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Christmas dinner tips: what food to prepare now to get ahead early

Christmas dinner tips recipes: what food to prepare now to get ahead early
Don't let festive food become a last-minute panic. Xanthe Clay shows you how to get ahead with all the essentials, starting this weekend – so you can put your feet up on the big day... Credit:  Kirstie Young

Christmas lunch need not be stressful. Just bear in mind that it is the ultimate multitasking challenge, what with roast potatoes, vegetables and a huge bird to bring to the table together, never mind all of the sauces and other ­paraphernalia.

That’s not even all of it: while you are attempting to whip up the ­Christmas meal with the elegance of Nigella, you will probably also be in demand to find batteries, undo impossible packaging, divulge the Wi-Fi password and find Granny a sherry.

So, make it easy on yourself. Even if ready-made gravy or frozen ­potatoes would never usually be part of your repertoire, now may be the time to loosen up a little. And do get ahead: here’s how.

Stir-up Sunday has been and gone, but there is still time to make the Christmas pudding and mincemeat (my recipe is here). If you’ve left it this late, give the pud a little longer during the initial steaming to give it that characteristic dark stickiness. Or put it in water in an electric slow cooker overnight. Make a jelly for the turkey, too.

THREE WEEKS BEFORE

Christmas pudding
Credit: Kirstie Young

Mashed potato stars in this version by one of my favourite food writers, Lindsey Bareham, from her book In Praise of the Potato (sadly out of print). The long steaming makes for a dark pud and, although you won’t taste them at all, the spuds make it nice and light.

SERVES

eight to 10

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 eggs
  • 110g melted butter or shredded suet
  • 110g plain flour, sifted
  • 110g dry mashed potato
  • 1 small carrot, grated
  • 1 small apple, peeled and grated
  • 450g mixed dried fruit
  • 1 tbsp marmalade
  • 110g light brown sugar
  • 1 tbsp golden syrup or black treacle
  • 8 tbsp ale, beer, stout, brandy or whisky
  • 1 tsp each mixed spice, cinnamon, almond essence and lemon essence (or lemon oil)

METHOD

  1. Beat the eggs with the butter or stir in the suet. Stir in the flour until smooth, then the potato. Mix in the rest of the ingredients.
  2. When everything is well integrated, turn into two half-litre, well-buttered pudding basins, or one one-litre basin. (Pop a circle of baking parchment in the base to guarantee an easy turnout.)
  3. Cover with foil, pressing it right over the rim of the bowl, and tie a string firmly under the rim and over the top to make a handle. Steam for six hours, and cool. On Christmas Day, steam for another two hours.
Rosehip jelly
Credit:  Janet Moore

Rosehips make a gorgeous bittersweet jelly, a British version of cranberry jelly. All rosehips are safe to eat, but the seeds inside are like home-made itching powder. If you plan to use some whole pieces in your jelly, you’ll need to remove them carefully. It’s a fiddly business, so the huge Rosa rugosa hips are the best for the job. You can often find bushes on waste ground.

MAKES

One small 200ml jar, enough for six people with turkey or ham

INGREDIENTS

  • 200g rosehips, roughly chopped
  • 1 large Bramley apple, chopped (skin, core and all)
  • A few extra large hips (optional)

METHOD

  1. Put the chopped hips in a pan with the apple and 500ml of water and bring to the boil. Cook for one to two hours, topping up the water, until the hips are soft.
  2. Wearing gloves, cut the extra hips in quarters. Use a sharp-edged teaspoon (a serrated-edged grapefruit spoon is ideal) to scrape out the seeds and hairs inside and throw them away. In a separate pan of water, boil until soft.
  3. Set a jelly bag or a sieve lined with muslin over a bowl. Tip the pan of chopped hips and apple in and let it drip into the bowl for six hours or overnight.
  4. Measure the liquid in the bowl. For every 200ml liquid, add 150g sugar. Tip into a pan, add the quartered hips if you are using them, and bring to the boil.
  5.  Cook until the liquid reaches setting point, and a few drops on a cold saucer forms a skin that wrinkles when pushed.
  6. Allow the mixture to cook for five minutes before pouring into a clean, dry jar. Seal and allow to set for a couple of days before using.

