Posted: Dec 17, 2020
I was just minding my own business working on my next post, a review of Jamie Oliver’s new book Jamie Oliver Seven Ways, when I received an email from Andrea in Chicago. She was pretty stressed about this Christmas. Her parents are on the wrong side of seventy and her dad has experienced some respiratory issues in the past so her usual routine of going to their place and showing up with a very nice Sancerre and a bottle of prosecco is not going to happen.
I would not have been concerned about the note as much, and was just going to send her back a response but I had received a similar email from Luc in Lyon not that long ago on the same topic. Again, his problem is that Christmas always happens at his grandparent’s place and this year he will just be with his partner and they eat-out, order-in and otherwise just pick-away at leftovers a lot.
So this is an emergency post to all those novice cooks who, in a conventional year, at Christmas show up at a relatives house with a contribution to a big Christmas meal, and this year will be eating alone or with a partner or a couple of room-mates. IF YOU ARE A SEASONED COOK (I mean experienced, not really seasoned, LOL) YOU CAN STOP READING, BECAUSE THIS IS CHRISTMAS COOKING 101, AND I DON’T THINK YOU WILL GET MUCH OUT OF IT.
So Andrea, Luc and anyone else out there who is doing Christmas for the first time, here we go.
- HOW MANY PARTICIPANTS?
If you are away from home and at university for example and living with some other people, make this an event you all do together. Either divide up the various tasks – shopping, cooking, serving, clean up, or have each participant do one dish. I like the former as in these days of Covid you should really just have one person out doing the shopping. The number of participants will determine the amounts you are going to prepare.
What follows here assumes two people with leftovers for a couple of days, so if you are one person, you will be able to pig-out for a week, and if its three or four you won’t have any leftovers unless you double the recipe.
- THIS AINT YOUR GRANDMAS CHRISTMAS DINNER
Typically, Christmas is an excuse for an all-out feast, and depending on where you live, that will take on a variety of forms but it almost always involves some special dishes, sometimes passed down from one generation to the next, some serious scale involving a monster turkey that will barely fit in the oven, or some level of exotic such as pheasant, quail, etc. I have been at events with a pig on a big spit over a fire on the beach, and others with whole pheasant stuffed with bread and olives and rosemary.
This, is not that. This is an easy but very enjoyable Christmas dinner.
You need to figure out if anyone in the group is a vegetarian, vegan, has allergies to shrimp or doesn’t like mushrooms or your hair style and design a dinner around some of those considerations. I love that so many places now prepare various great vegetarian options if you want to mimic the carnivore meal. An alternative is various veggie pies and veggie quiches as good easy ways to go in that regard as well if its only one person who you are satisfying. But if most of the group are vegetarians, I would just focus on it being a veggie Christmas feast and not try to mimic the classic Christmas dinner.
Beyond the vegetarian consideration, I would also think about whether it’s a time you just want to have something that you don’t usually splurge on to make the meal special. A great lobster dinner is something a lot of us won’t spend the money on most of the time but perhaps it will be a special thing for this Covid Christmas. If you are going that way, do your planning, go shopping and enjoy. But if your still with me, the rest of this post is on how to do an easy but traditional Christmas dinner.
- EASY TRADITIONAL CHRISTMAS DINNER
At one point in 2021 I am going to do a post on cooking for leftovers, and from when I started doing these posts I have been meaning to get back to doing a post comparing Jim’s Nanas tourtiere with my grandmother Bebe’s tourtiere. But today, its all about turkey & trimmings.
Turkeys, like all birds have a lot more of everything than you want to eat. Yes, its true that if you’re into it you can use many of those excess bits for making turkey pie, or stock and some people like dark meat etc. but our goal here is to focus on the simple. So don’t buy a turkey, buy a turkey breast or two turkey breasts. It will cost more per pound but you’re not buying as much bone and other mischief. I prefer bone in, skin on, but no bone or no skin is fine.
So buy a breast that is about three pounds for a couple or three people. While its great to buy it fresh, these are nutty times for accessing stores and if its your first time doing this I would instead buy it now, freeze it and the day before you want to cook it let it defrost in the fridge. Many stores will have frozen Turkey breasts and they are usually smaller (under 1 kg or 2 lbs.) so you will need one of these minimum for two people without much left over, but more realistically you will want three of these for four people and that will generate some leftovers.
I am going to talk about cooking times later but to prepare the turkey breast, wash it, dry it, and once fully dry rub it on all sides with some olive oil. Season with salt, pepper, and fresh herbs if you have them (rosemary, thyme, oregano- whatever you like) or just sprinkle with a prepared mixture like Herbs De Provence (rosemary, sage, fennel, thyme, basil, marjoram, lavender) or an Italian mixture (oregano, basil, rosemary, marjoram, coriander, savory, thyme and sometimes with garlic or onion salt).
Now in commercial kitchens they will use a steam oven to keep the bird nice and moist but a simple home cooks cheat to duplicate that is to put the bird on a rack in a roasting pan and fill the pan with water almost up to the bottom of the meat. One that I like as well or better is to put it on the rack over the roasting pan and to put a little chicken or vegetable stock, or orange juice and some olive oil in the bottom of that roasting pan.
Then put another pan below all of this in the oven with lots of water in it. As the turkey cooks and looses its juices they drop into the upper pan mixture, making a pretty nice juice to pour over the meat later, or to use to make a gravy. The lower pan with the water is creating the nice steamy environment to keep the whole thing moist.
You may want to not roast potatoes if you are going heavy on dressing and on other root vegetables. But I really like roast potatoes and you are already going to have the oven on for some extended time, so they are easy to do. I like working with little round ping pong ball size new potatoes or Yukon gold ones, but its visually great to also use various heritage ones in different colours.
