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December 22, 2005 7:42 AM   Subscribe

Help the underdog in the kitchen: I need to bring a dish to Christmas dinner with my in-laws.

I'm the outsider, somewhat scrappy girl from the west coast. His family is polished and traditional -- to the extent that they can trace their lineage back to dead presidents and prominent clergy. They're nice folks, but I generally feel a light judgemental air wafting through family gatherings. I'm in the mood to overcompensate, so I'm looking for a dish that will help me garner an evening heavy with praise and gastronomic wonderment.

I lack special equipment (electric mixer, special pans, etc.) and I have a somewhat limited budget (no lobster salad). So far my best idea is some sort of chestnut salad and a bûche de noël, inspired by this recent mention of French Reveillon.

If anyone has experience with chestnut salad, chocolate log or something better -- please share. Anecdotes about how you evolved from a scrappy out-law into a beloved part of the family would also be appreciated.
posted by cior to Food & Drink (28 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
How about fresh baked bread? It has such a wonderful smell and is especially wonderful if it is still warm from the oven. Bread can be ordinary or fancy depending on what you add to it and the only equipment you'll need is your two hands and a bowl. There are tons of recipes on the internet, but I am partial to Cuban bread and rosemary bread.
posted by Alison at 7:52 AM on December 22, 2005


Filo pastry wrapped stuff always looks and tastes impressive, and is pretty easy to use.

Desserts are a good thing to take - although some of them can be (a) a pain to make and (b) a pain to transport.
posted by Chunder at 8:01 AM on December 22, 2005


Cranberry orange relish? Pretty to look at, easy to prepare, and delicious. Basically, you throw a sliced orange and a bag of cranberries in the blender on the "chop" setting". also, add nuts and sugar to taste. (about 1 cup per orange/bag of cranberries.)
posted by cosmicbandito at 8:03 AM on December 22, 2005


Here's a link to a pear, stilton, and chestnut salad from my favorite recipe website, epicurious.com.

It was rated at the highest level, four forks, and seems pretty quick and easy to put together.
As for fitting in as a scrappy outsider, don't push yourself too hard to be someone you're not. For example, if you don't ordinarily wear high heels, this is not the time to start. Cut yourself some slack. When you feel at ease it helps to decrease the tension of people around you.
posted by Sara Anne at 8:05 AM on December 22, 2005


oops. no link. here: salad with pears & chestnuts
Sorry
posted by Sara Anne at 8:06 AM on December 22, 2005


Find a recipe that expresses something beautiful and excellent about being a scrappy west coaster. Don't try to impress them by learning to speak a language they have been speaking their whole life.
posted by matildaben at 8:09 AM on December 22, 2005


Do you have a blender?
posted by dobbs at 8:25 AM on December 22, 2005


Find a recipe that expresses something beautiful and excellent about being a scrappy west coaster.

This brings to mind artichokes and avocados.
posted by Miko at 8:34 AM on December 22, 2005


Touch of Grace biscuits. These are easy to make and a crowd-pleaser at breakfast or dinner. Be sure to get White Lily flour -- in the Bay Area you can get it at Draeger's in San Mateo -- and an 8" cake pan.

The best advice, though, is to cook something you're really comfortable making. A Buche de Noel is impressive, but leaves tons of room for utter disaster -- and really it isn't even all that tasty. A simple chocolate cake or a recipe you've done a loved a million times will be way better.

The same advice applies to becoming an in-law -- be comfortable. Treat your sweetie well, and they'll see that and love you for it (9 times out of 10, anyways).
posted by precipice at 8:39 AM on December 22, 2005


Sorry, missed the "no special pans" constraint. The flour is very cheap (~$4); if you can use an 8" cake pan, great. If not a 9" (which is what most people have) will work.
posted by precipice at 8:40 AM on December 22, 2005


I second the bread option. There's nothing like fresh baked bread or rolls added to the meal. People tend to be impressed because they think there's some great mystery to baking good bread. Sally Lunn Bread is a simple, delicious option with many variations.

Otherwise, bring a dish that has meaning to you. Maybe it is something special that your family has always had for special gatherings that you want to share with them. Maybe it is a dish that your friends ask you to make that you know has been well received at parties in the past.

