Here follows my top tips for a stress-free culinary Christmas…
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- Plan, plan, plan - You should be spending your time at Christmas with family and friends, not fretting away in the kitchen. If you plan what you are going to cook well in advance and the order in which you are going to do things, then you will be much calmer and relaxed. You will then have time to join in and enjoy the meal, rather than spend all your time in the kitchen while everyone else enjoys the occasion. Don’t just plan the food, also think about all the utensils and equipment you will need and when you will be using them during the cooking process (refer tips 4 and 7 below)
- Cook as much in advance as possible - This should be your general mantra and approach for the whole occasion. Look for techniques and recipes that can be cooked in advance and reheated e.g. see tip 3 on blanching vegetables. Even if you are doing the actual cooking on the day, you can prepare all your ingredients, sauces and marinades in advance and save hours on prep time.
- Prepare & blanche the vegetables in advance - The real tedious work is to wash, peel and prepare all those vegetables! Do this all the day before, and then blanch the vegetables. This means that you par cook the vegetables in hot boiling water until just tender, and then immediately plunge them into cold water. This stops the cooking process and keeps the colour and flavour in the vegetables. When the vegetables are cold, drain off, and store in the fridge until just before you need them. With this done, all you need to do is simply reheat before serving, (microwave is great for veg) and add any extra flavours (e.g. crisp bacon onto sprouts, orange glaze onto carrots).
- Cooking for the equipment you have - Don’t plan a menu that requires you to use the oven for 4 different dishes at the same time, just prior to eating. Use all cooking equipment at your disposal – hobs, microwaves, ovens, etc. If need be, invest in a portable gas or electric cooker to help – easily available at Argos or your local camping store. If you have planned your menu well (tip 1), and chosen recipes that you can prep in advance (tip 2), this should not be an issue!
- Don’t overdo the menu or quantities - Don’t plan to create every possible Christmas dish known to man in vast quantities, even if this is your family tradition! Think about what works well on the plate together. Leave off all the unnecessary extras. Think about who will be with you for the meal, what they would like to eat, and then cook just enough for them and a bit extra for the next day. Remember that no one wants to eat turkey sandwiches for a week! It is just extra unnecessary work for you, and the increased quantities will put pressure on the cooking of your main Christmas meal.
- Rest the roast before carving - This is very important to retain the juices inside the roast, making it tender and delicious rather than dried out (it lets the juices relax back into the meat). If you carve too soon, the juices will flow out of the roast, leaving it tough and possibly a bit tasteless. If you are doing a turkey, make sure you give it at least 30 minutes resting time before carving. If you cover loosely with tinfoil when it comes out the oven, and leave in a warm place, it will stay hot for up to 45 minute. Not only will resting the bird make it that much juicier and delicious, but it frees your oven up to do your roast potatoes!
- Have utensils & equipment to hand - Nothing worse than needing the spatula or sieve at that crucial moment, only to realize it is under a heap of things needing washing up in the sink. Make sure you are prepared for each dish you cook, or even invest in the odd extra bit of kit if you need it for more than one thing at the same time – it is amazing what you can get in a the pound shops these days, and they usually have very good kitchen sections.
- Make sure the turkey and tray fits in your oven - This is a common mistake of first time Christmas cooks (the sheer horror of being faced with a turkey too big for your oven ensures you don’t forget to check the next time). Don’t just check the width, but close the door to check it closes properly, and check the height too (imagine the tray with a big old turkey in it!).
- Make slight changes to traditional favourites - Christmas is most certainly the time to be traditional, but there are some slight modifications you could make to old favourites to help alleviate stress in the kitchen. For example, consider a carrot and parsnip mash which can be made prior and reheated in a microwave (be sure to add enough butter when cooking so it reheats beautifully, creamy and delicious). This turns two vegetable dishes into one delicious alternative, which will go beautifully with the roast potatoes! For an added twist, add a bit of cumin or cinnamon.
- Don’t make a separate gravy, use the roast juices - Resting the roast (see tip 6), gives you time to use its juices to make a gravy. Once you have removed the roast it from the tray, pour or skim off the fat and place the roasting pan on the heat, on the hob. Add a bit of port, Madiera or wine to deglaze the pan (gets all the lovely bits off the bottom of the tray). Add some flour or corn flour to thicken, and a bit of butter to make glossy and delicious. If you want to sweeten it up, just add in a spoon or two of cranberry jelly. If you want to thin it down just add a bit of boiling water or stock.
Wishing you and your families a very merry stress free culinary Christmas