Like Morecambe & Wise repeats or queueing for returns in M&S, stress is a defining characteristic of the Christmas period. Magimix even claims to have identified the exact moment of peak anxiety (12.56pm on Christmas Day), as the dinner prep gets to crunch-time and kitchens reverberate to volleys of Gordon Ramsaylike ‘language’.
Naturally, cooking is a key festive stress trigger. We want everything to be perfect. And will damn near kill ourselves to ensure it is. But it needn’t be like that. Heed my guide to a stress-free Christmas and it can be a season of peace and goodwill to (almost) all men.
1. Drink, be merry
There are few kitchen disasters that cannot be put into their true perspective by a stiff drink. According to a 2013 British Heart Foundation survey, 16% of us start drinking by 11am on Christmas Day. That, friends, is true enlightenment.
2. Food not faff
Forget about making your own crackers or gilded table decorations. Stop polishing those fish knives. Frazzled hosts run themselves ragged creating the ultimate Christmas table, but to what end? A great Christmas is about the warmth engendered by sharing great food, not aesthetic perfection.
3. Seasonal serenity
Accept the things you cannot change: that wet quiche that next-door always bring round on Boxing Day; your father-in-law’s ‘legendary’ Christmas pudding that must be served, despite it tasting like brandy-soaked loft insulation; your mum (hello, mum!) putting all your plates and bowls back in the wrong cupboards. Unless you want a massive argument, breathe, count to 10… and refill your glass.
4. Ice the spice
It is 2017. Not 1847. Stop mulling and hot spicing things. It is a time-consuming affectation that produces terrible drinks.
5. Rapid deployment snacks
These are crucial to the easy navigation of those impromptu parties that happen as random friends and relatives drop in. Stock-up on crisps, nibbles and cheese, make your ham and mince pies early and come ready with those ingredients that enable you to knock-out quick ‘n’ dirty gourmet treats, such as posh cheese twists or sausage rolls. At Christmas, good, all-butter, shop-bought puff pastry is your closest friend.
6. Repeat after me:
Christmas dinner is just one meal in the year. Your family’s happiness does not hinge on it, no one will judge you if it goes wrong. They are just grateful that you have taken on this task.
Good Cooks are often sniffy about serving soup. I have no idea why. It is a foolproof, not-too-filling starter. Think velouté levels of luxuriousness and you can do very impressive work with chestnuts, white onions, Jerusalem artichokes, toasted seeds, good bread and posh oil.
8. Flip it the bird
Turkey is a bustard to cook (boom… tish!) and even the most expensive, pampered birds offer scant flavour compared to goose, duck or even Label Rouge chicken. A rib of rare-breed beef is far harder to ruin and an equally impressive centrepiece. Liberate yourself from the lame traditional turkey.
9. Freezer fall-back
The unexpected veggie; a brat refusing to eat anything but pizza; a hungover cousin who ‘just needs something light’. Fill a freezer drawer with emergency food, and you will negotiate such hillocks with barely a twitched eyebrow.
10. Heat stroke
Buy David Thompson’s book Thai Street Food. Or, failing that, a huge bottle of sriracha. Because unless you can work some heat, zing and colour into that mountain of leftovers, it will be a truly demoralising trudge into early January.
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Tony Naylor writes for Restaurant magazine and The Guardian.