THREE DAYS BEFORE CHRISTMAS: Make a list and check it twice
“If you’re a planner like me, you have already been thinking about your menus for days, but now is the time to put pen to paper,” says Shannon Boudreau, events and sales director for the Lazy Gourmet catering company in Vancouver. The best way to stay on top of the holidays is to have point-form notes of what you’re buying, where and when you’re shopping, and what days you are prepping everything. In Boudreau’s case, that means being ready to host a Christmas Eve cocktail party and a full turkey feast, including vegan options, on Christmas Day. She makes a point to get up early and head to Granville Market – “I’m there the moment it opens,” she says – to pick up specialty items, such as cheese, certain cuts of meat and herbs.
Today is also the time to account for fridge space. “I live in a small one-bedroom apartment and I don’t have the biggest kitchen in the world so I’m always obsessing about oven, stove and fridge space,” says Mary Berg, a cookbook author and host of CTV’s Mary’s Kitchen Crush. “People often overlook this really simple thing and then they’re frantically trying to find room for the mashed potatoes, the stuffing, the hors d’oeuvres, and, of course, the bird, which takes up a ton of space.
“If you’ve bought frozen – and it’s 16 pounds or less – your bird should now be in the fridge [thawing],” she adds. “If it’s larger, you’re already out of luck, and it’s time to put your turkey in the bathtub.” To thaw a rock-hard bird in the fridge, it takes 24 hours for every five pounds; in cold water, allot 30 minutes a pound, refreshing the water every half hour.
The time from Dec. 21 to 31 is an extremely high-traffic period at liquor stores across the country. Ontario’s LCBO expects holiday sales during this period to total $1.1-billion with more than 24.5 million thirsty customers served. “Personally, this would already be late for me heading to the store to get my reds, my whites, my prosecco, spirits and spritz,” Montreal chef Stefano Faita says, adding that he would have gone a week earlier. “However, if you haven’t stocked up yet, make sure you buy extra, so you don’t have to go back for New Year’s Eve.” Check holiday hours at your favourite liquor/beer store and get there as early possible; crowds grow as the day wears on.
Buying in abundance is key, agrees LCBO’s Thomas Hwang, an in-store product consultant, who says that New Year’s Eve alone accounts for more than one-third of all holiday sales. The general rule of thumb is that guests will have two drinks in the first hour and one drink every hour after that.
The Globe and Mail’s wine critic Christopher Waters says it’s not necessary to buy the most expensive wine, bubbly or limited-edition Port. “This time of year, wine doesn’t have to be the showstopper,” Waters says. “You’re there for the spirit, the conversation and the food. Wine is just the lubricant.” Also, be sure to pick up non-alcoholic options, and a few gift cards, which are a perfect stocking stuffer or last-minute host gift.
Don’t stress about wine pairings – turkey goes with pretty much everything. “Simple is best,” Hwang says. “For example, I would serve pinot noir and riesling with turkey and ham because pinot noir is extremely versatile and riesling is just simple and all around easy to pair.” And when in doubt, bubbles are always appropriate.
If you are hosting the big meal, call a rental company to rent your dishes, plates, cutlery and glassware. Most of these companies are open seven days a week, especially this time of year. “It’s a very nominal fee and I’m spending less time doing dishes before and after the party," Boudreau says. “More important, I’m enjoying more time with my guests.”
TWO DAYS BEFORE CHRISTMAS: Prep, bake and mix
“Someone told me a long time ago that every time you host a party you should greet your guests with something and have them leave with something,” says Boudreau, who at her Christmas Eve soirée, greets friends with a specialty cocktail – this year’s drink is a cranberry-infused Negroni – and sends them home with a three-ounce bottle of the same drink, recipe attached.
The day before the party, Boudreau pours the gin for her Negroni into a bucket, adds the cranberries and lets them soak for a day so that the gin turns pink. (Another show-stopping holiday cocktail this season is The Jolly, made with Hounds black vodka, cranberry juice and a splash of 7Up, garnished with a slice of lime). She also gets some of the mundane prep out of the way: lettuce is washed, potatoes mashed, meats trimmed, stuffing made (but not stuffed into the bird) and beet Wellington prepared for her vegan friends on Christmas Day.
Berg, too, ticks off her list of things she can make ahead. She’s a big believer in “park and cook” recipes for Christmas Eve – in other words, dishes you throw into a pot and stick in the oven, such as a brisket or beef bourguignon. “The key, and my priority at least, is to spend less time in the kitchen and more time with my family and friends, so I always make something that is minimum fuss." She preps these dishes a day ahead of them being served, making, for example, the marinade for the brisket, which then sits overnight.
“It’s also a tradition in our household for everyone to come to my place Christmas morning for bagels and homemade spreads such as egg salad, smoked mackerel and whipped cream cheese, so I get those out of the way,” Berg says.
Today is also the ideal time to set up your bar, including clean glasses, decanters and ice buckets.
ONE DAY BEFORE CHRISTMAS: Time for the last-minute touches
Now is when Berg makes her cranberry sauce, and takes out her frozen slice-and-bake cookies, which are a great late-night party snack for Christmas Eve stragglers. “I also make a giant batch of granola and bag it up for Christmas bags. Who doesn’t like a healthy treat? And it gives them the adults something to munch on the next day when the kids are opening their presents,” she says.
Boudreau chooses her Christmas Eve playlist and the black-and-white Christmas movies she plays in the background during the party. This year’s option? It’s a Wonderful Life.
CRUNCH TIME: Don’t panic. There are always quick fixes
If you’ve rushed home from work, thrown your homemade brie and cranberry twists into the oven, and burned them to a crisp, there is hope. Loblaws, Real Canadian Superstores and Whole Foods all sell ready-to-serve hors d’oeuvres – tempura and coconut shrimp, mini quiches and veggie samosas are all good bets. They might not fool your guests, but will work in a pinch. Hours will vary depending on location, but many are open to 6 p.m., some even to 8 p.m. on Dec. 24, so check with your local grocer.
Fridge bursting with food? Turn the balcony or backyard in an outdoor fridge. “I tell customers to chill beverages in an ice bucket filled with cold salt water,” the LCBO’s Hwang says. “The salt chills your drinks faster. And if there’s snow, even better. Thirty minutes is all it takes.”