Tips for elevating the traditional holiday meal

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Make sure you've mastered any new dish before springing it on your guests.
Make sure you've mastered any new dish before springing it on your guests.

If preparing the holiday feast falls upon you, the pressure is on to get it just right. Whether you’re faithfully replicating treasured family recipes, or want to put a new creative spin on seasonal culinary customs, achieving success with the food you offer can define a happy holiday experience for all.

Want to try a menu item that’s completely new? Don’t choose the morning of your gathering to attempt replacing everyone’s favorite pumpkin pie with that new pumpkin creme brulee. Make sure you’ve mastered any new dish before springing it on your guests. If you’re going to create a new tradition, you need to be prepared to knock it out of the park.

If food that’s entirely new and unexpected is too risky for you to attempt, or just not acceptable for the traditionalists around your table, you might try livening up classic standbys in a subtle, yet transformative way.

Try something derivative of the classic recipes that everyone loves:

1. Transform turkey with an herbed basting butter, or use ready-made spice blends such as curry, barbecue, or southwest chili seasoning as dry rubs, or for adding stealth-flavor updates to your gravy.

2. Roast your meat entree on a bed of seasonal herbed vegetables including carrots, parsnips, shallots and fall mushrooms – this will add moisture and flavor that may rival hours of traditional butter-basting. When the meat is done, puree the roasted vegetables to create a healthier take on traditional gravy, or try serving them whole right along your entree as a time- and oven-space-saving side dish.

3. Elevate the flavor of plain white russet potatoes by including buttery turnips, creamy-textured celery root, sweet fennel bulb, nutty cauliflower and seasonings such as parsley, garlic and chives in the mash-up.

4. For dessert, use a bit of pumpkin pie spice, cinnamon and sugar or a dusting of clove, nutmeg and sugar to create a flavored whipped cream for the traditional pumpkin pie.

All traditions evolve, but if something derivative is still too extreme, slip in a subtle twist that improves upon the original. Every traditional food or recipe has likely gone through many incremental changes, even to the point that the dish has probably changed substantially over time. It makes perfect sense to question outmoded preparation techniques or unhealthy ingredients, so don’t be afraid to slip in your own subtle twists to any time-worn recipes.

For instance, your mom or grandmother may very well have relied upon less costly but synthetic (and even unhealthy) imitation vanilla flavoring. Real vanilla is a much better investment in quality, flavor and naturalness and could make a remarkable difference in your baking. Likewise, simply cleaning out your spice cabinet and replacing all those mismatched, aging seasonings with fresh organic spices will do wonders to improve the flavor of any standard family dishes without transforming them into something unrecognizable to the traditionalists who will gather around your table.