- Sue Norton
My worst Christmas was the one when I spent hours painstakingly crafting a chestnut, mascarpone and truffle pasta filling from a recipe in The French Laundry Cookbook. I stretched my pasta dough too thin, and the delicious, pricey mixture spurted out into the cooking water. I wept. Scratch that: I sobbed.
On another memorable holiday, I proudly unwrapped my first goose in preparation for a high-heat roasting, only to find it covered in pinfeathers. Four hours later, I was still hunched over that foul fowl with a pair of greasy tweezers. My ex had snuck off to the basement to get stoned. The rest of the family was hangry. (This incident is why, when I later became a goose farmer, we gave each bird the postmortem avian equivalent of a Brazilian wax.)
It wasn't until I opened my own restaurant, Salt, that I realized holiday cookery is similar to working in a restaurant kitchen, in that both involve larger quantities, careful timing and a fairly extreme ability to multitask. Restaurant cooking gave me the knowledge and skills I needed to pull off family feasts with aplomb.
Winter is coming, and not everybody has the option of apprenticing themselves to a chef in preparation for the holidays, but I'm happy to pass on what I've learned. Here are seven tips for making sumptuous meals without the suffering.
Have and Maintain the Right Equipment
Peeling four potatoes with a dull peeler isn't that big a deal. But peeling 40 potatoes with a dull peeler is. So make sure you've got a good one! I've tried four or five, and the best by far is the Oxo Good Grips Pro Y-Peeler with replaceable blades.
Other go-to pieces of equipment in my holiday kitchen are a food mill (for removing the peels from cranberry sauce, making perfectly smooth mashed potatoes and similar tasks); an immersion blender (for puréeing soups and emulsifying salad dressings); a sieve (for fixing gravy that's full of lumps); and nice sharp knives.
If you suspect your knives are losing their edge, you're almost certainly right. Call your local kitchen store and inquire about sharpening, which is always a worthwhile investment. (While you're there, see about getting some of the other items on this list.)
Then there are the little things: Do you have enough big mixing bowls? Otherwise, you may find yourself stirring so carefully, while flour inevitably powders the counter and your pants. Do you have enough spoons for the soup? What about a couple of extra wine glasses, in case some break? (Some always break.) Count. Plan. Visit the thrift store. Have more than you need.
Don't Put Off Menu Planning
The earlier you know what you're making, the easier it will be to gather your ingredients and tools and to make adjustments when you discover you can't get that fancy local meat item you were counting on.
To plan your menu, first pick a protein. Consider choosing something slightly out of the ordinary, such as lamb, a standing rib roast or a goose. If the price of top-quality cuts puts you off, remember that braising — cooking in liquid, covered, at a low oven temperature — turns even the cheapest hunks of meat into tender, flavorful delights.
Next, consider seasonal side vegetables. On any given cold-weather holiday, I'll default to squash, potatoes and Brussels sprouts. Roasted whole carrots are elegant and lovely, especially if you can get multicolored bunches. Cabbage is inexpensive and hearty and can be sexed up with cream, blue cheese, toasted walnuts, herbs and a few grinds of black pepper.
Finally, pick some "gold star" ingredients to sprinkle into the mix. These are the things that make meals feel sumptuous and decadent.
Rich dairy items, such as butter, heavy cream, cream cheese and mascarpone
Booze. Mixed into desserts or added to sauces, port, Madeira, sherry or brandy makes any dish more festive.
Warm spices. Who doesn't associate the aromas of cinnamon, ginger and allspice with the holidays? Then there's nutmeg, a crucial ingredient in everybody's favorite 'nog.
Mushrooms. Eschew the white buttons in favor of crimini, or splurge on oyster or lobster mushrooms.
Elegant alliums. Supplant or supplement mundane yellow onions with picturesque cipollini, leeks and shallots.
Shellfish. Oysters and scallops, in particular, feel celebratory. If you're buying New England seafood, we're heading into the best time of the year for both.
Once you have a sense of the ingredients you want to use, start to assemble them into appetizers and sides. Mix up flavors and textures. If you're not sure how to go about that, buy The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America's Most Imaginative Chefs, by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg. Whether you celebrate in religious or secular fashion, this is one bible that should come in handy.
Make a Prep List and Start Cooking Early
In a restaurant kitchen, you can't just fly by the seat of your ugly, elastic-waist-banded chef pants. You have to make a prep list — a detailed accounting of all the stuff you need to do to feed the people the things.
The more experienced you are in the kitchen, the sparser your prep list can be. If you're less comfortable at the stove, detail the hell out of it. Instead of "Mince shallots, 5 m.," you can write, "Peel and cut up those oniony looking things (don't forget to use the chef knife, not the paring knife), 20 minutes, 11:14 a.m."
Once you have your list, decide if you can do any cooking tasks the day before — or even earlier. Cranberry sauce and desserts can be made ahead. So can vegetable or meat stock to be used in gravies and other sauces. Bread can be cubed for stuffing and left out to dry, the better to absorb pan drippings. If you don't have to do something à la minute, as we say in the biz, it's better to do it early. This also gives you a chance to try out fancier items with a backup plan, in case they don't work out. Pâté, anybody?
Likewise, if you're brining or doing a dry rub on your holiday meat (or tofu, if you swing that way), you may want to do that several days in advance.
Learn to Cut Up a Bird
Unless you're a vegetarian, knowing how to turn a raw or cooked chicken or turkey deftly into a pile of wings, drumsticks, thighs, breasts and bones is incredibly useful. Find a video on the internet, take a cooking class, or just spend some quality time with a sharp knife and a poultry carcass.
The body of the bird will tell you where to cut — look for lines of demarcation. Fat deposits often occur around joints, and I seek them out when I'm butchering. Wiggle different bits to see where they move.
Delegate With Care
Which of your relatives are speedy and efficient? Ask them to peel and dice. Those who don't have culinary chops can stir pots, pick the leaves off herbs and wash things. If Aunt Mindy is a dreamy perfectionist, have her set the table.
You know who always offers to help. Decide in advance how you'd like to utilize their particular skill sets.
Buy Yourself Time With Hors d'Oeuvres and a Cheese Plate
Appetizers are the key to keeping the ravenous hordes from invading your kitchen and sating themselves on your ingredients. Serve some. If you have treats that can be put out cold or at room temperature, you won't be stealing precious burner space from other parts of dinner.
The best way to gain culinary time? A cheese plate. It can be simple — a bargain-basement block of cheddar and some crackers — or it can be an extravagant combo of artisan cheeses, nuts, spiced honey, dried fruits and pickled things. Plus, if people fill up on cheese, there will be more leftovers for you.
Cooking for a bunch of people can be intense, and we all want to do a good job of it. But, after many years, I realized that if I didn't accept help with an ambitious menu, I might find myself crying over my half-baked cream puffs at an hour when everybody would rather be in bed than eating dessert. As I told the staff at my restaurant, "We're just cooking for people, not performing surgery." Rolling with the punches is essential.
To that end, pick dishes you feel confident about, sprinkled with little dollops of special holiday goodness. Try one or two new things that excite you. Stay organized, and clean as you go. (Or, better yet, get somebody else to clean as you go.)
And most of all, remember that joy and harmony are your real goals — far more important than perfectly crisped turkey skin.