The holidays are tough. We know that and if you're reading this, then you probably know that, too. Cooking doesn't necessarily come naturally to everyone (and if it does, then congratulations on being one of the few) and that can undoubtedly cause unwanted stress. Luckily, you've officially entered a judgment-free zone where you can breathe, relish the fact that help is on the way, and realize that this year, you might actually be able to look forward to your holiday dinner.
Let's break it down: The real reason behind holiday cooking stress is the fact that unlike a typical weeknight meal where you can scrape the burnt edges off a roast, this meal is in full display in front of your family and friends. They're at the table expecting a masterpiece while you're in the kitchen popping the oven door open every two minutes, keeping track of three things on the stovetop, and trying to figure out when, exactly, you'll have time to bake those pies in the fridge. The last thing you want to do is have a meal that's unimpressive and falls like a dud during the big reveal, which is why we've come up with a list of recipes you should try, and some that you should probably steer clear of if you want a chance at winning the holidays... Prepare yourself for dinner table greatness.
20 Impressive: Herb-Crusted Beef Tenderloin
It's pricey but well worth it. Beef Tenderloin is the go-to of all holiday dishes if you're looking to impress those family members who just can't quite seem to give their full approval. This recipe is easy, chock full of flavor, and won't take longer than an hour to cook. The best part is that it'll leave your oven free to bake side dishes and desserts throughout the day and won't take much time management to figure out. It can be cooked to your specific preference but a cut like this is best pulled at medium-rare since the 10 minutes of resting time will land it somewhere around medium when you eventually slice into it. Not to mention, you get to throw around fancy words like "gremolata", so that's always fun.
19 Impressive: Brie en Croute
Cheese has made this list twice and the reason for that is simple: It's delicious. If for some reason you can't eat cheese, then we are deeply apologetic -- but that doesn't mean your in-laws can't and trust us, they'll be fans of this one. Brie en Croute is a very fancy way of saying baked brie with a puff pastry exterior and it's not a complicated thing to make. The only tricky part is defrosting and rolling out the puff pastry, but if you treat it carefully (like any other pastry dough) you'll do just fine -- simply "stitch" any rips back together with some finger pressure. It's as simple as placing your wheel of brie in the center of the puff pastry, topping it with your fruit filling of choice, wrapping it back up, and baking. Pro tip: Since the brie will be melted and gooey, go for a high-quality cheese from the cheese store, not one from the deli counter.
18 Impressive: Beef Wellington
If a cooking a whole Beef Wellington is intimidating, try your hand at mini versions! This recipe also uses puff pastry and combines the flaky, buttery nature of the dough with the tender, meaty inside of a flawless cut of beef. If your mouth isn't watering yet, then allow us to tell you about the delicious mushroom and shallot filling that will accompany your soon-to-be favorite go-to holiday meal: These add the perfect amount of earthy meatiness to an already appetizing dish, creating a trio of truly unbeatable flavor. This dish is very simple to make and looks even more impressive once you cut into it. Trust us, everyone loves something wrapped in a tiny present of perfectly browned puff pastry.
17 Avoid: A Crown Rib Roast
This goes against everything in my nature because a crown rib roast is something that's normally on my personal menu, but for those who are still new to holiday cooking, I say "nay". A crown rib roast is something that can be simple but requires dedication, some knot-tying practice, and a keen eye for proper roasting temperatures. Due to the nature of this roast's specifications, it can be challenging to maintain that perfectly-seared outside while having a medium rare to medium interior. A dry roast can easily ruin a meal since there's no "sauce" that usually accompanies a dish such as this, and a raw roast can be an embarrassing and lengthy dinner process.
16 Impressive: Standing Rib Roast
Alternately, you can try a standing rib roast which is similar in nature to a crown rib roast without the royal presentation attached to it. The difference between this and a crown is that a standing rib roast, well, "stands". It's not required to be bent into any type of shape and can be easily roasted to perfection with the use of a probe thermometer. Whereas a crown can cook unevenly, a standing rib roast is likely to cook evenly, taking anywhere from fifteen minutes to 45, depending on your desired level of doneness. This recipe requires only herbs, spices, and a simple horseradish sauce for a classic take on a delicious roast.
15 Impressive: Parmesan Dutchess Potatoes
Dutchess potatoes are something they'll teach you in culinary school and inevitably, it'll just stick. What makes these tiny dollops of potatoes so impressive are their shape -- they're intended to look like tiny swirls of fluffy clouds rather than your typical mashed potatoes (which is really what these are at heart). You can add chives or cheese to make them even more flavorful, but keeping the recipe simple is really the best for letting that starchy potato flavor shine. Eggs are the binder in this dish and are what will allow these tiny potato pads to bake up and turn a glorious yellow-brown in color. they don't take very long (prep will likely take longer than the actual cook time) and are a huge crowd-pleaser.
