Even if you’re a regular flinger of dinner parties or you cook often for a large family, the Christmas meal is likely to be the most complicated you’ll put together in the whole year. Timing the different elements of a ‘roast dinner’ isn’t easy, and once you factor in the gargantuan proportions of the poultry and the various ‘trimmings’ demanded by family members and tradition, you have concatenation of staggering complexity.
It would be lovely to give you a point by point, cut out and keep timing list for the day but it would involve me specifying your menu, the time you eat and probably the weight of your turkey, and not being a celebrity chef, I lack the arrogance to actually pull that off. So instead, here’s a set of hints and tips that I’ve used over the years to get my Christmas lunch to the table on time. I’d love to hear any suggestions you can add.
Starting early – Christmas Eve
The first and most vital stage for me involves a blank sheet of drawing paper and a pencil with an eraser on the end. Call me a nerd, but I couldn’t think about getting the whole thing in order without a written schedule. This should be done in the middle of the afternoon, with a mind unclouded by sherry and before getting distracted by last minute present wrapping. A well written list means that on the day even if you hit the champagne at breakfast time and keep topping up all day, you’ll be able to weave your way to the table with a hot, cooked-through bird, a reasonable number of vegetables and enough gravy to hide your cock-ups.
The two vital things to establish, the points on which the entire process will hang are a) when you intend to eat and b) the size of your turkey. Chose your cooking method from the many on offer (I suggest Matthew Fort’s here) calculate the cooking time, add at least 45 minutes for the bird to rest and then subtract that from your target eating time.
A very good reason for doing this on Christmas eve is that you’ll spot mistakes early enough to reschedule. If you’ve bought something the size of a moa and you were hoping to eat at 13:00, you’ll soon notice if this means an 04:30 start and you’ll be able to shift lunch to dinner time without embarrassment.
Once you have your cooking time established, add an extra hour for getting the oven up to temperature and fiddling with the bird and you’ll be able to work out the latest time you can get up. Set your alarm clock, back it up with your mobile and make sure your mum is briefed to call you at the right time just as a double check.
I try to do as much as possible while still sober the day before so carrots, parsnips, and sprouts get peeled and trimmed, onions peeled and chopped, and, God help me, spuds parboiled. I know. It seems like cheating but this is what Tupperware, clingfilm and fridges are for. It’s also what they’ll be doing in any professional kitchen across the country. Bread gets blitzed into crumbs for the bread sauce. Veg trimmings (apart from spud and sprout) go into a pot with the turkey giblets, a few aromatics and a chicken carcass from the butcher to make a stock which will be reduced over the afternoon to form the base of the gravy.
Best of all, as you work your way through prep a day in advance, you’ll spot anything missing and still have enough time to send someone out on a last minute run to the shops.
Last thing before bed, Christmas Eve
Those of you without kids will probably spend the evening at glamorous parties or drinking with a sparkly friend just like in the ads. The rest of us will spend the evening inserting endless batteries into things, assembling brightly coloured plastic objects and taking bites out of the carrots and mince pies dutifully left for the reindeer. However you spend it, take last trip to the kitchen before turning in. Make sure the stock is decanted into a bowl in the fridge so the fat can be removed in the morning and take out the turkey. It needs to be at room temperature tomorrow when your alarm goes off so remove any restraining devices, rubber bands, string or gimp masks. I don’t wet brine my bird but I do salt it early which has a similar effect. Salt well inside and out and cover it with a clean teatowel.
If you have one, secure the cat.
I’m entirely aware I’m a total nerd but, that last peek into the fridge, the ordered ranks of prepped veg, and the timing plan magnetted to the door give me a real glow. Barring acts of God, nothing can now go too far awry. One last glass and bed.
Before anything else happens in the kitchen, crank the oven up to maximum. It will take an hour to come up to temperature which will give you just enough time for breakfast. Remove the wishbone from the turkey with a small, sharp knife. This makes carving much easier later. Traditionalists can scrape the bone clean and put it in the pan next to the bird for pulling later. Finally slather the bird with butter and pepper, a bit of thyme if like me you’re fond of it, and chuck an onion or two inside. I also put two extra onions in their skins on either side of the bird. They blacken on the outside but the insides soften and can be crushed into the pan juices to further enrich the gravy.
Finally, hump the poor thing into the hot oven, wish it well and close the door on it for at least half an hour. If you have a kitchen timer – and you should – set it for half an hour now. The only real disaster that can befall you at this stage is forgetting to turn the oven down after the initial searing.
I usually find this is around the right time to get the drinks going and start in on the presents.
While the turkey is in
I boil carrots and sprouts until just underdone then stop them cooking in cold water. In the bottom of the carrot pot I put a lump of butter, a teaspoonful of honey and a tablespoon of water then put the cold carrots back on top and put it all to one side with the lid on. For the sprouts, I sweat some chopped bacon in its own fat in the bottom of a pan then let it cool and pour the cold sprouts on top. Set up this way, both veg can be finished with five minutes of heat as they’re needed.
This is also the time to manage bread sauce, cranberry, stuffing or any of the baroque indulgences our families demand. My lot get mushy peas, properly soaked overnight, in honour of my nan who passed away this year. But if you are catering for a family member who likes something odd done in a special way, it’s often worthwhile asking them to bring it themselves.
Half an hour before the turkey is due to come out, I put a big metal tray into the oven to heat up in preparation for the roast potatoes.
While the turkey rests
As the turkey comes out, I lift it clear of the roasting pan, leaving the juices behind, transfer it to a warmed serving plate and top it with a fetching tinfoil hat to retain some heat while it rests. With most of the veg just needing heat for the last five minutes, there’s plenty of time for the rest of the process to be panic free.
I turn the oven back up to full, whip out the potato tray and put it across the two biggest rings on the top of the oven. I have a deal with my local restaurant that means I never run out of beef dripping so I melt a huge, artery compromising slab of it in the searing hot pan, toss the parboiled potatoes into it and turn them over and over with a spatula until they are coated, and lets face it, half soaked in it. A heavy drift of salt, just to really annoy my doctor and then back into the hot oven.
By the time we’re ready to serve they’ll be crisp on the outside and steamily fluffy inside.
Finally, whip the roasting tray full of bird juices onto the two big rings and bring them back up to a sizzle. I add flour, give it enough time to cook through, stirring vigorously, then some marsala and the stock we made last night. Crush down the roasted onions with a potato masher and then put the gravy through a sieve into a serving jug.
So that’s it. There are dozens of things that will be different for you – and we’d like to hear about all of them – but that’s what works for me. I hope you find some useful tips in there. If I had one thing to impart it would be that prepping like a pro is probably the smartest way to make sure you’re pleasantly relaxed on the day.
Thank you to The Guardian and their Word of Mouth Blog on getting through the holidays with our heads intact!