I don’t know what it is about the holidays that makes people want to get into the kitchen and cook huge meals for their friends and family. People who normally use their kitchens solely for reheating takeaways suddenly feel compelled to cook not just an ordinary meal – which can be hard enough if you’re not used to it – but a festive, formal, sit-down dinner, with all the attendant expectations. They break out their great-grandmother’s heavy silverware and expensive china place settings, dust off bottles of wine that they’ve been waiting for just the right occasion to serve, plan the meal from soup to dessert and wonder why they’re so stressed even before the guests arrive. By the time the last guest is out of the door, the hosts are ready to collapse – and they swear they’ll never cook such a big meal again – a vow they keep for precisely one year.
My advice: unless you have a lot of hired help willing to work overtime, don’t do it. If you insist on having a big holiday dinner party, make it a buffet.
Buffets make for a more relaxing meal. They’re better for the guests, who get to mingle; if you find yourself talking to a bore, you can always use the excuse “give me a minute to refill my glass, then you can finish telling me your fascinating story” (and then avoid them for the rest of the night). At a sit-down dinner, you’re forced to listen to the neighbours on your left and right natter on until after coffee is served.
Buffets are also easier on the host. An entire meal can be – or should be – cooked in advance; don’t do what they do at large hotel buffets and attempt to cook pasta or sear foie gras a la minute. This is the perfect occasion for a big hunk of meat such as turkey (although it’s not easy to carve) or roast beef. Set whatever you choose on a large carving board along with a sharp carving knife and fork, and let your guests help themselves. Be sure to also set out the appropriate condiments, such as mustard, horseradish and cranberry sauce. Gravy, while nice, needs to be kept warm; congealed gravy is disgusting. If you don’t want to serve a roast (or can’t afford to), make a big pot of chilli con carne and let your guests ladle it over white rice, and add condiments such as grated cheese, diced tomatoes, chopped onion, cubed avocado, sour cream and fresh coriander leaves.
With the roast or chilli con carne as your centrepiece, serve lots of other dishes, with plenty of vegetarian options. Salads are a must, of course. Tomato and mozzarella; a hearty bulgur style; potato; macaroni; and blanched haricots verts mixed with lemon juice, olive oil and sliced shallots, all go down well. Be sure to serve green salads “naked”, with the dressings on the side; if you dress them in advance, the lettuce will wilt.
Prevent hearty dishes such as macaroni and cheese (always popular) and lasagne from congealing by serving them in those old-fashioned silver-plated warmers heated by tea candles or sterno burners.
You’d be surprised at how many people will appreciate snacky items such as potato chips and pretzels. Tortilla chips are popular, too, especially if you serve them with salsa and/or guacamole. Fill any empty spaces on the buffet table with olives, pickles and crudités.
For dessert, think big and keep it simple. Fruit cobblers and crumbles are easy and hearty, and it also doesn’t take much work to make a large iced sheet cake, which you should cut up into small squares. Set out a large bowl of fruit salad and if your guests are adult imbibers, mix in a large glass of Cointreau.
Be sure to set out plenty of plates, cutlery and napkins, and you’ll also need a sufficient number of glasses. Red, white and mulled wines, champagne, water and soft drinks, should be served at a separate table, or else there will be a bottleneck where the food is.
To make things even easier, consider asking friends who love to cook (and are good at it) to help. Let them choose something fairly easy to make then plan your own dishes around those.
And never say no to the offer of a bottle of wine. Even if you don’t drink it while your guests are around, you can open it to enjoy while cleaning up after they’ve left.
Truc (tryk): noun, masculine, trick, gimmick, device. A French word for a chefâs secret.