14 Avoid: Cornish Game Hen
Just don't do it. You're better off, your family will be better off, and no one can hold it over your head if something happens to go wrong. Cornish game hens are a cute way of being fancy for the holidays, however, they must be treated differently than other types of poultry. If you're serving a large number of people, you'll likely need a hen per person, excluding children. If you have dinner guests who are unfamiliar with the nature of eating a miniature chicken, then this could make things slightly awkward. Additionally, these little birds aren't the easiest to find and you might even end up spending more time on this than anything else on your menu for the day.
13 Impressive: Prosciutto-Wrapped Asparagus With Hollandaise
There's a firm belief when it comes to the holidays: keep it simple. So many people underestimate the importance of having a brilliantly executed simple dish over having something complex, that had been agonized over for hours. All you need is something that tastes good and looks the part in order to please your guests and, luckily, asparagus is a fancy vegetable to start with. When you start throwing words like prosciutto around, people tend to listen up and become interested. Why? Because it's the national treasure of Italy, of course (this isn't true... but it is delicious). You're essentially swapping out bacon for something less fatty, more flavorful, and simpler to work with. Prep consists of wrapping (trimmed) asparagus with thinly sliced prosciutto, baking for roughly 10-15 minutes, and drizzling some hollandaise -- from scratch or a packet, no judgment here -- over the top... Hands down, best appetizer
12 Impressive: A Cheese And Charcuterie Plate
I worked in a cheese shop for nearly two years and it was one of the best jobs I ever had. Not only did I have the chance to try a plethora of cheese, but I gained an appreciation for how much happiness proper cheeses and dry-aged meats can bring to people. You can't go wrong with a cheese and charcuterie plate because there's a little something for everyone. This is the best way to impress a crowd and it's something you can be creative and have fun with; choose your favorite cheeses, one or two types of meat, and have at it. Accompany your mains with sides such as salted nuts, local honey, local jams or chutneys, stuffed olive, peppadews, etc. Pro tip: Don't be afraid to go into your local cheese shop, ask for help, and try some cheeses -- That's what they're there for!
11 Impressive: A Full Rack Of Herb-Crusted Lamb
If you're really keen on cooking a rack of lamb for the holidays, then try following this recipe. It's easier than a crown roast and will have you searing like a pro in no time. The trick is to sear the lamb in order to lock in all of those juices, then coast the outside with (good) dijon mustard in order for the herbs to stick. Don't overcook this protein, it is not forgiving and won't take kindly to tasting like your great uncle's work boots rather than the delicate lambchop that it is. Eighteen or so minutes should do it but if you're concerned about your herbs burning, you could always roast halfway, then coat the lamb -- without burning yourself -- with the herbs and finish.
10 Avoid: Spiral Sliced Ham
Everyone does it, everyone has seen it, and we all know that it takes no more effort than unwrapping it and sticking it in the oven for three hours. Don't get me wrong, I am a lover of a good ham with a solid maple glaze but when it comes down to it, we're not living in 1955. There are tons of dishes out there awaiting the approval of your in-laws and this spiral sliced ham certainly is not one of them. You can whip of a great glaze but you can't disguise it -- This dinner has already been prepped and baked for you. If you really want the star of your dinner table to shine, go for another recipe this year and put the ham-ordering on the back burner for now.
9 Impressive: Fennel And Potato Gratin
A gratin will always be impressive because it's a dish from France that incorporates tons of cream and very, very thinly sliced potatoes to make a work of art. If you're feeling daring, try Ina Garten's recipe for potato, fennel, and Gruyère gratin... She is the queen, after all. For those who don't know, Gruyère is a hard cow's cheese that's comparable to swiss or a comté. The real thing is pricier than swiss but trust me, it is absolutely worth it. Fennel adds a nice spice and freshness to a dish that can be overly rich and filling. It's simple, creates its own cheesy sauce, and is much tastier than your typical mashed potatoes or Hasselbacks. Pro tip: Swap your Gruyère out with an aged (4 yrs+) comté for a bolder flavor.
8 Impressive: Autumn-Inspired Acorn Squash
Acorn squash is a highly underrated vegetable in the squash world. It's my personal favorite and this recipe can lend itself to being the new substitute for tired sweet potatoes. It can be served as a savory dish but with all the sweetness it has to offer, you'd be crazy to pass up on some brown sugar and real maple syrup filling. Preparing this is as simple as cutting your squash in half, filling it with all the sweets, and baking it until tender. This is a tough dish to mess up because if you overbake it, it'll likely be even more delicious. Sugar caramelizes when it's baked past its boiling point, which will just add depth to the overall flavor of your squash. You can get fancy and top with oats or chopped nuts if you want; I've even added granola and it provides a great crunch.
