FOR ME, Christmas is a fantastic time of year. With two young boys at home, the excitement is infectious and my elder son, Kasper, is already eagerly waiting for the big day to come.
At this time of year, we would do well to learn a little lesson from children. Most of them will have their Christmas lists written well in advance, but when it comes to adults planning the Christmas dinner it’s often left to the last minute. With some careful early preparation, though, you can ensure Christmas is relaxing rather than stressful.
The first step in planning Christmas dinner is to think about your menu. It’s important to speak to your local butcher early to place the order for your bird so you don’t miss out on your first choice. For most people, Christmas Day is a hugely special occasion, and one for a little luxury in the food you eat and the way you serve it. But it doesn’t have to cost the earth.
A turkey is a staple in many homes on Christmas Day, but if you want to do things differently and create a twist on tradition, there are lots of alternatives. A goose is one of my favourites, but this can be a little expensive if you have a large number of mouths to feed. Partridge is also a great option. Game is so glorious at this time of year, and in Scotland we are incredibly lucky to have access to such a variety of wonderful, local, quality produce. I also find it a joy to share and try something different together. It’s really what makes great food memories.
Although sales of game have increased over the years, some people are still nervous about cooking it at home, unsure about how much it costs and how to prepare it. In fact, it can work out cheaper than a lot of other meats at this time of year, and it’s easy to prepare if you follow a good recipe and get advice from your butcher. It’s also lean and really delicious if you cook it in the right way – very simply, so you can relish its natural flavours. If you’re not quite ready to do all of the preparation yourself, most good butchers will be able to sell you partridge ready to cook.
There are two main types of partridge available here in Britain – the native grey and the red-legged partridge. The native grey has a tender, delicate flesh, and if you get your hands on a young bird the meat is delicious and really full of flavour. The partridge is a small bird so you will need a whole one to feed one person. That’s another reason I think it’s so perfect to serve on Christmas Day. What could be more of a joy than serving up a beautiful plate of food where everyone gets their own whole bird to cut and carve on the plate? It saves the cook time carving and trying to keep everything warm, and it also means you get to try all the different parts of the fowl with all their wonderful tastes and textures.
I love to serve partridge with freshly made game chips and bread sauce. In fact, bread sauce goes very well with most meats and is a delicious, classic British food that is also perfect for thrifty cooks. In the past, it was seen as an ideal way to use up older bread and would have been used to bulk up meals that wouldn’t have included much meat. It’s a shame that its not considered an essential on every Christmas table, as my Christmas dinner wouldn’t be complete without it. Not only that, it is very easy to make from scratch, and really tasty.
TOM’S TOP TIPS FOR A STRESS FREE CHRISTMAS
Once you’ve agreed on the menu, its time to start the planning. Every day at our restaurant, the key to success is planning and preparation. We get there early, well before any of our guests arrive, and we work hard to plan and prepare for the day ahead. We do as much as we can as early as we can, so that we’re organised from the moment the cooking starts. Our brigade of chefs have their own roles and we work together to ensure that every dish leaves the kitchen executed to perfection.
This kind of planning is the way to approach Christmas dinner too. If you prepare as much as you can the evening before or in the morning and think about some helping hands, you will find Christmas Day all the more enjoyable. If you’re cooking for more people than you usually do, my biggest tip would be to enlist some help from others – get your own little brigade of chefs. It’s a great way to spend time together, take away some of the pressure and also have fun. Giving people their own tasks makes them feel part of the festivities and even kids can get involved in things like setting the table, which can easily be done on Christmas Eve.
Another thing you can do on Christmas Eve is prepare some of the vegetables. At the restaurant, we prepare our dishes to order, but on an occasion like Christmas Day it’s good to get as much done as you can so that you enjoy cooking when the time comes. You can peel and prepare the vegetables and leave them in damp kitchen roll somewhere cool overnight so they are still fresh when you get round to cooking them the next day. Put on some Christmas music, pour some fizz and pull in some helpers – it will get you in the Christmas spirit at the same time.
Another useful hint when it comes to vegetables is to cook more than you think you need. They’re relatively cheap to buy from the local grocer or farmers’ market and a good way to stay within budget. It’s not much extra work to make more and it means you can use the leftovers on Boxing Day for sandwiches, salads, curries or casseroles.
For me, the key to serving up a Christmas dinner without a hitch is planning ahead, finding your own team of helpers and trying to make every step of the meal as much fun as possible. Christmas dinner should be about a little luxury and indulgence, but most importantly it’s about good food, great friends and having fun.
Roast partridge with bread sauce and game chips - serves four
4 whole partridge
4 slices streaky bacon
Remove the neck, wishbone and inners of the partridges (your butcher can do this). To do it yourself, lift up the skin of the grouse and slip the tip of a small knife down either side of the partridge, then insert your index finger under the wishbone and gently pull away. Be careful when doing this as it can be quite sharp.
Cover the back part of each bird with streaky bacon, tie together with string and season all over. You can put sprigs of thyme in the cavity of the birds for extra flavour.
Preheat the oven to 180°C/gas 4. Heat a splash of olive oil in a non-stick frying pan, then add one partridge at a time and colour all over.
Remove each bird from the pan and place on one breast in a roasting dish in the oven. Cook each one for three minutes, then three minutes on the other breast, and finally place flat for a further three minutes. Remove from the oven and leave to rest.
Remove the string, checking the legs to see if each bird is cooked. Serve the birds whole with game chips, bread sauce and a fingerbowl.
1 pint milk
1 bay leaf
200g white bread, broken into pieces and crusts discarded
Stud the clove into the bay leaf and then into the onion. Pour the milk into a pan and bring to the boil, then add the onion. Add the nutmeg and bread and mix well for one or two minutes. Add the butter and season to taste.
1 large potato
300ml vegetable oil
Using the criss-cross part of a mandolin, cut the potato into slices roughly 3mm thick.
Warm the oil gently in a pan on the stove. Dip a potato slice into the oil to check it is hot enough for frying, then fry the potatoes until crispy. Drain on paper towel and season lightly with salt before serving.
Salmon Tartare with Apple, Dried Cranberries and Crème Fraîche - Serves four
300g salmon fillet, skinned
2 tbsp finely diced shallots
2 tbsp chopped chives
juice of 1 lemon
2 tbsp light soy sauce
2 tbsp rice vinegar
extra-virgin olive oil
freshly ground black pepper
1 Granny Smith (or other crisp green apple)
1 red apple
50g dried cranberries, chopped
100ml crème fraîche
If you have time, put your chopping board in the freezer for 20 minutes before you start preparing the salmon – this will help you achieve a fine dice. Also check the salmon for pin-bones.
Using a very sharp knife, cut the salmon on the chilled board into small dice and place in a bowl. You can do this ahead and set the bowl over ice to keep the salmon chilled.
Just before serving, add a tablespoon of finely diced shallots, a tablespoon of chopped chives, the juice of half a lemon, the soy sauce and the rice vinegar to the chilled diced salmon.
Add a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and mix together, seasoning well with salt and pepper. Now set aside.
Quarter and core the apples, then cut them into fine dice. Place in another bowl with the remaining shallots, chives and lemon juice, the dried cranberries and a drizzle of olive oil. Toss to mix, seasoning with salt to taste.
To serve, place the salmon on four individual plates and top with the diced apple mixture. Finish with a spoonful of crème fraîche and a grinding of black pepper.