loved ones can never be completely stress-free, but follow this guide and you’ll reduce it to manageable levels.  Think of it as just a big roast dinner, and you probably make one of those every Sunday, right?

I’m giving you a typical three course menu, with turkey and all the trimmings.  You can substitute your own preferences (rib of beef, goose, vegeroast), or a different starter.  It’s the principles that count.  The biggest worry is making sure everything is cooked to perfection and ready at the same time.  The secret here is to take a tip from professional cooks and chefs, and to pre-prepare almost everything; you can even do a lot of this the day before.  Yes, the day before, you have plenty of time: keep repeating this as a mantra as Christmas approaches.

Obviously, I have no idea how many people you are feeding, so I’m going to be typically vague about quantities: once again, it’s the principle that matters.

Starter: Smoked Salmon Mousse in Smoked Salmon Parcels.
Ingredients: approximately one six inch square/circle (the shape doesn’t matter, just a rough size guide) of thinly sliced smoked salmon per person, plus about a third of the total quantity again as trimmings.  One or two tubs of cream or curd cheese (if you want to be exact, measure the capacity of your moulds, multiply by the number of diners, and take away about a third).  A little double cream (you already have some for the Christmas Pudding and for the coffee, don’t you?).  Some fresh dill.  One lemon wedge per person, plus about half a lemon’s worth of juice and grated zest for every four people.  Salt and freshly ground black pepper.  A few nice salad leaves and some cherry tomatoes.  A simple dressing made by shaking together olive oil, white wine vinegar, salt and pepper

Method: Line small moulds (one per person) such as ramekins or espresso-size coffee cups with clingfilm or kitchen foil, leaving a margin hanging over the sides for wrapping.  Place a slice of salmon into the moulds, pushing well in, and this too should give you a good margin hanging over the sides.  Chop the remaining salmon trimmings into fine dice, mix with the cream cheese loosened with a little double cream: you are looking for a consistency that is soft without being runny.  Stir in a good pinch of salt, a few grinds of black pepper, some finely chopped fresh dill (save some dill for the dressing and the garnish), the grated lemon zest and enough of the lemon juice to add a tang, without making the mixture sloppy.

Fill the salmon moulds with the mousse, bring the edges of the salmon up to make a nice little parcel, then fold over the clingfilm/foil to seal.  Refrigerate until needed.

As promised, this is one of the jobs that can be done as early as the day before.

Now, to the turkey.  First thing, do you really need the huge turkey that you normally buy?  For some reason, too many people buy a monster the size of a plucked pterodactyl, which will hardly fit into your oven, let alone any of your roasting trays.  Is it any wonder that you, and your oven which for the rest of the year has only seen a leg of lamb or a shoulder of pork, can’t cope?  Be sensible: yes it’s nice to have some leftovers for cold cuts, turkey sandwiches, curries etc, but how long will it be before you’re fed up with it?  An eight to ten pound bird will easily feed six to eight adults and a typical posse of kids, especially considering all the other goodies that go with the meal.  And there will still be plenty of leftovers.

Buy a free-range bird.  It’s a once a year treat; please don’t get a factory-farmed creature, let alone a frozen beast.  Consider the welfare issues, consider the taste.  ‘Nough said on that, I hope.  And don’t forget to order it well in advance, to be picked up on Christmas Eve.

How long to cook, and at what temperature?  Pretty much every cookbook will give you different oven setting and timings, so how do you choose?  My suggestion is to think it through.  This is a LOT of meat; if you want it thoroughly cooked in the middle, without the extremities charring and drying out, it becomes clear that you’ll need a long, slow cooking process to achieve this.

Many people swear by the method of putting the turkey in the oven late on Christmas Eve, on a very, very low temperature, and letting it cook overnight.  This does work, but as a paranoid safety-freak, I can’t stand the thought of all that unattended apparatus puttering away while I sleep (I probably wouldn’t sleep, to be honest).  The house could catch fire!  The oven could go out!  The cat could figure out how to open the oven and steal your dinner!

I prefer to get it all going in the morning, fairly early, depending on the size of your turkey and the time you intend to eat.  You will be getting your turkey out of the oven at least an hour before you are to serve it (the very important resting time, for the juices to flow back through the bird, and for the carving: unless you are a surgeon, a vet, or a very experienced cook, the carving will take you some time).

