From cocktail parties to gift wrapping to the litany of family events, the spirit of the season is always exciting – but also, frankly, exhausting. With chilly weather and a too-busy schedule, November and December can mean flares for many of us. It’s hard to revel in the season’s twinkle when it hurts to hold a cocktail. And when you’re also the one expected to host friends and family for a dinner party, the thought of picking up a knife with those aching joints can be downright daunting.
You’d think that, as a professional recipe developer and cookbook author, I would have figured out a way to slice and dice without aggravating the joint pain that accompanies my lupus flares. But, when I’m cooking for a crowd, I have to juggle my favorite recipes with the reality of how my body feels – which, even for me, means cooking more simply.
I’ve learned that by being smart about how and what I cook when I’m entertaining, I can be the hostess with the mostest without hurting my joints. I start by limiting the ingredients I use for each dish, so my grocery shopping experiences don’t leave me wincing before I even turn on the oven. I rely on friends for the things that take the most effort, which in my case means dessert (I always get in over my head) and wine (carrying heavy bags hurts my hands on a bad day). And I axe the knife work as much as possible, turning instead to high-quality, prechopped, prewashed ingredients. I prepare the meal over the course of a few days, which means that even on the busiest prep day, I don’t need to put in more than about 15 minutes of kitchen time.
The night of the feast, I’m always surprised by how energetic I am after having prepared a glorious meal, and by how little my guests recognize that I’ve taken shortcuts. And as the wine flows and the chatter builds, I’m pleased at just how delicious the meal is, even though I had to pick up the knife only once or twice.
Now that’s a dinner party I can celebrate.
• Crudités with Herb and Garlic Yogurt Dip
• Roasted Beef Tenderloin with Bleu Cheese Butter
• Bacon-Balsamic Brussels Sprouts
• Whipped Squash with Honey and Spice
• Bottom’s Up Green Salad
• Crusty Dinner Rolls
You can start this meal up to a week in advance. It serves eight, requires about an hour of preparation, and ingredients (see the “Grocery List” below) will cost approximately $150 to $200.
*Prewashed baby carrots
*Prewashed broccoli florets
*Prewashed cauliflower florets
*1 pint grape tomatoes
1 (3/4-ounce) package dill
1 (3/4-ounce) package chives
3 pounds prechopped, peeled butternut squash
2 pounds Brussels sprouts
*5 ouncesprewashed greens
1 pint 2 percent Greek-style yogurt
2 sticks unsalted butter
5 ounces crumbled bleu cheese
*1 (31/2-pound) beef tenderloin, trimmed and tied
4 slices thick-cut bacon
Toasted pumpkin seeds
Extra-virgin olive oil
Ground black pepper
*If you’re preparing the dinner over the course of the week, purchase just a day or two before the meal.
Divide and Conquer the Prep Work:
Week of Holiday Feast
7 days ahead
Shop for ingredients.
6 days ahead
Make whipped squash with honey and spice.
5 days ahead
Make balsamic- Dijon vinaigrette.
4 days ahead
Make bleu cheese butter.
3 days ahead
Make herb and garlic yogurt dip.
2 days ahead
Shop for remaining ingredients. Move frozen squash to refrigerator.
1 day ahead
Make bacon-balsamic Brussels sprouts.
• Day of the holiday feast
Set table, slice bleu cheese butter, assemble salad, open wine.
Put the crudités out.
Start roasting beef in a 450-degree oven. Greet guests.
Pour a glass of wine and have a snack.
Add squash to the oven. (You’re having fun, right?)
7:10 to 7:20 p.m.
Take the roast out and let it rest. Stir squash. Add Brussels sprouts and rolls to the oven.
Recruit a guest to slice and plate the meat.
Serving time! Ask friends to help carry platters to the table.
Make-Ahead Tip: If you don’t want to think about anything once your guests have arrived, simply move the timeline up by one hour. Slice the meat about 30 minutes after it comes out of the oven, and serve everything at room temperature.
Roasted Beef Tenderloin with Bleu Cheese Butter
For years, I thought my husband’s family served beef tenderloin at Christmas because it’s fancy. That may be true, but it’s also surprisingly easy. Ask your butcher to do the work for you. (Any good supermarket butcher will know what “trimmed and tied” means.) You’ll just need to smear it with a bit of olive oil, season it and pop it into the oven. An instant-read thermometer is a great way to guarantee a perfect roast. Active time: 10 minutes
2 tsp. kosher salt
1 Tbsp. ground pepper
1 (3½-pound) beef tenderloin roast, trimmed and tied
1 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
Bleu cheese butter
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
5 ounces crumbled bleu cheese
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Tenderloin: In a small bowl, blend salt and pepper. Place tenderloin on a rack in a roasting pan or on a high-sided baking sheet lined with foil. Pat meat dry and rub on all sides with the olive oil, then pat seasonings on, taking care to get the bottom and sides of the tenderloin. Let sit at room temperature for about 15 minutes.
Bleu cheese butter: While the meat sits, mash butter and bleu cheese together in a bowl. If you’re making it the day of the meal, serve it from the bowl. If you’re making this in advance, dump the butter onto one end of a 12-inch-square piece of parchment or waxed paper, then roll it up, forming a log, and twist the ends to contain the
butter. (It should look like a giant Tootsie Roll.) Wrap in plastic and
refrigerate up to one week.
Roast beef for 40 to 50 minutes (timing will depend on the shape of your tenderloin), or until it reaches 130 degrees for medium-rare. Let the roast rest 10 minutes before slicing
into inch-thick rounds.
