Good cooks embrace spontaneity by working with the best seasonal food, personalizing recipes and employing a sense of whimsy in the kitchen.
By contrast, hosting a good party means consummate planning. Make lists, create schedules, adhere to tasks and dot the I's and cross the T's. The best hosts never let the guests see them sweat. I say we take a cue from the pros and plan, plan, plan with this one goal: Enjoy the guests.
We have but a few days before the best food holiday in this country. If you have not already done so, write up your menu and make a list. Then, go to the store, come home and get cooking. Start by making some simple turkey broth for the gravy and a bowlful of homemade cranberry sauce. Make the pie crusts or thaw purchased crusts. Next up, prepare the vegetables.
Most fall veggies take well to advance prep work. The bright orange, red and yellow squashes and hearty root vegetables can be cooked in advance and reheated just before serving. Armed with elaborate garnishes, they'll wow guests without taxing the cook.
I start with butternut squash — a relatively recent addition to our holiday table due in no small part to the precut options available at many grocery stores. The dense flesh can be boiled in salted water or broth and then mashed with butter and seasonings for a simple side. Or, roast cubes doused with a sherry and maple syrup coating until caramelized for a slightly sweet side. At the last minute, add a shower of crumbled cheese, pomegranate seeds and rosemary to transform the mundane into a showstopper.
Parsnips likewise take well to roasting, in fact, the dry heat renders them even sweeter. Select small specimens for the tenderest flesh. Or, use kohlrabi if you enjoy a brighter, juicier vegetable. Both parsnips and kohlrabi pair nicely with beets. I like to boil beets in salted water so they taste milder — a boon to the beet averse. Boiled beets, drained and chilled, will keep nearly a week in the refrigerator. Toss them with the roasted vegetables just before serving so the colors do not bleed. I like to do a restaurant-worthy presentation with a drizzle of citrus aioli (garlicky mayonnaise). Another option is to toss everything together for a creamy salad best served at room temperature.
Contrary to popular belief, mashed potatoes can be made in advance with some precautions. Peeled, cut potatoes need to stay covered with water to prevent discoloration. I put them in a zippered food bag with the water and store them in the refrigerator for up to a day. I do cook and mash them up to a day in advance, and then reheat them in a microwave-safe dish shortly before serving. The key to mashed potatoes: fat. During the mash, don't skimp on butter and do swap out milk with cream, mascarpone, sour cream or creme fraiche. This helps keep the potatoes light and fluffy upon reheating.
Former Chicago Tribune colleague and personal mentor Bill Rice shared his creamed Brussels sprouts recipe with us, and we make it every year without fail. Here's our adaptation: Very finely slice 2 pints of fresh Brussels sprouts with a sharp knife or a food processor fitted with a fine slicing blade (or purchase pre-shredded sprouts). Store them in a zippered food bag for up to two days. To serve, melt 3 tablespoons unsalted butter and 2 tablespoons fruity olive oil in a large nonstick skillet. Add the sliced Brussels sprouts to the pan and stir well. Crush in 2 cloves fresh garlic. Cook and stir over medium-high heat until the sprouts are nearly tender (taste some). Season with 2 to 4 tablespoons heavy (whipping) cream, mascarpone or creme fraiche. Season generously with salt, freshly grated nutmeg and pepper. Serve warm.
We are thankful indeed.
Caramelized butternut with sherry, maple and blue cheese
4. Roast butternut on the top rack of the oven, stirring several times, until fork tender, about 25 minutes. Cool. Refrigerate covered up to 4 days.
5. To reheat, turn broiler on. Place squash on a baking sheet. Broil 6 inches from heat source, until squash has golden edges, usually 2 to 4 minutes. Put squash into a deep serving bowl. Stir in cheese and chopped rosemary. Toss to mix. Sprinkle with pomegranate seeds. Serve garnished with rosemary sprigs.
Roasted parsnips with beets and citrus aioli
Prep: 30 minutes
Cook: 45 minutes
Makes: 8 servings
Can use store-bought cooked beets in a pinch. I like to use a combination of red and gold beets and parsnips and kohlrabi.
6 medium (2 pounds total) parsnips or kohlrabi, or a combination, trimmed, peeled
2 tablespoons olive oil
6 medium red or golden beets (2 pounds total) trimmed, peeled
1 small lemon
1 small orange
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 small clove garlic, crushed
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1. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Cut parsnips or kohlrabi into 1-inch pieces. Put onto a large rimmed baking sheet; toss with oil and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Roast, turning often, until fork tender, about 25 minutes. Remove from oven. Cool on baking sheet. Refrigerate covered up to 4 days.
2. Meanwhile, cut the peeled beets into 1/2-inch thick slices. Cut the slices into 1/2-inch pieces. Put into a large saucepan. Add cold water to just cover. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt; heat to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer until fork-tender, about 20 minutes. Drain. Refrigerate covered up to 4 days.
3. For citrus aioli, grate about 1/2 teaspoon lemon rind and orange rind into a small bowl. Squeeze in 1 to 2 teaspoons each of lemon juice and orange juice. Stir in mayonnaise and garlic. Mix well; season with salt and pepper. Refrigerated covered up to 1 day.
4. To serve, reheat beets and roasted parsnips separately in microwave-safe dishes on high until hot, about 2 minutes for each. Gently mix the vegetables on a serving platter. Drizzle with the citrus aioli. Sprinkle with parsley and serve.