Invariably, this is the time of year when I receive panicked calls from friends wondering how to wow and dazzle with their holiday meals.
I suppose they are expecting a lengthy diatribe from me involving complicated recipes, gravity-defying edible art, and the types of creations that would send even a skilled cook plunging right into holiday meltdown.
Imagine their surprise when I suggest just the opposite. You see, I normally espouse the ideal of simple elegance in cooking, whether for the holidays or at any time. In fact, over-the-top creations tend to remind me very much of Peter Keating’s architecture: There is typically lots of frill and pageantry when a simpler approach would have more impact.
I also try to emphasize that no matter how complicated the recipe, if the foundation of ingredients is mediocre, the best you will achieve is a mediocre dish; spend your time sourcing the best ingredients you can find instead.
For beginner cooks, this advice is offered along with a set of flashcards repeating the rules, because a meal for fifteen is no time to try a ten-step recipe. Nor does a sea of family members — accompanied by gifts, children, and the Christmas toys they are compelled to bring along — present the optimal setting for baking soufflé.
Upon distributing a sample menu to The Family, however, I received replies of “What’s that? Am I going to like that? Why can’t we have mashed potatoes? Marie won’t eat anything green.” Sighing, I gazed longingly at the verdant lemongrass plant beside my desk, eager to be plucked and molded into a subtly aromatic creation.
I reminded myself, however, that this dinner is for a group accustomed to family-style Christmas buffets where avoidance of running children is the key to eating well. Somehow a tartlette of foie gras with mulled plums and gingered pears would be anticlimactic.
I realized that in trying to test my own limits, I was setting up a Keating scenario in my own kitchen; while detailed in design, I was not sure the dinner would serve its purpose. It seemed wiser to ensure everyone actually ate the meal, and that my guests would be sated.
So the recipes are now simplified, the prep list is half its original size, and I will not be up until the wee hours of Christmas morning chopping and drying lemongrass. My intricate plating diagrams have been replaced by platters that will still be presented artfully, but with more of a Howard Roark approach: straightforward, expertly crafted food whose flavor is maximized without superfluous accents.
This return to simplicity is more challenging because each component must be executed perfectly, and add just the right touch to the dish. In the past year I’ve been involved in much more complex cooking, evoking aromas in layers of flavor (sometimes to not-so-stellar results), so this simplistic approach was jarring at first. I thought “Why do that when I can do this!”
However, by forcing myself to focus on the fundamentals for this holiday dinner — and its purpose — I’m returning to the heart of good cooking itself, which can be overlooked in the quest for breaking culinary boundaries. There is a quiet elegance to be found in simple tastes done well, where the goal is not simply to dazzle, but to nourish, offer comfort, and celebrate a wonderful, semi-noisy gathering with my friends and family.
If I manage my work correctly, I’ll have time to enjoy a champagne cocktail before dinner, instead of brandishing a knife at those daring to enter my kitchen. I might even smile sweetly when I order them out of the room.
But I am not making mashed potatoes. A cook has limits.
from the Gilded Fork
1 part Pomegranate Juice
3 parts dry Champagne or sparkling wine
Dash of Campari
Pomegranate seeds, for garnish
Mix together first three ingredients and pour into chilled champagne flutes or martini glasses. Optional: Float pomegranate seeds on top.
Copyright ©2005 The Gilded Fork. All rights reserved.
Jennifer Iannolo is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Gilded Fork (formerly Gastronomic Meditations), an online magazine celebrating the sensual pleasures of food. The site was nominated in 2005 for a World Food Media Award as Best Food/Drink Site, and contains no mashed potato recipes.