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The holiday kitchen: The prep work starts now
A 'two-pronged plan of attack' could be the secret ingredient for successful entertaining

By Domenica Marchetti
Thursday, November 19, 2009

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.

Take the time to make a checklist of other pieces that you have and what you might need. Daniels says on Thanksgiving morning she almost always has a run on roasting pans, carving boards, potato mashers or ricers, Bundt pans, twine and cheesecloth.

Before you commit to cooking, be sure all of your major appliances work. We have all heard stories about the oven that conked out before the bird was done. Use an oven thermometer to help you gauge the true temperature of your oven. (I have found that almost all ovens are inaccurate when it comes to temperature.) Be sure, too, that the oven is clean. No one appreciates a large gray cloud of smoke billowing through the kitchen right as the festivities are getting underway.

The final component to making sure that order, rather than chaos, reigns in the holiday kitchen is de-cluttering. "I would urge people to clear their counters as much as possible," Morgan says. This means putting away those bottles of herbed oil and vinegar, the chipped cookie jar, the flour bin and the stack of cooking magazines you keep meaning to get to.

De-cluttering accomplishes two things: It gives you room to work and it gives you space to add seasonal touches: a pair of gourd-shaped candles, a tiered platter to hold appetizers or sweets, or decorative towels.

Don't skip this last step. No matter what you do to lure your guests to the other rooms in your house, they will always find their way back to the kitchen.

Marchetti is the author of "The Glorious Soups and Stews of Italy" and "Big Night In." Her Web site is http://www.domenicacooks.com.

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