Mark Hix: The perfect Christmas lunch

Christmas lunch doesn't have to be all hard work. Mark Hix reveals expert tips and tricks to help you create a perfect feast.
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Well, we're almost there - just a couple of days to go till Christmas. It's a hard time of year for us cookery writers to try to inspire you, especially when many of you will already have made your plans. This year I have decided to offer some insider knowledge on creating the best accompaniments to the Big Meal which will hopefully cause a bit of a stir at the table - as well as being dead simple to prepare. I have seen so many hosts make far too much hard work out of a Christmas Day meal, and why do they always buy so much food?

Just for the record, as far as starters go, I like to prepare a kind of old-fashioned mixed hors d'oeuvres table, containing things like Russian salad with bits of lobster added, duck's egg mayonnaise, cold tongue with pickled beetroot, and perhaps a good coarse game pâté, too.

For me, the perfect festive meal might be a goose as a special alternative to turkey, or perhaps a partridge per person, stuffed with chestnuts and herbs; it's dead easy to serve as there's no carving involved. Another good main is a selection of small game birds like snipe, teal, quail and woodcock with some old-fashioned Cumberland sauce or jelly, and maybe a separate stuffing made from their livers.

The fluffiest roast potatoes

My gran always used to make effortless and perfect roast potatoes. At the time I never questioned why they were so good, but now I know it was down to two things. First was her choice of potatoes - floury not waxy is best for roast potatoes, so buy varieties such as King Edwards, Maris Piper or Desiree. Second was her method of cooking them. If you want to make perfect fluffy roast potatoes, pre-boil them to the point where they're nearly cooked, drain them, return them to the pan, put the lid on and give them a good shake so that the edges get all roughed up. Then put them in hot beef dripping, goose or duck fat or lard which has been heated up in an oven pre-heated to 200C/gas mark 6. Cook for about an hour or until crisp. You're guaranteed golden potatoes with the flakiest, crispiest exteriors and memorably fluffy insides.

The fruitiest sauce

We make bread and cranberry sauces for our turkey without even thinking about it, but there are other sauces if you can dare to break the tradition. Celery makes a good sauce, either simmered in milk until soft and blended, or used in an Italian version, diced and cooked with diced lemon flesh, olive oil and sugar over a bain-marie until tender. Apple sauce is perfect with goose, especially if you keep it a bit tart to cut the fat of the goose. One of my favourites, though, is Cumberland sauce, which is basically a redcurrant jelly simmered with orange zest and juice, lemon juice and port. Some versions have French mustard, ginger and wine vinegar added for a sweet and savoury appeal.

You can choose whatever sauce takes your fancy, make it in advance and heat it up on the day to save last-minute rushing around.

Spiced quince sauce

Serves 6-8

This is a perfect sauce to serve with duck, goose, game and even turkey.

4 quince
A small piece of cinnamon stick
6 cloves
6 juniper berries
200g granulated sugar
1 lemon, halved

Peel the quince and place in a large saucepan with the rest of the ingredients. Cover with water, bring to the boil and simmer for about 45 minutes, or until the quince is soft enough to mash. Drain the quince in a colander over a pan, reserving the juice for a jelly and leave to cool enough to handle. Cut the quince in half and remove the core, then blend the flesh in a food processor to a coarse purée or leave it with a coarse texture. Depending how spiced you want the quince, you can blend in some of the spices. To serve, reheat with a little of the cooking liquor or serve at room temperature.

The tenderest bird

The reason that many of us dislike turkey is because we end up with an overcooked bird, but this is mainly because we misunderstand the cooking process. Because of the size of the bird, the legs and breast have different cooking times. As the legs need much more cooking than the breast, it's therefore preferable to remove the legs and cook them separately. You can bone them, stuff them and roll them up to add a different dimension to the meal. By cooking your legs separately and slowly for maybe an hour and a half, this means that your breasts can be cooked to perfection in slightly less time, perhaps as little as one hour, depending on the size of your bird. Once you separate breast from leg, hot air can circulate around the two separate parts of the bird and the two will cook nicely. As you have only the breast meat to consider, you can concentrate getting it nice and succulent.

Here's a simple recipe in which you stuff the legs with a meaty stuffing so that you can still have your bread-based stuffing in the cavity of the bird. You can vary the ingredients of the meaty stuffing by adding, say, chopped apricots, sweetcorn and raisins, or just keep it simple. What's more, you can do this a day or so in advance and just cook it an hour and a half before you need it.

For the leg stuffing

1 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped
2tsp chopped fresh thyme leaves
A good knob of butter
500g minced pork, containing about 30 per cent fat, or minced chicken thighs
100g fresh white breadcrumbs
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Bone your turkey thighs by running the point of a sharp knife along the bone and working it around the bone to release all the flesh. Remove any visible tendons in the drumstick and lay it on a tray, then repeat with the other leg. If you have a friendly butcher, then ask him to do this.

To make the stuffing, gently cook the onions and thyme in the butter for 2-3 minutes to soften, then remove from the heat and leave to cool. Mix the onions with the pork and breadcrumbs and season. Divide the mixture between the two legs, then roll them up as tightly as possible. Tie with string at about 3cm intervals and you're ready to go.

