The Art of Feeding Holiday House Guests 😉 - No. 174
Keep a one-dish meal, something vegetarian, something do-ahead, and something out of the freezer in your back pocket. Plus 3 books to gift people who read about food.
TRUE CONFESSION TIME: What I look forward to the least about the holidays are meals that need to appear seemingly out of nowhere.
Dinner on Wednesday or Thursday when everyone’s in town or everyone’s at your house, but it’s not quite the holiday meal yet. But they still need to eat dinner, right? And not pizza and not by making reservations.
In other words, it’s that time no one captures on social media because it’s too ordinary/depressing. But everyone who lives in real time knows it.
You’ve checked off the list: Decorated cookies, wreath on the door, gifts wrapped, dinner in the oven while you watch old movies together? Nooo…
So let’s get some ideas together, shall we?
I ran across this Getty image that pretty much captures my parched meal-planning brain during the holidays. As I try to finish up a book before family descends, I’ve got rough ideas of what we’ll dine on next week, but as of yet, nothing is planned short of take the grand baby to see Christmas Lights. Thankfully, the cousins have scheduled a big potluck-ish get-together one night.
What I really need are dinner ideas and ingredients in house so we’re not running to the store or to pick up take-out. So I gave it some thought and came up with four solid plans of action, from that blissful roast chicken to a veggie lasagna you can make with your eyes closed, to Shrimp & Grits, to the much-loved Chicken Tetrazzini.
Here we go…
Idea #1: French Chicken dinner in a skillet
The tradition of roasting chicken on bread is old and belongs to many countries, not just France. I included it in my book, Skillet Love. The objective is to trap pan juices and provide sustenance. (And get you out of the kitchen…)
I recall my grandmother doing this with roast beef. She never let any pan drippings go to waste. And the late Judy Rodgers of Zuni Cafe in San Francisco created a legendary roasted chicken based on a similar idea—a ‘’salad’’ of bread and currants flavored with roasted chicken drippings.
So many people have told me this is your go-to dinner recipe. (I’d love to hear what goes in your skillet besides the chicken and French bread.) I pulled out the Zuni Cafe book and re-read Judy’s recipe for Zuni Roast Chicken on page 342. She reminds us that small chickens are best, around 3 pounds is perfect. She salts the chicken a day ahead to improve flavor, keep it moist, and tenderize it, and places sprigs of fresh thyme, rosemary, or sage under the skin where possible. While I love that idea, it takes away the spontaneity of this dish.
And do I need to tell you the best part is at the bottom? The bread. We eat it alongside the chicken and vegetables. But Judy chops it into a salad with currants, pine nuts, green onions, and a handful of arugula, tossed with olive oil and a mild wine vinegar.
Place this in the oven while you’re playing cards or setting the table, cleaning the house, or madly decorating. Plus, the leftovers can be chopped and tossed into a quick chicken soup. Or into a Ziploc and into the freezer for after the holidays when everyone’s gone and it’s just you and the laundry.
Idea #2: We all need a great Veggie Lasagna
‘’Lasagna’’ is a word I use loosely here. It’s a layered affair of tortillas, sauce, sustenance—beans and corn—and cheese. Go with corn tortillas, a spicy sauce, those beans, and some melty cheese. Or opt for flour tortillas, a tomato-vodka sauce, roasted butternut squash and cheese with some depth to it, as in mozzarella mixed with sharp cheddar or vintage Havarti.
If you’re a traditionalist, then use fresh pasta sheets (or wonton wrappers) and keep it Italian. Make the red sauce or open the jar, incorporating chunks of eggplant, zucchini, or mushrooms as it simmers. I love the Italian blend of cheeses ready made for sprinkling.
Add salad greens, a festive beverage such as Trader Joe’s cranberry seltzer with slices of lime, and peppermint bark ice cream for dessert. Plus those cookies you’ve baked. Couldn’t be simpler!
Idea #3: Shrimp and Grits begin with good frozen shrimp
When you live along the coast, you don’t eat any fish that’s frozen. But those of us land-locked folks have learned to adapt. We take shrimp and grits seriously, too, and we’ve come up with some tricks to keep it authentic.
There are two important components—shrimp and grits, yes! But they both need to be of good quality. Saying that, you can buy decent frozen shrimp for cooking, and it’s labeled ‘’wild caught.’’ Often it will say, ‘’Gulf shrimp.’’ Buy that bag.
Don’t buy the pre-cooked shrimp for this or any other recipe unless you are catering a big party, and then you have my blessing!
In this recipe the thawed, uncooked shrimp simmer to doneness in the pan of hot and cheesy grits. I also love the frozen Argentinian red shrimp from Trader Joe’s, which I know are farm-raised but nevertheless, they are delicious and sweet like lobster.
As for the grits, go with coarse, stone-ground grits from a local miller, and keep them in your freezer. Two wonderful sources are Anson Mills out of Columbia, South Carolina, and The Old Mill, in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, perfect stocking stuffers!
Idea #4 : The old faithful Chicken Tetrazzini to prep ahead
I wrote about this recipe in my third Substack newsletter. It was soul searching to revisit a family recipe, tossing out the canned soup, replacing it with a simple white sauce, and while there is some prep here with cooking your own chicken, etc., I am sure you can find ways to work it into your life. (Even if the chicken comes cooked and shredded from Costco, and the broth is off the shelf.)
I refrain from calling it a casserole because one member of my family abhors them—the rest of us gobble them up!—so it’s just Tetrazzini. And you can’t buy food like this pre-made. No one sells Chicken Tetrazzini like this recipe.
So start now, and freeze a few casseroles…whoops…Tetrazzinis for next week, you’ll thank yourself. Add salad, wine, and those cookies, and you’re set!