Neven Maguire offers advice on creating the perfect Irish Christmas
From keeping your turkey from going dry to spicing up those dreaded Brussels sprouts, Jenny Lee discovers the secret to cooking the perfect Christmas dinner from award-winning Irish chef Neven Maguire
FORGET about chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Blacklion chef Neven Maguire's recipe for the perfect Christmas is "family and food" ... and the perfect roasties.
While his award-winning MacNean House & Restaurant in Co Cavan – directly across the border from the Co Fermanagh village of Belcoo – may be closed on Christmas Day, Neven will still be found in the kitchen, cooking for his extended family of 24.
"It was always a given that Christmas Day was a family day and the restaurant was closed for business. This is a tradition that I am glad to continue. To me, Christmas is all about sharing precious time with family, making memories and, of course, enjoying plenty of good food."
This Christmas Neven has been sharing his own festive menu, preparation timetable and festive recipes for a stress-free and succulent Christmas in his new cookbook, A Perfect Irish Christmas.
And his secret to not having a dry turkey this Christmas? Buttermilk.
"What I will be doing for my family is the Buttermilk Brined Roast Crown of Turkey with Lemon and Tarragon. It's an American recipe and what you do is marinate the turkey breasts for 24 hours with buttermilk. Then you remove it, dry off the buttermilk and smear it with butter and smoked bacon. It's the most popular recipe I've ever done, as the buttermilk brine ensures that the flesh stays wonderfully succulent."
Neven's other advice for the perfect turkey is 'resting' the bird once cooked. "If you are doing a full bird, you need to wrap it in tin foil and let it rest for at least 40 minutes to ensure it retains it's moisture."
This leaves you time to get on cooking those all important potatoes, an essential part of the Irish Christmas dinner.
"We are all about the potatoes as a nation," laughs Neven, who advises using beef dripping to baste the potatoes.
Neven also has some great advice on making Brussels sprouts the star of the Christmas plate.
"What I do is cut them in half and cook them on Christmas Eve for three minutes in boiling water. Then on Christmas morning I pour on white sauce and smoke them in red onion and breadcrumbs.
"If you want something lighter you could stir fry your sprouts after cooking with some chestnuts, garlic, red onion and ginger."
One of the biggest worries those making Christmas dinner have is getting the food served hot and Neven believes preparation and delegation are the keys to a happy host or hostess. He advises that bread sauce, cranberry sauce, brandy butter, braised red cabbage and stuffing are all accompaniments that can be made and even frozen in advance.
"Don't over-complicate Christmas dinner. Treat the turkey like a big chicken; don't offer too much choice; get the vegetables from the oven to the table piping hot and let people serve themselves and just enjoy time with your family and friends. The last thing people want is a fabulous meal but an exhausted and grumpy host."
It was at Christmas time that a young Neven got involved in the kitchen at home with his mother Vera. It's a skill he is conscious to pass on to not only his own children, five-year-old twins Conor and Lucy, who have been busy making cookies and Florentines as gifts to give their neighbours this Christmas Eve.
"Food is all about education and experimentation from a young age. Baking gifts is something that is done with a bit of thought and love and is extra special," adds Neven, who will return to our television screens with a new series for RTE at the end of January.
"We have such great produce in Ireland and for this series I go on an Irish food trail, visiting chefs and producers all over the country."
As for his goals and resolutions for 2018, he wants to "get fitter and lose a bit of weight" as well as focus on expanding his cookery school. "I always believe everyone can cook. It's just about having the confidence, getting the basics right and enjoying it."
:: Neven Maguire's Perfect Irish Christmas is published by Gill Books and is out now. Why not try these two recipes from the book for yourself on the big day?
GOLDEN CRUNCH ROAST POTATOES
1.5kg (3¼lb) floury potatoes, such as Rooster, Desiree, King Edward or Maris Piper
4 tbsp beef dripping, goose or duck fat (from a jar or left over from a roast)
handful of fresh rosemary sprigs (optional)
Preheat the oven to 190C (375°F/gas mark 5). Wash and peel the potatoes, reserving the peel. Cut the potatoes in half or into quarters, depending on their size. Put them in a large pan of salted boiling water along with the peel – it's easiest if you can put this in a muslin infusing bag. Parboil for eight minutes.
Meanwhile, put the beef dripping, goose or duck fat in a large roasting tin and put it into the oven to heat. Drain the potatoes and discard the peel, then put them back in the pan and shake gently to rough up the edges. Take the roasting tin out of the oven and put on the hob over a gentle heat. Put the potatoes in one by one – they should sizzle as they hit the pan – and baste all over. Season with salt.
Roast in the oven for about one hour, until golden and crunchy, keeping an eye on them and basting with a little more fat if they begin to look dry. Add some fresh rosemary sprigs (if using) about 20 minutes before the end of the cooking time. Serve immediately.
HONEY-GLAZED HAM WITH CLOVES
(Serves 10- 12)
Soak the gammon in cold water for at least 6 hours (or overnight is best), then drain. Weigh the gammon and calculate the cooking time, allowing 20 minutes per 450g (1lb) plus 20 minutes – this size takes about four hours. Put in a large pan, cover with water and bring to the boil, skimming off any scum.
Add the celery, onions, thyme and peppercorns and return to the boil, then cover, reduce the heat and simmer until completely tender, occasionally skimming off any scum that rises to the top. If you aren't sure the gammon is properly cooked, check the bone end – it should come away freely from the gammon joint. Drain and leave until cool enough to handle.
Preheat the oven to 180C (350F/gas mark 4). Carefully peel away the skin, leaving the layer of white fat intact. Using a sharp knife, score the fat diagonally to make a diamond pattern.
Put the whiskey in a pan with the honey, redcurrant jelly, balsamic vinegar and ground allspice. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until slightly thickened. Stud the ham with the cloves and put in a large roasting tin with a little water to prevent the bottom from catching and burning. Brush a layer of the glaze all over the ham, reserving the remainder.
Cook in the oven for 1 hour, brushing over another layer of the glaze every 15 minutes, until it's all gone. Transfer to a platter and leave to rest for 15–20 minutes before carving into slices to serve.