This morning I got an email from amazon.com inquiring as to my readiness for the upcoming holidays. Now, of course, they were just trying to sell me a roasting pan and a cookbook or two, but it did get me to thinking that it is never too early to start planning for the increased amount of cooking that I’ll be engaging in over the next couple of months. And I was reminded of one of my personal rules for catering–because, frankly, if you’re cooking for a group of people with the intention of entertaining and impressing with time constraints added in, you’re catering (for free, no less)–that I’ve established over the years (and not the one that involves never, ever catering a friend’s wedding). And it’s this: when cooking for large groups (and I consider anything over 10 a large group) try to avoid cooking something you’ve never cooked before.
Now if you’re like me, you want to have fun in the kitchen and not serve the same old holiday fare year after year. But in addition to worrying about last minute shopping, getting the house ready for guests, and/or getting to a holiday party on time with your goodies, the last thing you need to be stressing about is a casserole that just won’t cook or a custard that won’t set. So if you can identify those items that you may not be as comfortable with as the old standbys, I’ve always found that a little practice run can help. This doesn’t mean, however, that you’ve got to cook up some lavish turkey feast on a random weeknight or greet your family at the door with a tray of hors d’oeuvres. But if you’re looking to go out on a limb with some new ingredients and/or techniques this year, Thanksgiving morning with the barbarians at the gates may not be the best learning environment in which to expand your kitchen repertoire.
So whether it’s trimming an artichoke, cubing a butternut squash, shucking an oyster, trussing a pork loin, making a bread pudding, rolling out yeast rolls (see pic, whipping up an Italian meringue or any other countless potential kitchen undertakings, it can never hurt to identify those things which might not be quite in your culinary comfort zone and maybe go out and find a recipe that incorporates an unfamiliar ingredient or technique that you know you’ll be using in crunch time this year. (Myrecipes.com has a great search engine that not only identifies recipes by their titles but it also scans the bodies of the recipes for any keywords you enter. Also check out our Ultimate Holiday Cookbook for our best festive recipes.) Treating your family and friends to new culinary delights should be one of the great joys of the holidays, and a little research/legwork on the front end can go a long way towards ensuring this goal while minimizing any undue stress at a time when celebration (and not frustration) should be the only thing coming out of the kitchen.