He may still be best known for playing Scott Hastings in the cult 1992 Australian film Strictly Ballroom, but Paul Mercurio is a man of many talents – dancer, choreographer, teacher, TV personality and cook. Christmas at the Mercurio household in Melbourne is all about the turkey, which he prepares and cooks for wife Andrea and their three daughters, Elise, 27, Emily, 25, and Erin, 20.
“Christmas is about family. We normally have it at our house, and it’s always been a very special, lovely family event – sometimes Mum will come over, and Dad did too, when he was alive [Mercurio’s father was actor Gus Mercurio]. It’s also very laidback. It is changing a little now as my daughters have boyfriends and they all moved out last year.
Growing up, Christmas was pretty much just mum and the four kids [his parents divorced]. Mum would dress the kitchen table with a Christmas tablecloth, party hats, crackers, lollies and chocolates. We’d have fruit in the morning, maybe a roast chook and while I can’t really remember much else of what we ate for Christmas, I can remember the lollies and chocolates.
Christmas here generally turns into a late lunch. We get up and have breakfast before we start ripping into the presents. We’ll put on one of those old Christmas albums like Bing Crosby, have coffee and toast for breakfast and then we’ll open some presents. Then the kids look at me and say, ‘Dad, it’s about time you got the turkey on.’ We’ve got a running gag because I always think the turkey is going to take four or five hours and last year it only took three hours! It’s a consistent joke that I’m concerned the turkey is going to take too long. Then, occasionally, I forget what I’m doing with the turkey, and my daughter has to say, ‘Remember what you did last year?’
I think the reason everyone loves a roast turkey is because they love the stuffing. My stuffing recipe comes out of a Middle Eastern cookbook from many many years ago – I’ve been married 29 years and I’ve probably had this book for that long. It’s a rice, liver and spicy sausage stuffing with a Middle Eastern bent – a little bit of cinnamon, a little all spice. We use a very traditional Italian pork/fennel/chili sausage from Jo and Nino Sausages in Melbourne.
I cook it all up with those lovely spices and some butter and pine nuts, stuff the turkey with it, slather in butter (yes, very healthy!) and maybe a generous amount of smoky paprika before cooking it on the Weber. It’s a charcoal kettle so you get all those beautiful smoky characters.
We have roast vegetables with it, a lovely leg of ham, cranberry jelly – it’s quite a spread. And by the time we get around to it we’ve probably had a couple of bottles of champagne and a few beers and after eating at 3, everyone falls asleep except for me because I have to clean up.
We’re not really big dessert people. We generally have a pavlova or sometimes Emily will make golden syrup dumplings. They’re really yummy but by the end of Christmas Day you’re pretty full. But you have to eat because it’s Christmas!
My youngest daughter’s boyfriend was talking about going home to his parents’ place for Christmas this year and she said, ‘I’m going back to mum and dads’ for the turkey, I’m not going with you!’ My oldest daughter won’t be home for Christmas this year but I know she’ll say, ‘Save me some turkey and save me some stuffing’.
To some extent, I think the turkey brings us together. While the kids grow up and move out, all of us have really enjoyed our Christmas and the turkey is the focus of it. At some point down the road, the girls will be back with their own kids. I always think we’re not going to have enough but of course the ham and turkey last for days.”
CHRISTMAS TURKEY WITH SAUSAGE, LIVER AND RICE STUFFING
100g chicken livers
300g spicy Italian sausages
4 tbsp unsalted butter
1 large brown onion, peeled and finely chopped
5 tbs pine nuts
¾ cup Basmati rice
½ tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp all spice
Sea salt flakes and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 cup chicken stock
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 tsp sweet or smoked paprika
1 tsp chilli powder
1 x 4-5kg free-range turkey
Trim the livers of any sinew, then place in a mortar and pestle. Grind into a paste, then set aside. Bash and grind the livers into a paste then set aside. Skin the sausages, then chop the meat until it looks like mince. (Note: if you get traditional Italian pork sausage they will be quite firm and meaty.)
In a deep-sided fry pan over medium heat, add 2 tbsp of the butter. Add the onion and cook gently, stirring often, until it turns translucent and is a little coloured. Add the sausage mince and ground liver and stir until well combined and the meat is lightly browned.
Add the pine nuts, rice, cinnamon and all spice, season to taste, and cook for about 5 minutes. Pour in the chicken stock, stir mixture well, bring to the boil then reduce heat to low and cook for about 15 minutes until the rice has absorbed all of the stock. (The rice will cook when it is stuffed in to the turkey so it doesn’t have to be perfectly cooked at this point.) Spread the stuffing onto a baking tray lined with baking paper refrigerate for about an hour.
When it is cooled, spoon the stuffing into the body cavity of the turkey and also into the breast cavity. Close the cavities using skewers or you can use thread to sew them closed.
Place the remaining 2 tbsp butter in a bowl (it will need to be reasonably soft), season to taste, and add the crushed garlic, sweet or smoky paprika and chilli powder. Combine well. Using a pastry brush, liberally coat the turkey with the butter, making sure you get in to all the nooks and crannies around the wings and legs.
Place the turkey in the middle of the Weber over the drip tray (see note at bottom). Cover with the lid, with the top and bottom vents fully open. After an hour or so, tear some alfoil into squares, double fold them then tuck under each wing - as the wings are quite close to the heat beads, they tend to burn if you don’t protect them with the alfoil.
Cook until the turkey has an internal temperature of about 75˚ in the deep part of the breast and juices run clear. For a 4-5kg bird, this may take 2½ -3½ hours.
Once cooked, remove turkey from the Weber, place on a large tray and cover with foil. Carefully remove the drip tray from the Weber. Pour the contents into a large baking dish and use the juices to make gravy, remembering to use any juice you collect on the tray from the resting turkey.
NOTE: I cook the turkey indirectly, meaning each basket in the Weber is filled with briquettes and then lit. Once they start to go white, I put the baskets to the side and put an aluminium tray with a cup or so of water in it in the middle between the two baskets. Put the cooking rack in, close the lid and wait for all the coals to be lit – this take around 40 minutes.