“I don’t know how you do it all. What’s your secret?”
After the Autumn I just had with my daughter’s accident, too many friends and family members wrestling with cancer, loved ones being in the hospital, and a friend’s daughter dying at too young an age, I was more than ready for the holiday brunch I hosted this past week where 30 of the loveliest ladies I know gathered together to simply enjoy one another’s company.
The day after the brunch, a friend sent me an email, thanking me for a delightful time, and ending with, “I don’t know how you do it all. What’s your secret?”
My first thought was that there’s no secret, but as I pondered a bit more, it occurred to me that maybe it was a secret — a secret because sometimes folks don’t actually realize that it’s the little things I do which make all the difference.
The fact is that I don’t actually like to work very hard when it comes to cooking, or really anything else for that matter. *grin* I like to be efficient at all that I do, and I like to have the time to focus on what matters most — like my family and my friends. So, when it comes to hosting a delightful brunch or Thanksgiving or a birthday party or a Christmas celebration, I rely on a few simple, not so time-consuming “secrets”.
I’ll share them with you now so you can think about them for the wonderful holiday gatherings you’ll be hosting.
Secret #1: When you have a choice about where to invest your time, it’s okay to choose the easier option: For example, for Thanksgiving, I used frozen vegetables, potatoes, and sweet potatoes for the side dishes which saved me all the time I would have put into washing, peeling, chopping, and prepping the fresh versions.
Frozen vegetables are just as nutritious as the fresh versions; they’re usually cheaper; they’re ready when you need them without worry of spoiling; and they literally can save you hours of work in the end. Within minutes I was mashing sweet potatoes and potatoes for a layered two potato casserole, and it only took a couple of seconds to coat frozen vegetables with some olive oil and pop them into the oven to roast to perfection.
The same holds true for frozen fruit. A few weeks ago I needed to make a couple of peach cobblers, and the frozen peach slices in my freezer saved me the time it would have took for me to wash, core, and slice the peaches.
Secret #2: Focus on the garnishes instead of the main ingredient: Within minutes, you can make any dish exceptional.
For my two potato casserole, I didn’t do anything special to the potatoes themselves, simply mashing them with traditional (well, allergy friendly versions) ingredients. What I did do, though, was to take five minutes to caramelize leeks which I arranged on top of the potatoes, which gave the casserole a pleasing appearance, added a slightly different flavor, and provided a textural contrast to the smooth potatoes. In the end, it seemed like I’d put a lot of effort into the dish when I hadn’t, and I received enthusiastic approvals of the potatoes.
For vegetables, in just a couple of minutes I often make a topping in my food processor, mixing gluten free bread slices with fresh herbs and a tiny drizzle of olive oil, which I arranged prettily over the roasted veggies. When the veggies are warmed in the oven, the crispy, browned topping adds a delightful flavor combination and provides a nice crunch to the vegetables. People will think you went through a lot of effort because you homemade bread crumbs, when in reality you used very little effort to make a tastier topping than if you had used store-bought bread crumbs.
A garnish doesn’t even have to take as much time as caramelizing leeks or making homemade bread crumbs. Sometimes for company, I’ll pull out frozen fruit, thaw them for a few minutes, and chop fresh mint leaves to throw on top. Suddenly, something ordinary becomes something exotic and tasty.
Other times, I’ll make a soup where I’ll puree frozen squash or carrots or broccoli or potatoes with broth to make a cream soup, but I’ll serve it with some crushed croutons, shredded cheese, chopped turkey bacon and/or sliced chives. Suddenly, ordinary soup becomes something special.
Secret #3: You can make anything special by keeping spices, herbs, oils, vinegars, and flavoring handy in the pantry: For special occasions I always make special drinks out of ordinary products. For example, if you purchase apple cider or apple juice at the store, but put it into your crock pot with sticks of cinnamon, cloves, and allspice, you’ll have a festive drink for any occasion.
