How to cook the perfect Christmas lunch

Christmas Dinner

Jeremy Lee reveals the chef’s secrets to the main Christmas event: delicious turkey and all the trimmings

The truly great magic of Christmas is where it falls amid the seasons: the final farewell bid to autumn is made at the close of November swiftly followed by the mighty push through December to the big day itself. For sure, there are the presents and the parties and extraordinary cavorting during the preceding weeks, but it is the keenness of the cold and the great change in the seasons that so defines the quite magical reign of winter. And, oh my, how the appetite is quickened for Christmas foods so steeped in tradition for, come winter’s call, the kitchen is the true heart of the house. Here all is warmth and cheer, so, when the final preparations are made and the food is carried through to table, all there is to do is sit, fill your plate, fill your glass and raise your voice to join in the sheer and utter marvellous joy of good things well done for all.

Potted crab

This is best done the day before as it’s a delightfully messy affair. Brilliantly, once done, the dish needs little more than taking to table with a heap of toast and a riot of ravenous attendees. It is worth noting that the great flakes achieved by cooking and picking your own crab make the effort so very worthwhile, unlike those awful pre-picked alternatives that are no more than a lure to the Dark Side.

Serves 6
cock crab
1.5 kg, alive and kicking
coarse sea salt
4 heaped tbsp
unsalted butter
ground mace
½ tsp
freshly ground black pepper
¼ tsp
red chilli
1 large, mild
lemon juice
1 tsp
2 tbsp
flat-leaf parsley
1 tbsp, chopped
a drop or two

Pick a pot that fits the crab most generously. Fill it with cold water, enough to fully cover the crab and a good bit more. Add in the salt, set the pot on a moderate heat and slowly bring it to the boil. Let the crab cook for 5-6 minutes, then remove with care onto a tray and allow to cool.

Once cooled, pull away the claws, then crack the crabs and remove the upper body shell away from the legs.

Spoon the brown meat into a bowl and reserve, then set to with a pick to get all the white meat out. Once done, pick through with a little extra care to remove any adhering shell, tediously unwelcome in the finished dish.

Choose the handsomest dish at hand. I like very much the way a dear friend serves this by laying it flat in a thinnish layer on a large wide serving dish. It suits this very well.

Melt the butter and infuse with the mace and ground pepper. Check the chilli for heat, as too enthusiastic a kick-start might be misconstrued. Chop the preferred amount of chilli fine and add this to the pot.

Put the white crab meat, lemon juice, Manzanilla, chopped parsley and Tabasco in a bowl and mix very well together. Beat the brown meat until smooth. Mix all this together retaining a quite coarse texture. Pour in the butter, mix coarsely and then spoon out on the dish. Allow to set then cover with cling film and pop in the fridge.

The turkey

Ah, turkey, once a marvel of a brave new world. This rather wonderful wild bird contributed much to fortify dishes such as wilderness stew and succotash, which saved many a pilgrim who landed in Plymouth Bay. Happily, still in the here and now, there remain pioneering good folk who rear beautiful turkeys of excellent quality to grace the Christmas table.

The very best weight for a very good turkey is between 5-6kg. Exceed this weight and the cooking becomes perilous, the bird losing all its goodness as its sojourn in the oven becomes a reign of terror.

Serves 12-15
For the turkey
unsalted butter
250g, softened
several large sheets of tin foil
large enough to cover the bird comfortably with the inevitable required big scrunchings around the edges

For the stuffing
2, large
dried coarse breadcrumbs
curly parsley
6 great heaped tbsp, picked, washed, dried and finely chopped
thyme leaves
1 tsp
1 tsp
a quarter of one, grated
sea salt
1 heaped tsp
freshly ground black and white peppercorns
1 heaped tsp
best hens’ eggs
3 large
unsalted butter
250g, softened
white wine
a large glass

To make the stuffing, grate the zest of both the lemons, then juice just one.