Here’s my contribution to the cooking time/oven temperature confusion: it works for me.

For my eight-to-ten pound turkey I will set the oven to gas mark 3/325 Fahrenheit/170 Centigrade, and will cook for around four and a half hours.  To include the resting time, mentioned above, that means that the turkey needs to go in the oven at least five and a half hours before you intend to eat.  For a bigger bird, increase the time, not the temperature – if anything, lower the temperature and increase the cooking time in proportion.

I don’t believe in stuffing the turkey, and will cook it separately.  I know that this seems a heresy, but consider.  The theory is that the stuffing adds flavour and moisture to the bird.  Oh, yeah, says I?  By the time the heat has penetrated all the way through to the middle of the stuffing, the outside of the bird will be shoe-leather – and even the most ethically reared turkey MUST be cooked all the way through as they can carry salmonella and all sorts of other nasties.  Leave the stuffing out, and the heat can penetrate through the cavity.  I do put a few quarters of lemon/orange/onion and maybe a handful of herbs and a little garlic in the hole, but it is very loose and doesn’t fill the gap: the heat can still get through, and, this way, you have your extra moisture and aromatics.

Likewise, un-truss the bird if it is tied up: you want the heat to get all round.

At your calculated time on Christmas morning, get the oven up to temperature.  Start the bird, in a roasting tin, lying on one side.  After an hour or so, turn it onto its other side.  Another hour, turn it onto its back so it is breast side up, and leave it so for the rest of the cooking.  These manipulations allow the heat to get in from all angles, and for the juices to flow through, rather than out of, the bird.

Toward the last hour of cooking, cover the breast and the upper surfaces of the legs with rashers of good, fatty, streaky bacon (I prefer unsmoked, but it’s up to you).  If you are worried that parts of the beast are getting overcooked, you can also cover them with a layer or two of foil.  If you have used foil, take it off for the last ten minutes so that the bacon and the skin can brown.

Some people recommend putting a tray of water in the oven throughout the cooking process, or even a little pot inside the cavity, on the principle that the resulting steam keeps the turkey moist.  I have tried it with and without, and I can’t say I have noticed much difference, but it can’t hurt.

Test the turkey for done-ness at its thickest points: the juices should run clear without a trace of liquid blood.  I really recommend a probe-type cooking thermometer: they are cheap enough.  Stick it into the thickest parts, and make sure the lowest temperature you find anywhere is at least 160F/75C.  Once you have achieved this temperature, or the juices are running clear, you can remove the turkey from the oven and leave it to rest, covered in foil and a few towels to keep warm.

Stuff to do beforehand – even, as suggested, the day before.

Peel and prep all the veggies: potatoes, brussels sprouts (you don’t need to cut a slit or cross in the base), carrots, parsnips, whatever you like.  Leave them in cold water once peeled.  The spuds and parsnips are best par-boiled not long before you are to roast them, or they tend to go black, but you can take a leaf out of the professionals’ book here and cook off the rest of the veg the day before, or at least in the morning of the great day.  Here’s how to do it.

Cook the veg as usual (separately, of course) in plenty of boiling salted water until just done to your liking – in fact, if you can manage it, until just very slightly underdone.  Drain, and plunge into cold water.  This technique is called “refreshing” by the pros, and immediately stops the cooking at the point of perfection.  You can now refrigerate your veggies until you need them.

Use the giblets to make the gravy stock.  Cover the giblets with twice the depth of water, add a slice or two of onion and maybe a clove or two of garlic, a few chunks of carrot and celery, half a dozen peppercorns – no salt at this stage.  Boil, then simmer for a couple of hours until you have a nice, tasty stock.  Strain, then refrigerate once cool, until needed.

Make the stuffing; yes, you can use the dried packet stuff, but why not make you own?  Two pounds of sausage meat, a good handful or two of breadcrumbs, a little finely diced onion, a pinch or two of finely chopped sage, salt and pepper.  Form into little balls, or spread into a tray to be cooked and sliced as you prefer.  If they won’t hold together in balls, add a beaten egg to the mixture – it depends on how fatty your sausage meat is, and you may not need all the egg.

Bringing it all together on the Great Day: the last hour.

Previously, you, or hopefully someone else, has laid the table, put out the glassware, opened the wine to breathe etc.

