Many Jewish householders anticipate the holidays with dread. Not the ordained, spiritual Days-of- Awe kind of dread – the shopping, cleaning, marathon-cooking kind. While you want everyone to enjoy an orderly household and lovely holiday food, the mere thought of all that work might make you want to lie down. The key hack for dealing with the kitchen workload can be summed up in two words: Stay organized.
• Look first
Take a look at the resources you already have at home. What’s in your freezer, fridge, vegetable bin and pantry? Take a sheet of paper and make notes. Plan to use up that bag of peas that’s been languishing in the freezer. The tomato sauce that’s been sitting in the fridge for the past week would make a fine, fast, pre-holiday lunch as shakshuka or pasta topping. Clean out whatever is still viable, and ruthlessly throw out whatever is not.• Write it down
Take another sheet of paper and plan each meal, from beginning to end, including beverages. Don’t forget those in-between meals and things like pre-holiday lunch. Does your family eat something with kiddush and enjoy the main meal later? How about breakfasts for the little ones? Write them all in even if you already know it’ll be cake and coffee for kiddush, and peanut butter on rice cakes for toddler breakfast. Leave plenty of empty space between each planned meal to allow for changes. This schedule is the essential tool that will give you peace of mind later.
When the meals have been planned, write them again on a fresh page in order of serving. Leave space for changes. Stay flexible, there will always be changes. You’ll probably rewrite your menu plan at least once.• Hang the menu
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Find a skirt or pants hanger – the kind with two clips – and clip your menu papers to them. Hook the hanger over a handle on your upper kitchen cabinet. You can refer to the notes easily now. It saves the trouble of searching around the kitchen for loose papers and has the added advantage of reminding you of what you already cooked. Nothing’s sadder than going through the fridge after the holiday and discovering a forgotten chicken salad.
This hanger hack also works for keeping your cookbook open to the desired page without dirtying the pages.
If you’re following a recipe from your cellphone or tablet, protect your device from flour, water or kitchen accidents by wrapping it in a layer of plastic wrap. You can then safely put it down on any surface.• Make a list
A shopping list is the second essential tool. Read through your menus and make a list of ingredients you need. This is well-worn advice that many disregard, but a full shopping list will save you headaches. Make that shopping list and cling to it.• Plan ahead
Prep any ingredient you plan to use more than once ahead of time. Even noodles can be cooked in advance in quantity if you’re planning, let’s say, noodle soup for one meal and a noodle kugel for another. Calculate how much you’ll need of any one ingredient, such as onions. Peel and chop all your onions in one go and put them all in a bowl. Remove as much as you need for each dish as you cook.• Make soup
Before cooking anything else, get a big pot of stock going. A full-flavored chicken or vegetable stock will serve you best. You can cook rice and other grains in the soup, and add some of the stock to a dish that needs a little more moisture. Make a gravy in minutes with hot stock stirred into roux. Chuck a can of chickpeas or beans into stock and you have a hearty soup; stir minced chives and a little grated carrot into hot stock and you have a different soup altogether. Plan to serve soup at least once over the holiday. It keeps well in the fridge and will save you some thinking.
Roasted vegetables prepared ahead of time are a godsend to the over-extended cook. Slice zucchini, sweet potatoes, bell peppers, carrots, eggplant and butternut squash into long, thick strips or medium- thick rounds. You can also halve or quarter onions or break broccoli and cauliflower into florets. Brush the vegetables lightly with olive oil, sprinkle salt and pepper over them and roast in an oven preheated to 230° for 10 minutes. Turn the roasting sheet around and continue roasting another 10 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender. Serve the roasted vegetables as they are for a side dish or chop them coarsely. Dress up rice, steamed potatoes or quinoa with a topping of those delicious roasted vegetables. They’re also good as filling for quiches and omelets.
Even if you’re planning an elaborate, impressive dessert, put a simple sheet cake on your menu. A square of cake and a glass of milk can be a lifesaver for a hungry, cranky toddler or a ravenous teenager. And it’s easy to make plain cake special, even if it’s from the supermarket. Split and fill it with jam. Spoon whipped cream or fruit sauce over it. Or both. Make sure you have those goodies at hand and you can improvise a good dessert in minutes.• Herb hacks
Prep all your garlic, too. To separate the cloves from the bulb, roll the entire bulb around gently on a hard surface. The cloves will fall off. To peel a garlic clove easily, place the flat of a knife on it and press gently back and forth. The papery skin will split.
