Roll up your sleeves, have a large swig of wine and take in these top-notch Christmas tips from London’s best chefs, says David Ellis
If the thought of cooking this year’s Christmas lunch is already bringing on the turkey sweats, blame Henry VIII. The marriage enthusiast and monarch was the first to eat the bird on 25 December, thus condemning Britain to days of defrosting and wrestling with giblets forevermore. And while this year there are likely to be fewer far-flung relatives to grumble about it all, don’t be fooled into thinking the pressure is off — all it really means is one less sloshed aunt or uncle to distract from what’s on the plate.
Christmas 2020, then, is all about doing less but doing it better. After two lockdowns crafting, er, culinary geniuses of us all, many might be feeling confident with the year’s biggest roast dinner. But for those who need a little inspiration, or just can’t face turkey drier than a Hancock press conference, we’ve coaxed 16 of the capital’s wisest chefs to offer up some festive food for thought. Here they share their secrets to a guaranteed Christmas smash.
When your turkey arrives, you’ll usually receive a bag from the butcher containing the turkey’s giblets, including the gizzards, liver and the like. It looks scary but do not throw those bits away, the liver and gizzards make for a very flavourful and deep gravy. Clean the giblets in the sink, fry them off with oil, thyme and rosemary, then add them to your stock along with the juices from your turkey’s roasting tray.
Something I always incorporate as part of any roast, and that works perfectly at Christmas, is a liquid known as shio koji. It’s a rice wine containing koji fungus. You can find it in most Japanese grocery stores or online. I normally use the brand Marukome. Apply shio koji to your uncooked meat and let it marinate overnight; this will tenderise the meat and enhance the umami flavour. But don’t stop there — it can also be used as a flavour enhancer for all sorts of ingredients. Plus it’s gluten-free and vegan friendly.
Think drinks! They say you should never mess with a classic but when sipping a Negroni I always feel like
I should be drinking it on a sun-dappled piazza, so this little twist makes it both festive and seasonal. Negronis are normally one part gin, one part Campari and one part vermouth, but for my pomegranate Negroni, I replace the vermouth with port and pomegranate molasses then serve with a slice of blood orange, a stick of cinnamon and a few pomegranate seeds. The colour is madly Christmassy, as is the taste.
This is a good season to focus on quality and provenance. Plus, it’s incredibly important this year to support producers and local businesses. I always start with some sustainably sourced shellfish or smoked fish for starters. That way, you have to do very little; it’s simply a case of putting it on a plate with some nice bread and butter. If you are going down the turkey route, it’s about getting the maximum amount of flavour into what can be quite a dull bird. Take the breasts off, stuff the crown, stuff the legs, baste it with butter and focus on creating a really good sauce. If you’re serving crispy roast potatoes, nicely cooked roast meat and an amazing gravy then you’re most of the way there.
Brining a notoriously dry bird like the turkey will ensure that this Christmas dinner goes down in food history, rather than being labelled another you’d rather forget. To master the art, submerge a 10kg bird in 10 litres of water and 1kg of salt. Add lots of aromatics, including the peel of a few oranges, cinnamon sticks, peppercorns, juniper berries and bay leaves. Leave the bird in the fridge to soak overnight; this will tenderise the meat by breaking down the proteins. The next day, drain the turkey and pat it dry as much as possible to ensure a crispy skin and juicy cuts. Baptise the bird this way and you’ll be a convert, I promise.
Keep Brussels sprouts the hell away from water, they’ll taste awful. Instead, chop up some smoked bacon and cook it off, then slice your sprouts nice and thinly. Cook them in the bacon and its fat and add lots of chestnuts and herbs — delicious. Vegetarians can skip the bacon in favour of a little oil. Either way, the sprouts will become caramelised and tasty. If you’re roasting a turkey, remove the legs and cook them separately. The breast takes much less time to cook so by the time the legs are done, you’ve got dry, horrible turkey breast, like the ones we used to get at school dinners. And never, ever stuff the turkey carcass; put the stuffing under the skin otherwise you’ll need to overcook your meat for the stuffing inside to be cooked, too.
It’s way too late now to make your own Christmas pudding but
don’t fear, many of the top-end supermarket offerings are rather good, the only thing they lack is booze. The trick is to soak them in rum, brandy, port or stout — or even a combination of all four — before you steam them. I’m not going to advise on the pyrotechnics in case I get sued, but the best Christmas pudding hack is to have it for breakfast on Boxing Day, pan fried in butter and served with brandy caramel. You can thank me later.
