Plan holiday menus and do advance food prep to avoid festive fiascoes

TORONTO - When it comes to putting on a spread during the holidays, the last thing you want is a disaster that could have been preventable, says a seasoned restaurateur.

Treat holiday cooking as if you are going on a road trip, suggests Lisa Ahier, owner of SoBo restaurant in Tofino, B.C. You have your mechanic check over your vehicle before departing. Do the same thing with appliances and items you'll need to use to prepare your menu.

She knows whereof she speaks.

"I always say — and this happened to me one year with a houseful of people — if you have propane, make sure you have propane going into the holiday," Ahier said with a laugh.

"I was halfway into my turkey dinner on Christmas, I want to say five years ago, and of course everything's closed down, especially in a small town, and my propane tank went out and I had cooked the turkey halfway. And I didn't have an electric stove — everything was propane. That led to a comedy of errors that day."

They managed to round up some small propane tanks from neighbours with barbecues. "It took about an hour before we got the problem solved and the turkey in there. That was pretty stressful. So (it's important to find) all kinds of ways to not get yourself into any unnecessary stress so that you can focus on your guests and your food."

The key is planning, Ahier said during a recent trip to Toronto.

"No. 1, plan ahead and have as much done waiting so that you can enjoy your guests when they walk in the door and so that you're not stressed out when your guests walk in the door," said Ahier, who is also the author of "The SoBo Cookbook: Recipes from the Tofino Restaurant at the End of the Canadian Road" (Appetite by Random House).

"Have a strategic plan going into the holidays that will lead you to success and not to those last-minute failures. People get pretty tied up with stress when they've got company coming if it's not something they do every day."

Chef Lynn Crawford, owner of Ruby Watchco restaurant in Toronto, agrees.

"Put the stress at bay and pick out a couple of your favourite recipes that you're going to cook and plan ahead and prepare ahead," said Crawford, who will reprise her role as a judge in Season 2 of "Chopped Canada," which begins airing on Food Network Canada on Jan. 10.

"My tip would be have a twist on a classic recipe that's from you, that's yours, from your heart and doing a little fun twist on it to maybe elevate it a little bit more."

Crawford, who has teamed with Egg Farmers of Canada to inspire Canadians to incorporate local and fresh foods into their meals and get-togethers this holiday season, has a beloved recipe for Sticky Toffee Pudding Cake that her family has enjoyed for many years and that was passed down to her. To put her stamp on it, she created an eggnog mousse and a caramel sauce with cranberries to serve with it instead of their traditional vanilla pudding or brandy sauce.

Both chefs suggest doing as much prep as possible ahead.

"When I'm holiday entertaining I try to do a job every day for about a week, starting with those that might be able to go in the freezer or something like a compote or preserve, like cranberry sauce, I do it all ahead so on that last day all I've got to do is put the turkey in, put the potatoes on," said Ahier.

"All my vegetables are prepped the day before the day before. And then if I'm running around cleaning up the house because the kids have trashed it and the dog has come in all wet, then I'm not behind."

Crawford suggests potluck entertaining during the holidays.

"It's so much easier when you're hosting a party if you ask your guests to bring in one of their favourite dishes too but to have fun with it. ... I love the idea of hosting a brunch. I do a sausage and egg bake, which is so simple and so delicious, or a frittata. Something like that that is so satisfying, so simple to make really, but when you arrive, get it heated up in the oven and it's ready to serve.

"A bottle of pink Champagne is always nice," she added with a laugh.

For nibbles, Ahier likes to serve a cheese plate with fruit chutney.

"You can buy your cheese in advance. Get a couple of nice artisan cheeses and have your chutney on the side. Get a good crostini or make crackers. Things like that that can be made even a week in advance takes some of the stress off."

Chefs tend to work most holidays, but both Ahier and Crawford plan to shutter their restaurants for the holidays.

Ahier and her husband usually spend Christmas holidays visiting their children's grandmothers — her husband's mother is in New Brunswick and Ahier's mom is in Texas.

"But this year we're going to do something really different and we're going to stay home in Tofino and enjoy our house, paint our business. We're closed for nine weeks. Over the holidays it's a little slow and we're just going to enjoy upgrading our spaces and being a family and recharging our batteries. I'm looking forward to cleaning my house and sitting down and playing board games with my kids," said Ahier.

"We're a family of paddlers. ... What I'll do this winter is we will get out every day on our paddle boards, go out and look for orca ... We've had some amazing experiences. That's my favourite part of life right now other than cooking and being with my kids."

In a total departure from her norm, Crawford plans to spend Christmas in the Bahamas with family members. "Being a chef I work every Christmas, it seems. ... I'm really, really, really excited. It will be the first time I've ever seen sand and not snow on Christmas Day."

Of course, she won't be able to resist the urge to do some cooking on Christmas Day.

"I'll go to a Scottish bakery and pick up some tattie (potato) scones and fry up some eggs," Crawford says. "We always have a Scottish breakfast, a tradition that our father had done for all of our lives. We've carried that on."

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