Christmas Day on a budget

It is pretty easy to create a Christmas Day spectacular dinner with an unlimited budget, however I think that you can achieve a superb result if you approach it with good planning and a modest budget. It is also worth remembering that the end result is never really as good as you hoped no matter how much you spend. Why is that? Well, we all want it to be the absolute best for all the family and now everyone has such high expectations that you would need to be a masterchef and a master shopper to fulfil everyone’s hopes for the day. Another stumbling block is that we forget that we are not used to catering at this level, so it really would be a miracle if it all turned out like the fabulous pictures you see in the magazines and cookbooks.

My suggestion is to plan a menu now, divide out the cooking and prep among the family, and divide out the shopping among those who are able. The first part of the menu planning is to ask all the family what they really want to eat on the day, not what is in all the pictures or perhaps in their heads. If someone suggests goose, for example, ask everyone if they will eat it, also remember it is expensive. Turkey is the choice of most people and it can be great value. I have had really good success with frozen turkeys as long as you cook using a meat thermometer. Do not just go on recommended times, probe it often, and as soon as it reaches the recommended temperature then it is ready. There are several shops selling half price frozen birds right now, for about €15. Note of extreme warning, give it plenty of time to defrost.

For the rest of the main course, be sensible, you do not need every vegetable under the sun, get a vote from the family, if nobody wants Brussels sprouts then don’t bother. Unless you have very picky eaters then just do one type of potato, my choice is roasted, along with the turkey. Consider if you really need a ham. Again, ask the family, if the answer is yes then you could simply buy a smallish fillet of ham or bacon for about €10/12, and cook it the day before to make life easy. Stuffing is a must for me and it is very easy to make. I suggest making it in a largish dish and I will give my recipe below. You will need a gravy — a simple recovery of the juices from the roasting pan added to some Bisto granules will give a great result. I think you could make this main course for six people for about €6 a head, plus loads of free sandwiches later.

Sauces are an optional extra, a good gravy and real butter on the potatoes is all most people want. The dessert should without question be made in advance; sherry trifle is my favourite, or plum pudding. I am assuming that you do not have time for making a pudding so buy a small one, my favourite is called My Own. All you need then is some custard.

I left the starter till last as I have one that is amazing and will wow 90 per cent of your guests. It is a smoked duck salad. Sound difficult and expensive? Not at all, quite the opposite in fact, I estimate about €2/3 per head. There are two fantastic smoked duck products available, Ummera from Cork, available in Morton’s and Sheridan’s, and Carraig na Breac from Leitrim, available in McCambridge’s. I think one breast will do four people and they are approximately €8.50 for the Ummera and less than €7 for the other. Serve with some lettuce and a salad dressing. I am a real fan of Builin Blasta dressings, available in McCambridges and Terryland Fruit and Veg; the balsamic and blueberry one would be perfect, or try the Mary Berry dressings available in Morton’s and other shops. This dish has to be made just before you serve, but it is dead easy, just slice the duck breast in thin slices and place on top each plate of salad, you could serve it with very thin toast. Mix the dressing into the lettuce in a large bowl before you plate it up, it means all the lettuce is coated. You may think the fat on the duck breast is bad for you, not so, it is as good for you as drinking olive oil and it is delicious, I won’t go into all the details but if you want to research it look up the Ummera web site, www.ummera.com If someone in the family thinks duck breast is not for them, you can use smoked chicken, or streaky rashers that were cooked on the breast of the turkey.

Now for the second most important task of the day, the washing up. This absolutely must be agreed up front, and the first rule is that the chefs simply do not do it (washing up includes drying and putting away ).

If ever a day deserved the saying ‘less is more’, this is it. Caviar, lobster, and foie gras might sound great, but firstly they cost a fortune, and does anyone in your house really like them? If they do, great, but if not stick to basics.

My own stuffing

One sliced pan of white bread, include crusts, cut up into pieces and blitz in food processor. If very fresh leave slices on wire rack for a few hours to let them firm up slightly.

Add herbs; thyme and sage are my favourites, and fresh if possible, 3oz large golden sultanas, 3oz raisins, one large chopped onion, salt and pepper, 0.75lb melted butter. If too dry, add more melted butter. Bake in an oven at 150°C for approximately 45 minutes covered with tin foil, remove tinfoil and continue to cook for another 15 minutes.

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