Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Christmas Table ~ Holiday Entertaining Part II

One of the best gifts we can give others is the pleasure of dining.  For as long as their has been civilization and perhaps longer, one of the most basic and fulfilling pleasures we have is breaking bread together.  This week I wanted to share with you how I arrange the holiday table and the little things I try to do to make the dining experience pleasurable for our friends and family.  All of the photos below are from years of Christmas meals.

In the above photo I've tried to break up the busy
Christmas tablecloth pattern by adding a solid runner.
The first thing to be considered is the actually surroundings.  For special occasions I use the formal dining room.  Each year we decorate it for the holidays so that when we have dinner parties, the room sets the special atmosphere.  A tree tucked into the corner and glowing in deep red tones matches the dining room theme and the holiday dishware.

In the above photo, even I'm dressed to match the holiday theme.
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Table favors are another old fashioned but excellent way to make your holiday table special.  Over the years I've used small goody baskets, ornaments nested in the napkin and nuts in a sleigh with a candle and a chocolate reindeer.  All have proved popular and make a nice little 'take away' for our guests, reminding them of their dinner at our house.

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I like to start off my holiday dinners in the adjacent living room, where a champagne cocktail is most always on the menu along with an appetizer.  (Shown in photo below left.)  After a drink and some conversation to get things started, we move to the table where even the food can 'blink a bright red and green'.  (Shown below right is a crab meat cocktail on a gold charger and a Lenox Holiday plate.)

Of course sometimes you need to feed a bigger crowd and then I fall back to disposal dinner service.  But even plastic plates and napkins can look elegant when placed on a well-dressed table.  I also make sure I garnish every platter so they look just as festive as the Christmas tree!

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Have you seen the below nifty little item?  It's a cloth doily of sorts except it has little pockets to hold your dinner rolls.  I placed some beaded flowers in the center pocket.  I have several of these in colors that accent my dining room.  While I don't use them often, for special occasions I do put them out. 

Of course we don't have every meal in the dining room during the holidays so even our kitchen table area is well decorated for Christmas.  So whether it's breakfast and blueberry pancakes (shown below right) or crab legs on Christmas Eve (shown below left), I still accent my normally green kitchen decor with as much red as possible so even casual meals feel special.

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Even though I have a busy job and travel extensively, I still like to spend the month of December at home with friends and family.  I do plenty of baking and making holiday meals.  No matter what I make or where I serve it, I try to add a special holiday touch this time of the year.

So from my kitchen to yours, my best wishes for a safe, lovely, and very Merry Christmas!


Saturday, December 8, 2012

Hosting a Dessert ~ Holiday Entertaining Part I

The month of December is a particularly busy time.  I try to have a formal dinner party and often a big friends/neighbors party too.  During both of these I'm often so busy I get to spend little time talking with my guests.  It is for this reason I particularly enjoy hosting a holiday dessert.

For a group of six to eight, I use the bar serving area in the Great Room so we can bask in the ambiance of the fire and the Great Tree.  Kevin goes to so much effort to decorate this room and this tree that most everyone wants to spend time here.  It feels warm and comfortable and is a great place to gather more intimately with friends.  The desserts are self-serve and in addition to eggnog and coffee I like to put out a little bottle of chocolate liqueur for those that want it to add to their coffee. I also try to find some chocolate coffee stirs or coated spoons.  It's a little holiday addition that makes the dessert feel particularly special.

The Great Room and Tree
I've hosted these events just after a Christmas parade, in the evening after going to a movie and during tea time.  Really anytime works, even after dining out with friends.  It's so easy to prepare and set up in advance, I do one or more of these each holiday season.

If I'm not feeling particularly ambitious or know that we are dining out with friends before the dessert at our place, I'll simply make a tray of cookies and pick up some special holiday chocolates.  Below is my homemade cookie tray on a Fitz & Floyd holiday platter along with some Belgian chocolate cups filled with chocolate liquors and other tasty treats.   With a pot of coffee after a big dinner, that's surely all you need.

But if I'm feeling more ambitious and having guests mid-day or after a cold Christmas parade, I do try and bake a special dessert for the occasion.  I always think of a cream pie as a winter pie, I guess because fresh fruits are out of season and the velvety cream is so rich and delicious, it's perhaps only during the holiday season your guests wish to indulge in this special treat.  My cream pie recipe uses nine egg yolks an nine cups of cream (but it does make two pies, if that's of any consolation) so you can see why it should be served only on the most special occasions.      

Of course everyone likes to see a holiday Yule log cake on the dessert buffet and I've made this jelly-roll type cake several times.  It looks lovely and sets the scene, although if I have to chose which one of the above I'm having for dessert, count me in for the cream pie!

