Thanksgiving is only a few days away and, yes, the holiday season is upon us. That means loads of laughter, spending time with family and friends, exchanging gifts and hosting parties. Recently, my wife, son and I had dinner at a new friend’s place. She, with her husband and three kids, recently moved to New Jersey from New York City and, with a nice spacious kitchen and putting work on hold to be the homemaker, she’s decided to host both Thanksgiving and Christmas for her family. I think she said the total count is going to be around thirteen. So, in preparation, she had us over for dinner and practised with a chicken (pictured above) and some veggie dishes (a cauliflower one and a Brussels sprouts one) she learnt at cooking classics she’d taken at Williams and Sonoma and King’s Supermaket, both in Short Hills.
Looking back, growing up in Hong Kong, my family’s flat was the largest of the other homes of my parents’ friends and co-workers. For that reason and also, perhaps, from a ‘corporate mindset’ of the boss hosting the annual party (of the jobs my father had while in Hong Kong – journalist and business owner – he was among the higher ups), I recall that most of the holiday gatherings were held at our place. Thanksgiving isn’t celebrated in Hong Kong but we did serve turkey at our gatherings – something my mother took with her from her German-American father – and we did celebrate Christmas and New Year’s in grand fashion. As a family, Christmas was an intimate affair with midnight mass on Christmas Eve, home for a feast and opening Christmas presens, staying up late, and sleeping in on Christmas Day. The big party my mother would host usually fell on Boxing Day. For New Year’s, the big event was usually on New Year’s Eve but sometimes on New Year’s Day. During those years, and the times my mother hosted Christmas parties in New Jersey before my parents moved back to The Philippines, I acquired a few handy tips that have helped my own parties run more smoothly than not. And, if I can pat myself on the back a little, I have prepared feasts, largely single-handedly, for parties of twenty or more and, sometimes, in a kitchen the size of a small New York City closet.
So, with the holidays approaching, I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve learnt, from my mother and others, to help your holiday celebration turn out tasty, run smoothly and be a challenge for your in-laws to top.
1. If you have a frozen turkey, make sure you give it enough time to defrost completely. I’m moving mine from the freezer to the fridge tonight so it’s thawed by Thursday morning.
2. Do any prep work you can days ahead of time. If anything can be cut, diced, puréed, etc do it now. Things like gravy and cranberry sauce can be made ahead of time and reheated, if needed. Pies, too. To this end, if out of town guests arrive early and are staying wih you, heck, put them to work. If not with the preparations and cooking, with kid-watching and errand-running.
3. With large family gatherings, make a little more than you were planning to and, if you’re doing a sit down, make sure you have extra place settings. There’s always that last minute person – your sister-in-law’s single friend, for example – who shows up.
4. Have some kid-friendly food ready. While I’m a big believer in kids eating what they’re given – the home is not a restaurant, after all – some kids (heck, some adults) just don’t like certain things and we don’t want anyone to go hungry.
5. Don’t take every (seeming) criticism from your mother or (cue Darth Vader music) your mot her-in-law to heart. It’s not worth getting into a battle over. Each generation has a way of doing things.
6. Plan your menu ahead of time. This is something you should’ve done already.
7. Tagging on to number 6, get to the store early and buy extra. I’ve noticed over the years that the Sunday before Thanksgiving – yesterday – is the busiest food shopping day of the week leading up to Turkey Day. It’s too late to get there before yesterday but, if you have to go again and not just for a run in, go early in the day and earlier in the week.
8. On the day, make a plate for yourself and stash it in the kitchen. Much like being the bride and groom at their wedding reception, the party host doesn’t often get to have a decent meal; busy with entertaining, serving, etc.
9. Be flexible. If something doesn’t turn out right, turn it into something else. You have the ability to do so. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t have had the gumption to even attempt hosting.
10. Allow yourself to have fun, don’t worry if you make a mistake in your cooking and, if you need to, say “F**k it!” Thanksgiving, Christmas, whatever you’re celebrating and hosting is one day out of three hundred and sixty-five. If it turns out great, you’re a star. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t define who you are. Bottom line, you gave it a shot and you probably learnt something about cooking and, more importantly, about yourself. Be better prepared next year or let someone else host. And, in the long run, it’s going to be one of those memorable days you and your kids will look back on with with fondness and/or good humour.
Anyway, so those are my ten quick tips to help with your holiday preparations. Good luck but, more importantly, have fun. Cooking and hosting are meant to be fun endeavours. Remember that.
Oh, and, Happy Thanksgiving! (albeit a little early).