Be prepared - Richard McComb asks two chefs how to tackle the challenge of cooking on Christmas Day.
For most of us, it is the biggest meal of the year – and, if you are cooking it, probably the most stressful.
The prospect of rising at 5am to prepare the Brussels sprouts can send shivers down the spine of many amateur chefs, prompting them to turn to the sherry bottle at an unseasonally early hour.
But it doesn’t have to be this way, according to two leading city chefs who work in very different culinary circles.
We asked Guneet Singh Bindra, head chef at Indian restaurant Asha’s, and Andy Waters, chef patron at the French-inspired Edmunds, for advice on soothing the nerves and ensuring the big day is remembered for all the right reasons.
Guneet might have to cater for a few hundred covers over both lunch and dinner services each day during the Christmas and New Year period.
He believes success lies in preparation when entertaining big numbers and it is important the cook enjoys the experience as this will be reflected in the execution of the dishes.
Guneet says: “Go through the recipes a couple of times before presenting to your guests. It helps you to understand the exact ingredients, weights and measures. Practice makes cook a chef. A recipe practised beforehand will give the person confidence and they will enjoy cooking, which is a must for taste factor.
“Don’t go for complex cooking procedures. Follow recipes which require just one cooking. It helps you to keep an eye on other aspects such as garnishes and accompaniments.”
There is, however, scope for innovation. Guneet says: “As we have some extra time, we can combine a traditional recipe with some new ideas. How about a roast turkey with a Goan spice blend? Try to find a compromise between being practical and impressing your guests.”
It is important to remember that certain products may be difficult to source during the festive season and time can be saved, in Indian cooking, by making marinades in advance.
Guneet says Indian food is ideal for a celebration meal. He says: “Indians celebrate festivals in a grand way and when it comes to food its always royal. A lavish spread is planned many days in advance, even by families which are small in size.
The best available and expensive ingredients are used to impress friends and relatives. Many people tend to avoid non-vegetarian foods during these periods but the quality and quantity is not compromised. The menu can reach up to 56 items, known as Chappan Bhog. A selection of sweets is served in a platter throughout the day. Cow products such as milk and ghee are considered sacred and used in making ceremonial sweet known as parshaad.
“It is not uncommon to use a whole animal or bird as a main course. Traditional recipes involving whole joints are served directly on the table.”
With this in mind, Guneet cooks a whole leg of tandoori lamb – tandoori raan – at Asha’s and the dish has swiftly become one of the restaurant’s top celebration dishes at Christmas. Customers are now advised to pre-order in case the kitchen runs out.
Guneet says: “We started doing tandoori whole leg of lamb last year and had got immense response despite of its being large enough for four people.”
The strongest member of the kitchen team vigorously massages the Welsh lamb with the marinade. “The marination process is long and cooking is slow, which gives a juicy and soft texture.”
Chefs famously never get a day off, even on Christmas Day, and Guneet will cook for his friends, including Americans and Hungarians, this year. The menu will compromise his Indian family favourites, such as his grandmother’s griddled lamb chops, a chicken pickle curry with ajwain and chilli paranthas and a dessert of desi carrot and raisin kheer (rice pudding).
Andy Water’s dos and don'ts for Christmas
* Stay focused
Plan your menu in advance so that you are well prepared and think about what your guests like and don’t like. You don’t want guests to feel uncomfortable by serving something unusual they may not like.
Remember the French phrase “mise en place” meaning “everything in place”. Prepare what you can for Christmas Day on Christmas Eve, blanche your vegetables, make your stuffing etc. You want to be able to enjoy the day, too.
* To turkey, or not to turkey?
Don’t get caught up in the turkey and tinsel tradition unless you want to. There are lots of different options you can choose such as goose, beef, duck. People eat roast turkey so often around this time of year it can be a nice change to serve something different. You won’t see a turkey near the Edmunds menu at this time of year.
Don’t cook too early in the day as this can lead to overcooking and spoilt food
There are some great flavours you can work with during the festive season. My favourites are sweet flavours such as cinnamon, oranges, brandy, cognac and rum-raisin. Dishes don’t have to be complicated either.
One of the desserts on the Edmunds’ Christmas menu is simply steeped pineapple with rum & raisin ice-cream & vanilla shortbread. Remember, you don’t have to serve Christmas pudding.
When buying your produce, you need to think about freshness, sweetness and texture. Buy the best quality ingredients you can afford, it really does make a difference. When buying vegetables, make sure they are fresh and not frozen or heavily chilled.
* Top roasties
A tip for roast potatoes – after par boiling your roast potatoes, coat them in flour before putting them in the oven so they are crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside.