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Plan your menu – and the shopping
Festive shifts at a butcher’s shop are exhausting, with customers at their best and worst. Ben Curtis, previously a butcher, now head chef at Smoking Goat in Shoreditch, remembers people asking, “What should I have for Christmas?”, without saying who they were cooking for or what they liked, “so you could never give a helpful answer”. Butchers, fishmongers and cheesemongers want you to have delicious food, but give them something to go on.
It might seem obvious but decide what you want to eat, so you can plan how to shop – whether in specialist shops, online or in a supermarket – either in one big splurge or in instalments. Do you want your shopping in the house well before Christmas or to pick up your meat, for instance, late on Christmas Eve?
Max Rocha, chef-owner of Café Cecilia in east London, and his family usually start talking about their Christmas meal in June. “Planning a menu is a really nice chance to meet up with the people you’re going to have Christmas with,” he says.
You’re the cook, so you get to decide
“Everybody has their opinions about Christmas dinner – it could be a touchy subject,” says Gary Usher of Elite Bistros. “But I think if you’re the one who is hosting, the menu is up to you.”
Family favourites should be accommodated to a point, says cookery writer Anna Jones, but a boundary needs to be set. “In most households, the Christmassing tends to fall to one person,” she says. “Over the years I’ve learned that’s me, so I ask for help to keep the day enjoyable.”
Greek-Cypriot cook Georgina Hayden asks family members to make dishes at their place: an easily reheated red cabbage side, salmon for the pescatarians, favourites such as hummus. Some people may refuse to take direction, she adds: “Every year my yiayia [grandmother] brings an octopus stifado for the table. No one wants it, but we go with it.”
Don’t even think of trying something new
“I think there’s often a feeling of ‘Oh God, not that old chestnut again’, but this is one time of the year you can put on the same record,” says Jeremy Lee, chef-patron of Quo Vadis in Soho, of the roast dinner. “We should be proud of this wonderful tradition; it’s one of the most amazing celebratory feasts ever.”
Gary Usher is more direct. “Have what you like, but definitely, definitely, don’t cook something you haven’t made before – especially if you have people coming round,” he says. “Cooking for people is stressful, so you’re asking for trouble with something new. Keep to the recipes you know are bulletproof.”
If you’re a cautious cook, use the preceding weeks to practise: get to know your oven (is the temperature dial accurate, is the heat distributed evenly?); trial your Yorkies; test out recipes for gravy.
And if you’re fed up with turkey, get a big fish
Stephen Harris, chef-owner of the Sportsman in Kent, says fish – perhaps a large turbot, roasted and served whole – makes a fine festive dinner. “Order in advance from a good fishmonger,” he says, adding that if you don’t order something until 23 or 24 December, they likely won’t have what you want. “Offer them alternatives because seas can be unpredictable, but they should know what they can get.” As it’s moisture that causes fish to smell, ask your fishmonger to dry it thoroughly, inside and out. Wrapped in paper, your fish will sit happily and fragrance-free in the fridge for a day or two.
Harris says to put a slash on the side facing up when cooking, so you can monitor when the flesh cooks down to the bone. “That is the point, or slightly before if you can do it, to take it out the oven – turbot will probably only need about 20 minutes.” Then cover the fish with tinfoil and leave it for 20 minutes, just as you would a joint of meat, to finish cooking.
Veggie, vegan, omnivore: how to keep them all happy
Although Anna Jones’s family runs from vegan through to omnivore, she cooks a vegetarian Christmas, with a vegan main. “Christmas has to be the day where no one feels left out,” she says, and she puts thought into finding something to please all palates. “Cooking something everyone can share and enjoy is generous in spirit, and I think that’s important.”
Instead of a token vegetarian gesture, veg-omnivore households could do a vegetarian main with token meat sides: Felicity Cloake’s perfect nut roast can be made ahead, and is brilliant with pigs in blankets for those who want them.
Married chefs Joe Woodhouse (vegetarian) and Olia Hercules (not) find elements to work with both their menus: the marie rose sauce for Hercules’s prawn cocktail (easily made ahead) will dress crisp-battered mushrooms for Woodhouse. For the main, Hercules thinks a small bird is a good option if not everyone is eating meat. She might roast a duck (stuffed with sautéed onions and sliced cabbage and carrots, the makings of a nice side and good leftovers), while Woodhouse might make a mushroom duxelles to fill some pastries, but will also be happy with a big plate of veg sides: “I have an onion sauce to tie it all together.”
If you want to get ahead, make a list
Melek Erdal is a chef and a cookery teacher at the charity Made in Hackney, where she teaches a Middle Eastern Christmas feast. She suggests first-timers break down their recipes into processes, which can be written down in columns of what to do two days ahead, the day before and on the day: “Being able to visualise your schedule will really help you not get flustered.”
A stuffed squash is easy as it can be roasted ahead, and the filling made with Christmassy nuts and spices. Both elements can be refrigerated overnight, brought together on the day and heated through. If you’re a meat eater, her tip is to skip the expensive beef or turkey for a slow roast – maybe a lamb shoulder: “You don’t have to worry about keeping it pink or overcooking it. You can do it early in the day, or even the night before, and it will get better as it rests.”
“Turkeys can be quite stress-inducing for a lot of people,” says food writer and chef Jane Baxter. Last year, she made “heat at home” boxes including boned and stuffed turkey thighs, which many butchers offer and make a tasty slow-roast for two or three people. “You get the best flavoured meat and it doesn’t dry out.”