TWO WEEKS BEFORE

Now is the time to start filling the freezer with goodies. Casseroles are great standbys for feeding a crowd, so include one for Christmas Eve, and don’t forget side dishes.

Port-braised cabbage 
Credit: Kirstie Young

Slow-cooked cabbage is a Christmas classic, and especially mellow made with port. I like the crunch of whole coriander seeds but you can use ground coriander instead if you prefer.

SERVES

Six to eight

INGREDIENTS

  • 1kg red cabbage
  • 1 large Bramley apple
  • 1 red Cox’s apple
  • 1 large red onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tbsp red wine vinegar
  • 150ml port (or red wine)
  • 50g light muscovado sugar
  • 1 tsp sea salt flakes
  • 2 tsp coriander seeds
  •  ½ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
  • 2 tbsp butter

METHOD

  1. Cut the cabbage into quarters, remove the core, and thinly slice the rest. Peel, core and chop the Bramley apple. Quarter and core the Cox’s apple and slice it thinly.
  2. Heat the oil in a large pan and cook the onion gently until soft but not coloured. Add the rest of the ingredients except the butter, plus a good grinding of black pepper. Cover and cook gently for around an hour, until very soft. Allow to cook and freeze until needed.
  3. Reheat before serving and stir through the butter for a lovely gloss. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
Make-ahead gravy

The classic way to make gravy on the day is too stressful. Make it ahead and stir in any juices from the bird if you have time.

SERVES

Six: this makes a good 300ml of richly flavoured gravy. Double the quantities if necessary

INGREDIENTS

  • 700g chicken wings
  • 1 onion (skin left on) quartered
  • 1 medium carrot, cut into four
  • 1 stick of celery, cut into four
  • 4 tbsp marsala or madeira
  • 1 tbsp flour

METHOD

  1. Preheat the oven to 200C/180C fan/Gas 6.
  2. Spread the chicken and veg in a large roasting tin and roast for 30 minutes, until well browned, then lift into a large pan.
  3. Put the hot roasting tin on the hob and pour in the marsala or madeira. Stir well, letting it sizzle away until almost completely evaporated, than add about 300ml water. Heat to bubbling, stirring and scraping all the gunk so it dissolves into the water.
  4. Tip the contents of the tin into the pan and add enough water to cover the bones. Bring to the boil and simmer for two hours, topping up the water if necessary. Strain, Cool and chill in the fridge overnight.
  5.  The next day, lift the solidified fat off the stock and keep to one side.
  6. Melt one tablespoon of the fat in a pan (the rest can be kept for roast potatoes) and stir in a tablespoon of flour. If you like a really thick gravy, use two tablespoons of fat and flour.
  7. Cook, stirring, until the flour turns bronze and nutty smelling. Whisk in the stock little by little, aiming for smoothness – although if there are lumps, you can use a hand blender to dispense with them.
  8.  Simmer gently until it’s a good consistency for you. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Cool and freeze until you need it.

UP TO A WEEK BEFORE

Now is a good time to freeze some of the more delicate dishes.

Credit: Kirstie Young

Pigs in blankets

  • You can wrap your chipolatas in bacon now and freeze them in the baking tray – just take them out of the freezer last thing on Christmas Eve and they will be ready to pop into the oven on Christmas Day. Allow one chipolata and one small rasher of bacon per person. Lay the bacon on a board and, holding one end, drag the blunt side of a kitchen knife down the rasher to stretch it. Wrap it around the sausage, tucking in a sage leaf or two if you like.

Boozy butter

  • Rum and orange butter is my favourite at Christmas. Beat 100g of softened butter with 100g of brown sugar, three tablespoons of rum and the grated zest of an orange. Pack into a jar and store in the fridge for up to a week. Prefer brandy butter? Just beat together 100g butter, 100g caster sugar and three tablespoons of brandy – enough for six people.

