Keeping a crowd happy while dinner cooks can be simple, even when preparing a holiday feast. Just aim for dishes that can be prepared ahead of time. Then when the meal comes effortlessly together on the holiday, which demands your attention for scores of other details, you’ll look even more like a superhero!
Of course, the key to enjoying the dinner is escaping the kitchen long enough to greet guests at the door with a glass of wine or eggnog. Have 1940s jazz or holiday music playing softly in the background. Have an area set up with appetizers and drinks, perhaps in the living room, so the kitchen doesn’t get too busy.
If others are bringing dishes as well, you may wish to invest in an inexpensive set of plastic storage containers, that way your guests can bring home a serving of their favorite food or for you to keep some leftovers so the original serving dish can go home with the chef after a quick wash.
Try one of these insanely easy starters. (We won’t tell anyone they each take less than 15 minutes to prepare!)
Pickapeppa Cheese Spread
Place an 8-ounce cream cheese brick on a plate and pour Pickapeppa Sauce over it to coat. Serve with spreader knives and butter crackers.
Hot Artichoke Dip
Blend 17 ounces chopped canned artichoke hearts with 6 ounces canned green chili peppers, 3/4-cup mayonnaise, and 3 tablespoons lemon juice. Spoon half the mixture into an oven-safe non-metal pie dish. Sprinkle ½ cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese (or Pepper Jack if you want a kick but don’t have green chilis on hand) on top. Spoon the remaining artichoke mixture on top and layer with another ½-cup of shredded Jack cheese. Bake at 350F for 20 minutes and serve with tortilla chips, Triscuits, or pita chips.
Baked Brie with Berry Sauce
Spray a little non-stick cooking spray in an oven-safe dish and preheat the oven to 350F. Wrap a ½-pound triangle or mini wheel of brie cheese with ready-to-bake crescent rolls (store-bought and kept refrigerated prior to use). Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, checking occasionally. While it’s baking, blend 10 ounces raspberry or blackberry jam (or cranberry sauce for a holiday flair) with a pinch of cayenne pepper. Remove the cheese from oven and serve with sauce and butter crackers or crusty French bread.
Or to make it truly easy, put out these crowd favorites: prepackaged hummus with warmed pita bread triangles; cheese and crackers; or salsa with warmed tortilla chips.
The Roasted Bird
Roasting a chicken or turkey is one of the easiest things you can cook if you keep just a few keys to success in mind:
1) Measure your oven space prior to buying your turkey. A bird that’s too big won’t cook evenly. An easy way to measure your oven space is to put in the pan you intend to put your bird into. Hold it on each end and slide onto the shelf. If you can’t get your hands into the oven too, the pan is too big. Buy your turkey with the pan-size in mind.
2) When it’s time to prepare your bird, remove any giblets, kidneys, or parts that may be in the chest or abdominal cavity. Rinse the inside and outside of the prepared bird. Pat dry with a paper towel. While handling raw poultry, be sure to mind where you drip, touch, and spill and properly wash up after.
3) The two best ways to administer robust flavor are to pre-stuff the bird under its skin and to place additional flavorings in the cavity. The under-the-skin approach does not affect cooking time and is the easiest way to add flavor to roasted poultry. Blend butter with your favorite herbs or fruit pulp/zest and stuff it gently under the skin of the bird. Place a halved piece of the same fruit in the cavity of the bird.
4) If you properly wrap and refrigerate your fresh bird, it can be stored for two days, giving it time to soak up the flavors you stuff it with.
5) When you are ready to roast the bird, preheat the oven to 375-400F. When the oven is at the desired temperature, carefully place the bird on its proper roasting tray into the oven. The bird needs to cook 30 minutes for every pound of meat. (This is for birds with no dressing inside the body cavity.) Once the time is up, check the temperature with a proper meat thermometer. Even though a meat may “look” cooked, temperature can not be determined visually, so always check for food safety. Once the necessary temperature is reached (165-175F for chicken/turkey), remove from the oven and let the bird rest under a layer of foil for 10 minutes before carving.
From potatoes to vegetables, the side dishes make the holidays synonymous with elastic-waist attire. A few of my favorites are my mom’s stuffin’ muffins, my dad’s Brussels sprouts, and my sweet potato casserole. Here’s the simplified recipe for the sweet spuds:
Sweet Potato Bake
Pierce 6 to 8 sweet potatoes before baking in the oven at 400F for one hour. Let rest on the counter to cool slightly, then peel and mash them, blending in 2 ounces unsalted butter and 1/3-cup maple syrup. Once mixed completely, add 2 ½ tablespoons ground cinnamon, 1 teaspoon nutmeg, and 1 teaspoon vanilla sugar, and blend again. Spoon the mixture into an oven-safe baking dish and smooth the top. In a skillet over low heat, melt ½ cup salted butter, then stir in 1 pound of fresh pecans. Stir regularly until pecans are coated with butter and warmed completely. Then adorn the top of the sweet potatoes with the nuts, sprinkle 2 to 3 tablespoons brown sugar evenly over the top, and bake at 300F for 20 to 25 minutes.
Parisian Green Beans
Melt butter in a pan over medium heat then add up to ¼ cup of sliced garlic (or sliced almonds). After 2-5 minutes, stir in the contents of one bag of frozen green beans that have been at room temperature for 10-20 minutes. Cover to cook for 10 minutes, stirring regularly. Remove the pan’s lid and let cook, continuing to stir often. Serve hot.
Green Bean Casserole
In a saucepan over medium heat, warm three cans of condensed cream of mushroom soup. Stir in three cans of green beans, drained of water. Once mixed, spoon into a baking dish and top with French fried onions. Bake at 300F for 15-20 minutes and serve hot.
Drinks & Desserts
There may not be room for dessert right away, but later everyone will want a slice of something, so why not make a homemade pie? This old-time recipe is simple and refreshing. I also have a few fruit pie recipes, if you prefer.
Grandma’s Ice Box Pie
In a small saucepan over low heat, mix 1 teaspoon instant coffee with 2 tablespoons water then stir in broken pieces of 2 chocolate bars (dark or milk chocolate, your choice, but use an almond or fruit one for something fancy). Stir constantly to make sure the chocolate does not stick to the bottom of the pan. Once melted, transfer to a mixing bowl and fold with Cool Whip. Pour it all into a pre-made Oreo pie shell and chill in a cold refrigerator until firm. This can be prepared up to 24 hours in advance and stored in your fridge until dessert time. Garnish with sprinkles or whipped cream and cherries or sliced almonds.
In a saucepan over low heat, blend 3 cups of port wine and 2 cups of boiling water. Rub 12 sugar cubes over the skin of 2 large clean and dry lemons to take on the oil of the peel then stir the sugar cubes into the port mixture. Add the juice of one lemon, ¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg, and ¼ teaspoon vanilla extract. Serve hot and garnish with a thick slice of the second lemon that has been adorned with 3 or 4 cloves.
However you plan your big day, remember that if you have time to enjoy yourself, your guests and family will have more fun, too.