In a big bowl, tumble in the breadcrumbs, chopped parsley, thyme, marjoram, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Mix these well, add in the lemon zest and juice, then the eggs, mix this well, then finally add the butter and mix thoroughly. Put to one side.

Heat the oven to 180C/gas mark 4. Clear the decks then sit the turkey in an appropriate roasting pan. Put the stuffing in the bird and then sew it up or use skewers to seal the stuffing inside.

Slather the butter all over the bird, then layer the sheets of foil on top until the bird is fully covered. Lift the tray to the oven and set the turkey on its way.

After 30 minutes at 180C/gas mark 4, turn the oven down to 150C/gas mark 2. The total cooking time is 2½ to 3 hours.

It is worth taking the bird from the oven every 45 minutes, lifting the foil and basting it with the deliciousness gathering in the bottom of the tray. The glass of wine can be poured over the bird on the final basting.

This is a good moment to check the cooking and also to remove the foil and return the bird to the oven for a final blast to ensure the skin browns well, too. Insert a skewer through the thigh and should the juices flow clear then tis done. A light-pink tinge colouring the juice is easily rectified should you opt to eat the breast first, returning the legs to the oven to finish cooking to follow on a second plateful.

It is worth bearing in mind that a very good rest will finish cooking the bird under its blanket of foil, say 20 to 25 minutes. But that is a chef speaking who cannot abide the prospect of a parched bird, deprived of its goodness.

NB All the deliciousness gathered in the bottom of the tray will be used along with the giblet gravy.

David Williams’s wine match for the turkey

Fuligni Ginestreto Rosso di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy 2012
Competing strong flavours, sweet and savoury, are the hallmark of the classic Christmas dinner. This robust but elegant Tuscan red will survive the assault and lend its cherried acidity to cut through the richness; the same producer’s Brunello Riserva 2007 is a still more suave choice if your budget stretches to £66.

Cumberland sauce

A Christmas feast is unthinkable without this accompaniment to the turkey. It is even better with the leftovers the day after. With this in mind, make a larger amount. It remains the very best use of redcurrant jelly.

oranges 4
redcurrant jelly
8 heaped tbsp
English mustard
2 heaped tsp
ground black pepper
a large pinch
sea salt
a small pinch
good port
a large glass

Carefully peel as many thinnest strips of peel as you can from the oranges. Slice these very thinly. Fill a small pan with 750ml of water, bring this to the boil, add the orange strips and boil for 1 minute, drain them and repeat, this time boiling for 3 minutes.

In a bowl, put in the orange strips, jelly, mustard, pepper and salt.

Set the bowl over a pan of simmering water, stirring the contents all the while until the jelly is melted and consistency quite smooth. Once done, add the port and continue thus for a further 7 or 8 minutes.

Tip the sauce into a clean bowl and cover until cool, then cover well and refrigerate. This sauce keeps well, covered, for a fortnight.

Giblet gravy

As with the Cumberland sauce this gorgeous tradition can be made the day before. As gravy goes, this is the very, very best and a great favourite.

Serves 12-15
from the turkey
onions 2 small, peeled and chopped coarsely
1 small, peeled and chopped coarsely
a stick, coarsely chopped
a pig’s trotter
chicken wings
parsley stalks
a small bundle
bay leaves
1 clove
black peppercorns
white wine
a great big glass mixed with a glug of sherry

The day before, set the oven to 150C/gas mark 2. Remove the turkey giblets from their natty little baggy hidden inside the turkey.

Take a frying pan and warm over a moderate heat. Pour in enough light oil to just cover the surface. Place the giblets in the oil and fry gently until very well coloured.

Turn the giblets with care, then add the vegetables and colour these well also. Then brown the wings as best you can. Once done, add these to a pot with the pig’s trotter, parsley stalks, bay leaves, garlic, peppercorns and wine. Tip the oil in the pan away and then add some water to lift up any residual delights adhering to the bottom. Add this result to the pot, then add enough cold water to just cover the contents. Put on a tight-fitting lid, using a sheet of tin foil to ensure a good seal, if required. Place this in the oven and reduce the heat to 140C/gas mark 1.

