Does everything have to be roasted? Not at all...

The oven will do overtime in many homes this Yuletide, but KATE RYAN assesses alternatives - from a wood fire oven to a slow cooker, a steamer, and the suddenly trendy air fryer
Does everything have to be roasted? Not at all...

The Air Fryer is billed as a healthy cooking option

ARGUABLY , there is no harder working appliance in your kitchen over Christmas than your blessed oven (although the dishwasher is a close second).

It roasts and bakes its way throughout the holidays to keep us sated and happy. Would Christmas even taste like Christmas without it?

Maybe not exactly how we know and love it, but could it be even better...

Raise your hand if you purchased a pizza oven during lockdown? Air fryer, Thermomix or slow cooker because they were all the rage? Where are they now?

Languishing in some forgotten corner of the garden, or at the back of a kitchen press gathering dust?

Probably.

It’s the fate of cooking gadgetry everywhere that novelty fades fast (yes, spiraliser and the sharpest mandolin in the world... I remember you).

Why not resurrect your forgotten gadget for use over Christmas?! If nothing else, the barbecue and wood fired oven will get you out of the house, gift different ways to cook the Christmas Day feast, and give the oven the day off.

Wood Fire Oven

It was the lockdown splurge I worried would quickly go the way of most things in my garden - green and decaying - but it didn’t, and it hasn’t, and we use our wood-fired pizza oven throughout the year.

The ovens are super-insulated, so once you have set a decent wood fire inside to heat it up and take out any potential moisture (because no matter how well it is covered, this is Ireland and damp will get in), it maintains a consistent heat inside.

A slow cooker.
A slow cooker.

Ferocious heat is what you need for cooking pizzas, but take it down to about 120/140 and you have the perfect conditions for slow cooking, with the added benefit of beautiful wood smoke flavour.

Consider cooking a large chicken, rib roast of beef, venison or a porchetta in here - the flavours will be phenomenal.

Cook veggies and potatoes with the meat for an ultimate wood fired feast, or once the meat is cooked, wrapped and set aside to rest, bump up the fire and throw in your par boiled potatoes, carrots, sprouts and cook them to a crunchy, burnished, smoky perfection.

Let the heat die down again, and fire in some scallops in the half shell with butter and garlic, or some langoustines.

BBQ

Once upon a time, I ran a BBQ Masterclass for two consecutive years in the middle of summer, and both times the weather was so bad it was ridiculous.

Never again will I entertain talk of BBQ-ing being an exclusively summertime event because the food we turned out both times was off the scale, despite the weather.

BBQ is a year-round activity, period!

Cooking over coals comes into its own if you’re thinking of cooking single portions or meat, whole fish or a veg forward meal.

Vegetables are particularly responsive to BBQing; skins burnish, pucker and crisp while the insides slowly cook into melting softness.

I like cooking potatoes directly on the coals, individually foil-wrapped or pre-cut, seasoned, and wrapped in foil parcels. It takes time, but the flavour is worth it. Season well and add garlic and herbs to take things up a notch.

Fresh fish is becoming a popular choice at Christmas. It’s a great alternative festive protein, and if you go all out for an impressive-looking bit of whole fish cookery, the BBQ is where it will come into its own.

Sides of fresh salmon or a whole turbot are two fish that cook well on the BBQ and fit the bill of delicious, impressive-looking, and meaty enough to be satisfying as a main course.

A Thermomix
A Thermomix

It’s not about only cooking directly on the grill or the coals. Frying and saucepans can be employed for finishing sauces or using the heat to boil up your peas.

If your BBQ is a kettle-type, adding some soaked woodchips and lowering the lid can add an extra dimension of flavour.

Slow Cooker

Utilising the slow cooker is a great way to cook up a storm without having to stay in the kitchen for hours on end.

I use the slow cooker for spiced red cabbage and my mother-in-law uses hers for mulled wine, but it can also cook your festive meats too.

The festive ham can take its time in the slow cooker. If you like your ham glazed, a quick fire in a hot oven (or wood fired oven or BBQ) for 15 minutes gives that sticky finish.

If you’re only catering for a few, buy a turkey crown from your butcher and get them to remove both breasts from the crown and butterfly one open for you.

Down the middle of the butterflied breast, place a mix of softened butter flavoured with salt and pepper, herbs and some ruby cranberries, roll up the breast, wrap with strips of smoky bacon and tie up with butcher’s string to hold together.

Cook in the slow cooker on a bed of veggies and a little stock and a splash of sherry. When cooked, heat a frying pan, add olive oil and butter and fry off the bacon wrapped breast until golden all over.

Thermomix / Tiered Steamer

A bit of a niche kitchen gadget perhaps, but a workhorse in the kitchen.

Thermomix processes but it cooks as well, and at Christmas its steamer function frees up space at the stove.

All Thermomix come with a colander as standard that fits into the jug, useful for steaming potatoes. The Varoma steamer baskets are extra but triple the cooking capacity with the added benefit of setting temperature and timer so you can walk away and wait to be notified when the cooking is done.

Steaming veggies for Christmas dinner is a great option for any guests who need to monitor their blood glucose, such as diabetics.

Roasting triggers a process called Maillard where proteins in foods are transformed into concentrated simple sugars - it’s what turns food that roasted brown colour.

Steaming doesn’t do that, so the release of sugars (carbohydrates) into the blood is slowed.

A wood-fired oven is great for doing pizzas
A wood-fired oven is great for doing pizzas

Air Fryer

Air fryers came to the fore as a healthier way to get the taste of fried food without the fat.

Fried food fans might argue it’s not the same as cooking something in a vat of bubbling hot fat, but for everyone else it seems like a good compromise of taste, nutrition, and not having to deal with the smell and disposal of old fat.

Air frying is probably closer to dry roasting than deep frying, and there isn’t anything that cannot be cooked in an air fryer that you couldn’t do in an oven because the principle is the same - hot air circulated by an element.

With that in mind, if your guest list for dinner is a small one and depending on which size air fryer you have, in theory you could cook the whole dinner in your air fryer.

They also have the bonus of being more energy efficient than an oven (although some models are more efficient than others) and take less time to cook which also reduces energy consumption.

Veggie Differently Avoid the oven when preparing Christmas dinner by thinking differently about your veggies.

Broccoli florets are insanely tasty when cooked in a frying pan with a little olive oil, a dash of water, lemon juice, salt and pepper and finished off with pomegranate molasses and toasted flaked almonds.

Braised carrots are a dream flavoured with Ras al Hanout spice mix, clementine juice, parsley and finished with pumpkin seeds.

I love cauliflower rice flavoured with lots of fresh herbs, a pinch of cayenne pepper, cumin and bejewelled with pomegranate seeds.

A fresh, bright green salad of winter salads: peppery oriental, mustard and kale leaves, lightly dressed in a classic French vinaigrette.

Brussels sprouts halved and cooked with smoky bacon lardons, a splash of good quality balsamic vinegar and served with crumbled Cashel Blue cheese over the top - I could eat this by the plate!

Whatever you do, it doesn’t have to be the same veg cooked the same way year in, year out.

The comforting flavours of a roast are undeniably good, but choosing a lighter, brighter way to serve veggies makes them moreish and tempting.

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