As for wanting to go from feeling like an outsider to feeling like a beloved member of the family... Well, that's a whole different thread for AskMe. Let's just say this: Be yourself. Either they'll accept you (eventually) or they won't. Don't spend time worrying about it or trying to prove yourself good enough to be included on the family tree with the dead Presidents. You were good enough for your spouse to marry you and that's the only person who should really matter.
posted by onhazier at 8:41 AM on December 22, 2005


One option would be to make a very traditional food in a very Californian way. For example, I make a chocolate mousse (very traditional French chocolate mousse taste and texture) with silken tofu instead of egg yolks and cream. It works surprisingly well, is a lot more healthy, and might surprise the blueblood family.

I'm at work, so I don't have the recipe with me, but if you're interested, email me and I'll type it out when I get home.

Finally, I think onhazier's advice is the best of all and needs repeating: Don't spend time worrying about it or trying to prove yourself good enough to be included on the family tree with the dead Presidents. You were good enough for your spouse to marry you and that's the only person who should really matter.
posted by JMOZ at 8:47 AM on December 22, 2005


Super easy and wonderful dessert idea:

It's like a combination of homemade and store bought, so it's both fast and hard to fuck up. It doesn't require much special equipment. A mixer would be good if you're going to make merrangue to go on top, but you could just as easily do whipped cream (not cool whip -- snotty folks don't like it).

Make pralines.

Buy some really good vanilla icecream from a store. If you've got a local joint that makes ice cream, that's even better. Also buy a grahm cracker pie-crust. And eggs to make meringue.

Mash the pralines into the icecream. Dump that into the pie crust. Put in the freezer. Make meringue (eggs, a bit of powdered sugar, and cream of tartar). Scoop that onto the top. Leave in the freezer until it's time. Then put the pie into the over on broil for 5 minutes to brown the top. Eat. And profit.

Note: I'm a southerner, so praline ice cream pie is just the thing to endear oneself to yankees. This might not work so well for a west-coaster.
posted by zpousman at 8:49 AM on December 22, 2005


dobbs: I do have a blender.
posted by cior at 8:51 AM on December 22, 2005


I'm gonna assume you have a blender and offer up a few recipes.

Creamy Carrot Ginger Soup with Lime (serves 2 to 4)

3 cups of carrot juice (buy pre-juiced carrots at the grocery store or health food store)
1 small, ripe avocado
1/2 cup coconut meat (buy it in a can for about $1.25)
1/4 lime juice (about one reamed lime)
2 tbs of agave nectar (about $2.50 a bottle at health food store)
1/2 tbs minced ginger
1/4 tsp of cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp sea salt

1. Put everything in a blender and puree until completely smooth. Taste for seasoning.

2. Garnish with a few cilantro leaves (optional).

This soup is terrific. The recipe actually asks for 1 tbs of ginger but the two times I made it it was too gingery so I cut that in half.

And yes, it's a raw soup, to be served at room temperature.

Dark Chocolate Ganache Tart

I'd give you a recipe for crust but it requires fancier equipment so just buy a 9" Keebler (or whatever) pre-made crust at the grocery store. Brush it with some egg white and put it in the oven at 375 for 5 minutes. Then, allow to cool.

2 1/4 cups of cocoa powder
2 1/4 cups of maple syrup
1 cup coconut butter (available at health food store)

Blend all ingredient until smooth. Taste to make sure it's not grainy (if it is, keep blending). Pour into crust. Chill for min 3 hours. Cut with a warm knife that's been run under hot water. Dry it between each cut.

Again, this is a raw food (except for the cheat on the pie crust).

You could make both the soup and the tart for about $25 or so, I would think.

Eggplant and Olive Truffles (makes 24)

1 large eggplant
2 tbs olive oil
1/2 cup pine nuts
20 Kalamata olives, pitted and chopped
4 tbs dry bread crumbs
6 tbs freshly grated parmesan cheese, plus 2 tbs for sprinkling
2 tbs chopped fresh parsley
1 large garlic clove, crushed
1 egg, beaten
butter (for greasing)

1. preheat oven to 450. Cut the eggplant in half lengthwise and brush with olive oil. Roast in oven for 30 mins until golden brown and complete soft. Let cool. Peel off skin and discard. Chop the flesh very finely. Lower oven heat to 400.

2. Mix the eggplant flesh, pine nuts, olives, bread crumbs, parmesan, parsley, garlic, and egg in a bowl. let rest for 10-15 mins.

