Chefs' cooking hacks for fuss-free holiday eating

Try these chef-approved shortcuts for relaxed entertaining.
Try these chef-approved shortcuts for relaxed entertaining. Photo: Shutterstock

Every year we enter the holiday season intending to stay on top of Christmas lunch or host the perfect New Year's dinner party. 

But somehow, despite intensive planning, time seems to creep up and once again we find things are not running as smoothly as we'd hoped.

Feed the family with a stylish platter, such as this one from Little Magic Feast.
Feed the family with a stylish platter, such as this one from Little Magic Feast. Photo: Luisa Brimble (Styling: Vivian Walsh, Venue: Gunu Berrima)

This year, put aside the prep plans and try these easy kitchen hacks instead.


Using fresh meat is better, but it's not always possible: Taking the meat out 48 hours prior and storing it in the fridge will guarantee it's defrosted in time to cook, marinade and brine properly.  According to Jesse Gerner, executive chef of Tigerbird Group, Melbourne, defrosting meat in a salt water brine will not only defrost it quicker but the meat will absorb the liquid, which ensures it won't dry out during the cooking process, resulting in a juicier and more flavourful final dish. The basic ratio of salt to water is four tablespoons of salt per four cups of water.

Go-to appetisers

Buy time if the main meal is running late: Seafood is always a mouth-watering appetiser to serve - think prawns, oysters and smoked salmon blini canapes. "They're easy to prepare and sure to satisfy any cravings or hunger pains before the main course," says Jon Trouillet, head chef at Sydney's Bistro Mosman.  "A go-to dip suitable for falafel, crudite or lamb kofta is a really delicious combination of Greek style yoghurt, fresh mint, salt and pepper," he says.

If you're extremely time poor, opt for an entertaining platter delivered to your door.

Count on frozen green peas: The all-year home staple, can be used to make a quick light appetising soup guests will love. "Add frozen peas to a food processor, a couple of mint leaves, salt, boiling water to blend and pulse until smooth," says Ollie Hansford, head chef at Stokehouse, St Kilda. "Once chilled - by adding a couple of [ice] cubes - check the seasoning then pass through a sieve for a smooth consistency. Garnish with crumbled goat's cheese and olive oil, and for texture add toasted macadamia nuts on top. If you prefer a hot version, simply heat on a gentle flame to not discolour."        

Devils on horseback are another hot appetiser: "Wrap a strip of bacon around a prune, bake for 30 minutes in 180C or until bacon is cooked and serve with a cocktail skewer," Gerner says. 

Healthy snack starters: It's as simple as sliced raw vegies - or if you're looking for the quintessential comfort food, dehydrated vegetable chips combined with a selection of decadent dips. "Mix hummus with some fresh herbs, add some olive oil and you're all set with an easy dip bursting with flavour," says Justin James, executive chef at Vue Group. "But if you're keen to impress, making your own creamy dip by mixing cream cheese with a bit of water and mayo to loosen and topping it up with brunoise shallots, spring onions, salt, garlic powder and parsley, never goes astray," James says. "Furthermore, an olive dip by simply mixing mayo with some chopped olives and finishing it off with lemon, black pepper and a splash of olive oil, is also effortless and enjoyable." 


Order a platter: "If you're extremely time poor, opt for an entertaining platter delivered to your door from your local deli or supermarket," says Woolworths innovation chef Tiffany Crouch.     

Main meal

Easy reheat meals you can make the day before: Hansford suggests a porchetta. "My favourite is to always eat the porchetta the day after it's cooked, as this way the flavours that are rolled in the middle have time to settle and disperse into the meat and the skin has also then dried out even more, so when reheating the crackling is lighter and crispier," he says. "Ideally, the best way to ensure a no-hassle porchetta re-heat job is to smother the inside of the belly with Dijon and grain mustard, then add a generous layer of chopped parsley, chive and tarragon, with some dried fruits, such as, golden raisins, cranberries or figs. Season with celery, salt, pepper, olive oil and include a generous shaving of parmesan cheese before rolling up and tying nice and tight with butcher's string. Slice the skin with deep cuts, rub with salt and thyme and - with the oven on the highest setting - place the porchetta on a trivet, and turn down to 180C for three to four hours."

Embrace pre-made sauces: Apple, cranberry and mint can be given a home-made twist with pantry staples. Add chopped tarragon and grated fresh ginger to apple sauce to add zing to any pork dish, Hansford says. "Empty a pot of cranberry sauce into a pan, include a dash of chili flakes, soy sauce, salt, oyster sauce, honey, lime juice, vinegar and chopped coriander," he says. Then glaze any roast duck, chicken or even pork for the last 20 minutes of cooking, for a sticky, sweet, spicy and sour taste. "With mint sauce, it's always a great idea to add toasted fennel and cumin seeds as an accompaniment to braised lamb."

Adam Liaw's belly porchetta.
Adam Liaw's belly porchetta. Photo: William Meppem

Or if you're all about making everything from scratch, a simple cranberry sauce involves mixing fresh or frozen cranberries with sugar, water and salt. "And if you really want to make it taste even more special, go crazy with fruits such as pear, rhubarb, raisins or figs and spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, coriander seed and allspice," James says.

Precooking reduces stress: "When cooking red meat, such as a rib-eye steak, place it in a warm oven over 60C with a bit of oil for about an hour so when you put in on the barbecue it'll only take 10 minutes (five minutes on each side) until it's a perfect medium rare," Trouillet says.

