how to cook a fabulous meal in a not-so-fabulous kitchen
December 15, 2010 8:13 PM   Subscribe

I need to cook a nice Christmas dinner for nine, in a woefully inadequate kitchen. To make things worse, there's only one table that barely seats six. What can I make that's elegant, festive, and delicious; which requires almost nothing in the way of cooking tools; and is easy to eat from a plate balanced on your lap?

Our extended family is getting together for Christmas in Chicago. We'll be staying in a condo rented from, and I've just been informed that the kitchen is just barely stocked with tools for cooking. I don't know what exactly is in there, but not only am I not expecting a creme brulee torch, I am not even sure I can count on there being a cheese grater.

My cooking tends towards the elaborate -- I start planning in February or March, I order ingredients from faraway places, I use every gadget known to Williams and Sonoma. All these tendencies will work against me in this situation. (I once had a Russian woman watch me cook and deride Americans for having a unique tool for every task. I defended myself at the time, but she's laughing her ass off now.) My point is, I have no idea how to cook without my arsenal of tools.

Can anyone suggest a menu, or just a few dishes I can cobble together, for the nine people in my family? (I will spare you all their weird dietary requirements, and just pick and choose from the fabulous suggestions you so generously and thoughtfully provide, attempting to meet the many largely incompatible requirements, like MIL: no meat, no flavor; Father: only meat, preferably spicy. There is only so much mere mortals can do.)

Oh, and yes, I've thought of just going out to dinner and letting some chef solve this problem. Alas, some of the relatives just cannot afford expensive restaurant meals on top of expensive downtown condo rent, and no one can afford to treat. However, if you know of an inexpensive place to eat near downtown that might be open for Christmas I'll consider that too. I am pretty desperate!

P.S. Next year, we're celebrating Festivus. Seriously. I'm getting worn out, and we haven't even left town yet.
posted by Capri to Food & Drink (32 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Wow, it sounds like a disaster. I'm sorry to hear it.

Suggestions will be easy and not complicated (unless you want me to go there, I'll go easy).

Roasted root vegetables
Beef bourguignon

If you are flying in, make sure to throw a pot or 2 in your check in as well as your chef's wrap with knives, favorite peeler/whisk, meat thermometer.
posted by TheBones at 8:18 PM on December 15, 2010

Macaroni and cheese buffet! Pasta plus cheese sauce - plus "add-ins"! For the MIL, fresh diced red bell peppers and steamed romanesco broccoli florets! For Dear ol' Dad, lobster clawmeat and diced Virginia ham! For lactose-intolerant-lad, American Chop Sue: aforesaid pasta + homemade tomato sauce, with the above mix-ins, and perhaps some sautéed ground beef and shaved parmesan reggiano.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:29 PM on December 15, 2010

Oh! And a few loaves of fresh garlic bread, with home-made garlic butter!
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:32 PM on December 15, 2010

Best answer: This beef tenderloin is incredibly easy to make and tastes incredible. The downside is the cost, but a $50 cut of meat isn't that much when compared to restaurant prices.
posted by null terminated at 8:40 PM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Hmmm....I'd be in inclined, in your situation, to something like manicotti (america's test kitchen has a one pan, one pot, one bowl recipe that seems ideal for your situation. Maybe meatloaf and mashed potatoes? Not super-fancy, but with the right glaze and some bacon across the top, hella tasty.

The thing that is a tad constricting about your requirements is the "eat on lap," portion; fancy, simple, and not requiring a knife to eat might be the cheap/fast/good of cookery....but if you're not utterly opposed to some kind of roast, i'd recommend pork loin crusted with Rosemary, garlic and salt. All's you need for that is a knife for chopping and a tin foil roasting pan which you can snag at any supermarket for a buck or so. You couldbutterfly it and stuff it with something if you wanted to get nuts.
posted by Diablevert at 8:49 PM on December 15, 2010

Best answer: Since you're used to fancy cooking, maybe a risotto for MIL? (I could be way off base on the number of utensils needed to prepare it having never made it myself but it looks like you could do it in one pot)
posted by smirkette at 8:52 PM on December 15, 2010

Best answer: roast beef is extremely easy to make if you have an oven -- buy a disposable roasting tin, salt & pepper, maybe a bit of dry mustard if you are adventurous, pop it in for 20 minutes at 475, then turn the oven down to 375 and cook 15 minutes more per pound (for rare).

And a good roast need not be elaborate to be stunning.

This is, of course, not vegetarian, but you could do something on the side for your MiL (like a small nut roast).

Roast potatoes can also be done in a cheap disposable roasting tin -- peel, dice and roll in a goodly amount of canola oil and pop them in at the same time as the roast. Doing them separately in canola or olive oil makes them much crispier -- and vegetarian.

