As we head into the coming holiday weeks, I've got three dinner parties to host. One is Christmas Day dinner but the other two are more casual. And then there's the inevitable last minute "please stop by for a drink" kind of invitations for which I like to be ready.
December is always a busy month, even without adding the jobs of host and cook. There's all the usual year-end and holiday pressure, plus I'm in the midst of promoting my new book so I'm even more stressed than usual. But just as I began to think about what to make-bake-serve, my mind went blank.
Does that ever happen to you? So many recipes but nothing to cook?
So I pulled out cookbooks, dog-eared copies of favorite old issues of Gourmet, and also a diary I've erratically kept for years with notes of what I've cooked for others. A few ideas began to emerge along with reminders of what makes for, if not stress-free, than at least stress-minimized entertaining.
Minimizing Holiday Entertaining Stress
- Expect surprises. This means you may run out of Scotch, forget to buy corn chips, or have friends show up in town without any notice. So take ten minutes and scan both your pantry and your liquor supply. Make a shopping list and before you get distracted, place an order at the wine store. Also, do a major grocery shop that includes things like an extra tin of salted peanuts, some seltzer, ingredients to make snacks like salsa or hummus (or buy it ready made), and other items that would give you some hospitality options.
- Plan meals that connect the cooking with the serving. While holidays are flashy times filled with decorations, sparkling beverages, and gifts, I think it's the worst time to cook in a way that keeps you in the kitchen instead of with company. So choose recipes that let you enjoy the making and the eating, but also let you be with the people you love. This can mean slow-cooked one-pot braises and stews, macaroni and cheese, potluck meals, and menus that combine homemade with store-bought.
- Think about the details. That's because it's always the small stuff that makes us crazy. For example, make or buy ice in advance; if it seems profligate to buy ice, make a tray or two of cubes every day for a week, transferring the cubes to a large plastic bag and start again. Buy extra cocktail napkins and candles; it's better to have too many than not enough and they never go bad.
- Find time to make something uniquely holiday. This could be a favorite holiday cookie. Or decadent and brandy-soaked eggnog. Or a standing rib roast. These can be foods that are a madeleine of childhood memories or something new that you want as your own holiday tradition. As an example, we've added a recipe for Russian Tea Cakes (actually a cookie) that a favorite aunt of mine made every Christmas when I was a child.
- Plan ahead. Try to find an hour or so to check your calendar for the coming weeks and make notes about what you need to get done, who is coming for dinner, a master grocery list, and when you can claim an afternoon for cooking. We might be masters at improvisation, but holidays can tip the odds of things going wrong. So take a few moments to make sure you've got things under control.
Sometimes holiday traditions will set the menu, but for many of us, every year is a chance to do something new or something exceptional.
One of my favorite holiday memories is of a dinner that a dear friend of mine and I made for our combined families -- a classic cassoulet. The wisdom of the two of us tackling this elaborate white bean, duck and pork casserole that has origins in southwestern France was that we not only shared the work and expense, but also the sheer joy of the eating. It made a huge amount that six of us could barely diminish. And it formed a food memory that will last a lifetime.
Our cassoulet recipe was by writer and home cook Michael Lewis, who in turn based his on one from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Published in Gourmet in 2001, Lewis's recipe was accompanied by an inspiring article about his ambition to learn how to cook like the French (both the article and recipe, which appeared in a special issue about Paris, are nostalgic proof that nothing today comes close to what Gourmet used to be). In these dark days when we can lose confidence in the human condition, this recipe is a compelling and comforting reassurance of our abilities to aspire and achieve excellence, which in this case was a white bean casserole. But wow -- what a casserole.
We've added a link below to the Michael Lewis recipe.
The Feast of Seven Fishes. Or Ten Fishes. Or Four Fishes.
A popular holiday tradition is based upon the Italian Christmas Eve "Feast of the Seven Fishes." Not surprising, Mario Batali is someone who can tell us about this one-note collection of dishes and if you do a search at Epicurious.com you'll find a video interview with him, complete with recipes.
