Beauty & the Baste

We’re almost there & as the big day draws near, gifts have been wrapped, greeting cards are written & parcels delivered.  If you’ve been following my blog, you’ll have most of your Christmas cooking prepared by now too (well done you!).  This part is all about the main event: a beautifully basted bird, & whether you prefer turkey, chicken or something else completely, you want it to be perfect.  It’s like a spectacular Sunday lunch, only with more people (& more wine).  Whether you’re having a full-on festive feast or not, everyone will be looking forward to spending a few days with their family & friends.

In the past, I have regularly cooked Christmas dinner for around 10-20 people (what was I thinking?!), including a turkey the size of a pterodactyl (it was a bit of a beast & needed two people to wedge it into the oven), along with joints of beef, pork & Quorn, plus a glazed gammon joint & various crates of veg – this involved several days, two kitchens & a bottle of Sherry!  Despite all the chaos, dinner would be done & I somehow managed to keep smiling – it’s a bit like being a swan on a pond, all calm & graceful on the top, but paddling like mad under the water!

Because we don’t eat turkey these days (nor do I try to feed the 5,000 anymore), I cook a large chicken on Christmas Day instead, but this method works equally well with a turkey too (probably not one the size of a pterodactyl though!).  For turkey cooking times, including defrosting times, here’s a link to the British Turkey website to help you get started:

The way I roast a chicken is actually quite easy & you don’t really need to prep the bird until Christmas morning.  You could do this just before bedtime on Christmas Eve if you really want to get a head start, just don’t add the salt or the water until you’re ready to roast.

One thing I always recommend is to get yourself some decent roasting tins!  Forget the non-stick ones – I learned the hard way that no matter how expensive they are or fabulous the guarantee is, that stuff eventually comes off on your food.  Save yourself some hassle & invest in some good, plain stainless steel ones – you don’t need to spend a fortune either, just check they are well-made & solid.  Let’s get started!

You will need:

1 fresh Chicken, without giblets (to feed four, I use about 1.5kg size)
(standard cooking times for Chicken are usually 20 minutes per 500g plus 20 minutes, although I tend to cook it longer by my method)

2-3 medium/large Carrots
2-3 sticks of Celery & a couple of the inner ones with leaves on top
1 large Onion or 2 smaller/medium Onions
Sea Salt & Black Pepper
A glug of Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Optional: 6-10 rashers Streaky Bacon (smoked or unsmoked)

Stuffing:  either Fresh Herbs – a handful of Thyme, a couple of sprigs of Rosemary & a few Sage leaves are plenty;
Or:
Homemade Sage & Onion Stuffing (see my previous blog http://hopeyourehungry.co.uk/a-bit-on-the-side/)

What you do:

Pre-heat the oven to 200*C.  Before handling your bird, wash your hands thoroughly & dry them to avoid any cross-contamination – there’s a lot of hand washing, because you don’t want people to remember your Christmas dinner for all the wrong reasons!

Take the chicken out of it’s wrapper & most importantly: do not wash it!  Trust me, no bacteria will survive in a 200*C oven – the temperature require to kill E.coli & Salmonella is 70*C (160*F), so panic ye not people!

Remove any elastic or ties & pop the chicken legs out of their sockets, allowing the chicken to cook evenly.  To do this, hold the chicken in both hands, breast side up, with it’s legs in the palms of your hands & firmly push them outwards, away from the breast – you will feel them pop out easily.  Place the chicken in the roasting tin & wash your hands thoroughly again.

Wash the carrots & celery, then chop roughly into 3 inch long pieces & arrange around the chicken.  The reason we clean the veg is because you’ll be using the stock for gravy & you don’t want any mud or grit in it.  Cut the onion into half (leave the skin on if clean), or quarters if it’s a large one, putting the pieces in the corners of the tin.

