It’s no surprise that when it comes to making memories, food plays a central role in the lives of area caterers and chefs.
• Michelle Huffman Wells, Events With Taste: “Two years ago, I ordered a fresh ham, a whole pork leg, from Main Street Meats. I brined it overnight, then the next day I planned to bake it, but when I tried to put the ham in the oven, it was too big. It wouldn’t fit. So my husband, Ted, lit an old wood-burning stove we had in the basement, and I ended up braising it on the stove top. My sister and her husband and kids were at the house, and we sat up feeding the fire all night long and drinking bourbon. It was actually fun. We finally went to bed, and when we woke up, the whole house smelled terrific. I’d put cinnamon and cloves in the brining liquid, and it made the house smell wonderful.”
• Amanda Varnell, Dish T’Pass: “For years, when my children were young, we hosted a caroling party with several other families on the first Saturday of December. We gathered for snacks and hot cider or chocolate, then went caroling to elderly friends and family members homes. Then we’d come back home for a fun chili dinner. We finished by singing a couple of carols and reading the Christmas story found in Luke 2. It was a wonderful tradition with food and an activity that allowed participation for all ages.”
• Adam Roe, The Chattanoogan: “Last year was my most memorable Christmas. My daughter was two years old, and she understood more about the holidays and was very excited. It was so much fun to watch her and it brought back wonderful memories of my own childhood as I watched her joy and happiness. It was our first Christmas baking cookies together, and she loved it.”
When you’re short on time, carving out room on your schedule to entertain – especially during the hectic holiday season – can seem like a daunting task filled with stress and never-ending check lists.
No one knows this better than those on whom many of us call to do some, if not all, of the cooking, area chefs and caterers.
It’s a crazy season for them.
“We have no time for our own parties because we have parties booked all the way through New Year’s Eve. We can’t even have our own,” says Michelle Huffman Wells, owner of Events With Taste catering company.
Parties have changed in recent years. They’re not the big blow-out, throw-down, invite-the-entire-office kind of gatherings we once attended. They’ve become more intimate.
“People want more of a food experience – plated dinners rather than buffets; multi-course tasting menus; food stations,” Wells says.
If you’re thinking about hosting a holiday party this season, whether it’s your first time to entertain or your a seasoned hostess, Amanda Varnell, owner of Dish T’Pass Cooking School and Catering Co., stresses the importance of planning ahead as far as possible.
“Waiting until the last minute to put it all together is definitely one of the biggest mistakes you can make,” she says. “Select your date and plan now, then send a save-the-date e-mail so that your guests can mark their calendars and plan to attend.”
Adam Roe, executive chef at The Chattanoogan, agrees. Advance planning is key, he says. And here’s a time-saving tip:
“I cook on my day off and when I’m preparing one dish, I’ll make much more and freeze it to serve later at parties or dinners,” he says.
Varnell does the same, devising her menus with dishes that can be made ahead and frozen, then taken out, thawed and finished on the day of the party.
“Plan your menu intentionally so that this is an option,” she advises. “This spreads your resources of time and money rather than hitting you all at once.”
Roe offers several ideas for when time is of the essence and you need to whip up something in a hurry.
He suggests cooks top a wheel of brie with apricot jam or orange marmalade. It’s very tasty and easy. Serve it with warm baguette slices. Or, for a quick dinner that’s as easy as it is impressive, cook store-bought gnocchi, add a can of strained French onion soup, top with Swiss cheese and put in the oven for a few minutes until the cheese melts. Serve with crusty bread.
It may sound simple, but the addition of fresh herbs and colorful chips makes a huge difference. Add dried French onion soup mix to sour cream, then sprinkle in your favorite fresh herbs and serve with sweet potato or beet chips. Colorful, easy and delicious! Above all, though, have fun.
“Hosts tend to be their own worst critics,” Varnell notes. “Your house doesn’t have to be ‘house beautiful’ and spotless in every corner. Clean and freshen all the areas where guests are likely to be – living room, kitchen and guest bath. Close the doors to the bedrooms, the office, the laundry room and other private spaces.
“Relax. Your guests are coming to spend time with you and make memories, not write a review of your party on their food blogs.”
After things calm down, caterers and chefs can look forward a well-deserved rest and cook their own holiday meals.
“One year, we didn’t even have time to put up a tree in time for Christmas, so Ted went out the day after, got a tree, and we decorated it and kept it up the whole month of January. But we always have a nice meal. I make a bone-in prime rib, and Ted likes anything au gratin. That’s part of our traditional Christmas dinner.”
