10 Timely Tips for the Holiday Kitchen

Invite these savvy secrets into your kitchen this season as you host festive dinners for your own household or for a house-full of guests. Here you’ll find some helpful guidelines for prep, service and preservation.

* Who likes to chop garlic? Nobody! If you press the clove it can add in bitter oils and if you chop it the pieces stubbornly stick to the knife blade and all your fingers. Do this instead. Start pressing a fork all along the perimeter of the clove, working gradually toward the middle. What’s so nice about this technique is how you can control the result, stopping when you have a coarse chop, or continuing for a fine texture, or adding a little salt to work it into a paste.

* And what about ginger? Here the challenge is navigating around the bumps and trying not to remove too much of the good stuff. In this case, go back to your silverware drawer but this time pull out a regular ol’ teaspoon. Use the tip to scrape off the peel, gliding smoothly over the terrain, and you’ll find it’s pretty much just thin strips of the peel that you easily remove.

* What would the holidays be without mashed potatoes? But if yours tend to turn out a bit watery it’s because of… water. Here’s what you do. After you’ve drained the pot, return it to the stove over low heat and shake the pan and stir the potatoes until they’re quite dry, of course staying with them to make sure they don’t burn. Next add into the pan whatever you like, milk, cream, butter, cheese, garlic, seasonings, then heat and mash.

* Serving salad? It’s so handy to pre-dress it, so you don’t have to set out an array of dressings and your guests don’t have to juggle the containers. But, once you add the dressing, especially a creamy one, all those pretty vegetables are coated up and dulled out. Here’s what you can do. Set aside a little bit of each ingredient, then mix the bulk of the salad with your dressing (I get rave reviews for a simple mix of Ranch & Italian). Then top the dressed salad with the reserved veggies. All pretty.

* Making cornbread? Prepping it from scratch is so awesome, but a lot of us find the store-bought mix to be just fine and of course quite the time saver. But here’s an easy way to upgrade it pretty much to restaurant quality. Prepare the mix according to the package directions – then fold in a 6 oz container of vanilla yogurt. Good! You might have to bake it a little longer than usual – just test it as always with a metal skewer or toothpick.

* Baking… anything? It seems no matter how careful you are, some measure of flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, cornstarch, tends to shower onto the counter. And also need something or other to rest the spoon, whisk, et al, upon between uses. Good ‘ol Press n Seal to the rescue. Spread out several lengths of it, sticky side down, and place your ingredients, bowl, and utensils on it. Afterwards just wrap up the “mess” and toss it. Voila! Clean counters.

* Pie on your menu? You may wonder if your filling came out all right, particularly a refrigerated one. Did it gel, does it taste OK, if more than one layer did they stay separate? Here’s how you can have a preview. In addition to what goes in the pie shell, put a bit of the filling in a small ramekin and refrigerate it along with the filled pie. Then well before you plan to serve the pie, test the sample. Came out OK? Yay! Didn’t? There’s always the grocery store.

* Sticky stuff? Whether for baking or cooking, you’ll often have occasion to measure out something that would like to cling to the cup – honey, agave, syrup, peanut butter, ice cream topping, e.g. Before you pour any such thing into you measuring cup first lightly treat the cup with non-stick spray, then add the sticky stuff. And out it comes.

* Did you make stock from your turkey or ham bones? Freeze any leftovers in an ice cube tray then pop them out into a freezer bag and keep them frozen for future use. If you want to know how much is in each portion, thaw an ice cube from the same size tray and measure the liquid.

* Stressed? With all the work that goes into all the dishes for the main course, wouldn’t it be nice to have a quick and easy way to serve impressive appetizers or desserts or both? Eureka! Break out the skewers. For a first course spear cubes of cheese, sausage, and French bread along with some big fat grapes. For dessert, think cubes of a variety of small cakes and brownies, marshmallows, chocolate candies, and then finish off the top with, in this case, a big fat strawberry. Btw, that appetizer one minus the sausage could alternatively serve as cheese course dessert.

Holiday cooking can be a lot more fun when you know how to take some clever shortcuts – with your guests none the wiser. It will be our little secret.