Yesterday was quite the day for me! Firstly, it is literally a winter wonderland in Chicago. Driving was awful and all the stores were packed, even the grocery stores! Today is no different, we are expecting an additional 4-6 inches of snow today, it really will be a White Christmas and a White Hanukkah!
Whenever I have a larger party to prep for I always do all my leg work ahead of time. It saves me a ton of time as well as headaches on the day of the party. All the chopping, marinading, baking and setting the table usually happens the day or 2 before (with a few exceptions). I never have to worry about the little things going wrong and I get to actually enjoy myself when people start coming over. On Thanksgiving I had 18 people at my house and I was done cooking and setting up by 3pm! My turkey was even ready by 4pm! All my guests started coming in at about 6pm and by that time everything was warming nicely in the oven.
Holidays should be fun and warm, not stressful and hectic! When I was a kid, I watched my mom and grandma prep for holidays for 2 days. I never understood why! Then when I got older and started doing my own holidays, I saw why my mom did everything up to two days before! It's a LOT of work to do a big party! It's even MORE work to do a party when you are Russian. Russians, have more of EVERYTHING! More food, more courses, more liquor and more dessert. You see, with Russian style eating it is more of a marathon than a sprint. Eating must be done over several hours and the key is to pace oneself...otherwise you will be out on the couch before the second course even hits with people calling you a wussy!
Our family get togethers are intense! My family is loud and my fiance's family is even louder! So when we all get together it is like one big tone deaf choir, all talking fast and loud in different pitches and tones! I always tell new guests to bring a pair of ear plugs with them, just in case. They all ALWAYS crowd around in the kitchen and naturally get in my way and try to taste a bit of everything, eventually I push them all out into the dining room. My nieces and nephews run around and squeal at the top of their lungs trying to catch my poor cat. And my fiancee...well he always finds this as the perfect time to hop in the shower, leaving me to handle the family all by myself! Half of the guests are always late the only exceptions being, my brother and sister-in-law, my fiance's parents and my brother's in-laws. After that the countdown begins...about 15 minutes AFTER we scheduled the together my aunt and uncle stroll in...15 minutes after that my fiance's brother and wife come with their kids and the final arrival is by my cousin and her husband crossing the line at an astounding 45-60 minutes after the scheduled time! I learned my lesson the first time and this is why now I tell people to come over about 30-40 minutes before the time I plan to serve. It gives everyone a chance to chill out, smoke and gather before we sit down.
Now on to the food. I am a control freak when it comes to the holidays! The food has to be done my way or else I know it will be screwed up! So I usually tell people to bring stuff that I don't want to make or that they can buy. For instance, I told my cousin to bring her usual Knorr's spinach dip (It is delicious, simple and not even the cooking challenged can mess this one up) and homemade cranberry sauce. My sister-in-law brought me Spanokopita, delicious little filo triangles with feta and spinach inside, store bought and delicious! (FYI, Cosco has the best ones and they are extremely affordable!) My fiance's mother is the baker. I always tell her to bring one dessert and she always brings 4! She also brought these amazing golden potatoes that everyone loved! (I may be making them tonight and if I do, I will definitely post the recipe!)
I really love our holidays together because I get to play around with the menus! For instance, for Thanksgiving there will of coarse be a turkey with some sort of potatoes and veggies, but that's pretty much the only constraints for food I have to stay with. Generally there are really 3 rules to a Russian dinner, no matter what the holiday is:
1. There must always be plenty of liquor on the table (vodka, tequila, cognac and wine...a bit of everything to please every one's tastes)...
2. There must always be pickled veggie and sometimes fruit on the table.
(This year we had my grandmother famous pickled tomatoes! I am still working on getting the recipe from her! We also had pickled watermelon, cantaloupe and honeydew. Trust me, I am a picky eater but this is just sooo darn good! Don't knock it till you tried it!)
3. There must be an abundance of food...good, filling food. (To absorb all that liquor of coarse!)
The first course is always almost like an antipasti course. Really yummy deli meats and cheeses, pickled veggies, little compound salads, deviled eggs, pate, caviar and for the first time this year I did roasted garlic cloves to be used as a spread on rolls instead of butter! It's almost like little Amuse Bouches , just enough to get the taste buds going. The second course is hot appetizers. This year I went a bit heavy on the appetizers! My fiance's mom warned me, "On Thanksgiving, don't do a lot of hot appetizers no one will eat the turkey..." But she was wrong! Once the appetizers started coming out...the guests eyes started widening...first came my Secret Stuffed Mushrooms, then those Golden Potatoes, then the Spanokopita, then Eggplant Rolls (stuffed with ricotta and marinara) then a Wild Mushroom and Potato Augratin. After this everyone kinda looked at me and said, "Are we eating the turkey tommorrow? Because no more food can fit." So they took a break. When they came back there was a new spread on the table: the Turkey, with Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes, Not so Green Green Beans and this amazing Russian rice dish called Plov (I will provide the recipe once I decide to make it again). Everyone freaked out when they saw the spread. But they ate! They ate a LOT! I don't think my family has ever eaten quite so much food! I never thought I would say this: they were full, very happy and a bit inibriated: the perfect combination! (By the way, this was the first time I ever cooked a turkey at home! I freaked out a bit and started planning the turkey recipe a month out. It was worth it! Everyone raved and said it was the best turkey the ever had!)
Once dessert hits, people kind of grab something off of the table and go stroll around the house and join in random conversations. My friends usually stroll in around this time after their family gatherings and nibble on leftovers. On Thanksgiving we had an inticing game of "Catch Phrase" after dinner.
I really love the holidays. When I was growing up I truely loved them as well because my mom would keep busy cooking and I would get the chance to stick my nose in every pot. The family would get together and we would all laugh and chat and have a great time. Once my mom passed, the holidays kinda lost their special meanings. It was hard to crack a smile when everyone was missing her so much. So when my fiancee and I bought our home, I vowed that I would do my best to get the family together on all the holidays and create new and wonderful memories for us to share. Once again, the house was full of laughter, chatting and the occasional squeal from the kids. There is something so wonderful and special about seeing my new, growing family around my dining room table, eating and sharing their stories. Every once in awhile, I swear I can hear my mom's laughter at the table; and for me, that makes it all worthwhile.
A Very Warm and Happy Holiday To Everyone