It’s the time of year many people look forward to. Visions of snowflakes presents under the tree, mulled wine, and the joyous moment of our loved ones sitting down to a festive feast. Delicious food crispy roasted potatoes, Brussel sprouts, and finished off with the piece de resistance a flaming Christmas pudding. This is also usually the point where the panic starts to set in for most aspiring chefs and cooks.
How to achieve the perfect dinner, without ending up a frenzied fiend over the stove!!! Having been a professional chef for many years, I have jotted down a few tips to share with you to help make this Christmas feast the best ever and also the most relaxed.
The most important trick of all and one of the first things we are ever taught as chefs is the art of preparation.
It is how the chefs on TV make it all look so simple and manage to throw together a fabulous meal in very little time without breaking into a sweat!
The first stop on the way to a stress-free Christmas dinner is to make sure you have a guest list of who will be attending and to check with your guests if anybody has any specific dietary requirements. It is quite common to have guests who are gluten, dairy or wheat intolerant or who have allergies to things such as nuts. Once you know what everyone can and cannot eat you can begin with stage two.
Plan your menu well in advance and write out your shopping list. Major items can be purchased in advance and frozen down. Final fresh items such as salad ingredients, fruit, and vegetables can be left for a day or two before the big event.
If you are using recipes from cookbooks, read through them well at this stage so you are familiar with exactly what you will be preparing and how long it will take – though I have to be honest I always use recipes as a guideline and add my own special touch. For my preparation list, I usually have a column for the time and next to this I write down in what order I will prepare things and how long it will take, for example preparing vegetables can be made while soup is simmering on the stove. Items such as pastry and soups and even salad dressings can be made well in advance and frozen to save you some valuable time.
Most of your food will be prepared or at least partly so, the day before, so on Christmas itself, all you have to do is put together the final ingredients, and then throw on your glad rags and enjoy the party with the rest of your guests. This is also a good time to make sure your crockery, cutlery and glass wear is clean and that you have enough of it.
Any final shopping should be done on the morning of Christmas eve and then the business of cooking can begin.
The main part of the meal may take longer to prepare so ensure you have it prepared in good time. Brussel sprouts can be washed and have the crosses cut into the ends. I adore root vegetables so at this stage I peel them and cut into batons, and place in a foil-covered tray with some salt, pepper, fresh thyme, olive oil, and brown sugar so that they just need to be popped into the oven to finish them off. Potatoes can be peeled and partly cooked, so they are ready for roasting the following day.
For the gravy, I would advise purchasing a fresh stock or gravy from the supermarket, because most of us really don’t have the time to make a proper stock – which can take days. Reduce some port or red wine in a pan with some chopped onion and some fresh herbs such as thyme or sage, add your gravy to this and bring to the boil, strain, and serve. For a really professional finish, whisk in a little ice-cold butter at the last minute, which will really make the sauce shine.
In my family we prepare our Christmas pudding, cake, and mincemeat in early September and let it rest in a cool dark place, feeding it once a week with a little brandy. However, supermarkets have now taken all the hard work out of this for you, and made their puddings up to six months in advance, and they are really delicious and taste just like they are homemade.
The trick to serving a flaming pudding is to gently heat a little brandy to blood temperature and pour it over your pudding just as it comes to the table and light with a match rather than a lighter just so you don’t burn your fingers.
Also, don’t forget to turn the lights off in the room before you make your triumphant entrance!
Most important of all though is to relax and enjoy yourself while you cook.
Put some festive music on and have a glass of wine and really enjoy what you are doing.
I was always taught that if you put love into what you cook it makes the best flavouring of all!!
TIPS FOR PREPARING A STRESS-FREE CHRISTMAS DINNER
1. Preparation is all the most important trick of all
2. Ensure you know if your guests have any dietary requirements
3. Plan your menu and write down your shopping list
4. Thoroughly read through your recipes so you are familiar with them
5. Buy what you need in advance and prepare as much as you can in advance
6. Write down the order in which you will be preparing the food
7. Check you have enough glassware, crockery
8. Leave time aside to do some last-minute shopping
9. Know what you can buy from the supermarket that can be just as tasty as your cooking
10. Smile and Enjoy your Christmas Day
Happy Christmas to All
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