As the host of Barefoot Contessa on Food Network and author of nine cookbooks, Ina Garten knows how to make entertaining look effortless. This year, she showed us how to pull off a festive and relaxed holiday meal with strategies from her newest cookbook, Make It Ahead.
Here, we ask Ina all about how she entertains at home, her go-to dishes for company, and how to stay stress free over the holidays. Read on for her tips!
What’s your entertaining style?
I like to think of my entertaining style as being warm and cozy. I want my guests to be relaxed and happy when they’re with me. I try to have everything done ahead, so I can spend the evening with them. I have great music playing when they arrive and a bar table set up in the living room so people can help themselves to drinks. Dinner is almost always at the kitchen table, so I can put the finishing touches on dinner and still be in the room with my guests. And the best advice I ever got about entertaining is that no one remembers what they had for dinner, but they always remember dessert—so I like to serve a special, over-the-top dessert.
I think my dinner guests are always surprised to learn that I have a very specific “game plan” for the meal written on a pad of paper. It starts with 5:00 p.m.: turn oven to 500 degrees; 5:30 p.m.: filet of beef in oven, cut Brussels sprouts, etc. I take each recipe I’m serving and put all the steps for the recipe in the game plan, working backward from the time that I want to serve dinner. That way I know two important things—first, that everything will be ready at the same time when I want people to sit down to eat, and second, that before 5:00 p.m. I have nothing to do!
Why is it important to make things ahead?
There are two reasons to prepare everything ahead. First, it reduces stress because you have time to solve any problems you encounter—the chicken is bigger than you thought or the onion you bought is bad and you need to get another one—but more important, I think the best parties are the ones where the hosts are relaxed and having fun with their guests. Cooking ahead makes for better parties!
What kinds of dishes are best made ahead?
I like to make soups, stews, and slow-roasted meats ahead because the flavors meld and they actually taste better as they sit. And for dessert, puddings, mousses, and pound cakes are wonderful to make ahead. There are also dishes that can be partially made ahead and finished before dinner, such as cookie dough that can be made ahead and simply scooped onto a sheet pan and baked before dinner.
What are some steps in a recipe that can be done ahead?
Almost every recipe has things that can be prepared ahead. When I want to make waffles, for example, I can mix the dry ingredients and store them in a plastic bag on the counter and mix the wet ingredients and refrigerate them. Then, in the morning, all I need to do is stir them together and heat the waffle iron. For other dishes, many vegetables, such as butternut squash and carrots, can be prepped ahead and stored in plastic bags with a damp paper towel. Potatoes can be prepped and stored in the fridge in water so they don’t turn brown. Everything you can prep ahead makes the actual cooking less stressful.
What do you leave to cook at the last minute?
Every recipe in Make It Ahead can be prepared ahead, and all the last-minute instructions fit on a Post-it note! I have directions such as “Roast at 350 degrees for 30 minutes” or “Grill for 10 minutes on each side,” so I don’t have to look at the recipe again! Cooking ahead has changed my entertaining style and I hope it changes yours, too!
What kind of music do you play during dinner or parties?
I think music is really important for a party—it gets everyone in the holiday spirit the minute they arrive. I love the series of CDs mixed by the French Hotel Costes – they’re a combination of American, French, Moroccan music and they have a wonderful upbeat energy. During dinner, I like to play Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra quietly in the background, and then later, while we’re having coffee, I’ll play Cesaria Evora, which gets everyone going again.
I’m secretly known for my Whiskey Sours. Unlike cocktails in many restaurants, mine are made with freshly squeezed lemon juice, lime juice, and good Bourbon. Sometimes I serve them in chilled martini glasses, which make them even more fun. It’s the kind of cocktail that really gets a party off to a good start.
What are your favorite dishes for holiday entertaining?
My new favorites are the Make-Ahead Roast Turkey with Make-Ahead Turkey Gravy with Onions and Sage because it’s the moistest, most flavorful turkey I’ve ever made! Not to mention that it’s done and carved before guests arrive! My other favorite is the Slow-Roasted Spiced Pork because it roasts for six to eight hours, it’s amazingly delicious, and it serves a crowd. I make it with Maple Baked Beans (from Barefoot Contessa at Home), which also cooks slowly in the oven, plus the Winter Slaw and Sour Cream Cornbread. For dessert, the Coffee Granita is the perfect refreshing finish to a rich dinner.
What are a few ways you manage to stay stress-free while entertaining over the holidays?
The key to staying stress-free (a seemingly impossible dream!) is to plan the menu really carefully. I make a list of everything I want to make, and all my guests’ preferences, and then just start crossing things off. First, can I reasonably make all these dishes in one oven at the same time? Second, can I make one dinner that everyone can eat without making an alternative dish for the person who’s allergic to fish? And third, do I really need four vegetables and a complicated first course? I’ll cross two off.
Another easy solution is to skip the first course altogether. I serve the main course first, then a wonderful ripe cheese plus a green salad with mustard vinaigrette, and finally a decadent dessert. Now I’m not sitting and eating my soup while I’m wondering how in the world I’m going to carve the meat and get everything hot to the table while my guests are waiting.
How do you decorate your home over the holidays? Any tips?
I actually keep holiday decorations to a minimum. I love lots of candles at night and a few vases of seasonal flowers, but I’d rather spend my time making a delicious dinner for friends than decorating the chandeliers with garlands of evergreens that need to be vacuumed up the very next day.
What do you bring to other people’s homes as host or hostess gifts?
My favorite gift to bring people, if I have time to cook, is my homemade salted caramels. If I don’t have time to make them, I’ll order a box of chocolate-covered salted caramels from Fran’s in Seattle to bring to the host. I want to be sure to be invited back!