A tip for reducing a clove of garlic to paste: Chop peeled garlic, pile it up on the chopping block and scrape your knife blade against the pieces a few times. It will be reduced to a paste. And you won’t have to deal with extracting irritating bits of garlic from the metal garlic crusher or washing the gadget later.
Herbs like parsley, basil and coriander leaf are easily kept a few days without losing flavor. Chop the herb, cover it with oil or other fat of choice, and spoon it into small jars or other containers. Keep the jars in the fridge. Alternatively, rinse the fresh herbs, roll them gently in a kitchen towel, and pop them, still in the towel, into a plastic bag – a good use for recycled supermarket bags. Refrigerate the herbs.
You may also half-fill ice cube trays with chopped herbs, top the cubes up with oil or melted butter, and freeze the tray. The frozen herbal cubes melt quickly and are convenient for flavoring and marinating.• Chopping hacks
Place a damp kitchen towel under your chopping block to keep it from sliding around on the kitchen counter. A damp paper towel also works. This is also good to keep in mind when you’ve got bowls on the counter that might slide or tip over into the sink.
An easy way to slice a handful of cherry tomatoes at one time: Place them on a saucer and cover them with a saucer of the same size with its face down on the tomatoes. Keep a hand on the top saucer to keep the tomatoes in place and draw a sharp knife between the saucers, slicing through the tomatoes. You can halve a larger quantity using dinner plates, but your knife must be long enough to reach all the tomatoes trapped between them.
Use an ice-cream scoop to easily remove seeds from squashes and pumpkins.
Dice an onion evenly: Peel it, slice off its top and bottom and stand it on its end. Cut it in half from the top down. Set each half on the chopping block. Slice through it horizontally, stopping before you reach the root end. Now make several vertical incisions from the top down. Chop it as thinly or thickly as you need to make evenly sized pieces.
To cut hot peppers without getting their burning juices on your fingers, place your passive hand inside a plastic bag. Hold the peppers on the chopping block with that hand while you chop with the other.• Great leftovers
Consider leftovers as precooked foods handy for throwing together quick meals.
Vacuum-seal leftovers in a sealable bag. This also works for raw or blanched foods. Place the food in the sealable bag. Close the bag but leave a small opening. Place the bag almost up to the seal in a bowl of cold water, leaving a margin so that water won’t enter the bag when you put your hand in the bowl. Hand in the bowl, press the bag gently all around to expel the air from it. Seal it well and lift it out. The space around the food will be air-free.
Buy shower caps to cover leftovers in their bowls. No need to transfer leftovers to containers if you’ll be eating them again soon. Shower caps are re-usable and you won’t need to tangle with plastic wrap to cover leftovers.
Doubtful about an egg? Determine if it’s still good by placing it in a bowl of cold water. If the egg sinks, it’s fine to cook with. If it floats, it’s too old to eat.
Plan to serve fresh fruit as dessert once or twice for a change from the glut of rich holiday foods. People may groan that they’re too full for dessert, but hardly anyone passes up a platter of watermelon slices or a bowl of beautiful grapes. Then no one will feel deprived of that last sweet bite at the end of the meal.
If you plan to cook an especially elaborate or nerve-racking recipe, reserve time for cooking it and it alone. Don’t get caught up doing three things at once when you tackle a fancy recipe. It’s likely that something will over- or under- cook while you’re turning from one pot to the next, or you’ll forget an ingredient. It’s fine to clean up while waiting for special dish to finish cooking, but don’t start cooking anything else until it’s done and safely stowed away.
Guests and family will get tired of eating rich meals. And the cook will get tired of producing them. Put a couple of lighter meals on your menu schedule and figure out when they’ll be most welcome. Soup, which you already have in the fridge – with halla and a spread like guacamole, chopped liver, egg salad or hummus – will satisfy jaded appetites without burdening stomachs. If you feel guilty about keeping it so simple, put pickles and olives on the table to round out the meal. Or reheat those roasted vegetables and fork them on top of halla.
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