We all do it. We throw parties, around the holidays, and then we want to know what we did "wrong". Since the cable television phenomenon of "Queer Eye For The Straight Guy" came onto the scene, all sorts of people have learned that if they want to throw an elegant Holiday party or dinner, ask a Queen.
I don't know where I got my penchant for classy parties and holiday dinners. I'm a New England Yankee WASP (we like to think so, but we're also Irish, Dutch, Russian and Czech) where traditional and bare-bones Holiday cooking with integrity is far more important than innovation. Perhaps it was my great-uncle professional musician forebear who played Fox-Trots for the Paul Whiteman Orchestra and learned a thing or two about New York in the 1920's that bleeds through? Or my late Aunt from Williamsburg, VA, who knew a thing or two about gracious living (and anti-segregationalist liberal politics) who taught me to be gay-gay-gay about throwing a dinner party. Who knows, but I've got it, and below the great Orange Croissant, follows some recipes and tips for being a good host(ess) at the Holidays and a couple of fantastic recipes.
The Holidays are a lot like the cigarettes I used to smoke, back when I smoked: we're loyal to certain brands. Church picnics also suffer from this tragic thinking. If you don't think so, make a lime Jello-O and celery salad with Miracle Whip, and you'll be on the road to understanding just how bad things have become. Now, that jellied salad, with it's roots in the Victorian era can still be made and updated with a little Wasabi, cream and fresh peas in a quirky mold. Or, as you'll see, as a port wine aspic to accompany a liver pate. But I digress. Here are some recipes for gracious living, which is the only kind of living as far as I am concerned.
The Cocktail Hour
Even if you don't drink alcohol, the "Cocktail Hour" is important. It's when everyone has arrived, probably hungry, and there's some meeting-and-greeting to do. Especially if there are drinks, you'll do well to serve some very savory nibbles. Here's a couple of recipes I've been doing for years, and will serve you well. I save up for the ingredients because I am not affluent these days, but save if you can and treat yourself:
The (In)Famous Commonmass Manhattan Cocktail
I've posted this here for several years. Like Susan Stamberg's Cranberry Relish, here it is again:
For each Cocktail,
Three Jiggers of Bourbon or Rye (I use Rye, and Canadian Club in specific)
Two Jiggers of Sweet Vermouth
One dash Angostura or Peychaud's Bitters
Twist of lemon
Twist of Orange
Let's make it:
Put some ice in the cocktail shaker, and season it with a little bitters. Add a dash of cherry juice. Add the liquor and shake it like hell. Serve in a cone-shaped glass garnished with the fruit, or like I like to take it: in a Rocks Glass over ice. Limit: 2. NOTE: This cocktail has been known to be the cause of broken chairs and stepped-upon Pooties. Drink responsibly.
I marinate my cocktail cherries in their own juice plus some orange and lemon rind and some Cognac. It makes all the difference.
For a variation that I discovered at one of my favorite South Portland, Maine eateries, substitute tawny Port for the red Vermouth and orange bitters for the Angostura or Peychaud's. Serve in an up-glass.
Commonmass's Manhattan Cocktail, served as he and GMB02 prefer it, on the rocks, next to the late 20th-Century French Cookbook everyone needs to own.
What With Cocktails?
Cheese and crackers is great, and frankly, so are smoked oysters. Both of which are so1960. Try these recipes, with the addition of a good baked brie:
Pate de Fois de Poulet
Don’t laugh. While this is essentially an update on chopped liver, it is an elegant one, complex and rich, and far less expensive than buying a pate from a gourmet shop. It cannot rival foie gras of the Duck or Goose variety, but it is worthy of the holiday table, or for entertaining any time.
NOTE: This recipe calls for butter, but I have tried it with both chicken fat (“schmaltz”) and margarine to see how it might turn out if my friends who keep Kosher were to try it. The verdict? Margarine is fine, but the final texture is softer than with butter. Chicken fat has a stronger flavor but a texture similar to butter. No matter what you use, make sure it is cold when you mix it in and get it in the refrigerator right away. If you do not have dietary restrictions, use butter—it gives the best texture to the pate.
*This recipe requires a food processor.
Preparing the Livers:
1 lb. of fresh chicken livers, drained
2 bay leaves
Sprigs of tarragon, thyme, a leaf or two of sage, some parsley sprigs, ten peppercorns, lightly cracked, and two cloves all wrapped in cheesecloth.
