Wednesday 21 March 2018

Cook Christmas like a pro

Christmas Dinner - our tips will have you serving up like a pro.
Christmas Dinner - our tips will have you serving up like a pro.
John Torode (left) with his Masterchef colleague Gregg Wallace.
Micehl Roux Jr.
Darina Allen
Neven Maguire
Donal Skehan.
Kevin Dundon
Lorraine Pascale

Some of our favourite celebrity chefs serve up their top Christmas kitchen shortcuts, and share their favourite bits of the big day too...

It's all about the stuffing

John Torode, Australian chef and Masterchef judge, says that getting each of your guests to bring a dish is the key to Christmas dinner - especially if it's a good stuffing.

"Christmas for me is about a big leg of ham, because as a kid, we always had a leg of ham in the fridge, and it's cold ham kept in a pillow case, so it stays lovely and moist," the father of four says. "The other thing is stuffing. I love stuffing. I think it's very underrated. Sausage meat and sage stuffing is a very, very good thing. Besides that, some cauliflower cheese, the presents, some red wine, a sleep in the afternoon, the kids doing the washing up... I wish!"

John also maintains that preparation is key: "I think big parties and occasions like Christmas are stressful enough, without having to worry about food. My tip for everybody is to do quite a bit over the days before. My Nana, always on Christmas Eve, had all the vegetables peeled and in bowls in the fridge. And the other thing she used to do, which I think is a great thing, is she used to ask people to bring things, so if your Aunty Mary is brilliant at making the stuffing, get her to bring the stuffing. If Uncle Jack is really good at making the Christmas pudding, get him to bring the Christmas pudding.

"If everyone brings one thing, suddenly you've got some cauliflower cheese by Geoff, you've got some custard, some stuffing, some pudding, and then all you've got to do is put the rest of it together.

"And don't stress about it, let it go. If something goes wrong, fine. Your family love you."

He adds: "The other advice I've got is, pay the kids to do the washing up. That was how I first learned to cook. Christmas Day and I remember, I was seven years old and I was paid one dollar to do the washing up for 16 people who came to Christmas lunch, and in those days, there weren't dishwashers, it was a sink and that's it."

Something sweet

TV chef, and My Kitchen Rules UK judge, Lorraine Pascale is all about scoffing chocolate come the festive season.

"I love Christmas - especially the food side," she says. "I'm more into sweet than savoury though!" Her advice for making sure the big day runs smoothly is to make a plan: "Start with the time you want to serve the Christmas dinner and then work your way backwards, so you know exactly how long it's going to take. Ask family members to contribute, so you're not doing it all yourself."

Step away from the booze

Double Michelin-starred chef and TV presenter Michel Roux Jnr says his top tip for preparing Christmas dinner is not to drink.

"I know you'll be tempted to have a little drink while you're prepping - DON'T!" he says. He does recommend going overboard on pudding and garnishes, though: "I love Christmas pudding. We make our own and it's a really special one, very sweet with loads and loads of fruit, and of course, it's the event; getting as much family round you as possible, that's what makes it. But food-wise, I do like my Christmas pudding. Mmm! And the garnish for the turkey - we always do this - is little chipolatas wrapped in bacon. That is just, oh God, fantastic, heaven! Food heaven. Really salty, and probably not very healthy, but ah gosh - so good!"

No need to buy a massive bird but try a bit of haggling

Virginia Park Lodge owner and celebrated chef Richard Corrigan says people can go overboard at Christmas and end up with a turkey or goose which is too big to fit in the oven and takes days to consume.

"People don't need to go overboard when they are buying their Christmas turkey," he says. "I always buy a 10lb free-range bronze which is perfect for at least 10 people. There is nothing wrong with buying a large chicken either if you are only cooking for a small group, but some people always go mad and buy great big 14-16lb whoppers which will mean you will be eating turkey sandwiches for a month - not to mention that a bird of this size is very expensive.

"Speaking of which, cash is very persuasive and I would advise people to use it as a bargaining tool. Don't feel ashamed to ask for a better deal - at worst you will be turned down and at best you will save a few quid."

The chef also says while a glass of wine is great with dinner, he would recommend trying some local beers early on in the day.

"I love a good glass of red wine with the dinner and maybe a glass of bubbly earlier on in the day," he says. "But wine has a much higher alcohol content than beer so if you are going to be having a few drinks throughout the day, I would encourage people to get in some craft beers.

