When it comes to the main event, be it chicken or turkey, our food stylist Keletso Motau has this to say. “Take your chicken out of the fridge ahead of time to allow it to come to room temperature before popping it into the oven. This will allow for a quicker cooking time and more even cooking. I often put the chicken in the fridge the night before, uncovered. This will allow the skin to dry out a bit, giving you a crispier skin once roasted.” While contributing food editor Hannah Lewry’s Christmas menu often features roast pork, she had this to say about roasting the perfect turkey. “Always let your turkey defrost in the fridge two days ahead of cooking it, this way it has time to defrost completely. Then, make sure to generously stuff garlic-and-herb butter under the skin before roasting. Baste it every 15 minutes or so to ensure succulence. If we’re braaiing the turkey then we like to spatchcock it, it’s just easier to handle and cooks faster and more evenly. Lastly, brining is 100% key to a juicy bird, I like to add loads of citrus to my brine for extra flavour, which also works really well for roasting chickens.”
At some point or another over the next few weeks, there’s likely to be a gammon in your future. What’s Abi’s tip for ultimate gammon success? “I always cook my gammon the day before. I poach it and leave it overnight in the poaching liquid, which takes 30 minutes off the cooking time. When you’re ready to serve, remove it from the liquid, glaze it and put it in the oven to reheat for 30 minutes or until the glaze is nice and gooey.” For assistant stylist Emma Nkunzana, the glaze is where all the gammon success lies: “When glazing gammon under the grill, I literally stand in front of the oven watching it caramelise. Because of the high sugar content of glazes, it can go from zero to charred very quickly. Having said that, always rotate the gammon and glaze it continually.”
Find our ultimate gammon recipes here.
If you’re more like Hannah’s family and partial to roast pork for Christmas, then you’ll want to follow her tips for making it, too. “I like to get the crackling started well before the meat cooks, taking the pork belly out of the packaging the night before and leaving it uncovered in the fridge to dry out is one of my best tricks for puffy, crunchy crackling. Also be sure to salt it generously with sea salt just before roasting. I always start mine under the grill until the fat bubbles and is golden brown, then I turn down the oven and turn off the grill and back onto normal roasting settings.” Another tip for tender meat? “Allowing the pork to cook in a broth of sorts is the key to a melt-in-the-mouth juicy roast. Just make sure not to get the fat wet at any point.”
Roast potatoes are king of the table all year round but come Christmas, they reign supreme. We asked famed food writer and cookbook author Dorah Sitole for her secret to a crispy spud: “Potatoes always feature on my menu! For roast potatoes, I always parboil my potatoes and then dust and shake them in flour, before roasting them in the oven in duck fat.” Turns out duck fat is a non-negotiable for Abi, too. “I always roast them in duck fat! Parboil them, then drain them and dry them using a clean tea towel. Meanwhile, preheat the duck fat in the oven (at 180–200ºC). Toss the potatoes into the hot fat and roast until crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside and eat straight out of the oven! Another great idea is to add grated lemon or orange zest to the salt to add a lovely citrus flavour.” If, like Mogau Seshoene, you’re making mashed potatoes, follow this advice: “I stir in some butter and cream, season and put in the oven for about 10 minutes.”
Catering for vegetarians
It can’t all be meat and potatoes, and honestly, this isn’t a bad thing. But how to make the most of the veggies on the table, especially if there’s a vegetarian guest coming? My personal advice is this: don’t feel like you need to cook one main dish for them. Make interesting vegetarian dishes that feel impressive, but can be eaten as a side for the whole table as well. Things like whole, stuffed butternut and mushroom Wellingtons tick all the boxes. Chef and all-round veggie queen Karen Dudley had this to say: “Be bold and don’t overcomplicate anything – let your vegetables shine! For example, if you’re going to roast cauliflower, don’t compromise it by trying to do too much to it. Maybe add a bit of a punchy relish or a base sauce but otherwise let the cauliflower be itself. Or, do something like large slices of roast pumpkin with citrus crumb and leave it at that. One thing to remember is that vegetarians eat what everyone is eating – except the meat – so make the focus on the ‘sides’ because everyone can eat these. And then have, say, one meaty thing.”
When it comes to a final flourish, nothing finishes a meal off like a good glug of gravy. Dorah’s tip to making an almost drinkable gravy? “I use the drippings from the roast, be it beef or leg of lamb, and thicken with a bit of cornflour to retain the colour of the gravy. I then throw in some chopped fresh herbs and heat through.”
Another vote for pan drippings, Keletso also has a few other secrets up his sleeve when it comes to gravy. “The best way to add flavour to your gravy is by using pan drippings from the roast meat. Add a bit of stock to the roasting tray to deglaze, then add that to your gravy.
Other flavour bombs that you can use are Worcestershire sauce, Bovril and fish sauce. These ingredients are packed with umami and complexity and they will take your gravy to the next level. “
My advice? However you’re making your gravy, be sure to whisk a tablespoon or two of butter through it just before serving to add richness to the final result.
When it comes time for dessert, Hannah doesn’t wait to get it organised. “Dessert is always easier when made ahead of time – my family normally makes a tiramisu or a frangipane apple tart, which can be done the day before.” And if you’re going to try your hand at Abi’s famous meringue recipe, she has this to say: “Always make meringue the day before and store it well-wrapped in clingfilm. If you find it’s gone a bit limp the next day (this isn’t a bad thing – this means it will be nice and gooey in the centre) and you want to crisp it back up you can pop it in the oven at 200ºC for about 30 minutes, but be careful it doesn’t burn – keep an eye on it.”
The general consensus on this one to make a list and check it twice. Keletso told us this: “Plan ahead. Give yourself time to enjoy the festive meals alongside your family and friends instead of slaving away in the kitchen. Know what you will be making and prepare ahead of time.” Dorah echoes this sensible advice: “Try to prepare some dishes in advance, like the day before, so that you don’t exhaust yourself on Christmas day. You also need to enjoy the festivities. Have fun while cooking, don’t stress too much!” There’s also no such things as too far in advance in Abi’s house either: “I even lay the table the day before – it always takes a lot of stress off on the day.”
Keletso, along with being organised, is also not above delegating. “Get the rest of the family involved. Make sure that everyone has a task. From the shoppers, drink pourers and vegetable peelers to the dishwashers. You don’t have to do everything yourself. Appoint yourself as the head chef and make sure everyone gets involved and has a task or two.” Our head of digital, Kath Pope, agrees. “My general tip is to let it go! You don’t have to do everything yourself. Ask someone to bring a pudding. Or outsource the sides.” Mogau Seshoene is on the same page here: “You don’t have to cook everything from scratch. There are many ready-made products that look just as great and save you time and effort.” Lastly, stylist Emma Nkunzana has this genius tip for lurking family members: “I get really annoyed when people hover in the kitchen asking what they can do to help. To get rid of them, when they offer help I ask them to destalk herbs!”