Friday 24 October 2014

How to cook a stress-free Christmas dinner

Personal chef Eugene McSweeney shows Edel Coffey how to prepare a fabulous festive meal without the fuss in just four hours

Edel Coffey

Published 10/12/2013 | 21:00

Edel Coffey with shop-bought desserts
Eugene McSweeney and Edel Coffey get Christmas dinner ready by carving the turkey.
Edel Coffey pours out the nibbles

Last year, I hosted Christmas dinner for my family for the first time. Aside from the implications that when your parents start visiting you for Christmas you really are getting old, I wasn't too flustered. I thought I had everything under control.

I had Nigella's Christmas cook book and her step-by-step timetable seemed fail-safe. All I know now is that by midnight on Christmas Eve, I was standing, red-faced over a bowl of roasted chestnuts, trying to peel their tough skins and succeeding only in breaking my nails. By the time it came to serving Christmas dinner, I was an exhausted wreck at the dinner table.

This year, I vowed, things will be different. No peeling chestnuts from scratch, no fretting over how many weeks my Christmas cake needed to sit for. This year I would make a stress-free dinner. But how, short of hiring a personal chef, could I ensure this?

Eugene McSweeney is a master chef, former owner of Lacken House in Kilkenny, and now a personal chef to the rich and famous and a consultant chef to Tesco. Last week, he arrived at my house to show me it is possible to have a fabulous festive meal without the fuss. He also showed me how to do it all in four hours.

The first thing to do says Eugene is to turn on the oven. Before he has even unpacked his shopping, he has the oven on and he adjusts the oven racks while the oven is still cool, so that the oven will fit both the turkey and the ham.

Eugene's rule of thumb is to start with the thing that takes the longest, so we get the turkey and ham out, weigh everything and figure out cooking times working off the 20 minutes-per-pound rule. Add 20 minutes to your total cooking time.

Make sure the meat is at room temperature when it goes in the oven, rather than cold from the fridge, as it is better for the meat. We rinse the ham and put it in a pot to boil, leaving its paper collar on so it doesn't lose its shape. We then prepare the turkey by basting it with goose fat. Don't forget to take the giblets out of the turkey cavity. (Put these aside for the gravy).

Next, Eugene prepares a 'trivet', a method of keeping the turkey off the base of your roasting tin and preventing it from drying out. He thickly slices carrots and parsnips to cover the base of the tray. A tip to help the turkey cook evenly is to cut the skin between the leg and the breast as this is the hardest part of the turkey to cook.

If you discover that your turkey doesn't fit in your oven, don't panic. Simply remove the legs and the turkey will fit. Make a note of your cooking times and then write your checklist of what remains to be done.

Take the turkey giblets, heart, neck and wings and put them in a pot of water with a half a carrot, a half an onion, one bay leaf and a small sprig of thyme and bring to the boil and then simmer for a couple of hours. This will become your gravy.

When chopping vegetables after preparing meat, be careful of cross contamination. Keep separate chopping boards if possible and when stocking your fridge, keep raw meat on the bottom shelf.

When the stock boils, scoop off any fat that rises to the top and continue to simmer.

Peel your potatoes and put them in a pot of cold water. Add a bread crust to the water to keep the potatoes from discolouring. Peel your parsnips and carrots, but don't chop them until you are ready to roast them. Prepare your sprouts by peeling away the outer leaves and cutting a cross in the base of the sprout, which helps them to cook faster.

Blanch the sprouts (boil for four to five minutes) and put aside in a bowl. Blanch the vegetables and add to the roasting tray. If your roasting tray is not big enough, you can sautée your vegetables with some butter in a pan instead, which gives a similar effect to roasting. Baste the turkey regularly with goose fat. If it is browning too quickly, cover with tinfoil.

If everything is going well, you should have a little lull at this point. Now is the time to prepare the first course. Have some crisps and nuts in bowls, some glasses ready for the prosecco and your first course of smoked salmon, crème fraiche, a little mixed salad, a wedge of lime and some sliced fresh bread prepared. This way, if your guests arrive early, you won't have to scramble to get them some food and drink while you finish cooking. Prepare the cheese board and leave it to come to room temperature.

Use this time to take your cake, pudding and mince pies out of their packaging and present them on pretty plates. Pour yourself a glass of wine.

Make a list of what you need for each course -- wine glasses, bowls, plates, side plates and cutlery and have them to hand. When the ham is cooked, cover it with a honey and mustard glaze and put it in the oven for 20 minutes to finish. Do not throw the water from the ham down the sink. This makes a wonderful base for a pea and ham soup. Just add some leeks, potatoes, peas and chopped leftover ham.

Sieve your stock into a pot and add some red wine to darken it. If you like your gravy thicker, add some butter and flour to thicken it (equal parts butter to flour). Fry some pancetta and mix with your sprouts.

By this time, your dinner is ready to serve and you are fabulously unflustered. I never would have believed it possible if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes. All that is left to do is to pour the wine. Serve a chablis to start and a pinot noir with the main course. "Christmas is a special day," says Eugene. "Spoil yourself."

CONTACT EUGENE AT EUGENE.MCSWEENEY@ GMAIL.COM

Irish Independent

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