How to Actually Enjoy Holiday Dinners, Even If You’re the One Cooking

How to Actually Enjoy Holiday Dinners, Even If You’re the One Cooking
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You can smell it in the earth. You can feel it in the air. It’s every home cook’s favourite holiday and worst nightmare: Thanksgiving dinner. Weeks spent planning ahead, poring over food mags, and planning a menu that isn’t just the same old turkey. When the day arrives, you spend hours working over steaming pots and pans and a very full oven, before finally sitting down and spending the entire meal worried about getting started on the dishes.

No more. I have missed far too many social gatherings and holidays trying to do it all, and at this point in my life, I would much prefer to be a present host than an absentee cook. There is something to be embraced about the chaos of the kitchen on this day, something that only comes once a year. This experience should be shared with your guests, and it’s something many of us have forgotten for the sake of a picturesque meal.

Ask for help

This is the hard part, the part where you have to swallow your pride and admit that you need assistance. You don’t need to invite six people into a 3-square-metre kitchen, but there is no reason you need to be alone on a holiday that, based on what the greeting cards tell me, prizes itself on togetherness. For a very long time, I wanted to give my mum a day off and do it all myself. I did, after a few heavy anxiety-driven outbursts, complete the meal and get everything on the table hot, but I didn’t have a single appetizer, it took me almost seven hours from start to finish and for all that, and I got to sit down for about 10 minutes. There is nothing enjoyable about that.

It’s too long of a day to be alone in the kitchen, and shuffling your guests into the lounge while you whisk away at gravy and worry about rolls is hardly warm or inviting behaviour, especially if you haven’t seen those guests in months — or years. People tend to gather in the kitchen anyway, so put them to work when they wander in, and use that prep time to catch up.

There are plenty of things to do in the kitchen, no matter the culinary skillset: peeling and chopping, melting butter in the microwave, dealing with those wretched pearl onions, or just making sure everyone is sufficiently hydrated.

Spread it out

A wise man once told his son, “Many hands make light work.” You’re not going to be using your dining table for a few hours, so cover it in newspaper and have yourselves a round-table meal-prep session. You’ll finish cutting your crudités, peeling potatoes, and snapping green beans much faster together than you could alone — but you can take advantage of those extra hands and slow down yourself to a far more leisurely pace while enjoying the company of your guests with the work spread out.

Make lists and delegate

In the heat of the moment, when you’re getting down to crunch time, it pays to have someone who is on the same page as you (literally). Print out a recipe and tape it up near where you’re working, and give people a copy of your timeline (if you have one). You can even move slow cookers and multi-function pressure cookers to their own little “stations,” with a recipe card and necessary tools right next to the cooker, and create a mise en place at each station. If my dad can handle “check the potatoes in four hours,” there’s someone at your house who can do the same. And if you want to take it a step further: Lay out garnishes and other finishing ingredients and serving utensils so people don’t have to squeeze into the kitchen to get them. A lot of festive dishes can be assembled in a single pot, so be sure to take advantage of this.

If guests want to make their own dish in your kitchen, and aren’t coming from hundreds of miles away, ask them to measure their ingredients ahead of time, and bring their own cookware and serving utensils. Serveware is easy to find at the thrift store, but Goodwill isn’t open on holidays.

Break out the sous-vide circulator

Not every helping hand is attached to a body. Since it’s very likely that you’ll run into some timing issues, you may need a way to keep stuff warm. Sous vide not only fits that bill, but you can make some pretty killer side dishes with it. Dust off your immersion circulator and that big ol’ Cambro that you had to have and set your immersion circulator at 140°F. Boil and mash potatoes to your heart’s content, bag ‘em, and move on.

Set up a buffet

It’s undoubtedly the best way to serve holiday dinners, and the humble buffet also lets you skip plating and passing dishes around an already too-crowded table while everything cools off. You’ll spend more time sending the gravy train around the tracks than you will in the dining cart, so to speak, so find yourself a folding table or counter and get your turkeys in a row. The line is always a good place for conversation, last minute giggles, and for grabbing another beer on your way to the table.

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