Ask A Denver Expert: Creating The Perfect Holiday Menu

December 4, 2013 5:00 AM

(Photo credit: )

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When the holidays roll around, it can be easy to let time get away from you. Several of the items on your to-do list can easily fall into the last-minute category and you may find yourself struggling to get everything done on time. This year, stop worrying about the dinner. Denver chefs Travis Smith of Bistro Colorado, Jenna Johansen of Epicurean Catering and Jil Doughtie of La Bonne Cuisine share tips for creating a great holiday meal without taxing yourself to the point of exhaustion.

Travis Smith
Bistro Colorado
Denver, CO 80202
(720) 648-8800

A healthy cooking enthusiast, Chef Travis Smith started Bistro Colorado as a way to make fine dining healthy. Using local ingredients, Chef Smith uses classic cooking techniques juxtaposed with new innovations to bring elegant, sophisticated dining experiences to all of his diners. With a food truck and a restaurant in Evergreen, his creations are readily available for anyone to try. Bistro Colorado also caters breakfast, lunch and dinner, so if you want a full food and beverage experience at your next party, give it a call.

Jenna Johansen
Epicurean Catering
6800 S. Xanthia St.
Centennial, CO 80112
(303) 770-0877

If you’re a fan of Bravo’s “Around the World in 80 Plates,” you may already know Chef Jenna Johansen. She is now the Innovation Chef for Epicurean Catering and is in charge of developing new and exciting dishes for this well-known catering company. She is a regular on the Denver food scene, having served as a judge for cooking competitions locally and nationally. Jenna is a lifelong chef who has earned her reputation as one of Denver’s top chefs by following her passion and sharing her love of food with all of her clients.

Jil Doughtie
La Bonne Cuisine Personal Chef Service
Denver, CO 80202
(303) 882-0362

Raised in New Orleans, Chef Jil Doughtie is a life-long foodie. In 2009, she launched La Bonne Cuisine, a personal chef service, offering meal preparation, small party catering and cooking lessons. Jil loves helping busy people step out of the kitchen to enjoy their friends and family while she shares her passion for food. With varying services ranging from preparing weekly meals to catering special events, La Bonne Cuisine has packages that are reasonably priced and serve a variety of needs.

Choose Quality over Quantity

At many holiday parties, people tend to make a lot more food than they need, resulting in a lot of leftovers. Instead of stuffing your guests, try tackling smaller servings. Chef Smith recommends planning the meal realistically based on what people typically eat. “Purchase quality ingredients in the quantity needed (8-10 oz of turkey per adult is enough). Sweet potatoes with spiced butter and maple syrup, savory sage-bread dressing, mashed potatoes, giblet gravy, cranberry chutney and eggnog are side dishes that complement any meal.” Smith emphasizes that this approach will save you time and money since you won’t be cooking more than necessary.

Plan Ahead

To save yourself from the madness of running up and down the aisles dodging other harried shoppers, strollers and the rogue shopping cart, start planning in advance. Chef Johansen advises doing as much prep work as possible prior to the actual party. “I prepare almost the whole meal ahead of time. The pie is baked, the cranberries are pureed and the turkey is brined. I find it easier to get volunteers the day before to chop onions and bread for the stuffing, bake dessert and prep the yams. Food can often be warmed, which saves precious day-of oven space the turkey usually commands.” This technique will help keep you out of the kitchen while your guests are in the house. Chef Smith states, “Everything can be prepped in advance of the final cooking. You can even cook the turkey a day ahead, slice it and then heat it a half hour before service if you want to. I like to get all of the onions and vegetables cut in advance so final dish assembly is easier on the big day.”

Be Mindful of Food Sensitivities

There may be a few guests who have food allergies or intolerances but they should be able to enjoy the meal. There are several ways in which you can be prepared. Chef Doughtie advises having options for the person with dietary restrictions that are appealing to everyone. “For vegetarians, make sure you have a hearty non-meat dish that everyone will enjoy.” Chef Smith recommends the following, “Make a small amount of gluten-free bread dressing, keep nuts out of the dishes and avoid use of mushrooms as an integral part of the dish. We are preparing our Thanksgiving meal at Bistro Colorado Bergen Park with these concerns in mind.”

