Monday 20 November 2017

Christmas diner

Plan ahead for your big meal this year, says Brenda Costigan, so you will have the time to enjoy the perfect turkey with your family, after an easy starter of smoked trout or salmon

We’ve all had a turbulent time, so this year, more than ever, we need to enjoy Christmas. Keep it simple, and make it a real family occasion if you can.

The perennial problem of serving the Christmas dinner is always the same: how to prepare, cook and serve this big, special meal and enjoy it at the same time. There is only one way — plan and prepare as much in advance as possible. Make your list of people to be served, and draw up the menu you plan to serve, not only on Christmas Day but also the day before and the day after, ensuring you have the required ingredients in the kitchen to whip up a meal at any time.


Assuming that most families will cook a turkey, let’s start here. There are umpteen ways to prepare and roast a turkey, but keeping the flesh moist is always a challenge. Numerous tips include roasting the turkey upside down or on its side — some even suggest injecting the breast with cream! My preferred way is to simply roast the turkey in a tent of foil. It keeps all the moisture in, and you just open the foil at the end of cooking to brown the bird beautifully. Use two lengths of wide turkey foil, each one about 1.2m (4ft) long. Make sure the foil pieces are long enough to go under the turkey and rise up high on each side, well above the level of the breastbone.

Using the two pieces of foil, make a large cross, and where they intersect in the middle is where you sit the turkey — with the roasting tin underneath, of course. Draw up the lengths of foil at each side and at the front and back ends of the turkey. They should now make a box-like shape. Secure the foil by sealing the two edges of each corner with a double fold. Once you have done this with all four edges, you should now have a foil box with the turkey encased in it. To seal the top, draw the top edges together in a line along the length of the turkey and make a double fold. There should be plenty of head room inside the foil, above the turkey, to allow for steam to circulate.


About 110g (4oz) of softened butter, well flavoured with crushed garlic, some finely grated lemon zest, salt and freshly ground black pepper, and chopped herbs — parsley, thyme, chives and the like — can be spread on the breast of the turkey or underneath the skin. At the neck end of the turkey, lift up the loose skin and you will find a thin, clear membrane holding the skin to the breast meat just at the V-shaped neck opening. Slit this, and then, gently inserting your fingers, you can free quite an area of the skin from the breast meat. Insert and spread the flavoured butter under this skin flap as best you can without tearing the skin.

With a little extra effort, it is also possible to dislodge and cut away the wishbone, which is just inside the edge of the V-shape at the front. It won’t come easily — a tough little pair of pliers may be a help to break off the wishbone at each side. This makes the carving easier.


Ask your butcher the weight of your dressed turkey, then add it to the weight of your prepared stuffing. Preheat the oven to 220°C, 425°F, Gas 7 to give the turkey a good blast of heat at the start of roasting. Cook the smaller turkeys at this temperature for 30 minutes; big turkeys will need an hour. Then reduce the oven heat way down to 170°C, 325°F, Gas 3, and continue cooking, using the chart below as a guide. Don’t be afraid to start the cooking early, as the cooked turkey will keep well, covered with foil and a couple of large towels — like a tea cosy — for 30-45 minutes. The times include the initial blast at the high temperature.

Guideline cooking times:

3.5-4.5kg (8-10lbs) 3-3½ hours

4.5-6kg (10-14lbs) 3½-4 hours

6-8kg (14-18lbs) 4-4½ hours

8-9kg (18-20lbs) about 5 hours

This is an approximate guide, as turkeys and ovens do vary, and so does the temperature of the turkey itself going into the oven. It is better, rather than have everyone wait on the turkey, to err on the side of it being cooked ahead of time, as it will not spoil when it’s left to sit and relax for a while.

A roasting thermometer takes away the guesswork. Without one, test if the turkey is cooked by piercing the thickest part of the thigh and breast with a skewer, and catch the juices that run out with a spoon. If they are pink, it is not cooked; if the juices are clear or golden, the bird is ready. Using a paper towel to protect your hand from the heat, pull a leg away from the body and see if the flesh visible at the joint looks cooked or looks pink, or even raw.

For the last half hour of cooking, raise the temperature of the oven up to 200°C, 400°F, Gas 6. Open back the foil, pour off the cooking juices and use them for the gravy, and brown the turkey.


On Christmas Eve, after you collect the turkey, make a giblet stock. This will give the gravy a wondeful, rich taste.

To make the giblet stock, you will need:


1 onion

1 clove garlic

1 stick celery

1 small carrot

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Sprig of fresh thyme

Simply put the giblets — the bird’s neck, heart, liver, and gizzard — into a small saucepan and add one litre (1½pt) of water. Add the onion, the garlic clove, the celery and the small carrot. Season with some salt, freshly ground black pepper and the sprig of thyme. Bring to the boil, cover and simmer gently for about 45 minutes. Leave to stand. Before using, strain the stock. The cooked liver can be chopped and added to the stuffing, if you like. Then make the gravy.

