Archive for December, 2007

Fit birds for a festive feast

Sunday, December 23rd, 2007

Turkey is the most popular bird at Christmas, but it’s not without its problems.

What size to order? Will it fit in the fridge and, if it does, will anything else?

And that’s before you even think about getting the bird in the oven. Those charged with cooking the turkey face a big challenge. If it is overcooked, the family faces the prospect of eating dry turkey for days to come. Equally, if it is undercooked, everything else will be ruined by the time it is ready. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

I like to cook my turkey slowly in goose fat. I cook the legs first, followed by the breast, and make the stuffing separately. This gives you more control over the different elements of the final dish.

The turkey can be traced back to the Aztecs in 15th-centuryMexico, where the domesticated bird was cooked with a form of chocolate. In 1570, turkey appeared on the wedding menu of the English king, Charles IX. It was imported into Europe by the Jesuits in the 17th century, and farmed in Bourges in France. Its popularity spread until it eventually replaced the goose for Christmas lunch across Europe.

The best turkey is one that is young and plump, with a short neck. Look out for its feet – an old bird’s will be reddish and scaly. The best quality turkey is a True Bronze, and your butcher will advise on the size you need.

Ask your butcher to pluck the turkey for you and have it oven-ready (with the insides and leg sinews removed).

You can save the giblets to make your gravy.

If it’s a toss-up between turkey or goose for Christmas Day, I would suggest having the goose for Christmas Eve dinner, as you can then have the leftovers with the turkey (goose is as good cold as it is hot).

Goose is best when eaten at about three months old. The breasts are well developed, and it has a delicate flavour.

We always had goose growing up. My dad would buy the geese a few weeks before Christmas so we could fatten them up, and they’d chase us round the yard trying to bite us on the ankles. Come Christmas Eve, we had our revenge, when the goose was plucked and cleaned, ready for stuffing. We made stuffing out of potatoes, sweetbreads, thyme, garlic and seasoning.

Then we would sew up the goose and leave it overnight in the cold larder.

I cook goose in exactly the same way as I cook turkey. The only difference is that I place the goose on a bed of salt for about eight hours, then I remove the salt before I confit the bird.

This is perfect served with red cabbage and fondant potatoes. To prepare the turkey, just treat it like a big chicken, as follows:

1. Remove the wishbone from the turkey and, with a boning knife, remove the wings.
2. Pull out a leg and cut through the joint at the top of the thigh, then separate the leg from the breast. Repeat the same method on the other side.
3. Cut the legs at the joint separating the drumstick from the thigh.
4. Remove the oyster that is located at either side of the backbone.
5. Make an incision along one side of the breastbone to release the flesh from the rib cage, then cut along the bone to release the flesh.
6. Make a cut through the joint that attaches the wing to the rib cage, repeat the same method on the other side. Remove the breasts.

Then make the marinade with the following ingredients:

2 litres of olive oil
12 whole peppercorns
2 bay leaves
Bunch of thyme
4 shallots
2 bulbs of garlic
100ml white wine
1 head of celery
1 carrot

Wash the herbs and vegetables, peel the vegetables and roughly chop.

Mix with all the other ingredients for the marinade, and marinate the bird in the fridge for ten hours, or overnight if possible.

Cooking the turkey

12 unpeeled cloves of garlic
2 bay leaves
A bunch of thyme
12 whole black peppercorns
6 juniper berries
1 litre of duck or goose fat
Drop of olive or vegetable oil


1. Heat the oven up to 110º Celsius.
2. Melt the duck fat in a roasting pan or a large casserole dish, and add the vegetables and herbs.
3. When the fat is hot, add the turkey legs, cover with a tight fit lid or thin tinfoil, place in an oven, and cook for about two hours.
4. Then add the turkey breasts and cook for a further four hours or until the flesh is tender.

Chestnut stuffing

3 shallots finely diced
100g lightly smoked bacon fat finely diced
1 turkey egg or free-range egg
1 small bunch of flat leaf parsley
650g of old brioche bread crumbs
250g of braised chestnuts finely chopped
50ml of turkey or chicken stock
5g of unsalted butter
Sea salt
Fresh milled white pepper


1. Saute´ the shallots and bacon for a few minutes without colouring.
2. Add the brioche crumbs and egg. Mix well, add the chestnuts and stock, season and mix again.
3. Place mixture into a buttered pan. Cover with parchment paper, and place it into a warm oven at 165º Celsius for about 45 minutes.
4. Remove turkey from oven, slice and serve with chestnut stuffing, baby brussels sprouts, fondant potato and your best gravy.


