Creative Holiday Traditions
As Thanksgiving quickly approaches, we all prepare for a day filled with food, friends, family, and cooking. A holiday that revolves around eating and more eating, it is perhaps my favorite annual celebration. When I was a child Thanksgiving consisted of lying on the couch watching sports with the “boys”, waiting for what seemed like an eternity to eat, and then finally sitting down at my parent’s dining room table for the unveiling of a culinary extravaganza. Then, overstuffed and exhausted, I would race to the living room to claim the coveted spot on the sofa and fall into a light slumber. And later, as my stomach miraculously was no longer full, I would awake to the smell of deeply roasted coffee and sweet scents of pie warming in the oven. Back within the family circle, apple, pecan, and pumpkin pie would make its way around the table, dollops of fresh whipped cream and vanilla bean ice cream completing the plate. Hot coffee sprinkled with cinnamon was the perfect pairing to ensure everyone staying awake for a few more hours and at least making it past 8:00 PM. Childhood memories are perhaps what make these holidays as special as they are. But once you are officially considered an “adult” amidst the holiday “to do” list, memories change. That is not to say that the magic and festivity is no longer, but rather your role undoubtedly changes. You aren’t sitting at the kid’s table and you are actually expected to contribute to the day, and that contribution consists of more than just consumption. Enter Turkey Day as an adult. The first year of this transformation, I have to admit, was a bit of an adjustment but with substantial practice I am okay with it now, really. In all honesty, considering that I now partake in the creation of my family’s delicious feast, I enjoy the fruits of my labor that much more. The past couple of years, as I prepare for children (eventually!) of my own, I have been inspired to add to the traditions of our family’s holidays and use some creativity in the process. So, remember that we can never have enough unique and special ingredients in our holiday celebrations and adding can never hurt! Below are some of my favorites, sometimes they deviate a bit from their original recipe, but they are always a crowd pleaser and sure to keep things fun and festive!1) Setting the Mood—My mother always taught me that ambiance and setting is key, especially when entertaining. You want to make people comfortable and as relaxed as they would be in their home. There is nothing like a fire to bring people together and warm your house from the wintery outdoors. If you are concerned with adding another task to your list, and don’t want to worry about tending to the fire while you are cooking, consider a Duraflame. Essentially a log doused with fire starter, you simply light the prepackaged log in your fireplace and within seconds you have a roaring fire that will last 3-4 hours. And, even better, your guests will have no idea! For under $10 these logs can be found at any grocery store, just be sure to get a couple to last you through an entire evening. Along with a roaring fire, the addition of “light” is always an important part of holiday traditions. Adorn your mantle with small tea lights, and choose a yummy smelling candle for your entryway. As guests come in, they will be greeted by the flickering and reflection of light and a nostalgic scent of cinnamon or apple. To continue the smell of holiday spice throughout your entire home, set on your stove a mixture of apple cider, cinnamon stick (whole), cardamom, and cloves. You only need about a 1/4 of a saucer’s worth, and begin to simmer the mixture 15 minutes or so before your guests arrive. Think of it as “oven potpourri”, it is a deliciously sweet welcome into a holiday home. Lastly, never forget the beauty of music. Never too loud, but subtle enough that it adds to the mood and festivity. Jazz is always the perfect choice for entertaining.2) Pre-Dining—It is always a bit tricky to figure out appetizers on a day like Thanksgiving as there is so much food to begin with! Nevertheless, part of the fun of this holiday is the collaboration and sharing that goes into preparing such a marvelous meal. In other words, many of your guests come with their personal additions to the meal, however more often than not, they don’t always come fully prepared. Of course, they arrive with more than enough ingredients, but your kitchen is sure to be filled with numerous chefs, chopping, peeling, and prepping their own family’s unique piece of Thanksgiving. And then, since most of us only have one oven to prepare all of these fabulous delights, dishes go in and out, eventually getting sealed with foil and placed on a burner to stay warm. Culinary collaboration is perhaps one of the most satisfying elements of Thanksgiving traditions, we all share with one another, we cook together, prepare together, and then eat together. But, what this also means, is time. With many scrumptious dishes in the oven, a feast scheduled for 3:00 may not make its way to the table until 5:00 PM. And not everyone is in the kitchen mixing and sautéing. We have the other guests of the evening, who reside on “Team B”; the football watchers, cleaner-uppers, and anyone with a reserved spot at the little people’s table. And they have come with empty stomachs, and yes, they want to keep those tummies growling until the long-anticipated bird unveiling, but the alcohol consumption doesn’t always follow that rule. The balance therefore, is providing some appetizers to tide your guests over, but not too many that they are full by the end of the first quarter. Also, don’t make yourself crazy preparing your pre-feast treats. These can be easy and delicious and don’t need to be an added stress. Some of my family favorites; a nice selection of gourmet nuts, pistachios, almonds, cashews, pecans, and if you want to get a little “nuts” wasabi-spiced peas are always a hit! The salt from this mixture is always great with cocktails and beer and takes less than 5 minutes to throw together. In addition, I always like to offer guests an assortment of cheeses. I use a large platter, and along the rim set small clusters of grapes and fresh peeled apples. Several types of crackers make up the next ring, water crackers, plain and with cracked pepper (Carr’s is my favorite), stoned wheat, sesame, and even Melba toasts. I also like to add thin slices of a French baguette for variety. In small bowls in the center, an apricot jam, an olive tapenade, almond-cilantro spread, or even pesto add a gourmet touch to the presentation. And lastly, the cheeses. I like to mix soft and hard, mild and sharp, gourmet and traditional. It is always hard to narrow them down, as I am a self-proclaimed cheese junkie! but the selection usually consists of Brie, Boursin, Sharp Cheddar, Pepper Jack, and Gouda. Tip: Trader Joe’s is a great place for reasonably priced cheeses as well as yummy cheese spreads. Since both of these apps. are cold, they can be put together early in the morning, set aside, a