You will need about five of these little guys per serving but remember you will want leftovers so double whatever number of people are going to be dining.
Just wash them up, let them dry, then put in a bowl with a glug of olive oil, give them a hit of pepper and if you have not used rosemary on the turkey some nice rosemary is nice on these. Put them on a pan with some parchment paper or in an oven proof glass pan and they are set to go. I will cover cooking times later.
RUTABAGA PUFF/ SWEET POTATO MASH / SMASHED POTATOES
In the post from July – Covid Comfort Food, I did an introduction to these three. They are easy to do and any one of them can really do the job here, but if you are doing the roast potatoes (easiest) you might want the rutabaga puff, but certainly don’t need it, and the other two are certainly root vegetable overkill if you are doing the roast potatoes. Some will substitute a Yorkshire pudding for the roast potatoes or any of these root vegetable options but that’s a topic for another day.
To start, dressing and stuffing are the same thing. Stuffing is the mixture that goes into a whole bird, dressing is the same mixture cooked on its own.
I usually make dressing from scratch, using a good home-made chicken stock, a selection of nice day-old multigrain breads etc. but that’s not how you are going to spend your time if you are doing a Christmas dinner for the first time.
If you can buy a nice prepared dressing from a high end food shop, that you just put into an oven safe dish and heat – do it.
If that’s not available, then buy a prepared box of dressing, and follow the instructions, but instead of using the prescribed water use a good low sodium chicken stock (vegetable stock if you have vegetarians in the group) a handful of chopped walnuts, an onion, a large carrot cut shredded and chopped up a bit, and a stalk of celery chopped up to have it mimic a homemade one.
The next time you do it just replace that box of ingredients with some day old cubed multigrain bread, that you have put in the oven at 175c or 350f and watch until they are dried out, turning a couple of times. Let them cool, and then use these with some dried herbs a 30 ml of butter and the walnuts, onion carrots and celery and you can eliminate that box and start to play with different herbs to make it your own. But I am getting ahead of myself – I am now talking about next years Christmas.
To complete the program you will need a few more things. A nice whole cranberry sauce, a packet for a poultry gravy (its not worth the time working on a homemade gravy, but you will mix in the juices from the bird into the mixture).
With all that root vegetable and dressing action going on you will need to add something green to break it up – green beans are easy to just trim, steam and serve without much effort. Trim and wash them ahead and just steam them when everything else is ready.
You will probably have enough on the go to not prepare a desert so I would either buy a desert or make some shortbread or sugar cookies ahead. This is particularly good if you have others involved as that can be their contribution.
You will need some nice decorations and a Christmas table setting, with candles, lots of wine and some non-alcoholic alternatives, and get out your Jimi Hendrix Christmas album. Again, put someone else on this stuff if there are many of you.
PUTTING IT TOGETHER
Most people only have one oven so that is what I am going to assume here. If you have two ovens, set one to 60c or 120f and treat it as a warming oven. Put a bowl of water in it to keep things moist.
Everything is worked backward from the time you want to serve your meal. If you are new to all of this write down your dinner time, work back each component from that and it will help you stay calm through the process. It also helps to not consume too much wine until the food is on the table or you might be ordering pizza!
The turkey is going to take the most time so it will dictate the schedule. Plan on it to cook for 30 minutes per half kilo (or one pound) at 175C (or 370f). So that’s going to set the timing. Work back from the serving time you want to have dinner for a time to put it in the oven and allow some time ahead to pre-heat the oven.
Note: if you are cooking multiple small turkey breasts instead of one larger turkey breast, you will want the turkey breasts to be about the same size and it will be the size of one breast that will set your approximate timing, not the total weight. So whether you are putting in one, two or three of those smaller 1 kg (2 lb) breasts, your calculations will be 30 minutes [per .5K (1lb)] for those 1k (2lb) breasts= 60 minutes.
Ovens really vary, so if you are using one with a fan assist or convection setting, go with that and you wont need to cover the breasts but if you are using a more basic oven sometimes it helps to loosely cover the turkey breast with aluminum foil for the first half of the time, and then take the foil off for the last half to help the skin crisp up without really turning it into charcoal.
If you have not done this before I would just put the potatoes and the turkey in at the same time and if the potatoes are ready early then take them out and cover with aluminum foil and if you have that warming oven put them there. Otherwise, they will be fine once roasted just sitting out but covered with the foil. The potatoes will take less time so if you want to get the Turkey breasts in then prepare the potatoes and put them in that’s fine too.
When you are getting close to the end of the time the skin on the turkey breast should be browning up. Put in a thermometer and see how it is cooking. Its only ready when it gets to an internal temperature of 165f. If its not there, let it go another ten minutes and check again at the thickest point in the breast. If you don’t have a cooking thermometer- get one, or plan on ordering a dinner!
The dressing will keep its warmth and you prepare it on the top of the oven so once you have the turkey and potatoes in the oven you can get your things prepared for the dressing but not start it until about twenty minutes before the scheduled end of the cooking time for the turkey.
Set the table and get your serving pieces ready – a bowl for the gravy, a small bowl for the cranberry sauce, large bowl for the dressing and a serving tray for the turkey, and a bowl for the potatoes.
This will hopefully set you up for a pretty nice Christmas dinner, and generate a number of leftovers. It will also turn you on to how much work your Grandma or parents or whoever else usually prepares a feast for you to just show up and enjoy.
So next time, when you are invited for a regular Christmas get together, volunteer to bring that rutabaga puff or a fabulous desert and put some serious effort into it and nail it. That’s Christmas.