Jill Allen has six words of advice for anyone who dreads holiday entertaining: "It doesn't have to be complicated."
It's the same guidance she applies to every mealtime, not just at the holidays when time and budget crunches — and, this year, pandemic worries — can add to the level of stress.
Just as a to-go meal can be more satisfying when the food is transferred onto a plate instead of eaten from a carton, Allen believes it's the little touches that make the difference when guests gather around the table, whether she's cooking for a crowd or her family of three, which includes husband Jeff and daughter Turner, 4.
"We eat with linen napkins every night. We light a candle every night. It doesn't mean we're not having leftovers," she says, "but I think you can add a couple of small things and make every meal special."
She describes herself as "more of an improvisational cook" and is not formally trained. "But I definitely do a fair amount of entertaining, and I owned a catering company years ago," she says.
She also worked for seven and a half years with five-time James Beard Award nominee Daniel Lindley who was then at St. John's Restaurant and Meeting Place. She started as a hostess, working two days a week, and eventually became office manager, handling back-of-house administrative duties.
Since March 2017, she has been the chief operating officer of Urban Story Ventures, a commercial real-estate company, overseeing construction, leasing and property management projects. Cooking, she says, is her "at-home passion."
Recently, she has shared her expertise in virtual cooking classes benefiting the Chattanooga Area Food Bank and Girls Inc. of Chattanooga.
Cindy Rix, chief development officer at Girls Inc., says interest in Allen's class has led the agency to consider making virtual cooking classes a quarterly series in 2021. Some would be timed to events on the calendar, such as Allen's was, or related to the agency's mission of inspiring and empowering girls and young women, "including a focus on men who cook for the girls in their lives," Rix says.
Allen says her presentation, "Hosting a Stress-Free Holiday," was meant to help turn grand expectations into manageable experiences.
"My hope is that people can learn how to entertain or cook from a place of just comfort," she says. "Something can be special without having to be complicated."
Her main dish was roast chicken. "That's something people are intimated by, but you can't mess it up," she says. "It's really easy."
Allen says she's seen cooking segments that use appliances she doesn't own and recipes that are delicious but so complex that every pot and pan in the cabinet winds up in the sink.
"That deters people from cooking," she says. "I don't want to have to clean up a big mess. I try to cook in a way that is smart and relatively healthy and crowd-pleasing, hopefully not breaking the bank and, most important, not fussy.
"I can do fussy," she adds. "I love to go eat somewhere that's really fancy and fussy, but I don't think it has to be that way at home."
Here's the recipe for the entree Jill Allen prepared in her recent "Hosting a Stress-Free Holiday" virtual cooking class for Girls Inc. of Chattanooga.
Roasted Whole Chicken With Yukon Gold Potatoes
1 (3 1/2- to 4-pound) fresh whole chicken, innards removed and fully thawed, if previously frozen
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1 whole bulb garlic
2-4 sprigs fresh thyme and/or rosemary
1/2 cup unsalted butter
4-5 Yukon Gold potatoes, sliced 1/4-inch to 1/2-inch thick
Heat oven to 425 degrees. Set rack in middle.
Line a large, clean cast-iron skillet with paper towels. Place whole chicken, breast side up, into skillet, and pat dry with paper towels. Discard towels. Using a small, sharp knife, cut the skin connecting leg/thigh to breast — not cutting through meat, but splaying the bird for quicker, more even cooking.
Using 2-3 tablespoons kosher salt, sprinkle the whole chicken including the cavity. Pepper as you see fit.
Cut garlic bulb, lemon and orange each in half, placing cut side down on surface of cast iron, nestling around the bird. Arrange herb sprigs around bird, or stuff into cavity.
Melt butter, and pour over bird.
Place whole skillet into preheated oven. After 35-40 minutes, remove from oven and transfer chicken, garlic and fruit to clean platter. Add sliced potatoes to skillet, and toss in melted butter and chicken drippings. Fan out to make a "bed." Replace chicken, garlic and fruit into the skillet, atop the potatoes and cook for 20-25 more minutes until potatoes are fork-tender and juices are running clear in the area between the thigh and breast.
Let sit for 15 minutes before cutting into chicken. Serve with side salad or green vegetable of choice.
Email Lisa Denton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tips for holiday entertaining from Jill Allen
* Look for easy go-withs. For “Hosting a Stress-Free Holiday,” Allen prepared roast chicken and Yukon Gold potatoes in the same skillet, with a goal of “not dirtying up every dish in the house,” she says.
* Manage portions. “Unless your meal or party is geared toward appetizers or hors d’oeuvres, don’t go heavy on the front end,” she says. “If you’re having a dinner party, you don’t want people to fill up, or dinner doesn’t feel so appetizing.”
* Keep dessert simple. Allen doesn’t like to bake, so her dessert plates are more often “grazing platters” of dark chocolate pieces, fresh berries, store-bought cookies or brownie bites. Not only is it simpler for the cook, but it’s an especially good option for anyone counting calories during the holidays. “It’s enough to serve a nice, filling meal without a big dessert that everybody feels like they’re obligated to eat.”
* Amp up the ambiance. Allen says she puts out linen napkins and lights candles for her family’s everyday meals. She also suggests dimming household lights and playing soft music in the background. “Part of my job [at St. John’s Restaurant] was ambiance police,” she says. “Just being cognizant of little things like that can make a meal more special.” She takes her cues from “really good restaurants, whether they’re fancy or not, [that] work to get the mood right.”