Mince pies

  • Freeze them in their baking trays and bake from frozen, giving them an extra five to 10 minutes.

THREE DAYS BEFORE

Credit: Kirstie Young

Brine the turkey

Salting the turkey in advance makes a huge difference to the flavour and texture – I wouldn’t consider serving turkey without brining it first.

Wet brining needs fridge space and a container big enough to submerge the turkey – the bottom salad drawer may be just the ticket. Just dissolve 90g of salt per litre of water that you need to cover the bird, and leave it soaking for 24 hours. Add any aromatics you like to the brine.

Take it out and pat dry, and leave (ideally uncovered) in a roasting tin in the fridge to dry out until the day.

Dry brining takes longer but requires less space. Mix 7g of rock salt per kilogram of turkey with plenty of pepper and some chopped rosemary if you like.

Rub the mixture under and over the skin of the turkey, concentrating on more on the breasts than the legs, and pop it on a roasting tin in the fridge for 48 to 72 hours.

Ideally the turkey should be uncovered, so the skin dries out, but you could wrap it loosely in greaseproof paper. Lift out and roast as it is – no need to rinse it.

Celeriac and beetroot dauphinoise
Credit: Kirstie Young

A gorgeous pink and white gratin. Add a little grated cheese if you want to turn it into a supper dish in its own right.

SERVES

six as a side dish

INGREDIENTS

  • 750g celeriac, peeled and very thinly sliced
  • 450g beetroot, peeled and very thinly sliced
  • 300ml milk
  • 300ml double cream
  • 1 clove of garlic, sliced
  • 1 tsp butter

METHOD

  1.  Put the celeriac in a pan with half of the garlic, 200ml cream and 200ml milk, plus salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer and cook until the celeriac is just about tender.
  2. Cook the beetroot in the rest of the milk, cream and garlic until barely tender, adding salt and pepper.
  3.  In a small buttered gratin dish, layer up the cream, celeriac and beetroot, ending with the celeriac. Dot with butter. Keep in the fridge for up to three days.
  4.  To cook, bake in the oven set at around 200C/180C fan/Gas 6 (or under the roast potatoes at 220C/200C fan/Gas 7) for 30 minutes, until bubbling and lightly browned.

TWO DAYS BEFORE

Today is the day for last-minute shopping and a bit of fancy work. Make the crumbs and Marmite butter for the Brussels sprouts (recipe right), and fry the parsnip crisps for the cauliflower purée. Stuffing can be prepared today, too.

Quince and chestnut stuffing

A hefty stuffing packed with chestnuts. Use oil instead of butter for vegans.

SERVES

six

INGREDIENTS

  • 4g saffron (about a teaspoon of loosely packed threads)
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 3 leeks, sliced
  • 3 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 1kg quinces, cored and cubed
  • 120g breadcrumbs
  • 200g peeled chestnuts, roughly chopped
  • Pomegranate seeds (optional)

METHOD

  1. Grind the saffron to a powder. Pour over three tablespoons of boiling water; soak for 10 minutes.
  2. Heat the oil in a large pan, and add the leeks and garlic. Cook gently until soft but not coloured. Turn off the heat.
  3. Mix the quince, saffron and soaking liquid in a bowl. Add to the leeks pan, along with the crumbs and chestnuts. Mix well. Season with salt and pepper.
  4. Pile three quarters of the mixture into a baking tin. Put the rest (for the turkey) in a separate dish. Dot both with butter and bake for about 30 minutes at 200C/180C fan/Gas 6, until tender and lightly browned.
  5. Store, covered, in the fridge, for up to two days. Serve scattered with pomegranate seeds if you like.