Let it cook through the night (around 10 hours if at all possible) and take out at about 9 o’clock in the morning. Have a peek but the stock should remain undisturbed. If there is a quiet spot on the cooker where it may continue cooking on the gentlest heat for a while longer, go ahead and do so.

Just before you take the turkey out of the oven for the last time, strain the stock into a clean pan, bring it gently to the boil and skim away any rising matter. The stock can be put to one side.

Strain the gravy from the turkey pan into a large pot and give this a quick simmer to spoon away any rising detritus. Put the two gravies together, taste and adjust accordingly.

Roast potatoes

Those who would prefer a goose for Christmas and have wisely stashed one elsewhere for later in the hols, always a good manoeuvre, will have bought a good few jars of goose fat. No, not one but a good few.

There is something about even cold ham in the holidays with roast potatoes, and the best roast potatoes are made with dripping or goose fat. We shall assume goose fat for this feast, as the beef will more likely appear at the new year. And roast potatoes cooked in goose fat require plenty of it. Brilliantly, much that remains in the bottom of the pan after use can be strained into a pot and reused several times thereafter.

Serves 6-8
2.5 kg
goose fat

As this feast is supposed to be abundant, it is always wise to pop a few extra potatoes in the pot. Rarely if ever are these left over.

Peel and wash the potatoes thoroughly until the water runs clear. Place them in a pan and along with the addition of a pinch of salt bring them gently to the boil. Simmer the potatoes for 30-35 minutes until they are just cooked through, then lift them carefully onto a roasting tray that’s big enough to take them all laid out evenly.

Tip enough goose fat into the tray so the fat reaches up the sides of the potatoes by at least a centimetre. Pop these into a blasting hot oven – 220C/gas mark 7 to 240C/gas mark 9 – and leave undisturbed for at least 15 minutes. Start gently moving the potatoes around if browned well, ensuring each side is crisp and coloured gold. Turn the oven down to between 180C/gas mark 4 and 190C/gas mark 5 and turn the potatoes every 10-15 minutes until done. This should take 45-50 minutes.

Lift the potatoes into a handsome great dish and keep warm. Strain the remaining fat into a pot for the next time.

Sprout tops

Sprout tops are the beautiful leaves of the more familiar Brussels sprout and have a wonderful flavour. They do much to dispel the rather tarnished reputation of Brussels sprouts and, of course, The Christmas Lunch. They are well worth seeking out.

Serves 6
sprout tops

Their preparation could not be simpler. Separate and remove the leaves. Cut the heart in half, wash thoroughly, then cook in boiling water at the last minute until tender, bright and beautiful, ready for draining and dotting with butter.


I generally find the butcher who sells the best birds usually has the best chipolatas, and as, frankly, there is enough going on in the kitchen over the yuletide, a bag of ready-made and, for that matter, well-made sausages from a butcher who prides himself on his meat is to be thoroughly applauded.

Serves 6
pearl onions
unsalted butter
Agen prunes
sherry or Madeira

A pleasing way to serve these is in the time-honoured tradition of the sausage, just cooked in a frying pan. As their name suggests an Italian origin, likely served with onions, then gently cook the pearl onions in a frying pan with the butter until golden and soft. Then add the Agen prunes between the onions and let this cook gently with the sherry. In a separate pan, fry the chipolatas until coloured well on each side, adding a drop of Madeira or water if they stick. Tumble the prunes and onions over the sausages and mix well. Add a few grinds of a peppermill. This will sit happily for a while during the readying of the rest of lunch.

Clementine sorbet

Finding the best clementines through December has become rather a good game. A really good clementine is a most delicious treat, and to be rewarded by being stuck in the big toe of a Christmas stocking seems somewhat unjust. Squeezed into a glass of iced Campari perhaps? Much more the thing. This estimable fruit has several pleasing uses but not least as a sorbet for such a feast as this. The small nod to St Clement’s is most pleasant.

