Put stress on the back burner by planning every detail of the holiday dinner

By , on December 7, 2015

(Photo from Flickr/Caitlin Regan)
(Photo from Flickr/Caitlin Regan)

TORONTO – Make a list and check it twice – and then again and again. That’s Ricardo Larrivee’s advice for planning a holiday party, which he follows himself.

“I have no memory. I write everything on the fridge or on a piece of paper that I keep from year to year,” he says.

The sociable TV host says the practice helps him remember what temperature to cook the turkey or to add a garnish at the last minute. When drawing up his list, Larrivee considers what needs to be refrigerated and how he’ll reheat items.

“You have to think that around the holidays your fridge is going to be stuffed. You have one oven, maybe two sometimes, but you have to survive with your oven. The turkey roast is big, but there’s the vegetables. Maybe you want to reheat a pie. So you have to really plan ahead of time.”

Larrivee, executive chef and chairman of the board of Ricardo Media, says he’s hosted many parties where he was beat before the guests arrived.

“My party was almost over for myself because I was exhausted. But we can prevent that. Prepare things ahead of time.”

He’s updated the kitschy cheese ball with jalapeno pepper, a crunchy pecan coating and a topping of fried shallots, pomegranate seeds and cilantro. Make a few and freeze them. The day of the party, thaw one in the fridge. About 15 minutes before guests are due, set it on a pretty plate at room temperature with crackers.

Lidia Bastianich recommends an herb-and-vegetable frittata for a quick appetizer. Make it ahead, cut it in wedges and serve at room temperature, the cookbook author and restaurateur says from New York.

Turkey is on most menus, though Bastianich also likes to serve goose. For an alternative to poultry, Larrivee suggests a pork rack. Clean the bones to make it look festive and elevate it with an elegant orange sauce.

“It’s way cheaper than some other racks and it can serve many people,” he says.

“MasterChef” judge Graham Elliot also recommends advance preparation to ensure smooth sailing when it comes to holiday feasts.

“I like to prepare as much as I can the day or two before, roast my turkey bones, make gravy, puree this, get this set up here, then finish it all at the last minute,” Elliot said during a visit to Toronto to promote his new book, “Cooking Like a Master Chef.”

The Chicago chef looks for ways to dress up side dishes.

“I love taking things that are traditional and messing around with them… so when you present it people are like, ‘Oh my God, I know this dish, but I’ve never had it like this.’ That’s what I like doing.”

Instead of mashed potatoes, mash root vegetables or celery root. Whip yams with maple syrup, or puree sweet potatoes with walnuts and citrus peel.

Bastianich takes advantage of the oven being on to make easy roasted vegetables, including turnips, carrots, sweet potatoes, big pieces of onion and cloves of garlic, tossed with olive oil, rosemary, salt and pepper. If there’s no room, she sautes vegetables ahead, then gives them a quick zap in the microwave before serving.

You can use a slow cooker to keep a side dish warm when the oven is occupied by a turkey, adds Larrivee.

If fridge space is at a premium, consider making a show-stopper dessert that can stand at room temperature.

“I create a place in the kitchen and people see it,” says Larrivee. “I work hard to do it and want people to admire it.”

Preparation should include cleaning the oven ahead to prevent smoking from old splatters. And give the appliance a test drive to make sure it heats.

TV personality and cookbook author Nigella Lawson tells of one year when her oven didn’t work.

“A friend of mine was 200 yards down the road, so I went there. If you saw me, I was in my pyjamas with an overcoat holding a roasting pan of turkey,” she said this fall in Toronto while promoting “Simply Nigella: Feel Good Food.”

The near-disaster had a happy resolution, with a “bit of heavy lifting on my part. I think it happens to lots of people.”