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I’m not a chef, but I might play one on Christmas Eve

While working on dinner for our Christmas celebration, a guest I had just met stood in the kitchen.  She observed my efforts for a few minutes and then asked, “Are you a professional chef?”  Of course, I laughed and dismissed the comment, but I was flattered and thought “wow, I must really look like I know what I’m doing.”  And speaking of knowing what you’re doing, I thought this funny anecdote would be the perfect segue for discussing my thoughts on planning in the kitchen.

While casual meals can be thrown together, if it’s a special occasion meal I’m making, I am definitely going to sit down in advance and come up with a plan.  My strategy is usually this.  Three to four days before the meal I will evaluate the menu and determine what items can be made days in advance.  From there, I will make a note of anything to be done the night before.  For the day of, I start by making a note at the very bottom of the page with the time the meal is to be served.  Then, I make a list of all prep work left to do that can be done in advance of starting the true meal preparation.  I then go back to my goal serving time and work backwards.

Here is example of our plan based on our Christmas Eve Dinner.  I was not alone in the kitchen, so the schedule takes that into account.  Obviously, when you’re going it alone, you’ll want to be more generous with giving yourself time to complete different tasks.

The Real Day Of Plan Document

Assorted Cheeses and Charcuterie
Prosciutto and Basil Wrapped Shrimp with Red Pepper Aioli
Baby Lettuces with Pears, Pecans, & Blue Cheese with Champagne Vinaigrette
Herb Rubbed Beef Tenderloin
Roast Brussels Sprouts with Walnuts and Brown Butter
Parmesan and Truffle Mashed Potatoes
Ice Cream Filled Yule Log

Planning Outline
Items to make 2 Days In Advance
Yule Log – Champagne Vinaigrette – Red Pepper Aioli
Day Before
Season Meat – Transfer Frozen Shrimp to Thaw in Refrigerator
Day of Task List
– Slice brussels sprouts and prepare in pan for roasting
– Roast Bacon
– Toast Pecans and Walnuts
– Wrap Shrimp and place on roasting pan
– Make Horseradish Sauce
– Grate cheese for Potatoes
– Discuss/Gather serving dishes for all items

– 3:00 Prepare cheese and meat plates
– 3:30 Take meat out of refrigerator to bring to room temperature
– 3:45 Peel potatoes and place on stove in water
– 4:00 Pre-heat main oven to 500 degrees
– 4:15 Start boiling potatoes & pre-heat second oven to 400 degrees
– 4:30 Put meat in oven; remove when temperature reaches 125 and let rest until ready to carve
– 4:40 Reduce main oven temperature to 375 degrees
– 4:45 Run potatoes through food mill/prepare mash
– 5:00 Roast Shrimp in second oven; reduce oven temp and use for keeping potatoes warm
– 5:30 Roast Sprouts- make browned butter while roasting
– 5:45 Prepare Salad & Carve Meat
Serve dinner around 6 o’clock!

I do advise reviewing the plan after the meal and making notes (at least mentally) of anything you may do differently in the future.  For example…running 5 pounds of potatoes through a food mill took longer than I thought, but overall the dinner was a success.

If this sounds like too much work, trust me, it’s worth it.  You’ll create a wonderful meal for your guests and will be able to have more fun while doing it.  You don’t have to look at the schedule as being super rigid, but more as something to keep you from forgetting what to do next.

I suppose I should wrap this up, but I have a few menu planning comments to add. While these may seem obvious, it is easy to feel overly ambitious after browsing recipes.

  • Know your limitations and those of your kitchen itself
    If you only have one oven, don’t overextend its use.
    And if you have two ovens, take advantage of it and use one for holding/warming items before serving.
    Don’t pick multiple menu items that need to be cooked just before serving or that require other tedious preparation at the last minute.  The more things you can make ahead, the more fun you’ll actually get to have during the party.
  • If practical, test out new recipes in advance and if you can’t test them, pick only recipes you feel confident making.
  • If your guests insist on bringing something…let them!  BUT suggest what it is they should bring, so you’re not in for a surprise.  I like to do shopping in advance, so fresh bread is always one item that is great to have picked up on the way over.

Hope that was helpful.  I’ve got to go, I need to work on my NYE plan. 🙂