Christmas is just around the corner, and the thought of feeding a throng of family, friends and loved ones on the big day can fill even the most capable of cooks with apprehension. Fortunately, help is at hand in the shape of my Christmas dinner hacks to save you time and effort – and hopefully give you the chance to spend more quality time with your nearest and dearest as you celebrate the festive season.
#1 “And here’s one I prepared earlier…”
Most people who have cooked a Christmas dinner before know that preparing vegetables (peeling, chopping etc) the day before can save some time – but there’s a simple trick to save even more time. If you’re planning to boil or steam sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, turnips and so on as side dishes, cook them the day before until they’re a minute or two from done, then plunge them into ice water. This will stop them cooking any further. Drain them, place them in food bags or plastic boxes, and transfer them to the fridge. Now, on Christmas Day, everything will only take a few minutes to be ready – you can boil them again, or steam, microwave or even pan-fry to reheat them.
Your potatoes can also be prepped in advance. Par-boil them the day before (or even a month before if you then freeze them) and then carefully transfer them from the fridge (or freezer) straight into the hot oil and into the oven. Some people even roast the potatoes in advance and then refrigerate or freeze them. A quick spell in the oven will freshen them up, and nobody will ever know the difference!
#2 Spruce up your sprouts
These little vegetables may be small (in fact, they are a type of tiny cabbage), but Brussels sprouts have a big reputation for dividing opinion. I’m not sure why I tend to have them only once a year, because every Christmas I’m reminded just how much I love them. Last year, I even grew my own!
When it comes to preparation, some people say that larger sprouts may need a shallow cross cutting into the bottom of the stalk to cook properly, but this can be very time-consuming and makes little difference. I’d suggest you skip that step – let’s face it, you’ll be busy enough! Just chop the bottom off with a sharp knife and remove any untidy outer leaves. Or, to really save time, you can use pre-prepared frozen ones. I prefer sprouts when they’re firm to the bite, so I like to steam fresh ones for about 5 to 8 minutes. Drain them thoroughly, add a little butter or olive oil, and season with a pinch of salt and pepper. You can give your sprouts a little extra lift by then pan-frying them in a dash of olive oil with thin strips of veggie bacon (such as Quorn or VBites), or with some ready-cooked (vacuum-packed or tinned) chestnuts.
I also like to get a bit adventurous and stir-fry halved sprouts with a sprinkling of Chinese five-spice powder. One of the spices in this aromatic blend is clove, which has a sweet, almost floral, aroma that always conjures up a Christmassy feeling. If you’re boiling sprouts, another top tip is to add a little sugar to the water to reduce the bitterness. This trick is often used behind the scenes in restaurants.
#3 Cabbage without the baggage
The sprout’s more common larger cousin, the cabbage, is not only in season at this time of year, but is also an excellent source of iron, vitamins and fibre. My best tip is to very finely shred the cabbage so it takes less time to cook. When prepped in this way it can take just 2 to 3 minutes to steam. Drain it thoroughly, and season with salt and pepper and melted butter or olive oil.
If you’re looking for a fresher way to use cabbage, perhaps to accompany a Boxing Day sandwich, you could make a coleslaw. White cabbage is the classic choice for this dish, but red will add more colour. My favourite coleslaw recipe is simply finely shredded cabbage, grated carrot, a little grated celeriac (for a mildly aniseed flavour), mayonnaise, wholegrain mustard and a little vinegar or lemon. Other good additions include garlic, chillies, fresh herbs, spices, dried fruit and nuts or seeds.