Holiday Dinner How-To's for First Time Chefs
Blocks of a Great Holiday Meal
The key for any holiday meal plan, which includes a first attempt, is mis en place. Mis en place is a common professional term meaning essentially "everything in its place." Spending time in the beginning cutting up all the produce and seasoning the meat and blending together the dry ingredients will save you a lot of time when it's time to cook.
In relation to your question, being aware of preparing your mis en place means we should look at designing a menu that is user friendly for you, the beginner. A good beginning menu allows you easy preparation and less time spent slaving in the kitchen when you could be with your family, and friends, enjoying the fellowship of the holiday. This boils down to finding dishes which you can prepare ahead of time in the raw state (pre-cutting vegetables and such), and little time to cook.
Designing a Menu that Works for You
Begin With Your Protein
When searching out recipes to fit these criteria, look for things with few steps. Typically, you should choose a protein that you can prepare ahead then put in the oven to roast without having to do anything to it except take it out when it's done. You'll also want a protein that is fairly fool-proof. I think pork loin fits this bill and is a highly versatile, lean and very tasty alternative to ham. Pork loin also generally takes little time to roast, usually in the 30 to 45 minute range, and pairs with innumerable side dishes.
Simple Sides Fit the Bill
You should choose side dishes that adhere to your quick and easy strategy. This says to me that your sides should be things you can do in a saucepan or sauté pan on the stove top at the last minute (or ala minute, to coin another pro-kitchen phrase). They should only involve four ingredients, and less than five steps, including the cold prep.
One of my favorite things to do is to pan sear vegetables in a non-stick pan over high heat in olive oil. When the vegetables start to become tender I will add a small amount of liquid of some sort (balsamic vinegar, chicken stock, wine, etc.) and let it evaporate until the liquid becomes a light glaze that coats the vegetables. This evaporation technique is called "reduction" and is usually associated with sauce production. Some of my favorite vegetable dishes are, sliced carrot seared with butter and finished with Marsala wine reduction or seared green beans and water chestnuts with balsamic vinegar reduction.
Don't Forget Your Starch!
For your starch, you can kill two birds with one stone and roast off potatoes with the meat. On the surface this is rather mundane, but if you choose more unusual varieties of potatoes and mix them up, you can turn plain old roasted potatoes into a conversation piece at the table. Many grocers now carry varieties of "gourmet" potatoes such as Red Bliss, Peruvian Blue and Russian Banana. You may also find fingerling potatoes which are very young potatoes, and are usually very crisp and slightly sweet. The extra advantage to these potatoes is that you don't usually need to cut them up and they roast very quickly.
Find Holiday Recipes, Tips and More!
If you pull off an elegant, delicious holiday meal, and make it look as easy as crossing the street, your guests will be doubly impressed. Be sure to search through the Chef2Chef Recipe Center for recipes which fit the criteria I've laid out for you. If questions arise, there are many helpful members of C2C Culinary Forums to help you along the way.
Most of all this holiday season, remember to relax, have fun and...Bon appetite!
About Chef Tom Hoover
Chef Tom Hoover has been cooking professionally for over 30 years. He has experienced the breadth of what the industry has to offer from ice cream store to fine dining restaurants to delicatessen to his present position and life's passion- university dining and catering. Tom is an American Culinary Federation Certified Chef de Cuisine and has served as a moderator volunteer at C2C for three years.