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The holiday season is upon us and far too many home cooks panic just at the thought. But, if you take the time to organize your holiday get together, like a professional chef would, it will be easy-peasy. Start by taking a deep breath, getting a pad of paper and a pen, and finding a comfortable and quiet place to sit. No, I am not kidding!
Start by making a list of the people you want to invite. Please make sure they are compatible, if at all possible! The worst dining disaster I ever had come about because I invited two people whose basic opinions were diametrically opposed. It was not pretty, not pretty at all.
Taking that list into consideration (allergies, strong likes and dislikes) come up with a basic menu. If you want a simple affair, that doesn’t last too long, serve a family-style menu, with the main course and sides all on the table at one time, followed only by a dessert. If you really like the people you are inviting over, and want the meal to linger over a long afternoon, serve four or five small courses, with long, happy pauses in-between. By small courses, I mean really small, just a few bites each. You will turn a happy table into a miserable one if you serve too much food.
Start with something on the table (I think it bad manners for guests to sit at an empty table when they arrive). Remember not to serve heavy courses early! Maybe an Italian style bruschetta, or locally baked bread, toasted, along with a smoked tuna dip as a first course. Move on to a pasta or rice dish, lightly sauced. I like to serve a nice twist of pasta on a dinner fork, really just one big bite, on a small plate. It looks attractive and is novel enough that your guests will enjoy it. Move on to a meat course, with a small accompaniment that is not too starchy. Next, a cheese course would be good, followed by dessert. Remember to try to theme your menu (Italian, Southern, Creole, etc.), so that the courses and sides make sense and are related. It will give a flow to the meal.
Once your menu is complete, take it to your local wine store and ask for pairing suggestions.
Make sure to tell them what your budget is and how many people are coming. Pairing wines can make a big difference. If you do not wish to serve wine, pair fruit juices or flavored water for your guests.
Now, make a grocery list, go over it several times to be sure you have left nothing out and head to the grocery store.
Perhaps the most important step is to do as much prep the day before as is possible. It is not fun for your guests to arrive and find an exhausted cook who is more interested in getting the day over with than entertaining friends! Chop all the veggies and put them in Ziploc bags. Some dishes, like peas and beans, can be made the day before, and are actually better for have a nice rest overnight. Many desserts will be fine with an overnight wait. But most meats need to be cooked just before guests arrive. Get the bulk of the work done the day before and you will enjoy the holiday much more!
A few more random thoughts, take some time to think about how you want to plate each dish, it is important. Also, give some thought to who sits next to who. It can make a big difference! Make sure to use clean plates for each course, and when you change wines, change wine glasses as well. Organize your kitchen, have plates set out, and courses grouped together on the kitchen counters. All the knives and forks can be placed on the table before the meal begins.
Get organized, take your time, do all the prep you can the day before, and don’t forget to get a good night’s sleep! Then, have fun!