By Christopher Koetke, CEC, CCE, HAAC, vice president, Laureate International Universities Center of Excellence in Culinary Arts and the Kendall College School of Culinary Arts
When extended family or groups of friends descend on your home, kitchen stress builds, and holiday-season joy can easily dissipate. Some of this stress is normal, as most people do not cook for this many people each day. But some of the stress is avoidable. The following list is designed to make cooking doable and holiday entertaining as fun as possible!
Cook vegetables ahead of time. This is a trick from the restaurant business. Most restaurants do not cook vegetables at the last minute. Rather, they pre-cook the vegetables and then reheat them as needed. In many cases, it actually makes for better-looking vegetables. For instance, take green beans. Boiling them in well-salted water and then plunging them into ice water when they are al dente will yield a beautiful, vibrantly colored bean. This works for pretty much all green vegetables, as well as white, yellow, orange and red vegetables. On the big day, all you have to do is reheat them in a sauté pan with a little olive oil or butter. You can also add other flavors to the pan—onion, garlic or fresh herbs, for example—for a flavor boost.
Love your microwave. Microwave ovens are great at reheating food, so use your microwave to its full benefit. Make mashed potatoes, roasted sweet potatoes, roasted root vegetables, braised cabbage, etc., a day ahead of time. Keep them covered in the refrigerator, then place in the microwave just before you’re ready to serve them. The one drawback to the microwave is that it does not heat foods evenly, so stir the contents at intervals during reheating, and make sure they are well heated through.
Don’t stuff the turkey. This one certainly is confrontational. While a stuffed turkey is part of our American heritage, it does not make culinary sense. Any stuffing/dressing is supposed to be cooked to an internal temperature of 165°F to be safe to eat. The problem with achieving that temperature with a stuffing inside a turkey is that the outside of the roast is completely overcooked and dried out. Thus, cook the stuffing separately. If you really want the stuffing coming out of the turkey, simply scoop some hot stuffing into the hot cooked turkey just before serving. No one will know any differently, and the turkey and stuffing will be perfectly and safely cooked.
Focus on hearty grains. There is a lot of discussion these days about incorporating more whole grains into the diet for health reasons. While that is indeed true, that is not the focus here. First of all, unusual grains are increasingly available at retail and provide some wonderfully interesting recipe ideas. Secondly and, most importantly, many grains can be cooked in advance, cooled quickly, held in the refrigerator and reheated when needed. Through this whole process, the grains still retain their flavor and texture. Many of the grains can be reheated in the microwave or given a quick sauté in some butter or olive oil—even perhaps with a splash of broth to keep them moist. For wild rice, I like to boil it first in salted water, then drain and chill until needed, and reheat in plenty of browned butter with a sprinkle of nuts.
Keep an instant-read thermometer ready. Professional chefs are trained to constantly use thermometers in the kitchen to ensure food is properly and safely cooked. Cooking at home needs to follow the same protocol. Be sure to have an instant-read thermometer—which is inexpensive—in the kitchen at all times. This way, you can be sure of final cooking temperatures of meats and stuffings.
Make easy appetizers. Despite all the advice here, there is still plenty to do to get a big dinner on the table for a large number of guests. Professionally, this is not that difficult because chefs have heavy-duty equipment (and lots of it) to make the job easy. In most homes, though, this large dinner still needs to come from the same retail equipment that normally produces food for a much smaller number of people. Thus, keep appetizers and hors d’oeuvres easy so you don’t have to worry about them and so they don’t take up valuable counter space needed for cooking. Ideally, focus on cold appetizers that can simply be pulled from the fridge—or heated in a microwave if needed. Also, ask your guests to bring an appetizer with them. Having a pot-luck appetizer theme is a lot of fun.
Use the oven as a warmer. Try not to use the oven for cooking up to the last minute. Certainly, roasts need to be cooked the day of, but remember that all roasts also need time to rest after cooking. During this 15-20 minute resting period, turn the oven down to 225°F, and use it to hold all the other foods that are being reheated on the stove or in the microwave. When it’s time to take everything to the table, all the dishes will be piping hot.
Keep it safe. This is really about after the big meal. There have been many instances of food poisoning from food that has been left out for hours following holiday dinner. As soon as everyone is finished eating and the food is no longer piping hot (ideally in less than two hours), it needs to go into the refrigerator in small, shallow containers. Food that is left out too long, even if well reheated later, can pose a threat to your family and friends’ safety.
Always have a glass of wine nearby. This one really needs no explanation….
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