Monday 26 September 2016

Who needs turkey? 10 tasty alternatives to turkey this Christmas

Our expert rounds up 10 tasty alternatives to the big bird this Christmas

Aoife Carrigy

Published 16/12/2015 | 02:30

Goose was an essential part of Christmas festivities
Goose was an essential part of Christmas festivities

Though it may seem sacrilege to some, not everyone loves a turkey at Christmas. True, it doesn't have to end up dry and bland, if you're skilled enough to cook it right and savvy enough to source it well. But even if you did love it on December 25, that love is often waning fast before the last of it is despatched.

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There is another way. Any number of them actually. Whether you're looking for a festive bird with a difference, or a vegan feast to make mouths water, we've got your options well covered.

1 The traditional goose

For many Irish families, the goose was once an essential part of Christmas festivities, and for many it remains the more traditional flavour. Goose contains a lot of fat, so roasting it on a trivet or rack is essential. Drain off the fat periodically and use it to cook perfect roast spuds. Overcooked goose can taste livery: aim for medium-rare, as you would with roast duck.

Serve with: a red wine with generous acidity, like Cabernet Franc from the Loire or Pinot Noir.

2 The small bird

If you've an extra small gathering this year and don't want the fuss of a big bird, why not opt for a small one instead? Poussin is a young chicken that is the ideal size for an individual serving, whether you carve it for guests or serve it whole and let them get stuck in.

They'll roast in under an hour, so no slaving over a hot stove for a half a day. Try stuffing with lemon before roasting, or with prunes and thyme as Martha Stewart does.

Serve with: a classy Chianti or classic Claret (Bordeaux red).

3 The vegan feast

Forget nutloaf as you thought you knew it. When those nuts are pistachios, and are mixed with seasonal treats like cranberries, chestnuts and sweet spiced squash, and topped with a punchy tomato and chilli sauce, things start looking a lot like Christmas.

Jamie Oliver's vegan-friendly Persian Squash and Pistachio Roast suggests chia seeds in place of egg to bind. Complete the feast with Dukkahed Sprouts from Sally Butcher's veggiestan.com.

Serve with: something with sweetness to counteract the spice and acidity to match the tomato sauce, an off-dry Riesling perhaps?

4 The veggie parcel

Whether you have a lone vegetarian to factor into a traditional Christmas feast or want to conjure up a meat-free offering fit for centre-table, a pithivier is a great vehicle for flavour. Essentially a folded pie made of buttery puff pastry, it can be made as big or small as you wish and stuffed with the filling of your dreams: BBCGoodFood.com suggests squash and sage with mascarpone or a Moroccan spiced pie packed with Christmas flavours.

Serve with: a buttery Burgundy to pair the pastry, or Rioja Gran Reserva to match the spices.

5 The feast of the seven fishes

For many of our European neighbours Christmas feasting is more about fish than fowl, from the river fish of Eastern Europe's 12-dish supper to Southern Italy's shellfish-heavy Feast of the Seven Fishes.

This free-for-all might include lobster, squid, shrimp, mussels and clams as well as the dried salt cod that is equally popular in Portugal at this time of year. Or you could keep things simple with a Spanish-inspired platter of roast langoustines (aka Dublin Bay Prawns) with romesco sauce.

Serve with: a steely Chablis or flinty Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre or neighbouring Menetou-Salon or Coteaux du Giennois.

6 The whole roast fish

For simplicity's sake, a whole roast fish makes a great centrepiece. Hake is one of the more delicate of the meaty white fish, like a less flaky cod, not to mention great value being local and plentiful. Try stuffing it with aromatic fish-friendly herbs like fennel, dill, lemon and thyme, as suggested on greatbritishchefs.com, or pep it up with a chimichurri-style salsa verde to serve on the side. Serve with: a salty Albarino or aromatic Godello from Galicia in north-east Spain, or cool-climate Sauvignon Blanc from Chile's Leyda Valley.

7 Game on

One of my favourite Christmas meals ever was a whole beef fillet blanketed in porcini mushrooms, wrapped in prosciutto and roast to a juicy medium-rare, but there's no reason why you couldn't try something similar with venison, which is a really under-rated treat of a local meat. The American food.com suggests marinating the venison overnight in madeira, lemon and spices. Or consider Scottish HighlandGame.com for a simple roast venison with blueberry and balsamic sauce.

Serve with: the best Northern Rhone Syrah you can afford, for the perfect marriage of elegance and spice.

8 A bird in the hand

Of course, game comes in the feathered variety too, and there's a huge range of choice out there once you start looking.

A good butcher will happily help you source anything they don't regularly stock (Dublin's Fallon & Byrne would be a good place to start) and give advice on how to cook it. Partridge is one of Mark Hix's favourite, and one of the least gamey, while Delia Smith has plenty of pheasant recipes if you'd like to try this fine-flavoured bird.