To make the gravy, you will need:

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon butter

1 small onion, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, chopped

50g (2oz) mushrooms, chopped

1 small rasher, chopped

2 level tablespoons flour

Approx 1L (1½pt) giblet stock (or can of beef consomme with water added)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

2-4 tablespoons ruby port

1 tablespoon redcurrant jelly

Juices from the roast turkey

Heat the olive oil and the butter together and gently fry the finely chopped onion and the chopped garlic. When they have softened, add the chopped mushrooms and the chopped rasher and fry until tasty. Add the flour and make a paste, which will be lumpy because of the mushrooms and onion. Continue to cook gently until the paste is a golden-brown colour. Add the giblet stock or beef consomme, whichever you are using, stirring briskly to blend it through the chunky paste. This can be done off the heat or over a gentle heat, whichever you find most effective. When smooth, bring it to the boil to thicken it.

Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Add the ruby port and the redcurrant jelly and heat through. Cover the saucepan and leave to cool overnight. When the turkey is roasted, pour off the juices from the roasting tin. Skim off the fat, add the juices to the made-up gravy, bring to the boil and serve.


These can be prepared for roasting a week or two in advance and frozen. Otherwise prepare them on Christmas Eve, ready to be popped into the oven about 45 minutes before the meal. Cook the potatoes. When they are just tender, lift them out and place them on a tray to cool quickly and prevent further cooking. Then dip each peeled potato into melted butter and place on a baking tin, ready for the oven. Season some with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Store in a cool place. Before roasting, bring the potatoes to room temperature. Pop them into a hot oven for about 30-45 minutes, until they turn golden brown. Ideally, before or during roasting, baste the potatoes with a little fat off the juices from around the turkey. If you are in a big hurry, finish off the tray of potatoes under a hot grill to give them a crisp top.


You will need:

1-2 tablespoons olive oil

3 shallots, chopped

1 garlic clove

4 mushrooms, sliced

Sprig of thyme

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Splash of port

1/3 tin of beef consomme

2 tablespoons chopped tinned tomatoes

1-2 teaspoons tomato relish

Juices from the roast turkey

1 heaped teaspoon cornflour

Strain the juices off the roasting tin and keep them. Heat the olive oil in a pan and fry the chopped shallots, the garlic and the sliced mushrooms until they are soft. Add the thyme, the salt and freshly ground black pepper, the port, the beef consomme, the chopped tinned tomatoes and the tomato relish.

Add the juices from the roasting tin and cook gently for a few minutes. To thicken the gravy, blend the cornflour with a little cold water and add it to the gravy. Bring to the boil, stirring it until it thickens.


One of my fond Christmas memories from childhood is of my mother closely sniffing a big bowl of stuffing. This was her way of judging if she had enough herbs and spices in the mix. In those days, turkeys were frequently stuffed in the body cavity, which today is a no-no, as well as in the neck end. The turkey cooks much more effectively with the body cavity empty except for flavouring items — an onion, a half lemon, some garlic, and a few sprigs of fresh herbs.

You will need:

150g (5oz) rashers, chopped finely

2-4 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

1-2 garlic cloves, chopped

110g (4oz) mushrooms, chopped

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

25g (1oz) butter

1 leek, thinly sliced, well washed

225g (8oz) breadcrumbs

2-3 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped

½ teaspoon oregano

Approx 110ml (4fl oz) chicken stock

Fry the finely chopped rashers until they are nice and golden in a small dribble of the olive oil. Lift out with a perforated spoon, wipe out the pan and put in a little fresh oil. Fry the chopped onion and garlic until it’s soft, then add in the chopped mushrooms and fry until they too are nice and tasty, seasoning them with some salt and freshly ground black pepper.

In a separate pan or a little saucepan, melt the butter and add the thinly sliced leek with a drizzle of the oil. Cook gently — possibly with a lid half on — until the leek slices are soft. Put the breadcrumbs and chopped fresh parsley into a bowl and add in all the prepared ingredients.

Season well with some salt, freshly ground black pepper and the oregano. Add enough chicken stock to moisten the mixture without making it sloppy. Use the stuffing to fill the neck cavity of the turkey, then fold the skin underneath and pin it with wooden cocktail sticks. Don't pack it in too tightly, as the stuffing will expand a little while the bird is cooking.


Easily made, this starter can be made in advance and stored in a dish covered with clarified butter (melted butter, leaving the milk solids behind). Serves 6.

You will need:

200g cottage cheese

100g cream cheese

200g smoked trout or smoked salmon,

vacuum packed

1 tablespoon (approx) fresh lemon juice

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Circles of French bread, toasted and buttered

Tossed baby leaf salad, to serve

Put the cottage and cream cheese, half the smoked trout or salmon, whichever you are using, the fresh lemon juice, salt and freshly ground black pepper into a food processor and buzz until smooth. Add more seasoning if required. To serve, spread thickly on toasted, buttered circles of French bread and place chunks of the smoked fish on top. Accompany with a tossed baby leaf salad.

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