Similarly, if you have guests over, transform your ordinary instant hot chocolate mix into something extraordinary by adding a 1/4 tsp of vanilla or peppermint or orange or maple or coconut extract. For extra-special occasions, I also keep peppermint and chocolate sticks in the pantry which I give to the children to stir their hot chocolate with. This adds some fun as well as extra flavor.
Also, adding herbs and spices to your cooking enhances the flavors for your guests even when you’re making something quite ordinary. I often serve guests what my children call “leftover” soup. I take whatever leftovers I have in the fridge, throw them into a crock pot with some vegetable or chicken broth, and let it cook for hours until everything is creamy and homey-tasting. This alone is delicious, but for company, I make up a little compote of flavors like dried thyme, black pepper and onion powder or cumin, paprika, and garlic which I mix into the soup. This elevates the taste of the soup to a different level.
You can do the same for vegetables and fruits. Sauteed or roasted or microwaved veggies become special when you drizzle them with a little bit of avocado or truffle or pumpkin seed oil as opposed to your regular olive oil. Strawberries become a delicious dessert when you drizzle them with a little bit of chocolate balsamic vinegar, not to mention that folks feel like they’re having something different and unique, even though it’s still strawberries.
Chicken or turkey or meats or fish are transformed when you brush them with a quick freshly made marinade. Choose an oil whether it’s olive oil or avocado or safflower or any other good fat oil and whisk in a couple of tbsp of a vinegar like balsamic or sherry or white wine, a tsp of a fancy mustard like garlic or honey dijon, some fresh herbs, minced garlic, and black pepper. Marinate your chicken or fish or meat for at least half an hour in the fridge. Cook as you desire whether it’s grilled or sauteed or oven-baked.
Or make a special rub: Make a dry rub of herbs and seasonings of your choice or a wet rub of herbs and seasonings with olive oil and rub it over your meat or fish or chicken before cooking.
Whether you use a marinade or a rub, the few minutes it takes will enhance the flavor of your entree with very little work.
Secret #4: You can enhance store-bought items with less time consuming homemade items: For example, I often will just purchase store-made bread or rolls, but to make them special, I’ll make a roasted-herb butter to go with it. Simply purchase some already peeled garlic, roast it in the oven at 500 degrees for about ten to fifteen minutes, stirring every five minutes, and puree in your food processor with your choice of fresh herbs. Keep the mixture in your fridge until you need it, and mix it with your choice of butter. (I use the soy and dairy free Earth Balance butter, and it always comes out delicious.)
For veggies, I’ll throw rinsed and drained canned white cannelloni beans into the food processor with some spinach, herbs, garlic, and little bit of olive oil to create a delicious dip. Or I’ll mix a drained can of artichoke hearts with some tofu cream cheese, herbs, onions, garlic, and vegan parmesan cheese in the food processor and warm it in the oven.
For chips, I’ll buy an assortment of sweet potato, brown rice, and corn tortilla chips but I’ll make a quick homemade salsa in the food processor. Maybe mix some tomatoes, onions, garlic, frozen peach slices and herbs. Or mix tomatoes, onions, garlic, avocado, and hot sauce.
By investing only a few minutes into a dip or a spread or a salsa, folks will think you’ve gone to some effort when in fact you’ve purchased most of the items from the store and your food processor did the rest of the work.
Secret #5: Sometimes it’s the presentation, not the food: Often I’ll use store-bought products but put them out on a special platter. So, for example, store-bought pudding which is scooped into little crystal dishes with a dollop of whipped cream is special.
Store-bought cookies arranged by shape on a holiday platter is more appealing to the eye and therefore to the stomach than simply keeping them in their box or putting them on a regular kitchen plate.
Often I’ll purchase hummus from the store, but to serve it for company, I’ll scoop it into a pretty bowl and throw a few chopped green onions on top. Or for a store-bought fruit dip, I’ll arrange a few curls of orange peel around a pretty bowl.
When things look pretty and are eye-appealing, people feel differently about the food, even if you didn’t actually prepare it yourself.