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Your last-minute holiday cooking questions answered Add to ...

Lucy, to brine or not to brine? What’s your take?

I never brine free-range, organic or kosher turkeys, but every other kind is improved by brining.

For a wet brine, water, salt, sugar and flavourings are combined and the turkey is soaked in it for 24 hours. The drawback is that you need a large enough container to submerge the turkey and room in the refrigerator to store it. To each 4 litres of cold water, stir in 1 cup kosher salt. Look for Diamond Crystal at the supermarket; it is the best for both brining and cooking. You can add sugar to the brine if you wish, but it's not necessary. Herbs and spices can also be added, and proportions are fluid.

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You will need a container that will allow the turkey to be completely immersed in the brine. Use a very large pot that fits the turkey. Measure the volume of the pot and make up that amount of brine. You will not need it all. Stick the turkey in neck side down. Pour over enough brine until the turkey is covered. Tie a lid on top in case the turkey bounces up.

Brining timing is a matter of how much salt you use in the solution. The heavier the solution the shorter the brining time. Brine about 6 hours on the counter or outside, 24 hours if you refrigerate it. Remove the bird, wash it off, pat it dry.

Dry brine is salt sprinkled on the turkey, which is then refrigerated for 12 hours. Rinse off afterward.

What are your secrets to foolproof gravy?

Once the turkey is roasted, you’ll find a lot of fat and some juice in the roasting pan. Spill most of it out leaving about 3 tablespoons. Place the roasting pan over medium heat and add 3 tablespoons flour. Whisk the flour into the fat as it cooks. Once the flour is incorporated start adding 3 cups turkey or chicken stock slowly, whisking. Bring to a boil once all the stock is incorporated, stirring occasionally.

For flavour, use any that you like. I recommend a teaspoon balsamic vinegar and a teaspoon soy sauce (or to taste), or red currant jelly. Use either homemade stock or low-salt shelf-stable packages. Butchers often carry good chicken stock, too. Only strain the gravy if it is lumpy, but you should not have any lumps with this method.

Here’s a recipe you can try.

I am feeding a group of 4. We don’t want a turkey but something festive. Any ideas?

I love capon, which is usually available over Christmas. It is tender, juicy and more flavourful than chicken because it has a higher amount of fat to self-baste and give taste. Capons are desexed roosters so they have bigger breasts for white meat lovers. The same side dishes you would serve with turkey work with capon. Here’s a recipe you could try.

Leftovers (if there are any) make wonderful next-day sandwiches. You could also roast a turkey breast as an alternative to an entire turkey – Try this recipe or this one.

I just learned one of my guests is vegetarian. What can I serve her that is tasty but will be manageable for me to make?

When I face this situation I love to make something that will feel meaty for my guests. Several years ago I stuffed portobello mushrooms with the same stuffing as was going in the bird, baked them at the same heat (they are forgiving) and it was a huge success. It is now my go-to dish. For vegans, omit eggs in the stuffing and substitute any stock with apple or orange juice. Here’s a recipe.

We love chocolate. Do you have ideas for a festive chocolate dessert?

A chocolate yule log looks the most festive. Essentially a soufflé mixture made flat on a jelly roll pan, it is rolled up with a chocolate ganache and can be decorated with icing sugar and little marzipan sculptures. It’s beautiful but it is a lot of work.

I find that chocolate lovers really enjoy a full-on chocolate mousse. I make a really rich, spicy one with mascarpone and it satisfies everyone’s chocolate urge.

My other go-to chocolate dessert is a flourless chocolate cake (which covers gluten-free issues, as does chocolate mousse).

Can you share tips on timing the holiday meal so it’s ready all at once?

Unless you have two ovens, it is very difficult to get everything ready at the same time.