It's not clear what's special about the number seven; in some families, obviously large families, the courses will increase to 10 or 13. But if you want to embrace this idea with less food, an alternative would be what I'd call a "Feast With Only Four Fishes But It's Still A Feast."
For example, you could begin with two seafood hors d'oeuvres -- one that is cooked, e.g., baked clams, and the other with smoked fish; if you want an alternative to smoked salmon try smoked bluefish or tuna which are usually available at Citarella's or The Lobster Place. Then pasta with shellfish such as shrimp scampi with spaghetti, followed by whole fish baked in a salt crust or whole steamed lobsters (fish stores will cook your lobsters if you wish to avoid having to own and store a huge lobster-sized pot and giving your kitchen a semi-permanent lobster smell).
For fish lovers, it's an excuse to binge.
To all this seafood you can add a green vegetable, plus a leafy salad and loaf of crusty bread. Finish with mini Italian pastries such as the tiny cannoli that many Italian bakeries sell and ice-cold lemoncello, which is a sweet but potent lemon-flavored grappa.
My friend Pat Herold Nielsen always loved anything to do with New Orleans. And for a girl originally from Queens, she could have been the mistress of mardi gras for how she embraced her second city's culture, especially its gardens, music, and food.
Often when a crowd would gather at her Brooklyn home, Pat would make Creole Jambalaya. She also knew how to down-size the recipe so that she could make it for a smaller dinner of four to six.
This dish is irresistibly festive, easy to make in advance, and it's a budget-sensitive dish that lets you feed many for not a lot of money. It's also perfect for a small city kitchen and entertaining in a small space because it's a one-pot dish. Serve it in bowls along with some good French (of course) bread, green beans, and baked sweet potatoes. If it were July I'd suggest a peach cobbler but since this is winter, you could finish the meal with the best frosted layer or sheet cake you can make yourself or buy at one of our city's superb bakeries.
We've added a link to Pat's Creole Jambalaya.
My Dinner Menus
So what will I be cooking for my three upcoming dinners?
Some of these menus have been influenced by requests from my guests. Some has been influenced by my husband's favorites. And some are just foods I love to cook and eat. They all will let me spend more time at the table than at the stove.
Dinner number one will be ossobuco, using Marcella Hazan's brilliant recipe from The Classic Italian Cookbook. The veal shanks are braised in a tomato-based sauce (ossobuco is sometimes made with a brown gravy-like sauce but I prefer tomato). I will serve this with pasta, probably rigatoni, and broccoli rabe. Because the meal is so hearty I won't have a first course but I will serve salted nuts plus a warm hors d'oeuvre -- Julia Reed's Hot Cheese Olives is my current favorite (see our link) -- with martinis garnished with a large caperberry instead of olives. We'll have hearty red wine with the rest of the meal. Dessert will be a simple fruit tart that I will bake using the best local pears or apples I can find at our winter Greenmarket.
Dinner number two will also tilt Italian. A recent favorite recipe is from Arthur Schwartz's The Southern Italian Table, which was published last year. It includes a version of "Sunday gravy" that is made with a pork shoulder simmered for hours in puréed San Marzano tomatoes. The slow cooking not only produces a hearty and luxurious red sauce but also falling-off-the-bone shreds of pork. It's a recipe to buy the book for, although there are others that make it equally worth it. This, too, I'll serve with pasta plus a romaine lettuce and red onion salad dressed with a robust anchovy Caesar-like dressing. For dessert I'll head back to the New World and serve gingerbread and whipped cream.
Finally, my Christmas dinner will be a bit more refined and French. There will be four of us and we will start with smoked salmon and Champagne. A first course of green salad with either a small wedge of Stilton or disc of warm goat cheese depending upon what is best when I buy the cheese. Then Slow-Roasted Duck Legs which I'll finish cooking with some New York sour cherries that I canned last summer; I'll serve the duck with small egg noodles and a green vegetable yet to be determined. And finally Tart Tatin, the classic upside-down caramelized apple tart, a dessert for which I've gained a bit of a reputation among my friends.
No matter the menus, I'm expecting a holiday season of good eating. And even more important and precious -- good company.