I thought I’d offer up some tips on cooking a big Christmas feast (or Thanksgiving, or Easter, or birthday, or any other holiday you celebrate). I’m not an expert, but I’ve pulled off a few 10+ or 20+ meals successfully—that is, without running out of food and without giving anyone food poisoning, or doing anything like charring the poor turkey to, er, death. After the jump and after the recipe, check out my suggestions and things to plan for, from the simple to making sure you don’t overdose on butter, and how to use up leftovers and extra ingredients.
This recipe for garlic roasted potatoes caught my eye because they aren’t your average roast potatoes! I struggle with plain roast potatoes sometimes, as usually I dream of smothering them with butter, sour cream, chives, and bacon bits. Aussies don’t do this very often, however, though roast potatoes are a common side dish to winter meals. These roast potatoes were pretty good (if I do say so myself), though next time I hope to have some fresh rosemary on hand to really develop the flavour.
Garlic Roasted Potatoes
Based on “Garlic Hassleback Potatoes” recipe on Momofuku for 2
Makes: as much as you need
Cooking time: 30 minutes hands-on, 1 hour baking (ish)
Difficulty: Moderate, but only because of the knife work
- 1 potato per person (plus a few extra, just in case)
- 1/3 a medium-large clove of garlic per potato
- salt & pepper
- rosemary, fresh or dried
Carefully slice each potato into fine slices, but not cutting through the potato—go about 90% of the way through. You can place them on a large spoon to stop your knife from going the whole way through, or just hold the potato in your hand and slice carefully as I did (this was a lot easier, I found). Potatoes are pretty juicy though, so careful not to let your knife slip!
Slice your garlic into as fine slices as you can bring yourself to do—try for 1-2 mm thick (1/8″). Again with nimble fingers, slide 4-5 slices of garlic in between the sliced potato. Be careful not to snap your potato in half on accident!
Sprinkle or brush potatoes lightly with olive oil or water, as this will help your spices stick to the potato. Sprinkle generously with pepper, salt, and dried rosemary if using. Place a small knob of butter on top of every potato, topped with a small sprig of fresh rosemary if using.
Bake on a lightly greased cooking sheet at 350 F / 180 C for an hour, or until potatoes are golden, soft, and the slices begin to pull away from each other. Serve warm.
Whether cooking for four or cooking for twenty, I think that one of the hardest parts about cooking is getting your timing right. It’s no small feat to have several dishes prepared, dressed, hot and ready to serve all at the same time. Creating a feast for friends and family is no small feat, and when I see experienced mums and grandmothers (and dads and grandfathers!) swipe together a meal for six (or more) with near-effortless grace, I’m thoroughly reminded of just how far I have to go. My dad’s stories of my French Canadian great grandmother cooking Christmas dinner for twenty+ family members—mostly just the sheer number of pies she had to make—are just humbling.
Cooking a feast is a lot of work; that should never be underestimated. The payoff is worth it though! Sitting down and digging into your plate, surrounded by people also enjoying the fruit of your labours, is a satisfaction hard to describe. And don’t forget—the cook never cleans. I guess I’ve gone to no few lengths to get out of doing dishes! If you find yourself the cook for your next feast, here are some pointers to keep in mind to make sure everything goes smoothly.
Plan, plan, plan, and plan some more
This is the number one step to make sure that your meal goes smoothly. A week (or two) before your feast, sit down and figure a few things out. Here are some questions to get you going:
- How many are you cooking for?
- What’s your menu?
- Is anyone vegetarian, vegan, have allergies, special dietary requirements, etc.?
- Do you have all the ingredients?
- Will everything that you want to cook fit in your oven, especially if it needs to be served hot?
Making food in advance
For my recent Christmas in July feast, I made almost the entire meal the week before. I made a different kind of cookie or dessert almost every night that week, and the night before made sure that sauces, doughs, snacks, etc. were prepared. That meant that on the day of the feast itself, we only had to chuck a few things in the oven and make one pie filling. Trust me, you will not survive if you try to make everything in one day! Remember too that some recipes need to be made in advance, such as when cookie dough needs to chill overnight, or when stuffing crumbs need to be dried out over a day or two.
Don’t OD on the butter
I love cooking with butter. In Australia, a simple butter is less expensive than a margarine which is actually worth using (many cheap margarines have so many chemicals in them that you truly are better off eating butter in reasonable amounts). Real butter has such an amazing flavour, texture, and even scent that it makes me drool just thinking about it. However, be aware that if you’re doing a whole week’s worth of baking and cooking in advance, you’re going to be dealing with a whole lotta butter. I almost overdosed on it this July… please, do not let such a tragedy happen to you!
Catering to vegetarians
With a little forethought, holiday feasts can almost always be made completely vegetarian (with the exception of your bird, ham, or roast, of course). When making dishes that call for meat, or meat broths, think about substituting nuts or vegetable broth. Even gravy can be made vegetarian. Having a vegetarian in the crowd also gives you an excuse to come up with a delicious extra protein dish, such as the roasted walnut balls recipe.
Outsource some talent
Part of the satisfaction of cooking a feast—for me, at any rate—is seeing it through from start to finish and touching on every step along the way. There’s stress associated with it, but it’s something I find really satisfying. Potluck dinners (where everyone brings a dish to share) are also amazing, though an entirely different kind of a feast! Still though, there’s no reason to hurt yourself over one meal. People like bringing things to contribute, so take them up on offers of salads, special roasted veg, garlic bread, or an additional pie or two. Or wine. 😉
Using up ingredients
When cooking a big feast, undoubtedly you’ll end up with random ingredients left in your fridge. Most are easily used up, but the two I find hardest to use up are leftover cream and cranberry sauce. The cream is difficult to use because after a big holiday feast, the last thing you usually want to do is cook or eat more full-fat, heavy dishes. My suggestion is to freeze your cream and use it in a couple of weeks when you can bear to look at it again. Freeze it either in an air-tight container or in ice cube trays (then take these frozen cubes and seal them in a plastic bag). The internet jury is out on whether or not you can whip cream that has been frozen, but you’ll still be able to use it in soups, baking, or sauces. (Plus, how awesome would a creamsicle be in a bowl of hot spinach soup?) As for cranberry sauce, my suggestion is baking! I’ve got a cranberry sauce & yoghurt loaf or muffin recipe in the back of my head. Fortunately, cranberry sauce keeps well in the refrigerator, and can also be frozen if need be.
Keep that carcass!
When you’re living a lifestyle without a lot of disposable income, you start looking at food a bit differently. Celery leaves and beet greens that I would have discarded even a few years ago start looking like great salad additions. Shamelessly collecting windfall lemons. Chicken carcasses from roasts that still have those little bits of meat that you just can’t quite pick off… and when I saw this article at the Simple, Green, Frugal Co-op blog, I knew that I was destined to start making chicken stock! I’ll also be posting a recipe for this soon (it’s darn easy), but trust me when I say that it’s so worth making sure that your roast chicken or turkey carcass doesn’t find its way into the garbage straight away—it’s got a stop in your soup bowl to make first.
Okay, I’m sure there are a gajillion other tips & tricks that I’m missing, and clearly there are a few recipes I should get on to posting! Best of luck in cooking your next feast. What are your tried & true feast-cooking tips that we can learn from? 🙂