1 (3kg) goose
Sea salt
White peppercorns
Fresh milled pepper
Small bunch of thyme
1 bay leaf
Drop of olive oil
1 litre of duck fat


Four cooked Maris Piper potatoes
Blanched goose sweetbreads (membrane removed)
1 small onion, finely diced
1 small bunch of thyme, washed and chopped
Sea salt
Fresh milled pepper


1. Remove the wishbone and legs from the goose. Place the legs in the duck fat with thyme, bay leaf and white peppercorns and cook at 110º Celsius for two-and-a-half hours.
2. Remove the legs from the duck fat, place on a tray and finish in a hot oven at 175º Celsius for ten minutes to make the skin crispy.
3. Meanwhile, make a dry puree out of the potatoes, saute the sweetbreads and shallots, add the thyme and mix with the potatoes. Season and stuff the goose.
4. Sew up the goose and score the fat on the breast by making an incision lengthways and then across the breasts.
5. Rub with olive oil, sprinkle with rock salt and thyme and cook in a hot oven at 170º Celsius for 15 minutes.
6. Turn the oven down to 120º Celsius and cook for three hours, basting the goose every 15 minutes.
7. Remove from the oven and rest for 15 minutes, then remove stuffing, carve the goose and serve with sauce (see below), red cabbage, chestnuts, brussels sprouts and roast potatoes.


2 shallots
1 clove of garlic
1 small bunch of thyme
1 bay leaf
5g juniper berries
20ml of Bombay gin
30ml of red wine
1 litre of chicken stock
5g of unsalted butter


1. Dice the shallots and saute in a hot pan.
2. Add the garlic and herbs, then the juniper berries and flambe three times with the gin.
3. Add the red wine and reduce the liquid by half.
4. Add the stocks and reduce by half again, then correct the seasoning and pass through a fine sieve.
5. Return to the heat, and fold in the unsalted butter and taste.

Red cabbage

Small jar of redcurrant jelly
2 blood oranges
1 lemon
Sea salt
Fresh milled white pepper


1. Shred the cabbage into thin strips and blanch in boiling
water for 30 seconds, then strain off the liquid. It will lose some of its colour, but will turn a deep red later.
2. Wash the fruit and cut into quarters, and place in another pot with the redcurrant jelly. Add the red cabbage.
3. Mix well and cook on a low heat for two hours or until soft. Be careful not to caramelise it.

Potato Maxim

4 medium Maris Piper potatoes
10g clarified butter
Sea salt
Freshly milled white pepper


1. Wash and peel the potatoes and cut into cylindrical shapes. Slice thinly, season and brush with clarified butter, then season.
2. Arrange in a Teflon pan about 10cm diameter. Cook on a solid top cooker until golden brown and cooked through.

Kevin Thornton is a Michelin-starred chef and owner of Thornton’s Restaurant on St Stephen’s Green in Dublin.

Seasonal success is all in the game

Sunday, December 16th, 2007

Game birds such as mallard, teal, partridge and pheasant are readily available in most good quality butchers over the coming months, and I always take advantage of this bounty, as they aren’t around for long.

Where I grew up in the country, it was normal to hunt, shoot and fish for the food that surrounded us. When the game season came along, there was enormous excitement, and I shot my first pheasant when I was only ten years old. I was out with my Uncle James, who was absolute in his respect for the birds we were hunting: if you couldn’t kill it with a clean shot, then you shouldn’t shoot it.

Pheasant is in season from September to February. It is best to cook a young hen (under a year old),which has a more delicate flavour and a fine texture.

Cocks are a little larger and coarser. This bird is best when shot in December and January, when it has put on a little fat. It’s easy to tell the difference between the male and female as the male has a green neck, a dark red face with beautiful colours and a long tail, whereas the female is a less flamboyant, but nonetheless beautiful, with a brown colour.

It is possible to tell a pheasant’s age by holding it by the bottom of its beak. If it bends, it is about a year old, and if it holds its own weight, it is an older bird. Grouse is another popular game bird, but it has a brief season and is in short supply in Ireland. The meat of the grouse is the strongest of all of the game birds, so it may not be to everyone’s taste.

