The British hostess extraordinaire shares her favorite recipes for a sumptuous holiday feast; plus, timeline and tips for effortless prep, setup, and serving
T'was the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring-because the Domestic Goddess, Nigella Lawson, had the next day's meal all figured out.
British journalist, self-taught cook, and entrepreneur Lawson-who's also a cookbook author, television host, and mother of two-knows the rigors of putting a family dinner on the table on a normal night. Add to that the expectations and exhaustion of the holidays, and the idea of cooking a formal Christmas dinner can be downright daunting. But, according to Lawson, who puts the pot back in sexpot, it needn't be. "This time of year isn't about having people assess your abilities as a host, but rather an opportunity for you to make those you love feel welcome and cozily at home," she says. "Once you take the pressure off yourself and put the focus on making others feel unstrenuously comfortable, things have got to ease up all round."
So no matter what your cooking skill level or how much or little time you've had to create the perfect holiday, the point is not to attempt to be the Perfect Host, doing everything up to and including needlepointing the menus. "The important thing to remember about this time of year is that people are out to have a good time. Of course, it can be stressful to cook and entertain at the holidays, but we should really bear in mind everyone's celebratory goodwill." Not to mention, she says, "We are reminded of the importance of breaking bread with close friends and family."
With this in mind, she's created a menu for us that's as simple and low-key as it is elegant. Follow Lawson's suggestions for her deliciously rustic Christmas menu, drink recommendations, time-saving prep tips, and mood-setting ideas, and things will truly ease up: "In the end, this is a less stressful time to entertain. The party mood almost creates itself, and I just exploit it!"
I think the mistake people make most when entertaining is to get too fancy with the food," says Lawson. "No one is ever too sophisticated for the basic pleasures of home cooking, and there is something about those old favorites that makes everyone feel a little leap of joy in the heart." There is no better time, then, to choose a menu of old favorites than for Christmas and the holidays. Here, Lawson has composed a hearty menu to satisfy everyone's cravings: "The whole point of a feast is that it is unnecessarily abundant," she says.
The first course is something easy to prepare ahead of time: "Instead of shrimp cocktail, I go for a crab cocktail, which is excellent made with good frozen or fresh crab. I find this an easy standby, and the slight twist on an old classic makes this unchallenging but fun," she says. Lawson eschews a large number of starters for dinner because she likes to make the entrée the big focal point: "I think a special occasion requires food that feels luxurious, and, frankly, what better time than Christmas to splash out on a standing rib roast?"
The roast gets paired with an array of colorful and crunchy vegetables. "The French-style petits pois are gorgeously flavorsome, buttery peas, and you can cook them a little ahead of time. My 'perfect' roast potatoes do need to be attended to at the last minute, but they are the crowning glory of any feast." Finish them in an ultrahot oven as the beef rests on a heat-proof countertop. A lemony green bean casserole gives crunch and bite, and its astringency brings out the sweetness of the peas, potatoes, and beef.
"Under normal circumstances, a lighter-than-light dessert would be called for, but these are not normal circumstances, so I bring out my chestnut cheesecake." This rich ending is easy to make, as Lawson uses canned sweetened chestnut purée. "It's more heavenly than you can imagine," she says.
Nigella Lawson's Christmas Menu
- Crab Cocktail
- Seasonal Breeze
- Perfect Roast Potatoes
- Petits Pois à La Francaise
- Green Bean and Lemon Casserole
- The Rib
- Chestnut Cheesecake
Lawson has a very relaxed approach to drink pairings. When people arrive, she hands them her special Christmas cocktail. "I like to start with my Seasonal Breeze-think Sea Breeze, only gratifyingly red for the holidays and truly delicious. It's also always good to have some fizzy wine around," she says. Lawson favors the delicious, light, and inexpensive Italian Prosecco, which she sometimes "holidays up" with a little Monin syrup (available through www.moninstore.com), especially the cranberry, pomegranate, spice berry, or gingerbread flavors. "The bottles look so beautiful," she says, "you can get all of them and almost convince yourself they're part of the holiday decorations."
When it comes to sitting down for the meal, Lawson keeps the beverage choice elemental: "I tend to think people get too precious with pairings. I am happy to stick with Prosecco for the crab (though probably without too much flavoring syrup added!) and then switch to red wine for the beef. I have a weakness for some of the fabulous organic reds from Oregon , but since I know a lot of people who are not red wine drinkers, I am perfectly happy to have some good crisp white wines available for them." She recommends a "gorgeous Bonny Doone dessert wine" to go with the cheesecake.
As to the question of what you do as a host when people bring wine to dinner as a gift, Lawson has sound advice: "Go with the flow and put the wine on the table as it comes and let people help themselves. I think at this time of year particularly, it can look mean and rather odd to take a proffered bottle and then stash it away without opening it and offering it round."
Creating the stage for the party is as important as what you serve and drink, according to Lawson. When giving a holiday party, you should set the tone from the outset, fostering a comfortable atmosphere. You do this by paying attention to three things, she says: The visual picture; wafting, yummy aromas; and a festive mood.
