I’ve been spoilt when it comes to Christmas dinner, having eaten a picture perfect spread at my parent’s table for as long as I can remember. And I adore it. So this year I freaked out a little when my sister Dee invited us to her new house for the big day. As much as I love her and hope she will forgive me writing this, I’m not sure she’s ever cooked a whole roast dinner before, never mind with starters and desserts. So with Christmas dinner looming, and to minimise her (and my) stress, I’ve cobbled together a cheats’ guide to the traditional Christmas dinner, a sort of how to fake it like you’ve made it...
It sounds obvious but start with a list – what do you want to serve? Don’t get carried away buying things you won’t use. Get the recipes and shopping lists together as early as possible as it will take a couple of days to get ready. Not the cooking, but the preparation; keep enough time free.
Don’t encourage your diners to come too early and do have distractions and drinks ready to go. It’s a good idea to set up a gin station. Make or buy ice the day before. Set up gin, tonic, garnish and direct your arriving guests here and let them keep themselves busy mixing up and decorating their own drinks. Have some nibbles laid out, some posh nuts, crisps or anything else that simply involves opening a packet. Subtly pick your team of helpers now – who’s responsible enough for drinks? Who can you trick into washing up?
You will be busy in the kitchen, so don’t put yourself under pressure to serve an elaborate seated starter. A glass of chilled bubbles and some simple smoked salmon on brown bread, with a squeeze of lemon and a sprig of dill, can be more than adequate.
If you do want to sit for staters, paté is the way to go. Keep your eye out for brilliant brands like On The Pigs Back or something equally rustic. Serve with a big pile of melba toast (google how to make this yourself, it’s too easy) Cumberland sauce and some celery sticks. Guests can help themselves. Then you’ll need something to keep them distracted while you get the finishing touches done in the kitchen – this is the perfect time for pulling Christmas crackers or for present opening.
Turkey and ham
Stick to the classics here. This is not the time to be attempting goose, pheasant or an expensive rib of beef for the first time. Serving turkey and ham is very achievable.
Start with the size of your oven. What can you fit in? Even the smallest turkey at about 2.25kg/ 5lbs can easily feed six to seven people. So buy a smaller turkey and buy it oven ready. Boned, rolled and stuffed is ideal and easy to carve.
For the ham, again look for something oven-ready, definitely nothing that needs boiling or glazing. James Whelan butcher does the perfect version with their Heritage Cured ham – get the half size. Then all you have to do is think about your timing on the day – how long will they take? Ask your butcher for times or read the packet in advance. Aim to have them cooked an hour before you want to serve them, to rest the meat and to give you time to get the all-important trimmings together…
You'll be putting out a lot of food so have all your serving dishes out and ready to go. If you don't have a warming oven you can always blast them in the microwave before filling them up. For vegetables, roast potatoes are a must which means you'll need to keep the oven free, they need a high temperature so the rest of your vegetables should be cooked on the stove top. I suggest classic buttered carrots and Brussels sprouts with chestnut and bacon. Your vegetables can all be peeled and parboiled in advance so you're just adding finishing touches for dinner time.
Even with a pre-stuffed turkey it’s a good idea to have extra stuffing. But save all the faff of chopping and buy it – the best quality you can. The same goes for your gravy. You will read lots of advice about how easy it is to make your own gravy. Yes it’s easy, if you’ve done it before. Not if it’s your first time. Buy some good quality gravy from the butcher but read the ingredients: it needs to mention bones and turkey! Whatever you do, don’t buy granules. Warm it up, into a nice gravy boat and say no more.
Love them or hate them, sprouts are essential. Have them prepped and then to serve, fry some bacon pieces for a few minutes, add in chopped chestnuts (the vacuum packed ones). Add a splash of alcohol – white wine or sherry is fine – to deglaze. Add in your sprouts and cook, keeping them moving until they are heated through again but don’t overcook them. No one wants mushy sprouts. Season with pepper and decant into a warmed serving dish.
For the carrots simply boil them, drain them, season and butter them. Have some parsley chopped to sprinkle on top and a squeeze of lemon. Get them into a warm dish with a lid.
And it’s table time. Gather the rest of your Christmas condiments – cranberry sauce, mustard, etc – there’s no such thing as too much. If you are so inclined, have these decanted into serving dishes, it adds to the homemade feel. Carve the meat in the kitchen and plate it up with the roast potatoes. The vegetables and the rest of the trimmings should be served in the centre of the table. Then allow the guests to dig in and enjoy, you’ve done it! Well the hard part anyway, hopefully you’ve convinced someone to wash up by now.
Dessert, cheese and afters
You’ll probably all need a break now. It’s the perfect time to suggest a walk if the weather allows. It’s definitely time to put a movie on for the kids (in another room if you are that lucky). Also an Irish coffee goes down well about now.
Then I’d suggest a cheese board to be served, probably the easiest and most impressive part of the meal. You’ll want a soft cheese, a blue cheese, a hard cheese and something fancy. Add grapes, crackers, apples, pile it up and make it pretty. Remember to have your cheese out of the fridge for at least an hour before you serve.
By now your guests are most likely pretty full. In our house, anyway, there tends to be lots of desserts prepared but very little eaten. Shop bought is without doubt the best option – Christmas cake, pudding or mince pies, buy the best you can. Have some ice-cream, cream and brandy butter on hand to go with them. But most important, it’s about now the cook should put their feet up, enjoy a drink and a pat on the back for pulling it all off.
(Thanks in advance, Dee!)
- Write your list
- Make ice
- Get your serving dishes ready
- Set your table
- Prepare the vegetables
- Turn the oven on
- Check your meat timings
- Set up a gin station
- Put out nibbles
- Assemble brown bread and salmon
- Make melba toast
- Decant your shop bought stuff into dishes for that homemade feel
- Put meat into the oven
- Assemble the rest of the main course
- Serve nibbles on arrival – from packets, to make life easy
- Prep for starter: Smoked salmon on brown bread or pate on toast
- Take meat out of the oven to rest
- Finish the vegetables
- Heat stuffing and gravy
- Take cheese out of fridge
- Serve dinner
- You should be able to get everything you need in a good supermarket but these are a few things you should seek out
- Turkey crown, boned, rolled and stuffed from any good butcher
- Oven-ready ham – I recommend Clonmel butcher James Whelan's heritage ham, available from jameswhelanbutchers.com and selected Dunnes Stores and Avoca stores.
- Real gravy – from your butcher or best quality from a supermarket
- Stuffing – from your butcher or best quality from a supermarket
- Smoked salmon – get your hands on some wild Irish salmon if possible
- Chicken liver paté – I recommend Cork's On The Pigs Back. See onthepigsback.ie to buy online, or for stockists nationwide
- Cumberland sauce – from any good deli or grocer
- Cranberry sauce – from any good deli or grocer