In the lead-up to the busy holiday season, everyone around me seems to be experiencing performance anxiety. While they may be adept at cooking meals for their families, or for dinner parties of six to eight, they’re freaking out at the prospect of making a feast for a dozen people or more.
The problem is everyone tries to do too much. There’s no rule that says your holiday turkey (or whatever you decide on for the main course) has to be served with 12 side dishes, but people attempt such feats, in addition to making an array of desserts. Perhaps it is the desire to be the perfect host or hostess that drives such people to try to satisfy the pickiest of eaters and the most esoteric dietary requirements.
The best way to plan a holiday feast is to think of it as a regular dinner party, only a lot bigger. Here’s where a turkey is convenient (because it certainly isn’t the taste of it that appeals): the bird is big enough to feed a lot of people. So that takes care of the main course. For a normal dinner party, you’d probably serve three or four side dishes; for a feast, just make them in larger quantities. For the holidays, add at least a couple more sides; bread stuffing is traditional and can be made in advance – you just need to re-heat it after taking the turkey out of the oven (the bird needs to rest before being carved, anyway). Mashed potatoes are easy to cook, but if you want to make them a little more festive, add some winter squash – pumpkin or kabocha – that’s been baked until the flesh is tender, which tints the spuds a lovely pale orange.
Gravy is where people often fall down. I once went to a Thanksgiving dinner where the cook made everything from scratch, but then pulled out gravy granules from her cupboard. It’s easy enough to make; the secret behind a good one is a wire whisk. Make a roux – a mix of equal measures of flour and fat (either turkey drippings or butter) – and stir it over a low heat for a few minutes, so the mixture doesn’t taste of raw flour. Then slowly whisk in turkey stock, or at a pinch, canned chicken broth. The mixture will be very thick at first, but will then thin out to a lovely, lump-free gravy. Make plenty, in case the turkey is dry.
For a holiday meal, there’s nothing wrong with asking your guests – at least the ones whose cooking can be depended on – to make a dish or two. But be specific; tell them precisely what to make. My contribution to a recent Thanksgiving feast was stuffing. I thought of making two – one for the vegetarian and kosher eaters, another for everyone else, but then decided to simplify matters and make a meat-free stuffing everyone could eat. Another guest contributed dessert, and the meal was as stress-free as any big meal could be. Or, if the hostess was freaking out, at least she didn’t show it.
Truc: (tryk): noun, masculine, trick, gimmick, device. A French word for a chef's secret.