When I first graduated cooking school and came back to Madison, I “suffered” a syndrome I now realize is common to trained chefs—at any gathering where food was to be had, including family holiday gatherings, it was assumed that the same food I grew up loving was no longer adequate for my newly educated palate. Oh, the irony. The plain truth is that most chefs come from humble homes and, after years of being obligated professionally to taste, taste and taste again the rich and rarified fare that makes up a top-shelf restaurant menu, want nothing better than to sup on plain food that brings mom to mind. When you see a couple of chefs getting together in their off-hours, you’re not going to see them mincing around with a nice Viognier and a plate of frisee. No. They will be comparing notes over a pitcher of beer or rakish red wine, some burgers, barbeque or strong cheese, sausage and crusty bread. The profession is, by nature, taxing on body and mind and when you get the chance to rejuvenate, you do it not in subtle, erudite ways but in primal and direct ways.
However, I played into the myth. I insisted on drawing up the holiday menus, shopping the city for things like foie gras and haricot verts and basically being absent from family occasions due to having concocted a bill of fare that took hours to execute with no time to step away from the stove. I’m sure the food was pretty good—I wouldn’t know, though, since I rarely sat down to eat any of it. I’m told it was. I’m also told my wife wasn’t wild about being dumped on the couch with a glass of wine while I disappeared for several hours on Christmas.
You see, I was transferring my restaurant M.O. into the home kitchen, and this is a rookie mistake. The great New York (by way of a farm outside Lyon) chef Daniel Boulud observed that he never viewed food served to him in a home through the eyes of a professional—he correctly noted that doing so was to misunderstand and abuse your social context, applying irrelevant standards to a situation meant to connote simple welcome and warmth, conviviality rather than flash and technique. This is an important lesson.
It’s a holiday, not a job interview
So, my first and most important “tip” when approaching your holiday cooking is: it’s a holiday, not a job interview. Design a menu that looks and tastes great but is not such a stretch of your budget or your abilities that you freak out over the money you spent when you should be opening a second bottle of wine with your loved ones or lose sleep over the soufflé when you should be catching up on time with your kids or your favorite books. The “house beautiful” magazines tend to tout holiday menus created, styled and photographed by professionals trained in the art of coffee table cuisine, replete with this year’s chic wine pairings. Use the best of what they have to offer wisely, but don’t feel obligated to treat your friends and family to an episode of the Martha Stewart show. They want your time and company more than your virtuosity.
The name of the game is timing
That said, what can you do to make sure you have a menu you’re happy with but not one that keeps you chained to the stove? The name of the game is timing. You’re going to pick dishes that don’t depend on all of your guests arriving within 10 minutes of each other, ready to shed their coats and sit down to the table—because that’s not what’s going to happen. What you want is to have the food ready to go anytime by the time the doorbell rings, but be able to take up to an hour to get everyone inside, get coats off and catch up before you eat. You want to serve it up “family style,” whether it’s family or not. This allows you to set the table ahead of time, then bring five or six big dishes out and sit down for the duration of the meal with your guests.
A sample menu meeting these criteria might read:
- Romaine Salad with Walnuts, Dried Cranberries and Brie
- Roast Pork Loin with Maple Syrup, Clove and Lemon
- Yam and Sweet Corn Succotash
- Braised Brussels Sprouts with Romano Gratinee
- Lemon Tart and Raspberry Sorbet
If you have some large casseroles or Pyrex/Corningware dishes with ovenproof lids, these dishes can be made up to two to three hours ahead of time, then popped in the oven to finish off or reheat when comapny arrives. In the case of the pork loin, it’s better if it has about 30 minutes to sit and rest on a countertop near the stove. Too many recipes to include them all here, but I am going to try posting some of them on our website.
Other tips for holiday cooking
If you do have a special dish that you have your heart set on and it will eat up a lot of time, have a potluck—remember to parse out the menu so you don’t end up with your killer ancho hanger steak and five caesar salads. Keep fresh vegetables and dip in the fridge for surprise arrivals, especially those with kids. And, from my wife: marry a chef.