Rather than being stuck in the kitchen working, with some careful planning, the cook can be free to enjoy the holiday feast with family and friend. There are plenty of tricks for spending more time celebrating and less time cooking on the day of a special meal.
Nicky Boehm, Food Service director for the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake School District, prepares make-ahead feasts as a matter of routine for large crowds. But her method can be easily adapted for cooking at home and can certainly make a holiday meal less chaotic for the cook.
Boehm starts by deciding on the menu and knowing how many people she’ll be feeding. She takes into account any special dietary needs, such as vegetarian, gluten-free, or allergies. Then she makes a shopping list.
Even recipes that aren’t billed as “make-ahead” can be planned out to leave minimal work for the day of a meal. To plan her make-ahead tasks, Boehm takes a sheet of paper and folds it in half twice, creating four columns, allowing her to plan the feast prep for three days before the meal. Then she looks at the dishes she’s preparing to decide what can be done three days out, for example, shopping and defrosting large pieces of frozen meat. She also makes sure the refrigerator is cleaned out to provide ample space for storing what she preps ahead.
Boehm advises tackling the dishes that take the longest time to prepare and cook first. “On the second day out, I would do the bulk of the prep,” she said. The key is to look at the recipes and prepare anything ahead of time that can be done in advance. “Get all of your components all cut and prepped,” Boehm said. Meat and vegetables can be cut up early, stored in bags in the refrigerator, and be ready to use in a recipe. “A lot of times, you can make your sauce ahead and just put your sauce on afterwards.”
Potatoes can be peeled and put in water in the refrigerator overnight. On the day before the meal, they can be steamed or boiled for 15 minutes, cut up into chunks or wedges, seasoned with oil, salt and pepper, put on a pan and refrigerated. On the day of the meal, they just need to be roasted in the oven. Pies are a dessert that can easily be baked two days ahead and reheated on the day of the dinner. Breads and muffins can be prepared one day before.
Boehm also combines preparation tasks to streamline the process. Reviewing the recipes she’s using, she determines what can be done at the same time. For example, if two recipes call for onions, Boehm slices or chops all of the onions at the same time and puts them into separate containers in the refrigerator. If she’s slicing ham for a deli platter, she would also chop up some ham for the quiche she also planned to serve. “I’m only ever going to do it in one go,” Boehm said.
She points out that around half of the work of making a holiday feast is the preparation — washing, cutting and setting up. A lot of this, with some forethought, can be done before the day of the meal, leaving just the assembly, reheating or baking to do on the day of the event. “Don’t leave anything to the day of if you can do it the day before,” Boehm said, noting that it takes some practice to streamline this process.
Working ahead of time also has the benefitting of giving a cook the time to clean up, disposing of cans, bottles, vegetable skins and the like. “Then your kitchen is all nice again for the day of the meal,” Boehm said.
Recipes by Nicky Boehm.
Amounts will vary depending on how many people you are serving.
For the chicken
Boneless skinless chicken breasts, split (plan on 2 pieces per person), cut into thin slices, or split the chicken breast and pound it out until it's thinner
Flour (or cornstarch for gluten-free), enough to coat chicken breasts
Egg, beaten, enough to dip chicken breasts in
Canola or vegetable oil (not olive oil)
Heat a little oil in a frying pan and fry chicken pieces and fry until golden and crispy. Remove from pan and place on paper towel to absorb the excess oil.
For the sauce
White onions, peeled, cut in half and then into slices
Fresh minced garlic to taste
Saute onions in oil until soft and opaque. Add quite a bit of fresh minced garlic and cook a little longer.
Determine amount of cornstarch to use based on the amount of broth and wine that will be used. Use a ratio of 1/2 cup cornstarch to a quart of liquid, mixing the cornstarch with a bit of cold water before adding to onion mixture, stirring in well. Cook for a few minutes.
Add the chicken broth and Marsala wine. The ratio is two-thirds broth to one-third wine.
Bring to a boil, add sliced mushrooms and black pepper, reduce heat, and simmer for another 20 minutes. Cool.
At this point, the chicken and sauce can be refrigerated in well-sealed containers. On the day of the event, lay the chicken out in a pan and heat it up in the oven. Warm the sauce in a pan on the stove, and then pour the hot sauce over the chicken and serve. Alternatively, combine chicken and sauce in a pan, cover and heat up before serving.
Cinnamon Roasted Apple Salad with Honey-Glazed Pecans and Maple Cider Dressing.
1 apple per three to four people, cored and cut into slices
1 can of mandarin oranges
Romaine or spring mix or a mixture of the two
Green pepper, sliced
All vegetables can be sliced ahead of time and refrigerated.
For apples, mix cinnamon with sugar. The ratio for the cinnamon-sugar mixture is 3 tablespoons sugar to 1 ½ teaspoons cinnamon. Toss apples in cinnamon-sugar mixture. Put in a pan and bake for 12 minutes at 350°. Let cool and store in an airtight container. Apples can be prepared a day ahead of time.
Toss pecans in a little honey until coated, put on a very well-greased cookie sheet and bake at 350° for 6 minutes. Cool until completely cold and store in a zip top bag until the day of the event.
On day of event, open and drain mandarin oranges.
Assemble the salad on individual plates, placing the mixed greens on the plate first, then the apples, oranges and pecans.
For the dressing (can be made a day or two in advance)
1 cup Italian dressing
Splash of honey
1/4 cup each apple cider vinegar, olive oil (or your favorite oil), and real maple syrup
Mix it all in a blender. Taste it and add a bit more of what you like to make it a little sweeter or tarter. Pancake syrup can be substituted for the maple syrup and apple and apple juice in place of the apple cider vinegar. Serve dressing on the side.
Stuffed peppers can be a side dish or used as an entrée for vegetarian guests. This recipe leaves a lot of room for variation depending on individual tastes.
Mixture of your favorite vegetables, sliced (onions, celery, zucchini, red peppers, etc.)
Marinara sauce (either your favorite homemade or sauce from a jar)
Chili or taco seasoning
Red pepper flakes (optional)
Cooked white or brown rice (quinoa or couscous may be substituted), or a mix of these
A mix of different colored peppers, sliced in half lengthwise, seeds and ribs removed
Saute vegetables with a good amount of garlic. Add marinara sauce and a little tomato paste to boost flavor. Add basil, oregano chili or taco seasoning to taste and a few red pepper flakes if desired. Cook until all the veggies are soft and the flavors have had time to blend.
Reserve some of the sauce for before serving. Mix the vegetable sauce in equal parts with cooked grains. Mound the filling in the half peppers and place in a baking dish. Seal tight. At this point, the dish can be refrigerated until the day of the event. When ready to cook, put a little water or vegetable broth in the bottom of the pan (not a lot, just enough to cover the bottom of the pan). Seal tight again before baking. The water will help the cooking process and keep everything moist. Bake at 350° for 45 minutes. Uncover and serve with extra sauce.