So if the prospect of preparing a multi-course meal with your sister-in-law peering over your shoulder criticizing your use of salt, an over-sugared toddler clinging to your leg, and a 35-pound dog hovering exactly where you need to put your feet makes you want to reach for the Merlot and a take-out menu, here are some tips to make Christmas dinner simple.
Throw down buffet-style.
When I went to my first Christmas with my husband’s family in Canada 15 years ago, I was surprised that my mother-in-law served a buffet dinner. Everything was prepared ahead of time and set out for people to eat as they got hungry. At the time, lonely for my own family’s traditional sit-down meal, I thought it was weird. Now I think it’s a damn brilliant idea.
Serving a buffet dinner, especially if you have a crowd at your house, allows people to pick away at their own pace. It removes the pressure to have everything out of the oven and off the stove at the exact right time. Most importantly, it lets you enjoy your dinner in small groups. Want to avoid the Tea Party branch of the family? Take your plate and cozy up next to Grandma and listen to her stories. Or, if you’re like me, take your plate to your bedroom and nibble in blissful silence.
Make some garbage.
I know. I know. The environment. Look, I’m as granola as they come. I’m such a recycling princess that I produce less than two kitchen bags of trash a week. But this is one day. It’s not a day to stand on principle. It’s certainly not a day to waste precious family time doing five loads of dishes. You have 364 other days to save the planet. On this day, save your sanity.
App It Up.
I serve exactly two appetizers on Christmas: a veggie tray and my grandfather’s super-secret recipe cheese ball. I’d give it to you, but they’d kick me out of the family. If you don’t have a good cheese ball recipe, do cheese and crackers. The raw veggies will get some nutrition into everyone and keep them nice and regular. (Because my GAWD whose digestion doesn’t get wrecked during the holidays?) The cheese will give everyone a nice shot of protein and keep the pre-meal crankies at bay. You don’t need canapés, creamy dips, mini-quiches, pigs in a blanket, or god forbid, amuse bouche. If you want to spend your Christmas day stuffing mushrooms with artisanal goat cheese and plating them with a perfect ginger-cilantro drizzle, you’re a better woman than I.
Ham forever, turkey never.
Everyone just had turkey four weeks ago. Turkey is not so delicious that it deserves to be the star of two holiday meals. Ham is easier. Spiral-cut ham is fully cooked and can be served cold or at room temperature (take it out of the fridge 30-45 minutes before serving). This frees up valuable oven space for heating other dishes.
Turkey traditionalist? Keep it simple.
If you must do turkey, don’t over-think it. Roasting a modern, self-basting turkey is the biggest no-brainer in cooking. You do not need to deep-fry, salt-crust, spatchcock, inject, or otherwise maim your bird. A search of Epicurious shows over 1500 recipes for brining turkey! 1500. That’s insanity. All you have to do is thaw that bad boy in the fridge for 24 hours per every 4-5 pounds, clean it out (don’t forget to remove the giblets…ask me how I know…), don’t stuff it, put it in a roaster, salt and pepper the skin, and roast it for about 20 minutes per pound to an internal temp of 165 degrees. Boom. Done.
You might have visions of carrying a perfectly browned bird in to an adoring audience of turkey-worshippers to be carved at the table, but does anyone really do that? Carving a turkey is hellaciously messy. I wouldn’t attempt it on a table set with fancy linens and china and I don’t recommend you do it, either. We’re serving buffet-style, remember? Carve that bad boy in the kitchen.
Make-ahead side dishes are your friends.
This year, I’m serving ham, crockpot scalloped potatoes, roasted broccoli with lemon breadcrumb topping, cranberry relish, and a green salad. Exactly one of those dishes (the broccoli) requires last-minute cooking and even it can be mostly prepared a day or two before. A word of caution: when you’re planning out your meal, be sure that any dishes requiring heating or re-heating use the same oven temperature and close to the same cooking time. It won’t do you any good to prepare your dishes ahead of time only to realize that one needs to cook at 425 for 30 minutes, and the other at 350 for an hour.
Really? By the time Christmas dinner rolls around, how many parties will you have attended? How many rich desserts will you have already eaten? Have you already forgotten all the pie you had just four weeks ago? There’s just no need for an elaborate dessert. Make up a platter ahead of time with cookies, chocolates, and slices of fruitcake. (Yeah, I said it. I love the stuff.) Put out a basket of clementines or tangerines. Kids love those little suckers.
Go forth and Christmas!
Tradition has its place, and I am a hardcore traditionalist about some things. You can pry my post-stuffing-the-stockings, Christmas Eve glass of Bailey’s out of my cold, dead hands. Good conversation. Playing with your kids. Wine. Eggnog. Bailey’s. Maybe preparing a traditional Christmas dinner is your thing. The point is deciding what’s most important to you and your family and tossing everything else. Maybe that’s dinner. Maybe that’s your Aunt Martha. Whatever it is, I hope your Christmas day is relaxing and full of joy and wonder.