Give the turkey a rest - alternative Christmas roasts

In a recent article for Handpicked Harrogate magazine¹, I wrote about how home cooks put themselves under tremendous pressure to cook a turkey "with all the trimmings." It seems that over the last 20 years or so, we have come to expect our seasonal bird to come with a vast array of accompaniments, vegetable dishes and sauces. As far as I can tell, we only seem to have these massive expectations with turkey. Given that most of us will be reducing our Christmas guest-list this year, a 16lb turkey is likely to be too much, anyway, and I thought I'd have a look at alternatives.


Before the advent of battery farming, chicken was considered a luxury meat. The idea that it had more flavour is not down to nostalgia: slower-growing breeds have time to develop more flavour but are, inevitably, more expensive to rear. Having said that, you can be confident they will have had space to roam and a generally better life, especially if you're buying from an independent butcher who knows her/his suppliers.


The very idea of a Christmas goose conjures up images of jolly, fat men at Victorian dinner tables. It isn't a difficult bird to cook, but people are often wary of the fat content. A huge amount of fat is rendered from the carcass during roasting, so have a baster or ladle handy, to remove some of that delicious fat periodically during cooking. It you save it, it'll keep you going in perfect roast potatoes for months. Goose meat is rich, so a little of it goes a remarkably long way. Choose accompaniments with some acidity to balance that richness: apples are perfect - in the stuffing, as a sauce or as an ingredient in a dish of braised red cabbage.


If there's just a couple of you for Christmas Day, treat yourself to a duck. Like goose, it'll give you some lovely fat for frying and roasting potatoes. Season the bird well both inside and out and start it off in a good, hot oven before turning it down to finish. If you're roasting it whole, you won't be able to have pink breast meat as you'll need to ensure the legs have cooked through and are not tough. Duck works well with all kinds of fruit, including such Christmassy flavours as cranberries, clementines and pomegranates. Grab your favourite cookery books and see what you fancy.

Pork and Ham

Where would we be without the glorious pig? Better to have a small amount of well-reared, old-breed pork than an unlimited supply of something that has dried out because the pig was bred too lean. Christmas isn't the time for dieting, anyway.

There is an almost endless choice of delicious cuts of pork for the Christmas cook. Many butchers are now preparing Italian-style porchetta, a rolled loin and belly, stuffed with herbs, fennel and lemon zest. Leg or shoulder joints are good for roasting, too, and your butcher will be happy to score the skin for crackling.  I love to get a great lump of gammon in and cook it for Boxing Day, but what's wrong with showcasing it on Christmas Day instead? If you want the ultimate luxury, see if your butcher can source suckling pig for you. Do measure your oven before paying for a whole one, though: they're expensive and bigger then you imagine.

This is only half a suckling pig


Many families have removed red meat from their diet altogether. All the more reason to bring it back for the festive season, if you ask me. British farmers are at the forefront of low-impact, sustainable farming, and their grass-fed cattle produce some of the world's best beef. If you're not used to cooking beef, ask your butcher for advice. I like to buy a rib joint on a special occasion. Topside and top rump are good, too. Make sure it has visible fat within the muscle (so-called "marbling") and comes with a cap of basting fat on it. This will keep the joint moist and protect the top from burning.


It's not always easy to get venison right because the flesh is quite dense but extremely lean. Making sure it's cooked through without drying out is the stuff of Masterchef skills tests, and I'm not sure Christmas Day is the right time to put yourself through that. If you're feeling confident, though, haunch is the traditional roasting joint. Venison works well with redcurrant jelly. You can serve that on its own, melt it and mix it with horseradish sauce or melt a dessertspoon or so into your gravy.


If you're looking for something lighter for your festive meal, consider fish. Look for something a bit different, so your meal feels special. Salmon en croute would be nice, sole in beurre blanc, or even a grilled lobster. Carp is popular in central and eastern Europe, and your nearest Polish grocer will be taking orders about now. The truly adventurous might even consider the traditional Italian dish of baked eel with garlic and lemon. I'd say that needs a good Soave wine to accompany it, wouldn't you?



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