My family lives all over California, so when we get together, everyone stays overnight. This year I am hosting Christmas. I have dinner down but am completely lost when it comes to breakfast the next day.
A Perplexed Reader, Napa, CA
You don’t have to be a hero and make everything yourself. We love the crunchy Kingslake & Crane granola (kingslakeandcrane.com), the superior muffin and scone mixes from King Arthur Flour (kingarthurflour.com) and the wonderful premade croissants from Williams-Sonoma (williams-sonoma.com). Supplement them with a few of these simple recipes:
Striped Fruit Salad Instead of tossing chunks of fruit together, arrange them in bright layers in a big glass bowl or wide vase; try pineapple, grapes, strawberries, clementine slices and pomegranate seeds.
Oatmeal Brûlée Cook steel-cut oats a few days ahead. Reheat the oatmeal, spread it in a pretty round or oval baking dish, sprinkle it with granulated brown sugar and brûlée the top with a blowtorch or by sliding the dish under a hot broiler for a minute or two until the top is caramelized. Serve with milk or cream and berries.
Cinnamon-Raisin Bread Pudding Lightly butter slices of store-bought cinnamon-raisin bread and arrange them in a baking dish so they fit snugly. Soak the bread overnight in a simple custard made with 4 eggs beaten with 3 cups of milk or light cream (and sweetened to your taste), then bake in a 375° oven until puffed and browned. Dust lightly with confectioners’ sugar and serve with maple syrup and fresh berries.
I always have trouble updating my traditional holiday dishes: blini with smoked salmon, a standing rib roast or beef tenderloin, and canapés. How can I add excitement to the beef or even the blinis?
Susan Frank, Washington, DC
Sometimes the smallest twist is all you need to make a classic recipe seem new. A few fresh takes:
Standing rib roast Add smoked paprika, ground cumin or a pinch of curry powder to salt before pressing it onto the meat.
Beef Tenderloin Weave slices of bacon together (like a lattice pie crust) and top with rosemary sprigs. Wrap around a room-temperature tenderloin before roasting.
Blinis Add ground wasabi peas to the batter, or whip jam into crème fraîche to make a topping for sweet blinis.
I always try to make innovative and impressive hors d’oeuvres for parties. My problem is that I fail to factor in the season’s other duties (shopping, wrapping, getting dressed for said party). Do you have any tips for fabulous, fast hors d’oeuvres?
Theresa Bertrand, Astoria, NY
Keeping some really good nuts on hand is always a smart idea. We also like making some kind of speedy dip or spread that can be served with crackers. Some ideas:
Quick Goat-Cheese Dip Spread mild, soft goat cheese in a shallow, heatproof dish, then top with olive tapenade, chopped piquillo peppers or smoked Spanish paprika (pimentón de la Vera) and a drizzle of olive oil; heat in the oven or microwave until piping hot. Alternatively, bring the cheese to room temperature and make a dip by folding in chopped pistachios, mango chutney and almond slivers, or diced salami or prosciutto with basil.
Almost-Instant Smoked Fish pâté In a processor, puree cream cheese with chopped smoked salmon or smoked trout. Add lemon juice or lime juice and salt and pepper, and either diced apple, chives, dill, curry or gherkins.
Homemade Pita Chips Cut pita in triangles, separate and brush rough sides with olive oil; sprinkle with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and bake until browned.
Seasoned Edamame Steam, boil or microwave edamame in the shell, then toss the pods with olive oil, coarse sea salt and cumin, curry or a fresh herb like rosemary, thyme or sage. You could also toss with sesame oil, soy sauce and sesame seeds.
Parmesan crisps (frico) Buy grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Spread the cheese in 3-inch rounds on a hot griddle and cook until lightly browned; serve as is or topped with chopped grape tomatoes.
I serve a huge meal for my annual holiday party. But I find it very difficult to cook because my guests insist on squeezing into my tiny kitchen with me. Of course, they always offer to help, but even two is a crowd in there! How do I politely keep people out?
Theresa Krakauskas, Long Branch, NJ
You are never going to get your friends out of your kitchen if you’re in there cooking. That’s why it would be great if you could prepare dishes in advance that can sit out on a buffet, ready for when your guests arrive. A few suggestions on what to serve:
A Big Roast Set out a roasted beef tenderloin, a roasted turkey breast or a smoked or country ham with sandwich fixings like biscuits or mini rolls, sweet and hot mustard, pepper jelly, cranberry jam and pickles.
A Charcuterie Platter A nice assortment would include a pâté or rillettes, a salami (like soppressata), a dried sausage (like cacciatorini), a cured ham (like serrano or prosciutto), a cooked ham and some bresaola, which is air-dried beef.
A Cheese Platter Remember that variety is key. Be sure to include a goat, a cow and a sheep, and have a hard, semihard, washed-rind and a blue, as well as a fresh cheese.
A Rice Salad Boil arborio rice until al dente, then drain and toss with cooked Italian sausage crumbles, diced fennel, small red grapes, parsley, garlic, oil and vinegar.
Trying to plan a holiday menu for both meat eaters and vegetarians leaves me flustered. How do I balance everyone’s demands?
Dean Robinson, St. Petersburg, FL
As long as the first course is vegetarian and you serve at least three vegetarian side dishes, everyone at the table will be happy.
Start with a Soup Opt for butternut squash, mushroom, lentil or bean. For smoky flavor, use chipotle chiles; for "meaty" flavor, start with a base of caramelized onions and sautéed white or wild mushrooms. To garnish, make fried shallots (thinly slice into rings, fry in vegetable oil until golden) or cheesy croutons (cut bread into ½-inch dice, toss with olive oil and herbs and toast, then sprinkle with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Romano).
For the Main Course Serve a big bird or a roast with an array of vegetables; having a mix of flavors and textures is key, so prepare a roasted vegetable dish, a creamed one and a crisp one.
Roasted Vegetables Make a pan roast with parsnips, turnips, carrots and onions. Cut the vegetables into pieces that are roughly the same size (although denser vegetables like parsnips and carrots can be smaller because they take longer to cook). Toss with olive oil and fresh herb sprigs, season with salt and pepper and roast in a 400° oven, stirring occasionally, until tender.
Creamed Vegetables Blanch corn or spinach until tender or wilted, then simmer in heavy cream and season.
Crisp Winter Salad Toss crunchy greens like escarole or romaine hearts with radishes, jicama and blood- orange sections and dress with extra-virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar.