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Elite NYC chef reveals her 7 secrets to cooking up the perfect homemade Christmas menu on a budget… from the surprise ingredient to transform your gravy… to the $5 store-bought sauce that’ll elevate your veggies

A house full of hungry friends and relatives can be intimidating to even the best home cooks – especially on Christmas day.

And this busy holiday season – with its sky-high grocery store prices – feeding the whole family while nailing the perfect turkey can seem nearly impossible.

But, elite New York City chef, Lauren DeSteno, says that with a little planning, you can make the process easy and, dare we say, enjoyable.

Speaking to, DeSteno, corporate executive chef of Altamarea Group, who has run some of America’s most exclusive restaurants, from Manhattan’s Marea to Ai Fiori, reveals the seven secrets of the professional kitchen virtuoso.

1: Prep Your Veggies And Save Your Sanity

Trained chefs prep as much as they possibly can before they seat a single guest. Amateur cooks should do the same.

Make a list of all the dishes you’re preparing for the meal and the ingredients – then get to work. You can wash, peel, slice, dice and shred most of your vegetables up to three days in advance and they’ll stay fresh. Store everything in plastic baggies or a Tupperware. If you’re concerned about anything drying out simply dampen a paper towel and lay it across the top.

Don’t cut your onions, shallots or herbs until one day before you cook.

Elite New York City chef, Lauren DeSteno (above), says that with a little planning, you can make the process easy and, dare we say, enjoyable.

Making mac and cheese? Shred your cheeses three days ahead of time.

Making a gratin? Chop the potatoes and grate your cheese at the same time.

When it comes time to cook, you’ll already be ahead of the game.

2: Don’t Sleep On The Sides

There are excellent products in the grocery store that professional chefs use all the time to finish their dishes to give them an extra punch of flavor.

Making brussels sprouts with bacon?

Top it off with some store-bought pomegranate molasses (less than $5 at the supermarket) for an unexpected sweet-tart note. Sprinkle pomegranate arils – the red seeds of the fruit – if you are really feeling fancy.

Remember that potato gratin?

Sneak a dusting of sharp gorgonzola cheese between the layers and then drizzle a bit of truffle honey over the top right before serving. It will win over even those who say they don’t like bleu cheese.

Gravy falling flat? Or perhaps, need a drink to power you through?

There are excellent products in the grocery store that professional chefs use all the time to finish off their dishes to give them an extra punch of flavor.

Grab that bottle of brandy that your great uncle treated you to years ago. A splash of brandy, right from the bottle, will awaken any gravy and have your guests asking for your recipe.

You don’t need much, but the result will be a brightening of the sauce without changing the flavor that you created. You should get some of the ‘warm’ notes of the brandy, but not the alcohol burn from it.

3: Splurge But Don’t Gorge

What’s your goal: great appetizers or a large meal? Pick one, not both. That’s critical if you want to keep food costs from spinning out of control.

Only purchase small amounts of the big ticket items, like caviar or oysters. These fancy foods make a great impression.

And don’t assume that your fish monger or local seafood department doesn’t carry something because you don’t see it. Always ask! They can often order it for you (and many will pre-shuck oysters, so you don’t have to).

Keep the hors d’oeuvres simple and sparce and spend your attention (and money) on the main event.

If you’re serving a wide variety of dishes for the main meal, don’t cook a huge amount of any of one item. After all, your guests are going to want to taste them all.

If you have any leftovers from a big crudité plate, toss all of the veggies in the food processor the next day. Add some feta and olives, vinegar and oil. That will make a delicious chopped salad that can be served with canned tuna, beans, lettuce… or even tortilla chips. And nothing goes to waste!

4: Bring The Family Into the Kitchen

If family is coming into town early mix up some memory-making with your cooking.

Here’s a panzerotti (or ‘Frite’ as my grandparents called them) recipe that is perfect for the occasion.

The dough comes together easily in a stand mixer. The potential fillings are endless, and it’s easy to make different types to satisfy the whole crowd.

Here’s a panzerotti (or ‘Frite’ as my grandparents called them) recipe that is perfect for the occasion.

Set up your crew up in an assembly line; one person rolling dough, another dropping in fillings, a fourth to do the cutting, and a fifth to seal them up for frying.


Makes about 2.5 dozen

1000 K ’00’ Flour

550 g Cold Water

7 g Instant Yeast

15 g Sugar

25 g Salt

Grated Pecorino, Black Pepper and Parsley mixed as a filling (you can substitute ricotta and diced salami or really anything else you like)

Add the water to the bowl of a stand mixer followed by all ingredients except salt. Turn the mixer on to a slow speed. As the mixture begins to come together add the salt. Mix the dough at medium speed until fully combined and fairly smooth.

Remove the bowl from the mixer attachment and cover with a clean kitchen towel.


Set a pot or small fryer with canola oil set to 350 degrees.

Use a rolling pin or pasta machine (hand-cranked or mechanical) roll the dough out to about 1/8 in. thickness.

Cut them into long 3 in. wide strips. Keep any dough not in use covered with a kitchen towel so that it doesn’t dry out.

Place a dollop (about 1.5 tablespoons) of your filling about ½ in. from the long edge of the dough and continue spooning out the filing in 2 in. increments.

Carefully lift the ‘blank side’ of the dough up and pull over the filling, matching it to bottom edge.

You should now have a long, thin, rectangle with a few mounds lined up in a row.

Using lightly floured hands, press out any air from around the filling and push the dough down to secure to the bottom layer.

Cut the rectangles apart between the filling mounds and use a fork to crimp all the edges except the folded one.

Carefully lower the dough pockets into the fryer one by one. Add enough to form a single layer in the pot.

Using a slotted spoon or a spider, gently flip the panzerotti as they cook to make sure they are doing so evenly.

Cook until nicely golden brown on both sides, remove from the oil and allow to cool on a bakers rack. Serve at room temperature or slightly warm.

5: Easy Pleasers For Chefs and Guests

It’s tempting to grab takeout the night before Christmas, but nothing shows your love for the family like a delicious, homemade meal.

For my family’s Christmas Eve dinner linguine in clam sauce is our main event. It’s also one of the most popular items at Marea.

For this dish, skip the canned clams and clam stock. Purchase fresh cockles from your fish monger instead. To de-stress the endeavor, a day in advance, sauté your prepared garlic and then add clams and white wine to steam them open.

Once opened, I pull all the clams out of the shells (discard the shells) and set them aside. Strain the ‘broth’ through a sieve to remove any bits of shell or sand.

You can reduce this broth a little bit or leave it as is. I add the clams back to the liquid and store it in the fridge until needed.

When the time comes to make this dish, it is nothing more than boiling pasta and seasoning the sauce.

6: Cook ‘Two Birds’ With One Pot

Delicata Squash with Apple Cider Reduction 

Serves 6

3-4 lg Delicata Squash

1 qt Apple Cider (the best you can find)

1 t Dijon Mustard

1-2 T Maple Syrup

½ C Chopped Pecans, toasted


Chili Flakes

Preheat your oven to 400°F.

Start by reducing your cider in a pot set over medium heat; reduce it by ¾’s (you should end up with 1 cup). Set it aside.

Line a baking sheet with parchment and spray or brush lightly with olive oil.

Wash your squash, cut a bit off the top and bottom and split lengthwise down the center. Scoop the seeds out and discard.

Place the squash cut-side down on a cutting board and slice into ¼ in half circles.

Arrange the squash on the baking sheet in an even layer. Drizzle with olive oil and season with a sprinkle of salt. Roast your squash (turning over halfway through) for about 15-20 minutes; they should be golden (to deeply) brown on the cut sides.

In a bowl, combine the reduced apple cider, mustard, maple syrup and salt and chili to taste. Stir well to combine. Arrange the squash on a platter and drizzle over top with the syrup, trying to get some on each squash piece. To finish, sprinkle the toasted pecans over top and serve.

A twofer recipe is always a welcome addition to the holiday lineup.

Here’s a recipe for delicata squash with apple cider reduction and pecans that is a showstopper – and so is the cocktail that it inspires!

Prepare more apple cider than you need. It won’t go to waste. You can use it to sweeten anything, but it is particularly good shaken with some bourbon and allspice dram.

Garnish with an orange wedge and bask in the approving head-nods after your guests take the first sip.

At Ai Fiori, we use a similar apple cider reduction and add apple cider vinegar to make a pickling liquid for the apples that garnish our grilled octopus.

7: Fry The Turkey!

Fried turkeys get a bad rap and provide hours of entertaining blooper reels, but frying a bird is truly THE way to go.

I like to brine my turkey for 24 hours in salt water, about 2 tablespoons per quart of water then pull it out and let it dry in the fridge for 1-2 days.

If you own a meat injector, the night before you are going to cook it, inject the bird with a mixture of butter, garlic and herbs.

When the time comes to fry, please, make sure you turn off the flame while you are dropping the turkey into the oil. And don’t place your fryer near anything that’s flammable.

It’s best to do this cooking away from the house and in the yard or on an empty driveway. It’s hard enough trying to keep the house intact for the celebration.

Don’t burn it down!

The turkey will cook for 3 to 3.5 minutes per pound. Then let it rest for a minimum of ½ an hour.

This will be the fastest, most delicious turkey you have ever made.

Disconnect your fuel, let the oil cool fully, cover it and forget about it until tomorrow.

You’ve done it! You’ve hosted a fabulous Christmas and keep your wits.

Now, get ready for New Years Eve!

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