Cooking a feast on Christmas Day throws even the best home cooks into a total panic, but it doesn't have to be that way. What's most important is to be on top of all the little accompaniments and bits and bobs that you normally serve with the Christmas Day roast; it's so tragic to witness people messing around with gravy at the last minute while the rest of the meal is getting cold. A lot of these accompaniments can be made days ahead and, as far as gravy is concerned, there's no excuse for not having some of it stashed in the freezer at all times, as making the stock from scratch, then making it into a gravy, can be a bit of a chore.
I've even got a small home vacuum-packing machine that I bought at a food festival in South Africa about 10 years or so ago. It's a really useful way to pack food at home for storage in the fridge, larder or freezer, especially if you want to make and pack large quantities of sauces or purées or mashed vegetables and then just boil them in the bag in a saucepan of water. The extra plus point is that there's also much less washing up, as you can simply empty the contents of the bag straight into the serving dish and throw the bag away or wash it and use it again.
You can buy your own vacuum-packing machine at fresherpack.com, as well as all sorts of shapes and sizes of bags. It could make your dinner parties a whole lot easier in the future!
Bread sauce is not the easiest sauce to get right; creating a beautifully silky texture, as well as the right balance of cloves, nutmeg and onion, is crucial. I have tweaked this recipe a few times over the years to get it just right.
This sauce would definitely benefit from boiling in the bag: no burnt pans, and no skin, either.
1 small onion, peeled and halved
1 large bay leaf
500ml full fat milk
A good pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
100g fresh white breadcrumbs
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
Finely chop half the onion; cook gently in half the butter. Stud the other half with the cloves, pushing them through the bay leaf to anchor it. Put the milk, nutmeg and studded onion in the saucepan with the cooked onion; bring to the boil. Simmer for 10-15 minutes. Remove from the heat; leave the sauce to infuse for an hour or so. Take out; discard the studded onion. Add the breadcrumbs and return the sauce to a low heat. Simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Pour a quarter of the bread sauce from the pan into a blender and liquidise, return to the pan and add the remaining 30g butter. Stir until the sauce has amalgamated; check the seasoning.
This stuffing works very well with turkey, goose, pork or game and it can be cooked within the bird or joint or separately, wrapped in foil or in a baking dish – or you could vac-pac it and boil it in the bag.
Some people like to put minced pork or even sausagemeat in this type of stuffing but unless you use really top-notch sausagemeat, a chestnut stuffing can taste like a cheap ready meal. I reckon that if you put plenty of chestnuts, onions and herbs in your stuffing (and possibly a bit of offal) that's probably sufficient, as you should have enough meat with the main item anyway.
2 medium onions, peeled, halved and finely chopped
150g duck, chicken or pork livers, chopped
5 leaves of sage, chopped
2tsp thyme leaves
30-40 chestnuts, lightly toasted, peeled and quartered
150g fresh white breadcrumbs
3tbsp chopped parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Melt the butter in a thick-bottomed pan, season and cook the onions, livers, sage and thyme on a medium heat for 2-3 minutes, then remove from the heat and mix with the chestnuts, breadcrumbs and parsley.
Season to taste, then stuff your bird or pork before cooking.
Everyone seems to be obsessed with pouring wine into their gravy and sauces, but cider works equally as well and is a brilliant match with goose, pork and turkey.
There is absolutely no point in messing around at the last minute trying to make gravy. It's much better to make it ahead to ensure that you get a really good flavour.
If you want to de-glaze your roasting pan, just use a little bit more cider and scrape the bottom, then add it to this delicious gravy.
1kg chicken wings, chopped into small pieces
2 medium onions, peeled, roughly chopped
3 medium carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
A couple of sticks of celery, roughly chopped
1 large leek, trimmed, roughly chopped and washed
3-4 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
2tsp tomato purée
1tbsp plain flour
2 litres chicken or beef stock (a good cube will do)
10 black peppercorns
A few sprigs of thyme
1 bay leaf
Preheat 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 or so.
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 about 1 hours. The gravy may need topping up with water to keep the ingredients covered. Skim occasionally, as required.
Strain the gravy 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.
This is like a traditional brandy butter which you can serve on your Christmas pudding or on mince pies. I've given it a bit of a West Country twist by slipping in some of Julian Temperley's delicious Shipwreck cider brandy (ciderbrandy.co.uk).
250g unsalted butter, softened
2tbsp icing sugar
60-80ml Shipwreck cider brandy
100ml double cream
In a mixing machine or by hand, cream the butter, sugar and cider brandy together until well mixed, then finally add in the cream. You can add more cider brandy to taste. Roll up the butter in clingfilm or greaseproof paper or transfer to little serving pots, cover with clingfilm and store in the fridge until required.
Cranberry and orange sauce
I know that it's traditionally eaten with turkey, but cranberry sauce goes equally well with goose or suckling pig, as well as cold pies. It will keep for a week or so in the fridge in a sealed container.
The juice and grated zest of 3 oranges
200g sugar, plus a little extra if required
Put the cranberries in a pan with the orange juice and zest and the sugar. Heat on a low heat, stirring every so often until the sugar has melted, then continue cooking for about 15 minutes until the cranberries have softened.
Taste the cranberry sauce for sweetness; add more sugar if necessary. Leave to cool; store in the fridge until required and heat gently in a pan, or just serve at room temperature.
Read part one of Mark Hix's alternative Christmas feast here
Read part two of Mark Hix's alternative Christmas feast here