Shop Early

All three chefs recommend shopping before the stores are crowded. Chef Johansen states, “I purchase my turkey when they go on sale, right away so I get the size I want and have enough time to defrost it safely. Nothing ruins a holiday party memory more than food poisoning. At the same time, I stock up on the non-perishables and cook items that can be frozen to save stress and space, like chicken stock.” Chef Doughtie advises, “Shop as early as you can while still allowing ingredients to be fresh.” This is sound advice, as shopping early will allow you to look through recipes and determine whether or not there are any ingredients that you are missing.

Related: Top Spots To Buy A Turkey In Denver

Know Your Strengths

While it can be fun to experiment on your relatives, it’s nicer to stick with what you know best for the holiday dinner. If you love cooking but hate to bake, or you are the type of person who never seems to get the crust to flake, let someone else handle dessert. Wowing your guests with a go-to recipe is also a great way to save time since you’ve got the prep work down to a science. Chef Johansen sums it up nicely, “Part of the spirit of the season is gratitude for every guest, and making them comfortable is part of being a good host. I like to honor special requests with extra food. If I have planned pumpkin pie and my grandmother wants apple, I buy one and send the rest home with her.”

Related: Top Caterers In Denver

Chef Smith’s Cranberry Chutney

  • 4 Cups Fresh Cranberries
  • 1/2 Cup Sliced Shallots
  • 1 Cup Brown Sugar
  • 1 Cup Apple Cider Vinegar
  • 1 Cup Water
  • 1 Tsp Allspice
  • 1 Cinnamon Stick Each
  • 1 Tbsp Mustard Seed
  • 1 Tsp Red Chile Flakes
  • 1 Pinch Salt

Place all items in a medium saucepan and simmer over low heat for 45 minutes, until the liquid forms a nice saucy syrup. Then serve warm or cold with your turkey and fixin’s.

Chef Johansen’s Pumpkin Pie

Pie Crust:

  • 1 1/4 Cup All Purpose Flour
  • Pinch Kosher Salt
  • 1 Stick Unsalted Butter Ice Cold
  • 1/4 Cup Ice Water

In food processor, pulse flour and salt. Pulse in butter until it is the size of peas. Drizzle in cold water until crumbs are moistened. Gather dough into a ball and chill for 30 minutes.


  • 4 Large eggs
  • 3/4 Cup Granulated Sugar
  • 1 Tbsp Cornstarch
  • 1/4 Tsp Pumpkin Pie Spice
  • Pinch Kosher Salt
  • 15-oz. Can Pumpkin Puree
  • 1/2 cup Heavy Cream

Roll pie dough until it’s 1/4″ thick. Place it in the pan, crimp edges and refrigerate for 10 minutes. Bake the shell until it is nearly set (about 20 min at 350). Mix all ingredients, except for pumpkin and cream, until smooth. Whisk in pumpkin puree. Whisk in cream. Pour into shell. Bake for 45 minutes.

Chef Doughtie’s Nanny’s Cheese Sauce

  • 4 Tbsp Butter
  • 4 Tbsp Flour
  • 2 Cups Warm Whole Milk
  • 1/2 Pound American or Cheddar Cheese Cut Into Cubes
  • Salt, Pepper and Cayenne Pepper

Melt butter in saucepan. When fully melted, add flour and cook for 2-3 minutes whisking constantly. Slowly pour in warm milk, whisking constantly to avoid lumps. Cook over low heat, stirring, until the white sauce is thick. Remove from heat and season with salt and pepper to taste, adding cayenne pepper if desired. Add cheese and stir until it has melted.

Alaina Brandenburger is a freelance writer living in Denver. Her work can be found at