My most important advice when you've got a big event like Christmas coming up is to keep it simple and make sure you don't get too hung up about impressing your guests with your culinary gymnastics. I find that if the cook is relaxed, everyone else will be. So don’t take on so much that your Christmas Day ends up being about sweating over a hot turkey rather than catching up with family and friends...
In my family we always have a bit of a chat in advance about who’s bringing what, so the menu offers a balance of rich and light and some different textures. If we are more than 10 people I serve big platters for people to help themselves – it feels more relaxed and friendly than bringing plated meals to the table. The only time I plate things up is when I’m a bit worried I might not have enough food, or I need to “ration” one of the dishes or ingredients – thus ensuring the side of salmon will go round more people than it would normally, or getting turkey and stuffing onto everyone’s plates so that no one misses out.
Constructing the perfect menu
When I’m having people over for dinner – whether it’s a weekday meal or a special occasion like Christmas, my preference is always a three-course menu – it’s special enough to make it feel like an occasion, yet easily achievable, especially if you have as much as possible prepared ahead of time.
Start with something light and tempting, followed by a more substantial main and then, depending on how weighty the main is, finish with a dessert that will balance the menu out – something light and fresh after a rich main or something more substantial if the main course errs on the lighter side.
Avoid feeding people with dish after dish that’s too rich – cream on cream, butter on butter. You don’t want them to go home feeling heavy and bloated.
Building meals around fresh seasonal produce and using umami (the savoury deliciousness we experience when we eat foods like mushrooms, tomatoes and miso), rather than cream butter or oil, makes for satisfying summer eating that’s not laden with calories. New potatoes, asparagus and berries always feature on my summer Christmas table, but whatever the season there will be fresh local ingredients to build into your menu.
Often if I’m serving a big, rich main course I'll forgo a sit-down starter in favour of simple hand-around nibbles to tempt people’s palates.
- I started with Sunshine Cocktails to get the party buzzing.
- Then I handed around some casual antipasto platters, including Smashed Bean and Mint Crostini, Prosciutto Peach Wraps, a Mozzarella and Tomato Platter and a lovely light prawn and fennel salad.
- For the main I like to offer a choice of two proteins, so as well as a delicious Honey-Glazed Ham I made Roast Turkey with a Quinoa Stuffing, some of which I cooked separately so vegetarian guests could eat it.
- These were accompanied by sides celebrating summer – a bowl of new potatoes, a Platter of Baby Veges and a lovely fresh Paradise Salad from the garden.
- To finish, I chose two Kiwi favourites – a simple but spectacular Berry Trifle that can be layered together by the most novice of cooks, and The Ultimate Pavlova – my easiest pavlova ever, because you just pop all the ingredients in the mixer and whip it up. No drip-feeding sugar needed!
You'll find some of these recipes on my website, along with loads of other Christmas recipe inspiration. For the whole menu, see my Celebrate Summer annual (you'll also find a shopping list on my blog).
Decide on a theme
When thinking about the dishes in a menu, I aim to choose dishes and flavours from within a geographical region rather than jumping around the globe. I always feel uncomfortable if my palate has to leap through hoops of flavour and style in a single meal, whereas a loose Mediterranean theme or Asian approach will make the meal feel cohesive.
Ideally you don’t want to repeat key ingredients or have too much sameness in textures – like a creamy soup followed by a saucy main and a creamy dessert, or a pastry starter and pastry in the dessert as well.
Make it easy on yourself
If you are cooking the bulk of the meal yourself, plan a menu that involves at least one course, and ideally two, that can be prepared in advance and just pulled out of the fridge or freezer at the last minute. If you’re short on time in the run-up to the big day, pick dishes that just involve assembling ingredients, rather than spending a lot of time on fiddly preparation.
Share the load
Big celebrations like Christmas dinner warrant a shared pot-luck approach. Someone can bring the starter or appetiser, someone else the dessert, others are in charge of the side dishes, and the host can prepare the main course. It’s so much less daunting at extended family get-togethers, and everyone gets to feel useful and that they have contributed.
It’s fun to get together in the kitchen, catching up with family and friends you might not have seen all year and sharing the load over a glass of bubbly as you pod fresh peas, assemble starters or scrub new potatoes for the pot. Try not to care about different levels of cooking ability or if someone slices the beans differently to how you would have done it yourself – the camaraderie of the moment is more important than the quality of the cuisine. If someone hates to cook, put them in charge of the wine or choosing some nice cheeses to follow the meal.
There’s a bit of a ritual in our house about the cook getting to snag the best tidbits in the kitchen before the plate goes to the table – after all it’s our job to taste things and make sure the balance is just right before they are served!