How to cook Christmas: Stuffing and gravy made easy

Christmas Dinner Part II: All you need to know to put a great meal on the table

Herb butter stuffed turkey crown, with legs cooked separately with pork, apricot and bacon stuffing. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Herb butter stuffed turkey crown, with legs cooked separately with pork, apricot and bacon stuffing. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Some would say it’s the best bit of Christmas dinner – the deeply savoury, buttery, sage and parsley flecked bread stuffing. There is never enough of it, and a St Stephen’s Day sandwich just isn’t the same without it.

There are two schools of thought around turkey stuffing. Does it go into the cavity of the bird, where it soaks up delicious juices? Or it is better cooked in a pan in the oven, acquiring a crisp, toasty top as it does so?

Best do both I say, that way you just might have enough to go round with the leftovers dinner.

A simple herb stuffing is made by softening chopped onion in lots of butter over a low heat, and mixing this with copious amounts of chopped fresh parsley, and sage to taste, along with handfuls of white breadcrumbs. The rind of half a lemon brings a touch of freshness, and add salt and pepper generously.

If you are a stuffing lover, and I am – I would happily eat it instead of turkey – then you are probably making a sausagemeat stuffing as well as a bread one. My mother’s sausagemeat stuffing contains a box of Paxo dried sage and onion stuffing. We’ve teased her about it. But it works. Mixed into sausagemeat, it gives a satisfyingly sagey flavour to the pork. A few chopped dried apricots are a good addition.

Shush ... don't tell.
Shush ... don't tell.

Chef Gavin McDonagh cooks a turkey crown and stuffs the boned turkey legs with a pork stuffing that has apricots and bacon added – no Paxo to be seen. The crown is stuffed before cooking with herb butter.

Sausagemeat stuffed turkey legs, with a butter basted crown. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Sausagemeat stuffed turkey legs, with a butter basted crown. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Turkey crown, herb butter, stuffed legs

Ingredients
Serves 12
1 large oven-ready turkey about 7/8 kg; ask your butcher to remove the legs and de-bone them
Sea salt, freshly ground black pepper
2 large onions peeled and halved
1 head of garlic (unpeeled, halved horizontally)
Few bay leaves
Few thyme sprigs
Olive oil to drizzle

Herb butter:
Small bunch of flat leaf parsley, chopped
Small bunch of tarragon, chopped
1 tbsp of fresh thyme leaves
250g butter, softened to room temperature

Leg stuffing:
450g sausage meat
Half a loaf of day old bread
200g dried apricots, diced
100g pancetta (about 12 slices), diced
Half an onion, peeled and finely diced
Few sprigs of thyme picked and chopped
Few sprigs of flat parsley, finely chopped

Method

For the herb butter: Mix the chopped herbs into the softened butter, season well and spoon the mixture into a piping bag.

For the turkey: Remove the legs and de-bone them (or ask your butcher to do this). With the turkey crown, holding the turkey with one hand and starting from the neck flap, use the fingers of your other hand to loosen the skin over the breast, without tearing the skin.

Move your hands towards the lower side of the breast to towards where the thighs would be and separate the skin from the meat. You want to create a large pocket in which to stuff the herb butter.

Pipe the butter into the breast pocket (or you could use your hands) and gently massage some over the skin, to spread the butter evenly.

For the stuffing for the legs, tear the bread roughly and whiz to coarse crumbs in a food processor. Heat a little olive oil in a large pan and fry the pancetta for one minute. Toss in the onion and herbs and cook for three minutes. Add the breadcrumbs, mix well and allow to cool. When it is cold, add the sausage meat and apricots and season and mix well.

Open out the turkey legs, skin side down, and spread with the stuffing. Fold the legs over to re-form in the shape of legs and wrap tightly in tin foil.

Heat the oven to 220 degrees /gas 7. Season and stuff the cavity of the turkey crown with onions, garlic, bay leaves and thyme sprigs.

Place the turkey, breast-side-up, in a large roasting tray. Drizzle with a little olive oil and season well. Roast for 10-15 minutes, until the skin is crisp and golden, then lower the oven setting to 180 degrees/gas 4 and cook for approximately 30 minutes per kilo, basting occasionally.

Add the legs, still in their foil, to the roasting tray about 30-40 minutes after the turkey (to ensure they don’t overcook and dry out). To test that the turkey crown and legs are cooked, skewer the thickest part and check that the juices are running clear, not at all pink.

When the turkey is ready, cover the breast with tin foil and allow to rest for at least 20 minutes.

When ready to serve, carve the breast and stuffed legs and serve with gravy and other accompaniments.

Get on the gravy train

All good turkey gravy starts with the giblets, those mysterious bits parcelled up in a plastic bag inside the cavity of the raw bird. Yes, people have been known to roast a bird with the giblets still inside, in their packaging, and for that reason, most are now packaged in oven-proof plastic.

The “bits” are the neck, heart, liver, and gizzard, and they are the starting point of the gravy. Don’t look at them and be tempted to throw them away, or into to cat’s bowl. You’ll need them.

Here is chef McDonagh again, with a really simple recipe:

Turkey gravy

Ingredients
2 tbsp vegetable oil
Turkey giblets
3 shallots peeled and chopped
2 bay leaves
Few thyme sprigs
6 black peppercorns
1 tbsp plain flour
100ml white wine

Method
Heat the oil in a pan and fry the giblets until golden brown all over. Pour in 600ml of water, stirring to deglaze the pan, and add the shallots, bay leaves, thyme and peppercorns.

Bring to the boil and skim off any scum from the surface. Lower the heat and simmer for one hour. Strain the stock through a fine sieve.(You can do this in advance, on Christmas Eve).

Pour off excess fat from the turkey roasting tray and set it over a medium heat. Stir in the flour and and cook for two minutes. Gradually whisk in the wine, then the strained stock and simmer for 15 minutes or until thickened to the consistency of cream. Season to taste.

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