When Halloween is over, I’m instantly catapulted into thinking about the holidays. Who’s hosting what, am I on the hook this year, who’s coming to dinner? As much as I enjoy being the hostess, there is so much else going on at this time of year, it can be overwhelming. Here are some tips for keeping your calm when you already have enough on your plate (pun intended.)
Start your menu planning now. Don’t wait until the last minute; knowing what needs to be done is half the battle. In my house, tradition holds sway. It’s always going to be turkey at Thanksgiving, roast beef at Christmas, and lamb at Easter. Perhaps your celebrations are from another culture; no matter, the principle still applies.
If you’re particular about your sources, place the order with your supplier or butcher. They’ll appreciate the advance notice, and you’re more likely to get exactly what you want. Not sure how many people you’re expecting? Order generously; leftovers aren’t a bad thing if you have house guests. And if you don’t, they can always be frozen for an easy meal in the coming year.
When I was fresh out of culinary school, I took pride in creating lavish dishes and doing it all myself. Now I’m more relaxed and choose to make it easier on myself in a couple of ways. One is to ask guests to bring something. Is a known good cook coming? Ask him or her to bring a specific dish. One of my brothers enjoys surprising us – I task him with a vegetable or two, he peruses his Gourmet cookbook and chooses something different each time. Only once did I find his choice odd – it was still tasty, just something I wouldn’t have chosen within the context of that particular menu – but so what? It was one less thing I had to prepare!
Maybe you shudder at the thought of some guests’ lack of culinary skills. Ask them to bring something that doesn’t require cooking. Smoked salmon or some nice cheese for an appetizer will fit the bill nicely, or perhaps they can bring wine or another beverage.
Another way to save yourself time and work is to do the same thing yourself. While there are few prepared foods I get excited about, there are some that are very good. Is there a great deli near you or a good bakery? Consider purchasing a cheese tray from the cheese shop, or a seasonal goodie like stollen (a sweet German Christmas bread) or bûche de Noël from the baker.
Cook ahead, too. If you know everyone loves that baked mashed squash casserole you make, do it now rather than later. It will keep well frozen for the next few weeks. Just remember to begin defrosting it in the refrigerator a couple of days beforehand, and it will be ready to pop in the oven with no effort. Green vegetables can be parboiled up to two days before you need them, and again, simply need heating on the day itself.
When planning the menu, take into consideration how dishes are to be cooked. Is there room in the oven for more than the main dish? There probably is, but remember that the more things there are baking and/or roasting, the longer the overall cooking time. Large roasts need to rest before carving, so certain items can go into the oven as soon as the roast comes out.
Don’t plan to have five items that require the stovetop, if you only have four burners. Use small appliances to offset the load on the stove – press your crockpot, electric frying pan (which can also be used as an oven), or toaster oven into service. Some people use their grills year-round, even in cold climates, which can be an enormous help. Plates can be warmed in the dishwasher using the dry cycle if it’s been emptied beforehand.
Make lists, as many as necessary. Write up the menu (with assignments), make a timeline, and plan like a general. Post the menu with cooking times and temperatures for each dish some place prominent in the kitchen. Plan when each dish needs to be cooked or heated so they’re all ready at the same time. If the potatoes and the squash are to go into the oven at the same time, make sure they need more or less the same temperature. Many foods are happy in a 350ºF oven. But if an appetizer needs to be baked at 450ºF, and the gratin calls for a gentler temperature of 325ºF, you might want to rethink one of those choices. Check off what needs to be done as it gets done.
Does this sound like a lot of work? It’s not, compared to how much effort it will save you. Your thinking is a lot clearer now than it will be in a few weeks. Take the time now, and your holiday meals will be ever so much more enjoyable. You might even look forward to doing it again next year!