The tree’s been decorated, the presents are (mostly) wrapped, and the kids are home from school or college. The long countdown to the holidays is wrapping up, and you’ve got just one last task to put the “merry” into your Christmas celebration: a festive meal on Christmas Eve.
You could order pizza this Dec. 24. Or go the prepared foods route by offering a spread of pre-cooked, pop-in-the-oven-to-warm items from your local warehouse club. I’ve done both in past years with no shame for our annual family get-together at my parents’ house. But my kids always like it better when at least some of the dishes are made from scratch, as home cooking is one of the things they miss most about being away at college and off on their own.
The good news is that it’s totally possible to pull together at the last minute a tasty menu for your guests that feels anything but. And you can do it relatively stress-free, with minimal fuss and technical know-how. The key is choosing dishes that can be assembled beforehand, eliminating the frazzle of last-minute cooking — think easy quiches, luscious pasta and a giant, sumptuous salad. Of course the meal is a buffet; save the sit-down dinner for Christmas Day.
Depending on how many people you’ll be serving, the following recipes can be doubled or even tripled for a crowd. They would be equally lovely on your Christmas or New Year’s Eve table.
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Pineapple Tarte Tatin
Pineapple desserts bring a tropical flair to winter parties. This tarte tatin features fresh fruit and couldn’t be easier, thanks to a puff pastry crust. Don’t wait too long before inverting this upside-down tart; the caramel will stick if it gets cold.
All-purpose flour for rolling
12 ounces puff pastry
6 tablespoons butter at room temperature
2/3 cup light brown sugar, loosely packed
3 cups fresh pineapple, peeled, cored and chopped into 1-inch pieces
1 vanilla bean, halved and scraped
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Dust rolling pin and surface with flour, roll out puff pastry sheet and using a sharp knife, cut into a 10 1/2-inch round. Transfer to a wax paper-lined baking sheet and chill. Smear the butter evenly around the bottom of a 10-inch oven-proof skillet. Sprinkle sugar evenly on top. Add pineapple and cook, stirring occasionally, on medium-high heat for around 20 minutes until a golden brown caramel sauce develops.
Carefully lay pastry over top of pineapple, being careful not to touch the hot caramel. Use a wooden spoon to tuck the edges right under the fruit.
Bake for about 20 minutes until pastry is golden brown and caramel is bubbling around the edges. Remove from oven and cool for 5 minutes. Using potholders, carefully invert onto a plate larger than the skillet. Serve immediately.
— “The Hell’s Kitchen Cookbook: Recipes from The Kitchen” (Grand Central Life & Style, October 2015, $30).
With both red and green peppers adding flavor, this easy pasta dish speaks to the colors of the season. Make the sauce ahead and all you have to do is toss with pasta on the day of your dinner party.
2 red frying peppers or bell peppers
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thigh or breast, cut into bite-sized pieces
Salt and black pepper
1/2 pound cremini mushrooms, thinly sliced
1 onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped or thinly sliced
2 green cubanelle peppers, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced crosswise
2 fresh Italian hot cherry peppers or Fresno chiles, seeded and finely chopped
1/3 to 1/2 cup Marsala or dry sherry
28-ounce can Marzano tomatoes
Fresh basil leaves, torn
1 cup half-and-half or milk
1 pound rigatoni or whole wheat rigatoni
Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Roast red peppers in a 450-degree oven drizzled with a little oil for about 20 minutes or until the skins are wrinkled and charred. Peel peppers, then quarter them lengthwise and slice them crosswise.
Bring large pot of water to boil for pasta.
In deep large skillet, heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium-high heat. Season chicken liberally with salt and pepper. Add chicken to skillet in a single layer and brown evenly on both sides, 5 to 6 minutes. Transfer to plate. Add remaining 3 tablespoons oil and then mushrooms. Cook mushrooms until browned, 5 to 6 minutes. Add onion, garlic, cubanelle peppers and hot peppers. Season with salt and pepper and cook to soften the onion and peppers, 5 to 7 minutes. Add Marsala and stir to deglaze the pan. Hand-crush the tomatoes as you add them to the pan, then add the juices from the can.
Reduce heat to a simmer, add basil, sliced roasted peppers, and chicken and stir in the half-and-half. Cook sauce to reduce and thicken while you cook the pasta.
Salt boiling water and cook pasta to al dente. Before draining, ladle out about a cup of the starchy pasta cooking water. Drain pasta and return to the pot. Add sauce, a handful of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and a splash or two of starchy water as needed to help the sauce combine. Toss with tongs for 1 to 2 minutes for the flavors to be absorbed.
Serve in shallow bowls and pass more cheese at the table.
Serves 4 to 6.
— “Everyone is Italian on Sunday” by Rachael Ray (Atria, October 2015, $39.99).
Crunchy with a sweet-tart dressing, this salad would make an awesome vegetarian entree. I used red grapes and substituted pecans for the walnuts. You can find watercress at Asian markets.
3 tablespoons cider vinegar
3 tablespoons sour cream
2 tablespoons grainy Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon pure maple syrup
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs (parsley, chives, basil, dill or a combination)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 bunch watercress, tough stems trimmed (about 6 cups loosely packed)
6 cups loosely packed baby arugula
1 large red apple, halved, cored and sliced
2 Belgian endive, sliced crosswise 1/4-inch thick
1 1/2 cups seedless grapes
4 ounces blue cheese, crumbled
1/2 cup coarsely chopped toasted walnuts
4 ounces thinly sliced prosciutto
In spouted measuring cup, whisk together vinegar, sour cream, mustard and maple syrup. Drizzle in oil while you whisk to make a smooth dressing. Stir in herbs, season with salt and pepper, and refrigerate while you assemble the salad.
Spread greens on a large platter. Top with apple, endive, grapes, blue cheese and walnuts. Drape and fold prosciutto over top. Drizzle all over with about two-thirds of the dressing. Serve with rest of dressing in bowl alongside at the table.
Serves 4 to 6.
— “Farmhouse Rules: Simple, Seasonal Meals for the Whole Family” by Nancy Fuller (Grand Central, October 2015, $30).
Sweet Potato Soup
Serve this tasty soup in demitasse cups or large shot glasses.
1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large leek (white and light green parts only), thinly sliced, rinsed, and drained
2 small garlic cloves, minced
2 pounds orange sweet potatoes (about 2 large), peeled and cut into roughly 1-inch pieces
5 cups of water, divided
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 ounces thinly sliced prosciutto
1/4 cup heavy cream
Chopped chives (optional)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Melt butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add leek and cook, stirring, until soft and translucent, about 6 minutes. Add garlic and cook 2 minutes longer. Put sweet potatoes in pot; add 3 cups water, salt and pepper. Increase heat to high, bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-high and simmer until sweet potatoes are tender, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat, and let cool 10 minutes. Working in batches, puree soup until smooth.
For the garnish, spread prosciutto slices on a rimmed baking sheet in a single layer. Bake until crisp, 7 to 10 minutes (watch carefully, as they can burn quickly). Let prosciutto cool completely on baking sheet (about 1 hour), then crumble into tiny pieces and set aside.
Transfer pureed soup to a clean pot set over medium-low heat. Stir in cream and up to 2 cups water (enough to make soup easy to drink out of cups). Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve soup hot in demitasse cups or shot glasses and garnish with prosciutto or chives if you like.
Makes 25 appetizer-sized servings.
— Sunset magazine