Next you need to fill the cavity of the chicken – again, this helps the chicken cook evenly & it also flavours it nicely too.  There are various fillings you can use, but ultimately it’s down to personal choice – some people prefer traditional sage & onion stuffing, some prefer using a few fresh herbs & vegetables.  If you made some of my homemade sage & onion stuffing for this, simply spoon it into the cavity until full.  If you prefer your stuffing separate, bundle together a couple of thin carrot & celery sticks with the leaves on, along with the herbs (saving a couple of Sage leaves) & put inside the chicken cavity.

If you’re using bacon, layer your bacon rashers across the chicken breast, starting at the top & working your way down, with each rasher overlapping the previous one.  This is good if the skin has split on your chicken – it will keep your breast meat moist & the bacon will crisp up nicely at the end of cooking.  Wash your hands well again afterwards (they’ll be sparkling by now!).

Pour about three pints of cold water around the edge of the chicken (be careful not to splash), then drizzle some olive oil over the whole bird & legs, sprinkle a good teaspoonful of ground sea salt & black pepper over the top.   Rip up the rest of the Sage leaves, along with any Thyme & Rosemary leaves that fell off, then sprinkle them around the roasting tin.

Next, make a foil dome to go over the top of your roasting tin & capture all those lovely steamy juices.  This is the science bit that is going to save you time & effort: as the moisture heats up, the steam vapour rises to the top of the foil dome, condenses & drips onto the chicken, basting the bird so you don’t have to!  No more opening the oven every half hour to baste your bird & effectively let all the goodness escape the oven (including the heat!), nor are you going to end up with burned fingers or splashing your arms with meat juices.

Lay a couple of equal sized foil strips on top of each other, with the dull sides on the inside (the side that goes next to the chicken), then fold the top over about a centimetre all the way along.  Do this a couple of times, then mash them together well to make sure they don’t come undone in the oven. If you have a larger sheet of foil, just put a crease or fold in the middle, leaving the central part un-creased.  Put over the tin, making sure it forms a dome over the top & doesn’t touch the chicken, then press firmly around the edges of the tin so that none of that lovely steam can escape.  This is what makes your stock, infusing with the bird & veg to produce a fragrant, flavoursome fluid for making gorgeous gravy later.

Put your foiled roasting tin in the lower part of the oven & leave it there for at about two & a half to three hours – you don’t need to be too precise here, but if it’s a larger chicken than the size I have mentioned, I just add another half hour on (check the British Turkey link I mentioned before for weights & times, if you’re not sure).  As I mentioned above, standard cooking times for chicken are usually 20 minutes per 500g plus 20 minutes, however I tend to cook it longer by my method.

Once it’s cooked, take the roasting tin out of the oven, remove the foil (keep to one side) & check your chicken.  Take a metal skewer or a small sharp knife, poke it into the thicker part of the chicken & if the juices run clear, then it’s cooked.  To crisp up the bacon & skin a bit, strain most of the liquid into a large saucepan (keep this for later), leave the foil off the bird & give it another five minutes in the oven.

When you’re happy that it’s crisped enough, remove your roasting tin from the oven & place on a cooling rack (I use a grill tray with a wire rack in it for this, to catch any drips).  Replace the foil lid & seal around the tin to protect the meat from drying out, then let it rest for at least half an hour.  By resting the bird, the meat relaxes nicely & becomes beautifully tender.  Traditionally, you should let the bird rest for the same amount of time it was in the oven, but I leave it as long as it takes to cook the accompanying side dishes.

Just before serving, transfer the chicken carefully onto a large serving plate, ready for carving (you’ll find the meat will fall off the bone easily, so you might not need to do much carving at all!).

If you’re making pigs-in-blankets, do these now – they take minutes & use up any extra bits of streaky bacon.  Simply roll short bacon strips around chunky chipolata sausages, straight or diagonally, then pop them onto a baking tray (you don’t need any oil – the fat in both of them will render out onto the tray, giving sufficient grease).  Bake in the oven for about 25 minutes until crispy & bronzed, giving them a little shake halfway through.

