Few challenges create more anxiety for the in-home chef than the idea of cooking the holiday meal. This meal can place two foundational hurdles to overcome for the cook.
First, is the same as taking on any group meal, the organizing, timing, preparation and execution of a multi-course and often multi-dish large meal. The second is the simple basic idea of creating the menu itself. Our Chef Matt, shared some good basic tips for the first challenge in his earlier blog. In this blog entry, I will focus on the latter challenges.
Creating the holiday meal menu presents issues ranging from the overall style, does the holiday have any traditional food connections and how traditional versus creative. I come from a large Italian family and so the basic understanding for my approach is first of course, make a lot! Secondly, consider the holiday. Most of our holidays have food associations already built into their history. A July 4th gathering conjures up outdoor grilling, summer foods and a cool refreshing fruit dessert. The meal around many religious holidays can be an integral part of the holiday gathering. And some holidays are almost entirely associated with a specific meal, none more so than Thanksgiving.
So what to serve, what to make, how traditional, how creative and how the heck am I going to be able to do this! I suggest a three path approach. First, start with the base traditional associations. Take advantage of many holidays that the ideas and menus are almost always already in place. For the sake of this blog, we will use Thanksgiving as an example.
I start with the basic accepted traditional format, a big bird, fall harvest themed foods and enough “bounty” to live through the whole winter on this one meal. Second path, the family traditions unique to your group. What pie did grandma’s grandma make and is always part of the meal? Whether it is an authentic fall pie or not, best to leave touches of tradition in family or group gatherings. And I love breaking out the hand written recipe index card from my grandmother with her chocolate finger smudges on it. Third path, add or adjust a few traditional items to place your creativity and signature on the meal. This step also allows for adjusting a recipe or two for current healthy eating trends and understandings.
Here's an example: My 2022 Thanksgiving Family Meal (21 guests)
Roasted Whole Turkey
Sweet Potato Marshmallow Casserole
Green Bean Casserole
Cranberry Sauce (with can rings)
Pumpkin or Apple Pie
My Menu 2021
Roasted Whole Turkey (brined, not bagged)
Cornbread Panzanella (modern twist)
Mashed Potatoes (traditional but not instant)
Maple Pecan Sweet Potatoes (twist)
Green Bean Casserole (traditional, but not canned)
Orange Cranberry Relish (upgrade)
True Pan Drippings Gravy (upgrade)
Chocolate Pie (Grandma’s fingerprints!)
Closing piece of advice, don’t reinvent the wheel. With a holiday meal and especially a family one, always keep in mind you are cooking for them, not you. Find the middle ground of what will make everyone happy, young and old, adventurous and conservative eaters, traditional and creative with the familiarity of dishes while placing a little of your signature on things.
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