The perfect festive menu – an interview with Mario Pretzer

Excited about hosting Christmas dinner but worried you’ll mess up the planning? Vapiano chef Mario Pretzer is on hand to help.

Hi Mario! Thanks for taking time to talk to us today. How far ahead should you start planning your Christmas dinner?

If you’re catering for a big party the sooner the better. If you’re only celebrating Christmas with a few loved ones there’s much less to plan. The first step is deciding on your menu. One key decision to make is whether you want to prepare dishes you’ve cooked before or try something new. Always make time to test new recipes beforehand so you’re familiar with them.

What should planning include?

Seating is one of the most important things. If you’ve invited twelve guests but only have room for eight, you could provide a buffet instead of a sit-down meal. Make sure there’s ample seating for older guests who can’t stand for long periods.
Another important matter is finding out whether your guests have any food allergies or things they don’t eat. Are you catering for vegetarians or vegans? Is anyone gluten intolerant? Once you have all the information, be realistic about what your kitchen can handle and tailor your menu accordingly. Consider timings too. How long do you need to cook the food? Is there anything that can be prepped beforehand? And what time do you want to serve dinner – before or after the presents?

You mentioned vegetarians and vegans. What’s a good alternative to meat at Christmas?

If a number of guests are vegetarians or vegans you should provide a meat-free option. Just like our vegan Specials, I recommend cooking with fresh ingredients and avoiding tofu or soya. If only a couple of guests don’t eat animal products, you can tailor their meals individually. For example, leave meat and dairy out of side dishes and fill dumplings with vegan pesto instead of ham. Offer an additional side of veggies to make sure they don’t go hungry. My tip: soup is an easy-to-make starter for vegetarians and vegans.  

Turkey, goose, dumplings and red cabbage are traditional but a little dull. Is there any way to give Christmas dinner a Mediterranean twist?  

Absolutely. Try a starter of celery-beetroot Carpaccio with nuts, orange and virgin olive oil. Tradition and contemporary dining are easy to combine though. Because let’s be honest – it’s Christmas, people expect turkey or goose! Poultry can be given a Mediterranean flavour by braising it with rosemary, olives and orange. Jazz up your sides by swapping sprouts and red cabbage for filled gnocchi, roast vegetables with rosemary and shallots, and herb bread with olive oil.

What drinks should I serve?

I always serve orange punch as an aperitif. It’s made from orange juice, white wine, Pernod and rum and flavoured with cloves, star anises, cinnamon sticks and orange peel. I top it with whipped cream. It’s a refreshing alternative to mulled wine.  
If there are children among your guests, you can make soft drinks more interesting by whipping up fresh melon or rhubarb spritzers.
Serve white wine with poultry and fish, and red wine with red meat. Try and find out if there’s a type of wine your guests prefer. And don’t be offended if granddad would rather have a cold beer with his dinner!

Any ideas for a festive dessert?

Don’t serve dessert straight after the main course as people will be too full to enjoy it. I prefer to offer guests a sweet buffet of Italian desserts, including Cassata, Panettone or Crostata. These three can be prepared a couple of days in advance, which cuts down your workload. Gorgonzola with cream cheese and pear makes a good savoury alternative.

How can I create a festive looking table?

I’m a purist so I like to keep things simple. Adding decorations to a table covered in wine bottles, condiments and cutlery can leave it looking cluttered. I always use light tableware so I can introduce a pop of colour using napkins or candles. Instead of decorations, add a small festive garnish to each plate for a more Christmassy feel. Diners can simply remove them before eating. I also like to give my guests a little something to take home, like a jar of homemade jam or pesto.  

Thanks for your tips, Marco. Merry Christmas!

We hope Mario’s tips have made the complex process of planning Christmas dinner that little bit easier. Good luck with your hosting!