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Holiday hosting can be fun. Really!

Relax. There are ways to take the stress out of yuletide cooking and turn it into a fun holiday activity.
Relax. There are ways to take the stress out of yuletide cooking and turn it into a fun holiday activity. Getty Images

Gourmet chefs and wayward cooks who don’t know the difference between puree and sauté have one thing in common when it comes to preparing holiday meals:

They stress about it.

Relax. There are ways to take the stress out of yuletide cooking and turn it into a fun holiday activity.

Bill Knapp, chef instructor in the College of Hospitality, Retail and Sport Management at the University of South Carolina, says holiday hosts and hostesses shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help.

“The holidays are a time for family and friends, so asking someone to bring their ‘famous sweet potato casserole’ not only includes them in the meal, but it takes one less dish off your to-do list,” he said.

Knapp offers these other ideas for ways to keep cooking fun and stress-free during the holidays:

Separate your prep from cooking. “Diced onions, carrots, celery and many other vegetables will be fine if cut up the day before,” Knapp said. “Measure out and combine the vegetables you need for a recipe into storage bags so when it comes time to actually cook, you can just pour out the bag and into the pan.”

Assemble casseroles the day before. This way, on cooking day, you just have to place the pans in the oven and wait. “Don’t sweat it when some recipes say to cook one casserole at 350 degrees while another casserole is 375 degrees,” Knapp said. “The dishes can go in at the same temperature, just adjust for a little longer or shorter of a cooking time.”

Plan out the day. Make a list of what items you’ll be cooking and how. “This will help you visualize the day and eliminate the problem of bottlenecking,” Knapp said.

Crockpots are your friend. “If you can make something in a crockpot, do it. Because all you have to do is stir occasionally and when it is done, just set to low,” he said.

Try sous vide. It may sound intimidating but circulation heaters are relatively cheap (about $140 on Amazon) and a great way to cook without hainv go pay attention, Knapp said. “Simply seal your pork tenderloin, ribeye, salmon fillet, or whatever you have in a bag with seasonings, drop it in a pot of water warmed to the recipe recommendation, and forget about it until you are ready to eat. You can’t overcook your meat no matter how long you wait to serve it,” he said.

Remember to have fun

It’s not enough just to eliminate the stress: You need to have fun, said Lisa Joy Mitchell, a USC graduate and author of “Sacred & Delicious: A Modern Ayurvedic Cookbook.” (Ayurveda is India’s traditional medical system and approach to wellness.)

“Since the whole point of the holiday season is to celebrate divine love and light, remember to keep this in mind in the kitchen,” Mitchell said.

The first step to enjoying your time in the kitchen is to drop any idea of perfectionism. Perfect isn’t the point and shouldn’t be the goal.

“Yes, I always want everything to look lovely and taste delicious, but I find that relaxing about cooking the big meals makes them taste all the more delicious,” Mitchell said. “And everyone has a better time when the atmosphere is relaxed. A holiday meal is not a performance. It isn’t a test that will be graded. Think of this meal as an offering from your heart to the hearts of those you love.”

If the idea of a formal dinner freaks you out, keep it casual. Mitchell suggests accomplishing that by:

Letting your guests know it’s a casual gathering.

Invite your guests to come early and hang out in the kitchen in comfortable clothes.

Invite guests to pick up a knife and put on an apron to join in the cooking.

If there are young kids participating in the holiday prep, give them easy jobs so they can feel a part of process.

“This way cooking the holiday meal becomes a party in itself, a prelude stoked with wine, hot cider that’s been steeping with a cinnamon stick, or a cup of hot chai with a mélange of spices,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell also suggests eliminating the stress by preparing simpler dishes, such as fresh green beans with leeks and basil or Brussels sprouts sautéed with a little balsamic vinegar, a salad of mesclun and arugula with fresh goat cheese.

“Home entertaining over the holidays can be a joyful experience when the host takes a relaxed approach and does some thoughtful menu planning,” Mitchell said. “When you cook with love and laughter, your guests will leave sated and content.”

Do as much prep work the day before. That way, on cooking day, all you have to do is combine, pour and bake. Getty Images

Here are a few recipes, some of which are easy enough to be stress-free and still wow your friends and family. And maybe even yourself.

McCutchen House Tomato Pie

University of South Carolina College of Hospitality, Retail and Sport Management

16-ounce can of diced tomatoes, drained for about an hour

1/2 cup red onion, finely diced

5 basil sprigs, chiffonade

2 cups mayonnaise

1/2 cup sour cream

1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

12 sweet tart shells (2-3 inches in diameter)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Combine the drained tomatoes, onion and basil for the tart filling. Divide the filling evenly among the tart shells.

Combine the mayo, sour cream and cheese for the topping. Add a dollop (about 2 tablespoons) of topping on each tart

Bake for about 15 minutes until golden brown. Serve immediately.

