Holiday Meal Helper, Part 2: Planning Perfection

Welcome to the menu portion of my three-part series intended to help you master your holiday host or hostess responsibilities in style. Part I introduced you to the basic cooking skills you need as a foundation for cooking confidence. Today I’ll share delicious and simple recipes guaranteed to bring applause and tears (the good kind, at last!) to your gathering. Or, more realistically, you’ll be sure to stress less and have more fun this holiday season, even if you’re not a pro in the kitchen…yet.

1After Toast: Recipes for Aspiring Cooks by Kate Gibbs appears to be designed for the post-college crowd—but any budding chef can benefit from the recipes inside. I found two great snacks you can scatter in small dishes around your living areas. Guests can nosh on spiced crispy chickpeas (page 175) made with smoked paprika, cayenne pepper, and ground cumin. Sugar-and-spice nuts (page 176) feature walnuts, hazelnuts and almonds. The beauty of both recipes? You can make them ahead of time, they’ll make your house smell amazing, and they are as simple as tossing the ingredients together and baking in the oven.

2High Flavor Low Labor by J.M. Hirsch proclaims to “reinvent weeknight cooking.” You just need to know it has decadent appetizers that are perfect for your holiday gathering—or any time. Grilled bacon-wrapped figs with blue cheese (page 9) are simple and make a dramatic presentation. Polenta cakes topped with prosciutto and peppadew slivers (page 11) are so pretty, yet so easy. Half the work is already done for you with ready-made polenta. Fig and manchego puff pastries (page 21) pair the dream team of flavors: sweet and salty. Once you master this recipe it’s easy to switch it up later to make mini pizzas, perfect for movie night. Pesto-drenched tomato wedges (page 35) show off the red and green color combination perfect for the holiday season. Blend ingredients in the food processor and pour over sliced tomatoes. How easy is that?

3Aida Mollenkamp’s Keys to the Kitchen is “the essential reference for becoming a more accomplished, adventurous cook.” While this is indeed a fantastic cooking reference (are you paying attention, Santa?) what it’s bringing to our party is the salad. Butter lettuce salad with tahini-honey dressing (page 200) is a great basic salad to get your palette revved up. I’m not sure why I haven’t made my own dressings before—it’s super easy. Step 1: put stuff in food processor. Step 2: blend. Step 3: let’s eat! Or if you’d like to be more adventurous, try the raw kale salad with heirloom tomatoes and roasted cashews (pages 202-203). Aida swears that making this salad ahead and letting it sit helps wilt and soften the kale. It makes for a fabulous presentation on a serving platter. And your health-fad cousin will love that you used kale, that trendy ingredient.

4Come Home to Supper by Christy Jordan has the dough—meaning there are some terrific bread and roll recipes in here. Cheesy garlic biscuits (page 219) are super-simple to make. And they happen to be my favorite type of biscuit: drop. That means you just mix the ingredients and drop them onto a baking sheet. Ten minutes later you have biscuit nirvana. Need an even quicker recipe? Ten-minute rolls (page 224) utilizes muffin tins and has a secret ingredient: mayonnaise: “The mayonnaise gives them a subtle flavor as a sour cream would, acts as shortening, and produces a tender crumb.” Sometimes the shortcut recipes turn out to be the most rewarding, both in time saved and flavor savored.

5Choosing Sides by Tara Mataraza Desmond contains nothing but recipes for side dishes. I implore you to look beyond the mashed potatoes (pages 201-204) and focus instead on switching up the holiday menu a bit. There’s a lot to cover, so I’ll just be listing the recipe names and pages. Please try not to drool as you read them. Charred asparagus with shaved parmesan (page 84), chimichurri green beans (page 85), crisply roasted garlic potatoes (page 90), sugar snap peas with grana padano crust (page 95), ginger honey carrots (page 101), golden cauliflower with herbed breadcrumbs (page 133), red quinoa with cherries and smoked almonds (page 142), legacy cornbread dressing (page 199), and sugar-glazed sweet potatoes (page 205). Now wipe your chin. Drool is very unbecoming in a host or hostess.

6Christmas Slow Cooking by Dominique DeVito is like the holy grail of holiday cooking. It really does cover every course of the meal and then some, but I like it best for the hassle-free main courses. I don’t know why I’d never considered using my slow-cooker for a holiday roast. Short ribs of beef with rosemary and fennel (page 113) become so tender after ten hours in the slow cooker. Prime rib (page 117) has exactly four ingredients: rib roast, olive oil, salt and pepper but it looks incredible. Turkey, bacon, cranberry bliss (page 125) blends some of my favorite ingredients: just use one turkey breast, bacon, apples, cranberries and spices. Holiday ham (page 131) requires a spiral-cut precooked ham and not a lot of effort. Remember, all of these recipes are made in the slow cooker. Your stress level will automatically lower when making one of these easy recipes.

Layout 1One Bowl Baking by Yvonne Ruperti takes the guesswork out of baking. I’m an okay cook but I’m not a great baker. That’s probably mostly due to the fact that I am impatient and imprecise in the kitchen. But this book makes me wonder why I freak out over baking so much. Pumpkin cheesecake with gingersnap crust (page 186) uses crushed gingersnap cookies in the crust and a can of pumpkin puree in the filling. With those serious flavors taken care of, the rest just seems like child’s play. Deep dish plum pie tart (page 198) is a decadent—and simple—alternative to either making a pie from scratch or buying one of the pre-made frozen variety.

You have just read an incredibly simple road map to Party Successville. Population: you. If you make some things a day ahead (snacks, salad) and use the slow cooker to do your main dish’s heavy lifting, you’ll be free to whip up multiple appetizers and side dishes your whole family will love.

Stay tuned for part 3, where I will share the little details that transform a good holiday party into a great one.

Carol

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