Striving to produce the perfect festive meal



It's probably the most important meal of the year. And while a Christmas lunch with loved ones should be something to look forward to, if you're the one in charge of preparing it, the mere thought of the big day can be enough to bring you out in a sweat.

Many cooks tend to think they have to make everything from scratch, with no help or cutting corners. But that's simply not the case. "I think it's good to look on it as a kind of glorified Sunday lunch, which is what it is really. Just with some extra trimmings," says Annie Bell, food writer and author of Gorgeous Christmas. "Don't get yourself stressed about it." After all, you deserve to enjoy Christmas too. And who wants to be stuck in the kitchen all day?

Rethink turkey

One of the main things that stresses out the cook on Christmas Day is the turkey itself. There is a reason why defrosting the turkey or serving an undercooked bird forms the basis of many a festive sketch show — it can be tricky to get right. So why not think about serving up something else entirely? Turkey is hardly a universal favourite. Margot Henderson, chef and author of You're All Invited: Recipes for Entertaining, recommends a roast shoulder of lamb or meat belly.

"A turkey can take up all your oven space, which is a real issue for some people at Christmas, and adds to the stress," she says. "Lamb or meat will take up much less room in the oven and you can slow-cook them. Whack them on for four hours and forget about them, which will leave you with plenty of time to get everything else ready. You can throw vegetables into the pan the meat is cooking in to roast, which will really simplify things."

If you feel that Christmas just wouldn't be Christmas without the big bird, remember to prepare it the day before. You can even stuff it 24 hours in advance.

Have it all delivered
Have you thought about getting lunch brought to your door? Some services will deliver everything you need for Christmas Day, including cooking instructions. This way you won't be trekking to the supermarket on Christmas Eve when you realise you've forgotten the spuds.

Get a chef
And if you are feeling especially lazy (and flush) then why not bring in a professional chef to cook it all for you? Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are rumoured to have drafted in the services of Jamie Oliver to create their festive feast this year, so you'll be in good company. It will, however, leave you with plenty of time to entertain your guests.

Get ahead with your veg

Don't buy your Brussels sprouts on stalks. Make sure they are ready to throw into water. They might look pretty on the stalk but it can be an arduous task to prepare them. Henderson also recommends serving sprout tops instead of the much grimaced-at sprouts. "They will save you time. Sprout tops are more cabbage-like, a leafy green. And they're still in keeping with the festive spirit."

Similarly, don't buy fresh chestnuts. "I don't bother with them," says Henderson. The key is trying to cook as many vegetables in together with each other, whether that's boiling peas and carrots in the same saucepan or doing an all-in-one roast veg tray of potatoes, carrots and parsnips. Then you don't have to worry about them separately.

Don't forget that most of the veg can be prepared the day before. Peel and trim your carrots and parsnips (keep them submerged in water overnight), peel onions and, to really save you time, don't just peel your potatoes the day before but you can parboil them, too. Then they're ready to go straight into the oven on Christmas Day.   

Trimmings
If you want fewer dishes to worry about (or oven space is an issue for you) then why not try combining some of the trimmings? "For instance, if you roll some sausagemeat into balls and roast separately from the bird and then do sprouts with salami and chestnuts, then that takes care of your stuffing, your chipolatas and salami, and your Brussels sprouts, so you've essentially cut out a dish, which is a bit of a help," says Bell.

While you don't want to exactly be serving up those ready-made roast potatoes, don't be afraid to buy in some other ready-made goods. You don't have to make everything from scratch. "You can buy very good cranberry sauce these days," suggests Bell. "Especially if you get it from a small, artisan supplier. And you can pick up good ready-made gravy in most butchers. Brandy butter is another good one to buy in.

"Although, an easy sauce to go with Christmas pud is to get some crème fraîche, stir in a little bit of brandy or rum and icing sugar. Then you have an instant sauce."

Final tips

There are some other basic guidelines to follow, which might seem obvious enough, but should be adhered to. Firstly, ask for help. There is no need to slave away in the kitchen on your own when there are plenty of spare hands around. "I mean, what else is there to do on Christmas Day anyway?" says Henderson. "You'll find people are happy to help. Don't be afraid to get people folding napkins or peeling or laying tables. Don't leave it all for you to do."

Secondly, why not have a late lunch? It will dramatically reduce the stress levels if you know you don't have to feed 10 mouths at one on the dot.

"If you have a substantial breakfast there's no reason to rush lunch onto the table," says Henderson. "Eating around 3pm or 4pm will give you tonnes of time to get everything ready; I never know why everyone is in such a rush to serve lunch so early."
Finally, make lists of everything you need to do, every dish you need to cook and timings of when everything has to go in the oven. What could go wrong? (Gillian Orr/The Independent)


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