Of course sometimes it's a rather larger crowd, like this year when I've invited my colleagues from work to stop in for dessert after our holiday party.  That requires significantly more food and for this I generally set the dining room table with a wide range of smaller items, as I know they want to taste a bit of everything.

Of course sometimes it's just one other couple or even just the two of us, and even then I do try to put a little something by the fire to finish off the day.

A cup of holiday coffee or a glass of good port are often all you need to finish off a good dinner or wrap up a busy day of shopping.  Why not make it special during this holiday season.  We have the rest of the year to diet and exercise!  Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Classic Pot Roast

This favorite Sunday dinner family meal has been popular in the American homes for many years.  Braised beef cooked in a onion red wine reduction then surrounded by potatoes, carrots and other favorite vegetables, is sure to feed a crowd and fill your home with an aroma guaranteed to make stomachs growl.  If you follow these simple instructions, you will have a tender and very flavorful dinner.
Julian's Yankee Pot Roast 2017
Sometimes called a "Yankee Pot Roast" the cut of beef used varies significantly.  In the US, typical cuts often labeled 'pot roast' at your store are the 7-bone pot roast, arm roast, blade roast, chuck eye, cross rib roast, top blade pot roast, under blade pot roast, bottom round roast, eye round roast, and rump roast.  The shoulder roast is typically called an English cut pot roast.

Let's get cooking!
Some of these have a bone and some are boneless, and the selection is really up to you.  I often think meat with a bone has more flavor although I do not always select that cut.  I prefer the flat cuts about 2" thick with some nice marbling of fat, which will largely melt away during the long cooking period. All of the roasts named here have in common that they are tough and not suitable for dry roasting.  As such they must all be browned and then surrounded by a cooking liquid for a slow cook to make them tender and flavorful.  

Another version to which I added Brussels Sprouts
Previously I've shared my recipe for old-fashioned country round steak which starts its preparation similarly.  I mention this so as not to confuse you with the two similar but different meals.  Old-fashioned country round steak is made using "round steak" which comes from the eye round, bottom round, and top round with or without the "round" bone, hence the name.  It is finished in a rich gravy and served with mashed potatoes.  This is a different cut of meat from the classic pot roast and has an all-together different outcome.

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4-5 pound pot roast
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
large onion, roughly chopped
2-4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
salt and pepper to taste
3/4 cup red wine
1 quart chicken stock
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 large carrots, cut into 1" pieces
10-12 small red potatoes, cut in half
    10-12 Brussels sprouts, ends removed and cut in half
    1 pint whole washed mushrooms

2 tablespoons corn starch
2 tablespoons water

Preheat your oven to 350F degrees.

Brown the roast in a skillet or Dutch oven (do not use non-stick surfaces) using 2-3 tablespoons of oil.  Do not turn it until it is well browned, about 5 minutes per side.  Remove the meat to the roasting pan or set aside if using the same Dutch oven for the roasting.  Deglaze the brown bits from the bottom of the pan using the chopped onion.  Salt and stir the onion using its juices to scrape up the brown flavorful bits from the bottom of the pan.  This will take about five minutes.  Then add the chopped garlic cloves and stir in for another minute or two.  Spoon the onion mixture over the roast or remove to a serving bowl if using a Dutch oven, while you make the cooking liquid.

In skillet or Dutch oven, add the red wine and scrape up any remaining bits of flavor while the wine reduces by half, about five minutes. Stir in the tomato paste. Add the chicken broth and bring to a boil.  Season with salt and pepper to taste and pour around (not on top of) roast in your roasting pan or transfer the meat back into your Dutch over and pour over the onion mixture.  The liquid should come up most of the way on the sides of the beef without covering it.  Place the lid on the roasting pan and place it in the preheated oven.  Let cook covered for one hour.

While the meat is roasting, cut up your potatoes, carrots and optional Brussels sprouts and whole mushrooms and toss with olive oil. Sprinkle with your favorite seasonings or at least salt and pepper.  After the meat has roasted for 1 1/2 hours, check to ensure there is still cooking liquid around the roast.  If not, add additional liquid (broth or water) which should come up about half way on the sides of the roast.  Spread the vegetables around the roast in the liquid.  Remove the cover and continue cooking for another hour.  Check about half way through to ensure the vegetables are not becoming to brown.  If so, replace the cover.  Cook an additional 30 minutes until the vegetables are tender (total roasting time with vegetables is approximately 60-90 minutes, or 2 hours 30 minutes total roasting time.)

Remove the meat and vegetables to a serving platting and cover to keep warm. Place the broth in a small sauce pan. Strain out any solids if you prefer.  Heat to a low boil.  Mix the cornstarch and water in a small dish and whisk into the hot broth to thicken into gravy.  Serve.