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Eating Well: Meeting holiday kitchen challenges with confidence

Lifestyle

Eating Well: Meeting holiday kitchen challenges with confidence

The best thing about "Stonewall Kitchen Winter Celebrations: Special Recipes for Family and Friends" by Stonewall Kitchen co-founders Jim Stott and Jonathan King with Maine food author Kathy Gunst (Chronicle Books 2009. $19.95) – other than the Stott photographs showing you how the finished dishes should look, and the 50 no-fail, updated holiday recipes – is the feeling of confidence the cookbook gives the hopeful reader.

Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas and the New Year are supposed to be fun, but some cooks can be found pouting in the pantry, wishing they could send out for pizza to serve their family and friends, and give the dry-roasted turkey or bloody standing rib roast to Fido and Fifi.

King, Stott and Gunst say the holidays divide the world into two types of people: those who love them and those who dread them. You know that the good people are already washing their Imari platters and polishing their pickle forks, anticipating the glorious feasts they'll serve, while the other people are in the attic wondering where they put the twinkly Christmas tree lights or the fancy menorah.

"Winter Celebrations" will help both the overachievers and the – well, people like me – have a happy, stressless holiday season. Let Stonewall Kitchen's recipes rescue you from exhaustion while they dazzle your guests, the authors say.

The menu for Stonewall Kitchen's Thanksgiving feast is butternut squash soup with curried pecans, chopped apple and goat cheese, and a huge turkey (enough for great leftovers) basted with garlic butter and filled with cranberry-pecan stuffing. The Thanksgiving "sides," as they are popularly called now (as though one were bellying up for a burger and fries at McDonald's), include mashed parsnips and pears, winter squash gratin, mashed potatoes and turnips, sauteed Brussels sprouts with nutmeg-cardamom cream and pancetta breadcrumbs, and orange-cranberry sauce made with fresh cranberries, freshly squeezed orange juice, julienned orange rind, orange zest, walnuts and chopped candied ginger. There are only two desserts: vanilla bean cheesecake with chocolate crust, and pecan pie with caramel sauce.

The menu for the first night of Hanukkah features roasted acorn squash and beet salad with maple-raisin vinaigrette, brisket with winter vegetables, potato pancakes, noodle kugel with raisins, apricots and slivered almonds. The dessert is poached pears with champagne-ginger-cinnamon syrup.

All the other celebrations – holiday open house buffet, winter night by the fire, Christmas Day, New Year's Eve cocktails, the I've-been-shopping-all-day-and-I'm-exhausted dinner, the first real snow, the no-more-rich-foods respite, the Christmas Eve get-together and the thank-goodness-it's-all-over supper – are equally grand, and the recipes are easy to follow.

Guests will love the food. People who are served (for example) oysters baked on creamed spinach with parmesan-panko crust, or smoked salmon crackers with red onion-caper sauce, or beef tenderloin with horseradish crust, or roasted garlic, herb and parmesan custard, or chocolate mint layer cake with chocolate buttercream frosting garnished with crushed candy cane bits will remember you as the greatest holiday hostess ever.

The recipe for sharp cheddar and herb popovers is worth the price of the book. Serve the popovers with the standing rib roast studded with garlic, or the roast turkey, or with a cup of soup and a salad.

Stonewall Kitchen was founded in York by Stott and King in 1991. On their Web site, stonewallkitchen.com, you'll find their famous Maine wild blueberry jam and tons of other delicious things you can serve at your holiday parties. Gunst is the York County author of seven cookbooks and numerous magazine articles about food and cooking. Her Web site is at kathygunst.com.

Here are two of their new book's recipes to enjoy while you are considering your winter holiday menus.

Winter Spinach Salad with Roasted Pears, Blue Cheese Toasts, and Dried Cranberry Vinaigrette

1 teaspoon unsalted butter
2 firm-ripe d'Anjou pears
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
Vinaigrette
1 cup dried cranberries, divided
1/3 cup cider vinegar
2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses, maple syrup, or honey
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup (1 1/2 ounces) sliced almonds
Blue Cheese Toasts
Eight 1/2-inch slices ciabatta or crusty French or Italian bread
Extra-virgin olive oil for brushing
5 to 6 ounces blue cheese, such as Gorgonzola or bleu d'Auvergne, thinly sliced
6 ounces baby spinach

Place a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 450 degrees.

