So, you’ve decided you’re going to host the big dinner at this year’s gathering, have you? And as the days until your little shindig narrow down, you’ve realized that you’re in a little bit over your head? Luckily for you, we’ve got you covered.
Throwing any kind of dinner party–let alone a holiday meal–can be stressful, so we’ve turned to MasterChef Canada judges Michael Bonacini, Claudio Aprile and Alvin Leung for tips on cooking for a crowd like a pro. Or at the very least, on how to not mess it up.
These guys should know. In addition to serving as judges on the hit Canadian reality series, the chefs have added CTV’s MasterChef Canada Holiday Special to their already padded resumes. In the special, they welcomed back four Season 1 contestants and their families for a chance at redemption (and some cash prizes for their favourite charities).
A la cuisine!
Stick to the three Ps
That means plan, prep and practice. No one wants to be running around like a turkey with their head cut off on Christmas Day, cooking from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m. According to Bonacini, the best thing to do is to get a jump start on things a few days in advance. “Don’t leave it all until the last minute,” he advises. “You want to enjoy the holiday, too.”
Aprile adds that you might want to buy yourself a small turkey in advance, and do a trial one just to see how it goes. “Practice makes perfect,” he says. “Why wait until Christmas to start?”
Divvy it up
Think making a turkey, stuffing, potatoes, veggies, gravy and a dessert might be a bit much? There’s nothing wrong with asking for some help. “Two words: Pot. Luck.,” Aprile says. “Everyone is equally responsible. I would assign it, with little invites suggesting, ‘We would be honoured if you brought this dish.’ It takes a lot of the pressure off.”
Cook what you know
Just because a goose, turkey or ham happens to be what your family has had for years doesn’t mean that’s what you have to cook. If you make excellent chicken, why not go for chicken this year? “Or do duck. Do beef. Do whatever you’re good at,” Leung offers. “Try something new that’s a change, you’d be surprised how accepting people are.”
Don’t add garlic
If you are sticking to the tried-and-true turkey this year, stay away from the garlic. Aside from having your guests worry about post-meal bad breath, it’s actually not very complementary to the bird. “Garlic and turkey are not friends,” says Aprile, while Leung and Bonacini nod their heads in agreement.
Debone the bird
According to the chefs, this is the easiest and quickest way to get succulent, moist turkey that doesn’t take a whole lot of actual cooking. If you can figure out how to do it. “Season it, roll it, tie it and roast it,” Bonacini explains. “It will cook in half the time. Then you can just slice it. It’s so easy to carve that way as opposed to trying to carve it off the breast bone.”
Since deboning an entire turkey isn’t exactly on our list of easy tasks this holiday season, the chefs recommend asking your friendly neighbourhood butcher if he or she can lend a hand when you actually purchase the bird.
No, we’re not talking about eating all of the food beforehand. We’re talking about stuffing–that glorious, carb-tastic addition to any turkey meal that most people can’t get enough of. Aprile has a trick for fool-proof, delicious stuffing every time: instead of using regular stale bread, opt for stale, buttery croissants instead. It will give your stuffing base that added kick no one will quite be able to put their finger on.
Or if you’re feeling extra adventurous, do what they do in the Leung household and add a bit of an Asian flair–by stuffing that bird with fried rice, instead. “Traditional stuffing for the Leung family has always been fried rice stuffing,” Leung says. “Cook it with vegetables, let it cool down and stuff it in the turkey.”
Skip the cans
Going for cranberry sauce? For the love of Christmas, don’t buy the canned stuff, pleads Aprile. The chef says his personal recipe is so simple, it’s “idiot-proof.” Now that’s what we like to hear!
But add in the calories
Everyone knows that mashed potatoes–when made with the traditional heaps of butter and cream–are anything but waist-friendly. But that’s what makes them so darned good. Sure, you can help the cause by replacing half the potatoes with cauliflower, using greek yogurt instead of cream or even vegetable or chicken stock, but nothing is going to taste quite as good as the real stuff. “It’s the time of year to go over the top,” Bonacini shrugs. “So go for it.”
From there, it’s all gravy
Of course you want to make gravy, the perfect finish to any holiday meal, right? Here’s a trick that most professional chefs swear by: always opt for corn starch over flour. It’s more refined, which means that it will break down quicker in your pot. Just mix a tablespoon or so with a little bit of cold water and add that to your pan juices with some chicken stock and maybe a little white wine. Way easier than the gross packet stuff.
When all else fails, just enjoy
The holidays are a time to spend with friends and family, and while an epic meal certainly helps set the mood, at the end of the day it’s just a bonus. So if you just so happen to find yourself in a situation where everything you’ve cooked is inedible, then Leung has one word for you: “pizza.”
MasterChef Canada returns Sunday, Feb. 8 at 7 p.m. ET/PT on CTV.