nd served during cocktail hour. I do like to have something hot though and a great hidden gem, for all of you who have yet to discover, is the frozen food section of Trader Joe’s. They have a huge variety of finger-foods, and they really are good! I like to get the spanakopita (spinach pie) that is already in small individual triangles and in an oven-ready tray for baking. Another great one, is the variety platter of bite-size quiches; mushroom, ham and cheese, and asparagus. The above is just enough to keep your guests from a low-blood sugar attack, or a pre-drunken stupor, but won’t fill them up too much pre-turkey fiesta.3) Unique Decorations—We all have our unique way of decorating our homes, and tables for the holidays, but it is always interesting to bring a bit of creativity to a meal shared by many. Especially on Thanksgiving, when the day holds its roots in giving thanks, it is fun to find creative ways to do so. I also like to embrace the element of sharing on this day and this doesn’t always have to revolve around the kitchen. Find a place in your home that serves well for a centerpiece and that is somewhat close to your foyer. Have one of the kids in the house be responsible for taking people’s coats as they enter and then have them bring them to the living room where a table is set up with your “giving tree”. This “tree” can simply be a vase, with branches of pussy willow or any other tree/plant that has sturdy branches for hanging. Below the vase, decorate the table with a colorful napkin or tablecloth, and place around the vase individual tags with ribbon to hang each one (just take different colored construction paper, punch a hole at the top, and tie a ribbon to create a loop to hang–think of a paper Christmas tree ornament). On each tag, you have a word already written. Examples I have used in the past are; love, patience, family, friends, generosity, learning, creating, teaching, compassion, empathy, acceptance, new beginnings, growth etc. Each of your guests chooses a tag they feel represents something they are thankful for this year. On one side of the tag, the word is written, the other side is blank. Have a cup filled with different colored pens and on the blank side of the tag people can share what this word means to them, why they are thankful for it this year, and even who they associate their word with. Then the tag is hung on the tree. By the end of the evening, you will have a beautifully colored tree, adorned with thoughts of gratitude and reflection. I also like to place small candles around the tree to bring light to the table. Following this idea is another fun addition to your Turkey Day or really any holiday for that matter. My mother almost always creates a beautiful centerpiece for the dining room table. It is different every year, but always has a mixture of indoor and out, autumnal colors, and is full enough to make a statement but not too tall that it blocking guests views across the table! On the bottom of one of your guest’s plate, remember to include the kids, place a sticky star. When your guests sit down to eat, before their plates are overflowing with delicious delights! have them look on the bottom. The person with the star gets to take home the centerpiece and has a wonderful momentum from the evening. Another fun and festive addition to any holiday meal, is some sort of “party” favor for each guest. I always like to place this on their plate, or by their nametag. Depending on how many people you have, this can be potentially expensive, so creativity is key! I have many different treats I have used in the past but my two favorites are: One, a small packet of seeds. You can get these at your local hardware or five-and-dime store for about 30 cents each. You can even “dress” the packet up by tying a bow around it. The idea is that each guest plants their seeds in the spring with thoughts of gratitude. Sort of an extension to the “giving” tree. Two, this holiday is all about food and sharing recipes is always appreciated, as long as the dish is well received! Pick one of your dishes that consistently receive rave reviews and type it out on your computer. Make copies, cut, and paste onto individual note cards. Add a small picture, or an interesting quote, to spice it up. Guests will go home with a new recipe to add to their collection!4) Post-Bird— As the evening slows down, and people pour their after dinner cocktails, it is always fun to come together as a group through an activity. Depending on the number of guests you are entertaining, board games can sometimes be more of a headache than pleasure. Instead, consider an informal “talent” show. The kids love this! and it is one last thing to look forward to after the food is all gone. Let your guests know in advance that you are doing this, and ask everyone to bring something to share. It shouldn’t put pressure on anyone who is “crowd” shy, so anything goes! It can be a skit, the reading of a poem, a musical piece, a song, a dance, a reading, whatever! It is a wonderful way to end the evening and is sure to bring lots of fun and laughter.Well, there my fellow foodies are some of my creative holiday traditions. I hope some come in handy and as always, your comments are much appreciated. Let me know what you like, what you don’t, questions, comments, anything and everything! Until next time, happy eating, and keep those stomachs full!