3. Liberally grease a cookie sheet. Form the mixture into bite sized balls (like meatballs) and place on sheet. Top each with a pinch of grated parmesan.

4. Bake for 15-20 mins until golden and puffed up. Best served hot.

These are pretty delicious and go fast.

Artichoke Dip

2 14 oz cans of well-drained water-packed artichokes
3/4 cup + 1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan
2/3 cup light mayo
2/3 cup low fat sour cream
1/4 tbs salt
1/8 tbs pepper
3 large garlic clobes, minced
shake cayenne pepper

1. in a blender, puree the artichokes.

2. in a large bowl, whisk together all ingredients except artichokes and 1/2 cup parmesan

3. stir in artichoke puree and pour into medium baking dish. Sprinkle the top with 1/2 cup parmesan.

4. Bake until heated thru and the cheese on top starts to brown, about 40 mins.

This is a nice dish and very easy and cheap but not as impressive as the first 2 or 3.
posted by dobbs at 9:02 AM on December 22, 2005 [2 favorites]


Trouffles! Check out Nick Maglieri's Chocolate book for some fantastic yet simple recipes; they're guranteed to be delightful.
posted by odinsdream at 9:05 AM on December 22, 2005


Oh, and before anyone jumps on my head, I know Maple Syrup isn't technically raw as it's boiled after extraction from the tree. I meant raw in the sense that the recipe doesn't require cooking. :)

If you go with the soup, it's best to reblend it prior to serving as some of the ingredients will settle if you make it far in advance. (Further, the gingerness of it will also depend on how finely you mince it. Part of the reason mine was very gingery was because I used a Microplane to shred it. If you're chopping with a knife, you might want to use a full tbs. Taste along the way!)
posted by dobbs at 9:06 AM on December 22, 2005


Further clarification, since you said you were a newbie in the kitchen: garnish the soup with the cilantro after pouring it in the bowls. :)
posted by dobbs at 9:09 AM on December 22, 2005


It never stops, does it?

In the soup recipe, that should say 1/4 cup lime juice. And, just so I'm dead certain I didn't fuck you up with the crust instruction, the oven instruction was for the crust only (ie, pre-pouring in the filling).

For the truffles, in case you're not familiar with eggplants: once you cut the eggplant in half, cover each insidehalf with liberal amounts of salt and allow to sit for a half hour or so. This will draw out some of the natural sour taste of the vegetable. Prior to baking the eggplant, wipe off the salt (I briefly put them under a very lightly running tap and wipe them with my finger).

I promise, I won't more ammendments.
posted by dobbs at 9:20 AM on December 22, 2005


Hey cior,

How about Gale Gand's chocolate pavlova wreath? It's gourmet on the cheap (scrappy), festive (add a candle as it can be a table decoration) and delish.

(By the way, the link above features several intriquing recipes, all of which would be inexpensive to prepare.)

Buche de Noels are lovely but very time-consuming to make (assuming you're going for a Martha Stewart version and not a Duncan Hines one). If there is some nervousness about his family for you, you're probably not going to want to spend the day stressed about whether your dish is going to turn out perfectly. (I have been there.)

Also, if you do use chesnuts for anything, I've found you have to peel them immediately after cooking or the meat resticks to the skin, making it impossible to shell them.

Good luck!
posted by Sully6 at 9:25 AM on December 22, 2005


Of course you want to shine but if you're not a confident cook, skip anything requiring much skill or technique (such as bread). Focus on high-quality ingredients, prepared simply so the flavors come through.

This chocolate cake recipe is impossible to screw up. Super silky, dense, not too sweet -- very swank. You don't have to use raspberries, especially since they're not in season. I usually just pile more whipped cream on top. Yum!

Quick-breads would be great, too. Very tasty and the recipes are much more forgiving. I like precipice's biscuit recipe, as well as its humble provenance.

You might want to take a look at Cook's Illustrated recipe archive. I've made tons of things with their recipes and they've never steered me wrong.
posted by vetiver at 10:21 AM on December 22, 2005


I keep a bunch of easy recipes on my site, but nothing really beats the traditional english triffle when it comes to being easy to make.