Pair with broccoli, green beans and/or carrots -- all of which can be quickly steamed in a microwave.

So you don't go absolutely crazy, take your essential basics: a good chef's knife, 1-2 wood cutting boards, make a paring knife and/or peeler for the potatoes. But otherwise, you can make a whole traditional roast dinner with the disposable tins they sell in grocery stores and microwave containers (bowls, Tupperware, whatever)

I don't know about a Yorkshire pudding or gravy -- the first I can't make anyways and the second I often don't bother with at home because I'm lazy. But you can buy both, or make gravy in the roasting tin itself.
posted by jb at 8:53 PM on December 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

Would you be open to to buying some of the food partially completed? E.g., preformed pastry crust. That might save some time that could then be used to do by hand what you usually have dedicated tools to do.

I don't know what you mean by "a unique tool for every task"---are we talking about a garlic press instead of mincing with a knife, or something even fancier than that? Maybe you could try to keep track of what you use, or even cook a practice meal with your gadgets locked away, to see how you can do without some of them.

I'm a little handicapped in answering this question because I can't imagine what a home cook would need beyond bowls, a stock pot, a skillet, a cutting board, a knife, a spatula, a rubber policeman, forks and spoons, a thermometer, and a grater, all of which but the bowls and stock pot fits into checked luggage. Are you just used to multi-tasking a lot, with three or four dishes going at once?
posted by d. z. wang at 8:54 PM on December 15, 2010

Best answer: Pork roast with Rosemary is awesome -- almost as easy as beef roast.

To fancy it up, unroll the roast or slice into it deeply and stuff it with apple slices and rosemary.
posted by jb at 8:55 PM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Wow. How many courses? My suggestion: Roast three chickens in disposable containers, pair with roasted brussel sprouts or a green bean salad, and mashed potatoes. If a dessert is required, you can buy some puff pastry and make a rustic apple tart on a sheet pan. Not exactly easy, but not impossible, either.
posted by Gilbert at 9:00 PM on December 15, 2010

For dessert: Eton mess, only with bought meringues and maybe whip cream in a can. (You can whip by hand, but it can be a real chore). Tools needed: a bowl (or pot) and a spoon. Knife for the strawberries.
posted by jb at 9:01 PM on December 15, 2010

Best answer: For Thanksgiving I made ridiculously easy stuffed squash. Try: quinoa, fresh pomegranate seeds (or dried cranberries), spinach, roasted almonds and parsley. A sprinkling of parmesan on top for those who can take dairy. Or couscous instead of quinoa. Sausage might work with different fillings. There are lots of recipes online.

They were festive with good plate appeal, easy to customize for various requirements, and very tasty.

Half a stuffed squash would be pretty with a roast, and would be easy to make. Or you could roast some fingerling potatoes, and give folks a few taters, and 1/4 of a stuffed squash.

You could buy a small card table and a few folding chairs at target/walmart/home depot for a fairly inexpensive sum. Or rent them - order them ahead of time. It's really inexpensive - here is a round table that seats 8-10 for $9. They have chair rentals for $1.25 each, and nice white linens. They'll often do delivery for an extra charge, or if you have a car, designate someone to go get them on the day or day before.

Definitely bring your favourite tools: two knives, some decent plastic cutting boards, a selection of spices in snack-size ziplocks or film canisters, good olive oil.
posted by barnone at 9:06 PM on December 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: For greens, I'd suggest doing easy roasted brussel sprouts. Cut in half, place in oiled skillet face down on medium heat, sprinkle with good salt. Cook fairly undisturbed for about 10 minutes or until browned on the bottom. Stir, add some garlic if desired, a bit more salt if desired, and put in oven on 425 or broiler and cook, shaking a few times, until they are nice and brown with some leaves turning black. If you brought delicious balsamic, sprinkle some on top; otherwise, just taste and adjust seasoning.

They are so good and most folks haven't had them roasted before - they're usually boiled to a bland bitter pulp; these are fresh, sweet and unexpected.
posted by barnone at 9:10 PM on December 15, 2010

Best answer: I need to cook a nice Christmas dinner for nine, in a woefully inadequate kitchen. To make things worse, there's only one table that barely seats six. What can I make that's elegant, festive, and delicious; which requires almost nothing in the way of cooking tools; and is easy to eat from a plate balanced on your lap.

Everyone needs to be able to sit. Ask the condo if they might have a small table for you to borrow, or pick one up at Goodwill. (TV trays work too.)

As for menu, stick to the Feast Basics. Geek out on virtuous sourcing of ingredients and fundamentals. Read Michael Ruhlman to get you in the mood.