Needless to say, enthusiasm can be made more so by the addition of prosecco and vodka to make a delicious sgroppino, a very good addition to a Christmas bash.

Serves 6-8
golden caster sugar
clementine juice
600ml, freshly squeezed
1, juiced
2, juiced

Stir the sugar into the clementine, orange and lemon juice in a pan over a gentle heat until just warm and the sugar is dissolved.

Cool, then pour this into an ice-cream maker and follow the manufacturer’s instructions. This sorbet is at its very best churned only an hour or two before serving.

If an ice-cream maker is not at hand, the sweetened juice can be frozen and then attacked with a fork to make a granita.

To make sgroppino, have everything ready. Pretty glasses in the freezer give a stroke of dash. Open a chilled bottle of prosecco, tip one large scoop of sorbet for each person into a cooled food-processor bowl. Add a good glug of frozen vodka for each person and then a similar sized measure of prosecco. Whizz for a blink of an eye and pour into the frozen glasses swiftly, then serve just as fast … for the second round.

Steamed spiced fruit pudding, custard and cream

There is little point in competing with Mum’s Christmas Pudding but, should fortune not smile and that pudding not be with you on Christmas Day, then maybe this rather lovely old recipe might please. This pudding can be cooked a few days in advance and, indeed, will be all the better for it.

Serves 4-6
syrup or your favourite marmalade
1 tbsp
plain white flour
fresh white breadcrumbs
golden syrup
dried apricots
75g, cut into small pieces
dried figs
75g, cut into smallish pieces
ground mace
1 tsp
ground cinnamon
1 tsp
ground allspice
1 tsp
crystallised stem ginger
10 pieces, grated
ginger syrup
2 tbsp
plain flour
2 tsp
bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp
1 large, organic or free range

Rub a steamed-pudding basin with butter. Cut a disc of greaseproof paper large enough to fully line the inside of the basin. Place a generous spoonful of syrup in the middle of the paper or, if you wish, a spoonful of your favourite marmalade.

Place all the ingredients in a large bowl. Mix all together thoroughly until the batter has achieved a soft dropping consistency. Spoon the batter over the pool of syrup or marmalade.

Cut two large discs of greaseproof and two discs of foil and use these to cover and seal the edges of the pudding bowl. Tie a piece of string around the bowl to secure the paper and tinfoil. It is vital that not a whisper of steam be permitted egress to the pudding within.

Place the bowl (foil side up) on a plate in a pan of simmering water, the water needing to come half way up the side. Let it cook for 2½ or 3 hours, checking every now and again to ensure that the water is still halfway up the side of the bowl.


Now, custard is a wonder that cannot be denied. This lovely sauce can be made before setting sail with the whole feast, and left to sit in a suitable, sealed bowl over a pan of warm water, the cook having a care not to let it be too hot to avoid it splitting.

Serves 4-6
good quality, creamy milk
vanilla pod
egg yolks
golden caster sugar
1 tbsp
double cream

Warm the milk with the vanilla pod over a gentle heat, then let it sit and infuse for at least 10 minutes. Stir the egg yolks with sugar until mixed but not frothing. Slowly pour the warm milk over the yolks, stirring all the time until smooth, then return to the milk pan and place on a gentle heat.

Stir the sauce gently until it thickens to the consistency of cream and remove from the heat. Pour the cream into the custard as soon as it is off the heat. Pour the custard through a fine sieve into a bowl and cover with cling film.

Make holes with the tip of a very sharp knife 4 or 5 times to let any steam whisper through. Place the bowl over a pan of warm water and put to one side. Come the moment, warm through and stir gently before serving. The bucket of really naughty thick Jersey cream in the fridge might be enjoyed by all as well.

Jeremy Lee is head chef at Quo Vadis, London, W1;

This article was amended on 25 November to include the oven temperatures for the turkey.

Powered by article was written by Jeremy Lee, for The Observer on Tuesday 25th November 2014 08.00 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010