Uh-oh! Bearded clones is red suits are poppin' up on every corner again. Everywhere you turn, the hypnotic jingle-jingle-jingle of faux sleigh bells whaps you upside the ears. And you just got caught under a sprig of mistletoe for the third time this week. (Come to think of it, the last time wasn't so bad!)
Don't look now, but it's THAT season again! And guess what? All your friends remember what a great gorge-a-thon you hosted last year, and they've just drafted you for a replay of the big holiday dinner.
No problem! All you have to do is throw together a few easy do-ahead dishes, ask the gang to bring some fillers -- easy apps, salad, taters (baked, mashed, candied yams, whatever) and a couple pints of ice cream -- and you're home free.
Here are some surefire recipes for a cool Yule, plus wine tips to bring out the best in everything – and everyone.
Green and Red Cream Cheese Spread
Instead of paying $20 a pound or more for pesto-stuffed cheese spread, make your own for a lot less. Whip it up the day before, then serve it with baguette slices or your favorite crackers.
8 oz cream cheese
8 oz butter
1 bunch fresh basil leaves, washed, stems removed, and dried
4 cloves garlic, peeled
2 T pine nuts (pignoli) or walnuts
1 T olive oil
1/2 t salt
1/4 cup sun-dried tomatoes from a jar, drained of oil
1/4 - 1/2 t cayenne powder (optional)
Place cream cheese and butter in a small mixing bowl and allow to soften at room temperature for 1 to 2 hours. Blend together when soft.
Place "green" ingredients in a blender or food processor and "pulse" a few times until mixture has the consistency of pesto: basically smooth but with a bit of texture. Do the same with the red ingredients, and keep the two colors separate.
Line a small, rounded bowl with a piece of plastic wrap. Spoon about a 1/4 of the cream cheese mixture into the bowl and smooth out the top. Spread the red mixture evenly on the cream cheese.
Spoon out about a 1/3 of the remaining cream cheese mixture on top of the red and smooth out. Top with the green mixture, then the remaining cream cheese mixture. Cover with plastic wrap and flatten the top. Refrigerate until firm, at least several hours.
To serve, remove plastic wrap cover and unmold onto a serving plate. Peel off remaining plastic wrap. Top with a sprig of basil, a couple strips of sun-dried tomato and a few pine nuts. Surround with baguette slices or crackers.
Wine: Bubbly! It doesn't have to be pricey. There are plenty of good domestic sparklers and Spanish cavas for $12 or less to set the party mood. The sparkler will cut through the rich, creamy cheese. Or how about a bottle or two of sauvignon blanc to complement the herbs in the pesto.
E-Z Main Dish
Mustard-Crusted Rack of Lamb
Remember those humongous slabs of roast beef from holidays past? Tender and juicy, with nice meaty bones for your canine companion? Well guess what – nobody eats like that anymore. In fact, most casual stove jockeys would sooner belt out the National Anthem at the Super Bowl than wrestle with such a daunting hunk o' flesh.
So why not scale it down? Rack of lamb is just as tasty (if not more so), just as festive and the same basic shape as a beef rib roast, just smaller. Each rack (about eight chops) serves one to two people. Just make sure to get enough. And be sure to remind everyone to gnaw on the bones – and pass plenty of napkins!
For every two racks of lamb you'll need:
1/4 cup prepared Dijon-style mustard
2 T dried onion soup mix
2 T red wine or water
1/2 T fresh rosemary, or 1 t dried
Salt and pepper to taste
Rosemary sprigs for garnish (optional)
In a mixing bowl, combine mustard, onion soup mix, wine (or water), rosemary, salt and pepper. Trim excess fat from lamb. Arrange racks in one or more roasting pans and spread mustard mixture evenly on the top and sides of lamb.
Preheat oven to 500 degrees Fahrenheit and place roasting pan(s) in oven. Test a rack after 20 minutes by cutting into the meat with a sharp knife. Unless it's still raw inside (in which case cook for five more minutes), remove one of two racks for the "rare" crowd. Keep roasting remaining racks, removing and checking every three to five minutes, according to desired doneness. Let meat rest five minutes before serving.
Cut each rack (eight ribs) in half or quarters and arrange on a serving platter. Garnish with rosemary sprigs, if available.
Wine: Now's the time to dig out your best cabs and merlots to "cut the mustard." Better yet, ask everyone to bring a favorite bottle of really good red, set out some extra glasses and let 'em mix and match!
Pan-seared Bell Peppers
In case you haven't noticed, there's a color scheme here. And red and green bell peppers are a great way to carry it through the main course. You can cook this dish in the morning, or even the day before, and nuke it a couple minutes before serving.
3 or 4 green bell peppers
3 or 4 red bell peppers
20 - 30 small garlic cloves, peeled (optional)
2 T olive oil
Fresh marjoram or oregano sprigs, or 1 t dried Italian seasoning
Salt and pepper to taste
Wash and halve peppers. Remove seeds and pithy white center. Slice into long 1/4-inch strips. In a frying pan, sauté peppers and garlic cloves in olive oil over medium-high heat, stirring often until soft-tender and slightly browned (about six to seven minutes). Stir in herbs, salt and pepper and cook one minute to blend flavors.
Mocha-Rum Candy Cupcakes
Forget the fruitcake; pass on the plum pudding. The verdict's in: if it ain't chocolate, it ain't dessert. Here's a full-size, grown-up version of those cherry, candy-sprinkled cupcakes that everybody's mom made.
1 box good-quality chocolate cake mix
4 oz strong coffee
2 oz dark rum
1 spray can of real whipped cream (or make it yourself)
Assorted candy of your choice: red and green shake-on sugar crystals, holiday M&Ms, multicolored sprinkles, etc.
Mixed nuts (no relatives, please) to surround cake on serving plate.
Follow directions on cake package, substituting the coffee and rum for 6 ounces of liquid specified. Frost finished cakes with whipped cream and decorate with candies. Or let your guests play Picasso and do the decorating themselves.
Wine: The partner for chocolate, hands down, is Port. Buy the best you can afford (see "Port" in the education department of this issue for recommendations) or suggest that one of your nearest and dearest friends bring a bottle, preferably vintage-dated. Light a fire, pour the Port, relax and revel in the joys of the season.
From all of us at Wine X, may peace, happiness, prosperity, fun and great flavors be yours now and throughout the New Year.