When it comes to entertaining for friends and family during the holidays, catering to people’s dietary restrictions, favorites, and traditions can make determining your holiday menu a challenge in and of itself — without even stepping foot in the kitchen.
However, Lucinda Scala Quinn, the author of “MAD Hungry: Feeding Men and Boys,” and the host of MAD Hungry TV on the Hallmark Channel focuses on family favorites and “go-to” recipes, when planning her holiday menu. Choosing “dishes you know people already love make prepping, cooking, and serving them easier.” She also likes to introduce at least one new side dish each year, for variety, hoping to create a new tradition in the process.
Creating the Menu
When pairing side dishes with your main dish, you should first thing about the finished plate. “Starting with the main dish, be it roast beef, turkey, etc., I work back from there, building a menu where all the dishes complement each other and are connected by some common thread,” Lucinda explains. She likes to ultimately have a contrast of flavors, textures, and colors, on the plate.
Less is More
Another way to streamline holiday entertaining is to focus on the meal itself, as opposed to having lots of appetizers, nibbles, and treats in addition to a large meal. “When I’m planning a big holiday meal,” Lucinda tells me, “I want my family and friends to be hungry for [it], so I tend to underdo the appetizers — usually offering something fresh and healthy like a vegetable-based dip, and something salty like mixed nuts — but that’s all.” Lucinda also prefers to make a larger quantity of a few wonderful dishes, rather than overwhelming herself with too many.
Spice up Simple Dishes
There is something wonderful about wholesome dishes like mashed potatoes that keeps people turning to these staple dishes throughout the holidays. But your dish needn’t be so plain-Jane. Lucinda loves to use herbs and spices to add lots of flavor in her cooking. “My mashed potatoes have cottage cheese or ricotta in them, it adds flavor and protein, while I like to spice up my green beans with garlic and ginger for more of a kick.” She also likes tossing toasted nuts in with roasted vegetables for a contrast in texture.
Breaking It Down
“No detail is too small to overlook in planning ahead,” Lucinda explains. Plan out what needs to be done, and when, and plan a script you can follow. When planning her holiday parties, she breaks it down into steps:
1. Pick your main dish
2. Plan the menu around the main dish
3. With your recipes, check your pantry and make shopping lists, broken down by produce, meat shop, specialty store, etc. Also, make lists for what needs to be done around the house, like pulling out serving dishes, or polishing silver.
4. Go shopping. first planning the menu, making lists, then shopping.
5. Work ahead. Set the table and assemble serving dishes and utensils a night or two in advance. Make as many dishes, or parts of dishes, in advance as possible, leaving only one or two dishes that require last minute attention.
When to Shop
There is a balance in planning ahead and getting the best products as possible. “In general, I love to buy the best ingredients; fresh, seasonal, local, organic if possible — and let the pure flavors shine through good, solid, cooking techniques and seasoning,” Lucinda tells me.
Order ahead: Meat, fish, specialty products.
A week in advance: Pantry staples, ingredients for dishes that can be made in advance.
A day or two out: Fresh produce.
Now, with the meal all taken care of, there is no need to have your guests bringing anything. And if they ask? “Have them bring wine and sparkling non-alcoholic choices.” You can never have too much booze at a holiday party.