Tirimisu Eggnog Trifle

This one is easier, but less "christmassy"

They're basically just ingredients stacked atop one another in a clear glass bowl. Easy, traditional, yummy, and you really just need a spoon and a bowl to make it.
posted by Sallysings at 10:37 AM on December 22, 2005


I'll second vetiver's recommendation for Cook's Illustrated. I've been a huge fan for quite some time, and their recipes are always delicious, with excellent instructions. Some require a bit of advanced technique, but they're generally pretty good at guiding you through.

Also take a look a Julia Child's classic "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." Some of the recipes are a bit esoteric, but others are simple, straightforward, and can be executed with limited training and equipment.
posted by slogger at 10:58 AM on December 22, 2005


I second the recommendation for Julia Child. She's proof that fresh ingredients in the right combinations trump artifice and expense. Make a simple cake (chocolate, lemon, almond, etc.), whip plenty of cream, and spring for some fruit/berries if they look fresh and tasty.

If cooking/baking disaster strikes, bring California Sparkling Wine. True, you didn't make it yourself, but what WASP (I'm guessing from your post) doesn't love a glass of the bubbly? Here's some recommendations. I haven't tried all of them, but I've used this list in th past with good results.

Scharffenberger Mendocino Brut ($16)
Domaine Chandon California "Brut Classic" ($17)
Gloria Ferrer Sonoma Brut ($18)
Schramsberg North Coast Brut "Mirabelle" ($19)
Mumm Napa California “Brut Prestige” ($19)
Domaine Carneros Carneros Brut 2001 ($24)
Iron Horse Vineyards Sonoma Green Valley Brut “Wedding Cuvée” 2001 ($30)
J Wine Company Russian River Brut 1999 ($30)
posted by annaramma at 1:49 PM on December 22, 2005


I will put in a vote for chocolate truffles. They are easy to make, don't require any equipment, and look impressive. Also, the family likely already has the entire menu planned out. If they are as formal as you say, they might not know what do with an extra side dish or an extra course (e.g., soup). I just made these truffles and they turned out great. Here's another (more complicated) recipe.

Want to go over the top, bring a bottle of sparkling wine too as annaramma suggests.
posted by picklebird at 4:20 PM on December 22, 2005


dobbs, what an impressive effort. Thank you for transcribing so many recipes. I will surely use them in the future, but picklebird's advice sticks out -- it didn't occur to me until now that they likely have the menu planned and wouldn't know what to do with my strange interloping dish.

I'm going to buy one good bottle of red, one good bottle of Californian bubbly and see what can be done about fixing up some truffles from home. If that fails, I'll be picking up a bûche de noël from Whole Foods.
posted by cior at 7:22 PM on December 22, 2005


cior, I would check on the dessert situation if I were you. I made that tart for a party last night and it WOWED everybody. Shockingly good and very, very rich. We cut the 9" tart into 16 thin pieces and even though they were very small, it was so rich that it was the perfect size.

Even if they've got the menu planned out, dessert's always good a few hours later with coffee. If you want to impress them with something you made, it'll definitely do the trick and it's dead simple to make--just don't tell them how simple ;).
posted by dobbs at 6:52 AM on December 23, 2005


A big basket/box/platter of chocolate chip cookies. A no-brainer and always disappears instantly. Use the recipe on Nestle's packages, except (a) use ALL dark brown sugar; (b) only half the butter and chocolate (or it'll taste greasy); and (c) use better chocolate--eg, a chopped-up Lindt bar.

Like this:

Take a stick of butter out of the fridge to soften. Put a 100-gram bar of good chocolate in the freezer to harden.

Get a roll of baking parchment. Line some cookie sheets with the parchment and preheat the oven to 350F.

Mix together 2 cups of all-purpose flour, a tablespoon of baking powder (not soda) and a teaspoon of salt.

Take the chocolate out of the freezer and chop it into reasonable-sized pieces.

Put the softened butter (you might want to microwave it for a few seconds) in a bowl with an egg, a spoon or two of water or coffee, and 1.75 cups of dark brown sugar. Cream them together and mix in the flour mixture. Then add the chopped chocolate and, if you want, about a half-cup of walnuts or pecans.

Place dollops of cookie dough about the size of a jumbo egg on the parchment. Don't crowd them; they spread quite a bit. (6-8 at a time is the usual for me) Bake for about 14 minutes. This recipe only makes about 18 cookies, but it doubles/triples pretty easily.
posted by MollyNYC at 10:40 AM on December 27, 2005 [1 favorite]


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