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Labun: Holiday Entertaining

By now, we're well into a holiday-time tradition - the annual bestowing of advice to home cooks who entertain. From November 1st until midnight on the last day of December, the world is flooded with advice - some of it recipe related, like how to roast a perfect turkey or create healthy appetizers, and a lot of it focused on staying in a cheerful mood while cooking for friends and family.

The number one piece of advice seems to be - don’t serve anything you haven’t made at least once before. Which is already bad advice. I serve only recipes I’ve never tried before. It's a rule. It might be extreme, but I'm never going to undertake such projects as pressed duck or 10 layer Stack Cakes except to share with others - and I'm not going to be eating an entire buche de noel, by myself, on a Wednesday in June.

No. I’m going to try them out, for the first time, with my friends and my family, and if they aren’t perfect, they’re at least something different.

Of course, the relationship with “different” food and entertaining is fraught. The general advice is to tweak things a bit, add a minor “special” touch, like sprinkling toasted hazelnuts on your sweet potatoes or roasting garlic to fashion a spread for the rolls. In my family, that sort of behavior only elicits unfavorable comparisons to the “right” way of preparing the same dish. I say leave favorite dishes alone - if you’re going different, go very different, like staging a full scale Sichuanese banquet or Swedish smorgasbord. If no one is clear on how the food is supposed to taste, we can’t argue minor points like hazelnuts.

Other advice is for home cooks to stop expecting themselves to perform like a chef. Presumably that means less cussing, sloppier knife work, and greater restraint with your use of pork belly - also, you don’t have to plate anything. But actually now is the BEST time to pretend to be a chef. We’ve got a flood of cookbooks, shared recipes, and explanatory articles from the best chefs in the world showing us how they create their food. So that we can create their food. At home. To share.

The advice about home cooks entertaining can, and should, be summarized with the universal truth that it’s not about the food - it’s about the celebratory spirit of the food. Sometimes that spirit is familiar dishes everyone expects, and sometimes that spirit is big, extravagant, ambitious, and it's always best when shared.

Helen Labun has worked in Vermont nonprofits addressing issues in rural economic development. Today, she is Executive Director of the Vermont Fresh Network, connecting chefs to Vermont farmers in support of the local food economy.
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