The turkey comes out of the oven, and rests.  The Christmas Pudding, which has been bubbling away while the turkey roasts (of course, you’ve followed my recipe here) comes off the heat to be covered and kept warm, freeing up your much needed hobs.

Turn the oven up to 450F/230C/gas mark 8, and put in your tray(s) of par boiled potatoes, parsnips (or you can mash these rather than roast them if you prefer) and some small peeled onions if you like them, in a little seasoned oil, to roast (remembering to turn them half way through).  Put in your chipolatas/small sausages about half an hour before your are due to eat, along with the stuffing – they can go on the same tray to save space.  If there really is no room in the oven, you can fry or grill them.

Plate up your starters with their garnishes: they won’t come to any harm being out of the fridge for an hour or so, but cover them if you can – don’t add the dressing until just before you serve them.  Unwrap the foil or clingfilm, and ease the salmon parcel onto the plate.  Garnish with a few salad leaves, some halved cherry tomatoes, a sprig of dill across the parcel, and a good drizzle of your dressing followed by a grind of fresh black pepper.

Put on large pots of water to get hot, so you can be ready to reheat the veggies in the last few moments.

Transfer the turkey to the carving board, skim as much of the fat as you can from the roasting tin, reserving a cupful or so of the juices to keep the carved meat moist, then put the rest along with the giblet stock in the tin onto a low heat.  Mix a couple of ounces of plain flour with an equal amount of cold water (this is known as a “cold water roux”) and add to the tin, along with enough boiling water (or chicken stock – see my recipe here) and add to the tin.  Add a little more water if the gravy gets too thick, turn up the heat for a while if you think it’s too thin – this is not an exact science here, and it is very flexible.  Whisk well from time to time, but otherwise the gravy can take care of itself while you get on with the other tasks.

Begin to carve the beast – you do have a very sharp knife, and a steel to keep it sharp, don’t you?  It is easier to separate the legs and wings and carve them separately.  Have ready some dishes, into which you have drizzled those reserved roasting juices.  Put the meat into the dishes as you go, keeping the dark and light meat separate.  When you have carved enough, seal the dishes tightly with foil, give them a good shake so the juices moisten all the meat, and put somewhere warm.

Check the spuds, the sausages and the gravy, giving them a good stir and shake, and adjusting the heat as necessary.

Serve the starter (don’t forget the dressing), and enjoy it with your family – the rest of the meal is taking care of itself right now.  Relax for a few moments.

Back to the kitchen, where you’re now going to bring it all together like a spectacular magic trick, all in ten minutes.  Check all is well with the spuds etc, and adjust the temperatures again if they need it.

To reheat the pre-cooked vegetables, plunge into your pans of boiling water for a few minutes only (or, though I hate to say it, microwave them).  The brussels sprouts can have a slightly different treatment if you like: even hardened brussels haters will like these.  Heat a good knob of butter with a splash of water in a frying pan large enough to hold the brussels in one layer.  As soon as the butter is foaming, add your pre-cooked sprouts, with a good pinch of salt and a grinding of black pepper.  Toss them round for a few minutes until heated through.  They will be lovely, sweet and nutty.

Strain the gravy through a sieve into a suitable jug or gravy boat.

Now, I don’t know how you like to serve your Christmas dinner: do you plate up every meal in the kitchen, or bring it all out in tureens and platters for everyone to help themselves?  This is up to you.

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned things like bread sauce or cranberry sauce.  I won’t give recipes here, for space reasons, but if you are making your own I would again suggest you do it on the day before, or even the day before that.  But (whisper it very gently) is is okay to use a few things from a jar: I won’t tell them if you won’t.

The Christmas Pudding recipe tells you how to serve: if you are making a custard, then you’ll have to fit that into the proceedings somewhere.  Otherwise, relax.  Enjoy your day, accept the fulsome compliments, pour yourself a drink (what, you have already?)  And get the others to do the washing up.

Oh, and don’t forget to make a stock from the carcasse using the chicken stock recipe: anytime over the next few days will do, or you can break it up and freeze it until you’re ready.  Leftover turkey meat, cut into suitable chunks, freezes well too.

Merry Christmas.


  1. Very helpful advice for a novice! Thank you!

  2. Glad it helps, good luck on the day. More hints and tips for novices and the more experienced in my archive, and plenty more to come: please visit again.