Chef John Foster: Holiday Cooking is Not About Wowing Your Guests; It's About Comforting Them
The approach of the holiday season, starting of course with Thanksgiving, brings a flurry of self-help, DIY recipes and videos about food.
Most center on the main course, the treatment of the Thanksgiving turkey or the ham at Christmas. Some are dedicated to new and improved ways to set up sides, creating new out of old and trendy from traditional. Some have keen insight and strong foundations behind them and in a very real sense convey the seriousness of the occasion; cooking holiday food once a year for large and somewhat critical crowds is daunting and requires focus, good technique and a bit of luck.
Until the food is on the table or even in our bellies, what we fail to remember in this instance is that all we really wanted was food from our childhood, untouched by time and enshrined in sepia and amber. Holidays make that picture even more precious and out of focus, leading to a real danger that if you stray too far from tradition, there is a very real chance that all could be ruined.
The practical theory I try to employ for holiday cooking and entertaining is not to wow my guests but to comfort them. The turkey is not glazed with hoisin, the Brussels sprouts are not infused with Jamaican jerk. I hate to say it, the holidays are not about you or your skill but about tradition and coddling made possible by some new equipment additions and some old techniques refined for a new age.
Get yourself a stand mixer. Mashed potatoes, whipped cream for pies, even bread dough for rolls are all far easier to make and finish with a stand mixer. If you do your own real cranberry relish (not the red rubber cylinder), get yourself a grinder attachment for the mixer. Not only does it make a killer relish, it can also grind the pork for your sausage stuffing.
Invest in a food processor. Mainly to puree items such as a sweet potato or cauliflower puree, to smoothe out a gravy or to quickly mincing up aromatics if your knife skills (or energy) are lagging. The processor attachments can grate cheese or carrots, slice onion if need be, or pulse roasted pumpkin into a puree for pie.
These two pieces of equipment save time and energy that is better suited to the entertaining part. And they are not just for the holidays, I make cookies in July as well. An investment cared for can also last to the next generation, I routinely use the same grinder as my mother had, cook and serve in bowls we used at holidays for years. This cements the tradition in another generation which with luck will be using my equipment for their family dinners.
The food you choose is of a similar nature: simple and efficient. The way you prepare it is even more important. Fresh food does not necessarily mean that you are in the kitchen the moment the food is cooked and presented while your guests are sitting at the table without you. The secret of restaurant cooking is in the planning and prep. We do our best to set stations up on a daily basis so the bulk of the work – cutting, blanching vegetables, par-cooking pasta, etc. – is done and ready to finish.
Peel and dice your potatoes for mashed potatoes into half dollar sized pieces, store covered with water in the fridge and then boil the next day and finish with warm butter, cream, salt and pepper. Cranberry orange relish, whether cooked or fresh, should be done several days ahead and then plated that morning and returned to the fridge covered.
Brussels sprouts are trimmed of their stems and spotted outer leaves, plunged into boiling salted water and blanched until they are tender. Cool them immediately in ice water, drain them well and return them to the fridge covered until you are ready to roast them to done.
That stuffing that you slave over the morning of … do a day ahead and cover well. Give yourself time the day of to bring the covered dish of stuffing to room temp and then finish the re-heat with the last half hour or 45 minutes of turkey cooking. If you want a crisp crust on the stuffing remove the foil the last half hour.
This is hardy, resilient food born out of generations of tradition so with the exception of some more perishable items, like oyster stuffing and the last-minute gravy production necessitated by the turkey being cooked, you should be holding most food on the sideboard or in a low oven right before dinner. So fix a cocktail (also adaptable to pre-prep and setup), sit down with family and friends and enjoy the holidays.
Cranberry orange relish
1 bag fresh cranberries
4 fresh oranges
Sugar or sorghum
Touch of orange zest
This can be done fresh or cooked, which results in a tart upfront flavor and crunchy texture or a rich somewhat smooth and spreadable relish. I like both, but the fresh has some zing to it, so be forewarned.
If fresh, you will grind the cranberries and chunks of whole orange together, no need to add zest to this one and the juice of the oranges will add moisture. Remember that the pith of the orange will be bitter, so if that’s not your thing, peel the orange first and add a little zest at the end.
Sugar twice, once when you grind and again just before you serve. Letting the relish “marry” for a day or two will give you a better read on whether you need more sweetness. Also the colder you serve something the more heavily seasoned it needs to be. Let the fresh relish warm a bit before the final sweetening, you may not need it.
If you are cooking the relish then you will peel the oranges and section them removing the skins between the sections. The cranberries are left whole and any zest is added as a finishing flavor before the relish cools down. Bring the orange sections and the cranberries to a simmer and add some sugar. Simmer until the cranberries start to pop open.
Don’t cook the relish too long after half of the cranberries have popped or the relish will have no structure. Cool the relish to room temperature and sweeten if necessary. Some variations on both the cooked and the fresh relish can include more citrus, some chilies or traditional holiday “warm” spices like nutmeg, cinnamon and all spice. For a more international flavor try some cardamon, of star anise and instead of allspice try the original allspice – Jamaican allspice.
John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene and a promoter of local and seasonal foods for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been the executive chef of his former restaurant, Harvest, and now his Chevy Chase eatery, The Sage Rabbit.