"Don’t stress over Holiday meals!“
How often have you heard these wise comments from people or websites that offer you good advice? If I had a penny for every time I heard this I would be sitting in Barbados sipping on Mojitos all day long!
The fact is many of us do begin to stress as the Holidays near. Every year I am “taken by surprise” that Thanksgiving or Christmas is just around the corner. Go take a look at your calendar – 2 weeks till Thanksgiving, 6 weeks till Christmas!
Oh I am sorry I did not mean to create mass panic!
One of the main aspects of the Holidays are the meals, which become the center of everyone’s attention. It’s after all where everyone gathers around one table to enjoy a leisurely few hours of discussion and getting re-connected again. It’s where over turkey, gravy, vegetables and dessert people eat more than they tend to, because everything tastes so much better. Food is the star on such occasions. We’ve all realized that over the years. That explains why we fret over a menu, trying to plan a meticulous meal that will suit everyone’s likings and tastes.
And that is exactly where the stress and the panic begins.
In this respect I am really glad to have had opportunity to train as a hotel management trainee in a big luxury class hotel. Everyday I was confronted with a new challenging task – be it the planning of an Arab wedding of a thousand guests, a Fashion show or an exclusive dinner party – it always revolved on the topic of food.
I still use several things I learned back then in my current job. Here I am in charge of planning several events and once again – food is the main topic. Over the years I have refined my talent for planning a menu and organizing an event. It works for me at home and the same idea has worked on larger scaled events too. Therefore, I wanted to share these ideas with you. I am hoping that the pointers I propose will be something you can integrate into your menu planning for Thanksgiving and/or Christmas. However, these ideas are not only limited to Thanksgiving or Christmas but can be used to plan several types of events.
Focus On One Course or One Dish
That was it! I can actually stop my post right here because this is the main “wisdom” I wanted to share with you for this article. This is my “magic wand” for each event I have planned, am planning and will plan in the future!
Depending on the type of dinner you are having, direct your focus to one course or one dish. If you are having a more informal buffet-style, pick one main dish to feature. If your event is a more formal sit-down style dinner then focus on one course.
I normally divide a piece of paper in four sections:
Generally we all have a rough idea of one or two things we would like to make. It might be that turkey roulade you saw at WFLH or that dessert you saw in your favorite magazine, my point here is to decide which course is getting your attention.
Once you have decided on the course or the dish, you will notice the rest just comes together quite easily. This is not a wise-ass comment from me but something you are already doing instinctively but might not have noticed it.
Example: You have a dessert you really want to make. So you place this as your first item in the dessert section. This is now your main focus. Now you simply select a few other dishes or courses on the basis of flavor combination. You place two ideas for a main course on the Entrée section, then you go back to the dessert to check how these dishes will complement your dessert.
Are you looking for contrasts in flavors and textures? Do you want a harmony of similar herbs/spices all throughout your meal? You will soon realize that by answering a few simple questions your decision will quickly fall on one of the selected entrée dishes. Once you have that you work in the same way to tackle the next section in your menu.
For me it is normally the entrée that often gets the main focus. So, on my sheet of paper I will limit myself to writing down a maximum of two possibilities in the entrée section. Not more. Even for a buffet, where having two main dishes is not uncommon, it is advisable to limit yourself only to the two ideas.
If I am having a larger gathering I might want to make sure that the choice I made is feasible. What I mean here is: if I am having a sit-down dinner for 15 guests, what makes more sense?
- Serving individual filet steaks where I need to pay perfect attention to each steak or
- is it more feasible to go for a roast beef, where I can let the oven to do the job and all I need to do is cut up a piece for each guest.
In this case I would go for option number two. While the roast beef is in the oven I can give my attention to other items.
Now that you have decided what your main course will be you will instinctively start filling out the gaps in the other sections.
Let’s take this turkey roulade for example: being a poultry dish having a slightly “sweeter” and delicate side is perfectly OK. For a roast beef on the other hand you might decide on something more robust. So you see you have already narrowed down this section.
Once again the rule is write down only a few ideas in this section. Too many ideas will only overwhelm you. I normally serve an absolute max. of three to four sides at my sit-down dinners, including the potato/rice/pasta side.
Look for sides that can be prepared ahead of time. It really will make your life easier. My side in this post of roasted thyme Jerusalem artichoke, kohlrabi and butternut squash was all cut on the previous evening. I even tossed the veggies in oil and thyme, then placed each individual vegetable in separate Ziploc bags and stored them in the fridge, saving the time it takes to cut the vegetables on the day of the dinner.
The vegetables were then placed in the oven for 25-30 minutes with the turkey roulade. Perfect!
Starters or Appetizers
One question you really need to consider here is how are you planning to serve your appetizer? Do you want to make several types of small nibbles and serve them informally so that your guests can still their initial hunger? Or do you prefer to have a starter as a formal course of your meal?
Once again this depends entirely on the atmosphere you are aiming for. My Thanksgiving/Christmas dinners are usually more on the formal side. It’s important for me as a hostess to use each course to sit down and:
- get connected with my guests,
- come back down and have a break in between the courses,
- feed myself!
