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Gluten-free, Wheat-free living

We wooed each other with food. From the early days of our courting, we cooked for each other until that dance we did around the kitchen table became part of the people we are and the people we would become.

This blog is about the pure pleasures of preparing and sharing a meal: the planning for it, the making of it, the taking in of the smells, the turning out of a humble (or spectacular) spread, and the table talk that issues from each of us as we share.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Planning a Perfect Gluten-Free Holiday Feast

by Gina Mohr-Callahan, A Fork in the Road

Mother is crying. Her earthen eyes sting and tear, and she dabs at them with grandma’s hankie. Mother knows it will soon be over.

Quickly, she jams another onion into the maw of the grinder screwed down tightly to the end of our kitchen table. Around-and-around she spins the grinder’s big arm. Pure onion pulp and juice dribble from the grinder, and the odor pierces the air with its pungent breath.

In the turkey-roasting pan, mother’s three-day-old bread is perfectly torn and “fluffed” as only she knows how to. The celery, the sage, the sautéed chuck roast. Everything is ready to finish her special “dressing for fowl.” Expertly, she adds everything to the bread piled high in the roaster, gently folding it over and over. Tomorrow, she’ll stuff the turkey with this magical mélange and stitch the bird closed with the skill of a surgeon.

The fresh bird was delivered this morning from a turkey farm in Dahinda, a little town near our Galesburg, Illinois, home. “Oh, it’s beautiful,” declares mother of the freshly dressed fowl.

To an 11-year-old girl, this behemoth bird looks nearly as big as mother. She examines it carefully for pin feathers and removes the neck and giblets from the cavity. She washes the big bird like a baby, pats it dry, and covers it with damp dishtowels and foil. Into the fridge it goes until tomorrow morning.

Then she lovingly spreads her well-worn pastry cloth on the kitchen table. It’s threadbare in places – she’s been using it for decades. Nowhere in the world does it feel more like home to me than right here in mother’s kitchen, watching her about to begin her sacred pie-making ritual.

The smells: pumpkin and cinnamon, cloves and ginger. The gear: her well-loved pastry blender, the butter-yellow flour sifter, the fluted pie plates. The dough: cold and round and yielding. And the narrative: “Now honey, see how I handle it just enough? Too much, and the crust will be tough. Watch, now, as I crimp the edges. See how I do that? Do you want to try it?”

It’s been nearly 44 years since I watched this dear scene unfold in mother’s kitchen. She passed away 10 years ago, but I still feel her right by my side – guiding me, praising me – every year as I begin my own gluten-free holiday food-preparation rituals.

Preparing a Gluten-Free Feast – It’s Different and It’s the Same
Making a big holiday meal was tough enough in my mother’s day, but making a big gluten-free holiday meal adds complexity to the feast. Many of the favorite holiday foods we’ve loved since childhood may not translate well in their gluten-free iterations. But over the years, we’ve found ways to compensate:

Make your “stuffing” outside the turkey –
Gluten-free breads tend to get really “gluey and gooey” inside the turkey. You can make wonderful gluten-free “stuffing” in a baking pan. We’ve included our favorite gluten-free cornbread stuffing, Gluten-Free Cornbread Stuffing with Sausage, Dried Fruit, and Pine Nuts, in our current featured recipes.

3 weeks before –
  • Make your menu as far in advance as possible (at least 3 weeks). (Choose dishes you can make in advance. Not sure what to make? Check out some of our favorite holiday dishes in our current featured recipes. They can easily be made in advance.)
  • Ask your guests to bring something (See our fabulous Gluten-Free Artichoke Dip in our current featured recipes.), freeing you to concentrate of the things you enjoy making most. If your guests are not sure what to bring, send them recipes to ensure they make something you can eat!
  • Send your gluten-unaware friends our cheat sheet to help them avoid cross contaminating with gluten in their kitchens.
  • Ask your gluten-eating friends to bring rolls or other gluten-rich foods you don’t want to handle. Be sure to ask them to bring these foods in their own dishes (so you’ll minimize any exposure to gluten).
  • Order your main dish (turkey, beef tenderloin, standing rib roast, etc.), if necessary, and specify an early pick-up date.
  • Order flowers, if you’re not arranging your own.
  • Check your china cabinet and linens. Do you have enough wine glasses, plates, silverware? The right tablecloth? Enough napkins? Wash everything, as needed. Do you need to borrow anything?
  • Sharpen your carving knives/cooking knives.
  • Buy your liquor early.
  • Make sure you have all the kitchen “gear” you need (roasting pans, thermometers, timers, basters, etc.)
2 weeks before –

