Creating stress-free holiday meals

Working ahead, making a plan, can turn a host's nightmare into a dream

That's how Yannette Fichou Edwards, a cooking instructor at Palo Alto Adult School, suggests taking the stress out of preparing a perfect Thanksgiving dinner.

The essence of a stress-free holiday dinner lies in good time management, she said, turning planning, shopping and making the dinner into a project.

Edwards has been teaching at night while working at her day job as an independent travel advisor and traveling to more than 160 countries for the past 17 years. She recently taught a class about how to craft a make-ahead holiday dinner when she offered advice on getting ahead of the game.

To start with, she said the host should take the number of guests, dishes and workload into account when making the menu.

"The first thing to figure out is the menu, and the cardinal rule for menu is never try a recipe for the first time on the big day," she said. "Sometimes, recipes aren't tested well, the timing isn't right, (you've) left out key ingredients or (the recipe is) too tough. So if you have never made it before and enjoyed it, don't serve it. It's supposed to be stress-free. Taking risks on the day is not stress-free."

Once the menu is ready, it's time to make a shopping list and decide when and where to buy which ingredient.

"The more they can do in advance without compromising the dish, the better. Often times, desserts can be made in advance. Not all, but many appetizers can be too. Make a timeline," she suggested.

If the host wishes to have his or her guest bring some food to dinner, Edwards recommended being specific about the food because "having three pumpkin pies on the table won't be interesting," she said.

For thanksgiving, several things can go wrong. She said that people sometimes can't get the timing right on their turkey.

"People really need to go on the conservative side and allow themselves ample time. If the direction says it needs three and a half hours in the oven, they need to plan for four and a half hours. Different brands of ovens may not heat up as fast," she said.

She pointed out that turkey needs to rest after it's taken out of the oven.

"Most people are in such a rush because they are running behind so they put them on the table and cut into it immediately and that's when all the juice is lost," she said. "Rest the bird for 30 minutes or 45 minutes. It allows the turkey to absorb all its natural juice. A good glaze on turkey may be a combination of paprika, olive oil, butter and salt and rubbing it all over the turkey to give it a really nice color."

Such expertise in cooking and dinner preparation are practically in Edwards' genes. Raised by an Italian mother and French father, she grew up in a family vigilant about sitting down at the table and eating a four-course meal every day. Such vigilance had a tremendous impact and taught her how to manage her time in the kitchen wisely.

With a strong family influence, she started taking cooking classes at a very young age and getting family recipes. Interested in learning about new cultures and foreign cuisines, she got a degree in tourism and combined both her interests in her jobs.

"I love traveling and I love food. I have found a perfect niche for myself," she said.

The perks of being a travel advisor and cooking instructor at the same time are very attractive.

"Having been to these countries gives me a huge edge on what is authentic," Edwards said.

Not only does she get to eat authentic food, she also learns new knowledge from other culinary cultures, and then, incorporates all that into her "repertoire" of complimentary flavors to teach her students a wide spectrum of global cuisines.

"For example, I love Thai food," she said. "But here, we make it too sweet to fit the American palate. Sometimes, I don't like the way we are Americanizing the foreign cuisines here."

Before entering the classroom she spends hours working out the theme, menu and recipes, offering her students more than they could simply read about.

"It's not 'Turkey 101,' and it's not Costco this or Safeway that. I don't pull recipes off the Internet. This is not thinking out-of-the-box and the menu won't have that wow-effect," she said.

Yet those dishes she taught in early November, such as individual filet mignon beef Wellington wrapped with savory pate and puffed pastry, may sound like something people will never attempt to make at home. After a session in her class, according to Edwards, students will have the confidence to make it themselves.

"I was trying to take the stress out of it and making things in advance, showing them how to make things, breaking it down. That is more manageable, not so intimidating," she said. "People can make these fast, delicious meals themselves and impress their friends and family."

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