The Biggest Gig of the Year

December 22nd, 2007

The Big Gig

So it’s almost upon us guys; the big one, the Christmas Lunch. For us foodies who love to cook this is it, the most important meal of the year. Are you ready? Are you nervous? Do you have a plan? You most certainly don’t need military precision but a little bit of advance planning will take away the stress and make things so much easier for you on the day.

I’ve heard it said that Christmas lunch is just a roast dinner and although that’s true to an extent it’s also the once-a-year family feast that creates months of anticipation and much expectation. And what’s more, it usually involves what is probably the trickiest bird to cook well – the turkey. So quite understandably it often causes much worry and stress for the cook. But having said all that, with good guidelines and good planning it really doesn’t have to be difficult.

In order to avoid all the stress, which I too have experienced, and to make sure my Christmas lunch is a feast to remember, for the right reasons, I’ve taken note of tips and guidelines from different sources over the years: Jamie; Delia; family; the internet, and have also drawn on my own experience to come up with a plan that I’m fairly confident with. So I thought I’d post some tips in order to maybe help someone out there (I always have a turkey on Christmas day, so these tips are based around that). But really the best advice I can give you, other than to plan in advance, is to relax, pour yourself a glass of wine or champers, and most importantly enjoy – it’s Christmas after all!

Timings

As with any roast dinner, timing is everything. You want your meat to be resting while you make your gravy and the vegetables to be all cooked and ready to serve along with everything else at the same time. In the midst of the buzzing activity on Christmas day: relatives arriving; glasses to be topped up; excited children running around, and generally being pulled in every direction, it’s more important than ever to know what needs to be done when and to keep on top of everything. Here’s where a timetable comes in. It doesn’t have to be fancy, it just needs to be clear and understandable to you.

The first thing to do is calculate your cooking time based on the weight of your turkey. I use Delia’s timings and they’ve not let me down yet. Once you have this decide when you want to serve lunch and work backwards from there in order to find out when the turkey needs to go into the oven. Remember to add on the resting time (for the bird, not you I’m afraid!); about 45 minutes. Resting is very important as it allows the meat to relax and the juices to go back into it, leaving it nice and succulent. So, if you want to serve lunch at 3pm and your turkey needs a total of 4 hours cooking time it needs to go into the oven at 10:15am (to give 4 hours cooking plus 45 minutes resting time). So you’ve worked out when the turkey needs to go in, now write that down!

You can now start working out when your vegetables and accompaniments need to go on, again working backwards. So how long will they take to cook? Ok, now work backwards from your serving time to give you the time they need to go on. Write it down. Now you’re building up your timetable.

Preparing the Turkey

On the advice of the experts I now buy a Norfolk Bronze turkey, which is as good as it’s promise; succulent and full of flavour. When you collect your turkey ask the butcher to remove the wishbone, as this will make it easier to carve, and make sure he gives you the giblets for the all important giblet stock to make the gravy with. If the giblets are in a bag inside the turkey remove them and refrigerate them separately.

To make things quicker and easier on the day, prepare the turkey the night before. The way I do this is to season a whole packet of butter and put most of it under the skin, which I separate from the breast with my hands, carefully to avoid tearing the skin. I put the rest of the butter over the legs, which can become dry. Next I put a halved lemon and lots of herbs (such as rosemary, thyme, bay leaves) in the cavity and finally I lay streaky bacon over the breast. It’s really important that the turkey is at room temperature when you cook it, otherwise the timings will be all off and you risk undercooking it. I therefore follow Delia’s advice and take the turkey out of the fridge before I go to bed on Christmas Eve.

Cooking the Turkey

As I said earlier, I use Delia’s timings. The turkey gets a hot blast of heat at the beginning, and is then cooked more gently, with a final blast at the end to brown it up. I cover the turkey with foil and remove it during the final blast of heat. I also remove the bacon from the breast at this stage, so that the breast can brown up evenly.

It’s very important to remember that all ovens vary and the cooking times are only a guide. With a turkey it’s more important than ever to check that it’s properly cooked and to give it longer if it needs it, no matter what anyone’s timings say. The way to check that it’s cooked is to make sure the juices run clear. You can do this by piercing a fat part of the turkey near the legs with a skewer and pressing down on the skin until the juices run. You can also lift the turkey up and let the juices run out to check them. Alternatively cut into the join between the leg and the breast and look in the space in between, where juices gather. Other ways of checking that the turkey is cooked is to pull on the leg and see if it has give in it – it should be easy to pull away from the breast, or to put a metal skewer right into the breast and check it comes out hot.

The Roast Potatoes

My mouth is watering just thinking about these, the gems of the roast dinner. Here’s my guide for good roast potatoes, and for Christmas day nothing but goose fat will do. I’ll peel the potatoes on Christmas Eve (or rather, I’ll ask Rob to!) and keep them covered in cold water so there’s one less job to do on the big day.

The Gravy

My guide for making gravy is here. For Christmas day I throw 2 or 3 each of carrots, celery stalks and halved onions into the roasting tray with the turkey, which gives a wonderful base for the gravy. The stock I use is giblet stock, which I make on Christmas Eve, using Delia’s recipe.

Serving

Now, in the days leading up to the big day, is the time to check that you have enough serving plates, glasses, a big enough roasting tray, etc. Think about what equipment and serving dishes you’ll need and make sure they’re easily accessible.

One of the biggest mistakes I made one year was not to heat the plates. For one reason or another we were late sitting down to lunch and by the time the turkey and vegetables were passed around the table and put onto the cold plates dinner was warm, not hot. I always make a point now of heating the plates. Some plates can go into the oven to heat through, but your best china can’t. In this case simply fill the sink with hot water 10 minutes or so before lunch and put them in. They’ll heat through beautifully. Another thing you can do to keep the food hot is to cover it with foil once you’ve put it in serving dishes, and remove the foil just before you take the food to the table. The turkey will retain its heat well, but to be sure cover it foil and then a tea towel while it’s resting.

Useful resources

FSA guidelines

Delia Smith’s advice

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