There’s one place you’re sure to get hot and steamy this Christmas, and it’s unlikely to be your bedroom – unless food comas and post-feast bloating get you going. Nope, best put your efforts into achieving culinary feats in the kitchen this year, and give your family and friends the best present they could’ve asked for.
But even for the most seasoned experts, preparing Yuletide meals can be a stressful and complicated affair. Which is why we’ve teamed up with Ben Tish, chef-patron of the Salt Yard Group – whose restaurants include Salt Yard, Dehesa, Opera Tavern, Ember Yard and Veneta – to put together this handy cheat-sheet to mastering the perfect Christmas dinner, with all the trimmings.
Turkey is the drunken uncle of Christmas. It’s boring, temperamental and gives little pleasure in return for all your attentions. But, for unfathomable reasons, turkey regularly makes its way onto festive tables in spite of its propensity for parched, flavourless meat.
If your family insists on maintaining tradition, head out to the countryside in pursuit of your bird; opt for a heritage breed from an organic, pasture-raised farm. If, however, you fancy a protein centrepiece that packs a hefty flavour punch with little finagling, serve up a chicken instead.
Worried your meat will never taste as succulent as chef-cooked poultry? “Brine your chicken overnight before cooking,” says Tish. “It brings an intrinsic seasoning to the bird, the salt solution keeps the meat plump and juicy when you begin to cook it and it makes the skin super crispy. Use a solution of one part salt to 9 parts water, and submerge the bird in it overnight.” Allow to dry thoroughly in the fridge, before cooking.
“To get the skin as crispy as possible, start the bird on a very hot oven, say 200°C, for 40 minutes. Then turn down the heat to 170°C for the remainder of the cooking time.”
Pro tip: Tish recommends spooning plenty of butter onto the breasts as they cook, while legendary cookery school Leith’s recommends a ‘butter muslin’, a square of muslin soaked in melted butter then draped over the bird as it cooks to achieve the ultimate skin.
Alternative Christmas: “Poach a ham, then roast it.”
Dark and crispy on the outside, soft and tender on the inside: no, not Sean Connery – we’re talking about the perfect roast potato. The secret to the ultimate spud rests on a few deciding factors: the type of potato, the type of cooking fat and the stage at which you send your tatties to the oven.
Tish uses Desiree potatoes, and favours goose fat and olive oil for cooking. Some chefs will tell you to parboil your spuds before roasting to maximise their interior fluff, but Tish goes one step further. “I always fully cook my potatoes first, then drain and dry them, which bashes up their soft edges. Whack your oven up to 220°C, and get your fat very very hot before you put your cooked potatoes in. This way, the spuds will start to caramelise right away, and the edges will crisp up beautifully.”
Pro tip: “Use loads of Maldon sea salt, and add crushed cloves of garlic into the trays while roasting.” [Editor’s tip: for extra crunchiness, dredge the boiled potatoes in a scattering of semolina before you plunge them into the hot fat.]
Alternative Christmas: “Nothing beats mashed potato, with lots of butter.”
Sage and onion is a classic for a reason: it’s the best. Tish agrees, but suggests upping your stuffing game by swapping the traditional sausagemeat base for stale breadcrumbs, to create a cloud-like stuffing that soaks up all its neighbouring juices.
“In a food processor, blitz together onion, bread, sage, garlic and butter, then season,” says Tish. “Shape the mixture into balls, and cook at 220°C for 20 minutes until golden brown. Turn the oven down to 170°C to cook them through.”
Pro tip: “Glaze the stuffing balls in some gravy at the end of their cooking time.”
Alternative Christmas: Try a Michelin-starred spin on traditional stuffing, with Dominic Chapman’s Apricot Stuffing.
Step away from the Bisto – we’re talking real gravy here, plump with fat, dripping with meat juices and sufficiently boozy to put a spring in your dear ol’ grandma’s step.
The key is caramelisation. Tish swears by pan scrapings, natural cooking juices, a healthy glug of wine and just a splash of organic stock. Start by finely dicing carrots, onions and celery. Heat your roasting juices and pan scraping on a medium heat, add the diced veg and any herbs you like and wait until the veg caramelises. Add the alcohol, reduce the mixture then add the stock. Reduce again, then pass through a fine sieve.
“Throw in some smoked paprika,” says Tish. “It adds depth and a smokiness.”
Pro tip: “Whisk some butter into the gravy pan at the end. It’ll add richness and seasoning. Also, don’t be shy with the wine.”
Alternative Christmas: Take it from Martha Stewart: Madeira adds a rich, honeyed flavour to your gravy.
If, against our advice, you’re still having turkey, you’ll need cranberry sauce. Nigella has a blood-red version, laced with cherry brandy. Others like bread sauce, though lord knows why. Jamie Oliver has a nutmeggy recipe sure to please most. If you’re a sausage enthusiast, you’ll need pigs in blankets.
But when it comes to veg, there are no hard and fast rules. Tish favours carrots, roasted in the tin with the chicken; cavolo nero, steamed until tender then tossed in butter and salt; and red cabbage slow-cooked with red wine, vinegar, brown sugar, raisins and bay. “Cook it until it gets soft and really sticky,” says Tish.
Pro tip: “Blanch your sprouts, then sauté them with some mustard seeds.”
Alternative Christmas: Go for Ottolenghi-style roasted vegetable platters, scattered with toasted nuts and cheese.