There will always be those prepared for Christmas in September and while we may admire their industriousness for most of us it just isn’t practical.
So at this stage, the public lights are up, the Christmas songs are playing in the shops and it’s time to get festive. It’s time to focus on what Christmas is all about - family, friends and, oh yes, food. Even if the gifts fall short, as long as the grub is great it all pales into insignificance.
I believe that the very nature of the food we eat at Christmas makes preparing meals quite a joy. For a start once the food for the main event is cooked, you then have the basics for ‘easy’ meals for several days. Now I’ve heard all the usual moans about how we are all sick to death of turkey and ham by December 27th, but really it is just lack of forethought and imagination that is the real issue. If you insist on just serving slices of turkey and ham and the frazzled and dried up left over veg at every meal for three days with the only choices being hot or cold, then inevitably it gets boring. Instead make sure you have some good chutneys or savoury jellies and jams to hand. These really liven up leftover meat and there is quite a range of local produce to choose from if you haven’t made your own. Having said that whizzing them up yourself is no longer the torture it once was and so don’t negate trying it. Crème Fraiche is a fantastic tasty treat when added to a little stock for a pale sauce to bathe turkey and ham in. You can serve it as a sauce on the side; you can immerse the meat into it or how about making a pie filling with it instead. Indeed use your bun tray to make small individual savoury pies by making a pastry base and topping the filling with a little cranberry sauce and covering the top with some pastry. These are really gorgeous. Also don’t be afraid to freeze leftovers, just be sensible and do it as quickly as possible once they have cooled down. Now is the time to either make the pastry or buy it and freeze it to have it to hand. Keep plenty of it to hand as it’s great to parcel sweet or savoury treats that you’ll use all through December.
The store cupboard and the freezer are your best friends at this time of year. You could try cooking some full dishes over the next two weekends or simply keep the raw ingredients such as some braising steak or lamb pieces in the freezer. Spicy lamb tagines, Hungarian goulash or exotic curries are all great one pot meals that while they require time to cook, are quick and easy to prepare, warming and will stretch a long way with a crowd. There are several recipes for dishes like this in both my books or on the JWB website. Stock the store cupboard with tins of tomatoes, good quality stocks and various rice and noodles and you won’t be caught of guard. So this weekend check the store cupboard for all those handy spices, flours and condiments. Make sure you have enough rice, pasta, cous cous or other favourites ready to go.
Another area sorely neglected in my view at this time of year is breakfast! Now is the time to beef up the breakfast menu arsenal. Remember that at Christmas there will be mornings where you can take a leisurely approach to breaking your night time fast. Don’t just cobble together cold turkey and a few withered nibbles from the night before along with three Quality Street, a choc mallow and a bag of Tayto! (Don’t say you’ve never done it). This Christmas by planning ahead, learn how to make eggs Benedict, try something different and even make breakfast the ‘star meal’ of one of the days. Now you might be thinking that I’m getting ahead of myself but as you’re reading this there are probably only around 20 days left to Christmas Day! The first thing is to stock up on good Tipp sausages and bacon; we have some of the finest in the land right on our doorstep so there is no excuse. Now I’m not suggesting that you stick to the usual full Irish, but make it festive by adding some corn fritters for example. Use the bacon to top some French bread with maple syrup, chopped bananas and nuts or even American pancakes. Cook the sausages and instead of frying the eggs, bake them in small buttered ramekins for a real treat. Try some different bread: with the great breads available locally you will be spoiled for choice. How about taking some of the leftovers and making a great Christmas omelette!
Finally I can’t say enough about keeping some fresh fruit, herbs and spices around at Christmas. Ginger, garlic, nutmeg, coriander, basil, chives, cinnamon, a chilli or two, lemons, limes; the list is endless but it is about the ones you like. Having things like this at your disposal can transform leftovers. For example, the basis for most curries is a combination of garlic, ginger and chilli. Go easy on the chilli depending on how hot you like it. If you like mild curries then try a trinity of cinnamon, clove and cardamom. Fresh coriander, one of my favourites, can be chopped into dishes as a garnish or an ingredient; from soups to salads or as a marinade it gives a lovely flavour and a little basil added to a risotto makes all the difference. By the way if you do overindulge at any stage a little bit of fresh ginger chopped into a cup of boiling water can help soothe a sore throat and also ease nausea and hangovers.
My final tip for Christmas cooking is to buy a box of red and a box of white wine and keep them in the kitchen. The wine will stay fresh and you can just use what you need as and when you need it. It may sound extravagant initially but over time you will see the merit. Having to open bottles of wine for a glass or two for the gravy, sauce or stew, is where the waste will occur. A box of wine will stay fresh for a long time and you always have cooking wine on tap. Over the next few weeks start buying all of these items slowly and when the offers come up.
The main thing is not to stress and make it easy for yourself and everyone else. Good food doesn’t have to take a long time or create drudgery for one person. Plan ahead now and make your meals a pleasure this Christmas rather than drudgery. Enjoy