Some animals hibernate during the holiday season, but we humans just eat right through it. Fine by me! The last couple of holiday seasons I’ve taken it upon myself to relieve my folks of the holiday cooking duties and put my own culinary education (from Johnson & Wales University in Denver) and passion to good use. Last Christmas I cooked a standing rib roast. This Thanksgiving I cooked the turkey (for the first time!) and most of the sides. For Christmas, I’m hoping to return to my dear rib roast, but from a different angle, which I’m still working on.
While recipes are quite important, I tend to take them with a grain of salt . . . har har har. I find one recipe and deem it gold, but then start looking at others. The whole ordeal escalates quickly: Soon I’m scrolling through endless recipes, articles, studies, and kitchen experiments to fully understand the concept of cooking something. In the end, the recipes become a sort of guide for what I want to do. It’s probably why I’m not a huge fan of baking—that requires precision!
That being said, the following isn’t a step-by-step recipe for holiday meals, but more of an encouragement to think outside the turkey this year, to spice things up a bit, to turn that blender on high!
To do that I’ve provided some hopefully helpful tips and some classic and creative dishes. Some are simple and take a long time like brining techniques. Others are just plain easy. Some may be intimidating and others you may have done before. Whatever the case, they are tasty. And whatever you do, try not to think of cooking as a chore this year but an event, a science experiment happening in that innovation lab you call a kitchen.
If all else fails . . . there’s always Chinese.
Christmas Eve can be a challenging meal to do, unless you’re going into full-on feast mode. If not, you don’t want to do too much because the following day is busy full of cooking and heavy meals. So how about a hearty soup?
In my family, it’s tradition to do white chili. I know, sounds weird up front; I’m still convincing people of it. But, it’s a refreshing change of pace from all the big meals around this time of year. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to find our original recipe from when we first started making it. But it has something to do with chicken, celery, white beans, onions and garlic cooked in chicken stock and topped with cilantro. Some renditions include green chilies and monterey jack cheese (click here for a recipe you can try out). Whatever one you choose, make sure you serve it with cornbread!
Dry-Brining vs Wet Brining a Turkey
Like I said, this year was my first year cooking the bird—I wanted to do it right. Instead of buying a bajillion pound Butterball turkey, the leftovers of which I’d be chewing on like gum for the foreseeable future, I got a small, free-range, non-GMO turkey (I know, right. Jeeez, why don’t I just buy a Whole Foods) that was just the right size to feed my closest family. By the way, don’t pay the extra dollar a pound for organic—it’s just a label and it’s not worth it. Free-range is fine.
Dry brining is covering the bird in salt and spice. Wet brining is soaking the bird in salt water. Both happen days before cooking.
Originally I wanted to do a wet brine, but the more I read about it the more I realized I would be taking the exit for Route Dry Brine. One of the biggest negatives of wet brining is that you have to get a food safe container big enough to fit the turkey. Then you’ll have to clear space in your refrigerator to fit it. The other option is putting it someplace cool in your house and rotating ice bags so it stays below 40°F. Anyway, to brine, fill the bucket with enough water so the turkey will be submerged. For every gallon of water, mix in one cup of kosher salt. Add the thawed or mostly thawed turkey to the water at least 24-48 hours before cooking. For exact brine to turkey measurements, click here.
Dry-brining I think is the way to go. For a whole bird, add one teaspoon of salt per pound of turkey to a small dish. Mix in some pepper, dry thyme, sage, and/or rosemary. Massage it into the turkey at least two days before you plan on cooking it. Rub the seasoning all over that bird; lift its appendages up and shmear some in the cavity after removing its innards.
If you’re doing it the day or night before cooking, try getting the mixture under the skin. By letting the salt sit on the bird, it’s permeating through the skin and meat, drawing moisture to the surface, and then soaking back in. Not only is it spreading moisture, but it’s also infusing flavor and bringing out the natural taste of the turkey.
Leave it in the fridge covered for two or three days before cooking. If you want crispy skin, remove the cover for the last 12-24 hours to dry the skin out. Play it your favorite music constantly and tell it a good joke or story every 6-8 hours, I prefer classical and one-liners.
Cook the bird breast-side down in a mirepoix (onions, carrots, celery), garlic, bay leaves, and chicken broth for the start of your gravy. Flip it right side up the last hour to get the skin crispy.
This article here compared the two processes. (It argues that wet brining may add moisture, but it will distract flavor since it’s soaking up water.)
Standing Rib Roast
It never occurred to me or my family to cook prime rib for Christmas until I was working as a butcher one holiday season. I was amazed at how many people were spending so much on these suckers, so I did my own last year.
A standing rib roast, also known as just a rib roast or ribeye roast, is a ribeye before it’s been turned into steaks. Technically, you could do a new york strip roast or filet roast. But rib roast seems to be the norm. I prefer bone-in, always. In fact, you can ask your butcher to cut the bone off and tie it back on so you get that bone-in flavor without the hassle of the bone.