THE DAY BEFORE

Last-minute veg prep

I’m going to be controversial here. The turkey isn’t the most important part of the Christmas dinner. No, the whole feast rests on how crunchy the roasties are. But I can’t be doing with messing around with trays of hot oil when there is so much else to think about, not least small children liable to make a break for the kitchen at any moment. Spud salvation came in J Kenji López-Alt’s brilliant book, The Food Lab (a great present for any food nerd), where he explains how potatoes can be prepared the day before. I’ve adapted his method below.

As for sprouts, I wouldn’t usually cook my greens the day before, but if there is a full house for Christmas then they do fine blanched, cooled and then reheated in lots of savoury butter the next day.

Brussels sprouts with thyme and Marmite crumbs
Credit: Kirstie Young

SERVES

six

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 tsp Marmite or other yeast extract
  • 90g butter
  • 120g fresh breadcrumbs
  • Leaves from 5-8 sprigs of thyme
  • Grated zest of half a lemon
  • 1kg Brussels sprouts

METHOD

  1. In a frying pan, melt half of the Marmite with 30g butter, mixing them well. 
Stir in the breadcrumbs and cook, stirring often, until they are dry and crisp. Stir in the thyme and lemon zest, then scrape into a box. Seal and store in the fridge for up to a week.
  2.  Trim the sprouts and cut them in half. Tip into a pan of very well salted boiling water and boil for one minute. Drain and cool thoroughly under the tap (or in a bowl of ice water). This can be done earlier in the day.
  3.  In the rinsed-out frying pan, melt 60g butter with the rest of the Marmite. Toss the sprouts in the butter until they are heated through and well-coated.
  4. Serve the sprouts with the crumbs scattered over.
Day-before roast potatoes
Credit: Kirstie Young

Use whatever oil or fat you like, except turkey fat, which is too gamy. Rapeseed oil makes for lovely yellow potatoes, and is vegan-friendly, but for vegetarians, adding a dollop of butter to the oil helps the potatoes brown up.

SERVES

six

INGREDIENTS

  • 2kg floury potatoes (Désirée or Rooster are the most reliable), peeled
  • 100g fat: goose, chicken or beef, or oil

METHOD

  1.  Cut the potatoes into halves or quarters, even if they are small: flat edges brown best. Drop into a large pan of well-salted boiling water. Boil for five minutes or until soft on the outside but not collapsing.
  2. Drain well in a colander, then cover with a tea towel and leave the potatoes to dry for 10 minutes.
  3. Melt the fat if it is solid.
  4.  Shake the potatoes in the colander until the outsides are well roughened. Trickle over the oil, turning the potatoes until they are well coated with a creamy paste of potato and oil.
  5. Cook immediately or lay out on baking trays, well spaced, and cover with a tea towel. Leave in a cool room for up to 24 hours before roasting.
  6.  To cook, after the turkey comes out of the oven, turn up the heat to 220C/200C fan/Gas 7. Put the trays of potatoes in and cook for 20 minutes. Remove and turn the potatoes, then return to the oven for another 10 to 20 minutes until golden and crisp all over. Season with salt and pepper.
Butter roasted rainbow carrots with tarragon
Credit: Kirstie Young

SERVES

Six

METHOD

  1. Trim 500g of mixed-colour carrots and cut them into thumb-sized pieces.
  2.  Season with salt and pepper and toss in 3 tablespoons of melted butter and a tablespoon of chopped fresh tarragon.
  3. Spread on a baking sheet and cover. Refrigerate for up to 24 hours.
  4.  On the day, preheat the oven to 200C/180C fan/Gas 6 (or cook them under the potatoes at 220C/200C fan/Gas 7). Cook for about half an hour until tender and turning brown. Scatter with more tarragon and serve.
Breakfast

Don’t forget Christmas breakfast. The day before is a good time to whip up a batch of batter for thick, blini-style pancakes. It’ll rest nicely overnight, ready to cook up and eat with smoked salmon, sour cream and dill. Or peel and segment a couple of grapefruits and store in a plastic box in the fridge.

On Christmas morning, toast slices of panettone and serve with a scoop of ricotta cheese, grapefruit segments and a trickle of honey.