Maybe you’re superhuman, but the rest of us mere mortals can’t possibly make an entire, elaborate holiday dinner all on the big day and have everything as warm or cold as it should be, all at the same time, just as guests are ready to eat. And maintain our sanity. I mean, really. You’ve got to have a strategy.
A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52 founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is a playbook for stress-free weekly meal-planning. (Don’t you just love making nouns into verbs? If you can lunch, you might as well dinner.) The book can help with the biggest holiday meals you’ll make all year too.
And for some help before those big days, Hesser and Stubbs gave us two recipes that can create a meal plus another meal with the leftovers, which is so necessary on busy weekdays. Get our Pan Roasted Chicken recipe and our Brussels Sprouts Salad with Anchovy Dressing recipe.
To help you plan ahead for the coming fall and winter holiday meals, we did a little Q&A with the authors.
Chowhound: How can we apply your cookbook’s tips to our holiday cooking?
Amanda Hess and Merrill Stubbs: As busy parents and entrepreneurs, we don’t have much time to cook during the week – even though food is our business! After years of trial and error, we figured out that if we want to eat well, we need to plan ahead and do the bulk of our cooking over the weekend. So our book puts forth seasonal plans for getting it all done: grocery lists, cooking plans for the weekend, and then how to mix and match the food through the week. This new way to dinner will change the flow of your weeks and improve your life. You’ll have more time with the people you love. You’ll save money on groceries and waste less food. You’ll become faster, better and more focused in the kitchen. This is especially important during the holidays, when time is tight, so all the tips in the book about using grocery lists (organized by area), planning, and cooking over the weekend apply. Merrill’s even included a holiday dinner party menu for six in the book, which utilizes some base dishes you prep over the weekend for a stress-free party.
C: What can we make ahead for Thanksgiving/Hanukkah/Christmas?
A & M: Cooking ahead for holiday meals frees up your oven and allows you to sit down and have a cocktail with everyone! Our book is full of holiday-friendly recipes (along with reheating information where necessary) — from short ribs in red wine to overnight roast pork to mashed potatoes, to cakes, cookies, and even cocktails. Amanda’s butternut squash puree is perfect for Thanksgiving and stores and reheats beautifully. We both make sour cream mashed potatoes (Merrill sometimes adds parsnips), which you can rewarm easily in a saucepan over low heat, adding a little water or warm milk to loosen. Use leftovers to make mashed potato cakes! If you want to talk turkey, Amanda plans for her turkey to finish roasting 2 hours before dinner so she can carve it, arrange it on a platter, dampen it with some gravy, and simply rewarm it in the oven 15 minutes before she serves it.
C: Tell us about a time when something didn’t work out when you cooked for your family’s holiday, and how you’ve learned from that.
Merrill Stubbs: I once forgot about a pan of Brussels sprouts roasting in the oven; they didn’t burn, but the texture turned to mush. I was doing too many things at the last minute — and trying to talk to people — and the food suffered. From this I learned to have pretty much everything finished by the time my guests walk through the door, so that I’m just keeping things warm or reheating before the meal.
Amanda Hesser: One year I got too ambitious about cookies and bought all sorts of great sanding sugars, dragées, and cookie cutters. I made the dough, and then work and life got busy and I never got around to making them. So the sugars and cutters just stared at me, forlorn, on the counter until February, when I finally gave in and put them away for another year. The holidays should be about pleasure, not self-flagellation — and ever since then, I’ve been more thoughtful about what I can really get done before building up a senseless pile of guilt!
C: What is a dish your family wants you to make every year for the holidays?
MS: My mother-in-law always talks about how much she likes my gravy (she says hers comes out lumpy and flavorless), so I’m on gravy duty no matter who’s hosting.
AH: I’m always on reserve dessert duty, which I love. I fill in whatever holes there might be — if we need an apple pie, I make. Something pumpkin? I’m on it!
C: Are there any differences in how we should prepare and entertain for Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve/Christmas dinner, and Christmas brunch?
MS: Thanksgiving usually means a bigger crowd than Christmas at my house, which necessitates better planning and more advance prep. More people equals not only more food, but also more distractions — er, opportunities to socialize — which makes last-minute cooking a significant challenge. (See above!)
AH: Thanksgiving for us is sometimes with family, sometimes with friends, so it’s rarely the same. But Christmas is often with my husband’s family, and is a fairly relaxed affair. I like to volunteer to cook for Christmas Eve because after a busy work season, it’s a chance for me to putter around the kitchen and cook a bunch of things. I don’t stick much to tradition. Last year I made a pork ragu over pasta, and a big salad. For Christmas brunch, I either make a cherry almond danish or order stollen (from Big Sur Bakery).
C: What are the best ways to store certain types of leftovers like cheese, turkey bones for soup, etc.?
A & M: Store-washed (and dried) greens or par-cooked vegetables like green beans separately in the fridge in paper towel–lined containers or bags. Make sure to use cooked vegetables within a couple of days; wait much longer, and they will have lost most of their crunch. Whenever possible, refrigerate dishes like stews, braises, baked pastas, and pilafs right in the pan they were cooked in. You’ll cut down on dishes, and it makes reheating simple. You’ll see in the book that we call for shaking up most of our salad dressings in a jar. It’s the easiest way to emulsify the ingredients, and then you’re left with both a handy storage container and one step to re-emulsify the leftovers.
Keep leftover cheese wrapped in waxed paper instead of plastic to let it breathe a little, and store bones and vegetable scraps in bags or containers in the freezer for the next time you make stock — no need to defrost before tossing them into the pot.
— Head photo by James Ransom.
Related video: 5 Portable, Make-Ahead Holiday Desserts