Christmas Tips | Liam Kirwan, Executive Head Chef, Montenotte Hotel, Cork

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Tipperary-man Liam Kirwan has joined the Montenotte Hotel in Cork as Executive Head Chef. We caught up with him while he was having a brief rest from a busy kitchen to ask him what he will cook for Christmas at home and to share his tips and recipe ideas to add that special touch to Christmas dinner.

What’s the best way to cook a turkey to make sure it stays moist?
‘Ask your butcher to break the turkey down to a crown, two drumsticks and two thighs. Get them to give you the bones and giblets and roast the bones for gravy and add the giblets to enrich it. Roast the turkey legs in duck fat (it’s easy to find at the supermarket) with some garlic, bay leaves, a bulb or two of star anise and a sprig of rosemary. Cool and refrigerate them in the goose fat. (This can be done a couple of days before Christmas Day so it’s one less thing to worry about on Christmas morning.)  To reheat the turkey legs when you are going to serve them, lift them from the goose fat and spread out on a baking dish (skin-side up or down, it doesn’t matter). Roast at 160C Fan – 180C – 350F – Gas 4 until golden crisp on the outside and fully heated through.’

How do you cook the turkey crown?
‘I brine the turkey crown the day before Christmas Day to add flavour and moisture. I place it in a container of water with some light soy sauce, light brown sugar, star anise, bay leaf and sprigs of thyme for a few hours in the fridge. I remove the crown from the brine and rinse it carefully just before I go to bed that evening so it doesn’t get too seasoned. I leave the crown in the fridge on a rack over a tray with a clean tea towel to cover so it dries out.

On Christmas morning I remove the turkey crown from the fridge, loosen the skin to form pockets into which I stuff a mixture of cold butter, lemon zest and fresh thyme leaves. I cover the crown in strips of streaky rindless bacon. I cook it at 150C Fan – 170C – 325F – Gas 3 for roughly 12-15 mins per pound of meat.’ (Greatfood note: The only way to check that a turkey or turkey crown is cooked correctly is to use a temperature probe – it should measure an internal temperature in the centre of 70ºC.) You can buy one at any cookshop.

Do you choose a particular variety of turkey? Some people spend a fortune on a bronze turkey for example. Is it worth the extra money?
‘I’ve tried many varieties of turkey and found very little difference if I’m honest. What I look for is a turkey from a trusted local butcher who I have used before. A turkey that has had a happy life gives you better tasting and tender meat. I buy an organic turkey if I can find one.’

What if you buy a frozen turkey?
‘If you buy a frozen bird from the supermarket make sure you begin to defrost it on a rack over a tray in your fridge a day or two before you plan to cook it. They take forever to defrost right to the centre! If there are instructions on the wrapping read them and follow what it says.’ (GF Note: You can also check with the SafeFood website who have created a Chefbot to answer tricky timing questions around the cooking of Christmas turkeys.)

Any ideas to jazz up the traditional Christmas dinner?
‘My favourite accompaniment for my turkey is honey-roast parsnips, smashed carrot and swede and the star of the show, Confit Sprouts with Chestnuts, Pancetta and Baby Onions. Before I first had this twenty years ago when I was working for Rowley Leigh at Kensington Place I couldn’t stand sprouts. After he put these on the menu I fell instantly in love. It’s a winner. I also make my mother’s sausage and chestnut stuffing but that recipe is a family secret!’

RECIPE | To Make Liam’s Confit Sprouts with Chestnuts, Pancetta and Baby Onion Recipe
‘Steam the brussels sprouts the night before until they are almost fully cooked. They should still have a bite in the middle. On Christmas Day take an oven-proof heavy-bottomed pan, add some butter and goose fat, set the heat to medium and fry the pancetta lardons and whole baby onions. When they begin to caramelise add the sprouts and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Toss well and place in a pre-heated oven at 150C Fan – 170C – 325F – Gas 3. Roast until the sprouts begin to brown (about 15-20 minutes). Turn them once or twice during cooking. Five minutes before you take them out of the oven add roughly chopped pre-cooked chestnuts (you’ll find them vacuum-packed in large supermarkets).’

If you could give readers one tip for a delicious easy Christmas dinner, what would it be?
‘Simple. Plan your meal days or even a week or two in advance. Get as much preparation done in the days before. I will be cooking dinner at my mam’s house which has a domestic oven so to get everything ready at the same time is a challenge. When I first took over the responsibility of cooking the family Christmas dinner I would try and do everything on the day as I would have only arrived back from whatever country I happened to be living in the day before. It was quite stressful! Now I’m older and wiser I leave as little as possible to prepare on the day and I can enjoy the time with my family.’

And what do you make with turkey leftovers?
‘I make a big pan of bubble and squeak with shredded cooked turkey and serve it with fried eggs and gravy. It’s an excellent hangover cure. Chop your turkey and smash the leftover vegetables. Fry the lot in butter in an oven-proof frying pan until crisp. Lightly pat down the mixture in the pan and place in a pre-heated oven at 200C Fan – 220C – 425F – Gas 7 for 15-20 minutes. Meanwhile fry eggs and reheat yesterday’s gravy. Carefully remove the pan from the oven and turn the bubble and squeak on to a wooden board or serving plate. Place the fried eggs and watercress or rocket leaves on top and bring to the table. Serve the leftover gravy in a jug and cranberry sauce.

You’ve travelled and worked in so many fantastic countries. What’s your favourite Christmas so far?
It sounds cheesy but my best Christmas is at home. I’ve spent Christmas in amazing locations around the world but it’s not Christmas if you don’t have your family or friends with you. To be in middle of the cacophony of noise my family produce over the dinner table with the laughter and the stories, the reminiscing and the love. It’s the only place I want to be at Christmas.’

Liam Kirwan has worked with the co-founder of the Modern British Food Movement Rowleigh Leigh on London’s Michelin circuit for a number of years. He has also worked in Sydney and Auckland, New Zealand and with UK-based chef Jeremy Lee. He has worked as Head Chef at the award-winnning gastropub, The Sand’s End, and in London at the Hawksmoor Group restaurant in Covent Garden. He has cooked for Gordon Ramsay, Rio Ferdinand, Madonna, Keira Knightly and returns to Ireland where he believes the quality of food is second-to-none. He is now the Executive Head Chef of The Montenotte Hotel in Cork.

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