According to Lawson, your house should look holiday-appropriate, but don't feel you have to spend weeks beforehand crafting the perfect decorations: "I don't think you need to go overboard on decorations, but a tree beautifully lit is always evocative."
Most people don't think about how the house smells when having people over, but Lawson feels this is a mistake: "I think smell is hugely important, and I love to make a house ooze warmth and welcome. I have a little burner by the front door filled with L'Occitane Candied Fruits oil. They also make scented candles, and this is quite my favorite of them, although they certainly do many that may seem more overtly holidayish."
And how you set the tone is also crucial. The key is to make the home feel accommodating and welcoming, which Lawson says can be achieved by little things, like the host not wearing shoes. "Nothing makes a party as unenjoyable as sore feet," she says. Also, get your guests involved in the cooking and serving. "I like the element of people coming together to eat and also coming together to prepare the meal. So, I'd make one person carve, and get others to pour wine and dollop out vegetables." Making people feel needed, wanted, and part of the family is very important. "I think it can cast quite a pall on a party when the host is neurotically fussing over things and the guests are sitting uneasily twiddling their thumbs."
Tips & Timeline
As an inveterate party-giver, Lawson's doctrine echoes the Boy Scouts': Be prepared. Here is her precise schedule for this Christmas feast, so that she can keep her cool while looking so glam:
- The Day Before
This is when Lawson does all of the big stuff that doesn't require cooking. She refrigerates the white wine and makes the cheesecake and syrup, lets both cool, and then refrigerates the cake. While the dessert is cooking and cooling, Lawson also dresses the table and finishes any last-minute Christmas decorations.
- The Day Of
She advises to first make a perfect cup of coffee and sit and savor it before the onslaught. Then, let the cooking begin:
• Parboil the potatoes, shake in the semolina or cornmeal, and leave as flat as possible on a piece of aluminum foil or on a tray. Next, preheat the oven and take the beef from the fridge to come to room temperature. Cook the peas and leave the pot covered. Put the beef in the oven.
• Go get dressed-but do not put your shoes on. You want to remain as relaxed as possible. Sit down and write a list of remaining duties and cooking times. Make pitchers of Seasonal Breeze and open bottles of red wine. Make sure all of the white wines are properly chilled. If not, stash a few in the freezer for 20 minutes. Put the water on for beans, but just let it come to the boil and then turn it off and clamp a lid on. Warm serving dishes and platters, if so desired.
- When Guests Come
Pour a drink for everyone and then put someone in charge of pouring further drinks and elect another to be the official carver. Finish up the last of the cooking:
• Take the beef out and let sit, wrap well in foil. Turn up the oven, put the fat into the roasting pan, let it heat up for a few minutes, and then carefully put the potatoes into the pan. (Remember that if the beef is well wrapped in aluminum foil, it can stand for a good 45 minutes while you roast the potatoes; it will only get moister and juicier as it stands and be easier to carve.)
• Prepare the crab and set aside.
• About 15 minutes before the potatoes are due to be done, turn the heat back on under the green beans, add a pinch of salt to the water, and cook. When the potatoes are almost ready, if they look good and crunchy, turn off the oven and place oven-safe dishes and serving platters in the oven for five minutes. When they are warm, remove and place the peas and beans into dishes for one of your guests to bring to the table along with warmed plates. Unwrap the beef and pour the juices into a creamer or warmed jug and take both to the table. Instruct your carver to start carving. Remove the cheesecake from the fridge and the potatoes from the oven. Take the cheesecake out of the springform pan and transfer to a flat cake plate. Place the potatoes in a warmed dish and go straight to the table with them. With any luck, quite a few people will have their beef and veggies and you can hand them the potatoes straightaway, at their hot and crisp best.
• Eat and enjoy.
• When everyone is sitting calmingly in the warm afterglow of good roast beef and potatoes, tiptoe into the kitchen and slightly warm the chestnut syrup in a pan or microwave. Drizzle a little over the cheesecake or, if you prefer, bring both cheesecake and syrup in separately and slice and drizzle as you serve. The dessert wine can be chilled or served at room temperature; it is a matter of taste, and, just like your holiday celebration, is entirely your call.
British cook and hostess extraordinaire Nigella Lawson is a journalist, cookbook author, and television host. Her books include How to Be a Domestic Goddess, Feast: Food to Celebrate Life, and Nigella Express. To learn more about Lawson, go to nigella.com.
By Tanya Steel
Photo by James Merrell
MORE FROM EPICURIOUS.COM
Food News and Views From All Over
A Family-Friendly Italian Meal for a Casual, Pre-Christmas Party
Delicious, Top-Rated Holiday Cookies That Are Perfect to Give-And Get
Gourmet Baskets, Boxes, and Buckets for Under $100
Bartender Eben Freeman Explains the Fundamentals of Progressive Cocktails in Five Videos