Your Christmas dinner centrepiece doesn’t have to be turkey

Do your holiday meal differently. And, more importantly, do it well.

Fall is over. Our city streets are once again dusted with a blanket of ivory snow and the crisp, biting chill of winter air on our cheeks. Winter has come. I don’t skate or play hockey, nor do I ski or snowshoe and so, for me, there is little to the season apart from the undeniable beauty of a tranquil city scene gently laced with freshly fallen snow, something that carries me through the darkest of days.

That is, unless you consider winter meals. Winter is, after all, the season of soups, hearty stews, robust and flavourful braises, Yorkshire puddings doused in gravy and who amongst us doesn’t delight at the sight and smell of a warm apple pie freshly pulled from the oven? Call it nostalgia, or simply the lack of other things to do, but when it comes to seasonal eating, nothing better conjures the bucolic delights of the feast than a hearty winter meal, and no winter feast is more revered than Christmas dinner.  

Religious attachments aside, if you forgo the Jesus is born aspect of the holiday, Christmas dinner is a very good opportunity to indulge in an elaborate meal, deeply rooted in the pleasures of the season. That said, Christmas dinner is just as often the yearly example of what can go wrong when the family gets together to push overcooked turkey around the plate while grandpa pontificates on the legitimacy of being transgendered. Unless your family is the very family from those Norman Rockwell Christmas paintings, it’s unlikely that the draw to Christmas dinner is the quality time spent with family. I am fortunate enough to have been blessed with a family who, in part, defines themselves by their enjoyment of a good meal, and as such a holiday meal at my family home is always a well-enjoyed occasion. You see, it’s much easier to bite one’s tongue in a refrained response to a drunken uncle’s contentious take on American politics when your mouth is occupied savouring a perfectly roasted buttered carrot. Winter is pretty awful, you’re going to spend a lot of time with the same people in the same places, so why not make the most of it and ply yourselves and your guests with something good to eat?

With that in mind, begin to consider your ideal feast. Much has been discussed about the highly coveted turkey, the best practices, the secret tricks, but perhaps what is most discussed is why it makes us sleepy. Some will claim it’s from overeating, the scientists blame tryptophan, but maybe it’s time we face the fact: turkey is boring. We’re likely just lulled to sleep by the monotonous gnashing of dry, tacky, poultry meagerly rehydrated by generous gulps of tannic California Cabernet, “Can you believe I got three bottles for $30$” an overzealous aunt will announce pridefully. “Yes, I can.” 

So if not turkey, then what? If you can’t cook but need to serve a crowd, buy yourself a good Christmas ham — a smoked ham always hits home. You buy it pre-smoked, you only have one big bone to contend with when carving and it goes with everything traditionally found on a Christmas dinner table, plus it’s nearly foolproof in the oven.

If you can cook, try a standing rib roast. Beef, glorious beef! Sure it’s going to cost more than your average Butterball, but it’s also going to taste a hell of a lot better. The feast is empirically and intrinsically indulgent. If cost begins to outway enjoyment, why even bother? You might as well order a couple of pizzas (maybe not the worst idea?). I’m not saying you have to take out a second mortgage for a piece of meat, but the centrepiece of the meal is hardly the place to skrimp. A prime-rib is a true vision of a winter feast. Imagine a swirling bowl of buttery mash, a steaming casserole of stuffing, delicately sautéed green beans with shallots, all set around a magnificent piece of meat, roasted deep brown but for the glorious french-tipped ribs protruding as magnificent bone handles in the most bacchanalian of ways. Plus that Cab is going to drink a lot better. 

I know what you’re thinking. You’re a traditionalist and Christmas dinner just simply isn’t Christmas dinner without a roast bird at the table. It’s true, there is a particular satisfaction that comes with an expertly carved bird, its skin crisp and golden-brown, moist with its savoury juices. If it must be a bird, why not consider a goose? It goes without saying the uniquely North American turkey has become the go-to bird, but didn’t we just have one at Thanksgiving? The goose traces its origins as the centrepiece of the Christmas dinner table back to the pagan sun festival, which over the course of time has become known as Christmas. Simply put, the goose is the original celebratory roast bird. More than that, the goose represents the highest echelon of Christmas feasting, for it was a plump Christmas goose given to the Crachet family by an epiphanous Ebenezar Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Tradition aside, the main reason to roast a goose for Christmas dinner is simply that it is a far superior bird. Goose, if you’ve never had it before, tastes like a perfect combination of duck and pork. In fact, in countries where pork is seldom eaten, the goose is often a common stand-in, which is why the bird is sometimes known as the “pig of the sky.” I’ll say it now: goose is harder to cook, but it’s really only as hard to cook as turkey. You see, goose breast and goose legs require different techniques to make them shine, so you’ll want to separate the legs and breasts and cook them individually. That also applies to turkey. If you really want to have a good turkey, you’ll want to brine it for 24 hours and then roast the legs and breasts separately. Both these birds require a lot of care and preparation, but when you expertly roast a turkey, you get great turkey, when you expertly roast a goose, you get a Christmas miracle. 

What I’m really trying to get across is that whatever it is you decide to cook for Christmas dinner, take the time to do it well. There are few things in life that are more satisfying than sitting down to a beautiful, thoughtfully prepared meal that you yourself have prepared. Your parents may not agree with your career choice, your grandparents scold you for your tattoos and your younger cousins won’t stop hitting the Juul in the house, but at least while everyone is gathered around the table for dinner, there’s joy. Friends and family are grinning as they pile their plates high with your succulent cooking, wine is poured, glasses clink and for a moment there is the beautiful silence of a table full of guests whose mouths are too occupied savouring your delicious food to utter a word. As you gaze around the table, you notice, for all your family’s flaws, your Christmas dinner is a very Rockwellian Christmas after all. ■