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Chef Perry’s Top 10 Secrets to a “Less Stress” Holiday Feast

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Food, Online Exclusives

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The holidays are, hands down, my favorite time of year. But, it can bring with it a fair amount of stress.

And if you come from an Italian family, like mine, well . . . fugget about it!

So, if we can’t totally avoid the chaos, let’s at least try to get a rope on it, right?

Here are a few tips to help you avoid enough of the crises to actually enjoy the food and family time, which is really the whole point!

#10 – Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Does anyone really care if the tablecloth is ironed?  

Does anyone really care if their napkins are shaped like swans?

Or if you’ve freshly polished Great-Grandma’s silver?

No, they don’t. They want to eat, and laugh, and then eat some more! If you’re low on time and that cloth is really bugging you, just iron the corners and sides. Once all the dishes are in place, no one will see the wrinkles anyway.

Also, have the kids help you set the table the night before. It’s one less thing to do.

#9 – Have a plan.

  • Sit down and make a guest list
  • Plan your menu and decide if you’re doing all of the cooking, or if others will be bringing dishes. Make a check list of all ingredients.
  • Create a complete shopping list organized by aisle.
  • Take inventory of your dinnerware, kitchen tools, gadgets, spices and other staples in your pantry. Don’t forget to count chairs!

We in the culinary industry call it “mise en place.” It means having everything prepared and in place before you start cooking. Trust me, it is worth the effort.

#8 – Lighten up on the menu.

With the size of the feast on most of our tables, it really isn’t necessary to load your guests up on dips, snacks, or appetizers. A platter of cut fresh veggies should do the trick, or maybe make the snacks and appetizers potluck items.

Also, don’t be afraid to look up simpler versions of classic holiday recipes (like my “90-Minute Turkey” recipe, below).

#7 – Plan a dress rehearsal.

If you’re making a side dish for the first time or using ingredients that you aren’t familiar with, try them out beforehand so you’ll be prepared for success on Thanksgiving Day.

This also applies if you’re serving a new wine or using new equipment, like a brand new oven or slow-cooker. There’s a time and place for culinary surprises . . . Thanksgiving ain’t it.

#6 – Clear out your fridge a week in advance.

You’re going to be filling it up again pretty soon, so now is a good time to eat those leftovers, combine those four not-quite-empty pickle jars, and toss anything that tries to fight back.

Clean off the counters! Clear away all the junk—those knick-knacks, cookie jars, and kitchen gadgets you’re not going to use. Think “industrial kitchen” and you’ll be headed in the right direction.

Rule of thumb: If you’re not going to use it from November 1 to January 1, stick it in a closet.

Better yet, get rid of some of it! Find a local shelter kitchen and make a donation!

#5 – Give yourself a head start.

Do as much prep work ahead of time as you can: make salad dressings; chop onions and celery and store in resealable plastic bags in the fridge; top and tail green beans; make stock for gravy with roasted turkey wings or thighs. Potatoes can be peeled, halved, and stored in cold water for 48 hours (in fact, it makes them better!).

Make a list of everything you need to do, right up to dinner time, and note how far in advance you can practically (and safely) check it off the list.

#4 – Don’t be afraid of a potluck.

Most folks have a special holiday dish that they’re proud of, so share the spotlight of a great holiday dinner by letting them bring it. If it’s good, make a big deal about it over dinner—you’ll never have to make it again!

Keep a list so you don’t end up with six bowls of candied yams, and another list of suggested dishes (with recipes) for folks who vapor-lock when faced with a menu decision. If they’re really not up to it, a bottle of wine, a store-bought veggie plate, or a couple of bags of ice are pretty hard to screw up.

This isn’t “Downton Abbey,” folks–our guests can bring a couple of cans of olives.

#3 – Shop early (and late!).

Now that we’re just a couple of days out, you can safely buy most of your fresh ingredients.

Onions, carrots, potatoes, celery, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, green beans, potatoes, and even fresh-looking salad greens will last until Thursday provided you store them properly. Do not plan on doing any shopping on Thanksgiving Day. You don’t want any part of that nut-fest!

Pick up cheeses and cured meats for an easy, no-prep appetizer, to serve while you’re in the kitchen.

Full-contact grocery shopping not your thing? (Mine either. Those little old ladies can get vicious.)

Here’s what I do:

Find a good 24-hour grocery (I like Winco), and go between 4 and 5 a.m. Do your shopping, then stop by your favorite coffee shop on the way home for a cuppa and a bagel. Make a plan with a friend to shop together.

Taking an afternoon nap is a lot easier on you than running with the grocery cart bulls on a holiday afternoon.

#2 – Assign the final steps.

If you have older children, nieces and nephews, or in-laws that you cannot keep out of the kitchen, put ’em to work! Mother-in-law is in charge of the stuffing—getting it in the serving dish, and to the table, with a serving spoon.

Cousin Fred is in charge of making sure everyone’s glass is full. Little Susie puts the rolls in the basket, gets the basket to the table, and makes butter dishes available. Make it clear that once they have performed their job, they should take their seat at the table.

. . . because, you know, they’re the guests

Which brings us to my most important step of all . . .

#1 – Be Thankful.

This is what it’s about peeps . . not the turkey, not the pies, and not about being the perfect host.

Find a quiet spot to sit for 20-30 minutes, before you start cooking Thursday morning, and reflect on what you have to be thankful for. Write these things down, and note why you’re thankful for them.

Keep that thought firmly in place as you ride into battle. Heck, tape the list to the fridge door, in case you need a reminder later.

The secret to being a great host or hostess is to do as much as you can in advance, and then not sweat the small stuff.

If the yams burn, toss ’em out, turn on a fan, and enjoy all the rest of the great food. If the turkey burns, have a number handy to order take-out!

Talk! Laugh! Drink! Make memories!

And, most of all be thankful.

Remember: it isn’t about the turkey in the oven, it’s about all the turkeys around the table.

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About Author

Perry P. Perkins is a third-generation chef, award-winning writer, and culinary instructor. He lives with his family in Longview, and operates the MY KITCHEN Outreach Program, for at-risk and under-served youth. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including sixteen “Chicken Soup for the Soul” anthologies. He is also a reoccurring guest-chef on AM Northwest. More of Perry’s work can be found on Amazon at www.perryperkinsbooks.com, and his cooking blog at www.chefperryperkins.com.

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