For a quick, delicious supper, remove the grouse flesh from the bone (you can ask your butcher to do this), place the skin side on a hot frying pan, add a spoon of honey and crushed pepper. Cook for a minute or so on either side. Sautee some cep mushrooms, and serve with roast potatoes.

On the opposite end of the taste spectrum is partridge. It is one of the best birds to introduce people to game, as it is mild in flavour and the flesh is a lighter colour. There are two types of partridge: the red-legged and the grey. The best one is the grey partridge, as it is smaller, with plumper breasts and a better flavour.

I never use partridge before December, and this is a fitting recipe for the first day of Christmas:

Roast partridge with conference pears, serves four

4 grey partridges
4 slices of bacon fat
10ml of olive oil
Sea salt
Freshly milled white pepper
Bunch of thyme
4 shallots
4 garlic cloves
4 conference pears

Pear sauce
3/4 litre of chicken stock
4 conference pears
2 shallots
1/4 litre of pear juice
50ml of Poire William liqueur
2 crushed black peppercorns
25g of unsalted butter


1. Remove the wishbone from the partridge and season the bird, inside and out. Peel the shallot and garlic, and place them with the thyme inside the bird. Tie the bacon around the partridge.
2. Heat a pan and add the oil. Sear the bird on all sides.
3. Heat the oven to 175 degrees Celsius.
4. Wash and slice the pears and arrange in a baking dish, then place the partridge on top. Cook for 8-10 minutes, turning the bird every couple of minutes.
5. Remove the bird from the oven, remove the legs and breast from the bird and leave to rest.
6. Remove the excess fat from the pan and chop the carcass into small pieces. Add to the roasting pan. Deglaze the pan with chicken stock.

Pear sauce
1. Wash, peel and dice the pears and shallots, sautee in a warm pot, add the Poire William, flambe and reduce the amount by two-thirds.
2. Add the crushed peppercorns and pear juice, and reduce the amount by three-quarters.
3. Add the stock, bring to the boil, simmer and skim the top. Reduce the amount by three-quarters, correct the seasoning, then pass the sauce through a fine strainer.
4. Return to the heat, taste and fold in the unsalted butter gradually to thicken the sauce and make it glossy.

To serve, place the partridge on a Warm pan and put in the preheated oven for about four minutes. Place the partridge on the plate, and serve with the sauce.

Kevin Thornton is a Michelin-starred Chef and owner of Thornton’s Restaurant on St Stephen’s Green in Dublin.

Game on for a tasty season

Sunday, December 9th, 2007

The game season is one of my favourites in the kitchen year. It is the one time you get to work with quantities of wild meat, giving a true sense of seasonality to your cooking.

Game is rarely cooked at home these days, so it is a bit of a treat to eat it out.

Over the coming months popular Irish game such as venison, rabbit, grouse, mallard, teal, widgeon, woodcock and snipe will all make an appearance on the menu at Thornton’s, while just before Christmas we will feature partridge and pheasant.

Game traditionally refers to any wild animal that is hunted for eating. It includes both feathered and four-legged creatures. The season for feathered game runs from October 1 to February 1. For four-legged game the season is September 1 until March 1.

However, only a small proportion of the game we eat is really wild – for many, their environment is carefully managed; predators are kept down and food sources are increased to maintain body weight. Farmed game, particularly venison, is steadily becoming more common.

Wild game feed on a varied diet of berries, grains, grubs and grasses which give their meat a distinctive ‘gamey’ flavour. The taste is far more intense than you get with farmed animals and, because they run free, their muscles are more developed and the meat is darker.

One disadvantage to wild game is that the meat can be quite tough and dry, meaning hanging is key. The quality of wild meat is determined by how long it is hung – a butcher will usually hang game for around two weeks, while supermarkets tend to sell wild game that has been hung for a day or two.

The most prized game of all has to be grouse and woodcock, and I love them both. We only serve grouse for two weeks of the year, and we only serve woodcock after the first frost of the year, when you get the best flavour.

We serve woodcock with its head and brains intact – for the seasoned game lover, sucking the brains out is a rare delicacy.

Venison is also popular in the restaurant. A beautifully pure meat, it is lower in calories, cholesterol and fat than beef, but it needs careful cooking to ensure the texture remains supple and tender.

