Comfort-Cookin'I love the holidays and they are approaching fast. Like me, you can cook with minimal increase in your pain and stress.  All it takes is planning and discarding some common assumptions. For example, just because something may be a family tradition doesn’t mean you have to keep it.  Creating new rituals that suits your lifestyle and abilities is more apt to allow you and those you love to enjoy the season more fully.

  • Tip #1: Plan ahead. Use a theme book, loose leaf binder, electronic documents or whatever works for you to keep organized and on track. Not only plan your menu, list what ingredients you will need, and then create a daily schedule of what you need to do.  Many things can be done ahead of “C” (cooking) Day and some should be done ahead.  For example, a week or two before Christmas Eve (our family day to celebrate), I write down the day I need to order the roast as well as the day I need to pick it up.  My dinner rolls I make one or two days ahead.  Things like cranberry sauce can also be made ahead.  The day of, I time my activities; such as, prepare vegetables at 10:00 AM, get rolls out of freezer (if made more than one day ahead) first thing in AM, roast in oven by 3:00 PM, etc.  If I get a little off schedule no big deal. I make sure that I schedule in rest periods throughout the day.
  • Tip #2: Keep It Simple. No one says you have to make more than one of anything (e.g. two types of potatoes, two types of vegetables, etc.). Go with one food type unless others are contributing covered dishes.  If you plan to bake cookies stick to easy ones and one or two types.  You don’t have to make six different types of cookies! Once again if pain is in the way go with store bought (bakeries do lovely seasonal cookies). Another option is to have a cookie baking party early in the season. Everyone brings their favorite recipe or two, bake them together while enjoying each other’s company and share in a an exchange, so each person goes home with a variety.
  • Tip #3: Accept help, please.  If you have family members or other guests coming don’t hesitate to ask them to bring something.  I have to admit I don’t like anyone helping in my kitchen (its small) but if they are willing to bring something I go for it.  Ask them to let you know ahead of time what it is so you don’t duplicate or plan the menu with them and make suggestions of what is needed. Some families create a sign-up list, so everyone knows their “assignment”.
  • Tip #4: Use recipes that are easy or at least not too difficult or time consuming. There are so many recipes out there to choose from and this is not the time to try something with a zillion ingredients and complicated steps.  For dessert at Christmas, I always offer a variety of candy–one or two may be homemade if energy and pain levels permit—if not, I just go with all store bought).  There are two reasons for this choice. First of all after a big dinner, I have found that most of my family and friends aren’t really interested in dessert.  Secondly, especially during the holidays, desserts take second place to the lure of other activities such as gift giving. Third, many family and friends have other places to visit, where food and sweets are offered.
  • Tip #5: Use prepared foods wisely. For Thanksgiving, I always buy a pumpkin pie for my husband from the local bakery; Pies are not my strong suit, I don’t like pumpkin pie, and it makes him happy.  One year, I experimented and made a pumpkin dessert. It was good but it just wasn’t the same for him—he likes his pumpkin pie.  I love making rolls and it is easy so I do those from scratch (more on that in my next blog).  Using prepared vegetables from the store, like celery sticks, broccoli pieces, etc. is less time consuming and well worth the small additional cost.  For some folks (including me), canned cranberry sauce works just as well as homemade.
  • Tip #6: Make YOU the priority. If you are really not up to cooking let everyone know.  You have options here:
    • Maybe someone else can do the meal,
    • Others can bring parts to make the whole meal,
    • Order take out,
    • Go out to a restaurant (reservations may be advisable with this option),
    • Perhaps a traditional style meal can be purchased the day before and reheated the day of or go with a untraditional meal.

Remember also you have nothing to feel guilty about; sometimes your body can’t or won’t cooperate even with your best intentions.  When trying to work while experience a lot of pain, it is not only a less enjoyable holiday for you but a risky one. You could make costly and even dangerous errors.