  • Based on your planned menu, make your grocery lists. Divide your foods into what you can buy early and what you must get a few days before.
  • Scope out your serving dishes and baking dishes. Do you have enough of what you need? Borrow or buy what you don’t have.
  • Think about your fridge space. Will you have enough? Do you need to ask your neighbor to use some of his/her garage-fridge space? Do you need to plan for an ice-filled cooler? If it’s cold out, use your car!
  • Using your menu as a guide, make a timetable of what needs to be prepared and in what order? What can you make in advance and reheat in the microwave? Which items must be cooked/baked first?
1 week before –
  • Do as much advance shopping as you can. Buy all the canned foods/staples you’ll need.
  • If you’re making pies, make your piecrusts and freeze them. Thaw the crusts the day before you bake them.
  • If you’re making your own gluten-free bread or GF cornbread (See our archives for our corn bread recipe.) for stuffing, make it in advance and freeze it.
  • If you’re buying GF baked goods, get them early, as many stores sell out at the holidays.
3-4 days before –
  • Pick up your turkey or other main-course food. (Even if the turkey says it’s “fresh,” it’s likely been frozen or been kept at “near freezing” before you get it, and it will need some time to thaw.)
  • Buy the remainder of your dinner supplies: fresh veggies, fruits, dairy, etc.
  • Decide if you’ll send leftovers home with guests and get any special equipment you’ll need: foil, plastic bags, etc. OR, ask your guests to bring a few storage containers.
  • Prepare dishes like cranberry sauce that can sit in the fridge a few days.

2 days before –

  • Make as much as you can ahead. Can you make even a portion of your dishes in advance and finish on the dinner day? I make my stuffing the day before and reheat it in the oven while we’re carving/making last-minute adjustments. (Check out our current featured recipes for ideas.)
The day before –
  • Buy your flowers (if you’re arranging them yourself) and arrange them. Don’t forget candles.
  • Set your table the evening before the dinner.
  • Decide on your seating chart.
  • Set out all your serving dishes/serving utensils. (If you don’t have enough room on your counter, put them on your dining-room chairs until you can free a space to accommodate the dishes.)
Dinner day –

  • Rise early!
  • Ensure your kitchen counters are clear and your dishwasher is empty.
  • Make sure there’s a place for guests to put their coats, purses, and dishes as they arrive.
  • Make a simple breakfast: cereal, eggs, etc.
  • If you’re baking pies/cheesecake, etc., fill and bake them.
  • Put in your main course to cook (depending on the time you choose to eat). I prefer a later afternoon/early evening holiday dinner, because it gives me more time to prep and the chance of a nap before the madness begins!
  • Cook your potatoes early and reheat them later, or better yet, ask a guest to bring them in a microwaveable dish.
  • If you’re having a lot of guests and you’re table is small, set up for a buffet-style meal – placing your serving dishes where you want them to go. Leave a place for guests’ contributions. I put a sticky note in the place where a guest dish should go.
  • If you’re serving gravy, make the GF roux/thickener in advance. I use our favorite brown rice flour blend for my roux.
  • Clean as you go! This is VERY important. It will make final clean up so much easier and ensure that you have plenty of working counter space as the dishes come out of the oven/off the stove.
  • If you get behind in the schedule, relax! The people you’ve invited love you! They’ll wait.

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