It’s the time of year that can make even the most courageous stand trembling before the cook book rack… the holiday season approaches. With just a weeks to go, how can you throw together a holiday meal for extended friends and family without causing major mental stress? Here are some helpful hints from a former chef.
1. Plan your meal. Realizing that this is the oldest advice in professional cooking, we rely on fresh ingredients that are delivered by reputable food suppliers. You must do the same, only on a smaller schedule, and as such need to really plan your menu a bit in advance. Start with the number of people that you are cooking for. In my former life as an executive chef, we know how many reservations are placed in advance, and buy our fresh ingredients accordingly. As a rule, you need to pick one or two proteins, two starches, vegetable(s) and bread. Pumpkin pie is the classic holiday dessert that is simple to fix or to purchase. Here is a really important time saving truth. People prefer comfort foods, more than something fancy or complicated. If you want to have a great smoked salmon but have never produced such a fish, try the products of a major chain, or even a high end warehouse like Costco. A local caterer will have access to all of the ingredients and the ability to smoke your fish properly. Important: use a list when you shop. Make one solid trip for what you need, and then review to ensure that nothing is forgotten. Use your recipes to ensure that all ingredients are on hand, and pre- chop all veggies or cheeses.
2. Know your cook times. At our restaurant, we reversed the times that food leaves the kitchen to the guest and set pars for when each dish must be completed and in the oven, roaster, and steamer or on the grill. Want dinner at six? Average bird needs at least 3.5 hours, so count backward from 30 minutes prior to slicing. Our great secret; we prep things well in advance. No chopping or dicing while you’re cooking for more than a few, as it will slow you down and create stress. The dishes that can hold – mixed noodle or potato salads, trays of cheeses and vegetables, and casseroles are all made a day prior. Consider investing in foil pans and lids for all of the roasting and cooking. While it may cost you five to eight dollars, you will find that you’re clean up is a cinch. Great salad suggestion? Quickly toss premixed tangy Cole slaw dressing with fresh broccoli crowns, a dash of liquid smoke and a a good amount of fresh bacon bits in a plastic bowl. Let it sit overnight in an airtight container. Not too much dressing, just enough to cover the vegetable. The result? Awesome smoked broccoli salad. With pre-chopped broccoli and packaged fresh bacon, you’re done in five minutes.
3. Thaw safe. If you are roasting the big bird, make sure that your thawing time is in the fridge and under the appropriate temperatures. Most food poisoning cases happen at home, so be careful to manage your raw bird with care. It is the surface of your counter that will carry the germs, as will a sink or towel. No food products that are served uncooked (green salad or boiled potatoes) should ever come into contact with surfaces where raw meat is handled. Use a sanitizer to clean surfaces, and remember to wash your hands often.
4. Follow the directions. Read the directions for your big bird or ham and follow them. Most manufacturers understand their product well. They have adjusted cooking times for the percentage of saline, density of the product and other culinary concerns. Remove the neck and giblets package from the internal cavities of your bird before roasting, and wash your bird thoroughly. I use a mixture of butter and olive oil once it is patted dry, and then a strong hand with the dry rub – makes for a golden, crispy skin. Be imaginative in your stuffing. At home this Thanksgiving, we will stuff our bird with grapes, nuts, bread and cornbread mix, as well as a lot of thyme, rosemary and fresh spinach leaves. In that same oven you’ll find cloves of garlic skill in skin, roasting in olive oil and butter. I love the fresh cloves of garlic that roast into wonderful nutty flavors. Remember that the internal temp of your stuffed bird needs to reach the manufacturers recommended specs, usually around 180 degrees at the deepest point, with no pink near the bone in the breast section.
5. Shoot for fellowship, not perfection. Guests in the restaurant who strive for perfection in their parties are often missing the time for fellowship with the people in their party. Make your festivities a personal party. Open a great bottle of wine or juice, and break out the most comfy setting that you can find. If you’re shooting for fancy, do all the set up the day prior. Put out all the dishes that you’ll use, set the table, and prepare all the details. In the restaurant business, we use all of our open time to attend to the details that people overlook. A week of so prior, choose your linens, your place settings and wash them all thoroughly. Do not wait until the last minute to be surprised by an odd turn of events.
Regardless of the holiday, I have found that cooking for our family is always both fun and challenging. I know more about their culinary preferences than the typical restaurant guest, and attempt to mesh their favorite items together. Given that my family could choose any dish in the world from their super-chef Mom, I am always amazed that they really enjoy what we fix together. Cheesy scalloped potatoes with bacon and extra provolone. Roasted turkey with lots of smoked whiskey butter basting. Broccoli salad, fruit ambrosia, and sweet potato casserole and collard greens en masse. Of course, there is stuffing and yeast rolls…and fudge brownies. Most of this is cooked in advance, and we enjoy our evening together. It a great time for a fire, to relax, unwind and talk to one another over mulled wine, snapping photos and having that eventual pillow fight. For the more faint of heart, the man cave has all that latest technology that you might want – and a comfy wool rug, roaring fire, and lots of cuddle room on the leather furniture. Look around your house for textures and smells that you can move/add/refresh to make your holiday experience a new one. A simple candle can make so much difference.
Be blessed this holiday season, and remember that the reason for the season is to love. Food is an important part of that. Seek to simply enjoy… you’ll find the stress melting away, and memories that last a lifetime taking shape.