1 garlic clove, mashed with the blade of a knife
Place the above ingredients in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring near to a boil and reduce heat. Simmer about 5 to 7 minutes. Do not overcook!. Turn off and leave in hot water while you do the following:
Into the bowl of a food processor place:
1 shallot, chopped
About 1 heaping tbp flat leaf parsley coarsely chopped
Run processor until finely chopped. Remove livers from pan with a slotted spoon and place in bowl of processor. Discard bay leaves, garlic, herbs and broth. Blend shallot, parsley and livers to a paste. Then add:
About 1/4 tsp freshly ground nutmeg, or to taste
¼ tsp. white pepper, or to taste
1 tsp. Kosher salt, or to taste
3 tbs. each of brandy and port wine, more or less, depending upon how you like it. (I tend to blend after adding and then check, adding a little more port and brandy until I get the flavor I like).
½ tsp. truffle-infused olive oil or one black truffle, quartered.
Blend these, and then add:
¾ stick of cold butter, a few tbsp. at a time.
Correct seasonings and place in an earthenware crock. Refrigerate at least two days before serving. This pate can also be put into a mold and covered with an aspic of clear gelatin, madeira and brandy or port. Serve with baguette, crostini, crackers with cornichons and pickled onions on the side.
The Deli Meets Victoriana
If you’d like to set this in a small mold, try this Port aspic which—if you make a double recipe—will leave you with something very delicious to spread the next morning on an English Muffin:
Port Aspic with Tarragon
2 teaspoons (1 small packet Knox) unflavored gelatin
1 cup Port
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon water
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon dried tarragon, crumbled
To make the aspic, combine the packet of gelatin with ¼ cup of the port. Take the sugar and water and bring to a simmer over a low flame. Allow to cook for a minute or two after well dissolved. Add the rest of the port, the vinegar and the tarragon. Let simmer a few minutes while the alcohol burns off. Add the gelatin and whisk until incorporated with the heat off. Pour a ¼ inch layer into a greased mold and allow to set. Garnish if you like with some thinly sliced truffles. When set, pour pate mixture into mold and press down covering with some plastic wrap. Let it season in the refrigerator for about two days. Dip the mold carefully in some hot water before unmolding on a plate when ready to serve.
The easiest and classiest pate you'll ever make.
Fresh salmon is easy to cure at home in the Scandinavian style. It has the texture of smoked salmon but is dry-brined rather than smoked. A side fillet of salmon cured this way will feed a dozen guests as an hors d’ouevre for a fraction of the cost of purchasing the same amount of cured salmon from the store plus it is fun and it’s homemade.
1 side of salmon, filleted and absolutely fresh (you won’t insult your fishmonger if you ask to smell it before you buy it, and if it does insult her, well, buy elsewhere!)
1 cup Kosher salt
1 cup white sugar
2 tblsp freshly cracked pepper (I crack mine from whole corns in a mortar and pestle)
2 large bunches of fresh dill
Large baking pan
Cutting board that will just fit inside baking pan (I use a glass one for this)
Weight (I use the lid of a cast iron Dutch oven)
Lay out the salmon, patting dry on both sides. Leave skin intact. Check for any remaining bones and remove them with tweezers. Mix salt, sugar and pepper in a bowl. Lay salmon in the baking pan which has been lined with enough waxed paper to completely enclose salmon. Rub with the brine mixture on both sides, until fish is encrusted in the mixture. Skin side down, lay the dill, whole, on top completely covering salmon. Wrap up in the waxed paper, place board and weight on top and put in a cold place (the fridge is fine, but at the holidays, I put it in the mud room or garage to save on fridge space).
The next day, remove board and weight and turn salmon skin-side up. You will notice that the salt and sugar mixture has liquefied as it begins to draw liquid out of the fish. This is what is curing it. Replace board and weight. On the third day, repeat process, turning the fish again skin side down. It is ready to eat on the fourth day. Remove from baking pan and waxed paper and discard dill. Wipe off any remaining brine. You will find that some pepper and bits of dill remain behind, which is desirable. Beginning at the small end, cut thin slices at a 45 degree angle, to remove from skin. Place these on a platter, one by one, re-assembling the fish.
The gravlax can be served in any number of ways—on bagels, or with dark bread or baguette or just on its own. It is very rich, so a little goes a long way. Some people like to serve condiments with gravlax, some traditional ones being capers, red onions sliced thin, cornichons and mustard.
Gravlax can be frozen but the texture will suffer some. It will keep in your refrigerator for at least a week.
My Favorite Onion Tart and a Cookbook You Need To Own
Onion Tart has been a staple of Commonmass Family gatherings for over a decade, when I started to make it to accompany those Manhattans. I got the recipe from Elizabeth Lambert Ortiz's Cooking With The Young Chefs of France all of whom are old, because they were young in about 1982. The book is out of print, but occasionally shows up on Amazon, used. Be prepared to pay for it. However, because recipes are not under copyright, I'll share here the recipe for the Onion Tart shared with Madame Ortiz by the Vicomtesse du Breil de Pontbriand. A long name for "a nice French lady":
Tarte A L'Oignon
1 8-inch pastry shell, baked partially in a tarte pan
6 slices of salted pork belly, sauteed and crumbled
1.5 pounds of sweet onions, peeled and chopped
1 tablespoon white sugar
2 small hard rolls, cut up
1.5 cups of whole milk or a mixture of whole milk and heavy cream
3 large eggs
salt and pepper
Nutmeg, added, just a pinch, to the panade.