Roast a chicken. Spatchcock it so that it's easier to roast in any vessel. (Required tools: shears. For a roasting pan, you can use a cookie sheet, a baking dish, etc. To get some air circulating under the bird, rest it on a cooling rack, or balled-up tin foil.)

Roast root vegetables of your choice with citrus, olive oil, herbs, whatever. You can do this in tin foil if needed. Make lots.

Sautee some green vegetable of your choice with garlic.

Make or buy the fancy spicy/intense condiments of your choice (mustard, chutney, harissa, tapenade, whatever) for those who like less-plain food.

Get some really great bread and sexy butter (Plugra, etc.) Get a nice, easily-quaffed lighter red table wine, nothing too expensive. Get lots of it.

/hosted at least five of my 17 Thanksgiving dinners for at least 8 people in tiny city apartments with tinier galley kitchens, with a borrowed long folding table crammed into the room any way it would fit. Yes, everything homemade.
posted by desuetude at 9:19 PM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

How about roulades? Looks elegant and is simple enough that you could do 2 or 3 "kinds" with different meats or different fillings to accommodate tastes. Also, you can pre-cut, or just make several small roulades, to avoid some of the issues with serving that can come from squeezed seating. I've done chicken ones in "camp" conditions, and needed only a decent knife, toothpicks (or twine) to hold the roulades together, a pan for browning them and a disposable foil roasting pan for the oven cooking.

And then, yes, like desuetude said, go nuts with the sides.
posted by synapse at 9:51 PM on December 15, 2010

Best answer: This mushroom risotto recipe has served me well for a mixed carnivore/vegitarian crowd, is very flavourful but not spicy, and may still allow you to feel like you're doing something at least a little elaborate (truffles!) but doesn't actually involve any exotic equipment.
posted by equivocator at 10:10 PM on December 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: This cinnamon basmati rice dish is one of our winter favorites--it provides a twist on some traditional holiday flavors (cinnamon, clove, raisins) in a savory dish. Really fantastic recipe, regardless of what you might think of its author. Also: It's great for parties and easy to eat off of disposable plates.
posted by yellowcandy at 10:11 PM on December 15, 2010

Best answer: This Thanksgiving, one of the things I made was apple cheddar risotto. This requires:

- apples;
- cheddar;
- arborio rice;
- olive oil (or perhaps some other fat?);
- onion;
- assorted seasonings. (I think I mostly used prepackaged pumpkin pie spice.)

Heat up oil; dice and saute onions; toss rice in oil until coated. Add water, stirring occasionally. (IIRC, I also threw in milk, and maybe at one point beer.) Late in the process add apples, and cheese cut into bite-size chunks with knife (you don't need a cheese greater). Everyone liked it. (Although "everyone" was "seven slightly-drunk people in their twenties I'm not related to", so their standards might have been low.) I must admit it didn't look that good, but I generally don't care about presentation and this probably could look good.
posted by madcaptenor at 11:15 PM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, just to clarify, you don't add the apples whole! You cut them into bite-size chunks. Leave the peel on, it adds flavor. In particular I'm pretty sure I did the whole thing with one pot (which I served it in as well, because I didn't have a big serving bowl) and one knife.
posted by madcaptenor at 11:17 PM on December 15, 2010

Best answer: This can be solved in the traditional manner:

Bring a screwdriver. Take a door off a bedroom, place it over the dining table, throw a clean sheet over it and hey: table for 10. Put the lightest people on end tables used as seats.

We roast chickens without a roasting pan. We roast them in the broiler pan with foil on top. It doesn't just work; it's a perfectly fine way to roast a chicken. In your case, however, I would suggest... capons! You can individually spice or not spice them, they are elegant on the plate, no carving utensils are needed, and your MIL can give hers to your dad.

If the kitchen is tiny I would rely on sides at least some of which can be cooked early and/or served room temperature. Salads, from standard greens to rice or orzo or tabouleh salad, fit the bill. The only thing that should need to come out hot would be the capons, a stove top vegetable, and something re-heating in the oven with the capons, like stuffing.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:24 PM on December 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Good advice above; I'll just add one suggestion: whenever I plan to cook in places like that, I bring my own knives. The knives in those kitchens are pathetic, dull and dangerous.
posted by trip and a half at 12:29 AM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

You can get holiday dinners "catered" by the hot deli at most grocery stores, for a lot cheaper than a restaurant, and then just reheat in the oven and microwave. Talk to the deli ahead of time because you probably need to pre-order to be sure to get stuff.

