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Friday, December 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 26.0° F  Overcast
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Think small: Tips for keeping your holiday entertaining within limits
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Credit:Paul Stroede

I recently had dinner with a friend who lamented that she had just made "practice" turkey legs. She would have practiced with a whole bird, had one been available in October. Her turkey last year was a flop.

The holidays are upon us. Along with the merriment of family, friends and food, there's a certain level of anxiety that sets in. Who's coming? What to make? Where is that sweater?!

Take a deep breath.

You do not have to bake a ham.

You do not have to dress a lamb.

Just focus on the here and now.

Having been a holiday orphan most of the years I've been in Madison, I've had the luxury of just bringing a dish to pass without any larger planning. Last year, one of the most delightful meals I had was a taco bar for Hanukkah. The food was delicious, but what was so charming about the experience was the unfamiliar feeling of walking in and thinking, "Wow, I feel at home." Success.

My hosts were relaxed. I was relaxed. And it wasn't just the wine.

From that dinner, I've drawn a few ideas to help novice or nervous hosts finesse festivities with less stress.

Know your guests, know yourself, and know your limits.

Start small, although you can certainly test your limits if you find the challenge uplifting.

For example, my apartment is a 233-square-foot box. With a bathroom.

But I do like to feed people, so this season I'm going to run with the "small" theme: a small gathering, with small plates over a game of small-scale world domination (i.e., Risk). Think outside the box. The holidays don't have to look like the Last Supper.

Be equipment-wise.

Work with what you have. I write a cooking column, yet here's what I have in my cupboard: a saucepan, a stockpot, a cast-iron skillet, an immersion blender and a rice cooker. I sold my KitchenAid stand mixer. If you're trying to keep entertaining simple, don't create extra work by cooking something that's going to require you to hand-mash something. By the same token, do invest in learning basic knife skills. You'll find that your hands rid you of dependency on a lot of gimmicky appliances.

Make a prep list.

It's a to-do list, basically. And work in stages. Start by preparing what will hold well, or even benefit from being made in advance.

Do what you like.

You are the host, after all, and I firmly believe that what goes into a product comes out. If you are putting four-letter words into your ham, it's going to show. Because one thing leads to another, right? In a domino effect, verbal damnation leads to forgotten timers, spilled ingredients, burnt ends and a frazzled host. If making gravy raises your blood pressure, sink that gravy boat!

Seriously, tacos.

If the Old Fashioned's wildly popular Taco Tuesday is any indication, tacos make for pleased palates. Some of the most soul-satisfying food to me is braised meat. Crock-pot some turkey legs until the meat falls off the bone. Slow and low cooking is a largely hands-off process (freeing you to attend to other things), and it offers something special to guests - a fork-tender effect that you must wait to enjoy. There is no hurrying the process. And there's something grand in that.

Beef is lovely with a dash of cinnamon in the mix, or try some pork with a kick of star anise. For vegetarians, add a sachet of herbs to beans when they're cooking; you'll be glad you did.

Salsas and fixings can be tailored to fit the holidays. Make your own salsas, if you like, but consider chutneys too.

Go self-serve.

Create a different type of self-serve bar. Have a retro night with classic sandwiches: cold turkey clubs and BLTs, along with 1950s salads and dessert molds (it's easy to make these ahead of time). Play around with variations, too, like sriracha-spiked deviled eggs. Or maybe sushi rolls are more your style. Put out nori, rice and a table full of vegetables for your guests.

Downsize.

Small immediately makes something look either fancy, cute or both. Both are good in the entertaining realm. The beauty of it is that you can miniaturize just about anything. Make mini-casseroles. Puff pastry shells work great for this - try a shepherd's pie or even spanakopita. For a breakfast-for-dinner theme, try mini-quiches or tartlets.

Sweets also work well. Cake pops were recently a huge hit in the baking world and are easy to make at home.

And...that's a wrap.

Dumplings, pot stickers, pierogies, dolmas and empanadas are just a few ways to serve up a good time, without confining guests to a table. All of these wrapped goodies are highly customizable. Granted, it does require some time to bundle them up, but your guests will love the fact that you went to the effort.

Bring joy.

If the holidays are about giving, the last thing you want is to give guests a helping of secondhand anxiety. Work within your means and prepare what brings you joy, instead.

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