Holiday Hacks

It's about one week until "go time" in my holiday hosting world. In the past, this is when I'd start to hit the panic button and fret needlessly about the menu(s), house preparations, and getting everything "just so". The plus side of aging (I'm almost 40 and so I'm just going to own it) is that you learn some lessons along the way and start to get a bit smarter (if you pay attention to your mistakes) and re-evaluate what's important to you as you gather others into your home.  My goals are pretty simple: 1. Serve everyone delicious food, and 2. Don't miss the fun. Moms are notorious for missing the fun, aren't we? Just in case I have some nervous, fretting, stressed-out friends who are preparing to host all the shindigs, I'd like to offer some suggestions. You didn't ask, but I'm telling you anyway. Ah, the beauty of a blog...

1. Make food ahead. I do more and more of this each year, and I swear it is life-giving. If at any time I make something in the month of December I think we may want to eat over the holidays (whether to feed company for lunch, or to be able to easily offer friends to stay for dinner, etc), I double it and freeze. My top freezer favorites are: 

Chili All you've got to do is thaw in microwave, heat on the stove, and serve with tortilla chips or fritos, cheese, sour cream, cilantro, whatever toppings float your boat. I also like to throw out some veggies and dip and maybe some cut apple slices or orange wedges. DONE.

Lentil Vegetable Soup Serve with crusty bread, cheese, and some really good wine. DONE.

Baked Ziti You can bake this from frozen (or thaw overnight). Just cover with foil and double the baking time, removing foil for the last 30 minutes. Salad, bread, wine, DONE.

Salsa Verde Chicken with Black Beans and Rice. Thaw overnight and bake, covered in the oven until hot. Set out tortillas, chips, salsa, guac, shredded lettuce, and other Mexican-inspired fixings. Beer or Margaritas. DONE. Alternatively, use this recipe for taco meat and have a taco bar. Taco meat freezes well, too.

Cookies. I literally have 5 types of cookies in my freezer right now. It takes ten minutes to whip up a batch and scoop them into balls on a baking sheet (get a 2T cookie scoop ASAP if you don't have one--it will change your life!), freeze until firm then put in a gallon Ziploc. You can bake cookies from frozen and just add about 2-3 minutes to the baking time. Here is where I tell you that while frosted sugar cookies and other fancy holiday cookies are quite delicious, they are a lot of effort for little return (plus, all your little people want to help, and you know that means errbody has their fingers in the frosting. Not cool). But, if you bust out your cookie balls, throw 'em in the oven and serve hot cookies with milk, or alongside some high quality vanilla ice cream (It's Christmas, splurge on the Haagen-Dazs), you will be a dessert hero. I've never met anyone who doesn't adore a hot cookie. If I ever do, I don't think we can be friends. May I suggest some good cookies? (All of which currently reside in my freezer)

Salted Chocolate Chunk

Malia Misses Maui

Perfect Oatmeal Chocolate Chip

Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Coconut


2. Use Paper Plates. Don't anyone shoot me for saying that. If you have a house full of company for a whole weekend, you are absolutely insane if you use real dishes the entire time. You will spend every second washing them, loading/unloading the dishwasher, and so on. Ask me how I know. Get some good quality paper plates and cups and pat yourself on the back. You are smart, and you will gain back hours of face to face time with your loved ones. I do typically still use regular silverware, but no one will mind if you serve ice cream or cereal with plastic spoons. You've just made your guests more relaxed by showing that you can let this fancy dishes thing go. If you have some beautiful china or holiday plates, may I suggest using them for ONE special meal? You will enjoy and appreciate them more if you only have to wash them once. 

3. Do What Works. I have been known to make gobs of new crazy recipes on the holidays, it's true. Not anymore. This is partly due to my kids getting older, and we have developed some Christmas Eve and Christmas Day traditions they look forward to and expect. Since we've had the same meals for several years, I've gotten really good at streamlining their preparation, and I am more relaxed about the whole thing. I no longer spend the entirety of Christmas Eve cooking (though I will spend a small chunk to eliminate work on Christmas Day), and I'm not frantically cooking complicated things after church on Christmas Eve. An hour or two on the 23rd and 24th pays off big on the 25th.  Our Christmas Eve meal consists of Cheese and Chocolate fondue. While this sounds crazy and complicated, it's really not. The chocolate fondue is made ahead, and I cut all the veggies, fruits, and breads for dipping ahead. I shred all the cheese and get my spices set out. When we get home from church, I set out the platters of dippers and whip up the cheese fondue in about 10 minutes. I don't own a fondue pot, so don't let that stop you. I just use individual custard cups for all and it works just fine. The chocolate gets reheated in the microwave and served in individual cups with strawberries, pineapple, marshmallows, angel food cake (store bought), and Oreos (because why not?). It feels special, and the work is minimal.

Christmas Day finds us enjoying a big breakfast (that bakes while we open stockings). I prep the Cinnamon Toast French Toast and scrambled egg muffins the night before in about 30 minutes. All I have to do is throw bacon in the oven (you haven't lived until you've made bacon in the oven) and toss the leftover fruit from the previous night's fondue in a bowl. We snack on cheese and crackers for lunch if we wish (if you live in Rochester, the West Circle Drive Hy-Vee has a wonderful "cheese lady" in the deli. She will hook you up with some good stuff for Christmas), and then dinner is early and always a brisket, make-ahead mashed potatoes, and some easy veggie (roasted brussels or asparagus, generally). The brisket gets marinated for 2 days and just goes straight to the oven (in a disposable pan!), same with the potatoes. Serve a couple fun BBQ sauces on the side (I'm a KC girl, so brisket without BBQ sauce is a punishable offense). You don't have to worry about dessert because you have all those cookie dough balls in the freezer, remember?

If a big Christmas breakfast ain't your thang, may I suggest some overnight steel cut oats? These cook in your crockpot while visions of sugar plums dance in your head. Just give the pot a good stir in the morning and set out various dried fruits, nuts, brown sugar, maple syrup, half and half, and maybe some berries. You are winning at hosting breakfast.

4. Order Pizza. Or get take and bake if you live in the country as I do (you can keep that pizza in your fridge for 24 hours before baking, by the way). I'm totally serious. Everybody loves pizza. Get more than you think you will eat, and you will have leftovers for the next day. Add some veggies/dip, wine and beer, and throw a movie on for the kids. Enjoy adult conversation, play a game, live in the moment. You won't regret simplifying in this way. This is the good stuff of life, soak it up.