Pre-heat the oven to 180C/gas mark 5. Pre-heat a roasting tray with a little oil in it, season and cook the legs for about 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Test by inserting a skewer into the centre; if it's hot, it's done. Serve sliced into 2cm pieces. The stuffed breast recipe below will probably take around the same amount of time to cook.

Anya's alternative bread stuffing

I was invited to my friend Anya's for a Thanksgiving Day meal last month, and she kept apologising about the stuffing for her turkey, which I thought tasted great. She explained that while she was trying to get the bread to dry to make breadcrumbs, she had left the cut pieces in the oven too long and they had become almost crouton-like. Here's her recipe.

1 large onion, peeled and finely chopped
4-5 sticks of celery, peeled if stringy and cut into rough 1cm cubes
2-3tbsp olive oil
100ml water
1 small loaf of white bread, crusts removed and cut into rough 1cm chunks
1tbsp chopped thyme
2tbsp chopped parsley
15 chestnuts, roasted, peeled and quartered (you can use pre-peeled ones)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Pre-heat the oven to 180C/gas mark 5. Gently cook the onion and celery in the olive oil for 3-4 minutes with a lid on, stirring every so often, add the water, season and continue cooking on a medium heat until the liquid has evaporated and the celery is tender. Remove from the heat and leave to cool.

Meanwhile, put the bread on a tray and bake in the oven for 10-12 minutes, or until lightly coloured. Mix the celery mixture, bread, chestnuts and herbs together and season. Stuff the large cavity of your bird with this mixture and then roast for 1-1 1/2 hours with the legs, basting regularly.

Easy-peasy gravy

Makes about 1 litre

I've often seen people scrabbling around at the last minute trying to make gravy, because they want the bones or cooking residue to flavour the gravy - but actually you can very cleverly get ahead of the game. Rather like in our restaurants, I like to make my base gravy ahead of time and then just de-glaze the cooking pan with wine and add the base gravy to the roasting pan. This takes about 5 minutes and you know that your gravy is going to taste good because you've done the long simmering in advance. My Christmas Day gravy is in the freezer - and has been for a month or so.

1kg chicken wings, chopped into small pieces
2 medium onions, peeled and roughly chopped
3 medium carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
A couple sticks of celery, roughly chopped
1 large leek, trimmed, roughly chopped and washed
3-4 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
2tsp tomato purée
1 1/2tbsp plain flour
2 1/2 litres chicken or beef stock (a good cube will do)
10 black peppercorns
A few sprigs of thyme
1 bay leaf

Pre-heat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Roast the bones and the vegetables for about 15-20 minutes until lightly coloured, giving them a good stir every so often. When they are a nice golden-brown colour, add the tomato purée, then the flour and stir well with the bones and vegetables in the roasting pan. Return the pan to the oven for another 10 minutes.

Remove the roasting tray from the oven and add a little of the stock and give it a good stir over a low flame. This will remove any residue from the tray and begin the thickening process. Transfer everything into a large saucepan, cover with the rest of the beef or chicken stock and some cold water if the stock doesn't cover the bones and add the peppercorns, thyme and bay leaf. Bring to the boil, skim off any scum that forms and simmer very gently for 1 1/2 hours. The gravy may need topping up with water to keep the ingredients covered. Skim occasionally as required.

Strain through a fine-meshed sieve and remove any fat with a ladle. Check its strength and reduce it if necessary. If the gravy is not thick enough, dilute some cornflour in a little cold water and stir in.

The perfect Christmas fruit chocolate truffles

Makes 80-100

Home-made chocolates are always handy to have in the house, especially at Christmas. If the kids are around I normally try to get them involved, although the yield of chocolates is somewhat reduced as it ends up all over their faces. These chocolates also make perfect gifts for the relatives.

You can mould these naturally with a teaspoon, roll them into neat balls with your hands, use a melon baller, or pipe them into lengths on silicone or greaseproof paper and cut them into 3-4cm sticks. You may find that you need to melt some more chocolate for dipping as you can never quite tell how much will stick to the truffles as you dip.

750g good-quality dark chocolate, finely chopped (reserve 250g for coating)
350ml double cream
200g unsalted, softened butter
70g mixed peel and raisins, chopped finely and soaked in 120ml liqueur such as Cointreau, Amaretto, or Drambuie
80-100g good-quality cocoa powder

Bring the cream to the boil in a pan. Remove from the heat and gradually stir in the 500g of chocolate with a whisk until it has melted and the mixture is smooth. Stir in the butter and the soaked fruits. Transfer the mixture into a bowl and leave to cool in the fridge for about 1-1 1/2 hours until firm enough to spoon into rough shapes.

Line a tray with clingfilm and spoon the mixture into roughly-shaped blobs on the clingfilm. Leave to set in the fridge until firm and solid. Then melt the remaining dark chocolate in a bowl over a pan of simmering water, stirring every so often. Remove from the heat and leave to cool for a few minutes. Sift the cocoa powder on to a tray and have a third clean tray ready for the finished truffles. Using a thin skewer or cocktail stick, dip them quickly into the melted chocolate, ensuring as much excess as possible drains off, then put them into the cocoa powder, shaking the tray so they become coated. When you have about 10-12 coated, shake off the excess cocoa with your hands and transfer them to the clean tray. Store in the fridge in a container lined with kitchen paper until required, and bring them out of the fridge half an hour before serving. Don't keep them for more than a month (as if).