A Christmas lunch with all the trimmings is never a budget-friendly proposition, but this year between drought, African swine fever and rising grocery store prices, costs may be particularly high.
But making a few strategic switches will help with creating a feast that is just as impressive.
Jackie Middleton, the director and head food nerd at EARL Canteen has created a Christmas main and dessert that take into account rising prices, and still look (and taste) like Christmas. She also shares her tips for keeping Christmas costs down.
To save on seafood: buy ahead of time
“The quality of seafood available is terrible at Christmas time,” says Middleton. “Because there’s so much demand and so little availability.”
Her solution is to get your seafood shopping done as soon as possible. “Green [raw] prawns are highly perishable,” she says. “In Australia, pretty much every prawn that we eat has been frozen before it even gets to us. If they’re wild-caught they’re usually frozen on the boat, or if they’re farmed they pretty much process, freeze them, then distribute and defrost them in supermarkets and seafood shops.”
Buying frozen prawns now and keeping them in your freezer at home will help you avoid Christmas price hikes – without compromising on quality. You will need to buy in larger quantities – usually 1kg minimum – but “IQF [individually quick frozen] is an ideal option for whole or cutlet [peeled apart from the small tail] prawn tails. Just defrost as many as you need at a time.”
She adds: “Some retailers at markets will cook prawns onsite so they are freshly cooked, but usually they are buying them frozen and defrosting, as customers are used to buying ‘fresh’.”
Middleton also suggests slices of home-cured salmon because “it’s only a small portion but you get a beautiful dramatic effect, and you’ve put some love into it yourself.” Cured salmon can also be prepared up to five days in advance.
To save on sides: shop seasonally
Middleton suggests abandoning notions of “traditional” Christmas sides in favour of what is local and abundant. “Crisp green beans … can get expensive in the summer. They can be up to $15 a kilo, which is ridiculous. Whereas broccoli is $5 or $6 a kilo.”
“If you eat within the season, prices usually aren’t too bad. Things like stone fruit go really well with Christmas flavours. I do an asparagus, peach and walnut salad – it feels festive.”
For the main: pick chicken
“The pork price has increased by at least 50% since June,” says Middleton. “EARL buys about one and a half tonnes of pork every week, so I’m really across the prices. It’s going through the roof.”
This price rise is largely due to African swine fever. While the illness hasn’t reached Australian shores yet, increased international demand for pork is driving local prices up. The price of other classic Christmas meats, like lamb, has also been increasing year-on-year.
For a cheaper Christmas protein, Middleton suggests “tricked-up chicken”. “You’re still getting those flavours of Christmas, which many people think of as pork or ham, but into a cheaper option.”
Prosciutto-wrapped chicken with sage and currant stuffing-inspired bread salad
Taking cues from traditional Christmas sage and onion stuffing, and the classic Zuni roast chicken, this crusty bread salad soaks up the pan juices and melds the components together to create festive flavours that feel modern. It also stretches the portions out when there’s a crowd to feed.
“Kiev-cut” is the chicken breast fillet with the small wing bone still attached. It takes the presentation of this dish to the next level and creates a nifty handle for Boxing Day leftover snacks. Ask your butcher to cut these for you or just use skin-on breast fillets without the bone.
Serves 6, with intentional left overs
6 Kiev-cut free-range chicken breasts
, skin-on, about 300-350g each, cut from size 18 birds
200g prosciutto, sliced thin
For the sauce
30g balsamic vinegar
100ml extra virgin olive oil
For the bread salad
400g sourdough, thick cut
Olive oil to drizzle
1/2 red onion, sliced thinly
2 large handfuls of rocket,
1 small radicchio, approximately 100g, torn to bite size pieces
Prepare the chicken breasts (up to two days prior)
Cut or gently pull off the tenderloins from the breast fillets if they are still attached. Stash in the freezer for another day.
Lay out a square of baking paper.
Each breast fillet will need four slices of prosciutto arranged, half-overlapping, creating a squarish sheet of prosciutto of about 15cm.
Lay out the four slices of prosciutto onto the baking paper, then use the paper to wrap the square of prosciutto neatly around each breast with the chicken skin side up and the prosciutto ends hidden underneath. Repeat until all six breasts are wrapped.
Store on a baking paper-lined tray, cling-wrapped.
To make the currant sauce (up to three days prior)
Simmer the currants, balsamic, a pinch of salt and 100ml water in a small pot for 5 minutes to soften the currants. Allow to rest until the currants swell and soak up most of the liquid. Add the olive oil and store refrigerated until needed.
Crispy sage leaves (day prior)
Heat 80ml olive oil in a small pot, enough to just cover the base. Just before the oil smokes, add the sage leaves and fry for 20 seconds to brighten the colour, crisp them and release the aromatics. Remove from the oil before they brown onto a paper towel, store in an airtight container in the cupboard. Reuse the oil in the remaining recipe.
Make the bread salad (day of)
Drizzle the sourdough slices with olive oil, or the oil leftover from frying the sage leaves and season with a generous pinch of salt. Grill the bread until lightly brown, then tear into rough chunks. Toss the partially toasted bread pieces with the sliced red onion, rocket and radicchio.
Arrange on the serving platter, ready for the cooked chicken.
Cook the chicken breasts (to serve)
Heat the oven to 180C fan. Drizzle a roasting pan with a little olive oil, then add the wrapped chicken breasts, skin side up, and give another drizzle on top. Cook for 10 minutes.