Also, check out the canned and frozen sections for other easy dishes you just have to heat up.
posted by Jacqueline at 3:00 AM on December 16, 2010

Best answer: This may be too ridiculously simple for you, but I always make it for big holiday pot-luck dinners, and everyone LOVES it:
Cut onions into eights, toss with a good amount of olive oil & a little water.
Bake covered for about an hour & a half.
That's it.
To be fancy, add garlic cloves &/or rosemary.
posted by jsslz at 3:03 AM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

If the kitchen is barely stocked, the oven may not be that great either. A Stove-top dish might be best, that uses the braising method. (like Coq a Vin)
posted by annsunny at 4:06 AM on December 16, 2010

Lasagna works well for laps because it holds together, and it's still very festive. A MeFite sent me a recipe for a mushroom lasagna, and I added a layer of butternut squash. It was wildly popular.

I just got a tasty spiral-sliced ham at Trader Joe's at a very reasonable price. Popular, precooked, so it only requires warming, and goes well with lots of veggies, esp. the afore-mentioned roasted brussel sprouts. Potatoes au gratin pair well with ham, and can be a main dish for vegetarians.

I like to roast potatoes and sweet potatoes together, and brussel sprouts, onions and pancetta. Easy, and while it takes a lot of oven space, once cooked, they re-warm easily, so you can do them a bit ahead.

I used to host a regular holiday potluck, and the only thing that doesn't work is food that's very juicy. Serve a salad course 1st, then clear salad plates, and serve the main dish.
posted by theora55 at 4:47 AM on December 16, 2010

It may be too late to reserve a slot, but Kitchen Chicago rents kitchen space by the hour - if you really need your gadgets and workspace to feel like you're doing it right, this may be the perfect solution.
posted by Mchelly at 5:48 AM on December 16, 2010

Some easy simple desserts to follow, elegant but not fussy: chocolate mousse, tofu chocolate mousse (even easier), panna cotta. Serve in a wine glass and garnish with chocolate shavings, mint leaves, fresh/frozen berries, etc... The light desserts go down well after a heavy meal, but still feel special and festive. They can also be made ahead and kept in the fridge so you're not rushing at the last minute.

Supplemented with bowls of whole nuts, mandarin oranges, chocolates, possibly a cheese plate if you're feeling fancy and have the time to put it together, people can linger over dessert for hours.
posted by bonehead at 6:27 AM on December 16, 2010

You're getting great advice above, I'd just add that you'll probably be surprised how much you can accomplish in a limited kitchen, the key is just to keep an open mind and really consider how widely each tool can be used. For example, you can use stainless steel pots and bowls as bakeware; peel veggies or chop garlic with a knife; use a plate as a stovetop lid; and crush spices with any large blunt object (just put them in a paper bag first).

That said, I would make sure to bring:
Good knife(s)
Meat thermometer
Oven thermometer (rental ovens are often pretty inaccurate)
Kitchen timer
aluminum foil
Possibly a measuring cup and spoons, and/or a microplane

Alternately, you could also just plan to do a quick inventory upon arrival and buy some cheap basics when you get there -- any supermarket or dollar store will have most of the above. Good luck!
posted by susanvance at 6:37 AM on December 16, 2010

Rack of Lamb- Meat popsicles. It eliminates the need for knives (no table for cutting).

If you're checking luggage, bring your favorite knife and an meat thermometer. (both are relatively stabby things that you can't slip into your carry on).
posted by larthegreat at 7:14 AM on December 16, 2010

Echoing Jacqueline above, but if you're this stressed out by the thought of not cooking without your arsenal at hand, you might want to consider just getting most, if not all of the dinner pre-made. I know that Whole Foods do meal packages as well as heat-and-eat sides and entrées, which would let you focus on cooking, say, a couple of spectacular side dishes or whipping up a great dessert.
posted by evoque at 10:28 AM on December 16, 2010

Totally risotto.

Also, you could make Party Meatballs - they sound terrrrrrible but they're delicious and no-one has to know their dark secret:

1.Make meatballs (or buy frozen. I make it with frozen veggie "meat"balls, but don't get the Quorn meatballs since they are gross).

2. Into a pot, dump contents of:
a jar of grape jelly, and
a jar of mild salsa.

3. Warm this up, dump the meatballs in. Let simmer until the flavors have soaked into the meatballs. (simmer probably, can't remember for how long).

To serve, remove meatballs, place on plate, stick toothpicks in. They're delicious and you would never know.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:54 PM on December 16, 2010

jacqueline said that you can get pre-made holiday dinners from many grocery stores.

This is true.

But go to a classy grocery store if you're going to do this. I learned this the hard way at Thanksgiving. (The turkey and pumpkin pie were fine, but the stuffing and mashed potatoes were disgusting. Fortunately I made some other things as well, for example the aforementioned risotto.)
posted by madcaptenor at 10:14 PM on December 17, 2010

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