Tips for stress-free holiday meals

Happy Holidays 2014(BPT) – Holiday meals are often the highlights of the season, as nothing beats making memories with friends and family over delicious food and good wine. However, planning the perfect get-together can be difficult and even stressful. Between deciding on the perfect menu, finding complementing beverages, grocery shopping and decorating your house with holiday cheer, it’s difficult to prepare to host a gathering that will be remembered long after the holiday lights are packed away for the year.

To help you get through this holiday season seamlessly, Tom Colicchio, chef/owner of Craft Restaurants and head judge on Top Chef is sharing his tips for planning an effortless holiday meal that will knock your guests’ socks off. After all, entertaining and cooking for loved ones should be fun, not feared.

* Plan ahead and prep. Colicchio advises home cooks take a page from professional chefs who live and die by their “mise en place” – a fancy term for having all ingredients prepped and ready to go. Chop all the ingredients ahead of time – dice veggies or nuts and grate the cheese the day before. You won’t even have to pick up your knife the day of your event until it’s time to carve the meat, freeing up much more of your time to enjoy your friends and family.

* Simplify your menu. Holiday menus can get out of control with a dozen side dishes, but Colicchio says it’s no less special if you streamline to just a few. Colicchio’s recipe for stewed apricots and fennel with ricotta, pistachios and black pepper from the Bing Food & Drink app is memorable, but fairly simple and much of it can be done in advance. Best of all, you don’t need to be afraid to bring the Bing Food & Drink app right into the kitchen thanks to the unique hands-free feature. Just activate hands-free mode in the app and seamlessly flip through each step of a recipe by waving your hand in front of the screen to avoid making a mess of your tablet.

* Start with the ingredients, not the recipe. Feeling inspired by seasonal ingredients or memories of holidays past tied to specific flavors? Colicchio says when it comes to ingredients, if it grows together it goes together. He recommends stopping by a farmers market and starting with fresh, seasonal ingredients, then searching by those ingredients within the Bing Food & Drink app for Windows – which houses hundreds of thousands of recipes from renowned chefs like him, plus sites like Epicurious, Food52 and others.

* Don’t fear your microwave. Another tip in the spirit of mise en place is to make all of your purees, sauces and chutneys in advance, up to five days, and simply reheat the day of. Many people are hesitant to use the microwave when cooking a special meal, but a quick reheat does not lessen flavor or reduce the integrity of these types of dishes in any way. It’s faster, saves a pot to clean, and you won’t risk scorching it on the stovetop.

With these simple tips, your holiday meal will be the talk of the town, and best of all, you’ll be stress free. Here’s to a successful holiday gathering full of memories and cheer.