The holiday kitchen: The prep work starts now
It may be getting colder outside, but in the kitchen things are starting to heat up. I think of November and December as the Grand Slam season for the cook and entertainer: a blur of Thanksgiving feasts, holiday buffets, open houses, brunches and New Year's parties.
Your best hope for survival is to start where most of the action takes place: in the kitchen.
"In my house, it's where people are," says cookbook author Diane Morgan. "I haven't found a way to get them out." Morgan is a friend of mine and someone who knows a thing or two about entertaining. She is the author of "The Thanksgiving Table" and "The Christmas Table," as well as many other books on cooking and entertaining.
If you can get your kitchen in order now, Morgan says, you will be thankful long after the leftover turkey has been turned into pot pie and broth.
Morgan uses what she calls a "two-pronged plan of attack" for holiday entertaining.
First, take stock of your pantry. "You have to have a well-stocked pantry so that you can do the kind of spur-of-the-moment entertaining that often happens," Morgan says. That means having a supply of everything from wine, liquor, tonic water and limes to snacks such as smoked almonds, roasted cashews and olives. Buy a few cheeses with a reasonable shelf life that you can set out with crackers. Keep some sweets on hand as well, such as specialty cookies, salted caramels and truffles.
The most important ingredients in the holiday pantry might be your spices. If the last time you opened your spice drawer or cupboard was November 2008, it's time for a new supply. Nothing is more frustrating than mixing all the ingredients for pumpkin or apple pie, only to find that your ginger and cinnamon smell like the ghosts of holidays past. "Look ahead and think about what you're going to make," Morgan says. Rather than buy expensive little jars of exotic spices that will only go to waste come Jan. 2, she recommends buying smaller quantities from stores that carry spices in bulk.
The other prong in your holiday plan of attack is the one that includes the two-pronged serving fork: equipment and utensils. "I always get tripped up when it comes to serving utensils," Morgan says, whether it's a ladle for the sauce boat or a slotted serving spoon. Counting serving pieces now will save you a frantic trip through your utensil drawer when dinner is about to be served.
Baking dishes are another staple of the holiday kitchen. "A lot of what people make this time of year requires baking dishes," says Morgan. "You can easily find inexpensive, decorative baking dishes that go from oven to table." This cuts down on the number of dishes that later have to be washed.
If you are looking to make a good kitchen investment, Morgan recommends a heavy-duty, sizable turkey roasting pan, which can be used year after year.
Leah Daniels, owner of Hill's Kitchen, a kitchenware store on Capitol Hill, says the one piece of equipment she prizes above all others at holiday time is a Staub Dutch oven -- a heavy-bottomed, lidded pot, often coated inside with enamel -- which can be used for roasting a small turkey, braising a pot roast or making soup, sauce or apple butter. "Beyond its versatility, it's a presentation piece," says Daniels.
If you are like me, you will find you are often short on glassware and stemware, thanks to clumsy hands. Now is a good time to replenish your supply. Outlet stores and restaurant supply stores are good places to find deals.