The holidays bring an onslaught of cocktail parties, cookie exchanges, and fancy fun. Some folks prefer to host their own shindig while others love party-hopping and seeing as many friends and family as they possibly can. After all, as Clarence said in “It’s A Wonderful Life,” “…no man is a failure who has friends.” With that in mind, it doesn’t matter on which side of the party equation you find yourself.
Here are some tips to help you focus on the people around you and keep your kitchen smoothly running while you turn out your favorite traditional meals and goodies.
For starters, take the time to clean out your refrigerator and freezer so that you will have plenty of space. Empty the shelves, wipe everything down, and organize the items as you return them. Toss anything that is expired or past it’s prime so that it doesn’t take up precious real estate. This is also a great time to check on your spices and staples. Fresh bottles of olive oil, vanilla extract, and cinnamon will go a long way towards making your dishes and treats stand out.
Take stock of your equipment and utensils to make sure you have everything for cooking and serving. This is the one time of year that you may need to drag out the roasting pan or double-boiler.
If you need to purchase a large brisket, turkey, or roast, be sure to call ahead to the butcher and reserve it should it need to be special ordered. If the item is frozen, it may take days to thaw in the fridge, so be sure to factor that into your planning.
Begin preparing up to a week ahead. Choose and iron your table linens and inspect your serveware to be sure it’s clean. Place the serving platters on the table to be sure you have room for everything and that everything is accounted for, including seasonal serving ware and utensils. Purchase any necessary items.
This is also a great time to write a cooking schedule. Ina Garten, of Barefoot Contessa and Food Network fame, advises doing this so that you know precisely when items should go into the oven and make sure that nothing overlaps. This way, you don’t end up with two dishes that have to bake at different temperatures at the same time. Start with the time that you want to have the meal on the table and work backward, including resting times, and you will know when you need to start.
Two days before the party, you can defrost pie crusts and cheesecakes in the refrigerator. Any other make-ahead dishes, like vegetables and casseroles, can be made now. Just remember to include the time to bring them to room temperature and re-warm them in the oven on your cooking schedule.
The day before the party is when you should make your last shopping trip for fresh items and flowers. This is also the time that Chef Chris Koshar of South Franklin Circle recommends his most important tip: mise en place. This French term means “put in place” and calls for getting all of the ingredients ready before you cook. Wash, dry, and chop fresh greens and herbs. Trim and dice vegetables. Gather all of the necessary spices, pantry goods, and implements grouped together by dish. The last thing you want is to realize you are missing breadcrumbs or a gravy separator when the meal is supposed to be on the table!
You can also complete any pies at this time.
The day of the event is when the cooking schedule really comes in handy! Also, if you are preparing a large roast or another piece of meat, be sure to check it with a meat thermometer so that you don’t overcook it. Nothing ruins a meal faster than a tough main course! All that’s left is preparing fresh dishes, warming the premade sides, and setting the table with your feast.
Call ahead to ask if you can bring anything. Even the most prepared chef usually can use extra desserts, salad, or drinks. You can also check to see if any other guests have food allergies that you may need to avoid. In addition to any food you contribute, be sure to bring something for the party or host. If you like to make homemade chocolate, candies, or jams, they make lovely hostess gifts. They can also be added to the holiday table. If you don’t consider yourself much of a cook, a nice bottle of wine or some fresh flowers are simple ways to say thank you to your host or hostess.
All that is left is to eat, drink and be merry! It’s a wonderful life, indeed.