Prepare the tart shell. In a heavy skillet, saute the chopped fatback until it is crisp. Lift out with a slotted spoon and drain on paper. In the remaining fat, saute the onions until they are soft and golden brown. Sprinkle with the sugar near the end.
While the onions are cooking, soak the hard rolls, cut up, in the milk and cream until they are soft, adding more milk as necessary. Simmer the bread mixture over low heat, adding the nutmeg, over low heat, until it forms a thick panade. When the mixture is smooth, mix it with the onions and set aside. Beat the eggs with salt and pepper and fold into the onion-bread mixture. Pour into the prepared pastry shell, sprinkle with the pork bits, and bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for about 50 minutes, or until the tart is puffed and golden brown.
Serve with cocktails.
The Main Course.
I have brined and roasted, smoked, braised, and deep-fried turkeys, and I'll tell you: while Benjamin Franklin thought it should be our national bird, I disagree: Turkey is just gross, especially in its incarnation as a bird which has been genetically engineered to be as dry as a bone in its over-sized breast and as mush as can be in my favorite parts, the "dark meat", and as large as possible for the cheapest possible price. Frankly, if we were really being honest about our Thanksgiving traditions, we'd open a can of spam before we cooked a turkey. However, it's possible to find "heirloom" turkeys, and I do, and here's how to do a good turkey breast for a small group. It's good for Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's, Candlemas, Easter, Pentecost, and even for Pagan holidays:
Turkey Breast Stuffed with Apples, Caramelized Onions and Brie
This is a take on the old Cordon Bleu standby, but a bit more festive and well suited to fall and winter Holiday meals. This is also frightfully easy to make and most of the prep work can be done even a day ahead, which makes it perfect for entertaining. We served this to an intimate Christmas Eve gathering with a medley of rices, a salad of mixed greens, onions, roasted figs and walnuts with a simple walnut oil and white balsamic dressing and a cranberry-mustard chutney on the side and a dessert of pears poached in wine with a small scoop of gelato. I stuffed the breast in the morning, prepared the pears to be poached, and roasted the figs in the afternoon. Just before the guests arrived, I rolled the turkey in bread crumbs, placed it in the oven, put on the rice, threw the salad together and set out my hors d’ouvres. We started at six with cocktails, dinner at seven, and managed to have plenty of time for coffee and dessert and conversation before heading out to a 10pm Christmas service. So, this is a great do-ahead main course which leaves you plenty of time to visit with your guests before dinner.
Here’s how to do it:
1 turkey breast
1 sweet onion
1 tsp. brown sugar
1 apple, chopped
[juice of 1 lemon]
1 egg, beaten
2 tsp. dried or fresh sage
Salt and pepper
If turkey breast is not skinned and deboned, remove bones and skin. Lay out flat, skin side down. Pat dry and season with salt and pepper.
Chop the onion (not too fine) and sauté over medium heat in a little olive oil until it begins to brown, seasoning with a little salt and pepper. Add the brown sugar and continue to cook until caramelized. Remove onions and set aside. While onions are caramelizing, peel and core a tart apple. Chop into pieces about ½ an inch square. (If you are going to stuff the breast ahead, set these in some acidulated water, using the lemon juice, so that the apples do not turn brown). When the onions are cool, mix with the apples. Place this mixture inside the turkey breast. Top this with slices of Brie. Fold breast over and seal well with small skewers or tie with twine. At this point, the bird may be refrigerated for future cooking.
When you are ready to bake, beat an egg with some salt and pepper and the sage. Roll turkey in the egg mixture and then in bread crumbs, covering completely. Place in shallow baking pan and bake in a 350 degree oven for
Remove from oven and place on platter or cutting board. Allow to rest for about 10 minutes. Slice in 1 ½ inch slices and serve immediately.
I'm a fan of mincemeat pie, frankly. Also, of squash pie and since I come from High Apple Country in central Massachusetts, of apple pie and homemade apple sauce (really, people, make your own applesauce). I thought about putting a desert recipe in here, and then thought "they already think I'm an ass, stop, already!". Have your favorite dessert for sure, but make sure it is of the best quality, that there's a little variety, and that you're happy eating the leftovers for a couple of weeks.
So, there's part one of "how to entertain gracefully". What are you having at the Holidays? Share it in the comments, if you're not in the Kitchen already!