The Christmas holidays are brutal, they are not for the weak or faint-hearted. It is a time for the fittest, the strongest and the bravest. You have to possess certain qualities in order to survive, and still have the energy needed for January 2 when you return to work. You need to be an organiser, a shopper, an entertainer and oh, a cook.
Of all the activities that take place during the season, food gets the most attention – from selection to preparation to consumption.
If we’re not careful the holidays can take the joy out of cooking, even for those of us who love to cook. We’re not only busy planning menus and shopping for ingredients but we’re also making the gift-list and checking it twice so that no one’s left out.
We’re cleaning and decorating the house, squeezing in errands during our lunch time and keeping our commitments to organise the church’s annual Christmas luncheon and the staff party. Even writing it seems exhausting.
But I have a plan – a plan that always works for me and I know that it can help you. Feel free to tweak it here and there to suit your circumstances and make it your own, just as you would a recipe.
The big meal is usually on Christmas Day. For some people it is on Boxing Day or New Year’s Day – depending on how large the family is and which in-laws house you go to etc. Regardless of which day it is, there is that one, major meal gathering that you pour all your efforts and energy into, so here’s a game-plan for that meal.
Family & Friends: Make a list of the people that you are inviting. As you go through the list of names, make a note of allergies, intolerances and vegetarians if there are any. If you don’t know off the top of your head be sure to ask the person when you extend the invitation.
The Food: Stick with the traditional favourites such as ham, roast chicken, fried rice, rice and peas, macaroni pie sweet potato pie and potato salad but consider some that you’ve not made in a while, or, introduce a couple of new dishes.
My advice would be to make the new dishes a couple of times beforehand, like a test run. Trust me, you don’t want to try making it for the first time the same day you plan to serve it; you don’t need the added stress if it does not come out the way you expected it to.
If you don’t want to try a whole new dish, why not try a different method of preparing an old favourite. Add a new spice or a different herb. For example, instead of steaming your vegetables, you can try roasting or grilling them to bring out their natural sweetness. A squeeze of lemon juice and a sprinkling of salt will give them a delightful combination of flavour — salt, sweet and sour at the same time.
Even a different way of presenting the food can make it feel special. Throughout the year when my mother would make baked chicken it was always cut into quarters, but at Christmas, she roasted the chicken whole with stuffing. The presentation alone made it festive yet it was the same chicken we had been eating all year round.
The truth is, some people want to have their holiday food the way they remember them. Family and friends visiting from abroad want to immerse in local food and the dishes they have not had in ages so it’s fine to have some fried fish, stew and curry as a part of your feast.
Shopping and Pre-ordering: Plan the meal in advance and shop early for your ingredients. The non-perishables can be bought long in advance, the perishables at leasttwo to three days before the meal. Order the meat and poultry at least a month in advance in order to have a timely delivery.
Equipment and Furniture: Take out your large pots and pans, check and clean your cutlery. Now is the time to bring out the silverware, china and other special crockery.
The food is best served family style (aka buffet). Do you have enough chairs and tables? Renting or borrowing is an option. Our family and my aunt Betty’s always had Christmas breakfast together (they lived in the upper part of the house and we the lower) so the night before, my cousins would bring down their dining table and chairs and join it with ours so everyone would sit together. It stayed that way until Boxing Day.
Help: You do not have to prepare everything yourself. Get your family and friends to help. Your guests — those who can cook — can bring some of the side dishes even dessert, based on your menu. A few years ago when I was in Guyana for Christmas, Mom or I did not spend much time in the kitchen because we agreed beforehand with all the family coming for the meal what they would bring. By organising things that way none of us, including the guests had to spend a long time in the kitchen on Christmas day.
Oh, please don’t leave the guys out assuming they can’t cook. Many men can cook and want to cook. My brother is (yes, I’ll admit it) a boss cook! It’s also a great time to create memories and pass on some traditions by having your children help you in the kitchen. Depending on their age, they can help you to peel, grate, butter the pans and even set the table, which used to be one of my early jobs.
Prep and Cook ahead: It is not necessary to prepare everything on the same day of the meal. Most people do this and that is why they end up spending the entire day in the kitchen and then they are too tired to enjoy their guests and the gathering.
Certain things can be prepared in advance. My mother always baked the ham, chicken and pork on Christmas Eve night. The vegetables were prepped the night before also and refrigerated. Cakes and desserts were made at least two days in advance. Depending on what you are making, plan ahead and cook some things in advance so that on the day itself all you have to do is assemble.
Happy planning and merry eating.
* Cynthia Nelson is a journalist, tutor, food photographer and author of the award-winning book: Tastes Like Home – My Caribbean Cookbook (IRP 2010). She writes regularly about food in various Caribbean Publications.
Book: Amazon (online) Locally: Pages, Cloister’s, and Days Bookstore.