Not everything has to be made from scratch
Buying readymade products isn’t cheating – it can save time and sometimes even money. Hayden loves mulled wine, but for ease will buy good-quality, ready-spiced bottles: “Crack one open, shove a clementine in the pan with it.” Also, she adds, “some of the nicest trifles are made with off-the-shelf stuff”. Usher agrees. “Buy your custard, get readymade stuffing, take the stress out of the day,” he says, suggesting you stick to something you’ve had before so you know it’s good. “Supermarket desserts are bloody brilliant these days, even in the value stores.”
You can never have too many baking trays
By Christmas Eve, Curtis will have tested how his roasting trays and tins fit in the oven for maximum efficiency: “It’s all about oven Tetris.” Rocha will clear the fridge of soft drinks, condiments and anything that will happily sit in a cool larder or a box outside, ready to keep meat and fish at the bottom, dairy in the middle and vegetables at the top.
Hayden will have chosen serveware, marked with Post-it notes to show what is going where. If there are garnishes that can be kept at room temperature, she’ll often put them in the dish: “It’s a bit extra but, for me, stuff like that is important, and it is much easier to do the day before.”
Hercules recommends grouping your ingredients for each recipe, and on the day setting up a scraps bowl lined with a compost bag on your counter to save having to keep walking to a bin.
When asked what essentials made festive cooking easier, answers included: lots of bowls and scrapers; enough baking trays; a microwave; old-school hostess trolley (Baxter’s very specific request if cooking for a lot of people); lots of good washing-up liquid. Kirsty Cheetham knows a thing or two about delivering an epic roast – her pub, The Queen o’ t’ Owd Thatch in North Yorkshire, is a former winner of OFM’s Best Sunday Lunch award. She says you want a nice deep rack for your roasting tin to catch all the roasting juices.
Curtis recommends a meat thermometer. Practise whenever you do a roast, so you get used to it. “People don’t expect meat to increase in temperature when resting, but it does – up to 10C.”
Always make yourself some time
Everyone says that when your meat is resting (and do rest your meat), you shouldn’t be cooking, just finishing sauces, crisping roasties and heating sides. Everything comes together in that time; you’ll have about 30 minutes, so get ahead on it.
“Nothing will make you more stressed than feeling under time pressure,” says Cheetham. She prepares vegetables the day before: peeling and parboiling, then tossing in fat and chilling (in the pan they’ll be roasted in). She makes Yorkshire pudding batter a day ahead; and notes that pigs in blankets can be popped in the oven from frozen, as can chestnuts chopped through butter, ready to be stirred into roast sprouts. Rocha makes his stuffing a month in advance and freezes it – just remember to defrost it in time. He also coats his parboiled carrots in a glaze, ready to caramelise in the oven.
“We always have a cold pudding, and my mum makes them on the 23rd,” says Curtis. “Something simple and happy: by that point in the day you don’t want anything complex.”
Fewer dishes means better dishes
While what you cook will somewhat be dictated by your kitchen – “Don’t attempt 12 different vegetables, and turkey, beef and a ham if you’ve only got four burners and a single oven,” says Cheetham – choosing to make fewer dishes means fewer decisions, less cooking and less stress.
Curtis likes roast potatoes (“they always take longer than I think”) and carrots, and usually cabbage: “It’s in season, super sweet, and it takes about two minutes on the hob: chop it, boil it, then quickly sauté it with some brown butter.” Woodhouse agrees with choosing something that takes minutes: “You can wilt down Brussels tops at the last minute.”
Hercules will poach quince for a trifle, but will make enough so that in the days between Christmas and new year it can do for breakfasts, or go on a cheeseboard.
When choosing cheese, Woodhouse opts for two or three and says don’t be tempted to go overboard: “Maybe a good cheddar and a good stilton, or whatever your family likes, that’s it. Otherwise you end up with so much and it gets expensive.”
It’ll be ready when it’s ready
“If your lunch is at 3pm, it doesn’t have to be at 3pm,” says Cheetham, urging a relaxed approach. “It’s not a deal breaker. It is Christmas, after all.” Most of our contributors opt for 4pm or 5pm, to accommodate a leisurely breakfast.
“Everything doesn’t have to be hot,” says Woodhouse, adding he prefers it not. His wife agrees. “I find it quite weird, culturally,” says Hercules. “Most things in Ukraine will be room temperature, so it’s not a concern for us.”
If anything goes wrong, go with the flow
Inevitably, things go wrong. If the stress is getting too much, Jones might take a moment to make things look nice: “Laying the table sorts my head out. Plus, it creates a different atmosphere – that spark that tells you it’s Christmas.”
Limit hazards by not having small children underfoot or drinking too much around blades and hot oil, or until the main course is done. An emergency trip to A&E means the goose is dry? “Hot gravy saves the day!” is Curtis’s Christmas motto.
If a major change of plans means creating a last-minute feast, Megan Davies, author of Fridge Raid, says look to kitchen staples to make dishes special. Butter is another day-saver. It only takes a minute or two to brown, she says: “You’ll immediately have luxurious richness to spoon in pools over mash or fold through boiled frozen vegetables.”
Toast festive spices in the pan before you add the butter, stir in a spoonful of honey and you have a warm, spiced sauce for ice-cream. Rather than trying to find cranberry sauce at the last minute, she’d use open jars of jams and chutneys: warm a combination in a pan with a bit of seasoning and a splash of water to get a sweet-acidic fruity sauce to go with roast meats, or stir them through roast vegetables 10 minutes before the end of cooking to help them caramelise.
“It will go wrong,” says Curtis. “Something always does. That’s the time to get everyone squished in the kitchen, getting in each other’s way, trying to help out. Play some Christmas songs. Have fun. It’s only dinner – the day is really about having a nice time together.”