Jane Says: It’s Not Too, Too Late to Plan the Christmas Day Menu
Our big holiday meal is late on Christmas Day, but I haven’t had the time to really think through a festive menu. What are some easy but special sides I can put on the table? —Jenny Stevens
There but for the grace of God go I—as well as every other frazzled, stretched-too-thin home cook who’s reading this. Just the thought of standing in line at a supermarket the day before Christmas—when I really should be trying to figure out where I last saw the Scotch tape and the pretty ribbon I saved from last year—is enough to give me the whim-whams.
But all is not lost. If you put the emphasis on winter instead of the holidays, feeding people cheering, celebratory, and absolutely delicious food this time of year gets a whole lot simpler and more fun. See, you’re more relaxed already, aren’t you? And if you have a farmers market close by, you can avoid the supermarket crush. Yep, I know it’s December, and I’m spoiled rotten—the New York City Greenmarket runs year-round—but it’s worth checking the FarmAid website to see if a farmers market is open for business near you.
I don’t know what your main dish will be—odds are it’s a roast of some sort, or perhaps a platter of quick-cooking Cornish game hens—but here are some sides that will do you proud. In fact, if you’re not careful, they may steal the show.
Even if you usually avoid potatoes, desperate times call for desperate measures. We’re talking about one meal, remember? Particularly if yours is an inclusive holiday household and you swore off traditional latkes this year, everyone will be thrilled if potatoes make an appearance for Christmas. One of the greatest, and easiest, party tricks I have in my arsenal is a recipe for Parsley-Leaf Potatoes. It requires exactly four ingredients—butter, baking potatoes, a bunch of parsley, and salt. Even if the closest you get to a farmers market is the produce section at the corner store, you can make these, and the simple act of decoupaging each cut potato half with a whole parsley leaf turns a down-home side into one that’s suave and sophisticated.
If you’re making a lap around a farmers market, odds are you’ll see plenty of rutabagas, turnips, and parsnips or carrots. They are humble and homely looking (and a great bargain, to boot), but don’t let that fool you. Combined in a Root Vegetable Gratin or Deborah Madison’s Golden Gratin of Carrots, Rutabagas, and Turnips, they deliver great flavor and finesse.
Maria Speck’s Moroccan-inspired Kamut Salad With Carrots and Pomegranate, which appears in her book Ancient Grains for Modern Meals, has a sweet-tart vibe that works with all sorts of rich meats. If you’re contemplating serving it tomorrow, get the kamut berries soaking overnight. Jeweled Rice With Dried Fruits, one of Persia’s gifts to the culinary world, is simple and sumptuous at the same time.
If you’re not inclined to make a gratin but still want a creamy indulgence on the table, I vote for the Brown-Butter Creamed Winter Greens made famous by Atlanta chef Linton Hopkins. I generally substitute beet greens for the mustard greens—they’re easier to find in my neck of the woods, and they’re usually free for the asking at the Greenmarket. If you get a move on, you can make the sauce and prep the greens today. Brussels Sprouts With Vinegar-Glazed Red Onions is a blessedly straightforward recipe from Martha Stewart Living that tastes just as fresh today as when it was first published in 1994. You can substitute sherry vinegar for balsamic, and if you gilded the lily by adding some crumbled crisp-cooked pancetta or bacon, how could that be bad?
Most festive winter meals benefit from a big salad to cut the richness. By now, everyone has a favorite kale salad (here’s mine, from Lupa restaurant in New York), but you can’t go wrong with a Winter Salad that includes fennel, endive, and frisée swathed with a toasted mustard seed vinaigrette. Parsley, Fennel, and Celery Root Salad is a bit more labor-intensive but is clean-tasting and has a great crunch factor. Sweet, silky roasted beets, topped with slices of crisp Asian pear and lightly toasted walnuts and then drizzled with a shallot vinaigrette and scattered with emerald-green sprigs of arugula, are dramatic and delicious. Last, one of my go-to salad ingredients in cold weather, when there aren’t all that many fresh greens to choose from, is cauliflower, which is good raw or cooked. I’m very fond of Roasted Cauliflower and Hazelnut Salad from Jerusalem: A Cookbook, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi.