Holiday cooking for the fearful

Southwest experts offer advice

For many, the holiday season can be a daunting time. Sure, there's family togetherness, presents and holiday cheer, but there's also shuffling from family to family, draining holiday spending and for many, the anxiety of entertaining and cooking for the holidays.

Holiday cooking and entertaining has long inspired a range of emotions from fear and anxiety to excitement and the need to impress. So what's an amateur cook to do?

This quandary inspires many questions, and the answers can determine holiday success or failure. For example, what's the trick for a juicy turkey? What exactly are giblets for anyway (and do I want to know)?

Carl Antholz, lead sales associate and cooking instructor at Kitchen Window, 3001 Hennepin Ave. S., said he sees signs of holiday cooking anxiety all the time. Antholz said every holiday season, frantic shoppers arrive, intimidated by large culinary undertakings. &#8220It's totally overwhelming,” he noted.

While holiday meals can seem like a major test of skills, Antholz said with the proper planning and preparation, even amateur cooks could pull off an impressive meal. All that's needed is education, some helpful hints from the pros and determination.

Basic culinary education

Antholz has been cooking professionally since 1969 and said certain equipment and ingredients are essential to a new cook's success.

Antholz said an 8-inch cooking knife is one of the most common and useful tools and suggests knife buyers get assistance from knowledgeable retailers when purchasing cutlery.

For pans, Antholz said starting with a few is best because investing in expensive pans right way might be a waste if new cooks decide they don't like kitchwork. The basics pans are a good fry pan, saucepan and soup pot. Still, it's not that easy. Antholz explained that there are two different types of pans it's important to have: conductive pans made with an aluminum core and nonconductive - cast iron as an example.

He said the conductive pans help to evenly distribute heat and avoid hot spots when cooking. Nonconductive pans are great for radiating and keeping heat - allowing a pan to stay warm for a long morning of pancake making, he said.

Having quality ingredients is essential, but Antholz said knowing how to use them is best taught.

He said that by far the best way to gain this knowledge is to attend cooking classes. Kitchen Window has a wide variety of cooking classes - even a Thanksgiving 101 class set for Wednesday, Nov. 16 ($75) to help those new to the kitchen.

Antholz said classes are more helpful than a cookbook because cookbooks don't test every recipe, so the outcomes aren't always as anticipated. He said cooking classes also help develop a tasting ability, allowing cooks to be able to judge the different flavors as a dish is being created. &#8220You learn to anticipate,” he said, helping cooks to know if they have too much of something (garlic or salt) or not enough of another.

Geri Wolf, principal at Uptown's Style Laboratory, an event-planning business, said she has also devised a class with a local caterer to address the problem. &#8220People are really intimidated to entertain because of the whole Martha Stewart mentality,” she said. &#8220They don't have to do everything.”

To help educate hosts in need on the entertaining front, Wolf is hosting a Nov. 30 class with the Goodness Gracious caterers at the Style Lab, 915 W. Lake St. At the $65 class, Wolf said she'd break holiday entertaining into three scenarios: a Thanksgiving dinner party, a Christmas/holiday cocktail party and a romantic New Year's Eve. The class will focus on creating a plan for each event, from invitations to dcor and food presentation and menu planning. The class will also have a few recipes.

Reducing the stress

Wolf said when entertaining or hosting a holiday meal it's important to keep the pressure on the host at a minimum. &#8220I don't think there's anything worse than going to a party when [the host] is stressed out,” she said.

Wolf suggested a few ideas for reducing anxiety for a host or hostess. She said if guests help cook or bring a dish, pressure is lessened, and also helps everyone socialize.

After all, Wolf said, &#8220When you're entertaining, people always gravitate towards the kitchen.”

She added that, &#8220By delegating, you take out the intimidation.”

To reassure a guest who's an inexperienced cook, Wolf suggested pairing him or her with someone who knows what he or she is doing.

Antholz said careful, incremental planning can also reducing stress. &#8220It's about breaking it down,” he said, adding that hosts/cooks should evaluate the number of guests, quality of the food needed and what duties they can share.

He also said preparing for the meal ahead of time will also help. For example, Antholz said preparing turkey stock for gravy (by roasting a turkey with carrots and onions) before the big event saves time. He also suggested nervous cooks do a run-through meal for practice.

Tips from the pros

Both Wolf and Antholz have an abundance of tips, from recipe tricks to cutting costs:

For a juicy turkey, Antholz said his trick to a juicy turkey is to soak the bird in a brine solution (water, salt and a little sugar and spice). He said he usually lines a cooler with plastic bag, fills it with solution and soaks the bird for 12-24 hours.

Antholz said it's essential to not buy a frozen bird; they lose water through the freezing. He said it's also good to wait a bit to carve the turkey after removing it from the oven, giving the juice time to set into the meat.

To save money, but still put on an impressive spread, Wolf suggests simplicity. &#8220People have this idea that if they're going to entertain they have to be over the top,” she said.

For example, for a holiday party, Wolf said she wanted to set the mood to look elegant, but not spend a lot. So, she said she bought rock salt for approximately $8, sprinkled it on her glass table top, and added glass plates and votive candles, creating a pretty snow-and-ice effect.

For tips on cutting the cost with food, but not skimping on style, Wolf said the key is presentation. She said taking simple foods and adding a creative presentation using everyday items can be the easiest and simplest way to wow guests.

Antholz suggested buying ingredients at small Latino and Asian markets, as they often have better deals and quality ingredients that might be hard to find at large grocery stores.

For more information about the Style Laboratory, visit www.stylelaboratory.com and Kitchen Window visit www.kitchenwindow.com.