Grease a small baking sheet with the butter. Peel and core the pears and cut each into 8 wedges. Toss the pears and sugar together in a bowl and place on the buttered baking sheet, cut sides down. Roast for 15 to 20 minutes, or until soft and browned on the undersides. Transfer pears to a piece of waxed paper and let cool completely. The pears can be made up to 4 hours ahead.

Meanwhile, make the vinaigrette: In a blender, whirl in half of the cranberries, vinegar, molasses, and mustard until smooth and uniformly pink. Season with salt and pepper to taste. With the machine running, add the oil in a slow, steady stream, and blend until smooth. Season again with salt and pepper, if necessary. Set aside.

Toast the almonds on a baking sheet for 3 to 5 minutes, or until lightly browned. Transfer to a small bowl to cool, then stir in the remaining cranberries.

Make the blue cheese toasts: Reduce the oven temperature to 400 degrees. Cut each slice of bread in half, so you have 16 halves. Brush both sides of each piece with some of the oil, and toast on a baking sheet for 3 to 4 minutes per side, until lightly browned. Remove from the oven, and divide the blue cheese among the toasts, crumbling the cheese up a little as you go. (The toasts can be made ahead up to this point and refrigerated, for up to 4 hours.) Return the toasts to the oven and bake for 4 to 5 minutes, until the blue cheese has melted.

Place the spinach in a large bowl, add half the almond/cranberry mixture, add the vinaigrette to taste, and mix well. Arrange the dressed greens on a platter or on individual salad plates, and garnish with additional nuts and berries, roasted pears, and blue cheese toasts. Serve immediately.

Notes: Look for pears that are just beginning to get soft, but are still somewhat firm. Pomegranate molasses is a thick, dark syrup used in Mediterranean cooking. It can be found in specialty food shops, or the gourmet section of many supermarkets.

Variations: Peel and core a tart apple instead of the pear. Substitute goat cheese or a hard grating cheese, such as Parmesan, for the blue cheese. Substitute dried cherries for the dried cranberries. Substitute coarsely chopped walnuts, pecans, pistachios, or your favorite nuts for the almonds.

Serves 8.

Baked Pasta with Roasted Wild Mushrooms in a Creamy Thyme Sauce

1 pound Portobello mushrooms, stems trimmed, sliced or chopped into 1-inch pieces
1 pound cremini mushrooms, stems trimmed, sliced or chopped into 1-inch pieces
8 ounces shiitake mushrooms, stems trimmed, sliced or chopped into 1-inch pieces
1 large sweet yellow onion, diced
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme or 2 teaspoons dried
4 cloves garlic, minced
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup heavy cream
1 pound shaped pasta, such as penne, farfalle (bows), rotelle (little corkscrew shapes) conchigle (shells), fusilli (spirals) or ziti
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Place a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 425 degrees.

In a rimmed baking sheet, tray, or large roasting pan, thoroughly combine the mushrooms, onion, 1/4 cup of the olive oil, thyme, garlic, and a generous amount of salt and pepper. Roast for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and gently stir. Roast 5 minutes more. Add the cream, stir well, and roast another 5 minutes, or until the cream begins to thicken and the mushrooms are tender. Remove from the oven and season well with salt and pepper to taste.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of lightly salted water to boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook about 10 minutes, or until al dente or almost tender (the pasta will be baked as well so you don't want to overcook it). Drain. Place the pasta back in the pot and toss with the remaining 2 tablespoons oil, and salt and pepper to taste.

Pour the hot mushroom sauce on top of the pasta and gently mix. Add 1/4 cup of the cheese and gently mix.

The pasta can be served in one large gratin dish or ovenproof baking dish, but it is much more elegant served in six individual (2-cup) gratin dishes or ramekins. Sprinkle the top of each ramekin or the large gratin dish with the remaining cheese. The dish(es) can be covered and refrigerated for several hours up to this point.

Bake the pasta in the 425 degree oven for 5 to 10 minutes, depending on the size of the dish, or until it is hot and the cheese is bubbling.

Serves 6.