If you’ve been following my previous blogs, this is where you grab a well-deserved glass of something nice, give yourself a pat on the back & relax, because all your sides will be prepared!  Just pop them in ovenproof dishes, then warm them through in the oven while your roasties cook (bet you’re glad you did all that prep now!).  Obviously, this is also when you tell everyone else to keep out of the kitchen while you’re working hard (on your G&T hopefully) & send them off to set tables, find tablecloths, fill glasses – anything to keep them busy & give you a five minute breather.

Feeling a bit refreshed?  Good!  Right, back to work (briefly anyway) – it’s gravy making time!  If you have pre-prepared your gravy, simply pour it into a saucepan & gently warm through, before transferring to a gravy boat or jug.  If you are making it from scratch, here’s a refresher of what to do.  Grab a whisk & saucepan!

What you need:

1 pint of chicken stock (or vegetable stock)
4 heaped teaspoons of Gravy Browning (such as Bisto powder)
A good glug of cold water (about 3 tablespoons)

What to do:

Using the fresh, hot stock from your roasted bird, simply ladle off a pint into a jug (keep the rest in the pan, put the lid on & leave to cool, then freeze).  To remove any fat from the stock (that’s the golden bubbles you can see here), get yourself a few sheets of kitchen paper & touch it gently on the top – the grease will attach itself to the paper, which you can then throw away (no faffing around trying to separate it).

In another jug, measure your gravy browning (I’ve used Bisto for years, so just use whatever you like best).  You don’t need any seasoning, because there’s plenty in the gravy browning & also in your stock.

Pour in the cold water & mix to form a smooth brown liquid, followed by a quarter of the stock, then tip into your saucepan & heat gently for a few seconds, using the whisk to mix everything thoroughly.

Add the rest of the hot stock carefully & keep whisking gently to prevent lumps forming.  The gravy will begin to thicken up nicely now, so dip a spoon in & if it coats the back of the spoon, it’s ready.

Pour into a gravy boat or a jug & that’s the gravy done!   Enlist a Little Helper to put it on the table, with a plate or saucer underneath (to catch the drips & save your table).

When everything is ready & you’re happy with it, get your Little Helpers in to distribute dishes to the table (maybe have some extra treats to reward them for their support).

That’s it!  Your festive feast is ready, everything is done & you can enjoy the fruits of your hard work.  Whatever you’re doing, whomever you’re with, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas & a fabulous New Year from my family to yours.  Stay hungry 😉  A x

 

Freezing Your Assets!

Autumn is now well underway – the clocks have gone back, the darker nights are drawing in & the bright mornings have a frosty freshness in the air, meaning it’s that time of year when we begin craving proper, rib-sticking comfort food.  Everyone has their favourite suppertime stodge, whether it’s a rich roast dinner or luscious layers of cheesy lasagne, but not everyone has the time when they get home.

Working full time, different shifts or having a jam-packed day can mean that time is limited when it comes to preparing a home-cooked meal.  Whilst shopping at one of my favourite supermarkets on Tuesday morning, I had a similar conversation at the till, as I talked about making a week’s worth of stew & biscotti (hello to the lovely lady who served me!).  This is where a bit of “stealth cooking” helps, taking the pressure off by preparing a few items in advance & keeping a stash in the freezer for when you need them.  If you cook a little bit extra every mealtime, you’ll be more prepared than a Scout!

Once a month, I like to make a few meals for week-nights, so that when we get home we can pop them in the oven & relax.  Everything is ready, there’s very little washing up & we get to eat fuss-free good food.  Making a huge steak, ale & mushroom stew at the weekend, then freezing it in individual pots means instant pie filling anytime!  Just take a couple out of the freezer to defrost in the morning, then knock up a bit of pastry when you get home & bake in the oven for a speedy version of a  slow-cooked, sumptuous pie.  Simple mashed potatoes can be wonderfully warming too when the seasons start to cool & having a few tubs in the freezer is always handy.  My tip is to make a huge batch (at least double), then leave to go cold before dividing into separate two-portion tubs for freezing – there’s no point in cooking a small amount when you can make plenty with a little extra effort!  It  just takes a few minutes to reheat in the oven or microwave & also doubles up as pie lids for delicious stews (even more lazy!).

