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Holiday Cooking/Baking 101

Published: Friday, Dec. 20, 2013 3:01 p.m. CDT

Holidays getting you down? Does it feel like there is too much to do and too little time? That’s common around the holidays. Between school schedules, work, getting our homes decorated, buying gifts, social events, parties, baking and big meals, we all seem to have too few hours in the day.

While I cannot help in all these areas, the one place I may have some advice for folks is in the food department. How can you save time and still make your events special and delicious? That, my friends, is my expertise.

It usually starts with the day before Thanksgiving. I often run into folks at the store who are frantically stuffing their carts trying to get things ready for their big Turkey Day celebrations. They look frazzled, stressed and just a little unhappy about it. I, of course, look at it as just another day at work, as I cook these kinds of elaborate meals for around 20 or so almost daily.

I think the first line of defense in terms of keeping your cool during the holidays is grocery store management. What the heck does that mean? Well, be smart and efficient with your grocery shopping.

First, know your store. Going to a new grocery store that you haven’t been to before is never advisable during the holidays when your goal is to get in and get out as fast as possible. If you have to hunt for every ingredient, you will be there all day.

Second, organize your grocery list by department. You can safely divide your grocery list into columns, including meat, dairy, produce, freezer, bakery, cans, etc. By doing this you cut down on the running around because you forgot to pick up something when you were in Aisle 10.

Third, take the shortcuts where you can. If you need chopped onions or chopped bell pepper or any other pre-cut, pre-measured ingredient, there are a lot of options out there now. You can buy many of these items already done for you. I’m all for cooking from scratch when you can, but sometimes you just need to let others do the grunt work for you; this is a super way to save prep time later. Raiding salad bars is a great way to save time. In fact, this is a great tip for eating healthy but quick on a regular basis. You can do all kinds of stir fries and crock pot dishes using pre-cut fresh veggies from the salad bar and thereby increasing your consumption of these healthy items on a regular basis without much additional hassle.

The next area where you can streamline things is in the kitchen.

First, when planning your holiday menus, take a look at your timeline. I often will select some items that can be prepared a day or two ahead, and either frozen or refrigerated. This will take a lot of pressure off you the day of the big event. Many things actually benefit from marinating and in fact will taste better the next day or a couple of days later. Careful recipe planning can mean the difference between you being a slave to your party or you actually enjoying your party.

Second, remember this phrase “mise en place.” In French, this literally translates to putting something in place. In culinary school terminology, it literally refers to preparing all your ingredients ahead and laying them out so that when you finally get to cooking a dish, you aren’t scrambling to get things ready. It not only saves you a lot of time, it’ll make the cooking itself a lot easier and better. Adding ingredients in a timely fashion will insure you do not run the risk of say burning the onions while getting the carrots ready for your soup. It is a simple principle, but one that cannot be overstated in terms of importance.

Third, have all your plate and service ware laid out and ready to go. Once the food is hot and ready, you don’t want to have to figure out what to bring it to the table in while it gets cold. Having this stuff pre-arranged will take the stress out of the actual meal itself and insure your food is as hot and fresh as it possibly can be for your guests.

Finally, don’t experiment the day of your big event. Doing a brand new recipe you have never tried before is great, but perhaps not the wisest idea for a big event. You will already be somewhat stressed, and adding the stress of not knowing how a dish will turn out is just unnecessary. I always test recipes first before I spring them on folks, unless of course they are something I just came up with on a whim which I often do. Recipes are not all written carefully, and sometimes they take a little tweaking to make them work right in your particular kitchen with your specific ingredients. The last thing you want is to have the stuffing for your turkey not turn out, and then you have nothing to offer your guests.

Finally, relax. The holidays only come once a year. Ultimately they are about friends, family and an opportunity to be with them. Food is the most social thing I can think of in terms of a tie that binds people together, but it should be fun, not stressful. Enjoy the process, and above all, take care of yourself first. If you are enjoying the process and ultimately the meal, everyone around you will enjoy it even more, knowing you did it with love and passion.

Happy holidays to you all and a very happy and healthy new year.

Monika Sudakov is the chef and innkeeper at the Chestnut Street Inn in Sheffield. She can be reached at monikaandjeff@chestnut-inn.com.

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