There are so many ways to cook one of these guys. I like to throw a couple of strips of bacon in there with it towards the end. However, unlike I did last year, it’s probably best not to leave any plastic or rubber-handled utensils on the tray with the roast in the 400-degree oven.
Here are some things to keep in mind when considering a roast for your Christmas feast:
- When sizing out a roast, about one-bone feeds two people, three with sides. A four-bone roast will feed 8-10 people. Think half a pound per very-hungry person.
- Apply a dry rub of your favorite herbs and spices the night before.
- You can also make small slits in the top and push smashed garlic cloves in them.
- Cook the roast on a rack.
- Start it off at 450°F for about 25 minutes then lower the oven to 350°F.
- When it gets down to 350°F add red wine or beef stock to the pan and/or any of your favorite fresh herbs like Rosemary or Thyme.
- Cook it for about 16 minutes per pound. The internal temperature should be 135-140°F for medium rare.
- If you think about it, throw some bacon or butter on there towards the end (Then again, I like adding bacon and butter to most things!).
- Once you remove the roast from the oven, let it rest about 20 minutes before carving.
- Serve with horseradish or au jus.
These can add to the pain of cooking, especially when you’ve got your eye on the main dish. Below are a few quick and easy, yet delicious side dishes to accompany your meat.
Green Bean Casserole -This one's a classic. I’d eat it throughout the year, but something just isn’t right unless it’s paired with the holidays. And it’s crazy easy: canned green beans, cream of mushroom soup and milk mixed, and poured into a dish for the oven. Sprinkle dried onions on top and bake until it’s hot!
Roasted Root Vegetables -The most complicated part of this is the cutting and personally, I enjoy chopping veggies. In this case, the rougher the cut the better. A pan of roasted root vegetables is as easy to make as it is easy on the eyes. Get the most colorful veggies you can find: red potatoes, red or white onions, a bunch of rainbow carrots, brussel sprouts ( I know, not a root, but delicious), garlic, sweet potatoes or yams, beets, and turnips. Salt, pepper, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and bake at 350°F until done, mixing once.
Hawaiian Rolls - Open the package, pull the rolls out, put them in a bowl. I know, lazy, but nothing beats these cloud-fluffy rolls on the dinner table. They are perfect as is, with butter, or as buns for sliders.
Beer Bread - A company called Soberdough makes some exceptional bread mixes. They come in a small canvas bag and all you have to do is dump the mix into a bowl, add a bottle of your favorite beer, pour into a 9 by 13" pan and bake for an hour. They’ve got cheddar green chili bread, rosemary, sourdough, and cinnamon—at least those are the ones I’ve tried.
Mashed Potatoes - Along with my turkey I made the mashed potatoes. I used to think these were a laborious process, until I took a good look at the name . . . just mash them! I’ll boil Yukon Gold taters in water or chicken broth with gloves of garlic and maybe a couple bay leaves, strain the water, add some chicken stock and then just mash them right in the pot. Add some combination of cream, butter, and/or chicken stock as well as salt and pepper to taste and more garlic. Both rosemary or paprika are safe flavors for mashed potatoes too, just not at the same time. Mix them over medium heat until thick. To get them fluffy, take your hand blender to them. If you want to get real adventurous, boil them in heavy whipping cream and finish them off with grainy mustard, Tyler Florence-style.
Cranberry Chutney - Let’s get real for a second: Canned cranberry is iconic. I can picture the maroon cylinder, slid out onto a plate, the ridges of the can still visible. But we’re taking it up a notch this season. Cranberries, raisins, chopped tart apple, spices like clove, allspice, ginger, cinnamon, sugar, and water simmered for 45 minutes to an hour. Put that on your turkey and Hawaiian rolls and eat it!
Shredded Frussel Sprouts - Shredding brussel sprouts can be a bit tedious, but they’re worth it, like waiting for the water in a fountain to cool down. If you don’t have the patience for shredding them, just chop them up with a butcher’s knife. Toss them in a sauté with some butter, salt and pepper to season, light brown sugar, and some almond milk. Stir until they are lightly caramelized and a nice amber color.
I’ll say no more, and instead refer you to our most tantalizing WebPunch Cookbook that has recipes (actual recipes!) from our WebPunch team members around the world. You’ll be baking for days!
Maybe you want to really think outside the box, or outside the country. As Italian-American tradition goes, Christmas Eve is full of seafood. Deemed the Night of the Seven Fishes, this tradition will have you eating fish, oysters, scallops, and shrimp to name a few. And of course, there will be pasta and more pasta the next day. For a tour of traditions around the world, click here.
Maybe everything doesn’t pan out. Maybe it gets burned, the dog eats it, the cooking lab catches fire, or something’s just not right. If everything fails you can always do as many do who don’t celebrate Christmas, go for Chinese Food.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays all!
Matthew Van Deventer is a content creator for WebPunch. As a dealer of words he dabbles in journalism and loves a good story, whatever the medium. Matthew lives outside of Denver, CO with his wife, daughter, and pup, Chewy.