For a busy cook's life like mine, Christmas is the rare occasion when I can stop, relax, and enjoy life outside of the kitchen. This is the time of year when all of my favorite pastimes are rolled into one event, where everyone gathers together to revel in cooking, eating, and drinking. But Christmas has a dark side.
It creeps into the stores and minds of holiday shoppers in early December. The darkness started last week. Will I make a mess of things? Will everyone be happy with their presents?Will they hate the holiday meal? Will I forget something? It's all very exhausting to contemplate, execute, and survive.
The Cooks Strategy
The only way to survive this time of sheer insanity is to let it flow, to keep calm, and enjoy. Write your to-do lists early. Don't worry about perfection. The most important thing is to figure out what you will cook, how many people are coming, and the amount of drop in guests that may appear at your doorstep. Tweak and re-tweak your lists. Helpers are essential—you will fail without them.
There's Not Just One Meal
Christmas dinner is the grand finale. Keep the other meals simple enough so that they are low impact on your psyche. Serving up plates of smoked salmon, pickles, smoked mackerel pâté, salads, cured meats, or little birds, like quail and lentils—there's no going wrong there. One-pot dishes like mushroom risotto, or a big bowl of bangers and mash rule my world. Follow it up with a fine cheese like Berskwell, and your guests will be very happy.
The Miracle of Leftovers
Storage is always tricky at Christmas. It's best to clear out the fridge before you begin storing things. Use your backyard area as an additional refrigerator, unless you live in a place like Hawaii. Make sure that there are no roaming animals that can eat your food. A few Christmas Eves' ago, the family cat had an early sample of turkey leg on our back porch.
There's nothing quite like a toasted turkey sandwich. Last year, we added foie gras on top. I nearly died in ecstasy.
Turkeys are Terrifying
Turkey fear is a real, overwhelming thing. Its size can be scary—smaller is better, around ten to 12 pounds—and there's always that massive potential for dried out meat. No one wants to eat hardtack. A long dip in a brine bath is essential to avoid eating meat as dry as an ancient roll of wallpaper. I always purchase a happy, organic, black-feathered turkey that spent some quality time walking around, stretching its legs.
The Night Before Christmas
Prepare the stuffing, vegetables, and go easy on yourself and buy a Christmas pudding. I always purchase one from my husband, Fergus Henderson's restaurant, St John, but we always have one aging in the fridge from the year before. The stuffing is a job for helpers with a few glasses of wine.
The Grand Finale
I have spent most of my personal and professional life trying to answer that difficult question, "What am I supposed to cook?" I've come to the conclusion that it's not about what you cook, but how you cook it. I adore a succulent little partridge, but this is the only day of the year that Brits will ever cook a turkey. It looks festive, and turkey is quite delicious served cold the next day with bread sauce. By the time Christmas morning rolls around, most of your kitchen prep should be done. Your bird needs to warm up to room temperature, so pull that out of the fridge ASAP. Roasted potatoes are a must, but if you are running out of oven space, mashed potatoes or a celeriac mash can add a little twist on tradition.
Snogging Is Essential
Find a massive mistletoe branch if you can, but a fake one will also do the trick. It looks beautiful, and gets some serious snogging going on around the house. There are no rules to hosting a Christmas dinner, but don't get too drunk—you'll pay for it the next day.
Chefs Note: Bread sauce is very British. Coming from New Zealand, it took me a while to wrap my head around the idea of it, but now I love it. It is great with any type of game bird because it soothes and calms your roasted meats. Bread sauce is also delicious served cold the next day with leftovers.
1 litre of milk
1 loaf of day old sourdough
3 bay leaves
4 Tbs. butter
1. Peel the onion, leave whole, and spike with cloves. Over low heat, gently infuse the milk with the spiked onion, bay leaves, a pinch of salt, and pepper. Simmer for approximately 10 minutes.
2. While the sauce is infusing, rip up loaf of bread into small, rough hunks. Discard the crust.
3. Strain the milk. Discard the vegetables and spices. Bring strained sauce back to a simmer over low heat and whisk in the bread— it should be reasonably smooth. Stir in the butter, taste for seasoning, and add salt and pepper to taste.
4. Check sauce for consistency (you can add more bread or milk if it is too runny or thick.) Serve hot in a bowl for guests to serve themselves.