Cooking for the Holidays

I was never one to get ready for Christmas early, at least not before Dec. 1. There is shopping, decorating and cooking to do, but the mood doesn’t strike me until one of the radio stations starts playing holiday music. It used to start on the first day of December but now begins at Thanksgiving.

This year we visited friends in New York in October, and she was starting Christmas preparations the week we left, which was October 14. I couldn’t believe it, but I benefitted by snatching some of her recipes. She has a Christmas party for 100 people and prepares all of the food herself. One year she put up seven Christmas trees inside and out. One Valentine’s Day, she made chocolate crêpes for 100 people. They call her the Martha Stewart of Westchester. She says my mother was one of her influences, and that’s understandable since my mother once said she started Christmas shopping in September. That was followed by a remark from my father-in-law who said, “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”

It didn’t rub off on me, nor has anyone ever called me Martha Stewart. I have experimented with some of my Big Apple recipes and find them worthy of the Big Easy.
It is nice to have a big party during the holidays, but whether you do or not, it’s fun to have party food around for those who drop in – or to give as Christmas presents or take as hostess gifts. I have two favorite nut recipes: rosemary walnuts and toasted pecans. A friend recently shared a superb cashew recipe for which I will be ever grateful. These make great gifts in little holiday tins.

The best thing about my New York recipes is that they’re easy and fast to make. And, who isn’t looking for that? It is almost Christmas; I’ll have to make the nut recipes soon to give for presents, but the rest of my party cooking can be done at the last minute. Just my style.

Baked Crab Dip

• 1/2 cup mayonnaise
• 8 ounces whipped cream cheese, at room temperature
• 1 small red bell pepper, diced
• 1/3 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
• 2 green onions, minced
• 2 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice
• 1 teaspoon or more Tabasco
• Salt and Creole seasoning to taste
• 1 pound lump crabmeat, picked over for shell
• 1/2 cup or more Panko (Japanese) breadcrumbs
• 1 teaspoon lemon zest, grated

Mix mayonnaise and cream cheese well in a medium bowl.
Stir in red pepper, parsley and onions.
Add lemon juice, Tabasco and seasonings. Mix well.
Gently stir in crabmeat and place in a 7-by-9-inch baking dish.
In a small bowl, combine the breadcrumbs and lemon zest.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees
Just before baking, sprinkle on the breadcrumbs and bake on an upper rack in the oven until breadcrumbs are lightly browned and dip is bubbling, about 12 minutes.
Serve hot with crostini, pita chips, wonton crisps, Melba toasts or bread sticks.

Note: The dip can be made a day ahead, covered and refrigerated.
Remove from refrigerator 30 minutes before baking. When ready to serve, sprinkle on breadcrumbs and heat.

Serves 10 to 12

Salmon Pizza

• 1 Boboli thin-crust pizza crust (found in the bread section of the grocery)
• 1 4-ounce package cream cheese, at room temperature
• 1/4 cup sour cream
• 1 4-ounce package smoked salmon
• Chives, dill, capers and red onion for decoration

Mix cream cheese and sour cream. Smooth on the back side of the Boboli crust. Cover with pieces of salmon. Cut into 10 pieces like you would cut a pizza, and decorate with the chives, dill, capers and thinly sliced pieces of red onion.

Serves 10

Crostini With Mushrooms, Prosciutto and Blue Cheese

This recipe was handed down from person-to-person, after appearing in Bon Appetit in 2002.

• 3 Tablespoons butter
• 1/2 ounce fresh shitake mushrooms, stemmed, caps chopped
• 4 ounces crimini mushrooms, chopped
• 2 garlic cloves, minced
• 1/2 cup whipping cream
• 1/2 cup crumbled blue cheese (about 2 ounces)
• 1/2 cup chopped thinly sliced prosciutto (about 2 1/2 ounces)
• 18 1/2-inch-thick diagonal bread slices, cut from 1 sourdough baguette
• Chopped fresh parsley

Melt butter in heavy large skillet over medium-high heat.
Add all mushrooms and garlic, and sauté until mushrooms are cooked through and brown, about 5 to 10 minutes.
Add cream and boil until liquid is completely absorbed, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat.
Add blue cheese and stir until cheese melts.
Mix in prosciutto. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Transfer mushroom topping to bowl. (Mushroom topping can be done one day in advance.)
Cover and refrigerate.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Arrange bread slices on baking sheet.
Bake until just golden, about 5 minutes.
Mound 1 generous Tablespoon mushroom topping on each slice.
Return to oven. Bake until topping is heated through, about 6 minutes.
Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve.

Serves 18

Toasted Pecans

• 4 Tablespoons butter
• Salt to taste
• 3 cups pecan halves

Heat oven to 350 degrees.
Place butter in a 10-by-13-inch baking pan and melt in oven.
Add pecans and salt, and toss until pecans are fully coated.
Roast in oven for 10 to 15 minutes, turning once, or until pecans are browning slightly and smelling toasted.

Makes 3 cups

Rosemary Walnuts

I’ve been using the following recipe for years, and everyone always wants it; it’s from Fast Appetizers by Hugh Carpenter and Teri Sandison.

• 2 1/2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
• 2 teaspoons dried rosemary
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
• 2 cups walnuts

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Place the butter in a 12-inch sauté pan over medium heat.
When the butter sizzles but hasn’t browned, add all remaining ingredients.
When nuts are evenly coated, transfer to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
Place nuts in the oven and bake until golden brown, about 10 minutes.
Leave nuts on the pan and let cool to room temperature.
Serve at room temperature.
Note: You can transfer nuts to a zip-close bag and store in the freezer.
This recipe can be completed to this point up to 3 months before serving.

Makes 2 cups

Rosemary Roasted Cashews

A friend got this recipe from a friend and then tracked it back to Ina Garten of the Food Network. She happens to be my favorite cook on the network; no wonder I liked them so much.

• 1 1/4 pounds cashew nuts
• 2 Tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh rosemary leaves
• 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
• 2 teaspoons dark brown sugar
• 2 teaspoons kosher salt
• 1 Tablespoon melted butter

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Place nuts on an ungreased baking sheet and bake for about 10 minutes until they’re warmed through.
Meanwhile, combine the rosemary cayenne, sugar, salt and butter in a large bowl.
Toss cashews with the rosemary mixture until the nuts are completely coated.
Serve warm.

Makes 3 cups

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