Because the flavour of meat is directly related to the animal’s diet, venison is typically described as having a full taste akin to a woody yet berrylike red wine.

We take venison that is over a year old and serve it very rare or in an elegant casserole. This recipe for venison with a rich chocolate sauce is guaranteed to create a stir at any dinner table.

Venison with Valrhona sauce,
potato maxim and parsnips,
serves four

4 noisettes of venison, 150g each
20ml hazelnut oil
Splash of hazelnut liqueur
Pinch of fresh dried chilli powder
3 diced shallots
100ml of dry sherry
200g of Valerian chocolate
1 litre of veal stock
1/2 litre of venison stock
50ml of white balsamic vinegar
1tsp of raspberry juice
1tsp cocoa powder
Crushed back peppercorns and sea salt
Drop of white wine vinegar
5g butter

Potato maxim
4 medium Maris Piper potatoes
10g clarified butter
Sea salt and freshly milled white pepper
10g braised onion

4 parsnips
Still water
Olive oil
Sea salt and freshly milled pepper


1. Heat a pot and rub with olive oil. Saute the shallots without colouring.

2. Add the dry sherry and the freshly crushed black peppercorns. Cook for two minutes and add the raspberry juice and stock and reduce by half.

3. Roughly chop the chocolate. Add 3/4 of it to the sauce, keeping the remainder for later. Add the cocoa powder and stir gently and consistently to make sure that the chocolate is not lying (and burning) at the bottom of the pot. Taste to make sure it is not too bitter. Cook for a few minutes longer, then remove and pass through a fine strainer.

4. In another pot add the white balsamic vinegar add the chocolate sauce. Taste and correct the seasoning, then add the remainder of the chocolate. Stir gently and add 5g of butter.

1. Heat a copper pan and add hazelnut oil. Season the venison with salt, pepper and chilli powder and saute until golden brown on all sides.

2. Remove and cook in a hot oven for five minutes. Then return it to the heat and sprinkle with crushed black peppercorns.

3. Flambe with hazelnut liqueur, remove and rest for a few minutes before carving. Remove each end of the venison so you can have a perfect cut. This allows you to taste it and make sure it is cooked properly.

Potato maxim
1. Wash and peel the potatoes and cut into cylindrical shapes. Slice thinly, season and brush with clarified butter.

2. Arrange in a Teflon pan about 10cm diameter. Cook on a solid top cooker until golden brown and cooked through – about ten minutes.

1. Wash and peel the parsnips, cut in quarters and shape like cones. Blanch the parsnips in salted spring water, then remove and saute in a hot pan.

2. Season and cook throughout, remove and serve.

To serve, place the potato on the plate, arrange the parsnip cones and sprinkle lightly with fresh dried chilli and some cocoa powder. Sauce the plate, arrange the venison on top and serve.

Poultry done to perfection

Sunday, December 2nd, 2007

Poultry is particularly popular over the Christmas season, but it was around for at least 3,000 years before the man whose arrival it is traditionally used to celebrate.

Poultry refers to a domesticated bird that is bred for its meat, eggs and feathers, and includes chicken, duck, guinea fowl, squab, turkey and quail.

In this category, chicken is the most popular, due to its versatility, low cost and low fat content. A chicken can live up to 11 years in its natural life, yet a battery chicken (one that is intensively bred) lives only for six weeks, while a free range or organic chicken typically lives for 14 weeks.

The various terms used to describe how a chicken is reared often makes the business of purchasing one confusing. The term ‘free range’ means the chicken is permitted to roam as freely as possible, whereas an organic chicken must be fed a diet containing grains grown without the use of artificial fertilisers or sprays.

These chickens can cost €14-€27, depending on size. Additive-free birds are reared in the same way as organic chickens. They live in the same conditions, but the grain in their feed is not organically grown and, therefore, they are cheaper. Corn-fed birds are usually raised in a barn and will be fed on 70 per cent corn maize.

Poulet de Bresse from north of Lyon – my personal favourite – are reared on vast tracts of land and they regularly come out top in taste tests. Capon is a chicken that has been castrated to create much bigger breasts.

Sometimes it is fed on a milk diet for nine months and is eaten as a speciality for Christmas. Meanwhile, boiling hens – hens that have spent a couple of years laying eggs – are great for making stock.