Chocolate Walnut Pie

University of South Carolina College of Hospitality, Retail and Sport Management

3 eggs

1 cup light corn syrup

1/4 cup brown sugar

1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted

3/4 cup chopped walnuts

3/4 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

2 tablespoons vanilla

1 frozen pie shell (9 inch)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line a cookie sheet with foil.

In a large bowl or mixer, combine the eggs, corn syrup, brown sugar, butter and vanilla until well mixed.

Evenly spread the walnuts and chocolate chips in the pie shell. Gently pour in the filling slowly as not to disturb the chips and nuts layer.

Bake for 1 hour or until the crust is golden brown and the filling is almost set in the middle. Let cool and serve.

Holiday Sweet Potatoes with Glazed Pecan Topping

Reprinted with permission from “Sacred & Delicious” by Lisa Joy Mitchell

6 to 8 large sweet potatoes

1 to 1½ teaspoons fine ground Celtic sea salt

2 to 2½ tablespoons ghee or unsalted butter


1 to 1½ pounds whole shelled pecans, chopped

5 to 7 tablespoons ghee, unsalted butter, or coconut oil

1 to 2 teaspoons fine ground Celtic sea salt

2½ to 3½ teaspoons ground cinnamon

3 to 6 tablespoons coconut sugar

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Line a heavy cookie sheet with aluminum foil.

Pierce each potato a few times with a fork, wrap each in foil, and place them on the cookie sheet and bake for about 90 minutes or until the potatoes are soft. Remove from oven and cool for about an hour.

While the potatoes are cooling, grease a 2.5- to 3-quart casserole dish and prepare the topping.

Melt the ghee, butter, or oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add 1 teaspoon salt, the cinnamon, and 3 tablespoons coconut sugar to the ghee. Stir. Add the nuts, and stir for about a minute or until the nuts are well coated. Set aside to cool.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Once the potatoes have cooled, unwrap, remove skins and place in a large mixing bowl. Add salt and ghee, butter, or coconut oil. Purée with an electric mixer or mash by hand. Transfer the potatoes to the casserole dish. Spoon the pecan mixture on top. Cover and bake for 15 minutes. Uncover and bake 10 minutes more.

Holiday Dressing

Reprinted with permission from “Sacred & Delicious” by Lisa Joy Mitchell

10 to 12 cups of bread or cornbread pieces

2 cups chopped onion

4 stalks celery

10 large fresh sage leaves, chopped (2 teaspoons dried)

2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano (2 teaspoons dried)

2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves (2 teaspoons dried)

1 tablespoon fresh chopped rosemary (1 teaspoon dried)

10 tablespoons ghee, unsalted butter, or coconut oil plus 1 teaspoon for greasing

½ teaspoon ground cumin

½ teaspoon ground coriander

8 ounces shiitake mushrooms

1½ to 2½ cups vegetable stock

1 tablespoon Bragg Liquid Aminos

¼ cup fresh flat-leaf parsley

1 cup chopped walnuts

2 to 3 teaspoons light grey Celtic sea salt

Cook’s TIp: This dressing is a little soft in the middle and crisp on the outside. If you prefer a dressing that’s crisp all the way through, limit stock to 1½ cups.

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Bake the bread on a baking sheet for about 10 minutes. Hand-tear or cut the bread into ½- to ¾-inch pieces, and place them in a large mixing bowl.

Chop onions and celery. Mince sage, oregano, thyme, rosemary, and set aside.

Heat the ghee, butter, or oil in a large pan over medium heat. Add onions to the pan and cook for about 15 minutes on medium heat, or until the onions start to turn golden. Add the cumin and coriander. Add the celery. Cover and cook for 10 minutes. Add the sage, oregano, thyme and rosemary. Let sauté about 1 minute.

While the vegetables sauté, clean and chop the mushrooms. Mince in a food processor and add to the pan along with 1½ cups of stock and the liquid aminos. Cover and simmer about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

While the mushrooms simmer, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Lightly grease a 9-by-13 x 13 or 10-inch round baking dish with a little ghee or butter. Chop the parsley and walnuts.

To complete the dressing: Add the cooked vegetable mixture to the bowl of bread pieces. Add parsley, walnuts, and salt. (Note: If you are using a boxed or canned stock that is already salted, taste first, and add salt 1 teaspoon at a time as needed.) Stir with a large spoon or spatula, and mix well. If the mixture seems dry, add more stock, up to 2½ cups total liquid. The dressing should be quite moist before it is baked.

Transfer the dressing mixture to the baking dish and cover with foil. Bake covered for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and bake another 30 to 40 minutes, or until the top is brown and crisp, to caramelize the onions. (Note: If you prepare the dressing the day before, bake 1 hour covered and another 20 to 30 minutes uncovered until the top is browned.) Keep in a warm oven until serving.