Open the oven and add a splash of water, about 100ml, to the roasting pan to stop the prosciutto from browning too much and help retain moisture in the chicken.
Roast for another 10-15 minutes until the chicken is cooked. If you have a digital probe, it should reach 75C. Alternatively, see if the juices run clear when a skewer is inserted into the centre of each breast.
The roasting pan should have a small amount of liquid left and the prosciutto should be nicely browned.
Remove the cooked chicken breasts and allow them to rest for 10 minutes arranged, ready to serve on top of the bread salad.
Add the prepared currant sauce to the hot roasting pan and mix around to meld the flavours together.
Pour the warm currant sauce over the resting chicken breasts and garnish with the crispy sage leaves.
Serve to the table, carving off breast slices, and serve with spoonfuls of the bread salad that has soaked in the roasting juices and sage currant sauce.
For dessert: bombe Alaska Christmas wreath
This dessert can be made up to a week ahead. Ensure you have plenty of freezer storage for the plate and finished pudding before you start. You will need to start at least two days prior to allow for freezing. Buying a generic Christmas pudding – they can be quite inexpensive – then covering it with ice cream and freezing it lets you stretch the dish and makes it more suited to a very hot day.
The shot of spirit adds an extra kick to the dessert and will be noticeable in the finished pudding, even though it’s a small amount. It will also soften the frozen mixture, so expect a firmer dessert if you don’t use the spirit or a softer one if you choose to make a more “joyous” dessert. I like mine boozy so expect to get softer, less perfect slices when serving – but it’s totally worth it.
Serves 6, with intentional left overs
1kg Christmas pudding
50g glaće cherries
30ml brandy or rum (optional)
500g caramel, honey, or hokey pokey ice cream
, shelled and slivered, to garnish
Cranberries or extra glace cherries, to garnish
For the meringue
175g or 5 egg whites
, pristine with absolutely no yolk
300g caster sugar
To make the pudding ice cream (make weeks prior)
Line a 20cm ring cake mould with baking paper. The easiest way is to take a cupcake/muffin paper and invert it over the centre cone . Then take a square of baking paper with a cross cut into the centre and push it gently down into the ring. Overhang is good as it will be a handle to grip onto when you remove the dessert from the pan.
Unwrap the plum pudding and roughly break it up into pieces about 3cm in size. Put a quarter of the broken pudding pieces aside, then sprinkle the rest into a large bowl. Pour in the spirit (if using) and the glaće cherries.
Scoop spoonfuls of ice-cream and gently but quickly mix with the pudding, avoiding breaking it up too much.
Once roughly combined, scoop the mixture into the lined ring mould and smooth out gently. Add the reserved crumbs, distributing along the surface, to create a layer of pudding. Add another piece of baking paper to the top and cling wrap the entire mould. Freeze overnight to set firm.
Remove the cling wrap and top piece of baking paper from the frozen pudding ice cream. Remove from the ring mould by carefully pulling up the sides of the baking paper until it’s out. Position with the flat side down, onto a presentation plate that’s oven safe and large enough that you have a few spare centimetres on the perimeter for the meringue layer. Remove all the baking paper.
Refreeze the ice-cream on the plate before decorating with the meringue.
To make the meringue (make up to a week prior)
This is the “Swiss meringue” technique. Fancy chef books tell me it’s tricky but I felt it was actually the easiest of the cooked meringues and has an amazing, glossy, firm texture that is perfect for this presentation.
You need a food temperature probe, but I wouldn’t be without one for most recipes, so invest the $20. They are totally worth it to know confidently that your chicken is cooked, or in this case, your sugar is ready to use.
Put a heatproof bowl, such as a stainless steel mixing bowl, over the top of a pan of simmering water. Ensure the bowl and water do not touch. Add the egg whites and sugar and whisk to break up and combine.
Mix gently for five minutes to warm the mixture and keep an eye on the heat.
Start testing the heat with your temperature probe – not touching the bowl – until the mixture gets to about 60C, whisk a little more and continue to check until it gets to 70C, then immediately remove from the heat.
Put the hot bowl on two folded-over tea towels and start mixing with an electric handheld beater using a whisk attachment, or pour into a standing mixer with whisk attachment and switch on to medium speed.
Whisk continuously on medium speed to build the aeration, then slowly increase the speed to maximum as the mixture becomes cooler and very thick.
Continue to whisk, periodically scraping the sides, until the mix is no longer warm to touch on the outside of the bowl. It will take about 15 minutes. By this stage you will have a vivid white, glossy and very thick meringue.
To build the dessert (at least day prior, or more)
Using a spatula or wide-blade knife, layer a thick coating of meringue over the frozen ice cream, being careful around the edges and the centre to keep it tidy.
Decorate the top of the wreath with a wave pattern, like mine, in meringue swirls or as it takes you. Remember that the more surface area you create, the more texture and lovely brown caramelised bits are achievable when the dish is finished.
Preheat your grill to medium and flash the dessert under the grill in bursts, watching and turning as different parts quickly caramelise. If you have a kitchen blow torch, you can use this to caramelise the edges of the meringue.
Alternatively, go for the full bombe Alaska effect and gently warm some brandy or rum in a small pan, set it alight and carefully dribble the burning liquor over the dessert, blowing out flames on any bits that start to burn.
Scatter with slivered pistachios and finely sliced cranberries or more glaće cherries to complete the festive wreath look.