Everyone always buys way too much food in the festive period, causing food waste to soar. So I say downsize your bird, especially with fewer people around the Christmas table. One of my favourite celebratory Christmas Day lunches is a selection of small game birds, such as teal, snipe and woodcock, simply roasted in a hot oven for 10 minutes or so and served with homemade jellies like quince or redcurrant and the usual trimmings. This way you can each have two or more completely different-tasting birds.
The most important thing is to make sure to keep a few bottles of fizz in the fridge a few days before, so that they’re perfectly chilled for Christmas morning. Secondly, after the main event, use any leftover bread sauce to make a delicious savoury bread pudding. Take about half a pint of bread sauce, add two eggs, and cook it all slowly in a tureen mould. Chill it then serve sliced, topped with the breast of a bird, or cold ham.
For an intensely spiced festive centrepiece I usually rub a whole leg of lamb in a yoghurt marinade, leave it in the fridege for three days and cook it with the marinade on. This year, for more complexity and a slightly floral flavour, I’ll add some black stone flower (sometimes called dagar phool or rock moss) and dried rose petals into the garam masala spice blend. My other secret, for the veggies, is using a coarse, crushed kadhai spice mix, made up of equal quantities of cumin, coriander seeds, chilli flakes, cracked pepper, dried fenugreek leaves and fennel seeds, which brings out the best in sprouts and makes them one of the most fought over dishes on our table.
I always tell my Seven Dials team, the perfect roastie means choosing the right potato. Chippers choice, Lovers or Maris Piper are my preference. Once you’ve got yours, steam them the night before and leave them uncovered in the fridge. This will remove any excess moisture on the outside which could inhibit crispiness. When it comes to cooking, a hot oven is absolutely essential; around 210-220C at a minimum. And personally,
I always find vegetable oil works just as well as duck or goose fat.
Don’t be afraid to use spices in your Christmas Day meal, it makes the side dishes that bit more interesting. Roast your carrots with Vadouvan — a mixture of curry and spices from Pondicherry in India — and seasoned bergamot juice. Brussels sprouts are so much more exciting when you pan fry them with sliced kumquats, too. When it comes to the meat, I love making a Challans duck rather than turkey, a big one that can feed six to eight. Buy yours a week in advance, dry age it in the fridge so the skin becomes crispier, then roast it with honey, fennel and coriander seeds.
It’s all in the veg. For your cabbage, my top tip is to cook it with duck fat a week in advance. I roast it in the oven at a really low temperature, letting all the flavours combine and infuse together, which will give it a confit effect. Alongside this, do a whole roast celeriac, which will hold its own against any turkey and can handle really strong flavours and toppings. Baste it like you would a turkey and cook it for five hours. For a twist, I love to add a fried mushroom stock cube to my gravy or a hefty glug of date molasses: both will lift your gravy by 100 per cent.
Try making Shekam Por stuffing, a traditional northern Iranian dish of sauteed onion, garlic, barberries, chopped walnut, prunes, dried golden plums or apricots, pomegranate molasses and clementine juice. It’s simply a twist on a classic stuffing recipe, but one that will keep a big bird like turkey juicy. I also like to rub the turkey with saffron-infused butter and place some under the skin, which gives it a nice golden yellow, luxurious glow.
In Mexico it’s all about the sauce, so make your own homemade mole. Get a bunch of your favourite winter vegetables as well as some fruit and nuts, and blend it all together with toasted dry chillis and a good ratio of toasted sesame. I tend to use equal parts chilli, sesame, fruit, roasted tomato, with a quarter the amount of nuts, as well as plenty of herbs and spices. Fry this in a pot with pork or duck fat, then cook it slowly until it becomes dark in colour. If you want it sweet, add a pinch or two of dark chocolate and a cup of brown sugar at the end. A good mole is ideal alongside a Christmas roast and if you have any left then I’d recommend spreading it on toast with butter and cheese.
One of the first things I thought about when opening my restaurants was the tableware. It is often not given the importance it deserves, but it is the base against which you present your food. A festive occasion is an opportunity to cook beautiful, meaningful food and present it in a special way with tableware that stands out, like a frame to a picture. I plan the menu together with how I will serve it, which sets the tone for the celebration. Christmas lunch this year is more poignant than ever: lay the table right and the food will be all the better.