Talking turkey - How to serve up the perfect feast this Christmas
Carissa Casey on the do's and don'ts of cooking the ultimate seasonal dish
If there was ever a need for an alternative name for Christmas, list-time would be a good one. Because it's not just Santy who needs to write it all down and check it twice. The Christmas day cook -- or cooks -- should ideally start preparations well in advance with a pen and paper in hand.
The most daunting task for the amateur chef is the cooking of the traditional Christmas turkey, eaten in more than 90% of Irish homes.
A good turkey is expensive. Cooked properly, it emerges steaming from the oven with bronzed crispy skin and moist succulent breast meat that cries out for a dollop of cranberry sauce. Overcook it, however, and the meat becomes dry and tasteless. Undercook it and risk giving the entire family a bad case of food poisoning.
Yes, it's a stressful business getting it just right amid the mayhem of Christmas morning, which is why it's best to start preparation in plenty of time and have a clear plan for the day itself. And now is about the right time to start.
According to James Nolan of Nolans Butchers in Kilcullen, Co Kildare, the first step to bringing that perfectly cooked turkey proudly to the dinner table on Christmas day is to figure out the right size of bird for your needs.
"It's not just about figuring out the number of people you'll be feeding but thinking about whether they are adults or children, big eaters or pickers," says Mr Nolan. "If you're having six people it makes a huge difference whether five of them are big men with hearty appetites or a mix of kids and elderly relatives," he points out.
Nolan recommends talking to your local butcher about what size of turkey would be most appropriate for your needs. He sells only Irish turkeys sourced from a farmer who has supplied him over many years.
Turkeys range hugely in price. At the top end are the freshly-killed organic and free-range birds. Less expensive are the Irish factory-produced turkeys and frozen birds are even cheaper. In these hard-pressed times, many people will be tempted into buying imported turkeys which can be found in some of the discount supermarkets for as little as €7. If money is tight, it's difficult to expect consumers to always buy patriotically.
But there are advantages to buying Irish. The most obvious is that the meat can be traced directly back to the farm where it was produced, thanks to the Bord Bia quality mark.
A locally-killed turkey can taste better. According to a spokesman for Associated Craft Butchers of Ireland, transporting animals long distances before slaughter has a detrimental effect on meat quality.
"Meat sourced locally and sold locally uses little fossil fuel and is kinder to the environment. So buying locally contributes to the local economy and also ensures the quality of the meat is far superior," he says.
In short, Irish butchers would maintain that a small amount of tastier meat will always trump a large amount of bland meat. If you can resist the urge to cater for a few hundred unexpected guests who are never likely to show up, you might find you can afford to buy a good quality Irish bird.
Bear in mind that it is not written in law that you must cook an entire bird for Christmas dinner. There are different cuts of turkey, including a fillet or a boned-and-rolled breast.
These have the advantage of being far less wasteful and much easier to cook. The only downside to cooking turkey off the bone is that it needs to be basted well so that it doesn't dry out.
One final and all important factor to bear in mind when choosing the size of the bird is the size of the oven in which it needs to be cooked. Remember, too, the turkey will need to be kept refrigerated up until about an hour before you're ready to cook it. If you're planning to eat leftovers the following day, the remains of the cooked bird will also need to be refrigerated.
If you're buying a fresh bird, make sure you get it as close as possible to Christmas day and put it straight in the fridge.
A frozen bird should be put into the freezer as soon as you get it home. It will need plenty of time to defrost. The safest way to defrost a turkey is on the bottom shelf of the fridge where it can't drip on other food items. Allow about 24 hours' defrosting time for every 5lb of turkey.
There is no real need to wash the turkey. In fact, food hygiene experts claim that washing the bird will spread bacteria all over your kitchen. The bacteria will be killed during the roasting. Experts recommend patting the bird dry with kitchen roll. Remember to wash your hands well after touching the turkey and particularly if you go on to prepare any other food.
Turkey stuffing is as traditional as the turkey itself. However, food hygienists say that the safest way to cook the stuffing is put it in a separate dish. If you really do want to cook the stuffing inside the bird, stuff the neck region only and not the cavity, where the bacteria lurks.
A turkey takes a long time to cook, so if you're cooking a whole bird it's best to start it as early as possible on Christmas morning. A 12-14lb turkey can take up to five hours. If you do nothing else in advance of the dinner, check and double-check the right cooking time for the size of bird you've bought.
The Safefood website (www.safefood.eu) has a cooking-time calculator which is definitely worth using.
However, ovens vary and at some point you'll need to decide for yourself whether the bird is cooked. There is no point trying to gauge this just by looking at it, since an undercooked bird can still have a nice crispy skin. The age-old method of testing is to stick a skewer into the top of the leg and check that the juices run clear. Any pinkness in the juices and the turkey needs more cooking time.
If it's your first attempt at turkey roasting, you might consider buying a meat thermometer to be double sure. The internal temperature of the meat should have reached 75 degrees centigrade.
Overall the golden rule is that the meat should not be pink.
Once you're satisfied the meat is done, take it out of the oven and let it rest for at least half an hour under foil. This allows the juices to settle back into meat and keep it moist.
When you've carved enough meat for dinner, allow the remains to cool down before covering the carcass and putting it in the fridge. Leftovers should be eaten within three days. If you're reheating the meat, make sure it is piping hot all the way through and don't reheat meat more than once.
For recipe ideas both for the Christmas turkey and leftovers check out www.greatfood.ie.