  • Tip #8: Remember those convenience foods:
    • Canned cranberry sauce: a matter of taste. I like it and so does my family.  I also like to make it fresh. It is an easy task yet is one more thing to fix.
    • Stuffing mixes: once again a matter of taste. I may use stuffing mixes most of the time however I don’t find it tiresome to cut my own cubes and make my dressing; it depends on my mood, my pain and energy levels.
    • Canned gravies: an additional matter of taste.  I don’t like the taste of any I have tried so I never use them however if you do like the taste go for it.  Gravies can be a pain (literally) to do.
    • Store or bakery bought cookies: Go for it.  There are many tasty ones out there and your time (and strength) might be better used elsewhere.  I do admit that I may feel guilty as I can be overly stern with myself at times.

Today, I am sharing my holiday recipes. I hope you enjoy.  Our Thanksgiving menu for many years (at least 35+) when we are not eating with others has been Herb Flavored Cornish Hens (little turkeys as they are known in our house), Mom’s (now Grandma’s) stuffing, jellied cranberry sauce (canned), dinner rolls, and bakery pumpkin pie.  If going to someone else’s I bring the stuffing and the spinach and artichoke casserole.  We always have our major holiday dinner on Christmas Eve; Rib Roast with Madeira Sauce (20+ years), mashed potatoes or sautéed baby potatoes, Elegant Ranch Spinach Casserole or roasted green beans, mixed olives, dinner rolls, and for dessert a couple of candies (made or bought).  I do my Easy Peasy Appetizers for both.  I tried a snack mix one year and the kids pigged out on that which spoiled their appetites–so never again.

[toggle title=”Easy Peasy Appetizers”]

Take an 8 oz. block of cream cheese (regular or low fat) and place on a plate.  Spoon either Hot Red Pepper Jelly or Black Olive Tapenade over it (I usually divide the block in half-two plates and use both).  Bruschetta topping would work well also.  Serve with crackers and raw vegetable.  I have little appetizer spatulas I use (inexpensive to buy).  [/toggle]

[toggle title=”Herb Flavored Cornish Hens”]

We are not big turkey fans and do love cornish hens so this has become our traditional meal (they are easier to prepare than a turkey to my way of thinking).  I usually cut them in half with a poultry shears after cooking but they can be served whole.  I can’t eat a whole one myself and neither can the little ones however that just means some nice leftovers.  I adapted this recipe from The Joy of Chicken (1977).

Cornish hens (one per person or two small children)

Per Hen:

1/8 tsp. ground pepper

1 tsp minced garlic

1 tsp thyme

¼ tsp kosher or sea salt


2 Tbsp. Butter softened

2 Tbsp. Butter melted

2 Tbsp. lemon juice

Preheat oven to 450°.  Place 1 tsp. garlic, ½ tsp. thyme, ¼ tsp. salt, and 1/8 tsp. ground pepper into the cavity of each hen.  Mix softened butter with half remaining thyme and place under breast skin of each bird.  Combine melted butter, lemon juice, and a few shakes of paprika and use to brush on.  Place birds in large roasting pan without rack, brush birds, and roast for 10 minutes.  Turn temperature down to 375° and roast for 40 minutes more, brushing occasionally.  Serve whole or cut in half.[/toggle]

[toggle title=”Grandma’s Herb Stuffing”]

I have made this for over forty years and the recipe I adapted it from has been lost in time; plus I played with it so much you can really call it my own.  We eat it year around.  My husband fusses if I try other stuffing recipes.

12 cups day old bread, cubed (I use leftover heels)

1 large onion chopped

1 cup butter

2 tsp. chicken base (or bouillon)

¼ cup dried parsley

¼ tsp. seasoned pepper

1 ¼ cup water

1 tsp. poultry seasoning

½ tsp. kosher or sea salt

An easy way to cube bread is to stack 3-4 pieces and slice length wise 1” rows then turn and slice crosswise in 1 “ rows using a good bread knife and sawing motion (by the way, never use a bread knife for anything but bread).

