Are there things you can do now, in your kitchen and pantry, to make the holidays easier and more pleasurable?
Yes, there are, lots of things, especially this year, with Thanksgiving coming so late in the month. There is time before it is all upon us — the demands, the pressures, the elaborate dinners, the search for the dried sage and that pie dish you use just once a year. Taking a bit of time now can make it so much easier.
First, clean your spice cupboard. If you've had ground cinnamon, clove, allspice and nutmeg, for example, on the shelf for a decade or more, it's a great time to replace them and it's never been easier locally. We have two brick-and-mortar spice shops now — Penzey's in Montgomery Village and Savory Spice Shop in downtown Santa Rosa — and there are spice vendors at several local farmers markets, too.
Ground spices should be replaced annually if you want the fullest flavor. They won't go bad and if you're used to old ones you may not notice a difference. but there is a drop-off in flavor as volatile oils dissipate into the atmosphere. Start over with fresh spices and you'll notice a brightness, a pop; it's unmistakable.
The same is true for ground pepper. Replace it after six months. Or better yet, use whole peppercorns, ground at the last minute. Whole spices last for years, especially when stored in airtight containers in a dark cupboard.
OK, your spice cupboard is refreshed. What's next? I like to sort through and organize my vinegars around this time of year, discarding bottles with little left in them and replacing my favorites. I like both pomegranate and cranberry vinegar during the holiday season and usually make my own, not from scratch but by combining the fruit — separately — with a good vinegar. If you do this in the middle of November, the vinegar will blossom by Thanksgiving.
Olive harvest is underway now, too, and by the week of Thanksgiving there should be local olio nuovo available. This new oil is delicious but not stable; flavors diminish quickly. It's best to buy enough to get you through Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa and New Year's Day. Indulge and then wait for the 2013 vintage to be released in the spring.
If you bake, replenish your flour, cornmeal, polenta, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and such and organize your baking dishes. How many times have you reached for a pie or cake pan and found it missing? I love not having to take everything out of a cupboard to find something at the last minute. I love making popovers for a holiday breakfast, for example, and can't count the number of times I haven't been able to find my popover pan. This year, I plan to take my own advice.
If you are already a role model for organization, you can move on to other time-saving projects, like sauteing onions and celery in butter, tearing sourdough bread into bite-sized pieces for stuffing and making stocks. All these foods freeze beautifully and having them on hand gives you more time to relax with a cocktail or sleep a bit later when the final preparations must be done.
You can candy pecans, walnuts, lemon peel and orange peel, dry persimmons and prepare chestnuts, all in advance.