Keep the barbecue out: "Whatever you can boil, saute or roast you can grill it and it's quicker to cook something extra when unexpected guests show up," James says. "For barbecued fish, marinade the day before with a home blend [of] one tablespoon dried chives, tarragon, parsley, chervil, cracked black peppercorns, and ground dried lemon peel and one teaspoon garlic powder," James says.

An unexpected secret for a salad: "Try grilled lettuce salad; pick your favourite greens, preferably iceberg lettuce, and dress with oil and salt, grill it quickly and let it chill," James says. "To make it really pop mix with tahini dressing, vegan feta cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, and almonds."

Think of leftovers as ingredients for a new dish: "You can easily whip up a hearty festive salad with leftover roasted vegies, rice or pasta by letting them cool down and adding fresh garnishes,  [such as] fruits, seeds, nuts, greens or grains and herbs," James says. "Nearing New Year's if you have leftover Turkey add it to tacos - it's something a little different but you never know, it could be the next family post-Christmas tradition," Crouch says.

Fulfil special dietary needs: "Pick-up a gluten free precooked boneless Hickory Smoked Gourmet Leg Ham, which is ready to slice, meaning less waste and less fuss," Crouch says.           

Try non-traditional stuffings: "Use rice cooked in chicken stock so it has a similar taste as if cooked inside a bird, add mirepoix (carrots, onions and celery), lots of herbs including thyme, rosemary and sage, and cook until soft and everything marries together. Finish it off by seasoning with lemon and some cultured butter," James says. "Whenever I have leftover roast pork, I mince it and add garlic and onion – it makes the most delicious stuffing," Trouillet says.

A super easy BBQ potato: "Place baby potatoes, like a Kipfler, onto a sheet of tin foil, season with salt, pepper, olive oil, a splash of water and then add ingredients you may enjoy - bacon lardons and onions with herbs like thyme or sage or butter," Hansford says. "Follow by adding another layer of foil and seal up to create a bag; place straight on the barbecue for 20 minutes until tender – the bag will inflate – [and] serve in the bag with all the juices."   

The perfect roast potato: Parboil a sebago or desiree spud for 15 minutes, coat with duck fat or grapeseed oil, then roast covered in preheated oil for 30 minutes until golden and season with plenty of sea-salt and fresh herbs, James says.  

Take all the hard work out of making a mash potato: If your local supermarket stocks ready-made mash, pop it into the microwave and season with freshly cracked salt, pepper and fresh herbs. "No one will be able to tell the difference ... and you'll have more time up your sleeve in the kitchen," Couch says. "To serve the store-bought roast potato, drizzle with a little extra virgin olive-oil, a crack of pepper, zest from a lemon or orange and a sprinkle of paprika for great flavour." 

Spruce up store-bought bread: "Pick a ciabatta or a loaf of sourdough, cover the top with olive tapenade, fresh chopped thyme and tomatoes, then bake in the oven to form a delicious crust," Hansford says.       


Punch up on drinks: Bar manager at St Kilda's Pontoon, Ciaran Travers, makes sure to have a watermelon punch readily available while watching the Boxing Day test series with a house full of guests. What you'll need: at least half a bottle of vodka, half of a large watermelon cut into chunks, one bottle of ginger ale, one bottle of orange juice and ice. Soak the chopped watermelon in vodka for a couple of hours. Add the watermelon to the punch bowl, with ginger ale and juice. Feel free to add any other additions you may have around the place – mint is a nice touch and makes the punch look even fancier than it is. Mix with ice until cool and serve immediately. 


Ace a last-minute dessert with little effort and maximum impact: "Soften store-bought ice-cream for 30 minutes, mix with your choice of chopped fresh fruit, pour melted chocolate on top and place in the fridge to harden," says Kirsten Tibballs, pastry chef and owner of Savour Chocolate and Patisserie School in Melbourne. "To serve in, blow up a water balloon, dip in melted chocolate and allow to set. Pop the balloon, remove the chocolate cup and fill with ice-cream," she says.

Rescue a burnt cake: "Cut the burnt bits off, roughly chop the remaining edible part, mix with raspberry jam, desiccated coconut, rum and boiled cream - Bulla Dollop cream is my choice as it doesn't need whipping - in a mixer until it holds, then roll into individual balls and coat in some more desiccated coconut," Tibballs says.            

Refresh cookies: "Place them in the oven at 170C for five minutes to remove any moisture," Tibballs says.

A no-baking treat: "Arrange store-bought gingernut biscuits into a bowl, add a layer of passionfruit, store-bought sweetened cream and icing sugar – continue this method of layering for a super easy trifle," Tibballs says.

And don't forget ... 

Keep drinks chilled: Use coolers or even buckets full of ice if you run out of fridge space. "A common trick is to add a handful of salt to each bucket of ice to them last longer," James says.

Freeze vegetables: Vegetables usually take up lots of fridge space, so break them down and store in freezer bags, Trouillet says.  

Food presentation is just as important as the food itself: "Think what size and colour dish your food would be best represented in and serve accordingly," James says. "Try to pile things up high and not just flat and finish off by wiping the edges so the dish is clean. Add garnishes that work well with the dish such as herbs, leafy greens, nuts, sliced chilli and pickles like sliced vegetables and capers." 

Avoid a burning disaster: Set a timer earlier than the suggested  to see and taste how everything is travelling, James says. Also try not to do too many things at once. "Two things in the oven and two in the stove plus working on a salad is enough to handle at once," James says.

Remember to have a glass of wine while you cook, because as the saying goes: A happy cook equals happy food.