Christmas dinner is deeply personal, evangelical, even, and steeped in tradition, history and family. So who am I to tell you what to eat?
Instead, I’ll tell you what I eat, what I enjoy, and what I’ve grown to love as my Christmas dinner. It’s not about perfection, but rather about what I find delicious, festive and achievable.
My Christmas Dinner
Roast Turkey with Gravy
Stuffing with Bacon, Chestnuts and Sage
Sweet Potato and Carrot Crisp
Maple Roast Parsnips
Braised Red Cabbage
Pigs in Blankets
How I get this dinner all on one plate is beyond me. Yet somehow I manage (see photo, above), and devour it all with deep satisfaction and relief. (Wouldn’t you be relieved after cooking all that?)
I don’t do a starter – a meal like this just doesn’t require one – but I have to have a dessert. It’s a Christmas pudding, but probably not as you know it. A discussion for another time.
This feast is a complete triumph and makes me feel warm, Christmassy and a little bit exhausted just reading it. In case you’re interested…
My turkey is brined; I do the whole Nigella operation – a complete pleasure from start to finish – with fantastic results. Lately I’ve ordered Bronze turkeys, which are eye-wateringly expensive but completely delicious, and really, really worth it.
My gravy is of the make-ahead variety, plus the pan juices from the roasted bird. I’ve previously waxed lyrical about the Get Ahead Gravy and I stand by my convictions.
The first year I cooked Christmas dinner, I made two different stuffings in response to my neurotic obsession over whether I wanted the traditional bread stuffing with sage and onion, or a meat and chestnut variety. Having reflected on that learning experience, I now combine the two into one fabulous stuffing. Problem solved.
Notwithstanding my firm belief that shop-bought items belong on my table at Christmas, I do make a cranberry sauce. The taste is fresh and vibrant, it’s inexpensive to make, is the work of moments, and can be made a week or more in advance. Best of all, it’s cooked entirely in the microwave.
I draw the line at making bread sauce, however. It’s a very English thing, but not something I grew up with (for the uninitiated, it’s like a thick cream sauce, gently spiced and served warm). I have made it in the past, but frankly it ended up being very thick and a little bland. As I have no longstanding attachment to the condiment I’m more than happy to let someone else prepare it for me. The stuff sold by English supermarkets does the job very nicely.
Roast potatoes, on the other hand, are of primary importance. I don’t do anything different at Christmastime: my potatoes are par-boiled, tossed in a small amount of olive oil and butter, then roasted at a high temperature until golden and crisp, just like any other roast dinner. Easy.
Brussels spouts are the kind of vegetable that the public at large seem to hate, and I think I know why. I once attended a Christmas party – a very large office party – and the Brussels sprouts that came with the dinner were so waterlogged they were actually inedible. And I love a sprout. If this is what everyone else is eating, no wonder they hate them. I start by cutting an X in the stems, then just before cooking I cover with water, salt generously, bring to the boil and cook until soft – ensuring that, once boiling, the water maintains a rolling boil all the time – then I drain in a colander and let steam a little to rid the sprouts of any excess water. That seems to produce a softened, sweet sprout that is a pleasure to eat. If that doesn’t do it for you, try roasting them.
Sweet potato and carrot crisp is a gently spiced and slightly sweet puree of sweet potatoes and carrots, with a crisp breadcrumb topping. It’s a fabulous make-ahead side dish that reheats like a dream. The perfect thing to bring out on Boxing Day and smear into a leftover turkey sandwich.
I never used to par-boil my parsnips but when I asked my mother why hers were so delicious, she let me in on the secret. Par-boil your parsnips before roasting, folks.
Braised red cabbage – another make-ahead side – is one of the newer additions to my Christmas table but now I can’t do without it. Any excuse to eat cabbage.
Finally, but by no means an insignificant contribution, is the pig in a blanket. (The blanket is bacon, not pastry, for you North Americans.) My butcher sells them pre-wrapped, but of course it’s not exactly an arduous task wrapping a small sausage in half a piece of bacon. I like mine with a drizzle of chilli jelly applied a minute or two before they finish roasting.
The only way to pull off a feast of this size is to get really organised, cook as much as you can in advance, and then keep to a strict schedule on Christmas Day. That being said, if you rest your turkey for two hours, as I do, that seems to really free up the oven to cook everything else to perfection. Frankly, it’s probably the only way.
Until the day finally arrives when I can sit down to this meal again, I will simply look forward to it in all its glory. I’ll probably start making a few lists in the meantime.