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Thursday, November 25, 2010

Tips: Shortcuts

Cut corners not friends:

A few years ago I would have been filling up my theoretical Thanksgiving table with friends and colleagues, not characters from TV, film and my imagination. But today I would much rather be writing this post than any number of serious, pivotal graduate school application essays after gorging myself on thanksgiving brunch. Just like a diverse and colorful menu sings, so do dinner conversations when you take the time to give a little thought to your seating arrangement. For example: place your chattiest friend at the center of the table, so neither end becomes conversation heavy; or group friends with similar interests to encourage conversation. Don't be afraid to invite friends from different circles either. But, before you get on to pivotal decisions like who you're going to seat beside Darth Vader, and if Captain Malcolm Reynolds enjoys cranberry sauce or green bean casserole more, take a moment to simplify your to-do list. After all, isn't the whole point of Thanksgiving to reunite and bond with family? So in the spirit of spending more time with your guests here are some "Shortcuts" to help you get your Holiday dinner on the table faster and with a lot less work.

Tip 1: Help the grocery store, help you.
I'm not a proponent of mixes and pre-made delicacies, however delightful they can be sometimes, but a large dinner party is an obvious exception. Save yourself the time it takes to make some harvest staples from scratch like:
  • Stuffing
  • Cranberry sauce
  • Rolls or a crispy, bakery fresh country loaf
  • Green veggies (green beans, peas etc)
Simplify your table by offering some basic dishes like plain steamed green vegetables, pre-made cranberry sauce, rolls and boxed stuffing that take only a few minutes to prepare. Serving too many rich or exotic dishes, especially those with complex flavors, can overwhelm guests (and you too). Choose a few show stoppers, like a homemade pie, and fill in the gaps with selections from your grocer. Plus, these items are naturally inexpensive and abundant during the Holidays so you shouldn't have any trouble squeezing them into your menu.

Tip 2: Embrace reality, not dishes.
It is unlikely that the average college student has enough place settings, serving dishes and other tableware to feed more than four people all at once, and that is if the dishes have been done. Don't worry if you don't have the perfect number of over-sized spoons or stemless wine glasses. Mixing place settings is not only acceptable, but it makes you look like one of the cool kids (which, mind you, you already are). If you can, stick to a color family-it won't matter if the cups are different from place to place if they both evoke a rich butter cream or a vibrant blue. If not, embrace your rainbow tribute and group each setting in a single color. Using paper plates, napkins and disposable bake ware is acceptable too, but remember, if you're going disposable, go all the way.

Tip 3: Be a good neighbor.
If you find yourself short on tables, chairs or parking it's okay to ask your neighbors for a little help.
Just remember the golden rule of being a good neighbor: invite them too. Not only will your neighbors
appreciate your offer, but they will likely to lend you chairs, an extra table or baking dish or
that infamous stick of butter all good cooks are short on at least once. Plus, they can't come raining on
the charades parade after pie and ice cream if they're at the party too!

Tip 4: How to: Make from-scratch gravy
Put that packet of powdered gravy down. Making gravy from scratch isn't only easy, but it's also
easy to fix if you make a mistake.
  1. Let the drippings come to room temperature. Note: If you have the time, refrigerate the broth first. This will bring the fat to the surface, allowing you to skim off the excess. You will need to heat your broth slightly before you begin to make your gravy.
  2. Drain the juice from your cooking bag or roasting pan into a measuring cup. Skim off any excess fat that rises to the top.
  3. Add enough chicken broth to make 2 cups of broth and drippings. Check for seasoning. Add to a sauce pot, off the heat.
  4. In a small bowl whisk 2 tablespoons of flour with 2 tablespoons of water until smooth.
  5. Off the heat, add the flour mixture to the broth. Whisk until combined. Turn the heat to medium-low, stirring constantly. Note: This is a pivotal step, if you do not stir the gravy constantly it will form lumps.
  6. Once the broth has thickened sufficiently, season to taste and continue stirring for a minute. Then remove the gravy from the heat.
If your gravy forms lumps: Run the gravy through a sieve to remove the lumps.
If your pan drippings and broth is too salty: Before you thicken the gravy, peel a raw potato and add large slice to your broth. This will remove some of the salt from your broth.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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