I am definitely a reheater of vegetables. Use the oven you cook the turkey in to reheat roasted vegetables. Pile them in an oven-proof gratin dish and bake them until hot, usually about 15 or 20 minutes. Put them in just as you take the turkey out (the turkey should rest 20 minutes before serving). Pump the heat up to 400 while the vegetables are in the oven.

Beans of any kind do well in the microwave as do purées such as squash or mashed potatoes. Just make sure the dish will fit in the microwave; it is very frustrating to have to look for other dishes while trying to carve the turkey.

For reheating Brussels sprouts, little onions or mushrooms, put them in a sauté pan with some butter over medium heat. Cover just as the butter sizzles and cook for about 10 minutes.

I strongly recommend making a list with when dishes go in oven or microwave. Lists help to organize you.

How much turkey should I buy per person?

Turkey size depends on the appetites. I usually count on onr pound and eight ounces of turkey (750 grams) per person, giving a good amount of leftovers for turkey sandwiches or your favourite leftover the next day.

No more Brussels sprouts. What are some other side dishes that work for Christmas?

Vegetables are always my favourite part of the meal, so each year I try to do something different.

Sweet and sour red cabbage is a family favourite and looks gorgeous with the turkey. Another is a combination of whole mushrooms, shallots and prunes.

Experiment with several different kinds of squash, just cut them in slices and roast. Add a flavoured butter on top, such a cinnamon, garlic or shallot.

Take a vegetable such as Brussels sprouts and add chopped kimchee (a la David Chang) or Thai curry paste and coconut milk for a really different take.

I don’t want to make turkey this year. What else will impress my guests?

My favourite Christmas dinner is roast beef. A large standing rib roast in all its glory is my to-die-for meal.

Another choice is a crown roast of pork. The stuffing can go in the middle so it feels holiday-appropriate.

One of my friends always makes lasagne because she says she can’t be bothered the rest of the year to do it properly. It’s another good choice.

I get so stressed over this dinner. Please make my life easier with your secrets.

Organization is the key. Even though I am not much of a list maker, this is the time for it. Look for some elements that you can buy. Buy cranberry sauce, a squash side dish or even the stuffing. One friend always buys the gravy but makes everything else. She stirs the gravy into the roasting pan after the turkey comes out and there it is, tasty and ready. Buying dessert is a no-brainer but go to a really good bakery. The dessert should be as good as the rest of your meal.

Make sure all the serving dishes are out so you are not hunting for plates at the last minute.

Ask family or friends to make things for you, it really helps. But check the timing tips in an earlier question to make sure everything is hot at the same time.

I have a large group so we set the festive dining table but place all the food on another table or the kitchen counters and people help themselves. So much easier and everyone takes what they want.

Is it possible to do a make-ahead Christmas dinner?

Yes, it is, as long as the turkey is made fresh. Here are some tips.

You can freeze mashed potatoes in an oven-proof gratin dish. Reheat from frozen at 350 F for about 45 minutes.

All vegetables can be prepared up to three days in advance. Taste for seasoning before serving.

I often serve an apple cranberry crumble for dessert, which can be made and frozen, although it will keep for five days refrigerated.

Cranberry sauce keeps two weeks without spoiling.

If you make a sauce rather than gravy (reducing wine and stock, finishing with cream or butter) it will keep a week after making.

Serve smoked salmon as a first course or make a soup that you freeze earlier in the month.

I want to cook a turkey and a filet roast but only have one oven. What should I do?

Two choices: The turkey has to rest for 20 minutes before carving, which gives you time to put in the filet roast. Crank the oven up to 450 F about 10 minutes before taking out the bird. Take it out and add the filet roast on a rack over a roasting pan. Look for a longer, thinner one rather than short and fat. Filets cook by the thickness not the poundage - about 10 minutes to an inch.

The roast will take about 25 to 30 minutes for medium-rare. It should be ready for slicing after the turkey is sliced.

Or you can cook it at 325 F for one hour with your turkey (assuming that is your oven temperature for the turkey) but it won’t be as flavourful.

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