"There are some great brewers around the country making really good beers, so get in a selection to try, and not only will you be keeping your alcohol intake down, you will be supporting a home-grown industry."

Stick with tradition

Kevin Dundon of Dunbrody House Hotel says Christmas is a lot less stressful if you are prepared.

"I like to be organised, I don't want to spend the whole day in the kitchen because it's a big family occasion and normally we have relatives over too," he says. "Potatoes are peeled the evening before and although stuffing is made, I don't stuff the turkey until the morning before cooking.

"I like to have the sprouts prepped by removing the outer leaves and trimming them. Then I peel carrots and parsnips and generally have as much prep done beforehand as is possible. This also includes precooking the ham on Christmas Eve, removing the skin cap, and scoring the fat. I add cloves and a glaze but I will pop it back into the oven on Christmas morning."

Dundon, who has three children - Emily (15), Sophie (12) and Tom (8) - loves the Christmas morning tradition.

"Family makes Christmas special. I love the day itself. We are normally woken early by the children, my wife Catherine makes a pot of tea to share, we have a light breakfast, then I help put toys together, find batteries and screwdrivers, collect and remove all the packaging from the gifts so we have space to sit down in the sitting room later and play games after dinner - it's all about relaxing and having fun."

Try to eat healthily some of the time

Newly-married cook Donal Skehan says Christmas dinner can be the most stressful meal you will cook all year, so says it's important to be prepared in every sense of the word.

"People can get very stressed about cooking for family and friends at Christmas and I'm not surprised," he says. "It's the only time of the year where you have so many different dishes to get ready at the one time, so while I would advise preparing some dishes in advance (prep vegetables, cook ham and make starter or dessert), I would also advise people to look after themselves.

"This time of year can put everyone in a terrible dilemma as they become so stressed about the big meal they forget to eat healthily in the run up to Christmas. I know it is a time of comfort food and cosy fires, but most of us intend to pig out over the few days we have off, so I would advise trying to eat well in the lead up to the big event - this doesn't have to be kale chips and vegetables but simply preparing good home-cooked meals to provide you with enough energy to party over the festive season."

Donal also says he looks forward to getting back in shape when it's all over.

"I know many people dread the thought of dieting in January, but I see it as a chance to start afresh and press the reset button after a couple of weeks of indulgence."

Don't worry about calories

Neven Maguire of MacNean House says the most important part of the season is spending time with his nearest and dearest and while he loves cooking the dinner, everyone lends a hand.

"For me Christmas is all about spending time with family," Neven says. "It's my favourite time of year - the restaurant is closed and I like to cook for my family, including siblings and aunts and uncles.

"I love cooking Christmas dinner but all the family gets stuck in with prepping food, serving it up and washing dishes. However, my Auntie Maureen's Christmas pudding is always a winner - it's tried and tested and is really light and packed with flavour - we serve it with rum custard and plum pudding ice-cream."

The father of three-year-old twins, Conor and Lucia, says Christmas is the one time of year when we shouldn't be worrying about our waistlines.

"I would definitely say that this is a day that you enjoy the food and forget about calories," he says. "It is the biggest day of the year to relax with family, but while it is great to have a few drinks with dinner, try not to start too early as wine works best with food."

Enlist the help of family members

Darina Allen of Ballymaloe House and cookery school says the more the merrier at Christmas as everyone helps with the preparations.

"We always have a very big gathering for Christmas," she says. "The House is closed for three days and we have a huge family - from Myrtle who is 91 down to the youngest who is only a few months old - so there is always a crowd.

"We had 62 around the table one year and everyone helps out - even the little ones who fold napkins or lay out Christmas crackers. Nobody is without a job - boy or girl, young or old, we all lend a hand which not only makes everything easier, but also helps to make the day a real family occasion."

The well-known chef says the best part of the day is the fun and games which have been a tradition in Ballymaloe for generations.

"After dinner we roll back the carpets and get stuck into some games. There are tons of children so the house is completely taken over with noise and laughter. The smallest ones slide down the stairs on trays, landing on a mattress below. While we all take part in a variety of traditional games, many of which involve racing around the house or whacking each other with rolled up newspapers - it's all great fun.

"This, in my opinion, is what Christmas is all about - helping each other to get the food ready and then having a great time together."

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