Serve with: an earthy Pinot Noir from Burgundy.

9 The Italian job

Festa: A Year of Italian Celebrations is a brilliant new cookbook from Eileen Dunne, the doyen of the Irish-Italian Dunne & Crescenzi empire.

For Christmas Day, she suggests chicken liver crostini followed by vitello tonnato (a gorgeously retro cold dish of veal and tuna) and then pork wrapped in speck.

Give it a local twist by using Shine's Irish-caught Albacore Tuna (available jarred in delis), local rosé veal (from humanely reared calves) and free-range rare-breed pork or organic pork from the likes of Coolanowle (organicmeat.ie).

Serve with: a Tuscan Sangiovese such as Chianti or Brunello di Montalcino.

10 Go Mesoamerican

Authentic Mexican food is being embraced the world over, and you can't get much more authentic than dishes of Aztec origin.

Two of these - both based on pozole kernels, or hominy, from the floury cacahuacintle corn - are particularly popular in Mexico for Christmas and other festivities.

Tamales are little parcels stuffed with everything from turkey to pork or beans, while pozole is a spicy pork or chicken soup piled high with fresh Mexican garnishes.

Dublin's Picado Mexican (picadomexican.com) will not only sell you all the ingredients but Lily's blog will provide the recipes too.

Serve with: a full and ripe Zinfandel from sunny California.

...and if you're thinking of having reindeer Ian O'Doherty has some advice for you - don't

It was one of those seasonal controversies which lets you know that Christmas is around the corner. In this instance, the source of consternation came from something called 'mummypages.ie', which saw Laura Haugh, the 'mum in residence' (no, I'm not making this up), complain that the reindeer meat in Lidl was going to ruin the magic of Christmas.

Haugh was shocked - shocked I tells ya - to be confronted by such an apparently unseasonal sight and immediately vented on her blog:

"Fortunately, I didn't have my kids with me", said the mother of four from south Dublin but she was quick to add: "Be that as it may, I gave careful consideration to evade it, whenever they are with me out shopping."

She then graciously admitted: "You must be aware of the way that we're in a multicultural society now and that individuals originate from distinctive societies and some don't observe Christmas."

Now, given the fact that the reindeer meat comes from Finland, which is home to Lapland, it's probably fair to say that they are, actually, well aware of Christmas and while Ms Haugh's consideration for those who 'originate from distinctive societies' is indeed laudable, it's not particularly relevant.

Nope, the only thing that's relevant is the meat - is it tasty?

Lidl's meat is often a pleasant surprise and it should be noted that their duck fillets are second to none, and exceptionally good value.

But I wanted Rudolph's flesh.

From the initial kerfuffle about the horror of seeing the newly introduced meat, I half expected to walk into my local Lidl and be confronted by a rack of reindeer carcasses gently swinging from the ceiling as their lovely Christmas antlers made figure eights on the blood-splattered floor beneath them. Maybe,as a Christmas treat, they might even still have their sleigh bells attached?

Sadly, no.

Instead, I could only find tastefully designed packets of smoked reindeer carpaccio.

In fact, it seems virtually impossible to get a proper cut of reindeer in this town. I went to my local butcher and he asked me to stop annoying him with stupid questions or leave the premises. Then I went to a butcher in Terenure who has made a name for introducing interesting meats to this country (ostrich, crocodile steaks, emu, that sort of thing) and he couldn't help, either.

So, with my hopes of doing some braised reindeer with a herb and salt crust dashed, it was going to have to be the carpaccio.

I'm one of those people who probably prefers the idea of eating venison to the reality, but that's more down to my own kitchen disasters than anything else. So this was a chance to see what the controversial meat tastes like when it has been prepared properly.

And who doesn't like cold cuts?

Well, frankly, as reluctant as I am to engage in hyperbole, it felt like putting a little taste of evil in my mouth.

Intensely salty rather than subtly smoked, the slices have the strange and unappetising texture common to many meats that have been vacuum-sealed and while it had a nice oaky colour and was dry, it still tasted almost slimy as I gagged it down.

It's always unfair to judge a slice of meat on its own, so I tried a few variations.

Reindeer with mustard and rye bread? Reindeer with chilli peppers and pickled onions? Reindeer sliced and mixed through scrambled eggs on a piece of sour dough?

I tried them all, and the one dominant flavour that cut through even the mustard or chillies was the overpowering saltiness of the slices and the sense of disappointment that it didn't come even close to expectations.

I'm all for eating sustainable meat and venison is an undeniably healthy and nutritious meat.

But smoked, sliced and stacked in a vacuum pack, reindeer is, to flip one of those annoying foodie terms, extremely lessish.

I should have stayed with their duck, instead.

Irish Independent

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