Most of the chicken available in the supermarket today is battery chicken. Reared using modern intensive production systems, these birds provide cheap meat for the shopper – but at a price.

Up to 40,000 birds are crammed into artificially-lit chicken houses, at a rate of two birds per square foot. Stress levels in the birds are high, and they are kept alive by continuous antibiotics.

While battery chickens can be bought for half the price of free range or organic offerings, my view is always to eat the best you can afford, even if it means eating it less often.

Whatever bird you choose, it should have a plump breast with no bruising or marks on the meat. It should be cleanly plucked with no tears on the skin, which should be moist and have a pleasant smell.

The best value bird will be about 1.7kg plus, where the ratio of meat to bone is higher. With little or no fat, chicken will dry out quickly if it is overcooked.

This is not so much a problem with duck, as it has a much higher fat content. With domestic duck such as barbary, it is easy to render down the fat while cooking, as it is not as solid as, for example, the Mallard duck (normally used for foie gras). Peking duck is good for roasting whole.

The following recipe is my favourite for Mallard duck. Other types of duck can be used, but the cooking time will be slightly different and the colour will be much lighter, as the meat of the Mallard has a dark red colour.

When looking at a recipe such as this, don’t be put off by its apparent complexity. You can treat each component of this dish separately and I would recommend that you cook the duck by itself the first time you try it. The cabbage will last for a week if put into a preserving jar, and then all you will have to do is heat it up gently.

Slow-cooked Mallard duck glazed with honey and pepper, wild cranberry sauce

1 whole Mallard duck
1 bouquet Garni
2 kg of rock sea salt
Fresh milled white pepper
1 tbsp of good quality honey
2g crushed black pepper

1. Ask your butcher to remove the meat from the bird.

2.Remove the vein on the breast, cover a tray with the sea salt and place the fat side of the duck on the salt. Cover the rest of the duck with the salt and leave for 20 minutes.

3.Remove the duck and brush off all the salt (this helps to tenderise the duck). Score the fat side of the duck by cutting into the fat diagonally 2cm apart and across, so you are left with 2cm square cuts into the fat.

4. Place the duck into the marinade and put in the refrigerator overnight.

5.Remove the duck from the marinade, season with fresh milled white pepper only and place fat-side down on a warm pan. Cook slowly to render down the fat until the skin is a golden colour. Remove the excess fat.

6.Turn the duck and cook the flesh side for a few minutes, add the honey and turn the duck again so the fat side is directly on the pan. Cook in a hot oven at 175 Celsius for four minutes.

7.Remove and sprinkle with the crushed black pepper, then rest for five minutes before cutting into thin slices.

Wild cranberry sauce

250g of wild cranberries (ordinary cranberries will do)
1 litre of duck stock
10ml of port
10ml of dry martini
5ml of olive oil
3 shallots, diced
1/2 bulb of garlic
Bunch of thyme
1 bay leaf,
50g of foie gras butter (25g fresh foie gras and 25g of unsalted butter, softened)

1.De-vein the foie gras, add it to the softened butter, place into a blender for one minute, remove and pass through a fine sieve. Roll into a sausage shape and place into the fridge until hard.

2.Add a little olive oil to a warm pot, add the diced shallots and cook for 1-2 minutes. Add the cranberries and cook for a further minute. Add the port and dry martini. Cook until almost evaporated.

3.Add the stock, reduce by half, taste for seasoning and correct if necessary.

4.Cut the foie gras butter into small cubes and fold five small cubes into the sauce. Pass the sauce through a fine strainer and serve.


1 red cabbage
1 jar of redcurrant jelly
1 orange
1 grapefruit
Sea salt
Fresh milled white pepper to taste

1. Shred the cabbage into thin strips, blanch in boiling water for 30 seconds and strain off the liquid. It will lose some of its colour, but it will turn a deep red later.

2. Place the redcurrant jelly in another pot. Wash the fruit and cut in quarters, then add to the jelly. Add the red cabbage.

3.Mixwell and cook very slowly for two hours or until cooked. Be careful not to caramelise the cabbage. To serve, place the red cabbage in the centre of the plate, arrange the duck on top, sprinkle the wild cranberries and pour a little sauce around.

Kevin Thornton is a Michelin-starred chef and owner of Thornton’s Restaurant on St Stephen’s Green in Dublin.