7 Avoid: Any Mashed Potatoes
Already, there are so many other options on this list that taste so much better than traditional mashed potatoes and are just as easy, if not easier. The days of mashed potatoes in a bowl are gone and the days of fancy, fun potatoes are in. If you want to really impress your dinner guests this year, go for a variation on this popular starch and give them something they won't expect, but will love all the same. Mashed potatoes can also be the downfall to a meal outside of Thanksgiving; they function as a "filler" and can cause your guest to get full early on, leaving no room for all of the other delicious things you've prepared... Including dessert!
6 Impressive: Sauteed Spinach Salad
It's healthy, it's vegetarian, and it's downright delightful. Dried cranberries and salty feta perform pure magic when combined together in a dish, and a base of sauteed spinach is the perfect setting for this pair. This warm salad is easy to make, just make sure not to burn your garlic or your cranberries before you add in the fresh spinach. It serves as the perfect winter salad to accompany what can otherwise be a meal filled with starches and meat dishes, and it's nice to give a bit of reprieve from all of that. You could even substitute the spinach for kale (baby kale works well) for a heartier dish. Pro tip: Add some toasted pine nuts for added crunch.
5 Impressive: Roasted Root Veggies
There's no specific recipe for this because it really is just that simple. Sherry is an underrated and forgotten vinegar when it comes to cooking which is a shame because it adds a tremendous level of depth to roasting. My go-to veggies of choice are parsnips, carrots, peppers (red, yellow, or orange; green can be unpleasant), onions, and cherry tomatoes. Throw a medium dice on your veggies, lay them out on a big sheet pan, and season well with salt and pepper. Coat them in equal parts extra virgin olive oil and sherry vinegar, then bake at 375 for 20 minutes, checking every now and then depending on your oven. What you'll end up with are vegetables that exude flavor, but no one will be able to put their finger on what that awesome flavor is.
4 Impressive: Roasted Balsamic Rainbow Carrots
Rainbow carrots are beautiful and maintain their color when roasted, making them a great go-to for an eye-pleasing dish. This recipe is simple and straightforward, and won't take very long at all to whip up. Carrots can easily turn south if they're cooked too long or sitting in too much liquid, so roasting them in something like balsamic vinegar, which reduces as it cooks, is a beautiful thing. What you'll be left with is a carrot that tastes sweet and is perfectly matched with the slightly tangy flavor of a cooked-down balsamic vinegar. The vinegar develops its own sweetness as well, turning these roasted root veggies into somewhat of a glazed carrot by the time they're finished. It's a truly beautiful flavor marriage.
3 Avoid: Boxed Stuffing
I love it just as much as the next person does but boxed stuffing will not impress your guests in the slightest. Somehow, there's always an unnaturally small dice of celery that manages to escape cooking, leaving an unpleasant texture, and the stuffing will always dry out as it sits on the table. It's best to either make your own -- which can be as easy as you make it -- or forgot the seasonal stuffing altogether. Having something like stuffing on the table will always tempt your guests to go for what they know. Since there's no way to moderate portions, you could very well end up with guests who have gorged themselves on soaked bread before they even get to the main course... It's a holiday faux pas.
2 Impressive: Slow-Cooked Short Ribs
Short ribs produce one of the best savory smells that can emanate from your oven, trust me. Once your guests walk in and smell this, not only will they be curiously, but they'll also be eager to start dinner. This recipe explains the process particularly well and while it does take some work, it is completely worth it for the end result. Short ribs are considered a chuck cut, meaning they need to be cooked low and slow in order to fall apart and melt in your mouth. This is great news for holiday cooking because you can basically set it and forget it once the prep and searing are done with. Braising is a very simple concept that many people are intimidated by but if you are, you shouldn't be -- It's super easy.
1 Impressive: Cheesy Stuffed Mini Mushrooms
I'll admit it, some of the best stuffed mushrooms I've ever had came from the Cheesecake Factory... Until I made them myself, at home. This copy-cat recipe is a solid one for recreating that cheesy, slightly salty goodness, and the best part is that it incorporates all parts of the mushrooms, even the stems. These do not take long to prepare at all and you can even prep them the night before your guests arrive, then just pop them in the oven the following morning. The flavor is unreal, the top forms this cheesy and slightly crispy crust, and the inside of each mushroom cap will literally melt into your mouth. It'll be like a scene from Ratatouille -- It's so good, you'll see, hear, and taste each flavor melding together.