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Make it early, keep it simple, and cook it slow: How top Scottish chefs have an easy little Christmas

Stephen McLaughlin. Head chef at Andrew Fairlie restaurant at the Gleneagles Hotel.
Stephen McLaughlin. Head chef at Andrew Fairlie restaurant at the Gleneagles Hotel.

CHESTNUTS roasting on an open fire and prosecco chilling in the fridge but, meanwhile, who’s cooking?

Don’t stress, here Alice Hinds asks four leading chefs for their advice to ensure your big day dinner isn’t a turkey.

Julie Lin MacLeod. Masterchef contestant 2014.

Julie Lin MacLeod.

Leftovers are the best bit

Having appeared on Masterchef in 2014 and co-hosted a cookery show on STV, Julie Lin MacLeod is no stranger to tackling heat in the kitchen.

But this Christmas the presenter and chef will hand the apron strings over to her mum, as they cook up a spicy storm for their guests – and she is more excited about creating dishes with the leftovers, rather than the main event.

She said: “I’ll be in the kitchen with my mum on Christmas Day, and she’ll be the head chef!


“But there is always joy to be found in Christmas leftovers – for me that’s the far more delicious part of the day – so, my top tip would actually be to make sure you have recipes ready to make the most of what’s in the fridge.

“Christmas isn’t just one day anymore, and it’s so nice to enjoy the food for longer, too.”

Leftover turkey, goose, beef and vegetables can all be turned into a tasty meal in the days following December 25, and Julie advises using some Asian-inspired flavours to add the wow factor.

“With leftover beef, turkey or goose, quite a common thing to do in Malaysia is to make a curry puff. You cook up a curry with meat and veg, and then use it as a pastry filling,” explained the chef, who runs Julie’s Kopitiam in the southside of Glasgow.

“You can either put them in the oven or fry them off, and it’s a really easy way to use up leftovers. In the past we’ve also fried up the leftover Brussel sprouts with mushrooms and popped them in a dumpling.

“I actually think I love leftovers more than the main event! If you can turn them into something even more delicious, that’s great.”

Kenny Leary. Vegan chef of the year. 

Kenny Leary.

Forget stuffed peppers

According to Tesco’s annual Christmas report, a fifth of hosts are planning to cater for vegan or vegetarian guests this year, marking a significant step away from the traditional turkey dinner.

Kenny Leary, executive chef at the Tinto Hotel in Biggar, was named as the vegan chef of the year at The Scottish Food Awards 2018, and admits even professional chefs can be intimidated when it comes to cooking for a plant-based diet.

He said: “I think even a lot of professional chefs don’t understand vegan food. But it can be just as exciting as meat-based dishes – sometimes even more so because you have to put some thought into it.

“There are so many great products out there, so you don’t have to settle for couscous or stuffed peppers!”

If you’re cooking a vegan dish for the first time this year, Kenny’s advice is to take a little bit of time to plan, and use your imagination if you want to serve up a tempting treat.

He said: “My advice is always the same, regardless if you’re cooking vegan food or a roast turkey – plan in advance, and don’t do everything all in the one day. Even the professionals don’t try to do it all at once.

“Vegan food needs a bit of imagination but the end result can be fantastic. For example, on our Christmas menu, we are serving four courses; festive eggnog, parsnip and coconut soup, a wild mushroom, chestnut and tofu pithivier, which is like a puff pastry pie, and spiced gingerbread sticky toffee pudding.

“At home, it’s the perfect time for squash, which can be a great vegan main course. Take a two-inch slice from the fat end of the butternut squash, scrape out the seeds and then roast it for about an hour in some olive oil. With the thinner end, dice is up and sauté it with another veg like Brussel sprouts, and serve that within the roasted round fresh from the oven as a lovely squash bowl.”

Scott Smith. Head chef, Sugar Boat. 

Scott Smith.

Turn down the heat

Serving turkey on Christmas Day dates all the way back to the 16th century, and for many families it is the centrepiece of their meal. But dry, under-cooked or cold meat can plague even the most seasoned cooks.

Scott Smith, head chef at Sugar Boat in Helensburgh, one of only two Scottish restaurants to be awarded a Michelin Bib Gourmand for 2019, believes the biggest error you can make is cooking your bird a high heat.

“For me, the best way to cook any meat is to give it a good few hours, at a really low temperature – put your oven down to 80° {TO BE CHECKED] , then crank it up as high as it goes for the final 40 minutes. That way you’ll still get a nice golden skin, the legs will cook at the same time as the breast, and you won’t be left with dry meat.

“And before you put the turkey in the oven, release the skin from the flesh and rub some seasoned butter underneath with your hands. Turkey is a lean meat, so that’s a good way of adding a little bit of extra fat.”

As for stuffing, Scott recommends cooking a meat filling separately to avoid slowing down the process.

He said: “I don’t tend to use traditional stuffing, but I will use some onion, thyme, rosemary and maybe a lemon. Using forced meat will just hinder the cooking process, as the heating comes from the top to the bottom. By the time your meat stuffing is cooked, the bird will be overdone.

“Make separate stuffing and serve it on the side, it’s so much easier.”

Scott McLaughlin. Head chef at Andrew Fairlie within Gleneagles Hotel. 

Stephen McLaughlin. 

Plan, prepare then party

As the only restaurant in Scotland to hold two Michelin stars, the team at Andrew Fairlie, within Gleneagles Hotel, turn out perfect dishes with military precision.

And it’s preparation and planning that head chef Stephen McLaughlin says every Christmas cook needs to remember.

He said: “People tend to bite off more than they can chew when they cook for a large group, and often try to make something far too elaborate. Getting everything hot and on-time is far more important.

“Get your prep done the night before, and make sure to ask for help. Assign sprouts to one person, carrots to another – make it a fun, family event. And don’t try to cook 10 different vegetables either. You don’t need to do mashed, boiled and roast potatoes to keep everyone happy, just do one version really well.

“And if you have folk coming for Christmas, ask them to bring some dishes with them – if one person brings the pudding and another brings something else, all you have to worry about is the main course.

“Keep it simple and get organised.”

If you are hoping to impress your in-laws, Stephen’s top tip is to add an extra special ingredient to an everyday dish.

“I love Brussel sprouts and we always have them on Christmas day in my house. But an alternative is steamed broccoli, grilled and served with a cheese sauce flavoured with Roquefort. It’s a little bit of decadence for Christmas day – you might make a cheese sauce with cheddar every week, but the blue version is a little different.”