Cook chopped opinion in butter in medium skillet until soft.  Stir in chicken base, poultry seasoning, salt, seasoned pepper (or plain ground pepper), and water.  Combine bread cubes and parsley in a large bowl.  Stir in butter mixture and mix well until cubes all moistened.  Place in greased 1 ½ – 2 quart casserole and cover (lid or foil).  Bake 1 hour at 375° (or 350°).  Can be microwaved but you won’t get the crisp crust doing that).[/toggle]

[toggle title=”Beef Rib Roast with Madeira Sauce”]

(better known in our house as the “Roast Beast”)

My family will not let me get away with anything else for Christmas. You need to order a rib roast with the ribs detached and tied with the roast.  Most places will ask you to order ahead of time when it is holiday. Get the best grade you can as lesser grades will not be as tender.  I do serve with steak knives however my last roast was so tender you could easily cut with a table knife.  With cheaper cuts you are paying for much more fat as well.  It is expensive (but well worth it). This recipe was adapted from Favorite Recipes Beef for All Seasons (1989).

8-9 lb. rib roast; deboned with bones tied on “cradle” fashion’ top quality if possible (my store calls it “Angus”)

4 cloves of garlic minced

2 tsp. kosher or sea salt

1 tsp coarsely ground black pepper

2 tsp. thyme leaves (dried)

1 tsp. tarragon (dried)

½ cup chopped shallots

2 cups beef broth

1 cup Madeira wine

2 Tbsp. tomato paste

Mash garlic; combine with salt to form a paste. Combine with salt with pepper, thyme, and tarragon. Rub evenly over the roast.  Place roast, fat side up on rack in roasting pan. Inset meat thermometer (if not using an “instant” read thermometer).  Preheat oven to 550° . Reduce heat to 350° as soon as placing the roast in. Roast until temperature 125°-130° (about 18-20 minutes per lb.).  Remove roast and place on cutting board tenting with foil (while sauce is made).

Remove rack from pan and drain off any fat (not drippings). Add shallots and sauté over medium heat for 2-3 minutes.  Deglaze by adding broth and Madeira and stirring until meat juices attached to pan are dissolved.  Add tomato paste and reduce over high heat until sauce is reduced to 1 ½ cups stirring occasionally.

Slice roast in ½ – 1 inch slices and serve with Madeira sauce.  Serves 8 (with hopefully some leftovers)

Much of the prep can be done ahead of time. Here are some lessons learned over the years:

  • Mince your shallots with a food processor or blender. A nut chopper will work also.  Peel as you would a garlic clove (there is a really inexpensive tool for peeling garlic which works magically; it is a tube-silicon or rubber-you place the clove in and roll and it loosens the skin right up.
  • The bones add flavor to the meat while the roast is roasting. They make a great meal later for one or two people.
  • One year I couldn’t find Madeira so I used Port instead which tasted good, just different.
  • This recipe doesn’t really work too well if you wish to try a smaller roast though you might get away with a 6 lbs. size. I recommend you stay with the original size and just plan on leftovers (my husband loves sandwiches).
  • An electric knife is easiest to use slicing meat.
  • For all cooking (not baking), I use kosher salt (for baking I use table salt).

Note: If you didn’t get the “Roast Beast” reference it is from How the Grinch Stole Christmas.[/toggle]

[toggle title=”Elegant Ranch Spinach Casserole”]

This dish is one I take along when going to someone else’s place. I not only serve this during the holiday season but several times a year.  Everyone usually likes it (loves it) and left overs are so good if there are any.  It is adapted from a Favorite Recipes Hidden Valley Ranch Easy Cooking cookbook (1989).

1 16 oz. package frozen chopped spinach

¼ lb. mushrooms sliced

¼ cup butter

2 cups prepared ranch dressing

½ cup grated Parmesan cheese

2 small jars marinated artichoke hearts

Preheat oven to 350° (you can adjust time if necessary to go with other dishes in oven).  Cook spinach in microwave for 4 minutes. Drain (squeeze) out all excess liquid. In large bowl, whisk together ranch dressing and Parmesan cheese; stir in spinach. Melt butter in skillet and sauté mushrooms in butter until softened. Drain artichoke hearts and cut them slightly smaller.  Add mushrooms and hearts to spinach mixture. Place mixture into a greased casserole dish (you can use butter, shortening or cooking spray).  Cover and bake 20-30 minutes.[/toggle]

You will notice that I have shared relatively simple meals. Bon Apetit!  I hope you will let me know what you think AND will comment back on other tips that have worked for you while living with pain.  Don’t forget that there are many more winter holidays and yummy meals to celebrate. So, what are your favorite winter holiday recipes?

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