Simplify Daily Meals to Better Enjoy the Season

In my book, the holidays are not a hassle. They are work and time and effort, but they lift us out of the hum-drum of winter. We light candles, decorate, share a special dinner with friends and family, all to forget that it’s dark at 4 p.m. and so cold that even high school students don winter coats.

But what is a hassle is that every day your family still expects to see food in the cupboard and a dinner on the table.

“What do you mean you want to eat dinner? Can’t you see I have three dozen Christmas cookies still to frost?” The cookies are no longer a source of joy and family bonding — they’re more work for you. Bah humbug starts right there.

My remedy is to try and simplify the daily in order to enjoy the seasonal. I define the decorating and cooking that only come once a year as a part of the seasonal celebration. And if I don’t love it, I don’t do it.

But I don’t like to compromise on what I feed my family. So I developed the following strategies.  I hope they help you think about how to better enjoy the season too.

Holiday Strategy #1: No More Weekend Cooking
The weekend hours are in demand from now until January 3rd. So my usual routine — shop and prepare for the week during a quiet Sunday afternoon — had to change. My best friend is my calendar. I set aside a few minutes early in the week to plan the menu and when I’m going to shop and cook, because if I don’t schedule the time, that dreaded Tuesday will roll around with bare cupboards and not much of a plan.

Holiday Strategy #2: Plan for Leftovers
Can I admit that I hate leftovers? It’s slightly un-American, I know, but I rarely make more than what my family will eat for one meal. Chili is the only exception. I’ll make a double batch and freeze half, but most foods deteriorate in the whole freeze/thaw cycle. If your choice is between homemade that you’ve frozen or the fastest thing you can grab from the store closest to the Edens — freeze and thaw away.

But if you plan it right, you can double up one night and use the extras that same week. I know, it’s still leftovers, but if it’s done right—no one will be the wiser. Here’s how you can make this work for your family:

• Chicken: Roast two and serve one the first night, then later in the week use the other chicken for quesadillas or enchiladas, stir fry, chicken soup, chicken pot pie (use refrigerated tube biscuits for the top).

• Meatloaf: Harder to disguise the second night, but what is meatloaf but meatballs in a larger form? Cut into meatball size chunks and use with spaghetti and sauce or meatball subs. Crumble for tacos or Shepherd’s pie

• Ham: If you’re having a gathering, start with a ham. I swear by the recipe below. It’s based on Monte’s ham, which started its road to fame in an article in The New York Times. Then with the extra (because with ham there’s always extra), you can make a chowder with potatoes and ham, split pea soup, paninis or the incredibly easy orzo and ham gratin (keep reading for the recipe below).

Holiday Strategy #3: Know When to Call for Backup
There are some days in this month that no amount of planning will rescue. You have 15 minutes to eat together and that includes prep time, so keep those take out menus handy. Along with our usual Chinese and Thai places, these are my North Shore favorites:
•    Convito Cafe & Market
•    Little Ricky’s
•    Pita Inn

Orange-Dijon Glazed Ham
The original recipe is for a 15 lb ham and specifies to buy the cheapest ham you can find. I’ve cut the recipe in half, and find it works for any ham, except for the honey baked spiral ones which are pretty much done and ready to go.

3/4 cup orange marmalade
1/2 cup Dijon mustard
3/4 cup brown sugar
6-7 lb bone-in fully cooked ham (this is the usual ham you’ll find everywhere this time of year)

Mix glaze and apply liberally to the ham. Roast at 325 until the glaze is brown and ham’s internal temperature is 135°. About 1 1/2 hours.

Serves 8-10 with leftovers.

Orzo and Ham Gratin
1 pound orzo (or any short pasta in a pinch)
8 cloves garlic
2 cups chicken broth
1 cup Parmesan cheese, plus a little more for topping
1 cup fresh parsley leaves chopped
3 cups leftover ham
3 tbsp butter
1/2 cup breadcrumbs

Follow the package directions and cook orzo in boiling salted water until done. Drain.

Bring the chicken broth and peeled garlic cloves to a boil until the cloves are tender. Mash them in the broth and add the cheese, parsley, ham, and pasta. Place in a buttered casserole dish.

Melt the butter and mix with the crumbs and a little additional cheese. Sprinkle over the pasta.

Bake covered in a 325° oven for 45 minutes. Uncover and bake for 15 minutes until top is browned and casserole is bubbling.

Serves 6 generously.

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