Here are recipes that have become standard in the Wells’ home each year, and ones you may want to incorporate into your dinner parties this holiday season.
Sorghum and Rosemary Glazed Baby Carrots
1/2 pound unsalted butter
2 pounds tri-color baby carrots (see note)
1 (4-inch) piece ginger, cut crosswise into 1/2-inch rounds
1/2 cup sorghum
1/2 cup orange juice
6 tablespoons bourbon
3 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
Salt and Pepper
Melt butter in a large skillet; add carrots and saute until beginning to soften about 8 minutes. Add ginger and sorghum; cook for 2 minutes. Remove from heat, stir in orange juice, bourbon and rosemary; return to stove and reduce heat to medium-low. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until carrots are fork-tender (5-6 minutes). Uncover and cook until liquid is reduced to a syrupy consistency and carrots are glazed (4-5 minutes). Discard ginger and season with salt and pepper.
Note: Tri-color carrots are usually available at Publix. If unavailable, use regular baby carrots.
Root Vegetable Gratin
1 butternut squash (about 2 pounds), peeled
2 Idaho potatoes (about 1 1/4 pounds total), peeled
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 medium onion, julienned and caramelized in butter
6 tablespoons grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup finely chopped walnuts
1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs combined with 2 tablespoons melted butter
Heat the oven to 350 F degrees. Grease an 8- by 8-inch (2-quart) glass or ceramic baking dish. Cut the squash in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds and fibers. Slice the squash and potatoes about 1/8-inch thick, using a mandolin if you have one. Line the bottom of the baking dish with a layer of squash (overlapping slightly), season lightly with salt and pepper, sprinkle with a little of the Parmigiano, and drizzle with a little of the cream. Cover with a layer of potato slices, season with salt, pepper, Parmigiano and cream. Add 1/3 of the caramelized onion. Repeat with the remaining squash, potatoes and onion until the dish is full, ending with a top layer of squash, seasoned and topped with any remaining cheese and cream. (You may have extra squash.) Press down lightly to distribute the cream and compact the layers. The last layer of squash should be just sitting in the cream, but not covered by it. Cover the dish with foil and bake until the vegetables feel tender when poked with a thin, sharp knife (check the middle layer), about 1 hour and 10 minutes.
Combine the walnuts and buttered breadcrumbs. Remove the gratin from the oven, sprinkle with the bread crumb-nut mixture, and bake until the top is lightly browned, 5 to 10 minutes. Let sit in a warm place for 20 minutes before serving so that liquids will set and tighten the gratin.
Bone-In Prime Rib Roast
1/3 cup Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons roasted garlic
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
2 teaspoons cracked black pepper
3 1/2 teaspoons salt, divided
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 bone-in prime rib (7-9 pounds)
Preheat the oven to 450 F degrees. In a small bowl, mix the mustard, roasted garlic, thyme, rosemary, pepper and 2 teaspoons salt. Whisk in the olive oil and set aside.
Set the meat, bone side down, in a roasting pan and season it lightly with 1 1/2 teaspoons salt. Roast the meat in the lower third of the oven at 450 F degrees for 15 minutes, then remove the meat from the oven and reduce the temperature to 350 F degrees. Brush the mustard coating all over the top and sides of the meat and roast at 350 F degrees for about 1 hour longer, rotating the roasting pan 2 or 3 times for even browning. The meat is done when an instant-read thermometer inserted in the center of the roast at the thickest part registers 120 F degrees (for medium rare). Transfer the roast to a carving board, cover it loosely with foil and let rest for 20 to 30 minutes before carving.
Cranberry Christmas Cake
2 cups sugar
3/4 cup butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
12 ounces fresh cranberries
1 cup chopped pecans
Preheat oven to 350 F degrees. In your stand or with an electric mixer beat the eggs with the sugar until slightly thickened and light in color, 5-7 minutes. The mixture should almost double in size. The eggs are your leavening agent in this recipe so do NOT skip this step. The eggs should form a ribbon when you lift the beaters out of the bowl. Add the butter and extracts and mix 2 more minutes. Stir in the flour until just combined, then add the cranberries and pecans.
Spread in a buttered 9- by 13-inch pan. Bake 40-50 minutes or until very lightly browned and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cool completely before cutting. Cut into cake size servings or into little squares for a mini dessert, sprinkle with powdered sugar.
Story by Anne Braly
Photography by Steven Llorca