Is there any question? Apparently so. Not every one goes for the traditional bird at their Christmas table, it has been a hot topic of debate around my yuletide on more than one occasion. I mean, do we have to have turkey? What does it have to do with the birth of Christ or the midwinter solstice or whatever other point of religious significance you assign to the now almost world and faith spanning late December holiday? Are we really going to have turkey again?
We’ll start with the case For the turkey and for the sake of clarity I am well and truly ‘For’ on this debate. I love turkey, but I wont bore you with all the goodness related nutritional info about how it’s low fat and high in b vitamins and other healthy boosting bits, you can read about that by clicking here. What I will say is that if you are one of those carnivores that says oh, I don’t really like turkey, I am 99.9% sure that you do like it, you’re just doing it wrong. An over cooked, dried out, tough old lump of turkey breast is a sin against all things edible. And to double the insult of that sin, it’s really not hard to cook a turkey properly. You know, slowly at a reasonable heat to yield a wonderful, succulent bird that makes a stunning centrepiece for your roast and fantastic sandwiches the next day. You just need to keep the moisture in, by one or many of the following options: pushing plenty of butter under the skin, covering with foil for most of the cooking time, roasting breast-side-down for the majority of the cooking period or covering the entire body in streaky bacon. I go for the bacon method myself, it puts a beautiful saltiness into the bird, keeps the perfect level of succulence in the breast meat and is wonderfully crisped at the end of cooking to be smashed up and thrown in with the sprouts. De-lish. I digress- the one thing you have to remember however you do your turkey is that you need to baste. Frequently and thoroughly. Go crazy and treat yourself to a proper turkey baster and set the oven timer to call out to you every 20 minutes at most for this. I’d use foil too just to be sure until the last 30 minutes or so of cooking, and I promise you that you will get the result you want.
But it’s not all about the boob you know, dark turkey meat (legs, wings, the more active muscles) is fantastically tasty in a slightly heavier, more hearty way than the breast meat. Yup, I’m a leg girl if I’m lucky enough to get to it on Christmas day. Like those people who think they don’t like turkey, those who just buy a crown in really irritate me. You’re skipping the best bit!!!!!! Though due to being a bit fattier your dark meat tends to be nicer hot than the white meat but it will still make you a passable boxing day sandwich with plenty of chutney or pickles to cut through the extra grease.
I like turkey throughout the year, due to it being reasonably cheap, diet friendly and nutritious, not to mention quick to cook when purchased in handy portions from the supermarket, plus it’s a widely available British farmed product which we all know I like to support. But why do we have it for Christmas? Although tasty, is it really that special? Does it deserve to take centre stage in the major festival dinner of the year? Turkey first came in as a feast bird during the Victorian era, when we all started living a bit longer and having slightly bigger households that just wouldn’t be fed by a mere goose- the previously traditional yule bird. However it wasn’t until King Edward VII got a liking for a turkey dinner at Christmas that it became widely popular, somewhere around the turn of the 20th Century. Ok so it wasn’t so long ago, but he was the first Windsor on England’s fair throne and as we still have Windsors there so why not stick with the turkey too? Turkey was also a preferred morsel on the table of King Henry VIII- my personal favourite in the history books for many reasons other than his love of a ridiculously big dinner. Don’t dig the monarchy so much? Fine, though fit for Kings, turkeys originate most humbly from Mexico, from whence they travelled to the US before being brought to the UK by a travelling Yorkshireman (true story). So thanks for that America, but this little gift does not excuse you for tobacco or Justin Bieber.
All this considered, maybe the biggest reason to eat turkey on Christmas is also my final one, It’s Christmas. That’s why you eat turkey. Because you do. The same way you give presents and lie to children about where they came from, the same reason you attend mass or light advent candles. The same reason you wear bad jumpers and watch Bond movies and eat Quality Street and play board games. It’s Christmas for heaven’s sakes!!!!
Fine, there is more to Christmas than turkey and there is more to the world than Great Britain so it is fair to say that your options for Christmas lunch are more than open. In many areas of Northern Europe it’s actually the Christmas Eve dinner that is the main player in the culinary order of things and it’s fish and root vegetables that take centre stage. Nigerians don’t fuss too much about their Christmas meat, so long as it is meat and there is plenty of it. Filipinos opt for plenty of cheese and pasta alongside their poultry roast, followed by a fruit salad. A seafood starter followed up with Lamb is flavour of the Saviour’s Day in Spain and in Sweden you get the obvious smorgasbord of cured meats and fish. The possibilities aren’t quite endless, but they are certainly plentiful and as with any meal or infact any day you have the right to damn the traditions all to hell and eat whatever you want. Assuming that you are cooking it, that is.
My family would be large enough if my parents hadn’t separated when I was a wee one, but they did, and this event blessed me with an enormous extended first degree and step family which is increasing every year with added in laws, cousins and offspring. Safe to say it’s a very rare event that I eat Christmas dinner in the same place two years in a row. Infact despite all of my lofty opinions on Christmas dinner, I have only ever cooked it myself twice. The majority of my thirty two Christmas day dinners have indeed been turkey, my father has often mused about having a goose or one of those crazy multi-bird pile up things that starts in a pigeon and ends in a monkfish but this has never happened. My stepmother is in charge at Christmas, and as such my father is served turkey and he can bloody well like it.
However just last year the norm was strayed from, in the exotic depths of a second floor flat in Twickenham where the elder sibling was in charge and, horrors, did not want to cook a turkey. I was somewhat distraught by the concept, despite the relatively minor diversion of tradition to goose which is technically more traditional than turkey but see my previous argument about that. Said goose was cooked as instructed by Raymond Blanc with confit legs and a roasted crown with two stuffings, fat rendered directly for potato roasting. It was bloody marvellous and I would certainly have it again and recommend it heartily to adventurous cooks looking for a new roast to try out. The meat is much richer (and fattier) than it’s gobbling avian cousin giving an overall more decadent eating experience. And having fresh rendered fat for the potatoes gives the crunchiest, tastiest roast spuds you ever did see.
Another No Turkey Year went down when I was accompanied by the then Pescetarian Parental unit of my mum and step father. It was just the three of us, and even I couldn’t justify an entire turkey just for myself. Not that I wouldn’t have had a damned good go at it mind you. So after some research, I opted for a Salmon Coulibiac a la Hairy Bikers which was a success in two halves. A success in that it was very tasty but in two halves because the ends cooked through about twenty minutes before the middle did so I served my parents then waited for my own while the middle section had to go back in the oven to finish off! It was fantastic and a rare occasion when I have seriously enjoyed cooked salmon which I usually find the most over rated fish dinner going. The extensive preparation and visually pleasing layers of pastry, spinach, rice and fish also made it a suitably special meal to grace the Christmas table.
And there is the key word. Special. Christmas dinner should be special. Like Christmas. How often do we all have a free day off work when the order of events is to eat, drink and be merry with our loved ones? There is the other key word. Love. You might not be into the religion, the tradition, the Santas, the gifts or the Queen’s Speech, but I really do hope there are people that you love, and that love you and being around them should be what Christmas is really about. That’s what makes Christmas special, and why you should make the effort. The effort, and a really good dinner.