Unwrap bleu cheese butter and slice into ½-inch-thick discs. Serve meat warm, and pass butter as a topping.
Bacon-Balsamic Brussels Sprouts
There’s an important distinction between liking Brussels sprouts and liking Brussels sprouts made with bacon. Adding pork is a game-changer. Talk your most dubious guests into trying one bite, and you’ll have eager converts on your hands. And for those who like sprouts anyway, this dish makes them that much more loveable. Active time: 15 minutes
4 slices thick-cut bacon, diced (or a 4-ounce package diced pancetta)
2 pounds Brussels sprouts, ends trimmed, halved through the stem
2 tsp. extra-virgin olive oil
¼ tsp. kosher salt
1/8 tsp. ground black pepper
2 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Spread bacon in a large, ovenproof skillet or 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Roast 5 minutes, just until it begins to give off its fat. Stir bacon, then add sprouts, olive oil, salt and pepper (without stirring, so bacon stays on the bottom at first). Roast 45 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes or until bacon is crisp and sprouts are tender and browned in spots.
To serve immediately: Add vinegar, stir to combine, and roast another 2 to 3 minutes, just until vinegar has evaporated.
If making ahead: Let Brussels sprouts cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate overnight. To reheat, add vinegar and roast in a preheated 450-degree oven for about 10 minutes, or until sizzling.
Tip: If you’re serving bread with the meal, reheat it while the Brussels sprouts reheat or finish cooking.
Whipped Squash with Honey and Spice
The secret to this ultra-smooth squash is the food processor. In goes plain, cooked squash and a dash each of curry, cardamom and ginger, and out comes a silky blend that tastes … well, more difficult to make. Don’t feel stuck with the spices I use here; any combination – plus cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves or cumin – would be delicious. Active time: 10 minutes
3 pounds peeled, precut squash
2 Tbsp. honey
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
3/4 tsp. curry powder
3/4 tsp. ground ginger
3/4 tsp. ground cardamom
Place squash in a large pot, add water to cover, then bring to a simmer over high heat. Reduce heat and cook at a bare simmer for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the biggest pieces fall off a fork.
Drain, then transfer to a large food processor and blend until completely smooth, scraping sides with a rubber spatula, if necessary. Serve immediately, or transfer to an ovenproof, freezer-safe baking dish. Cover with waxed paper, and let cool to room temperature.
Wrap in plastic wrap (right over the waxed paper). Refrigerate up to three days or freeze up to three weeks. To serve, thaw in refrigerator for 48 hours before serving. Bring squash to room temperature about an hour before reheating, then reheat at 450 degrees, uncovered, for 25 to 30 minutes, stirring once or twice, or until piping hot.
Bottom’s Up Green Salad
When I throw a party, I reliably make the same mistake: In my effort to avoid soggy lettuce, I forget to bring the vinaigrette to the table. The perfect solution? Put the dressing in the bottom of the bowl, where it can lurk unnoticed (right under the chewy, tart cherries, pumpkin seeds and lettuce) until you’re ready to serve it.
Love cheese? Add 4 ounces of crumbled goat cheese to the bottom of the bowl with the dried cherries and pumpkin seeds. Active time: 10 minutes
2 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
½ tsp. kosher salt
¼ tsp. ground black pepper
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
2/3 to 3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup dried sour cherries or cranberries
3/4 cup toasted pumpkin seeds (also sold as pepitas)
1 (5-ounce) bag mixed baby greens
Vinaigrette: In a resealable bowl or jar, stir mustard, salt, pepper and vinegar together. Add oil (less for a tart vinaigrette, more for a milder one), close container and shake until ingredients blend into a smooth, brown liquid. (Vinaigrette can be refrigerated up to a week. Bring to room temperature and shake again before serving.)
Assemble salad up to two hours ahead. Pour ½ cup vinaigrette into salad bowl. Add cherries, then pumpkin seeds and then greens. Just before serving, toss.
Joint-Friendly Kitchen Gadgets
Recipe developer Jess Thomson recommends these handy tools.
1. Prep 11 Plus 11-Cup Food Processor – I have the same Cuisinart food processor I got for my wedding 10 years ago, and it doesn’t look a day older than at my wedding shower. It’s a worthwhile investment, especially if chopping hurts your joints. ($199, cuisinart.com)
2. Ovenproof pans – Calphalon’s contemporary nonstick 12-inch everyday pan is a really good multipurpose pan. The nonstick surface reduces painful scrubbing without sacrificing performance on the stove, even over high heat or in the oven. Double handles distribute the weight between two hands. ($80, calphalon.com)
3. Joint-friendly Cork Pull – Because they’re joint-friendly, OXO’s products are the workhorses of my kitchen. When I can’t get someone else to open wine for me, I use an OXO Cork Pull – ironically, there’s no pulling involved. ($25, oxo.com)
4. Grocery totes – Since my days as a private chef, I’ve depended on L.L. Bean’s large, long-handled Boat and Tote Bags for hauling groceries. Hoisting weight over my shoulder is always more comfortable than carrying it by hand – and I always get compliments on the style. ($33, llbean.com)
5. Knives – OXO’s 8-inch Bread Knife is comfortable to hold and lightweight enough to make a serious carving job – think meat or bread – easy on the joints. ($10, oxo.com)
Jess Thomson is a freelance writer and cookbook author in Seattle. Her third cookbook, Dishing Up Washington: 150 Recipes That Capture Authentic Regional Flavors, is being released in November, 2012, by Storey Publishing.