How to spice up Christmas dinner: top chefs offer their tips

How to add a twist to the traditional festive spread

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 December, 2014, 4:28pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 December, 2014, 10:57am

Christmas is no holiday for chefs. If they're not working in restaurant kitchens, they're probably cooking for friends and family at home.

But do they approach preparing Christmas fare differently from the rest of us? Do they apply a little extra creativity to the preparation of traditional dishes, to inject an element of surprise?

Well, for the most part, apparently not. Many of the chefs asked to contribute an idea politely declined on the grounds that they like to observe tradition at Christmas and stick to time-honoured recipes.

Mandarin Oriental executive chef Uwe Opocensky, who describes his cuisine as "progressive gastronomy", for example says Christmas is his favourite time of year and he likes to keep it on the traditional straight and narrow, both at home and in the Mandarin Oriental's restaurants. He worked under Ferran Adrià at El Bulli and you can always rely on him for a surprise, but that wasn't quite the kind I was expecting.

His counterpart at the Mandarin Oriental Landmark, Richard Ekkebus, is also a seasonal traditionalist, but acknowledges that some of the Christmas favourites can be bland and he is not averse to giving them a tweak. His take on bread sauce is a good example.

"Bread sauce is a very British sauce served over the festive season with poultry such as turkey. It's way better when you make it using sourdough bread, if possible a darker version like rye, that has been toasted very darkly," he says.

Ekkebus suggests cutting the bread, crust included, into very thin slices, placing them on a tray, then toasting them in the oven at 180 degrees Celsius until a dark, golden brown.

"Please ensure you remove the bread before burning, as that would make the sauce very bitter," he says.

"With the dark toasted bread, your bread sauce will obtain an amazing nutty, toasted, butterscotch taste. The fact that sourdough bread is used means the flavour of a usually rather bland sauce takes on a totally new dimension."

Bread sauce is not the only component of the traditional Christmas dinner in English-speaking countries open to the accusation of blandness.

The turkey can be an underwhelming centrepiece, particularly if you happen to be American or Canadian, and have only just finished the last of the leftovers from much the same menu at Thanksgiving.

Extra spice may be the answer, says Nathan Green, executive chef at 22 Ships.

"The introduction of Eastern and Mediterranean spices to enhance flavours is a great idea for Christmas. A turkey rub of smoked paprika and toasted and ground cumin seeds, blended with smoked garlic and olive oil makes a great baste," he says.

Vegetables such as potatoes, parsnips, carrots, and onions, Green reckons, can also be livened up considerably with a little spice.

"Roasted root vegetables go perfectly with a spice mix of toasted star anise, cumin, coriander seeds, dried chilli, black pepper and paprika, finished with chopped coriander," he says.

"The inclusion of spices works really well and provides a huge burst of flavour. The most traditional elements of a Christmas dinner are fantastic vehicles for flavour."

A judicious use of herbs can freshen Christmas dishes, according to Pedro Samper, executive chef of Zafran.

"My recommendation is to use things like green herbs, which can bring a dish alive. Add some herbs to your presentation of the Christmas dinner - on top of the turkey, for example.

"I use a lot of parsley in my Spanish cooking and top my dishes with fresh herbs and flowers for colourful garnishes," he says.

Borrowing from the Christmas traditions of European countries other than Britain can add some welcome novelty to the festive menu.

"Christmas in Spain is quite different from other countries," says Samper. "We don't usually eat turkey. In my hometown, San Sebastian, at Christmas we eat Iberico ham, foie gras, fish cakes, and croquetas for appetisers, and then we serve seafood soup and vegetable dishes. We finish with fish: bacalhau [salted cod], hake, turbot, or monkfish."

Patrick Dang, chef and co-owner of newly opened Saam in Graham Street finds inspiration in French Christmas traditions, which call for lobster, oysters and foie gras.

"I would do oysters, probably Belon, which are in season. The flavour is quite strong, so I would pair them with a sorbet made with cucumber and horseradish, and an apple mignonette, so you have that acidity and a bit of spiciness from the horseradish. The lobster I would keep quite clean and simple. I would probably make a salad of it using some winter leaves and some sea greens like sea fennel and a little creamy dressing," he says.

Dang likes poultry as a main course for Christmas, but prefers goose to turkey, mincing some of the meat to make a sausage and preparing the breast meat very much along the lines of Peking duck.

"I like to glaze it with maltose and raspberry vinegar. There would definitely be some foie gras in the sausage or the sauce, and a celeriac mash maybe," he says.

One reason some chefs prefer Christmas goose to turkey, an older traditional choice, is that the meat tends to be less dry, and more strongly flavoured, But Samper points out that turkey can be made much more interesting with well-chosen sauces and stuffing.

"At Zafran, I am cooking charcoal-grilled turkey leg skewers with apricot and a sherry sauce - the sherry adds moisture and flavour to the meat. For something at home, you can use alcohol, or try different things to stuff the turkey with. For example, truffles, giblets, and dried fruit and nuts with a dash of both sherry and Spanish brandy, which is a Spanish recipe," he says.

For Brussels sprouts, he suggests cooking them with extra virgin olive oil, whole cloves of garlic, red wine vinegar, salt and pepper.

Chris Whitmore, executive chef of Aberdeen Street Social, also believes that sprouts go well with olive oil. But he doesn't think it is obligatory to cook them at all.

"We have taken some elements of traditional Christmas and winter cooking and given them a twist," he says.

"Guinea fowl, with roasted chestnuts, sprouts and bacon is very traditional, but the sprouts we serve are raw, very finely sliced and dressed with olive oil and salt. We also have a traditional red cabbage, cooked with port and red wine, and spiced with cinnamon and cloves, but we serve it with fish. Ham hock, which would normally be a glazed ham, we make into a ballotine and pair with burnt leek."

One of the issues most households face at Christmas is a general lack of enthusiasm for heavy Christmas pudding. Flaming it with brandy is a seasonal ritual, but after a large plate of turkey and all the trimmings, few can face more than a token spoonful or two.

If you don't mind dispensing with the table pyrotechnics, substitutions are possible.

"That's a tough one," says Dang. "Maybe a gluhwein sorbet with a lightly steamed pudding, like a steamed sponge pudding with a Christmas fruit compote, something with a lighter texture. Christmas pudding is quite heavy, but I'd probably just have cheese. A nice cheese in the middle of the table is quite nice. Christmas is a time when family and friends come together, so I think anything communal is good."

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