When it comes to entertaining, one of the big challenges is “special needs.”
Aunt Edna’s heart problems require low fat foods, Uncle Dick is dairy free, while someone’s bringing a friend who is lactose intolerant. It’s enough to make the host intolerant. And that’s just regarding food related issues. There’s also the politically outspoken friend who revels in making arguments that cause blood pressures to boil. Maybe it is a good idea to ask guests to leave their political talk at home. The last thing your party plans need is a fight. Seating cards in red white and blue reminds everyone that we are the United States of America. On second thought, even patriotism might be too suggestive for these volatile times.
What you can control, however, is the food, the decorations, and the guest list, which must be carefully contemplated for the number and compatibility of those selected. Be forceful in choosing those who are socially gracious, and be firm in asking each person to contribute some food to the evening, it makes entertaining simpler and it makes the food more eclectic. Many people love to show off their favorite dish: no Jello molds, please, and those who don’t want to cook expect to stop for wine, cider, cheese or a basket of fruit. A special bakery that makes exciting pies or other desserts can also be suggested to those who are cooperative. It might be a good idea to make your own guest list and track their contributions to the meal to make certain the variety of items meets your standards.
For many years, anyone who was displaced, unloved, rejected or homeless for the holidays was extended an invitation for Thanksgiving dinner at Rosalie’s. We were closed for business, and the dining room was such a perfect place for a large gathering. All we needed was several turkeys, stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, a dozen or so pies and a few helpers and a great party was easily had. In retrospect, of course, it took lots of hard work, but it seemed easy because so many people were so thankful that they were willing to provide lots of assistance. Still, the thought of it, the reminder of it, makes me tired.
My favorite Thanksgiving in recent years, post restaurant, was the one we spent with the grandsons in New York. I ordered a turkey breast from a fancy butcher in the neighborhood where we stayed in Brooklyn, making use of a friend’s empty loft. The butcher also had gravy and a gorgeous assortment of roasted veggies. Before we left for the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade I roasted the breast and set the table. We came back from the parade very hungry and had a fabulous dinner. The boys still say it was their favorite holiday and ask for an encore. And since we were with them, the lovely creatures that they are, we loved it too.
The older I get, the less guilt I have — and that’s a good thing. Even though we don’t host a holiday meal, I do enjoy having a small turkey, about 10 pounds, cooking on Thanksgiving morning. We have been guests at Todd’s cousins for the past 20 years or so, but I love the aroma of the roasting bird, and one or more of the grandchildren usually come by and it’s nice to offer them some “leftovers.”
I duplicate the scent of my mother’s Butterball smothered with prosciutto and garlic and a stuffing of cornbread, sausage, apples, pecans. When I tried to make it as a young bride, I learned the hard way that the frozen bird needs three days to defrost. For old times sake, I recently defrosted and roasted a Butterball for the boys and they loved it. It did bring back some fine memories of the Eastie/Southie game Thanksgiving morning at White Stadium with my high school boyfriend and East Boston High co-captain Raymy Costigan making us all proud. Butterball, thanks for the memories.
While I’m not responsible for cooking on Thanksgiving, I do have my assignments given that I’m the only chef on hand. Russ is very happy that I taught him how to carve the bird several years ago, a task that he tackles now with great skill. He and his wife Liz make two turkeys for the 30 or so diners, and Liz always puts me to work on the gravy, which she has been perfectly happy not to learn how to make over the years. She conveniently has all my requirements on hand, including a bottle of Gran Marnier, a quart of cider, and she stands by to assist. They are the best hosts. They don’t bother coordinating what people are bringing, the mood they set is relaxed, and the table they set is informal. Everyone loves going there for the warmth and the family, and I much prefer it to entertaining myself. There, I said it.
A few rules about holiday entertaining in this decade, which is very different from the last several:
Like Liz and Russ, set a casual tone. It is togetherness, not perfection, that make people feel special.
People love old fashioned flavors on the holidays, so Thanksgiving isn’t a time for being adventuresome. Hit your guests with the flavors they know and love on important items like turkey and stuffing, and fill your home with aromas from the past. If you do want to offer something new and different, take your chances with a side dish you’ve never served before.
Remember to plan for people’s dietary restrictions. Don’t combine items in advance, put sauces on the side to maximize flexibility.
If kids are coming, the day will go much better if you have children’s table set up with games, coloring books and playing cards so they can be busy and require minimal adult intervention.
Rollatini of turkey breast
A delicious and easy dish for Thanksgiving is a rollatini of turkey breast, especially nice when you don’t want to make a whole bird. This will serve two to four people with smallish portions.
Have a butcher butterfly a 3 pound breast. Pound it slightly until it is 1 inch thick. Brush the breast with Dijon mustard, using a pastry brush.
Cover the meat with several very thin slices of pancetta or prosciutto, six flat leaf parsley stems, a few sprinkles of fresh rosemary, a small onion sliced and sauteed in olive oil, 2 tbsp. pine nuts (if desired), a cup of grated Gruyère, then roll and tie the meat with butcher’s string.
Dust with flour and saute in a pan with a tbsp. each of olive oil and butter to brown all over. Remove to a shallow baking dish and place in a 325 degree oven and roast for about forty minutes. It is wise to use a thermometer, to take away the guesswork.
In the pan that you used to saute the meat, pour a cup of white wine (Marsala is also nice) and a cup of chicken broth, add a few stems of rosemary and flat leaf parsley and simmer until the alcohol burns off.
Pour in ¾ of a cup of heavy cream and simmer another five minutes.
Cut the meat into 1½ inch medallions and place over a bed of cooked gnocchi or egg noodles and pour half the sauce over, reserving the rest to serve at the table.
You can roll and saute and bake the meat ahead of time to cut down on the process and finish the rest the next day.
If you do this, be sure to save the pan particles so you will have a delicious sauce.