For fast mash, just wash, peel & slice thinly a 2kg bag of potatoes (keep the peelings for later) – I use a food processor if I’m short of time.  Pour just enough boiling water over to cover them, add a sprinkling of sea salt & simmer until cooked (obviously, I have to do this in the microwave, because at the time of writing I still don’t have a hob that I can use – week six!).  The reason I slice the potatoes thinly is because they cook so much faster & I really have better things to do than stand around watching pans boil.  If you don’t have a food processor, just slice them by hand or chop into small chunks.  It shaves a bit off the cooking time (always a bonus!) & makes a smoother mash.

Once cooked, drain & tip them back into the pan (or casserole dish if you’ve microwaved them).  Add a generous chunk of butter, a couple of tablespoons of cream cheese, about 2oz of grated cheese & get mashing!  Serve some immediately & leave the rest to cool, before freezing in double portion pots.

If you want to cheese up your mash a bit more, butter the inside of a casserole dish, tip the cheesy mashed potatoes in (fresh or defrosted) & spread roughly, making sure you get into all the corners.  Sprinkle liberally with even more  cheese, then grate half a crust of bread over the top – fine or chunky, whatever you prefer.  Dust with a good pinch of dried Oregano, then bake it in the oven at 200*C for about 10 minutes.  The cheesy crumb topping will go all golden & crispy, with fluffy, buttery, cheese infused mash underneath.  Dish up & dig in!

Remember to keep your potato peelings, along with any carrot or parsnip ones & make homemade crisps out of them – it’s like free treats & no waste!  Simply spread them on a baking tray & drizzle olive oil on top, along with a good dusting of sea salt & freshly ground black pepper, then bake at 200*C for about 15-20 minutes, turning them mid-way.  Once crispy, tip them into a metal sieve to shake off any excess oil, then pop onto some kitchen paper & serve.  Add a bit more seasoning if you like, maybe a splash of balsamic vinegar too.  They’re great for munching while you’re catching up on your emails or watching a film (they also disappear rather quickly, which is why there’s no picture).

One of my favourite lazy ways to cook mash is to make miniature jacket potatoes & chuck them in the food processor afterwards.  Carefully slide a few raw baby potatoes on a metal skewer & pop them in the oven at 200*C for about 25-30 minutes (no baking tray required).  The metal skewers cook them from the inside as they heat up (I use this method for larger potatoes too – just use two skewers per potato).  Once cooked, slide them off the skewers & put them on a board to cool for a couple of minutes.  Put them in the food processor, along with a chunk of salted butter & a dusting of freshly ground black pepper, then whizz them up, crispy skins & all!  If you like, add a splash of milk to make them creamy.  Then tip into a small casserole or pie dish, grate cheese over the top & put back in the oven for five minutes to give it a nice crunchy cheesy topping.

If you’re really organised, next time you make stew just freeze a few ladles of gravy in a tub or zipped freezer bag & defrost it when you fancy proper gravy.   If anyone checked out my freezer, they would find an icy treasure trove of ingredients & delightful dishes.  I’ve always got a few bags of berries for puddings, plus some sweet crumble topping (I usually make extra just to keep in reserve).  There are bags of breadcrumbs, portions of lasagne, meatballs, homemade garlic & bacon butter, along with generous pots of cauliflower cheese, mashed potatoes, chicken stock, random rashers of smoked bacon & homemade gravy.   If you add to that the pizzas & chicken dishes I’ve made too, like kievs & cacciatore, it’s like my own little freezer shop at home!

By cooking just one extra portion of food for each meal & freezing it, you’re giving yourself time to do other things, even if it is just putting your feet up with a glass of wine in the evening.  The best bit is you can also share the cooking with the rest of the family – get yourself an eye liner pencil & write cooking instructions on each tub (being careful not to smudge them) before freezing – it sets in the freezer & washes off afterwards too, so it doesn’t spoil your tubs.  Then everyone can cook a proper, homemade meal & you can relax in the knowledge that your evenings are your own.  Stay hungry 😉 A x