Saturday, December 29, 2012

Party Food

The season of endless parties is winding down. One last, big bash of the year is just a couple of days away, and then the long, quiet month of January will settle in. I welcome the slower pace, but wish that the parties and dinners of December could be spread out a bit into the New Year. For most of the year, our weekends are pretty relaxed, but come December Chris and I often find ourselves double booked on both Friday and Saturday, rushing from one gathering to the next. They’re all fun events that I look forward to each year—traditional celebrations that we don’t want to miss. And I guess this flurry of activity is a big part of what makes the holidays the holidays.

For these fêtes held either at our house or elsewhere—someone else’s home, or a restaurant, or even out in the woods (a Solstice celebration), food is central. Its tastes, scents, and textures draw people together. It's no wonder that the kitchen is always the most popular place at a party, despite how much the hostess or host tries to spread the revelry around.

Over the years I’ve developed some recipes that I now make every holiday season. Many of these originated from Gourmet magazine, the first food magazine I ever subscribed to, right out of college. I was a loyal reader until its demise in 2009. Gourmet was a cheap vacation to exotic locales when I couldn’t go there myself, and the inspiration for many a meal I prepared for family and friends. I was very sad to see it shut down.

Imagine my delight when I discovered the publication of a special holiday issue this year called Gourmet Holiday. I read it from cover to cover while sitting in a repair shop waiting for my car to be fixed (escapism at its best). The magazine didn’t disappoint: it was a visual feast and contained, among many others, a new recipe for chocolate pecan pie, and a colorful salad made with radicchio, fennel, and pomegranate seeds, both perfect for a family Christmas Eve dinner at our friends the Raycroft Meyers.

For this special night, I also like to make Gougères. I discovered these delicious little treats when I was in college studying in Dijon, France. They’re basically bite-sized popovers, but with the addition of grated Gruyère, which elevates them above mere popover status. 

They go perfectly with an apéritif, or in this case as an accompaniment to Pete’s cheddar ale soup which usually starts the meal.

For Christmas Day, I make an apple tart topped with thinly sliced Granny Smith apples. It doesn’t take too much time out of the day to prepare, and is a light dessert following an epic dinner with Chris’s sister’s family in Hinesburg.

For a holiday gathering at our house, I like to keep it simple during this busy time by serving foods that take minimal preparation. Charcuterie, pâté with toasts, 

fat green olives, 

and a cheese plate featuring selections from France, Italy, and Vermont. 

Of course there must be sweets. Sugar cookies made with the girls that disappear within a few days,

and dark and white chocolate swirled peppermint bark. 

One recipe that I discovered in Gourmet way back in November 1992 and make every year is Laurie Colwin’s Rosemary Walnuts (or my own variation on them). 

A fiction and food writer, Colwin died unexpectedly that year at age 48. I did not know her, but whenever I make these walnuts, I think of her. During this time of year, people who are no longer with us—those we’ve loved and perhaps those we’ve never even met—often come to mind. The loss of loved ones has been ever more acute this year after what happened in Newtown. One of the many things we can (re)learn from that horrific day is to not take anything for granted. As my favorite holiday song reminds us, “Through the years we all will be together. If the fates allow…”

Happy New Year, everyone. May it be filled with peace, joy, and love.

Rosemary Walnuts (inspired by Laurie Colwin’s recipe in Gourmet, November 1992)

2 cups walnuts
2 ½ T olive oil
1 t dried, crumbled rosemary
1 t powdered rosemary
½ t powdered chipotle
½ t salt

In a small bowl, mix together the olive oil, rosemary, chipotle, and salt. Pour the mixture over the walnuts and toss with a spoon to coat well. Bake on a cookie sheet at 350˚ F for ten minutes. Store in an airtight container for up to two weeks.

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