During the whole year I generally host informal gatherings, so Thanksgiving/Christmas is a time where we all love dressing up and enjoy the atmosphere in an elegant surrounding.
My starter course is often a part of the sit-down dinner and keeping with the time of year, I normally serve a soup. I use seasonal ingredients like squash/pumpkin, root vegetables or mushrooms for my soup. Furthermore, I find that a warm soup is a wonderful and satisfying way to kick off a dinner.
Go back to the main focus of your meal, then decide what would suit your menu best. If your meal is heavier and richer as a whole, you might want to aim for a lighter salad, maybe even a combination of a “hot-cold” salad.
For such formal sit-down dinners where I have one dish for the starter course, I always make sure it is vegetarian. The reason is simple: I have a lot of friends who are vegetarians!
Considering Each Food Issue
Uncle Sam does not eat mushrooms, Aunt Jane is gluten intolerant, Cousin Meghan is a vegetarian – does this sound familiar? As hosts or hostesses we need to consider each guest’s “food issue”. For those planning a menu it’s not an easy task to come up with an innovative menu, which takes each family member’s specific needs into account as well.
My trick is easy. It’s something I have picked up over the years, by observing my vegetarian friends. I do not fret about creating an extra vegetarian entrée for them!
I make certain that my starter/appetizers are entirely vegetarian, the sides I select are primarily vegetarian and together they are versatile and creative enough to satisfy a vegetarian appetite.
In the same way analyze your guest list and try to incorporate their food issues within your menu - without any “extras”.
My friends actually told me they feel so comfortable with this because it’s all so subtle. They do not feel “different” because they have a specific dietary restriction.
I normally like making a tart, pot pie or gratin. In smaller portions they make great sides, but for my vegetarian guests in larger portions a great main.
For me the queen of the meal and just like any queen she needs to be sophisticated and elegant.
For some reason I like selecting the dessert at the end. “Keeping the best till the last” or like the "cherry on the cake", selecting a dessert for my menu is always my favorite part. And if I am honest, it is also the part of the menu that often gets me sidetracked. There are so many delicious things to make and I often wish I could serve them all in one dinner.
Once I have re-focused, I go through the same steps as above - checking against the rest of my menu and the flavor combinations.
Having said that however, you can be more flexible and even playful with the selection of your dessert. There are not many rules here - just keeping in mind the body of your entire meal. By this I mean if your meal was very rich and heavy – serving a lighter and fluffy dessert instead of a heavy layer cake will bring more points.
Many of you are probably already planning your menus in this fashion without even knowing it. For you, I am hoping that reading this article will help you to reinforce the method more consciously.
For those of you who were stressing and not getting the whole menu planning thing quite right, I hope that the suggestions here will help you to refine your talents further.
Fact is you do not need to be a rocket scientist to plan a party, dinner or buffet. You just need a piece of paper, a pen and a focus on ONE dish or course!
With this post I am kicking off a series of posts all revolving around the Thanksgiving dinner I will be preparing. As I mentioned I normally start off with the main course. Therefore, the featured recipes here are for the stuffed Turkey roulade and one of my selected vegetable sides. Next week I will focus on the starter and dessert and share the recipes for both with you.
I would also like to put together a list of different menu ideas for you using recipes from What’s For Lunch, Honey? So look out for that next week too.
Now I hope you are hungry!
Turkey Roulade with Cranberry Mushroom Stuffing
This is a fantastic alternative to a whole Turkey. To be honest, I actually prefer a succulent turkey breast to a whole turkey. A turkey roulade is a manageable dish to prepare, it's uncomplicated with regards to cooking time as it does not take hours to make and best of all you can prepare the roulade ahead of time, simply cooking it a good hour before you are ready to eat. Roasting the turkey breast at high heat seals the juices, guaranteeing a tender and succulent cut of meat. The lovely thing about this turkey roulade is that by stuffing it with cranberries I can easily omit the cranberry sauce and concentrate on another side dish. I use the pan juices, refining it with Marsala wine and cider to give a beautiful gravy.
Recipe: Turkey Roulade with Cranberry Mushroom Stuffing & Marsala-Cider Gravy
Printable version of recipe here.
2 1/2kg boneless turkey breast with skin, butterflied (see notes below)
500g Crimini mushrooms, finely chopped
400g dried cranberries
120g parsnip, diced
150g onions, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
Handful of sage leaves, chopped
20g butter, melted
Salt and pepper
120 ml Marsala wine
400 ml unfiltered apple cider
1 bay leaf
2-3 whole cloves
1 tablespoon cornstarch
You'll also need: kitchen twine, heavy duty foil
Making the stuffing
In a large skillet heat some of the butter and sauté the onion, garlic and diced parsnip until fragrant. Add some of the sage, reserving some for later, a pinch of salt and some pepper. Stir occasionally, then add the mushrooms the remaining butter and continue to sauté until the mushrooms have softened.
Add the cranberries and sauté for another 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and set aside.
Notes: The stuffing can be prepared a day advance and stored in the refrigerator in an air-tight container.
Making the Turkey
Place an oven rack in the oven and pre-heat the oven to 230 degrees C.
Once you have butterflied your turkey breast (see notes below), arrange the breast with a short side nearest to you, skin side facing down. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Spread the stuffing evenly over the turkey breast, leaving about a 2 cm border on all sides. Fold the short side nearest to you over the stuffing, enclosing the stiffing securely. Now roll up the turkey breast tightly.
Place the turkey roulade seam side down, then tie crosswise, at about 2.5 cm intervals, with the kitchen twine.
Brush turkey with melted butter then sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Heat some canola oil in a skillet on high heat. Place the turkey, seam side down, and brown, sealing the juices in. Brown the meat on all sides until the skin is golden and crispy.
Remove the roulade and place in roasting pan. Keep the skillet aside. Roast the turkey roulade, uncovered for about 30 minutes, turning it around about half way through.
Take roasting pan out then pour in the Marsala wine, 250 ml cider, cloves, bay leaf and the remaining sage. Cover roasting pan with heavy-duty foil and continue to roast for another 35 - 45 minutes, or until the juices run clear.
Transfer the turkey roulade to a cutting board, cover with foil and allow to stand for 15 minutes before slicing. This will give you plenty of time to prepare the gravy.
Notes: How to butterfly a turkey breast
- Place the turkey breast on a cutting board. Determine which long side is the thickest. Starting on the narrower side and holding knife parallel to the work surface, make a horizontal cut with the knife on the thickest side, about halfway down, to within 2.5 cm of the other side.
- Open up the breast as if you were opening a book. Cover the breast with plastic wrap. Pound with a rolling pin or meat mallet to an even 2 cm thickness. Remove plastic wrap.
- Spread the stuffing over the breast, leaving a 2 cm border on all sides. Roll the breast up into a cylinder.
- Secure the roulade by tying it with kitchen twine..
MAKE AHEAD TIP:
- Prepare the turkey roulade through to the stuffing. Once rolled you can wrap the roulade in plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to 8 hours.
- On the morning of your dinner, brush the turkey roulade with the melted butter and brown on high heat in the skillet. Then place in the roasting pan and cover. On the evening, pour in the liquids, spices and herb, then cover with foil and roast for the 35-45 minutes.
Making the Gravy
Using the skillet in which the turkey roulade was browned, heat to high, pour in the juices from the roasting pan, scraping the bottom of the skillet to deglaze it.
Strain the juices through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl. Skim off fat. then pour back into the skillet. Bring the juices to a boil.
Whisk together the cornstarch and remaining cider, then whisk into boiling sauce and boil until the sauce thickens.
Slice turkey roulade into thin slices and serve with marsala-cider gravy.
Roasted Thyme Jerusalem Artichoke, Kohlrabi and Butternut Squash
I love the several levels of flavors in this side. The contrasts of the earthy notes of the Jerusalem artichoke and kohlrabi against the sweet, nutty aromas of the butternut squash is purely wonderful . The vegetables are crisp and fresh, the thyme adding a wonderful fragrance. Convenience is the main key with this side as you can roast these vegetables right along with the turkey roulade.
Recipe: Roasted Thyme Jerusalem Artichoke, Kohlrabi and Butternut Squash
Printable version of recipe here.
4 medium kohlrabi, cubed
400g Jerusalem artichokes, cubed
500g butternut squash, cubed
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Handful fresh thyme, finely chopped
Salt and freshly cracked pepper
Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and place in the oven. Pre-heat oven to 230 degrees C.
Put each vegetable separately in three individual bowls. Add one tablespoon olive oil in each bowl, some thyme, salt and pepper and toss the vegetables.
First transfer the kohlrabi to the preheated baking tray and roast for 15-20 minutes. Stirring occasionally.
Then spread the squash and Jerusalem artichokes over the kohlrabi and roast until vegetables are tender, approx. 20-30 minutes.
Once ready, take out and toss the vegetables to combine.
MAKE AHEAD TIP:
- Prepare the vegetables a day ahead. Cut each vegetable separately and place, separately in Ziploc bags.
- You can even prepare the vegetables as far as tossing them individually in the oil, then store in Ziploc bags. Store in refrigerator.
Notes: If you are roasting the vegetables along with the turkey roulade, pre-heat the baking tray for 15 minutes while the turkey roasts, then roast vegetables on a rack below the turkey roulade.
Two dishes perfectly harmonized with each other yet delectable on their own. The turkey offers several wonderful flavor dimensions. Earthy, sweet and rich, the meat itself is tender and succulent, together with the gravy an explosive dish. The vegetables add a great magnitude to the meal and plays off the flavors of the turkey roulade brilliantly.
I hope this little menu planner help will aid you in the future to create a perfect menu for your events with ease and no stress. Next week we'll be counting down to Thanksgiving and I'll share with you recipe ideas for a starter and dessert that would fit in with this meal. So stay tuned for that. I will also present you with several different menu ideas using dishes from WFLH to help you find your favorite menu. So don't panic that Thanksgiving is in two weeks - together we'll find you a perfect menu to dazzle your guests.
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