Make your Christmas get-togethers go with a swing with some top tips on party planning, writes Su Carroll
Christmas is a time for family and friends, and many of us will appreciate that more than ever after the experiences of the last two years. Getting together brings its own set of pressures which are, rest assured, easily avoided.
Start early with your planning, have lists of what you need to do and don’t panic. A Christmas dinner is essentially a roast and catering for more people than normal doesn’t have to be complicated.
The team at the Horn of Plenty near Tavistock have it all under control, as you would expect from six decades of catering for guests at this award-winning country house hotel. The team suggests supporting your local butcher and greengrocer, ordering your turkey early, as well as making Christmas pudding and cake well in advance. Even braised red cabbage will keep for a week. You could try pan-fried goose, duck or honey-roasted gammon for a change but if you want turkey, put lots of butter under the skin before roasting to keep it moist. Make sure you have plenty of alcohol, the team advises, but remember everyone is with you to be part of the family and the occasion is more important than the food.
If you are hosting the Christmas dinner, remain calm and plan ahead. I start the preparations by deciding what time I want to serve the food, then I wind back my timings by half an hour because everything always takes longer than expected.
I make stuffing well in advance (it freezes brilliantly) by blitzing odd slices of stale bread and popping it in a bag in the freezer until I have enough. Prep the veg the day before (a great job for volunteers) and par-cook the potatoes. To save on pots and pans, keep root veg chunky (parsnips, carrots, swede) and roast together in olive oil.
Allow for the turkey to finish cooking an hour before you plan to eat – it needs to rest before carving. Then whack the oven up to finish the roast potatoes, veg and stuffing.
Please don’t be afraid to cheat – why not add lots of nuts, fresh herbs and grated lemon zest to packet stuffing. Make your own pigs in blankets with chipolatas and streaky bacon – it’s very therapeutic assembling them. If you’re worried about your gravy passing muster, buy decent chicken stock and add a glass of wine or a splash of sherry, some redcurrant jelly or cranberry sauce, and a knob of butter for gloss. Add in any turkey juices too.
Before or after the big day, you may find yourself inviting people into your home. You don’t have to provide anything too elaborate, but you can still impress. Keep it simple – stock up on jars of olives (marinate your own with added chilli and garlic for an extra kick), sun-dried tomatoes and peppers. Cut into manageable sizes and serve with pitta crisps. Just slice the pittas in half lengthways, brush with vegetable oil and crisp up in a hot oven. Cured meats are great on their own or loaded on savoury biscuits or slices of bread. Tins of chickpeas, tahini paste (which keeps for ages) and fresh garlic makes a quick hummus at half the price of shop-bought. Carrots, celery, cucumber and peppers make great crudités.
Get out some bright plates or clean boards and pile high with these delicious nibbles. Thinly slice French bread and toast either side and cool, or find some savoury biscuits to top with anything you please – cream cheese, sliced meats, salmon, anchovy mash or slices of nice cheese, like Brie or Stilton, where a little goes a long way.
For the drinks, make sure you have flexible options. Have soda water to turn white wine into spritzers, make mulled wine to ensure red goes further, or jugs of Buck’s Fizz to mix bubbles with orange juice. Favourites in our house for the non-drinkers include St Clements which is a mix of bitter lemon and orange juice, and elderflower cordial with tonic water.