Guest post by Kevin O'Connor
The advent of bare trees and frozen, tranquil earth mark the arrival of the holiday season; a time that is no less prime for entertaining than any other season. The fires burn longer, the food is made warmer, and we simply owe it to ourselves and our friends to put together a memorable night with some great food. Crafting a holiday gathering menu may seem more like a burden, with the stress of the holidays involved, so here are some tips to create the perfect menu for a magical night.
Focus on cooking simply and seasonally
By the time we’re into the holiday months we’re not seeing a ton of movement at the market, meaning most items in season will be around for a bit. Take this opportunity to find the items you enjoy and practice a bit leading up to the party. This will help get the wheels spinning on some impressive ways to feature your market scores and also test the limits of your kitchen. Cook simply, seasonally, and with heart. Don’t bite off more than you can chew or attempt to wow the foodies in the group with something way outside of your comfort level. It’s important that you’re also enjoying the party you’ve put together.
Embrace the charm of the wintry outdoors
Fully utilize your outdoor space by handling some of your menu items outside. If you’re living somewhere that snows, softly pack drinks in snow or even serve oysters in the half shell on clean snow that’s been festooned with cranberries, lemon wedges and pine needles. Make sure your outdoor space is well lit and invites your guests to warm up by the burning fire. Nothing is more welcoming than glowing embers and crackling logs on a crispy evening. I’ll often match centerpieces, indoor and outdoor, to let my friends know that it’s ok to meander outside and relax.
Keep warmth at the forefront
To spend more time with the ones you care about, serve only one course at a time. In the colder months it’s even better to serve one dish after the to ensure that every dish is warming. Family style dishes are much easier to execute and encourage cordial interaction amongst guests. Offer cozy blankets for guests enjoying themselves outside.
Take the opportunity to incorporate live fire throughout the meal. Dishes cooked with fire always taste better and are delivered with more meaning.
- Try starting the meal around the embers with a warm cheese plate. Roast seasonal fruit like pears, persimmons and apples in a skillet over the fire before nestling in a few small wheels of cheeses that take well to a bit of melt. Drape with prosciutto, drizzle with honey and serve with your favorite bread and olive oil.
- For the star of the show, consider a one pot porridge or stew cooked over the fire. Dutch oven dishes like root vegetable curries, creamy polenta with smoked meats, grilled chicories with lentils or creamed farro will keep everyone warm and satisfied. Have your guests help out by bringing dishes of ingredients out to the fire to stir in to the Dutch oven. Having a fire creates more opportunities for your guests to take part and have fun; whether it’s stirring the pot, attempting to chop wood, or just throwing a few logs on the fire.
- Get your guests up from the table after dinner to enjoy dessert outside. Try poaching pears in mulled wine in a Dutch oven over the fire. Finishing the pears is as easy as some dark chocolate shavings, crumbled walnuts and a splash of cream. Ladle the excess mulled wine into mugs and enjoy into the winter night.
- One thing I like to do with my friends towards the end of the year is a burning ritual to rid ourselves of some negativities in our lives. Fire is a physical act of change and transformation. While enjoying the mulled wine outside by the crackling fire, have your guests write down a handful of negative thoughts, traits or feelings that they feel are holding them back. Things to release and leave in the previous year. Take turns burning the pages in the firepit. Through the use of symbols and rituals like this, one can suggest thoughts to the subconscious. Memorable discussion is sure to follow.
Once your menu is put together, make sure you’ve made yourself a prep list to keep organized. Give yourself some time a day or two ahead to get prep work out of the way. Don’t forget that the party is a lot more fun when you have time to fully accommodate your guests and enjoy the evening with them.