When it comes to Christmas dinners, the thought of having to put a huge spread together sends waves of anxiety through my body. But to make sure your 2021 plans go off without a hitch, we've gathered some of the UK's finest chefs to give us their top tips from the big day. Covering everything from making those Brussels sprouts sexy to outrageous disasters in the kitchen, we present The Do's & Don'ts Of Christmas with Wahaca's Thomasina Miers, Simon Shaw of Canto, Mike Reid from Gaucho, Mathura's Atul Kochhar and Nick Rietz of Bilson Eleven.
What’s your idea of the perfect Christmas dinner? Staying in or going out?
Atul Kochhar: Christmas is, of course, a Christian festival but growing up in a secular and cosmopolitan part of East India, Christmas has always been a big part of my life. We didn’t eat roast turkey but certainly roast chicken, roast potatoes and lots of spiced-up sides. Desserts were also a big thing, lots of festive cakes and biscuits, some baked and some fried. Now that I live in the UK and spent so many years in the kitchen, my ideal Christmas means spending quality time with my family at home, eating and enjoying all the goodies.
Tommi Miers: Definitely staying home. We always have a really late lunch at about 3pm and then it goes on for quite some time... I think being at home for me absolutely quintessential Christmas, you know and cooking together, creating a massive feast. Getting a little tipsy.
Simon Shaw: Staying at home, definitely. Christmas day is a day to be enjoyed with your family. I really value the opportunity to have some quality time with mine.
Mike Reid: Staying home, for sure. All the family and extended family are coming to join. Lots of food, sharing style, relaxed and informal. For me that is what Christmas is about.
Nick Rietz: Definitely staying in. The first time I ever thought about going out for Christmas was last year and we (my wife, our two children and I) booked a lodge in the highlands. Obviously, that was cancelled due to last years festive lockdown so I guess that was fate's way of saying just stay cosy in your home!
If there’s one expensive item, ingredient, or utensil to splash the cash on this season, what would you recommend?
Atul: I absolutely love my Thermomix. It’s a great bit of kit - a fantastic blender, fantastic slow cooker and incredibly versatile. If you can dig into your pockets a little for the season, this will help you with several things over many years to come. I bought mine 20 years ago, I still have it and use it constantly.
Tommi: It's gotta be meat. There's more of us trying to eat less meat, but we can make it better quality. Go for a grass-fed aged beef or proper free-range turkey, a lovely ham. Really indulge - because that's what Christmas is about - but make sure that you're buying from a good farm where meat is reared in the right way.
Simon: Fillet steak. I’m making a Beef Wellington this year and will not be holding back. If I can have two, then truffles too. They’re really nice shaved over Brussels sprouts pan-fried with pancetta.
Mike: Mix it up this year and splash out on duck. It roasts so much quicker than turkey and the taste is fantastic. You could keep it classic with some orange or dial it up with morello cherries. Make yourself a killer glaze too, your guests will be blown away.
Nick: Hire a kitchen porter so nobody has to do the dishes.
How do you make your side dishes a little more sexy? We’re talking Brussels sprouts, potatoes…
Atul: Some people hate Brussels sprouts, but I love them! I cut them in half, blanch them in saltwater with a seasoning of coconut oil, mustard seeds, red chilli, green chilli, ginger, curry leaves, then sauté with chopped shallots and add a pinch of garam masala and a handful of freshly grated coconut. Delicious. As a nod to my East Indian upbringing, I also like to make a spiced gravy made with East Indian curry powder.
Tommi: When it comes to potatoes, they need to have lots and lots... the more, the better. Brussels sprouts are actually really easy to make delicious, I like to halve them and pan fry them. Then dice up some chilli, garlic and sautée with chestnuts - delicious with the traditional pancetta as well.
Simon: It’s a time to indulge and so if you’re making mashed potato, you want plenty of butter in it. You can be extravagant, don’t hold back. Treat yourself to those truffles too, they really do make a huge difference to your sprouts.
Mike: My deep-fried Brussels sprouts are becoming legendary. I pair with a parmesan custard and loads of grated parmesan on top.... it transforms such a humble veggie into something pretty special.
Nick: Not so much a side dish but more of a starter which is becoming a family tradition. We get a decent, round camembert-style cheese (Livarot for strong cheese lovers or a wee petit brie for milder fans) and place it in the middle of a ball of dough then bake as you would a homemade bread for 15 minutes. Let sit for another 15 minutes then dive in. It's like a pizza for cheese gluttons.
Can you share your top tip for veganising a Christmas dinner?
Atul: We have quite a few vegans and vegetarians in my family so one of my favourite things to make over Christmas is a biryani. Root vegetables are in season, so they are perfect to cook with at this time of year. Jackfruit has a wonderful meaty texture, I serve it with a vegan pomegranate raita... sweet and tangy and delicious.
Tommi: Celebrating vegetables at Christmas is actually quite easy; whether it's making a centrepiece of chargrilled hispi on a bed of olive oil and garlic, celeriac mash, or whether you want to do a veggie en croûte. If you look at Indian or Mexican cooking, the sauces and spices make vegan eating really simple. We've got this pepper on the Wahaca menu at the moment, which happens to be vegan, but you wouldn't know it.
Simon: Buy the best produce you can afford, either organic or from a farm shop; you’ll taste the difference. Also, introduce interesting vegetables that you don’t use every day, such as pumpkin or squash. Salt baking vegetables is a great way of really intensifying flavour and is perfect for vegan dishes.
Mike: The days of a drab vegan Christmas are long over. My advice is to start early with your prep to make the most out of your beautiful veggies. Replace ham with a slow-roasted watermelon on the bbq, glazed in the same way so you get that gorgeous sticky exterior. I would make a beetroot wellington for my centrepiece main, it is such a beautiful colour.
Tell us all about your biggest Christmas Day disaster in the kitchen...
Atul: With so much going on I once forgot about the turkey. By the time I realised, it was a little more than overcooked! I quickly decided to get the drinks cabinet open, and by the time we sat down at the table, I don’t think anyone noticed. There’s always a solution and another way to dazzle.
Tommi: When I just started cooking, my father decided we were going to have a Heston Blumenthal 24-hour roast beef. But when we got it out of the oven it was completely raw. So we went for our Christmas Day walk and whacked up the oven, but when we came back it was overcooked. He was not pleased.
Simon: Buying a turkey that was too big for the oven. I had to dissect it to get it in.
Mike: My first Christmas in Australia, I went to put the turkey in the oven but it wouldn’t fit. Rather than break it apart and cook it in pieces, we decided to use my mother in law's friend's kitchen down the road as she was away. About 2 hours into turkey being in the oven, the front door opened. A whole family walked in, as my family jumped up from where they were sitting. I threw the turkey in the air in my panic, watched it fly through the kitchen and smash on the floor! Luckily they heard me out before calling the police, but, needless to say, I won't be returning to that house anytime soon.
Nick: When I first became a chef I didn't realise the size that turkeys could grow to and ordered the largest one possible from a supplier for my families dinner (two adults and two toddlers). Needless to say, the thing was the size of a small car and cost half a week's wage. I think we were still having turkey curries into the following December.
What’s your favourite festive drink? Do you have an easy go-to cocktail to whip up at home?
Atul: Growing up in India, we drank a lot of rum and Coke on Christmas. Doesn’t sound all that exciting, but it always reminds me of the season. These days, I am the king of the martini - especially a ‘posh’ passionfruit martini.
Tommi: I try to make sloe gin every year if I can, picking sloes from the hedgerows. It's the best with some Champagne - like a festive kir royale.
Simon: A Brandy Alexander is one of my all-time favourite drinks. It’s a Christmassy, late-night drink; very creamy with a touch of nutmeg and, of course, plenty of brandy. It’s a classic.
Mike: Swap your traditional eggnog for a fruity, lighter flavour. Think a berry punch, tropical ginger beer with rum, even an Aperol spritz. Having a lighter offering will save you much more room for the main event of Christmas lunch.
Nick: A nice smoky, warming old fashioned. Just crush some brown sugar, orange zest, orange bitters and whisky of your choice in a cocktail shaker then pour over ice. I like to go for a young, peaty whisky from Islay like Ardbeg 10.
What’s your top tip for a smooth festive feast with the in-laws?
Simon: Don’t play monopoly! My nan always used to call it the ‘falling out game’ and she was right. Christmas drinks combined with a competitive spirit always made for a fun family feud. If hosting, always make sure everyone is fed and watered well too!
Tommi: It depends on whose territory. If it's on your territory, get as much done in advance so that so they don't drive you too mad. And if you're with them, take a lot of presents; if you're strapped for cash this season, you can make lots of delicious edible stuff... and do lots of washing up.
Mike: One of the greatest traditions we have in our family is that everybody brings something. Share the load this Christmas and get everyone to bring one dish which just needs to be finished off on the day. This way you don’t have to be glued to your kitchen days before the big event.
Nick: Can't answer this one as we have dinner separately!