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Nervous About Cooking for a Crowd? 8 Tips for Preparing a Perfect Holiday Dinner

Grocery Guru BlogI’ll never forget when my Aunt Nina sweetly offered to host Christmas dinner. Notorious in the family for her lack of culinary expertise, we cautiously accepted the invitation. Upon arrival, we were greeted with a plate of crackers and American cheese slices for appetizers. At dinnertime, the potatoes were dry, the cranberry sauce was canned, and the holiday ham was missing. We all ate with enthusiasm and overly-complimented my oh-so proud Auntie while wondering in quiet whispers where in the world is the ham? Just after dessert time (which consisted of a cold, boxed pumpkin pie), we heard Nina exclaim, “Oh no!” She had just realized that she’d left the ham in the oven. We laughed it off and Aunt Nina vowed to never host another holiday gathering-thank goodness.

Hosting the family holiday dinner can be tough, but stocking up on a few cooking staples and using my chef-inspired tips can take your holiday meal from boring to scoring.

1. Add Some Acidity
More than just saltiness and sweetness, our palates love a jolt of acidity. Pick up an extra bottle of lemon juice, vinegar, and wine before you start cooking. All 3 ingredients bring acidity to a dish while balancing out and living up the flavor profile. When your dish seems to be lacking a little somethin’ and it’s not salt, it’s usually acidity. Try squeezing in a shock of lemon juice to spice things up; it works every time. Vinegar is also a great seasoning tool-sometimes even better than salt and pepper. Try adding a few drops of vinegar to soups, sauces, and gravies to revolutionize the flavor of your dish.

2. Opt for Stock
Water is tasteless; it doesn’t add any flavor to a dish. Instead of using water to steam vegetables, braise, poach, or make soups, use something with some zest. Opt for stock, broth, or wine instead. Try using vegetable stock to make rice next time, and see how your dish is taken to the next level.

3. Salt It Up
I find knowing how much salt to use the trickiest part of cooking-I am petrified of over-salting a dish. However, when it comes to cooking meat, don’t be afraid to use salt - that is Kosher salt, not table salt - and add well before its cooked. In addition, be sure to add salt to your pasta water and mashed potato water before cooking. Add a container of salt to your shopping list and keep within easy reach while cooking. But remember that salt is used to improve flavors that are already there, not to add a new flavor (like pepper); if you can taste the salt, your dish is too salty.

4. Be Prepared
Just like the pros, prepare what you need before you start the cooking process. Take out all your ingredients, chop up all your vegetables, and defrost all of your meat. There is nothing more maddening that being mid-boil on the stove and realizing you’re missing a key ingredient or having to simmer down to chop an onion.

5. Tasty Taters
No holiday meal is complete without a healthy serving of mashed potatoes. To get your potatoes extra fluffy, add a pinch or two of baking powder to the potatoes when mixing them. Use an electric mixer to mix more air into your potatoes when mashing. To keep them warm (and out of the way) prepare them ahead of serving time and store them in the slow cooker on low heat. Good potatoes with real butter, a splash of milk, and some salt is all you really need for perfect holiday potatoes.

6. Simple Sides
The heart of your meal is generally the protein, so plan to invest most of your time and energy in its perfect preparation. A great, tasty, and easy side is pan-seared vegetables with a reduction sauce. (I promise, it’s way less complicated than it sounds!) Heat some olive oil in a non-stick pan over high heat and add some veggies. When the veggies start to tenderize, add some vinegar, wine, or chicken stock and let it evaporate until the liquid turns into a glaze that coats the veggies and-voila!-veggies with a reduction sauce.

7. Temp It Right
Many ingredients must be used at the proper temperature to achieve the desired result. For example, cold eggs won’t work for baking and warm butter won’t work for pies. Follow your recipes advice for temping ingredients closely.

8. Close That Oven
I know, I know-it’s so gosh darn tempting to crack open the oven door just a bit to see how things are cooking. However, you have to just say no. Each time the oven doors open the oven cools by about twenty-five degrees. Cakes will fall, popovers won’t pop, and things will take forever to cook. Use the light instead.

Plan ahead, taste as you go, use fresh ingredients, and cook with your heart-on the holidays and everyday. While cooking for the holidays can get stressful and overwhelming, take the time and precautions to ensure you and your family enjoy a great meal together. And remember, butter makes everything better.

Shyla Batliwalla, a writer who loves to cook, eat, and fantasize about food. Read about her adventures at Cupcakes and Curry.