So it's coming up to Christmas and there's the usual assortment of celebrity chef Christmas specials on TV. You're thinking about what to cook and how to please everyone without blowing a gasket! What to do...
Due to practical considerations (i.e. the fact that I can't be arsed to spend a load of money buying ingredients for Christmas recipes before the day itself) I'm not going to be putting up a load of Christmas recipes. But I thought I might share some tips based on my personal opinions on how to make it as stress free and tasty as possible.
How to cook your turkey
We're spoilt for choice right now when it comes to Christmas recipes from TV chefs. If you're thinking of following a recipe, I would go for someone like Delia Smith or the Hairy Bikers for a nice, traditional meal that works - and to me, Christmas is a time of year for making something that everyone can enjoy together, not some pretentious fancy concoction. Avoid Nigella as all she does is pour honey on everything. You might want to try Gordon Ramsay if you really want to try something a bit different, but personally I find that birds always take far longer to cook through than his recipes suggest.
Whatever recipe you decide to go with, the key to roasting turkey properly is to avoid drying it out, which is probably the most common gripe people have with this misunderstood bird. Turkey is basically a less forgiving version of chicken with more flavour, so you want to add PLENTY of extra fat, particularly on and around the breasts - in fact, one of my friends, who is a professional chef, actually sticks a pound of butter inside the main cavity and roasts it upside down. You should avoid trussing the turkey and let the legs hang loose in a natural position as the increased air circulation will cook them more quickly. Finally, don't be afraid to let it rest upside down in a warm place while you get on with the gravy and other accompaniments - don't worry, it won't go cold for a long time, and the rest will allow the meat to relax for easy carving and smooth texture.
If you can withstand the "ick" factor of cooking with giblets then you will be rewarded tenfold with the most delicious gravy known to man. To make a giblet stock, brown the giblets (one thing I do agree with Mr Ramsay on) in a large saucepan with some roughly chopped celery, carrots and onions and a couple of bay leaves. Cover it all with water and bring it to the boil, then let it simmer for an hour or so and strain it. Skim off any scum from the surface and reserve for gravy at the end of the meal - I recommend doing this the night before.
When the time comes to make the gravy, put your roasting tin on the hob and turn up the heat. Spoon off any excess fat (if there is any), stir in a bit of plain flour and deglaze the tin with a generous splash of cider or wine. Add the giblet stock, season and reduce to taste.
Obviously everyone wants roast potatoes with their Christmas turkey - it just wouldn't be right not to include them. You want to use King Edward or Maris Piper potatoes. Start them in cold salted water and part-boil them so that they start to cook in the middle, then drain them and put them back on the hob on a low heat for a minute or so to let the water evaporate. Sprinkle some plain flour (or semolina - not tried it but I hear it works well) into the saucepan, take it off the heat, cover it and shake it to rough up the edges of the potato and cover them with flour for a double whammy of crispiness in the oven. Drizzle liberally with oil, season and cook in the oven for an hour to an hour and a half depending on whether you're cooking them with the turkey or separately (in which case I'd advise turning the heat up to about 210).
Cranberry sauce is one thing I don't usually bother making myself as you can buy decent jars of it that contain no additives. Bread sauce is another nice sauce that goes well with any kind of poultry or feathered game, and I recommend this recipe from good old Delia - http://www.deliaonline.com/recipes/type-of-dish/savoury/traditional-bread-sauce.html. For a festive twist I sometimes add cinnamon sticks and orange peel to the milk but discard them once they've infused.
Honey roasted carrots and parsnips are a very nice accompaniment that will go down a treat. Wash your carrots and top and tail your parsnips, then cut your parsnips into quarters. Blanch the carrots in boiling water for a few minutes but don't bother doing this for the parsnips as it will make them go soggy. Put them in a roasting tin, drizzle with plenty of olive oil, season and chuck in some garlic cloves and sprigs of herbs. Roast them in the oven for about 45 minutes until they've gone crispy, then glaze them with honey to finish.
I like a bit of leafy veg to balance out what can otherwise be a very heavy meal, though in England I'm in a bit of a minority. Braised red cabbage is one of my favourites - gently fry some shredded red cabbage in a pan with a bit of onion and add a splash of red wine vinegar, a couple of tablespoons of honey, two bay leaves, two cinammon sticks, a thyme sprig, a star anise and about 100g demerara sugar. When the red wine vinegar has reduced, add chicken stock to almost cover and a couple of drops of Worcestershire sauce and cook it slowly on a low heat for about 45 minutes.
Alternatives to turkey
You can end up having so many Christmas meals with various groups of people (friends, work colleagues, that aunt you only visit out of guilt, etc) that by the time turkey comes around you'll be sick of the sight of turkey.
A popular alternative is beef wellington. However, as much as Christmas is a celebratory time of year, beef fillet is extremely expensive. Just about any beef roasting cut will be lovely, although this may cause disagreements about how thoroughly you should cook it (many people are too squeamish to appreciate the true awesomeness of rare roast beef). A cheaper alternative is pork, which can be really delicious if you go for a rare breed and is very easy to cook. You could also bake a whole salmon in tin foil with some herbs, lemon slices and plenty of butter and serve it with Hollandaise sauce.
If you do go for Turkey you will find yourself with leftovers aplenty unless you've invited all the extended family round for Christmas dinner and charades. Even small turkeys are around 4 kilos in weight. But don't make the mistake of chucking the excess away! You can make awesome Christmas sandwiches, but my favourite thing to do is to make a pie.
To make the pie, start with a bechamel sauce (or alternatively you could use leftover bread sauce). Melt 50g butter in a pan and add 25g plain flour. Cook it out to make a roux, then add 450ml whole milk, seasoning and a couple of bay leaves. Add the milk slowly at first and stir vigorously with a wooden spoon, then when you're about halfway through switch to a balloon whisk and pour the milk a bit quicker. Flake some turkey meat into a pie dish with some chopped ham and leeks (softened in a little butter) and cover with the bechamel. Cover the pie dish with a lid of puff pastry, glaze it with an egg wash and cook it in a preheated oven at 200 degrees for 40 minutes. Serve with a bit of cranberry sauce and you're laughing! Ho ho ho!